Home > Archives > 03 - 2006 > Tradition and freedom: the lectures of the young Joseph
from issue no. 03 - 2006

The years of teaching in Bonn and Münster

Tradition and freedom: the lectures of the young Joseph

The first years of Professor Ratzinger’s teaching as remembered by his students. «The room was always packed. The students adored him. He used a beautiful and simple language. The language of a believer»

by Gianni Valente

Joseph Ratzinger in a photo 
of 1961, preparing a lecture 
in the library 
of the Bonn seminary

Joseph Ratzinger in a photo of 1961, preparing a lecture in the library of the Bonn seminary

«It was the beginning of the 1959-1960 winter semester. In lecture room 11 of the University, full of students, the door opened and a young priest entered, who looked at first sight as if he might have been the second or third curate of some large city parish. He was our lecturer in Fundamental Theology, and he was 32 years old». So the then student Horst Ferdinand, who died two years ago after a life spent in the administrative offices of the German Federal Parliament and its embassies, noted in his unpublished manuscript of memoirs the tip-toe beginning of the university career of Joseph Ratzinger. An adventure that had begun some months earlier, which the professor who then became Pope also narrates in his autobiography as a beginning vibrant with splendid promise: «On 15 April 1959 I started my lessons, by now as professor of Fundamental Theology at the University of Bonn, in front of a vast audience that greeted with enthusiasm the new accent they believed they detected in me».
In those years Bonn was almost by chance the capital city of Adenauer’s Germany. In the country, amputated of the eastern Länder left behind the Iron Curtain, the economic and social rebirth was proceeding at a dizzying pace. In the 1957 elections the Christian-Democrat Party won an absolute majority of votes. After the Nazi nightmare, the German Church was offering with legitimate pride its own essential contribution to the new beginnings of the nation. In a climate that might have led to triumphalism, the young priest-professor Ratzinger had collected in 1958, in an article written for the magazine Hochland, the reflections suggested by the brief but intense pastoral experience gone through some years earlier as chaplain in the parish of the Precious Blood in Bogenhausen, the upper-class district of Munich. He described as a statistical «trick» the cliché that portrays Europe as «a Continent almost wholly Christian». The Church in the post-war world seemed to him a «Church of pagans. No longer, as once, a Church of pagans become Christians, but a Church of pagans who still call themselves Christians and in truth have become pagans». He spoke of a new paganism «that grows without let in the heart of the Church and threatens to demolish it from the inside».
Bonn was a small city that was still tending its war wounds, but the young and bright Bavarian professor came from the sheltered and familiar world of the Domberg, the heights of Freising on which stand clustered side by side the cathedral, the seminary where he had trained and the School of Higher Theological Studies where he had given his first courses in Dogmatic and Fundamental Theology in 1958. And the capital city on the Rhine where he had been called to teach seemed a throbbing and open metropolis. He wrote, again in his autobiography: «From every direction came stimuli, all the more so since Belgium and Holland were close and, traditionally, the Rhineland is a door open toward France». For him it was «almost a dream» to have been called to the chair sought in vain by his teacher Gottlieb Sohngen. And the greatest gratification was the reception from the students.

