The difficult years
Former colleagues and students speak of Professor Ratzinger on the theological campus of Tübingen. Where his unrepentant adhesion to the reforms of the Council was put to the test by clerical triumphalism and middle-class foot-dragging
by Gianni Valente
In the mid ’sixties of last century Tübingen appeared a kind of Promised Land to every respectable German theologian. With its centuries-old history as “papist” theological center that went over to Lutheranism from its beginning, and with a faculty of Catholic Theology that was vigorously launched in the mid-nineteenth century, the Swabian theological campus seemed the ideal landfall for people who wanted to experience the new ferments of the Council and scrutinize the «signs of the time» by linking them together and checking them against a great and reputable tradition.
Joseph Ratzinger and, in the background, the University of Tübingen
In 1966 Joseph Ratzinger was still not forty, but his hair was already white and his fame as the enfant prodige of German theology has been established by his intense and decisive participation in the Council venture. Vatican II was coming to its end, the air was still vibrant with trusting hope. But the expectation of good weather in the world for the Church was marked by other, strange portents. Already in that year, in a lecture summing up the Council, Joseph the Bavarian took account of these mixed conditions. «It seems to me important», he said, «to show the two faces of what has filled us with joy and gratitude to the Council…. It seems to me important to point out also the dangerous, new triumphalism into which the denouncers of past triumphalism often fall. While the Church remains a pilgrim on the earth, it has no reason to glory in itself. This new way of glorying could become more insidious than tiaras and gestatorial chairs that, in any case, are by now more a reason for smiling than for pride».
The person in the Catholic Faculty at Tübingen who had pulled the strings, so that the vocatio was sent to the professor who had been teaching at Münster for only three years, was Hans Küng, supported by another young colleague, Max Seckler. Seckler now recalls for 30Days: «There was a generational turnover at the time with the retirement of various elderly professors. To strengthen the faculty, some people were pushing to offer the chair of Dogmatic Theology to more mature professors, with better defined profiles. I was thirty-nine in 1966, Küng thirty-eight. It was we who fought to call in another young man. And Ratzinger, then, was the man of the future». The well-mannered and reserved Bavarian professor and his headstrong and argumentative Swiss colleague had known each other since 1957. They had collaborated during the closing session of the Council as expert theologians and already evident differences as to how the Council was to flow back into the great river of the everyday life of the Church had come to the surface between them. But then, as Ratzinger explains in his autobiography, «both of us considered this a legitimate difference in theological positions» that «would not affect our deep agreement as Catholic theologians». In 1964 they both appeared among the founder members of Concilium, the international review of the “united front” of Council theologians. Seckler explains: «Küng was aware that he and Ratzinger thought differently on many things, but he said: with the best one can negotiate and work together, it’s the mean-spirited who create problems». Professor Wolfgang Beinert, a former student of Ratzinger’s at Tübingen, adds: «Küng maybe called Ratzinger precisely because he wanted the students to be able to check against another Council theologian different from himself, someone who would be a counterweight to his unilateral theology. Other more narrow-minded teachers didn’t even perceive the distance between them, and they looked at Ratzinger as a dangerous reforming liberal. They said: one Küng is enough for us».
A tape recorder for the best seller
Ratzinger became involved as always in his new start at Tübingen without sparing himself. In his new posting he hoped to establish fruitful relations also with the Evangelical theologians of the Protestant faculty. His enthusiasm and the unmistakable shape of his lectures - substantial theology fed by the Fathers and the liturgy, luminous and nimble language with poetic nuances, frank response to all the questions of those confused times – kindled unexpected response in the hearts of many students of theology, and not only theirs. A crowd of more than four hundred students immediately packed his lectures. Too many also wanted to attend his seminars, and so they had to be thinned out by a Greek and Latin entry exam. Helmut Moll, the prelate who was later to collaborate for long years with his former professor in the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, recalls: «To join a seminar on Mariology you had to take a pre-examination on Greek and Latin Marian texts from the early centuries. But there was no comparison between Ratzinger and the others. The lectures that I had heard in Bonn from professors of neo-scholastic bent appeared arid and cold, a list of precise doctrinal definitions and that was it. When I listened in Tübingen to Ratzinger speaking about Jesus or of the Holy Spirit, it seemed at times that his words had the accent of prayer».
