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from issue no. 08 - 2006

It seemed the end of the line. And instead…

Former students tell of Ratzinger’s last period of teaching at the recently opened Bavarian University. Surrounded by the respect of the students and the affection of colleagues, the professor of Dogmatic Theology believed he had achieved an ideal situation. But Paul VI was to upset his plans

by Gianni Valente

A panoramic photo of Ratisbon and the Danube

A panoramic photo of Ratisbon and the Danube

In Ratisbon one lives well. The slow-flowing Danube, the pedestrianized alleys of the old town with its princely towers, the liturgical chant of the Regensburger Domspatzen, the choir of the “sparrows of the cathedral” that accompanies high mass in the Gothic Cathedral of Saint Peter’s: everything favors a lively and tranquil city life, the legacy of important epochs, the relaxed and agreeable face of what is called Western European civilization. A touch of everyday grace, underlined maybe by the destiny that has transformed the city more than once into an outpost, a kind of watchtower close to the borders of other worlds. When the Romans founded it, the ancient Castrates Regina heard the unintelligible languages of the Celts, before other peoples from the East overwhelmed the Empire. In the second half of last century, less than eighty kilometers from the Bavarian city ran the frontier with Czechoslovakia, that is to say the threshold that separated the West from that “other” world that was Real Socialism.
In 1968, in neighboring Prague, Dubcek’s Spring was swept away by the Soviet tanks, while also in the universities of West the rebellion of the children of the bourgeoisie wore the garb of Marxist subversion of the social order. A year earlier the free State of Bavaria opened in Ratisbon its fourth university, and according to some the new Faculty of Theology should have as its specific mission the challenge to the Communist universe: something had to be done, analyze with Teutonic theological rigor those shifts in history that quite a lot of people, in the Church, were beginning to interpret as foreshadowings of the Apocalypse, creakings in a world that was about to collapse. There were also those who from the beginning wanted to entrust the chair of Dogmatic Theology in the new Faculty to Professor Joseph Ratzinger. The brilliant and renowned theologian of the Council in 1966 had left the Theological Faculty of Münster and had accepted the “call” of the Faculty of Tübingen precisely to be closer to his Heimat, his native Bavarian soil, that for him – and above all for his sister, who looked after him with maternal concern – was always the source of nostalgic yearning. Heinrich Schlier, the great Catholic exegete converted from Lutheranism, a friend of Ratzinger since the years of teaching together in Bonn, had warned him: « Be aware, Professor, that Tübingen is not Bavaria». Joseph and his sister Mary soon realized this. But the prospect of transferring to Ratisbon already in 1967, on the opening of the new University, was a temptation which Ratzinger resisted at the start: he had only shortly launched on an arduous move to the renowned Swabian theological citadel, and above all he was in no way attracted by the idea of having to get entangled in all the technico-logistical problems that accompany the running-in phases of new academic institutions. So the Regensburg chair of Dogmatics was entrusted to Johann Auer, his colleague during the Bonn period. But two years later, at the beginning of 1969, everything had changed. In Tübingen the upheaval had sabotaged the ordinary practices of university life in the Theological Faculty also: lectures, examinations, academic gatherings had become a battlefield. «I personally didn’t have problems with the students. But I indeed saw how tyranny was practiced, even in brutal forms», he was to say of that period in the book-interview The salt of the earth. «At the beginning of 1969,» says Peter Kuhn, who was then Ratzinger’s assistant, «I met Schlier. He asked me how our “chief” was getting on in Tübingen. I answered that things weren’t going at all well. He told me: “They’ve decided in Ratisbon to set up a second chair of Dogmatics. There I know Professor Franz Mussner well, who teaches New Testament Exegesis. I could let him know that Ratzinger has now changed his mind and that he might be interested in a call from them”. “Professor,” I said to him, “do what you can immediately”». So, already after the summer of 1969 Professor Ratzinger achieves what he then imagined would be his definitive “professional” peak. «I wanted to go on with my theology in a less agitated context and I didn’t want to get involved in continual polemic», he was to write in his autobiography to justify his “flight” from Tübingen. According to his former student Martin Bialas, today rector of the Passionist house near Ratisbon, the reasons were different: «His brother Georg had become director of the Domspatzen. Moving to Ratisbon meant that the three Ratzinger children could finally live together. I’m sure that that was the decisive reason for his coming here, and not the theological polemics». In the township of Pentling, where he went to live with his sister and where in 1972 he was to get built a small house with garden, Fr Joseph Ratzinger said mass every day, including Sunday. His sister was always at his side. «Look, here come Joseph and Mary», the parishioners would joke as soon as they saw them appear on the path to the church.