A special professor
In his autobiography Ratzinger depicts the first months of teaching in Bonn as «a feast of first love». All his students from that time well remember the undergraduate grapevine that made them crowd to the lessons of the enfant prodige theologian. The scholar of Judaism Peter Kuhn, who was to become assistant lecturer under Professor Ratzinger in the years of teaching at Tubingen, says: «I was then a twenty-year-old Lutheran. I was attending the Evangelical Theological Faculty, after following the lessons of Karl Barth in Basle. I knew the Bavarian Vinzenz Pfnür, who had followed Ratzinger straight from Freising. He told me: listen, we have an interesting professor, he’s worth the trouble of listening to, even if you are a Protestant. At the first seminar, I thought immediately: this man is really not like the other Catholic teachers I know». In his manuscript Horst Ferdinand goes on: «The lectures were prepared down to the millimeter. He gave them by paraphrasing the text that he’d prepared with formulations that at times seemed to fit together like a mosaic, with a wealth of images that reminded me of Romano Guardini. In some lectures, as in the pauses in a concert, you could have heard a pin drop». The Redemptorist Viktor Hahn, who was the first student to “doctor” himself with Ratzinger, adds: «The room was always packed, the students adored him. He had a beautiful and simple language. The language of a believer».
What was it that so gripped the students in those lessons given out in a soft, concentrated tone, without theatrical gestures? It’s clear that what the young professor had to say was not of his making. That he was not the protagonist. «I have never sought», Ratzinger himself explains in the book-interview The salt of the earth, «to create a system of my own, my own particular theology. If one really wants to speak of specificity, it’s a matter simply of the fact that I set myself to think together with the faith of the Church, and that means thinking above all with the great thinkers of the faith».
The ways suggested by Ratzinger to the students so that they might relish the adventurous discovery of the Tradition are the ones that also gripped him in his university studies: the historicity of Revelation, Saint Augustine, the sacramental nature of the Church. Sufficient to read the titles of his courses and seminars in his first years of teaching. In the 1959-1960 winter semester the course was devoted to the “Nature and reality of Revelation”. The following semester, the title of the course was “The doctrine of the Church”. In the summer semester of 1961 he dealt with “Philosophico-religious problems in the Confessions of Saint Augustine”…
If there was a distinctive feature to Ratzinger’s lectures, it had nothing to do with a particular display of academic erudition. The language had a limpid simplicity that allowed the core of the questions faced, even the most complex, to be glimpsed with immediacy. Roman Angulanza, one of the first students from the times in Bonn, says: «He had reformulated, as it were, the way of giving lectures. He would read the lectures in the kitchen to his sister Maria, who was an intelligent person but hadn’t studied theology. And if the sister showed she liked them, it was the sign for him that the lectures were all right». Ninety-two year old Professor Alfred Läpple, who was Ratzinger’s prefect of studies at the seminary in Freising, adds: «Joseph always said: when you’re lecturing, the great thing is when the students put down their pens and listen to you. While they go on taking notes of what you’re saying, it means that you haven’t struck them. But when they put their pens down and look at you while you’re speaking, then it means that maybe you’ve touched their hearts. He wanted to speak to the hearts of the students. He wasn’t interested in only increasing their knowledge. He would say that the important things in Christianity are learned only if they warm the heart».
Up, the Rheinische Friedrich-Wilhelms Universität of Bonn; above, the Westfälische Wilhelms Universität of Münster

Up, the Rheinische Friedrich-Wilhelms Universität of Bonn; above, the Westfälische Wilhelms Universität of Münster

