CNS/ Paul Haring

It has been a year since Pope Benedict XVI first appeared in a white cassock above St. Peter’s Square, and four months since he issued his first encyclical, Deus caritas est. Reading that encyclical, like seeing him above the crowds, I was reminded of the last time I saw him in person. He was Professor Joseph Ratzinger then, standing behind a lectern, dressed in a dark suit and tie. It was the winter semester of 1968/69, my first at the University of Tübingen and his last. His lectures were on the theology of the church. In another course, his colleague, Hans Küng, was lecturing on the narrower topic of infallibility.

The new pope has intrigued, and to some extent, baffled many. Much, for example, has been written about 1968 as marking a turning point in Ratzinger’s life and thinking. Why did he leave a major university long celebrated for theological faculty (and wrangling!) for the fledgling University of Regensburg? Was it the peaceful charm of his native Bavaria or the lure of a less disruptive student body?

Student unrest at Tübingen in 1968 shouldn’t be confused with the violent protests that took place in Paris and Chicago that year, and theology students who attended Ratzinger’s lectures hardly resembled the young Maoists who disrupted classes in other disciplines at Tübingen. Contrary to some news reports, he was not heckled. Even in 1968, academic decorum still prevailed in Germany. In a centuries-old gesture of respect, students still knocked on their desks each time their professor entered and left the lecture hall. Occasionally, such knocking might erupt mid-lecture if the professor said something the students found particularly gratifying. But the tradition also allowed for students to hiss if they strongly disagreed, and on at least two occasions that semester, lecturing before some two hundred would-be Catholic theologians, Professor Ratzinger was hissed.

I can’t remember exactly what he said that earned him that peculiar German expression of academic displeasure. In fact, when I was recently asked what I remember from his course, the thing that came to mind was his statement—as startling to most Catholics today as it was then—that the Orthodox churches resemble the church of the first millennium more closely than does the Roman Catholic Church. Did memory serve me correctly? Luckily, I did not have to depend solely on my own powers of recollection, or even on personal notes. At semester’s end, with Ratzinger’s permission, seminarians at the university produced a 152-page single-spaced typescript of his lectures for purchase.

It is important to keep in mind what was happening in the church at that time. Only a few months before Ratzinger’s lectures, in July 1968, Paul VI had issued Humanae vitae, reaffirming the ban on all forms of artificial birth control. The firestorm of criticism that erupted was especially brutal in Germany, where the secular press skewered the pope. Even national conferences of bishops that called for a respectful reading of the encyclical took pains to point out that it was not infallible, and that Catholics, following their consciences, could come to different conclusions.

Those were divisive times, and in reaction to the upheavals of 1968, Ratzinger is widely thought to have repudiated much of what he had professed to believe when he was a peritus (theological adviser) of decidedly progressive views at the Second Vatican Council. But the lecture notes from his class reveal more continuity in the new pope’s theological thinking than divergence, and they afford insight into the complexity of his positions on any number of thorny ecclesial issues. While the students’ critical reactions to his lectures may have prompted him to change employers, they did not cause him to abandon his basic ideas.


The Postconciliar Situation

Ratzinger introduced his 1968 lectures by surveying the state of the church and of ecclesiology in general. After centuries of being a “stepchild” of canon law, in the first decades of the twentieth century the church itself had been rediscovered as an object of faith and theological reflection. In particular, Ratzinger celebrated the fact that the biblical image of the church as the body of Christ had received renewed scholarly and official attention. Vatican II was thought to be the harvest of that rediscovery. Yet only three years after the end of the council, much of the council’s work on ecclesiology was being distorted, according to Ratzinger. Steering clear of specifics and without naming names, the future pope declared that the church was in “crisis” and that faith in the church was too often being replaced by an all too worldly belief in progress. The widespread postconciliar ferment in the church was not a sign of life and hope, Ratzinger argued, but of contempt for tradition. A middle ground between traditionalism and a naive faith in progress was desperately needed. Ratzinger was thinking of Küng when he complained that church reformers were concentrating on matters of secondary importance. By focusing on the need to change the church’s institutional structure and organization, these theologians were taking a sociological view and losing sight of the church as a “mystery.”

The root of the problem, Ratzinger thought, lay in the tendency to define the church faddishly as the “people of God,” while neglecting other, more authentic ecclesial “models.” Specifically, he urged a return to thinking first of the church as the “body of Christ.” Ratzinger conceded that at the council the bishops had exhibited a “certain aversion” for body-of-Christ theology. For example, the entire second chapter of the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church was devoted to understanding the church as the “people of God.” Not surprisingly, many people thought people-of-God language was the council’s “basic declaration” on the nature of the church. Ratzinger objected strongly to this interpretation, insisting that the New Testament church understood itself primarily as the body and bride of Christ, and that the council had not in any way denied that. He went on to offer compelling interpretations of the origins and development of the church’s ecclesial structures, including the papacy.


