Maximilian Heinrich Heim
Introduction to Joseph Ratzinger: Life in the Church and Living Theology

We cannot return to the past, nor have we any desire to do so. But we must be ready to reflect anew on that which, in the lapse of time, has remained the one constant. To seek it without distraction and to dare to accept, with joyful heart and without diminution, the foolishness of truth—this, I think, is the task for today and for tomorrow. [1]

Joseph Ratzinger is considered by some to be the representative of a “petrified theology”, [2] whereas for others [3] he is a voice that claims to speak the truth and makes it possible to perceive “the whole in its depth dimension” [4] This dissertation places him—amid the tensions of present-day disputes within the Church about the patrimony of the Second Vatican Council—as an ecclesiologist at the center of this discourse, by setting forth his statements about the Church as a central aspect of an existential theology. Because theology and ecclesial life have been melded into one in an unusual way in Ratzinger’s work, his theological thought can be characterized as “existential”, without thereby relegating it to the realm of the merely subjective. Ratzinger is in fact concerned about a theology that proceeds, not from a private being, but rather from an existence that has surrendered itself to the Church, [5] in other words, “a theology of ex-sistere, of that exodus by which the human individual goes out from himself and through which alone he can find himself”, [6] a theology, therefore, that seeks God in the Church and through the Church as its preexisting center. Consequently, its task consists of “keeping what is earthly and human so that it is trans- parent toward the truly fundamental reality, the divine reality that opens itself to us through Christ in the Holy Spirit”. [7]

If we understand theology this way, it becomes clear that Ratzinger’s thought, in keeping with the patristic tradition, is defined, not by an opposition [8] between salvation history and its ontological unfolding, [9] but rather by a mutual ordering of the two that constantly adheres to the “prae [logical and temporal priority] of God’s action”. [10] This means that “faith in an actio Dei is antecedent to all other declarations of faith”, because for God,

it is precisely relationship and action that are the essential marks; creation and revelation are the two basic statements about him, and when revelation is fulfilled in the Resurrection, it is thus confirmed once again that he is not just one who is timeless but also one who is above time, whose existence is known to us only through his action. [11]

Defending this “primacy of God” [12] brings about a development in Ratzinger’s theology—as Dorothee Kaes explains—from a theology that originally had a more pronounced orientation toward salvation history [13] to thinking that is more characteristically metaphysical, [14] and this development occurs as a response to the intellectual debates of a given time period. [15]

Since my dissertation on Ratzinger’s ecclesiology is situated within the context of the postconciiar developments in the Church, I was confronted with the question about an adequate reception of that image of the Church that the Second Vatican Council had outlined. In this regard, Ratzinger is not only a contemporary witness, but also a theologian who, as Thomas Weiler [16] has attempted to demonstrate, was himself able to exert influence on the Council’s ecciesiology. Although it is not my purpose simply to reverse Weiler’s approach and to maintain that the Council influenced Ratzinger the theologian, it is still undeniable that there was a reciprocal effect [17] and that consequently Ratzinger must be understood not only as an expert in the conciiar ecclesiology, as one of those who helped to shape it, but at the same time also as one of its most resolute defenders and as someone who continues to interpret and apply it concretely in his writings.

Thus two sets of questions result for the development of my theme: first, an inquiry into the Church’s understanding of herself in Lumen gentium and, secondly, an investigation of Ratzinger’s ecclesial life and the main lines of his ecciesiology; which has been shaped by his career. The first part of the dissertation, about Lumen gentium, will set out to provide the conceptual frame of reference for the discussion of Ratzinger’s ecclesiological outline in the second part, whereby the fundamental themes of mystery, the People of God, and collegiality, which are structural elements of Lumen gentium, serve as the main coordinates for the systematic development of the subject. I have chosen them as guidelines for presenting Ratzinger’s theology as well, because he himself associates them with the authority of the Second Vatican Council’s Constitution on the Church. [18] In any case the second part does not intend to make a detailed comparison with Lumen gentium; rather, it intends to show the importance of the main ecciesiological themes of the Constitution on the Church in Ratzinger’s work, to note points of agreement or differences and modifications, and, where appropriate, to point out changes in Ratzinger’s approach. In this regard, the question of how and when Ratzinger articulated the ambiguities [19] in Lumen gentium will serve as a litmus test for whether or not there was a change in his perspective. For this reason it is necessary to pay special attention to the historical factor in our discussions. This is accomplished, on the one hand, by tracing the principal stages of development both for Lumen gentium and for Ratzinger and, on the other hand, by explicitly examining the historical context at pivotal points of the systematic treatment of the subject. In this I am guided by the following suggestion of Weiler:

A thorough study of Ratzinger’s postconciliar ecclesiological writings would of course have to investigate which of Ratzinger’s ideas remained unchanged and where, if at all, a change can be noted. Why did that happen? And with regard to the ideas that remained the same, one should ask whether they, in being brought into a new historical and theological context, do not acquire a different significance. Finally: Does the fact that Ratzinger’s ideas remained the same really correspond thoroughly to the Second Vatican Council, which was, after all, in Ratzinger’s view as well, “only the formulation of a task”, which is to say, the beginning of a fundamental change, the accomplishment of which was (and is) still in the future? [20]

Before I outline the structure and division of my investigation, I should clarify why I take up Lumen gentium and not Gaudium et spes as the frame of reference for my discussion of Ratzinger’s ecclesiology, even though the latter, in my opinion, would also be quite possible and reasonable. [21] The answer is twofold: First, in keeping with Ratzinger’s approach, I attempt to shed light on the Church’s intrinsic nature. For this purpose Lumen gentium is a suitable reference. Moreover, according to Wolfgang Beinert, the “other fifteen constitutions, decrees, and declarations lead to this Council document or are derived from it”. [22] The second reason for my decision is related to the first. It can be expressed precisely by means of a programmatic statement by Ratzinger of his position in the year 1975:

An interpretation of the Council that understands its dogmatic texts as mere preludes to a still unattained conciliar spirit, that regards the whole as just a preparation for Gaudium et spes and that looks upon the latter text as just the beginning of an unswerving course toward an ever greater union with what is called progress—such an interpretation is not only contrary to what the Council Fathers intended and meant, it has been reduced ad absurdum by the course of events. Where the spirit of the Council is turned against the word of the Council and is vaguely regarded as a distillation from the development that evolved from the “Pastoral Constitution”, this spirit becomes a specter and leads to meaninglessness. [23]

Ratzinger traces the cause of this subsequent influence of Gaudium et spes, which he regards as problematic, back to the spirit of the preface. [24] In his opinion, the text of the Pastoral Constitution serves as “a kind of countersyllabus” for many theologians, who imagine that it “represents, on the part of the Church, an attempt at an official reconciliation with the new era inaugurated in 1789”. [25] But since “the world, in its modern form” cannot be regarded as a homogeneous entity, the Church’s progress cannot consist of “a belated embrace of the modern world”. [26] From this insight Ratzinger derives the following basic rule, ten years after the end of the Council: “We must interpret Vatican Council II as a whole and … our interpretation must be oriented toward the central theological texts.” [27]

The two reasons just outlined, Ratzinger’s preference for an essential ecciesiology and his partiality for the dogmatic documents of the Council, led me to select Lumen gentium as the background against which to present his ecclesiology. This means simultaneously, however, that the “outward-looking” perspectives are considered only in passing in this dissertation. This is true, specifically, with regard to Ratzinger’s statements on the complicated question of the relation between the Church and the world [28] and his writings concerning ecumenism [29] as well as interreligious dialogue [30] and, last but not least, concerning the relation between the Church and Judaism. [31] My subject is further limited by the fact that I concentrate above all on the initiatives Ratzinger has taken as a scholar, and not on the contributions he has made to theological discussion in his official, magisterial capacity, even though it was impossible to avoid some overlapping on certain questions.

After these preliminary remarks concerning methodology, I would like to define now more precisely the principal points of this dissertation and to explain its structure. Part I, on the Church’s self-understanding according to Lumen gentium, comprises two sections, one historical and one systematic. The latter is subdivided, following the sequence of the first three chapters of Lumen gentium, under the headings of “The Mystery of the Church”, “The People of God”, and “The Hierarchical Structure of the Church and in Particular the Episcopate”. Because of their intrinsic relatedness, the themes of chapters 4 through 8 of Lumen gentium on the laity (4), on the universal call to holiness in the Church (5) on consecrated religious (6), on the eschatological character of the pilgrim Church and her union with the Church in heaven (7), and finally on the Blessed Virgin Mary; the Mother of God, in the mystery of Christ and of the Church (8) are considered in the chapter on the People of God. In chapter I, on the mystery of the Church, an essential point is the aspect of communio; here the trinitarian communio is presented as the origin and purpose of Church unity. In chapter 2, in keeping with the Dogmatic Constitution, I will elaborate on the participation of the People of God in the priestly, prophetic, and kingly mission of Christ—an aspect that plays a relatively insignificant role in Ratzinger’s ecclesiology In chapter 3, the college of bishops takes center stage in my discussion. There I will examine above all the sacramental understanding of the episcopal ministry and inquire about how the “Preliminary Note of Explanation” added, to Lumen gentium should be evaluated, both historically and with regard to its contents—a problem that was of decisive importance especially for Ratzinger as one of the theologians at the Council.