Precisely from the relish of rediscovering Tradition by reading the Fathers a total and malleable openness to the questions, and the ferment that made the theological thinking of those years vibrant, was stirred in the young professor. In Bonn there were still elderly professors, trained in the canons of the strictest anti-modernism, who limited themselves to offering schematic neo-Scholastic theology to avoid trouble with Rome. He didn’t seem conditioned by intimidation and academic conformity. Hahn says: «I was struck when once in a lecture he took as his text a passage in the Old Testament to compare the image of Church circulating in those years with the empires of the Medes and the Persians, who believed they would last for ever in virtue of the static immutability of their laws. He added with energy that one should defend oneself from that image of the Church». Peter Kuhn confirms: «Compared to him the other professors seemed rigid and arthritic, shut in their schema, above all toward us Evangelicals. He faced all the questions without fear. He wasn’t afraid of launching out, while other professors never left the rails of a tedious self-congratulation».
The freedom and openness stood out in his relations with the Protestant world. Quite a lot of students from the Evangelical Theological Faculty – something not at all common in those years – hastened to the lectures of the young Catholic professor who, in the summer semester of 1961 gave the fundamental seminar on the topic “Church, sacrament and faith in the Confessio augustana” and in the winter semester of 1962-1963 even devoted his course to the Tractatus de potestate papae by Phillip Melancthon. The then student Vinzenz Pfnür, the one who had followed Ratzinger from Freising to Bonn, was assigned a thesis on the doctrine of Justification in Luther. And quite a few years later, as Professor of the History of the Church, he was to make his contribution to the Catholic-Lutheran agreement on Justification signed on 31 October 1999 in Augusta. He told 30Days: «In 1961 Ratzinger wrote, for the Protestant Lexicon, Die Religion in Geschichte und Gegenwart, an article on Protestantism from the Catholic perspective. At that time it was quite unusual for a Catholic to be asked to write for that publication. In that article Ratzinger set out the elements of argument with the dialectical and existentialist theology then dominant in the Protestant sphere. But he stressed that despite the distance between the two “systems”, there was closeness in what was transmitted to believers as the patrimony of the Church both on the Catholic side and on the Protestant side, for example in prayer».

Ratzinger and Schlier became friends
The young Bavarian professor’s freedom from schematism also emerges from his elective affinity with figures considered on the borderline by the theological establishment of that time. It was in Bonn that Ratzinger met and began to frequent Heinrich Schlier, the great Lutheran exegete converted to Catholicism in 1953. Pfnür explains: «As student of Rudolf Bultmann Schlier was a master of the historico-philological exegetical method. On the question of the “historical” Jesus, for Schlier it was certainly possible to reconstruct decisive stretches of the life of Jesus, but the Jesus of the faith is not accessible through the reconstruction of the historian, but only through the four Gospels as unique legitimate interpretations. But Bultmann’s theological existentialism was in danger of reducing the Resurrection to an inward, mental and psychological phenomenon experienced by the disciples within their own vision of faith. Whereas for Schlier the Gospels, as they are read and interpreted by the Church, describe real events, and not inward visions produced by the religious feelings of the apostles. It was on this shared perception that Ratzinger and Schlier became friends». An approach that assumes and also enhances with critical discernment important features of Bultmann’s teaching on the mode of approaching Holy Scripture, without aprioristic no-go areas. Around the late ’sixties and the early ’seventies the two professors were both to animate the weeks of study for young theologians organized at Bierbronnen, in the Black Forest. Schlier was also to be guest at the periodical theological gatherings of the circle of the students doing doctorates with Ratzinger, begun in systematic form in the period of teaching in Tübingen. But in the Bonn years Ratzinger’s fondness for the great exegete doesn’t seem to have been shared by the rest of the academic body. After his conversion to Catholicism, something that deprived him of the possibility of teaching in the Evangelical Faculty, Schlier found no place in the Faculty of Catholic Theology, and ended up “parked” in that of Philosophy, to teach Ancient Christian Literature. Students from all over Germany, from Holland, from Belgium, came to listen to him. «But some professors», Peter Kuhn recalls, «were hostile to him. They considered his coming from Lutheranism and from Bultmann suspect. And certainly they were also envious of the breadth of his human and intellectual horizon».
Another “borderline” friendship marking Ratzinger’s years in Bonn was with the Hindologist Paul Hacker, whose qualities of genius are traced in strong colors in Ratzinger’s autobiography. Coming from Lutheranism, Hacker also became a Catholic, by a route made up also «of whole nights» spent «discussing with the Fathers or with Luther, in front of a bottle or even more than one of red wine». Ratzinger benefited largely from Hacker’s boundless knowledge of Hinduism when he had to shape the lectures on the history of the religions that were part of the course of Fundamental Theology. It was precisely on Hinduism that Ratzinger’s interest in the world of the religions focused in those years. «Some students», Kuhn recalls, «complained jokingly about it. They said: Ratzinger is totally absorbed in Hinduism, he talks to us only of Rama and of Khrisna, we can’t take it any more…». But to those years also dates Ratzinger’s first significant meeting with a figure from the Jewish world: Rabbi Horowitz, who held seminars at the Evangelical Theological Faculty.