In 1967 Ratzinger accomplished a project he had been working on for ten years: a course of lectures open not only to students of theology, structured as an exposition of the Apostles’ Creed, that while embracing all the ferment and the restlessness of the time ended by reiterating «the content and the meaning of the Christian faith», that to the new professor appeared «wrapped now in a nebulous halo of uncertainty as perhaps it never has been before in history». University students from all faculties came to hear him in the early mornings, but also parish priests, religious, simple faithful. Peter Kuhn, whom Ratzinger had called to Tübingen as his assistant, was used to studying into the small hours, and didn’t always manage to remain alert during those early morning lectures. «When I happened to drop off,» he says, «my neighbors would dig me in the ribs, because they saw that the professor had noticed. I tried to dodge attention by adopting a thinker’s pose». In compensation, Kuhn took his bulky tape recorder to lectures, and then got the tapes typed up by a secretary. Out of those recordings came the book Introduction to Christianity, Ratzinger’s first bestseller, published by Heinrich Wild: ten editions in the first year alone, it was then translated into a score of languages. In the same year, the newly arrived professor took an active part in the events planned for the fiftieth anniversary of the Catholic Faculty of Theology. He decided it was an auspicious occasion for new perspectives, delving in to the study of the famous School of Tübingen, the team of theologians that had gathered round Johann Adam Mohler, who in the first decades of the nineteenth century had given decisive impetus to the emergence of historical theology, inspiring the historico-salvific approach that Ratzinger had himself favored since his studies in Freising and Münich. It would be a fine thing – Ratzinger thought – to recover the teaching of Mohler and friends so as to reinforce the method of giving witness in the modern world as suggested by the Council. But the atmosphere in the faculty was conditioned and distorted by an altogether different dynamic. «Ratzinger», Kuhn says shortly, «hoped maybe to link back up to the great tradition of Tübingen. But when we arrived, that great tradition was no longer there».
Catholic and Evangelical students on a march in Bonn in May 1966
The professional pride of churchmen
Ratzinger’s relations with his Tübingen colleagues were to remain formally proper and polite up to the end. In lectures, Küng loudly proclaimed his respect for the Bavarian theologian and more than once affirmed their shared outlook. Ratzinger also stated in public that there was no problem with his Swiss mentor. Excusationes non petitae.
The human and character differences between the two big men on the faculty, holders of the two chairs in Dogmatic Theology, had always been evident. The impulsive Swiss went around in his white Alfa Romeo, dressed with middle-class elegance. It was to him that the journalists went when looking for someone to let off a salvo in the clashes that were tormenting the post-Council Church. The mild-mannered Bavarian went on foot or used public transport, said mass each morning in the chapel of a female hall of residence, and for the rest studied and prepared his lectures, in tune with his austere and reserved style. «Once when we happened to go on a trip with some students and we stopped at a tavern for lunch,» Kuhn remembers, «he just ordered Viennese würstel for himself and also for us. He thought that we were all as frugal as himself. That time we didn’t dare make him understand that we were young and hungry. Maybe he grasped it for himself, and on other occasions of that kind he ensured that everyone chose what they wanted from the menu…». But in the concrete routine of faculty life, among lectures, seminars, conferences and examinations, under the apparent “Council” unanimity, the increasing distance between Ratzinger and some of his colleagues reached altogether more critical levels.
Ratzinger believed that all the important things that had exulted him during the Council - the biblical and patristic renewal, the opening towards the world, the sincere urge for unity with other Christians, the freeing of the Church from all the baubles that burdened and hampered it in its mission – had nothing to do with the corrosive and iconoclast frenzy that agitated many of his colleagues. The role played by so many theologians in giving direction to the work of the Council had mutated in many of them into a professional pride that demanded that even the most elementary features of doctrine and of the life of the Church be submitted to the court of “experts”. «In lectures», Moll recounts «even the most minimal agreement on the essential given of the faith seemed to have been lost among the different professors. And the students’ heads were whirling. One was always having to take a stance on things that before had seemed beyond debate: does the devil exist or not? Are there seven sacraments or only two? Can the unordained celebrate the Eucharist? Is there a primacy of the bishop of Rome, or is the papacy only a despotic regime to be overthrown?» The Redemptorist Réal Tremblay, who arrived in Tübingen from Canada in 1969 to do a doctorate under Ratzinger, and who now teaches at the Alphonsian Academy, hazards a guess: «I’ve always believed that a certain aggressiveness in Küng springs also from the problems he met with in Rome as a student. He’s one of those who have been unable to rid themselves of anti-Roman bile resulting from their personal experience as young men. Ratzinger didn’t have those problems, not least because he didn’t study in Rome».