Ratzinger the ecumenist
Whatever the reasons that prevailed in his move to Ratisbon a new adventure started for Ratzinger. The Theological Faculty replaced the diocesan School of High Philosophico-theological studies and in the early days it also inherited the quarters it had occupied since 1803 in the Dominican monastery, the very one in which Saint Albert Magnus had worked. Very soon all the academic activities were transferred to the new quarters, on the outskirts of the city. Ratzinger usually used public transport to reach the university. Sometimes he was picked up by the improbable cars of his students and colleagues: Kuhn’s Citroen 2Chevaux, the more stately Opel Kadett of Wolfgang Beinert.
The new Theological Faculty was a clean slate. It didn’t have behind it the great history of Tübingen, but that also had its advantages: one could work in full freedom, without being too much conditioned by an unwieldy past. Compared to the chaos in 1968 Tübingen it seemed an island of calm. But it certainly can’t be described as the bunker of the reactionary resistance to the drift of post-Council theology. Among the students the catchphrases of political militancy were the same as in other places: «For the victory of the Vietnamese people», said a slogan in large red letters on the wall of the university cafeteria. All the teaching staff in the Faculty were a new in-take. And the professors had a variety of theological slants and sensibilities, even directly opposing. The two extreme were represented by the old Auer, scholastic in bent, and Norbert Schiffers, the teacher of Fundamental Theology, close to Liberation Theology. «To tell the truth,» confides Martin Bialas, «it was said that the bishop of Ratisbon, Rudolf Graber, considered Professor Ratzinger somewhat “modernist” and was worried by his arrival in the Faculty. But he didn’t ban him, as he could have done». In effect, all the choices and the initiatives that the Bavarian professor was to adopt in the years following – themes and method of teaching, participation in the life of the Faculty, public stances – didn’t seem to fit the cliché of the refugee conservative, or the repentant Council theologian.
Joseph Ratzinger in a photo from 1971

