Friday, May 11, 2012

Excerpted Conversation with Alfred Läpple Concerning Joseph Ratzinger (From 30 Days)

Alfred Läpple was teacher of Pastoral Theology and the Sacraments at Freising seminary

LÄPPLE: The philosopher at Freising was Arnold Wilmsen, a neo-scholastic in tendency. Ratzinger has never spoken to me very much about him, perhaps because didn’t want to be discourteous. But Wilmsen’s lectures slipped off like water off a raincoat. He said to me: I regret the time I’m wasting, it would be much more useful to go for a stroll with you… 

What was wrong with neo-scholasticism?

LÄPPLE: He also mentions it in his book. Wilmsen, who had become attached to the neo-Thomism he had studied in the Roman theology faculties, seemed to him someone who no longer set himself questions, but is concerned only to defend from all doubts the truths that he thinks he possesses.

And why did that create difficulties for Ratzinger?

LÄPPLE: It’s not so much a matter of conflicting philosophical doctrines as of what man is. Man is always asking questions, and when he thinks he’s answered one question, a bigger one is already presenting itself. The impulse to consider the truth as a possession to be defended has always unsettled him. He didn’t feel at ease with neo-scholastic definitions that seemed to him like ramparts, whereby what is inside the definition is the truth, and what is outside is all mistaken. But if God is everywhere – he would say – I certainly can’t be the one to put up barriers and say: God is here only. And if Christ himself said he was the way, the truth and the life, then the truth is a You that loves you from beforehand. According to him, God is not recognized because He is a summum bonum that is able to be grasped and demonstrated with exact formulas, but because He is a You that comes forward and gets Himself recognized. The intelligence can try to build concepts that define true contents. But this, according to Ratzinger, is a theology that claims of dissect the mystery, not a theology that kneels. And such theology already didn’t interest him then. In the dialect of Bavaria we would say: it wasn’t his beer.

And in those years what was the “beer” he preferred?

LÄPPLE: Books with abstract titles of “The essence of Christianity” kind don’t interest Ratzinger. He’s not interested in defining God by abstract concepts. An abstraction – he once told me – didn’t need a Mother. God doesn’t come to us as an abstract definition, as a summum bonum, but as a You that loves you beforehand, and you can thank Him. Only to a You can you say yes. He came across this approach also in Martin Buber, for example, the Jewish personalist philosopher who said that the best discourse on God is to give Him thanks. But he liked Newman also for that reason, who chose as his motto as bishop: “Cor ad cor loquitur”.

After his philosophical studies, in September 1947 Ratzinger embarked on the courses at the Theology Faculty of Munich. What were you doing then?

LÄPPLE: After becoming a priest I worked for a year as chaplain and then, in 1948, I returned to the Freising seminary as teacher of pastoral and sacramental theology. But I still had to finish my theological studies and complete my doctoral thesis on Newman. So I found myself frequenting various university courses in Munich along with Ratzinger. The University had been destroyed by the bombing and the Theology Faculty had found an interim arrangement at Fürstenried, the former hunting lodge of the Bavarian monarchs, south of Munich. I remember that the lessons were initially held in a greenhouse, torrid in summer and cold in the winter.

The Theology Faculty of Munich had a well respected tradition, in which the approach leant towards Christianity as historical fact…

LÄPPLE: Yes, but after the shut-down imposed by the Nazis in February of 1939 and after the war even there everything began again from the beginning. There was no longer an organic school of theology. Few of the old professors remained, and the new ones came from different theological faculties and experiences. Internally the teaching staff was very variegated. And in that atmosphere the students also seized their freedom…

What does that mean?

LÄPPLE: Maybe they enrolled in the courses, but then if the professor’s lectures weren’t interesting they deserted: one student took notes and then passed them on to the others. In the library, then, they were all eager to read the books that expressed the new theological tendencies.

Who were the outstanding people on the Faculty?

LÄPPLE: According to me the more important professors were three: Gottlieb Söhngen, Michael Schmaus and Friedrich Wilhelm Maier.