Ratzinger, educated in the school of Saint Augustine, of Newman and Guardini, felt the burden of the new conformity that seemed to have infected many of his colleagues: the exegete Herbert Haag, the moralist Alfons Auer, the canonist Johannes Neumann. He who at the Council had made friends with Congar and De Lubac couldn’t hide his non-alignment with the catchphrases of the new “progressive” triumphalism. Father Martin Trimpe, one of the students closest to Ratzinger in the Tübingen and Ratisbon years recalls: «Once, in a packed lecture room, there was a debate among various professors on the primacy of the pope. Küng had said that the genuine pope was the type represented by John XXIII, because his primacy was of a pastoral character and not jurisdictional. Ratzinger had not yet spoken, and so the students began to chant his name: Rat-zin-ger! Rat-zin-ger! They wanted to know how he saw it. He answered placidly that the picture given by Küng was correct, because it was necessary to take account of all aspects of the Petrine ministry. In the contrary case, by insisting only on the pastoral aspect, there was the danger of portraying not the pastor of the universal Church but a universal puppet to be manoeuvred as one liked».
Ratzinger did not take sides, he retained his critical attitude, but he was certainly not the person to go looking for arguments and quarrels with his colleagues. He is not by nature a fighter, he doesn’t like putting on the gloves, he flees from academic brawling. He had absolutely no intention of taking on the role of the guard dog to organize resistance to the growing drift.
It’s a fact that in the Tübingen years there were no public quarrels between Ratzinger and the rest of the academic body, which even elected him as dean. Relations with Küng slowly and silently unravelled, a progressive distancing without head-on clashes. «Küng attacked Ratzinger only once», Seckler points out, «and it wasn’t the fault of theology». There was an agreement between the two whereby if one took the main course in Dogmatic Theology, the other taught the subsidiary course and so had time free for planning other activities. When Ratzinger announced that he was about to leave Tübingen in response to the “call” from the new theological faculty of Ratisbon, his decision upset the plans of his colleague who had already filled the agenda of his “easy” semester with commitments. Seckler goes on: «Küng spat fire and flames. He attacked Ratzinger fiercely, insisting the agreement be respected. Ratzinger remained calm but immoveable in his decision».
Before that blow-up, what mostly convinced Ratzinger that a change of air would be a good thing, given that relations had already become muddied by the post-Council turbulence, was the «lightning» arrival (so the then Prefect of the former Holy Office expresses it in his autobiography) of Sixty-Eight.
From Tübingen to Ratisbon
The bourgeoisie challenged itself. The children of the middle classes rebelled against their fathers. In Berlin, during a demonstration against the emergency laws introduced to uphold national security, someone was killed. The flagration started in the university centers of Berlin and Frankfurt, but soon reached the theological faculties. Teaching in Tübingen, in the faculty of philosophy, was Ernst Bloch, who in his book The Hope principle pointed to a secularized Judeo-Christian messianism as the root cause of the revolutionary wind gusting through the West. A perspective that – Ratzinger writes in his autobiography - «precisely because it was based on biblical hope, distorted it, so that it kept its religious fervor, with the elimination of God, however, and his replacement by the political action of men». The faith – Ratzinger explains in the introductory essay written in 2000 for a re-edition of his bestseller Introduction to Christianity - «yielded its role as salvific force to politics». In this «new fusion of Christian impulse and political action on the global level» many Christians felt the intoxication of once again become leading figures in history. After the most advanced western culture had tried to confine religion to the subjective and inward sphere, now with «a Bible reread in a new key and a liturgy celebrated as symbolic pre-fulfilment of the revolution and as preparation for the same… Christianity with this strange synthesis reappeared in the world, offering itself as “epochal” message». Even the “democratizing” agenda of the vanguard theologians was abruptly overhauled. It was no longer a matter of tinkering with the ecclesial structure and encouraging its opening to the world. Even the historical form taken by the Church was to be demolished in the overthrow of the old regime. «Unter den Talaren der Muff von tausend Jahren », the students of the theological faculties chanted: under the priests’ cassocks, the dirt of a thousand years. The revolutionary convulsion entered the gaps in the everyday life of faculty, distorting and breaking apart centuries-old practices in relations between teachers and students. No hostages were taken in the battle. At Tübingen Küng and his friends also suffered. The “rebels” also took over the university parish of Saint John and demanded the democratic election of the chaplain. Then they stretched out on the stairs of the faculty, preventing the staff from entering: there was no longer time for listening to useless lectures, one had to get ready for the coming revolution. Ratzinger more than once underwent the “people’s courts” held by the students. As Martin Trimpe recalls: «They interrupted the lectures with chants, or they took the platform and forced him to answer their “revolutionary” questions». Other teachers tried to wink an eye at the protesters. Ratzinger answered with his even and logical argumentation. But his light voice was often overwhelmed by the shouting. Seckler again notes: «He does very well in steady and reasoned discussion. But he gets lost in violent argument. He doesn’t know how to shout, he’s incapable of shouting others down in bullying fashion».
