Carl E. Olson
An Interview with Fr. D. Vincent Twomey, S.V.D.

Fr. D. Vincent Twomey, S.V.D., holds both a Ph.D. in Theology and is Professor Emeritus of Moral Theology at the Pontifical University of St. Patrick’s College, Maynooth, Ireland. He is also a former doctoral student of Joseph Ratzinger, having studied under the man who is now Pope Benedict XVI at the University of Regensburg in the early 1970s. Twomey is the author of several books, including an acclaimed study of the state of Irish Catholicism, The End of Irish Catholicism?.

His most recent book is Pope Benedict XVI: The Conscience of Our Age (A Theological Portrait), recently published by Ignatius Press. Rev. Twomey, both a former student and longtime friend of Joseph Ratzinger, wrote the book, in part, to answer the common question he heard often after the papal election, “What kind of person is the new Pope?” Having often heard and read false depictions of both the man and his thought, especially the image presented by the media as a grim enforcer, Twomey wished to set the record straight. Rev. Twomey offers in his book a unique double-presentation of the man, Pope Benedict XVI–a “theological portrait” that encompasses both an overview of the writings, teachings and thought of the brilliant theologian and spiritual writer, as well as the man himself, and his personality traits and how he communicates with others.

Carl E. Olson, editor of, recently interviewed Rev. Twomey, and spoke to him about his former professor, the theological vision of Joseph Ratzinger, and what he expects from the pontificate of Pope Benedict XVI. How and when did you first meet Joseph Ratzinger? What was your impression of him?

Rev. Twomey: I first met Joseph Ratzinger early in the new year of 1971, when he interviewed me in Regensburg after I had asked him to be my doctoral supervisor. My first impression was of an unassuming man with piercing eyes, a gentle smile, and not the slightest touch of the arrogance of a Herr Professor. What were some of the essential formative theological influences on Joseph Ratzinger?

Rev. Twomey: The immediate post-war situation of the Church in Germany exercised a huge influence on the fledgling theologian. The Church had emerged triumphant after the persecution under Hitler. There was a feeling of a new beginning, not least in theology, where the neo-scholasticism of the previous half-century was more or less abandoned in the search for a fresh approach.

Young theologians such as Henri de Lubac, who had a great influence on Ratzinger, turned to the Fathers of the Church for inspiration and found it. The Munich theologian Gottlieb Soehngen directed Ratzinger’s doctoral dissertation on Augustine’s ecclesiology and his postdoctoral dissertation on Bonaventure’s theology of history. Augustine and Bonaventure are two major thinkers whose profound influence on Ratzinger cannot be underestimated. He came under the spell of Cardinal Newman thanks to his Prefect of Studies, Alfred Laepple, who at the time was writing his thesis on Newman’s understanding of conscience and introduced his students to the writings of perhaps the greatest theologian of the 19th century, who was also steeped in the Fathers of the Church.

But, ultimately, it was Scripture that formed the basic thrust of all his theology. He once said something to the effect that, in the final analysis, his theology is a form of exegesis. And here his friendship with the great German exegete Heinrich Schlier must be mentioned; Schlier’s attention to the precise terms of the original text of Scripture is echoed in Ratzinger’s careful exegesis. Josef Pieper, the most important German Catholic philosopher, also exercised a great influence, as did Endre von Ivanka on the philosophy of the early Church. What attracted him to Augustine and how has his early studies of the great Doctor of the Church informed how he addresses contemporary controversies?

Rev. Twomey: Ratzinger found the scholastics too cerebral. Augustine appealed to him as a man of passion, whose whole life was dedicated to the search to know the truth and articulate it. For neo-scholasticism, everything found its place in the “system”, but Ratzinger was instinctively aware that truth is more than any system of thought could encompass, that it has to be discovered anew in all its freshness from one generation to the next.

Augustine was more than a controversialist, but he was still a remarkable controversialist, who was not frightened by any attack on the faith, be it within the Church or without. Confident in the truth revealed in Christ, he found the courage to take on all those who questioned that truth or denied it. Ratzinger shows a similar courage. He is not afraid to face up to the most difficult challenges to the faith, knowing that in trying to answer them we discover the truth in all its grandeur and compelling nature. More concretely, Ratzinger’s studies of the ecclesiology of Augustine shaped his own understanding of Church–including the role of the Eucharist at the core of the Church–and her mission. They also prepared him for his later theology of political life, since Augustine’s ecclesiology also involved clarifying the relationship between Church and State, between civil religion and faith. What is unique or perhaps even surprising about Ratzinger’s theological methodology? How does it differ from some of the celebrated Catholic theologians of the 1960s such as KŸng and Rahner?

