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
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
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
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
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)