Improper Wisdom

What the Pope Learned from August Adam

A few years ago I had the chance to have a long conversation with then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger in Straubing, a small, beautiful town in Lower Bavaria. Ratzinger was there to celebrate the annual feast day of Germany’s oldest surviving religious confraternity, the St. Salvator Confraternity. In the course of our conversation, I mentioned that the German theologian August Adam once lived and taught in Straubing. Ratzinger was obviously moved. “[Adam’s] book The Primacy of Love was a key reading of my youth,” he said. “It was revolutionary even then.”

The key reading of a cardinal is always noteworthy; if that cardinal becomes pope, it acquires special importance. The Primacy of Love is the work of a prescient moral theologian who, while popular in his own time, is little known today outside academic circles. Adam’s books sold thousands of copies, but he was blocked from teaching at German universities because of his controversial views on sexuality. With his first encyclical, Deus caritas est, Ratzinger touches on many of the themes taken up by Adam in The Primacy of Love and other books. Like Adam, Benedict argues that eros is a divine gift that should be celebrated. Echoing The Primacy of Love, Benedict writes that “eros directs man towards marriage, to a bond which is unique and definitive; thus, and only thus, does it fulfill its deepest purpose.” Such ideas may not seem radical today, but when Adam...

To read the rest of this article please login or become a subscriber.

About the Author

Ulrich L. Lehner, a native of Bavaria, teaches early modern church history in the theology department at Marquette University in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. He is the author or editor of five books, and has written numerous articles on historical theology and church history.