Joseph Ratzinger in a photo from 1971

It’s enough to skim the titles of the courses and seminars to see that the ecclesial and theological situation as well as ecumenic dialogue with the other Christian denominations were always present in the professor’s range of interests. In 1973 the principal seminar focused on the texts of the plenary session of the Ecumenic Council of Churches, “Faith and Constitution”, in which Ratzinger had taken part together with the other German theologian Walter Kasper. In the winter semester 1973-74 the principal course of Christology included a seminar that reviewed all the theological “novelties” produced in that field by contemporaneous authors, from Rahner to Moltmann, from Schoonenberg to Pannenberg. In 1974 the course of Ecclesiology was flanked by a seminar centering on the Lumen gentium, the Constitution on the Church of Vatican Council II. In 1976, the principal seminar dealt with the possibility of recognition by the Catholic Church of the Confessio Augustana, the formula of faith set out by the Lutheran Phillip Melancthon. The seminar highlighted the reasoning in favor of that recognition laid out by Ratzinger’s student Vinzenz Pfnür, that the teacher gave signs of sharing. And the method also was that of head-on encounter with thorny problems, with no taboos. As the Verbite Vincent Twomey, Ratzinger’s student in the Ratisbon years, says in his book Benedict XVI: The Conscience of Our Age. A Theological Portrait: «at the start of each semester, students from all years and from various disciplines met in one of the larger reading-rooms to listen to the introductory readings of Joseph Ratzinger with rapt attention. Any treatise he happened to deal with in that semester (creation, christology, or ecclesiology), he began by first setting the subject in the contemporary cultural context and then within the more recent theological developments, going on then to offer his own original, learned and systematic examination of the argument». The only requisite asked of his students was to keep their critical faculties alert also to the new conformities. Another former student of Ratzinger, Joseph Zöhrer, now teaching theology at the High School of pedagogical studies in Freiburg, says: «He reacted with subtle irony when insufficiently scrutinized arguments came up in discussion. Once a student backed a thesis on the basis of a simple quotation from the theologian Karl Rahner. Ratzinger punctured him: “It’s very odd”, he said, “that after having legitimately declared one’s scepticism about the formula ‘Roma locuta causa finita’, now one passes without batting an eyelid to the formula ‘Rahner locutocausa finita’”…».
Among his colleagues, Ratzinger had his elective affinities. He felt particularly in tune with the exegetes Mussner and Gross. But he always kept his reserve, he didn’t join academic groupings, or draw onto himself conflictual feelings. «By nature», Bialas explains, «he’s not an argumentative type, one who likes to fight. That’s why I’ve always thought he suffered a bit in carrying out for almost twenty-five years the mission entrusted to him by Pope Wojtyla as the head of the former Holy Office». In Ratisbon the other professors took advantage of his easy-going nature, which turned out to be useful when looking for acceptable compromises in academic squabbles. For that reason also they first made him dean of the Faculty and then even pro-rector of the university. In that role he, too, contributed to shelving the request for foundation courses in Marxism wanted above all by students and administrative staff inside the representative organs of administration of the university.

At the school of free thought
Ratzinger’s lectures were the most crowded in the Faculty. 150-200 students usually attended. But what made an impression – and stirred some jealousy – was above all the ever more numerous group of students coming from all over Germany and the world requesting to do the work for their doctorates or university teaching qualification under his guidance. A cenacle that on the initiative of Peter Kuhn, Wolfgang Beinert and Michael Marmann of the Schönstatt religious had already set up in Tübingen its organizational rules, but that achieved its golden age in the ’seventies.
Joseph Ratzinger with Hans Maier, Bavarian Minister of Education, and Abbot Augustin Mayer, now a cardinal, in a coffee break during the Würzburg Synod in 1971

Joseph Ratzinger with Hans Maier, Bavarian Minister of Education, and Abbot Augustin Mayer, now a cardinal, in a coffee break during the Würzburg Synod in 1971