Jesus & the Church

In his lectures, Ratzinger agreed with Küng that Jesus preached to the “lost sheep of the house of Israel” (Mt 10:5), and that he did not intend to found a church. The Pentecost narrative presents the church as a creation of the Holy Spirit, as well as the earthly work of Jesus. However, Ratzinger accentuated the new situation described in the book of Acts. Unlike Küng, or later liberation theologians, Ratzinger was not ready to make the historical Jesus—as drawn by scholars from the synoptic Gospels—the canonical criterion for all subsequent Christian development and practice.

Catholic theology has traditionally read the gospel narrative where Jesus names Peter the rock on which he will build the church (Matt 16:18) as constituting the church’s foundation. Conscious of questions raised regarding the historicity of that particular narrative, Ratzinger situated the church’s foundation not in Jesus’ singling out Peter—or even his calling the Twelve—but in the Last Supper, where Jesus links the themes of the paschal lamb (Ex 12), new covenant (Jer 31), and the suffering servant who gives himself up “for many” (Is 53). That “for many” (Mk 14:24) prevents the church from becoming simply a select community of the righteous, a community that condemns the wayward masses to perdition.

The Ratzinger of 1968 acknowledged that some Catholic apologists misconstrued the body of Christ image by merely identifying the church with Christ, thus discounting the church’s historical failings. Ratzinger, however, connected the body of Christ and bride of Christ imagery, seeing the church as a bride who had not always lived up to her calling. To put it another way, the church, by the grace of God a community of saints, is also a company of sinners. With language reminiscent of Protestant theologian Paul Tillich, Ratzinger did not absolve the church of the ambiguities that bedevil all religion, where one can find “the most awful fanaticism, self-alienation, and human degradation.” And with a nod to Jesuit Henri de Lubac, he even conceded that heretics and atheists provide a service when they criticize dubious religious thinking and practice. As Ratzinger put it bluntly: “The institutional church does not coincide with the church’s essence.”


Early Structures in the Church

Ratzinger was familiar with the voluminous literature produced by biblical scholars on the evolution of church structures. He agreed with Küng that there is an absence of cultic terminology and titles for church leaders in the New Testament: nowhere, for example, are the community’s leaders called priests. Rather, the terms used are apostolos (one who is sent), episkopos (supervisor), and presbyteros (elder). Ministry is viewed in prophetic rather than priestly categories.

At the same time, though, he rejected the arguments made by those demanding democratic reforms. Reformers tended to base their demands on 1 Corinthians, arguing that the early church was a kind of “charismatic-pneumatic anarchy or democracy.” Ratzinger disagreed. In the Gospels, he argued, Jesus exercises authority based on a profound sense of being sent, and then personally authorizes his disciples, deputizing them to preach in his name. Similarly, Ratzinger thought the separation of prophetic preaching and cult in the Judaism of Jesus’ day was a false development. One of the distinctive characteristics of the New Testament was how it reunited apostleship and prophecy. Unlike the Jewish priesthood, leadership in the first-century church was not inherited. The New Testament describes apostles and prophets as chosen by the Holy Spirit and marked by a “charismatic calling,” not elected by popular vote.

Ratzinger acknowledged that in that first generation, the number of apostles was greater than “the Twelve,” but argued that by the second generation, when Luke and Acts were written, the church had begun to identify apostleship with “the Twelve,” to signify that the apostolic age was over. Similarly, in a move to maintain unity in the late first-century church, Acts (20:17–35) declares the elders (presbyteroi) who led the Jewish-Christian churches, and the bishops (episkopoi) of the Gentile-Christian churches were identical in authority. Presbyters and bishops alike are successors to the apostles.

From the very beginning, spiritual leadership existed in the church and took a variety of forms. Church structures in the first century were fluid and open, and well into the second century leadership was charismatic and not restricted to bishops and presbyters. As late as the third century, Ratzinger pointed out, the laying on of hands was only one way of entering into the circle of leaders; suffering for the faith (martyria) also demonstrated one’s possession of the Spirit. Looking at the overall historical evolution of church leadership, Ratzinger granted that things could have turned out otherwise. But he disagreed with Küng and Edward Schillebeeckx that further evolution was inevitable or necessary. The church is not a “laboratory for experiments,” he argued, and there are limits to innovation: “The fact that a historical development could have turned out differently does not justify the conclusion that one is free to begin all over again.” In short, development was not decline.