The years of the Council
In those years many chairs in the Faculty of Theology of the German capital were held by renowned professors. There was the great historian of the Church Hubert Jedin who, according to some students of the time, was responsible for Ratzinger’s call to Bonn. There was the historian of dogmas Theodor Klauser, the star of the Faculty, always elegant, going round the city in his crimson Mercedes (Ratzinger used public transport or walked, and was recognizable from a distance by the inevitable beret that he himself mockingly called «my helmet of readiness»); there was the other Bavarian dogmatist Johann Auer, whom Ratzinger was to meet again as a colleague in the years of teaching in Ratisbon. A small group of students also began to gather round the professor: Pfnür, Angulanza and a few others. On Sundays Ratzinger invited them to lunch in his cottage on the Wurzerstrasse in Bad Godesberg, where he had moved after leaving his earlier arrangement at the Albertinum Theological monastery. His sister Maria lived with him and she was a good cook. Sometimes Auer also joined in those Bavarian banquets.
In Bonn Ratzinger also engaged his first assistant: Werner Böckenförde, who died two years ago. A native of Münster with a strong character who at times gave the impression of wanting to “direct” his professor. Angulanza explains: «Böckenförde esteemed Ratzinger as theologian, but was more interested in the processes and happenings of a politico-ecclesiastical sort, things he judged in very critical manner. The relation between the two was formally correct but not familiar».
The calm and dynamic atmosphere in which his work was done in Bonn was, however, destined to vanish. The hundreds of students who crowded the lectures of the thirty-year-old professor aroused the envy of old professors like Johannes Botterweck (Old Testament) and Theodor Schäfer (New Testament). Angulanza recalls again: «I wouldn’t know how to judge Schäfer, because I never attended his dry lectures, in which he restricted himself to quoting his Compendium to the Introduction of the New Testament in tedious fashion. To us students, Botterweck seemed full of himself, presumptuous and argumentative». The academic envy grew when John XXIII summoned Vatican Council II and the cardinal of Cologne, Joseph Frings, after hearing a lecture by the young Bavarian teacher on the theology of the Council, chose him as his theological advisor with a view to his participation in the Council sessions. Frings and his secretary Hubert Luthe – the future bishop of Essen and a classmate of Ratzinger at the University of Munich – sent their collaborator the schemata of the documents readied by the preparatory Commission to get his opinion. Ratzinger, as he tells in his autobiography, got from them «an impression of rigidity and of insufficient openness, of an excessive link with neo-Scholastic theology, of thinking too much professorial and too little pastoral». It was Ratzinger who wrote the famous lecture read by Frings in Genoa 19 November 1961 on “Vatican Council II in the face of modern thought”, that summarized the expectations of reform stirred in most European episcopates by the coming ecclesial assembly. When the Council began, Frings brought his advisor with him to Rome and gained for him official appointment as theologian of the Council. He was to get help from him in drafting the interventions that represented the arguments of the reforming wing of the Council assembly. And he was to give his collaborator the chance to become one of the leading figures “behind the scenes” of the Council. But this use of the thirty-five-year-old theological talent was not welcomed by all in Bonn. And the air grew thicker.
Joseph Ratzinger, as expert 
for the  Vatican II Ecumenical Council, 
in a photo from autumn of 1964

Joseph Ratzinger, as expert for the Vatican II Ecumenical Council, in a photo from autumn of 1964