What do you remember about Söhngen, Ratzinger’s “teacher”?

LÄPPLE: He taught Fundamental Theology, and his way of lecturing was very impressive. You could see that he lived and suffered what he was explaining. He came with a slip of paper, with three or four words written on it and then a series of questions. He spoke impromptu, and if some startling idea came to him during the lecture he would get up from the desk and approach the students, to talk to them almost head to head. He came out of philosophy, but then theology had become his destiny, as Ratzinger said in the homily for his funeral. His wasn’t a theology of concepts, but an existential theology, a theology for the faith.

It’s known there was bad blood between him and Schmaus.

LÄPPLE: Söhngen was very open to the new trends coming from France. And then he was from Cologne, sunny, cheerful, extrovert, fascinating. Whereas Schmaus was the classical detached professor, all taken over and shut in by his role. He came out of the neo-scholasticism, also though he gave new life to the exposition of Catholic dogmatics by delving into the Fathers and Holy Writ with bottomless erudition. Söhngen claimed that Schmaus’s books were only a rich series of quotations taken from the sources on the various issues of theology, without a vision that took account also of developments in modern philosophy and the questions they posed. Schmaus wrote monumental works of dogmatic theology.

What were the theological factors in their differences? 

LÄPPLE: According to Schmaus the faith of the Church was to be communicated through definitive, unchanging, concepts that set out perennial truths. For Söhngen the faith was mystery, and was communicated through a history. At that time there was much talk of the history of salvation. There was a dynamic factor that warranted an opening and a consideration of new questions also.

What did Ratzinger learn from Söhngen?

LÄPPLE: Söhngen usually never gave damning judgments on any author. He never refused a priori any contribution, from wherever it came. His method was to pick up and improve the good that could be found in any author and in every theological perspective, to weave the new things into the Tradition and then go ahead, indicating the further development that could follow. But in Söhngen Ratzinger also saw a willingness to rediscover Tradition understood as the theology of the Fathers. And a willingness to do theology by going back to the great sources: from Plato to Newman, via Thomas, Bonaventure, Luther. And obviously Saint Augustine…

Who became Ratzinger’s favorite.

LÄPPLE: Ratzinger’s passion for Augustine had already begun in the seminary. It was an existential passion. I remember a lecture in which Söhngen explained that before Augustine everybody – Plato, Xenophon, Julius Caesar – had always spoken in the third person. The saintly bishop of Hippo had been the first to say “I”. That was the breakthrough.

What was the mode of relationship between teacher and student?

LÄPPLE: Söhngen wasn’t in the habit of “shaping” his own students, of making them clones of himself. Ratzinger was free in relations with his teacher. You can tell it even in his doctoral thesis…

In what way?

LÄPPLE: The starting point was an attempt to understand what the best definition of the Church might be. On 29 June 1943 Pius XII had published the encyclical Mystici Corporis Christi, which defined the Church as the Mystical Body of Christ. Söhngen had noticed that the definition was not to be found in the Bible. So he suggested to Ratzinger to check whether Saint Augustine applied other definitions to the Church.

What was wrong with the definition of the Church as the Mystical Body of Christ?

LÄPPLE: One of the questions, for example, was: if man, entering the Church, comes as already englobed in the Mystical Body of Christ, how can he continue to sin? And what happens to freewill? Ratzinger’s discoveries surprized and thrilled his teacher…

What did the student find?

LÄPPLE: Ratzinger found much more than his teacher had suggested he look for. He documented with an inconceivable quantity of quotations what Saint Augustine meant when he defined the Church as the People of God. The same expression that was to be reproposed only much time later by Vatican Council II and by Paul VI. But Ratzinger didn’t set the two definitions of Church one against the other, indeed he reconciled them.

And how Söhngen take that?

LÄPPLE: He said: now my student knows more than me who am the teacher! Söhngen had great esteem for the man he considered his best student. He once said that he felt like Saint Albert Magnus, when in the Middle Ages he declared that his student would make more noise than him. And the student was Saint Thomas! He was glad that somebody was capable of developing in an original and not pre-planned manner his suggestions.