Rev. Twomey: What is unique to Ratzinger’s theological methodology is, in the first place, its originality and creativity. Despite all the influences I mentioned, Ratzinger retained his distance and so retained his independence as a thinker, even with regard to the great theologians he studied.

His methodology is to take as his starting point contemporary developments in society and culture, then he listens to the solutions offered my his fellow theologians before returning to a critical examination of Scripture and Tradition for pointers to a solution. He is not satisfied to analyze a topic, but, having dissected the issue, he then attempts a systematic answer by seeing the topic in the context of theology as a whole. Unlike KŸng, who is always in tune with the latest fashion, Ratzinger is not afraid to be unfashionable. Unlike Rahner, who produced a full systematic theology, Ratzinger’s theology is fragmentary–filled with brilliant insights into almost every subject of theology and yet not a fixed “system”.

Using the best findings of academic theology, Ratzinger goes beyond them to create something new and original. He is more than an academic. He is an original thinker, whose scattered writings on a host of subjects are “seminal”, awaiting development by others. Finally, unlike either KŸng or (especially) Rahner, Ratzinger writes with a clarity and, at times, literary beauty, that never fails to impress. In the introduction to your book you wrote about how it was an “unsettling sight” to see, in April 2005, “the familiar face of my former teacher in hundreds of posters everywhere.” In what ways, do you think, has being elected Pope brought out or highlighted little-known aspects of Benedict XVI’s personality? Theological vision?

Rev. Twomey: Before he was elected Pope, it has to be admitted, few theologians or others were interested in his writings–he had been effectively sidelined. In addition, his task as Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith was such that he was seen in a very negative light as the Grand Inquisitor, or Dr No. Theologians, it would seem, are as influenced by the media as anyone else. Few were even aware that, while Prefect, he had continued to publish as a private theologian. It came as a great surprise to many that, in his homilies and talks since his election, the main topic he stressed was joy–the joy God intends to bring into the world through the Church. Now many are reading Ratzinger for the first time and are often quite overwhelmed. The media had presented Ratzinger’s frowning face, when announcing some unpalatable decision of the Congregation. Since his election, the whole world has been captivated by his smiling face. That says it all. What do you think are the most misunderstood aspects of Benedict’s person and thought? How have some of those misunderstandings come about?

Rev. Twomey: Generally speaking, Ratzinger was written off as a conservative, if not a reactionary, primarily because few bothered to read his writings–but also because of his task as Prefect, which was to determine the boundaries of theological investigation and discipline certain theologians. His famous dialogue with Habermas in Munich in 2004 came as a huge surprise to Catholic intellectuals, who were unaware of how far Ratzinger was open to the heritage of the Enlightenment. It was not a surprise to secular thinkers, who had learned to treat Ratzinger with respect. The French Academy honored him as the apt successor to Andrey Sacharov, the dissident atom physicist during the tyranny of the Soviet Union. It was their recognition of a courageous thinker who was in effect the great “dissident” under the “dictatorship of relativism” that has swamped Europe and American over the past half-century. A common mainstream media portrayal of Joseph Ratzinger, especially during his days as head of the CDF, was that he was rigid, dour, ultra-conservative, and closed to dialogue with those he disagree with. How far off the mark is that depiction? Why do you think, in particular, there continues to be this idea that Benedict is close off from ecumenical and inter-religious dialogue, in spite of years of writings that emphatically state otherwise?

Rev. Twomey: As already mentioned, it is completely off the mark to portray Ratzinger as rigid, dour, etc. As I point out in my book, what marked Ratzinger as a professor was his ability to promote genuine, open discussion and dialogue, as well as his dry wit and gentle humor. He enjoys a good joke and a humorous story. All his life, he has been engaged in ecumenical dialogue. His critical appreciation for non-Christian religions can be traced back to his earliest writings as a young theologian. Perhaps it was the document Dominus Iesus, on the oneness of Christ and his Church and the relationship of the Church to the other Christian denominations and the non-Christian religions, and more recently his Regensburg lecture, that gave rise to the idea that Benedict is opposed to inter-religious dialogue. His true, positive yet critical attitude can be found in his book Truth and Tolerance. Your book was already in production when Benedict gave his now famous Regensburg Address that created a furor around the world. What was your reaction to the address? What do you think of the criticisms of those Catholic critics who said that Benedict wasn’t properly diplomatic, didn’t understand that he was now Pope and not a professor, and that he doesn’t really understand Islam thought and theology?