Yet Ratzinger felt a genuine human sympathy, veined with sadness, for many of the young people, something that complicated his life.
Joseph Ratzinger with Karl Rahner
One of them was called Karin. She was a beautiful blonde girl and, though annoying, it was clear she was seeking something, that her revolutionary dream was the confused expression of the yearning for a different, good life, the desire to be happy. Ratzinger gave her a hearing, spent time on her. But then Karin died suddenly. Trimpe recalls: «It was me who told the professor, during a lunch. He was upset and didn’t speak again. Then, I’m certain, he will have taken to mass, to the altar, his compassion for the life and the death of that girl, entrusting the salvation of her soul to the mercy of the Lord».
In his lectures also, as was his custom, Ratzinger at the beginning took seriously and made the most of the demands of Marxist criticism, because they could also express a longing for a real historical salvation, one not walled in the ghetto of subjective individuality. But he was tremendously shocked when the confrontation becomes a sacrilegious parody, bourgeois malcontent, devastating corrosion of the things dearest to him. Werner Hülsbusch, a former student of Ratzinger’s, now a retired parish priest near Münster, tells us: «He couldn’t any longer bear reading manifestos that described Jesus and Saint Paul as sexually frustrated, of hearing people jeering at the cross as a symbol of sadomasochism. He was deeply upset».
The increasingly poisoned atmosphere of Tübingen speeded his transfer to the new theological faculty opened in Bavaria in 1967. He came to his last meeting with the group of Tübingen doctoral students, a little late aboard Peter Kuhn’s Citroen “Deuxchevaux”. The driver braked sharply in front of the waiting students, and the Tübingen plate fell loudly off the car. Everybody burst out laughing.
A Council renegade?
Ratzinger’s move from Tübingen to Ratisbon is often pointed to as the time of change, when the reforming Council theologian, traumatized by his experience in Tübingen, began his metamorphosis into the lucid (or insidious, depending on the mindset of those bringing forth the cliché) conservative. Here were born the legends of Ratzinger as Titan of the orthodox counterattack on the evils of the time, and the contrasting one of Ratzinger crypto-conservative throwing off the mask of reformist theologian and revealing his visceral reactionary urges.
The first to reject the renegade’s role that both right and left were trying to force on him was Ratzinger himself. «I haven’t changed, they have changed», he was to say in 1984, in the book-interview edited by Vittorio Messori, about the theologians who wrote with him on Concilium. «The same reluctance to acknowledge a profound change in his outlook on things after Tübingen», Victor Hahn, the Redemptorist was the first student to take a doctorate with Ratzinger, informs us. «One finds it already in the interview granted by our professor to the Münich diocesan weekly in 1977, shortly after his appointment as archbishop of the capital city of Bavaria».
What changed was not the heart and outlook of the Council theologian, but the circumstances in which he found himself. For him, as for many enthusiastic leading figures of the Council period – Congar, De Lubac, Daniélou, Le Guillou – the tremulous wait in expectation of the hundred flowers of the Council yielding fine fruit changed into desolation when the party was cancelled. The crumbling of all the most ordinary practices and of all the essential given of Tradition theorized even in the heart of the theological faculties seemed to him a real process of self-demolition by the Church. But lucid realization of the condition in which the Church stood never led to abjuration or the damnatio memoriae of the Council Spring. As Peter Kuhn relates: «I remember that at the time when we students were still euphoric about the Council, he would say, referring to the image in the Gospel: we have opened the door to sweep a demon from the house, let us hope that seven have not rushed in. He wrote the same thing in an article in Hochland magazine, in 1969. But I have never heard him say: we shouldn’t have done what we did».
