Cardinal Ratzinger: Theology is Not Private Idea of Theologian

This article is from the English Weekly Edition of L’Osservatore Romano : N. 27 — 2 July 1990 — Page 5.1 It takes up nearly all of that page, with only a few “News briefs” at the bottom. As the introductory comments indicate, it is the text of the erstwhile Cardinal’s remarks at a press conference introducing a new “Instruction.” That Instruction is Donum Veritatis , subtitled, “Instruction on the Ecclesial Vocation of the Theologian.” The document is an important one for theology students and so should be these remarks introducing it, especially given the present elevated status of their author. I have typed it to make it available on the web for a couple of reasons, one of which is that I had to drive three hours, round trip, to find the article on microfilm, copy it, and (literally) cut and paste it into a usable format for some research I’m doing. I thought that I would save others similar trouble, as the article is frequently referenced (often to criticize it). I offer it here only as a resource for researchers and students of theology, reproducing it with slavish accuracy and absolutely no commentary of my own. The subheadings are in the original. The only thing this edition is missing is Cardinal Ratzinger’s picture from the original. The article, in its integrity, begins below the following horizontal rule and ends at the second horizontal rule. I have retained what I take to be typists errors: a semi-colon followed by an uppercase letter, the inconsistent capitalization of the word Magisterium , as well as two different spellings of com(m)unitarian . The lower-case spelling of “marian,” which I do not prefer, may be a standard of L’OR . The British orthography was also retained, over the violent protestations of my American spell checker.

— Brother André Marie, M.I.C.M.


Theology is not private idea of theologian

This is the text of Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger’s remarks to journalists during a 26 June press conference called to present the Instruction. The importance of the theologian and theology for the entire community of believers became evident in a new way during the celebration of the Second Vatican Council. Up until then theology was viewed as an occupation for a restricted number of clergy, as an elitist and abstract activity, which could barely merit interest on the part of Church public opinion. The new way of looking at the faith and expressing it which was affirmed by the Council was the result of the drama produced by a new theological reflection which began after World War I in connection with new spiritual and cultural movements. The basic orientation of a liberalistic character with its naive optimism concerning progress, had collapsed amid the horrors of the war and with it also theological modernism, which had sought to adapt the faith to the world’s liberal vision. The liturgical, biblical, and ecumenical movements and finally a strong marian movement created a new cultural climate in which a new theology grew and developed which benefited the whole Church during the Second Vatican Council. The Bishops themselves were surprised by the richness of the theology which in part was still not very familiar to them, and they willingly let themselves be led by the theologians who were their guides through a land which they still had not explored, while the final decisions — what could have become Council declarations and therefore declarations of the Church herself, remained within the competence of the Fathers. After the Council, this evolution’s dynamic continued; the theologians increasingly felt themselves to be the Church’s true teachers and the teachers of the Bishops as well. Furthermore, starting with the Council, they were discovered by the mass media and became an object of media interest. The Holy See’s magisterium then appeared more and more like the last remains of an obsolete authoritarianism. Thus a new reflection on the role of theology and of theologians as well as their relationship with the magisterium was needed, one which would try to understand both of them starting from their internal logic and thus would render not only a service to the Church, but also and above all contribute towards a proper way of understanding the relationship between faith and reason. The present Instruction seeks to respond to this task. The basic problem is an anthropological one: if religion and reason do not succeed in striking up a proper relationship, then people’s spiritual lives disintegrate — on the one hand into a flat, mechanistic rationalism, and on the other hand, into a gloomy irrationalism. The flood of esotericism which we are witnessing today shows that within the dominant positivistic rationalism the deepest strata of the human being can no longer be integrated, and therefore atavistic forms of superstition once again become man’s master. Positivism denies man’s capacity for truth, the knowledge of which it would limit to what can be done and experienced; the irrational triumphs at the point at which we leave the sphere of doing. Man, seemingly totally liberated, becomes enslaved by impenetrable forces; this is why the Instruction positioned the theological topic within the broad horizon of the issue of man’s capacity for truth and for true freedom: Christian faith is not a pastime and the Church is not a club alongside which are found others, some similar, some different. Faith responds instead to the primal human question concerning human origins and human destiny. This statement occupies the first place in faith’s alphabet: in the beginning was the Logos. Faith shows us that eternal reason is the basis of all things, or that things are reasonable from the start. Faith does not intend to offer man a type of psychotherapy; its psychotherapy is the truth. For this very reason, faith is universal and missionary in its essence. For this very reason faith, beginning from within itself, is, as the Fathers say, quarens intellectum , searching for understanding. Therefore, understanding — the rational taking of interest in the Word which has been given us — belongs to Christian faith in a constitutive fashion. It necessarily gives birth to a theology; that factor, among other things, differentiates the Christian faith from all other religions, if only from the point of view of the history of religions. Theology is a specifically Christian phenomenon, which springs from the structure of the Christian faith.