Ratzinger reveals in his autobiography that you also influenced his doctoral thesis on Augustine in decisive fashion, because it was you who in 1949 gave him the book Catholicism by the French Jesuit Henri de Lubac…

LÄPPLE: I gave it to him thinking it would make a nice surprise. And in fact he writes in his autobiography that it became a reference book for him, and offered him a new relationship with the thinking of the Fathers, but also a new standpoint on theology. In effect, more than a third of the book was made up of quotations from the Fathers.

And yet, precisely in those years, de Lubac, Daniélou and the other Jesuits in Lyon were banned from teaching, and their books put on the Index. How did you take that?

LÄPPLE: I remember when news of the measures against of them arrived. Söhngen didn’t want to incite anybody, and made no mention in his lecture. But I recall that that day, after the lecture, Ratzinger and myself went with him to his study, where there was a grand piano, because Söhngen was also musician and played it like a concert performer. That time in front of us, without saying a word, he threw his books angrily on the desk. Then he went to the piano and poured out all his anger on the keyboard.

In his autobiography Ratzinger writes that already then exegesis was to the center of his interests, and the starting point of his work in theology…

LÄPPLE: He has always quoted Holy Writ. Today also one can see that in his homilies and in the finest catechesis the starting point is often a passage from Scripture commented with some quotation from the Fathers referring to it. Because for him there is no good exegesis of a passage of the Bible if not starting from the interpretation given it by the Church through the Fathers. This for him is the Traditio vivens, the living transmission. It was the Church that set the Canon, that has recognized which are the canonical books. He is not one of those exegetes of the sola Scriptura. For him one has to start from the phrase Christus praedicat Christum. The best exegete of Christ is Christ Himself, in the Church in which He operates. And this entails the greatest freedom also, because as Saint Augustine says: « In Ecclesia non valet: hoc ego dico, hoc tu dicis, hoc ille dicit, sed haec dicit Dominus ».

Maier, the professor of exegesis of the New Testament, also went through troubled experiences.

LÄPPLE: When he was a young scholar, even before the First World War, he had supported with enthusiasm the exegetical line according to which Mark’s was the first Gospel to be written, providing the source for the other synoptic Gospels. A thesis now commonly accepted, but then all this was branded as modernism. The pages with the arguments set out by Maier were ripped out of the miscellaneous volume in which they had been published. He was banned from teaching. But after the Second World War things changed, and it was great good luck to have Maier as professor at Munich.

I remember as if it were yesterday the time we spoke about the phrase in which Friedrich Nietzsche says that Christians must have the faces of the redeemed, if one is going to be able to believe in their Redeemer

Ratzinger writes that Maier had not assimilated «the shift that Rudolph Bultmann and Karl Barth had brought into exegesis» …

LÄPPLE: Professor Maier still kept within the range of historico-critical exegesis. But his direct approach, his posing the questions without self-censorship created a new immediacy with the biblical text.

In his book Ratzinger also tells of the relationship with the so-called liturgical movement. To what is he referring?

LÄPPLE: In those years the liturgical movement stressed the centrality of the liturgy for Christian life, and aimed to rediscover the essential elements of the liturgy, freeing them from the additions that had deposited over the centuries. Josef Pascher, the professor of Pastoral Theology, was also the director of the Georgianum, the college where the students resided, and he was an enthusiastic supporter of the liturgical movement. He had been influenced by the French currents and in the debate that then began between those who stressed in the mass the theory of the sacrifice and those instead who stressed that of the supper, Pascher was part of the latter group. Romano Guardini had, instead, already expressed himself against the reduction of the mass to ritual repetition of the Last Supper…

And Ratzinger, on that point, what position did he take?