Part 2 of this book deals with Ratzinger’s ecclesiology. It is structured along the lines of Lumen gentium and treats in succession the principal themes of the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church. In it I intend to show which fundamental ideas Ratzinger adopts in his ecciesiology, which themes he prefers, and which ones he modifies in his presentation or does not take into account at all. As in the first part of this dissertation, the systematic section is preceded by a historical section I, which discusses the “Outline of the Ecclesiological Plan from a Biographical Perspective”. In this “prelude”, the question of the consistency in Ratzinger’s theological thought is especially explosive. Section 2 deals at first, in chapter I, with the Church as sign of faith and mystery of faith. Three central concepts of Ratzinger’s ecciesiology are examined therein, namely, Body of Christ, Eucharist, and communio. The chapter concludes with critical reflections on the question of the subsistence of the Catholic Church. Chapter 2 is devoted to the Church as the People of God In it I will point out Ratzinger’s references to rabbinical theology so as to demonstrate by means of concrete examples the ecciesiological consequences of the scriptural unity of the Old and New Testaments that he insists upon. In particular, this line of Ratzinger’s reasoning is important also for the controversial question of the ontological priority of the universal Church. The chapter goes on to deal with his oft-repeated claim that the term “People of God” has been misunderstood in a sociological sense, and the problem of democratic structures in the Church is discussed along with the themes of “relativism” and “majority rule”. Comments on the section “The Universal Call to Holiness” conclude the chapter. In this context the importance of the mariological declaration for Ratzinger’s ecclesiology is stressed, but also the problem of the Church’s sinfulness, with reference to the verse from the Song of Solomon “I am black but beautiful”, [32] which has been applied to the Church, and with the assistance of the image of the casta meretrix. The conclusion of the main part of my work is chapter 3, on Ratzinger’s understanding of the hierarchical constitution of the Church and, especially, of episcopal collegiality By way of introduction, the latter is set forth as an ecumenical paradigm, and then it is examined with regard to its origin, to the inherent tension between collegiality and primacy, and to its pastoral implications. The last part of this chapter is devoted to those emphases in Ratzinger’s thought that have changed so much over the course of time that one can speak of an early and a later Ratzinger. Specifically, from his judgments on the value of bishops’ conferences and of the synod of bishops, it will become evident how the later Ratzinger assigns a different theological weight to collegial formations than the earlier Ratzinger did.

Part 3 presents a “synoptic” overview. In summarizing, it compares the ecclesiology of Lumen gentium with that of Ratzinger. My concluding essay on the problematic position of modernity in intellectual history, which is behind Ratzinger’s ecclesiology, attempts to sketch an outline of his thought against this backdrop and to pave the way toward a more nuanced answer to the question of its continuity or discontinuity. Finally, in a concluding remark, the liturgy is depicted as the hermeneutic locus of theological ecclesiology, in keeping with the axiom lexorandi-lex credendi, so as the emphasize and reflect critically on what is distinctive about Ratzinger’s markedly eucharistic theology of communio.


[1] J. Ratzinger, “Der Weltdienst der Kirche: Aurwirkungen von Gaudium et spes im letzten Jahrzehnt”, IKaZ 4 (1975):439-54. Reprinted in Principles, 373-93, as the epilogue, “Church and World: An Inquiry into the Reception of Vatican Council II”. Citation at 393.

[2] HŠring, Ideologie, 21.

[3] We should mention here, for example, Stephan Otto Horn and Vinzenz PfnŸr as representatives of Ratzinger’s “circle of students”. The names of the members of this SchŸlerkreis ad of those who presented papers at their gatherings were published in Mitte, 316f.

[4] See Stephan Otto Horn and Vinzenz PfnŸr, “Introduction”, in Pilgrim Fellowship, 9-16, citation at 12.

[5] See the foreword of W. Baier et al., eds., Weisheit Gottes—Weisheit der Welt: Festschrift fŸr Joseph Kardinal Ratzinger zum 60Geburtstag (Sankt Ottilien: EOS-Verlag, 1987), I:v.

[6] Principles, 171-90, citation at 189.

[7] Horn and PfnŸr, “Introduction”, 9-14, citation at 10.

[8] In this way, Ratzinger decisively distances himself from Bultmann’s thesis that “the word, the kerygma, is the real salvation-event, the ‘eschatological event’, that leads man from the alienation of his existence to its essence. This word is present wherever it makes itself heard; it is the always-present possibility of salvation for mankind. It is clear that, in the last analysis, this primacy of the word that, as such, can always be spoken and thus can be posited as always present, cancels the notion of a continuous series of salvation-historical events” (Principles, 176), in that it separates a theologically insignificant history from a theologically relevant “story”. The latter remains, in Bultmann’s scheme, a “word-event” unconnected with the historical events. Compare Kaes, 89f. Ratzinger sees in this opposition between salvation history and metaphysics a problem that did not come so acutely to the fore until after the Second Vatican Council. The reason for this may be explained by the fact that “Vatican Council II did not link its debate on salvation to the already existing patristic term dispositio (or dispensatio) but rather coined for itself, as a borrowing from the German, the expression historia salutis. Therewith we have also an indication of the source of the problem that, in our century, has entered Catholic theology by way of Protestant thought” (Principles, 572).