The Collegial Episcopate

At the same time, Ratzinger acknowledged that sometimes ecclesial development needs correction, or at least a change in emphasis. For example, New Testament references to presbyters and bishops leading local churches are always in the plural. It is only at the beginning of the second century that Ignatius of Antioch refers to a single bishop serving as pastor of a local church, assisted by presbyters and deacons. Over time, this new structure, the so-called “monarchial episcopate,” spread to all the churches throughout the Roman Empire.

At the local level, the bishop embodied the unity of the church. At the level of the universal church, bishops constituted a collectivity, or, to use a term drawn from the argot of imperial Rome, an ordo. In the third century, in both East and West, a bishop would be elected by the local community; then the bishops of the province would lay hands on him. Ordination was not a matter of receiving, but of being received into, the ordo, what today we call the college of bishops. Symbolic of this collegiality, a new bishop’s ordination still consists of three bishops laying hands on him. This, to Ratzinger’s mind, was no mere juridical formality. It represents the fact that for an individual bishop to exercise his office rightly, he must remain in communion with his brother bishops.

While each bishop embodies the apostolicity of the church, it is the whole college of bishops that symbolizes its catholicity. Clearly, Ratzinger has long held a high theology of the episcopate: “While the leadership of an individual church is in a certain sense monarchic, the unity and catholicity of the universal church rests upon the lateral bond of the college of bishops.”

In its first thousand years, in the “old church,” as Ratzinger phrased it, episcopal office had a horizontal structure. The relationship of the various churches to one another was described with the Trinitarian language of unity amid equality. Collegiality was regulated regionally by metropolitan bishops, and across the empire by the five patriarchs of Rome, Constantinople, Antioch, Alexandria, and Jerusalem. Unfortunately, Roman Catholics no longer have a strong sense of that horizontal bond. Ratzinger blamed the subsequent schism between East and West for the impetus toward “papalism” and a consequent devaluation of the episcopate in the West.

“Papalism” is not a word one expects to hear from someone who later came to exemplify Catholic orthodoxy. Similarly unexpected was Ratzinger’s opinion that “the form of the old church described above has been essentially preserved in the Orthodox churches of the East.” Rome has traditionally maintained that its structure and its theology of Roman primacy correspond to the structure and theology of the old church. But, as the Eastern churches see it, Rome has replaced a Trinitarian theology of church with the “profane” concept of “absolute monarchy.”

Ratzinger has long been forthright in his sympathy for the Orthodox point of view. The Eastern churches have never denied Rome’s primacy, but they have interpreted it using Trinitarian categories like unity, plurality, and diversity. From a Trinitarian perspective, unity does not require rigid uniformity, and it excludes a priori anything like top-down subordination. Roman Catholic theology, in Ratzinger’s view, needs to take this Trinitarian view seriously. As he wrote in a 1977 article on the future of ecumenism, what was possible for a thousand years cannot be regarded as impossible today. In short, Catholics could learn something about the papacy from the Orthodox.


Roman Primacy

Citing Protestant ecumenist Hans Dombois, Ratzinger compared the modern papacy to a mountain climber who, after managing to reach the summit, now finds he can’t get down without breaking his neck or losing face. In the Catholic Church the gradual suppression of the communio of bishops reached its culmination at Vatican I. Conversely, to the detriment of unity, the Orthodox churches have grown increasingly apart, while the disintegration of Protestantism has continued apace. Divided churches have divided the power of Peter’s keys among themselves. Here is the heart of the problem facing us today: the Roman church binds but can no longer loosen, other churches loosen but cannot bind.

The demise of Christianity as a Jewish movement saw Rome replace Jerusalem, but not as a holy city. The New Testament equates Rome with Babylon (1 Peter 5:13), a city emblematic of exile, indicating that God’s people were without a home. In the third century, this tradition was replaced by the idea that the bishops of Rome were successors to Peter, who along with Paul had been martyred and buried in Rome. But even this view of Petrine succession, said Ratzinger, “by no means meant total supervision of the churches by Rome.” What Rome claimed was a purely theological and spiritual mandate to care for the unity of all the churches.