LÄPPLE: For him the aspect of sacrifice could not be set aside. But that didn’t prevent the mass from also ritually repeating the Last Supper, the meal with which the disciples had celebrated the Jewish Easter. This ability of his to integrate the two positions he again demonstrated in a meditation on the matter that he gave as Pope during the last Synod of the Bishops. And in any case, Ratzinger respected Pascher and was marked by his method that put the daily celebration of holy mass at the center of the education of the students. He was disappointed when he saw some professor, with all his precise definitions lavished during lectures, who then almost didn’t know how to say mass, and moved around the altar like a foreigner. Once, while one of them was celebrating, he said to me: look at him, he doesn’t know what’s happening…

How was the proclamation of the dogma on the Assumption of Mary in 1950 taken by the Theology Faculty of Munich?

LÄPPLE: In general the reception was critical. There were no objections on the content of the dogma, but on the reasonableness of going as far as dogmatization. Söhngen stressed that in the Christian sources of the early centuries there was no trace of the doctrine of the bodily Assumption of the Mother of Jesus. Schmaus was also summoned by Rome and by the archbishop because of a critical article he published in the diocesan newspaper (Münchner Katholische Kirchenzeitung).

And Ratzinger?

LÄPPLE: He also thought that dogmatization was not necessary. In our more traditional practices of devotion we already believed and celebrated the bodily Assumption of Maria, for example in the prayer of the Rosary. Lex orandi, lex credendi. But we thought that in that moment the definition of a new dogma would create problems in the ecumenic dialogue that was blooming precisely in Germany.

In 1951, after his ordination, Ratzinger begins his ministry like chaplain. What do you remember of that period?

LÄPPLE: He had been appointed to the parish of the Most Precious Blood in Munich, and he stayed there a year. Before him two martyrs executed by the Nazis had lived and worked there, the chaplain Hermann Joseph Wehrle, killed on 14 September 1944, and the Jesuit Alfred Delp, killed on 2 February 1945. In that first year of his priesthood he had to hold sixteen hours of religion a week, a great many for one just beginning. He supervised the Catholic youth groups also. And he found himself having to make a decision: was he to continue his theology studies, undertake an academic career, or opt for the pastoral ministry in some parish? I, then, did something that was to help solve the dilemma…

What did you do?

LÄPPLE: In 1952, while I was about to leave my post teaching the Pastoral Theology of the Sacraments at the Freising seminary, I decided to go to Bishop Faulhaber to tell him that my most suitable successor in the post would be Joseph Ratzinger. Who in fact, on 1 October, took over my post. So began his academic career. I’ve never told him that I went to the bishop to suggest his name. But I like to think that perhaps that intervention of mine in favor of his appointment may have helped him on the path.

So in 1952 Ratzinger came back to live in Freising. In July 1953 he passed the final examinations for his doctorate, becoming doctor in Theology. Meanwhile, always under Söhngen’s guidance, he chose the theme for the examination that needs to be passed in Germany to be admitted to lecturing. The choice fell on Saint Bonaventure… 

What was the specific theme assigned?

LÄPPLE: Ratzinger had to analyze Saint Bonaventure’s perspective on Revelation. In those years the debate on the concept of Revelation was very alive. A new view was coming in, according to which Revelation was first and foremost the historical action of God, in the progress of the history of salvation, and could not be identified with the communication of some truths to reason through concepts, as claimed in the neo-scholastic view. 

What did Ratzinger discover this time?

LÄPPLE: He ascertained that in Bonaventure’s medieval perception of “Revelation” it was above all an act, it always indicated the action whereby God shows himself in a definite historic moment. Revelation was reflected in Holy Writ, but it was always greater than it, it preceded it and was not identified with it, just as a happening precedes and is not identified with the account given of it. Thus the formula of sola Scriptura with which in modern times Revelation was identified in fact with the objective and fixed set of the contents of Holy Writ was foreign to Bonaventure’s thinking. Additionally, in his analysis, Ratzinger pointed out that in this perspective there is Revelation only if the act wherewith the Mystery reveals itself is perceived by someone. If God had spoken only in a divine language, not perceptible to any man, there would have been no Revelation.

In his autobiography Ratzinger relates that things became complicated… What went wrong?