Invidia clericorum
In the circle of those taking doctorates under Ratzinger there were two Orthodox students, Damaskinos Papandréou and Stylianos Harkianakis, today both metropolitans of the Ecumenic Patriarchy of Constantinople. But the Faculty Council rejected their request to take their doctorates in the Catholic Faculty. While Ratzinger was away on a trip to Rome for the Council, the marks of the tests of some of his students were lowered by his detractors. And the thesis of the student Johannes Dörmann on the new knowledge acquired on the theory of evolution from the studies of Johann Jacob Bachofen (the first person to theorize the existence of an original primitive matriarchy) was blocked with the argument that it was not a theological work. Ratzinger was reminded of the drama he himself had gone through with his examination to qualify as lecturer, when the professor of Dogmatic Theology, Michael Schmaus, his co-supervisor, had tried to fail his thesis on Saint Bonaventure, branding it as modernism. And he realized that it was time for a change of air.
In 1962 the chair of Dogmatic Theology at the renowned University of Münster came free: the great dogmatic theologian Hermann Volk, appointed bishop of Mainz, asked for his successor to be Joseph Ratzinger. Viktor Hahn recalls: «The professor at first refused the invitation: he didn’t want to leave Bonn, also so as not to distance himself from Cologne where the collaboration with Frings had begun. But four months later he went back on his decision and accepted. Undoubtedly the hostilities around him had grown with his nomination as expert to the Council. I asked Professor Jedin whether it had been the other professors who got rid of him. He told me: you might not be wrong». Botterweck, in gossip among colleagues, was to boast of having «made him flee» Bonn.
In Münster Ratzinger took a small house with his sister Maria on the Annette von Droste Hülshoff avenue, near to the Aasee man-made lake. The top floor was to house two of his students, the “loyalists” Pfnür and Angulanza, who worked with him at the University as scholarly collaborators. Of a morning he would say mass in the chapel of a nearby clinic, and then go into the Faculty by bicycle. Peter Kuhn relates: «Münster is a low-lying city, it’s not far from Holland, everyone got around there by bike, as many still do today. I told Pfnür to buy one for our professor, but he’s a parsimonious sort and found a second-hand one, so ramshackled that I still mock him today, saying that because of that bicycle the Pope’s knees hurt even now …». In Münster the circle of students wanting to take their doctorates with him grew larger. With the more intimate the tradition of Bavarian lunches continued. Sometimes the squad of theologians with their professor found themselves eating at a tavern on the lake that seemed made to measure for them: it was called Zum Himmelreich, At the Kingdom of Heaven.
«Joseph always said: when you’re lecturing, the great thing is when the students put down their pens and listen to you. While they go on taking notes of what you’re saying, it means that you haven’t struck them. But when they put their pens down and look at you while you’re speaking, then it means that maybe you’ve touched their hearts. He wanted to speak to the hearts of the students. He wasn't interested in only increasing their knowledge. He would say that the important things in Christianity are learned only if they warm the heart.» (Alfred Läpple)
The atmosphere Ratzinger found in the Faculty was cordial and stimulating. «The Münster Faculty», Pfnür recalls, «was a rising Faculty that offered better spaces and financial possibilities than Bonn. And dogmatic theology was the field of action most suited to Professor Ratzinger, where his patristic and scriptural knowledge could truly come out». The “classic” lines of Ratzinger’s teaching were reshaped in the light of what was happening at the Council then taking place in Rome. In 1963 his courses were devoted to the Introduction to dogmatics and to the doctrine on the Eucharist. The seminars focused on the theme “Scripture and Tradition”. In 1964 and in 1965 the seminars centered on the Lumen gentium Constitution of Council Vatican II. In the 1965-1966 winter semester one of the courses of Dogmatic Theology consisted of a retrospective of the Council that had just concluded, while the seminars were based on the Council Constitution Dei Verbum on Revelation.
There were no problems with colleagues. Joseph Pieper was teaching in Philosophy. In Theology there was the combative Erwin Iserloh, known for his resolute opposition. The teaching staff was joined in those years by other young promises of German theology such as Walter Kasper and Johannes Baptist Metz, conceiver of the political theology with which Ratzinger was to quarrel in the years to come. But at the time of Münster nobody seemed to suffer the partiality that the students reserved for him. Pfnür says again: «The people enrolled on the course were about 350, but an average of 600 attended the lectures. Students from other Faculties such as Philosophy and Jurisprudence also came to hear Ratzinger. We printed the hand-outs of the course of Ecclesiology on the centrality of the Eucharist, and we sold 850 copies of it». Kuhn mocks softly: «Pfnür had set up a small printing shop in Münster. The lectures were cyclostyled, and then whole packages were sent all over Germany, to Ratzinger fans scattered in the other theological Faculties».
His intense participation in the Council contributed to Professor Ratzinger’s growing reputation. He wrote opinions for his cardinal, he was charged with drafting the schema for documents alternative to those prepared by the Roman Curia. He frequented and collaborated with all the great theologians of the Council: Yves Congar, Henri de Lubac, Jean Daniélou, Gérard Philips, Karl Rahner. «To us students», Pfnür recalls, «he said that he was particularly impressed by the Latin American theologians and bishops ». Back in Germany at the end of the Rome sessions, he offered public reports on the work of the Council at packed lectures. Occasions of reflection in which Ratzinger’s judgment also freed itself of the progressivist vaunting and polemical excitement that already seemed to be infecting other “reformist” theologians of the Council. «Every time I returned from Rome,» he says in his autobiography «I found an ever more agitated state of mind in the Church and among theologians. The impression was increasing that in the Church there was nothing stable, that everything can be subject to revision». Pfnür explains today: «The first signs of chaos appeared not so much in the Faculty as in the parishes. The parish priests began to change the liturgy to their own liking, and on that he straightaway made very critical judgments».
In the Faculty things continued to go in the proper way. Ratzinger enjoyed the unanimous respect of colleagues and students. Hahn spoke to 30Days of an emblematic episode: «One day I found the lecture room full: everybody wanted to hear a public disputatio between Professor Metz and the Swiss theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar, who had criticized his political theology. Metz asked Ratzinger to chair the debate. Our professor, between one comment and another from the two contenders, summed up their thinking with an expository richness that made even the darkest passages of the two debaters clear and interesting. At the end the audience applauded both Metz and von Balthasar with respect. But the longest and most enthusiastic applause went to the referee».
The crowded courses, colleagues who esteem him, the relationships woven with bishops and theologians all the world over… What drove Ratzinger to leave Münster?