[9] See ibid.

[10] Ibid., 185.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Pilgrim Fellowship, 284-98, citation at 287.

[13] Along with G. Sšhngen, Ratzinger stresses “emphatically that the truth of Christianity is not the truth of a universally accepted idea but the truth of a unique fact” (Principles, 174). Cf. G. Sšhngen, Die Einheit in der Theologie (Munich: Zink, 1952), 347.

[14] For particulars, see Kaes, 86-88.

[15] Pt. 3, sec. 2, of this book, “Ratzinger’s Ecciesiology against the Background of Issues in Intellectual History”.

[16] Cf. Weiler, 151-283, esp. 281-83.

[17] See J. Ratzinger, “Geleitwort” [preface], in Weiler, xiii; similarly: G. Alberigo, “Die konziliare Erfahrung: SelbstŠndig lernen”, in Wittstadt, 2:679-98, esp. 688f.

[18] See Church 3-20; “Ecciesiology”, 123-52.

[19] Cf. Pt. 2, sec. 2, chap. 3, ¤ 4, “Aspects during the Council in Tension with the Later Perspective”, and pt. 3, sec. I, “Comparison between the Main Lines of Lumen gentium and of Ratzinger’s Ecclesiology”.

[20] Weiler 315. In the same passage, Weiler cites J. Ratzinger, Die letzte Sitzungsperiode des Konzils (Cologne: Bachem, 1966), 73; cf. Highlights, 183. In 1996, Weiler declared (11f.) that, even though the theme of “Church” is an important focal point in Ratzinger’s work as a whole, “it is astounding that so far relatively few publications have been dedicated to this important aspect …. A monograph on Ratzinger’s ecclesiology has not yet appeared.” Weiler did not consider the unpublished dissertation of K.-J. E. Jeon, Die Kirche bei Joseph Ratzinger: Unter- suchungen zum strukturierten Volk Gottes nach der Kirchenlehre Joseph Ratzingers (unpublished dissertation, Innsbruck, 1995). An extensive list of further publications on Ratzinger’s theology can be found in Weiler, 11f. Worth noting also is the bibliography of secondary literature compiled by Helmut Moll under the title “Rezeption und Auseinandersetzung mit dem theologischen Werk von Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger”, in Mitte, 309-15.

[21] It seems to me that Ratzinger’s stance with regard to Gaudium et spes deserves separate study, since Ratzinger has grappled with this document on several occasions. He declared in 1975, for example, that Gaudium et spes is “the most difficult and, [along] with the ‘Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy’ and the ‘Decree on Ecumenism’, also the most [consequential]” Council document, on account of the problem of finding a suitable concept of “the world” (Principles, 378).

[22] Beinert, “Kirchenbilder in der Kirchengeschichte”, in Kirchenbilder, Kirchenvisionen: Variationen Ÿber eine Wirklichkeit, ed. Beinert, 58-127, citation at III (Regensburg: Pustet, 1995).

[23] Principles, 390.

[24] Cf. ibid., 379. For a more detailed discussion, see t. 2, sec. I, chap. 3, ¤ 1, Of this book, “The Council: ‘The Beginning of the Beginning’?”

[25] Principles, 381, 382.

[26] Ibid., 390.

[27] Ibid.

[28] “See, for example, “Weltoffene Kirche? †berlegungen zur Struktur des Zweiten Vati- kanischen Konzils”, in Volk Gottes, 107-28. Cf. also “Der Christ und die Welt von heute: †berlegungen zur Pastoralkonstitution des Zweiten Vatikamschen Konzils”, in Dogma, 183-204, along with the commentary on articles 11-22 of Gaudium et spes, in LThK.E, vol. 3 (Freiburg im Breisgau: Herder, 1968), 313-54.

29 example is the striking essay entitled “Prognosen fŸr die Zukunft des …kumenismus”, in Mitte, 181-94. It also contains the so-called Ratzinger formula, which states that “Rome must not demand more from the East by way of doctrine on the primacy than was formulated and practiced during the first millennium.” We will treat this subject more thoroughly in this book in pt. 2, sec. 2, chap. 3, ¤ 4.2, entitled “Concrete Forms of Episcopal Collegiality, as Variously Interpreted”.

[30] See, for example, Salt of the Earth, 243-55.

[31] See the first volume of the Urfelder series, which especially promotes dialogue between Jews and Christians: J. Ratzinger, Many Religions-One Covenant, trans. Graham Harrison (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1999).

[32] Song 1:5.