LÄPPLE: In the autumn of 1955 Ratzinger handed in his work on Bonaventure. Söhngen was immediately enthusiastic. But the co-supervisor was Schmaus, because he was the medievalist in the Theology Faculty. Schmaus told Söhngen: listen, this is a modernist work, I can’t pass it. Söhngen warned Ratzinger: look, we won’t pass with this thesis, because Schmaus says that it’s a modernist work. I believe that Schmaus took some passages as a dangerous subjectivism that put the objectivity of Revelation in doubt.

The future pope’s thesis for a lecturing qualification was not, however, rejected for suspected modernism…

LÄPPLE: No. The Faculty Council sent it back to the candidate to rewrite, taking into account the corrections and criticisms that Schmaus had set out on his copy.

But the amount of changes required was such that it would have taken years of work. And so Ratzinger adopted a ruse…

LÄPPLE: There was a second section in Ratzinger’s thesis devoted to Bonaventure’s theology of history, comparing it to that of Gioacchino da Fiore, and Schmaus had not expressed any critical judgement on that section. The section had its own autonomy and could even be read as a finished text in itself. So Söhngen also suggested to Ratzinger: cut the first part, which is what is causing problems, and re-present the second on its own…

The thesis for qualification was accepted. And on 21 February 1957, the day of the public lecture of qualification at the University of Munich, there was a large audience in the great hall of the Faculty … how do you remember it? 

LÄPPLE: Ratzinger set out his exposition. Then Schmaus began asking more or less if according to 
Ratzinger the truth was something static and changeless or something historico-dynamic. But Ratzinger didn’t answer. Söhngen took over, and the two professors began to clash in what seemed a great medieval disputatio. The audience applauded Söhngen and seemed pleased that Schmaus, the haughty professor, was getting a drubbing. Ratzinger didn’t say a word. At the end the rector arrived and said: enough, time’s run out. Then supervisor and co-supervisor stood up and said hastily: fine, he’s qualified…

What happened then? Ratzinger hints at some problems with his detractors… 

LÄPPLE: Ratzinger took on the teaching of Dogmatic Theology at the School of Advanced Studies close to the Freising seminary; the same place he had studied. Meanwhile, there was rumor that Ratzinger would go to teach in an institute of pedagogy that had been recently opened in Pasing, on the outskirts of Munich.

Ratzinger speaks of problems with the episcopal curia. To what is he referring?

LÄPPLE: Let’s remember that during the whole period of the war there had been no priestly ordinations. There was a great deal of work to do in the dioceses and parishes. One heard it said: first let’s think of pastoral work, then we’ll think about theology and scholarship. The bishops weren’t pleased when anybody asked to dedicate themselves to doing scholarly theology. But in Germany there is a law whereby if a professor is invited by a state university to teach theology, his bishop cannot veto the invitation.

And Ratzinger soon took advantage of it…

LÄPPLE: In the summer of 1958 Joseph was invited by the University of Bonn to take the Chair of Fundamental Theology. Shortly afterwards Cardinal Wendel, who was then archbishop of Munich, summoned him and said: congratulations, I’ve heard that you’re going to the pedagogy institute in Pasing… and Ratzinger answered: «Thank you very much, my Lord Archbishop, but I, here it is, I’ve been invited to Bonn…». And pulled out the letter of invitation…

To conclude, Professor, is there an episode in your long friendship that is particularly dear to you?

LÄPPLE: The day of the priestly ordination of Joseph and his brother Georg, 29 June 1951 in Freising Cathedral. I too, after Cardinal Faulhaber, like all the other priests present, lined up to lay my hands on his head. At that moment he raised his head and said: thank you. After the mass, he, his parents and his sister Maria came up to my room, and I said: dear Joseph, now give you me your blessing. He hugged me with indescribable delight. He doesn’t know how to pretend. And the thing that hurts him most is when somebody is insincere, when they go in for playacting. That hurts him. That’s why he doesn’t like it when even the liturgy is reduced to theater. Because – he says – that is no way of treating Jesus Christ. 

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