Rev. Twomey: My own reaction was positive, since the main thrust of the lecture was to criticize European thinkers for leaving God out of the picture, of using a limited notion of reason that excluded the Transcendent, much to the impoverishment of society, and how poorly Europe was prepared to enter into dialogue with Islam as a result. It should be remembered that the lecture at the University before an assembly of academics and scientists received a standing ovation. The lecture, surprisingly, has resulted in a genuine dialogue between Christian and Muslim scholars (now that the air has been cleared) as well as what seems to be the beginning of a dialogue between secular and Christian thinkers (the latter being the main concern of his lecture). The Pope’s visit to Turkey, especially to the Blue Mosque, should have put an end to any doubts about his attitude toward Islam. Three of the seven chapters in your book deal with the issue of conscience and its vital place in the theological work of Ratzinger. What are the origins of his theological interest in conscience? Why has it been such an integral part of his writings over several decades?

Rev. Twomey: In the background is the rejection of any kind of fixed system of thought or ideology (even of a theological nature, “orthodox” or liberal) and a corresponding insight into the highly personal nature of truth. As mentioned before, his exposure to Newman as a young student of theology brought him into contact with one of the great modern thinkers who had thought deeply about the nature and centrality of conscience as a “co-knowing” of the truth in an age ofgrowing skepticism about knowing truth.

But also his study of Augustine, the great explorer of the human soul and its relationship to God, alerted him to the subjective aspect of grasping objective truth. Augustine, too, had to overcome the skepticism of his day that denied the possibility of knowing the truth. More generally, “conscience” is the term used today to justify the subjectivity that underlines relativism, not only in the moral sphere–it is in the air. As a result, Ratzinger, who is highly sensitive to every current of contemporary thought, must of necessity confront the question as to the nature of conscience and has done so consistently. Finally, an erroneous notion of conscience has penetrated deeply into Catholic moral theology, which Ratzinger has on occasion subjected to a radical criticism. In writing of potential liturgical changes that Benedict may implement–and which have been rumored for many months now–you wrote that Ratzinger knows that “restoration … must of necessity be creative, rooted in theology, and concerned with essentials, not the accidentals.” Based on your knowledge of the Holy Father and his writings, what are some of the creative actions you think he might take to help restore the beauty and reverence that many Catholics believe has been largely lost over the past four decades?

Rev. Twomey: The Pope will first teach by doing–by the way he celebrates the liturgy. If he issues the Moto Proprio on the Tridintine Mass, then it will not be an attempt to restore that rite but to insist on the continuity between that rite and the present rite, but also in the hope that future generations will learn from that wonderfully rich rite, as many liturgists are now learning from the Eastern Orthodox rites. Liturgy must grow organically; it takes time to ripen, as it were, and changes must be introduced gradually. (The great mistake with the new liturgy, it seems to me, was the way a completely new rite was suddenly imposed on the Church from above.) According to the Post-Synodal Instruction on the Eucharist, the Pope has requested the relevant Congregation to examine some changes. Liturgy is about great and marvelous things happening under the form of little actions and words. Each work and ritual is significant. Any change affects the whole. In your opinion, where does Joseph Ratzinger stand in the pantheon of great Catholic theologians of the 20th century? What sort of influence might his theological works have on future generations?

Rev. Twomey: This question is difficult to answer. I see Ratzinger as one of the great original thinkers of the 20th century. His pastoral tasks as Archbishop of Munich and his disciplinary tasks as Prefect of the CDF and now as Pope, prevented and prevents him from that writing project which would have produced a magnificent opus. And yet he has produced a vast corpus of writings on almost every topic in theology–mostly of a fragmentary nature, but capable of inspiring future generations to develop his seminal insights.

What is unique to Ratzinger is his ability to speak to all levels of society and to inspire all. Rarely has a theologian been able to speak to people’s minds and hearts in such a way that their lives can be changed as a result. His latest book, Jesus of Nazareth, produced, like most of his work, in his spare time, is likely to set the parameters for theological debate on the nature of exegesis and the person of Jesus Christ for generations to come.