Yet later in the third century, Rome, as the sole apostolic see in the West, began claiming administrative primacy over the other churches in the West. Soon the idea of an administrative primacy coalesced with the idea that Rome had succeeded Jerusalem. By the fourth century, Ratzinger said, Rome “unlawfully” tried to extend its administrative claims on the East. The East felt compelled to reject such claims, setting into motion tensions that eventually led to the Great Schism in 1054. Ratzinger did not shy away from the implications of his analysis: “Our task is to separate the many layers that have developed within the idea of primacy. Concretely this means Rome’s spiritual claims must once more be separated from its administrative claims. The spiritual unity of the Word and communio does not require administrative unity.”

Ratzinger’s thinking about papal primacy and the need to distinguish between spiritual and administrative unity was influenced by Protestant theologian and Catholic convert Friedrich Heiler. For Heiler, the problem that papal primacy poses for Christian unity was epitomized in the papal tiara—hinting perhaps at why Benedict XVI chose to remove it from his papal coat of arms and to replace it with a bishop’s miter, and giving context to his decision to delete “Patriarch of the West” from the titles of his office in the 2006 Vatican yearbook. Quoting Heiler, Ratzinger essentially concluded his course:

Different kinds of elements are symbolized in the three crowns of the papal tiara: the office of the Bishop of Rome, who at the same time is Metropolitan of the Roman church province; that of the Patriarch of the Western Latin church; and that of Primate of all the bishops. A good part of the obstacle standing in the way of Christian unity is the result of mixing these three offices, of expanding the powers of the first level of office to the second and of the first two to the third. If the primacy of the pope would be conceived purely in itself, in its providential function of serving ecumenical unity and would be separated from the changeable functions of Roman Metropolitan and Latin Patriarch, then the historical meaning and divine right of the papacy would also be understandable to its critics. Anyone who desires the unity of the church cannot evade a “center of unity” in the church nor shy away from recognizing this center to reside where—despite all human inconstancy and debasement—de facto it came to be situated in the history of the Christian church: in that community which the two greatest apostles sanctified with their preaching and martyrdom.


Presiding in Love

Pundits have had some difficulty squaring “God’s Rottweiler,” a.k.a. the “Panzerkardinal,” with the kinder, gentler “German Shepherd” of Deus caritas est, Benedict’s favorably received first encyclical. Do Benedict’s 1968 lectures shed any light on the disconnect? Certainly it’s a different church from that of 1968. Long gone is anything like widespread faith in progress. But the “traditionalism” and “papalism” Ratzinger criticized in the Catholic Church of those days appear to be alive and well.

Not surprisingly, Benedict’s encyclical on love does not refer to the church as the “people of God.” But it does distinguish between the church’s leadership and the church itself, which the new pope describes as a “community of love” and “God’s family in the world.” More telling is Benedict’s subtle reference to the church of Rome as “presiding in love,” a phrase taken from St. Ignatius of Antioch that articulates precisely the kind of Roman primacy Orthodox churches can accept.

In light of his 1968 lectures, would he dare make use of the loosening power of Peter’s keys? He certainly appears to have made a highly significant move in that direction by relinquishing the title “Patriarch of the West.” But was it symbolism without consequence or does it portend more juridical steps as well? It is unthinkable that the Vatican would forgo its prerogative to appoint bishops in the West, but might it relinquish administrative claims over the East? Up to now, Vatican II’s teaching on collegiality has remained little more than a new (some would say empty) word in the Catholic lexicon. Would Benedict consider allowing bishops to exercise real decision making at future synods, and not serve merely as his consulters?

Ratzinger’s model and measure for what Christianity should look like hews closer to the “old church” of the first millennium than to the church of the first century. This bodes well for Roman Catholic dialogue with the Orthodox, less well for dialogue with most Protestant churches. But any serious move toward the Orthodox, any espousal of a Trinitarian theology of the church that endorses pluralism and equality along with unity, will necessarily have unpredictable repercussions within Roman Catholicism. The church may not be a “laboratory for experiments,” but when an institution returns to a tradition after an interval of a thousand years, the ramifications are bound to be disruptive.

The former Professor Ratzinger thus finds himself in the situation of the mountain climber he alluded to in his lectures. Having reached the dizzying heights of the summit, will he risk taking the steps to restore papal primacy to its original function? Or will he be afraid to move, for fear of breaking his neck or losing face? Whatever the direction Benedict strikes out in, it would be hard to find a pope with a better command of history and theology—or one surer of his footing.


Click here for more about the mind of Benedict XVI.

Published in the 2006-04-21 issue: View Contents
Ronald Modras is a professor of theological studies at St. Louis University. His most recent book is Ignatian Humanism: A Dynamic Spirituality for the 21st Century (Loyola Press).
Also by this author
This story is included in these collections:
© 2024 Commonweal Magazine. All rights reserved. Design by Point Five. Site by Deck Fifty.