Ratzinger performed his role as Doktorvater, the “professor-father” codified by the German academic tradition, in an atypical way. He didn’t supervise his doctoral students individually, he wouldn’t have had the time for it: his Schülerkreis (circle of students) numbered too many, almost always an average of 25. He brought them all together for meetings usually fixed for Saturday morning, every two weeks, at the Ratisbon diocesan seminary. The half-day of co-habitation extra moenia universitatis always opened with mass. Then the individual students would take it in turn to deliver a report on the progress of their research and submit it to the critical judgment of the others. The range of themes covered by the theses assigned – from Saint Irenaeus to Nietzsche, from medieval theology to Camus, from the Council of Trent to the personalist philosophers – is an indirect confirmation of open-mindedness. «Some of us students», Father Bialas explains, «amused ourselves every so often with the idea of establishing a school of Ratzingerian theology. But the first to sweep away the wishful thinking was the professor. He always said that he didn’t have “his own” particular theology». «Discussion», Twomey recalls, «reigned supreme. On every individual argument the professor scrutinised all the objections, both the historical ones and those of the contemporaneous theologians, and took all the opinions and theories seriously, even those of the latest upstart». The “maieutic” touch with which he led the debate enabled him to reduce his interventions to the minimum. He adopted an attitude of impartiality super partes even when dealing with the controversies that burst out, kindled by that democratic, self-governing way of conducting the Doktoranden-Colloquium. «With the whole spectrum of theological opinions represented within the group,» explains Twomey, «a certain tension was inevitable». And in effect the Ratzinger’s Schülerkreis in no way resembled a think-tank on a single line of theological thinking, or a factory for producing clones of the teacher: even less a line-up of academic careerists. Future monsignors of the Roman Curia came out of it, but also gracious and timid Korean girls; unrepentant ecumenists, along with austere and generous religious who were to spend their life on the mission. In the years to come, more than one of those theologians en herbe – such as Hansjürgen Verweyen and Beinert – would take very different positions from those of their old teacher on much debated theological questions like the ordination of women and the choice of formulating a single Catechism for the whole Catholic Church. «Thinking back today,» Zöhrer admits, «I’m astonished at the freedom we enjoyed. Above all now that I’ve learned of how other Doktorvater with a reputation for being very liberal squeezed their students into a very tight envelope, and then went on to chastise them as soon as a disagreement about contents emerged… ».
From the Tübingen days the circle had formed the habit of organizing meetings at the end of each semester with professors and famous theologians from outside the Faculty. Thus it was that in the course of the years the already white-haired Doktorvater and his pupils had occasion to meet and debate with all the great figures in the post-Council theological field: from Yves Congar to Karl Rahner, from Hans Urs von Balthasar to Schlier, from Walter Kasper to Wolfhart Pannenberg, up to the Protestant exegete Martin Hengel. Unique occasions that were to fill the collective memory with happy and emblematic recollections. Like the time the group took a trip from Tübingen to Basle, to meet the great Protestant theologian Karl Barth. «By a lucky coincidence», Kuhn recalls, «we happened there just as he, who was already professor emeritus, was giving a seminar to his students on the Dei Verbum, the Constitution of Vatican Council II on the sources of divine Revelation. We joined them and we were surprised by the seriousness with which Barth and that group of Protestant scholars went into an argument that in Catholic circles was often handled with embarrassing superficiality. Barth was full of curiosity. It was he who addressed questions to our much younger professor, with an attitude of great deference». At the meeting with Balthasar, instead, some students challenged the great Swiss theologian’s theory on hell’s being empty. And he was left a bit piqued.

Theologians of the center
Ratzinger during the work of the German Episcopal Conference in Stapelfeld, in March 1971

Ratzinger during the work of the German Episcopal Conference in Stapelfeld, in March 1971

