Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Ratzinger the Professor: the influence of Cardinal Newman

We’re pleased to report on a new book by Gianni Valente, published in Italian, Ratzinger Professore: Gli anni dello studio e dell’insegnamento nel ricordo dei colleghi e degli allievi (1946-1977) (Milan: Edizioni San Paolo, s.r.l., 2008) [‘Ratzinger the Professor: the years of study and teaching as recalled by his colleagues and students’].

This book, by an well known Italian journalist, highlights Joseph Ratzinger’s academic history, from his seminary formation, teaching posts, and involvement in the Second Vatican Council, right up to his continuing links with the academic world as Cardinal and as Pope. Inevitably, John Henry Newman makes a significant appearance: it’s well known that Newman’s writings have been an important influence on Benedict XVI, and the book serves to emphasise some of the particular ways that the English theologian played a part in Ratzinger’s own theological development.

Alfred Läpple, Ratzinger’s Prefect of Studies at the seminary at Friesing in the post war years, had begun a dissertation on Newman’s theology of conscience before the war, a ‘pioneering theme’ at that time, Valente notes. Later, speaking at the 1990 conference on Newman in Rome, Ratzinger spoke of the passion that Läpple had aroused in him and his associates: ‘Newman’s teaching on conscience became an important foundation for theological personalism, which was drawing us all in its sway. … We had experienced the claim of a totalitarian party, which understood itself as the fulfilment of history and which negated the conscience of the individual. One of its leaders had said: “I have no conscience. My conscience is Adolf Hitler”. The appalling devastation of humanity that followed was before our eyes’ (p. 22). Valente suggests that Ratzinger’s drawing to Newman was part of his reaction against such ‘annihilation’ of conscience.

Läpple sheds his own light on the attraction which Newman exercised on both him and his students: Newman combined liberty with obedience. Läpple is quoted: ‘there was among us a great liberty in viewing and judging things. It was for this reason that Newman fascinated us so much. How could someone who had lived so freely as an Anglican have submitted himself to the Catholic doctrine on the primacy of the Church? For Newman it wasn’t acceptable to think that the Pope could be a limit on the freedom of the baptised’ (p. 28).

Later in the book, Läpple describes the intellectual links between Ratzinger and Gottleib Söhngen, one of the Professors of the future Cardinal in the theology faculty at Munich. Läpple writes that ‘for Ratzinger, as for Söhngen, God is not, in the end, a summum bonum that you can know, and demonstrate the existence of, through exact theological formulations. The mystery for him [Ratzinger] isn’t a meeting with an abstract definition, but with an ‘other’ who has loved us first, and who we can thank. For this reason we’d had a keen interest in the personalism of Martin Buber, the Jewish philosopher who’d said that the best thing you can say about God is to thank him. And for the same reason we grew in our shared passion for Newman, who for his episcopal [sic.] motto had chosen Cor ad cor loquitur, ‘heart speaks to heart’ (p. 39).

Newman wrote: “I understood… that the exterior world, physical and historical, was but the manifestation to our senses of realities greater than itself. Nature was a parable, Scripture was an allegory, pagan literature, philosophy and mythologies, properly understood, were but a preparation for the Gospel. The Greek poets and sages were, in a sense, prophets.”

And now, Ratzinger as Benedict XVI, on October 6, 2008, pronounced the following breath-taking epistemological affirmation:

“(T)he Word of God is the foundation of everything, it is the true reality. And to be realistic, we must rely upon this reality. We must change our idea that matter, solid things, things we can touch, are the more solid, the more certain reality. At the end of the Sermon on the Mount the Lord speaks to us about the two possible foundations for building the house of one's life: sand and rock. The one who builds on sand builds only on visible and tangible things, on success, on career, on money. Apparently these are the true realities. But all this one day will pass away. We can see this now with the fall of large banks: this money disappears, it is nothing. And thus all things, which seem to be the true realities we can count on, are only realities of a secondary order. The one who builds his life on these realities, on matter, on success, on appearances, builds upon sand. Only the Word of God is the foundation of all reality, it is as stable as the heavens and more than the heavens, it is reality. Therefore, we must change our concept of realism. The realist is the one who recognizes the Word of God, in this apparently weak reality, as the foundation of all things. Realist is the one who builds his life on this foundation, which is permanent. Thus the first verses of the Psalm invite us to discover what reality is and how to find the foundation of our life, how to build life.

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