Ratzinger, Professor of Dogmatic Theology at the School of Higher Philosophical-theological Studies in Freising, in 1959

Ratzinger, Professor of Dogmatic Theology at the School of Higher Philosophical-theological Studies in Freising, in 1959

The “invitation” from Küng
The professor, by now of worldwide fame, was not one of those people who enslave themselves to follow the idol of an academico-ecclesiastical career and pass over their dear ones. His sister Maria, who stood by him with almost maternal dedication, hadn’t managed to settle down in the handsome Westphalian city. For her the most beautiful place in Münster was the station, from which so many trains leave for Bavaria. Hahn recounts: «Some years later, when I asked him why he left, he confirmed that his sister was unhappy in Münster. She had devoted her life to him, and he couldn’t but take account of her homesickness». So, when in 1966 an invitation came for the second chair of Dogmatic Theology from the Faculty of Catholic Theology in Tubingen, Ratzinger didn’t think too long about it. On his first trip to the Swabian city Pfnür, who was in charge of the move, accompanied him as usual. To welcome them there was a theologian whom Ratzinger had known since 1957 and whom he had also met at the Council. A person who respected him and had even worked on his colleagues in the Faculty to get him to Tübingen. He invited them to lunch and showed himself full of concern and cordiality toward the new acquisition of the Tübingen Faculty. His name was Hans Küng.
To be continued…

(with the collaboration of Pierluca Azzaro)

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