The freedom and willingness to openly encounter sensibilities and schemata different from one’s own certainly can’t be construed as a kind of theological relativism. In the clashes that shook the Church in those years Ratzinger did not lie low in his happy island of Ratisbon. While remaining faithful to a style little adapted to the launching of anathemas, he made clear choices of sides in the conflict dividing “the international of theologians” who had shared together in the Council adventure. The split was also felt within the International Theological Commission, founded in 1969 by Paul VI following the proposal of the first Synod of the Bishops, of which Ratzinger was part from the beginning. It was there that the Bavarian professor took the side of those – Balthasar, Henri De Lubac, Marie-Jean Le Guillou, Louis Bouyer, the Chilean Jorge Medina Estévez – according to whom the frenzy for “permanent revolution” that had infected a good many theological-academic circles was a denaturing, a caricature of the reform indicated by the Vatican Council II. Even within the body nominated by the pontiff debate became rending. As Ratzinger notes in his autobiography, «Rahner and Feiner, the Swiss ecumenist, in the end left the Commission because in their view it wasn’t getting anywhere since the majority were not willing to back radical theses». The end of the “united front” of post-Council theologians came even in publishing terms with the founding of the magazine Communio in 1972. It was sponsored precisely by von Balthasar and meant to attract all the theological circles contrary to the radicalism of Concilium, the international magazine – of which Ratzinger himself was a founding member – that had been started in 1965 as unitary instrument for the supervision that the lobby of theologians, galvanized by the lead given by the Council, was supposed to exert for the achieving of the Council program. From the beginning the Bavarian professor was involved in a project that found it had an immediate «network» – as Balthasar himself described it – of interested international supporters. Among those who stepped forward most eagerly to enlist in the new theological front were some «promising young people from Communion and Liberation» (as Ratzinger characterizes them in his autobiography) among them the present patriarch of Venice Angelo Scola. The editorial committee of the German version was joined by Hans Maier, the Bavarian Minister of Education. From 1974 editions in other countries multiplied: America, France, Chile, Poland, Portugal, Brazil... In the ‘eighties and ’nineties, almost all the members of the numerous squad of theologians whom Pope Wojtyla appointed to the episcopate – of whom he then co-opted many into the Sacred College of Cardinals – came out of the Communio nursery: the Germans Karl Lehmann and Kasper, the Swiss Eugene Corecco – who died in 1995 – the Brazilian Karl Romer, the Belgian André Mutien Léonard, the Italian member of CL Scola, the Chilean Medina Estévez, the Canadian Marc Ouellet, the Austrian Dominican Christoph Schönborn (who had belonged to Ratzinger’s Schülerkreis, having followed the Bavarian professor’s lectures in Ratisbon for a couple of semesters). In 1992, celebrating the twentieth anniversary of Communio, Ratzinger drew up a personal balance-sheet of that collective experience avoiding all self-congratulation: «Have we had this courage sufficiently? Or have we concealed ourselves rather behind theological erudition to demonstrate, a little too much, that we too are up with the times? Have we really sent into a famished world the word of faith in comprehensible fashion and one that goes to the heart? Or have we not also perhaps remained for the most part within the circle of those who lark about in a specialized idiom tossing the ball to one another?»

The invitation is confirmed
«The feeling of acquiring my own theological vision ever more clearly», Ratzinger writes in the autobiography, «was the finest experience of the years in Ratisbon». Even in the distress caused by the rending ecclesial conflict, in the mid ’seventies the almost fifty-year-old theologian was already tasting the ordinary joys of what appeared to him as the peak of his academic wanderings: living in his native Bavaria, enjoying the affection of his beloved siblings, being able to take flowers to his parents resting in the cemetery near home. And for work doing the thing he liked most. All his life he had desired nothing else: studying and teaching theology, surrounded by a group of free and impassioned collaborators, in the hope of passing on to the students that came from all over the world to hear him the taste for deriving gifts ever new from the Fathers of the Church, from the divine liturgy and from all the treasure of Tradition. For these reasons, in the summer of 1976, when Julius Döpfner, the cardinal archbishop of Münich, died suddenly, Ratzinger didn’t take seriously the rumours beginning to circulate that listed him among the candidates to succeed: «The limits to my health were as well known as my lack of experience of executive and administrative tasks», he writes again in his autobiography. Instead, Paul VI’s choice was to fall precisely on him.
Reinhard Richardi, who in those years was professor of the Faculty of Jurisprudence and formed a strong friendship with Ratzinger that still lasts today, tells 30Days: «The surprise was enormous. Apparently Paul VI valued him, saw in him a great theologian in the line of Council reform, and wanted to involve him in the guidance of the Church. One sees it also from the promptness with which he created him cardinal only some months after nominating him archbishop. Now, seeing him as his successor on the throne of Peter, he might even say: I was certain that the Lord would turn His gaze on him». But of these things, at the time, the future Benedict XVI was indeed not thinking. Richardi tells us: «I well remember when the news spread of his nomination as successor to Döpfner. Precisely that day my wife, my children and myself were invited to his home. He called us on the phone and told us: listen, the invitation is confirmed, even if they have made me bishop. See you later».

(With the collaboration of Pierluca Azzaro)

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