In Rome, Paul VI was seeing the same things. «We believed», he was to say on 29 June 1972 «that after the Council a day of sunshine would come for the history of the Church. Instead a day of clouds and storms has come, of dark, and of seeking and of uncertainties, one struggles to give the joy of communion». Precisely in 1968, faced with the encyclical Humanae vitae, with its repeated no to modern methods of contraception, dissent within the Church against the Magisterium reached its peak. The Canadian Tremblay came across an ironic caricature of Paul VI in a Catholic magazine. He found it witty and decided to bring it to one of the meetings for doctoral students the professor held on Saturdays. «When I showed it to him with a grin, he blasted me with a severe look». The message was clear: no jokes about the Pope. «But precisely that very catholically free sense that he had in relations with the Apostolic See», Tremblay points out, «also immunized him against the “magisterial fundamentalism” that seems to prevail today. The sort one comes across in those who open their mouths only to quote phrases from Vatican documents hardly out of the oven». As a Bavarian priest, facing the storm hailing down most violently on the northern European Churches, Ratzinger didn’t whistle for the help of the Rome policeman. It was up to the individual bishops to proclaim the faith of the Apostles of whom they were successors and defend the ordinary faithful from those who were poisoning the wells of grace. «In 1965», Beinert notes, «Ratzinger had written with Karl Rahner the key book Primacy and episcopate, where in a certain sense the most important word was the conjunction linking the two terms. On the quaestio disputata of relations between pope and bishops Ratzinger has always kept to the line that was expressed at the Council». Also with his students the occasional shrewd comment on the conformity of Roman academic circles sometimes escaped him. Beinert again remembers: «I had been in Rome for ten years. I had studied at the Pontifical Gregorian University and for a long while I was a student at the Pontifical German College. During a meeting with the group of doctoral students, the professor posed a question asking us students what we thought. And then he added smiling: There’s no point in asking Mr. Beinert, he has studied in Rome and already knows what to think and what he must say…».
Being able to smile at oneself
A marginal episode that occurred towards the end of the Tübingen period is particularly enlightening. In the summer of 1969 some of the Tübingen professors wrote an article in which they threw a hand grenade: the abolition of the duration for life of the episcopate, the fixing of a time limit for the ministry of residential bishops. The article was given prominence in Theologische Quartalschrift, the prestigious Tübingen magazine that can boast of being the earliest of German theological periodicals. Before publication all the teachers in the Catholic faculty, including Ratzinger, signed the article. In its twelve dense pages sociological arguments are piled up to demonstrate that «the scaffolding and conception of the law of the Church appear as an out-dated, foreign world when matched to the current image of society». According to the authors the present form of episcopal jurisdiction did not derive from «the Gospel, nor even the structure of the early Christian community, but only from a tradition that emerged later», that «in various aspects is no longer adequate». Then they set out their proposal for fitting episcopal power to the new times. According to the Tübingen professors «the duration of the office of residential bishops must in future be eight years. Reappointment or prolongation of the period of the office is possible only in exceptional circumstances, and for objective, external reasons, due to the ecclesial political context». The authors specify that the proposal «is for now made only for western Europe» and that «implications for the election to the papacy do not come within the present exposition and therefore are not here discussed». Another excusatio non petita, given that the provocation ipso facto implied the possibility of conceiving an ad tempus mandate for the Bishop of Rome himself.
Professor Ratzinger’s adherence to his colleagues’ proposal hardly matches the image of the straight and tough opponent walling himself in against the theological drift of the time. But nor can it be invoked in confirmation of the opposing stereotype, Ratzinger the incendiary theologian soon destined to change his coat. Professor Seckler, who was one of the authors of that article and now remembers it as part of the “waywardness of youth”, tells 30Days: «At the start Ratzinger was the only one who didn’t want to sign the article. His conception of the episcopate didn’t fit with the thesis argued in our proposal. So I went to his home, to try to persuade him. We had a coffee, talked together for a long time. And when I left I had got his agreement». Even his closest students were perplexed at the time. Trimpe recalls: «The professor was usually determined in backing his convictions. In that case, perhaps he hadn’t read the article sufficiently, or gave in for a quiet life. He wanted to avoid further arguments with his colleagues». And perhaps what they were asking him – a simple adherence to a collective text – didn’t seem anything remarkable. After the publication of the article, while students and collaborators were in turmoil, Ratzinger didn’t seem too concerned about his reputation. He even suggested a lightly humorous way of placating their unease. Trimpe tells us: «When he saw that some of us were scandalized, he smiled and said: well, if you’re angry, write something, write an article against the proposal, and I’ll help you get it published».
Thus it was that his assistant Kuhn and Martin Trimpe wrote, at the suggestion of their professor, a long article published in two issues of the Hochland magazine, in rebuttal of the thesis of a limited timespan for an episcopate that he himself had signed. Kuhn can’t resist saying: “We let that article get published only after we had moved with the professor to Ratisbon. In Tübingen it’s likely they’d have taken us for heretics».
to be continued...
with Pierluca Azzaro)