Word precedes theology

But how is theology distinguished from the philosophy of religion and from the profane science of religion? By the fact that human reason knows that it is not left to itself. A Word precedes it, a Word which is certainly logical and reasonable, but which does not draw its origin from theology itself, but rather was given to theology and thus continually extends beyond it. It remains a task which we in the course of history never completely exhaust. Theology is a reflection successive to that which had previously been told to us by God, because it had been previously conceived by God. If theology leaves this firm ground, it stops being theology and declines into scepticism, and the crumbling of existence into irrationalism is inevitable. Let us return to the Instruction. It speaks of the task of the theologian within this wider context and thus highlights the importance of the theologian’s mission. Looking at the articulation of the document, one is almost struck by the fact that we have not introduced it by speaking first about the magisterium, but rather abut the topic of truth as a gift from God to his people; The truth of faith is not given to isolated individuals; rather through it God wanted to give life to a history and to a people. The truth is located in the communitarian subject of the People of God, the Church. The second element we speak about is the theologian’s vocation. Only afterwards is the Magisterium discussed and the mutual relationship between the two. That signifies two things: 1. Theology is not simply and exclusively an auxiliary function of the Magisterium; it should not confine itself to themes taught by the Magisterium. Theology has its own origin; referring to St. Bonaventure, the document mentions the two roots of theology in the Church: on the one hand the dynamism towards the truth and understanding which is innate in faith; on the other the dynamic of love, which wishes to know deeper and better the one loved. Two directions in theology correspond to this; yet they mutually intersect; one tends to go outwards seeking to dialogue with every reasonable search for truth in the world; the other direction moves inwards, seeking to penetrate the inner logic and the depths of faith. 2. The document treats the problem of the ecclesial mission of the theologian not by starting as usual from the “Magisterium-theology” dualism, but rather by starting within the context of this triangular relationship: the People of God, as the bearer of the sense of the faith and as the place common to all in the ensemble of faith, Magisterium and theology. The development of dogma in the last 150 years is the clearest demonstration of this complex triangular relationship: the dogmas of 1854, 1870 and 1950 were possible only because the sense of the faith had rediscovered them; magisterium and theology were led by it and slowly sought to attain it. In this way we have already expressed the essential ecclesial nature of theology. Theology is never simply a private idea of a theologian. As such that could account for little and would sink rapidly into insignificance. The Church as a living subject which firmly perdures within the changes of history, is instead the vital sphere of the theologian; God’s wonders which faith has experienced are protected in the Church. Theology can remain historically meaningful only if it recognizes its own vital sphere, putting down roots within it, and drawing nourishment from it. Thus for theologians the Church is not an external organization extraneous to their reflection. As a comunitarian subject which transcends the limitations of the individual, she is the indispensable condition for the theologian to become effective. Thus one sees why two things are essential for the theologian: on the one hand a methodological precision which falls within the requirements of science; the document points besides to philosophy, historical sciences and human sciences as the theologian’s privileged partners; and on the other hand, theology also needs to have an inner sharing in the vital structure of the Church; faith which is prayer, contemplation, life. Only with this combination of elements does it become theology.

Church Magisterium

An organic understanding of the magisterium also begins here. The Church belongs to theology, we have said. The Church, however, only becomes something more than a simple external organization of the faithful if she has a voice of her own. Faith precedes theology; the latter is a search for an understanding of a Word which we ourselves have not thought and which challenges our thought, but which is never reduced to it. This Word which precedes theological research is a measure of theology and needs its own specific organ — the magisterium which Christ entrusted to the Apostles and through them to their successors. I do not intend here to enter more fully into detail about how the document develops the relationship between the magisterium and theology. Under the heading, “Collaborative Relations,” the document puts forward the specific tasks of both and the correct forms in which they should collaborate. The superior position of faith, which gives the magisterium authority and the right to the final decision, does not dissolve the autonomy of theological research, but simply gives it a solid basis. The document does not pass over in silence the fact that even under the most favourable conditions, tensions can exist — tensions which can be fruitful, however, if they are faced by both sides with a recognition of the inner correlation of their roles.

Levels of teaching

The text also offers different forms of binding which arise from different levels of magisterial teaching. It states — perhaps for the first time with such clarity — that there are magisterial decisions which cannot be and are not intended to be the last word on the matter as such, but are a substantial anchorage in the problem and are first and foremost an expression of pastoral prudence, a sort of provisional disposition. Their core remains valid but the individual details influenced by the circumstances at the time may need further rectification. In this regard one can refer to the statements of the Popes during the last century on religious freedom as well as the anti-modernistic decisions at the beginning of this century, especially the decisions of the Biblical Commission of that time. As a warning cry against hasty and superficial adaptations they remain fully justified; a person of the stature of Johann Baptist Metz has said, for example, that the antimodernist decisions of the Church rendered a great service in keeping her from sinking into the liberal-bourgeois world. But the details of the determinations of their contents were later superceded once they had carried out their pastoral duty at a particular moment. In the second part of the last chapter, in the context of this healthy type of tension, an incorrect form of that tension is treated under the heading “dissent”, a term used in the Instruction which was a byword which took root in the Sixties in the United States. Where theology is organized according to the majority principle and gives birth to a counter-magisterium which offers the faithful an alternative norm of behaviour, theology fails to live up to its nature. It becomes a political factor; it organizes itself into structures of power and follows the political model of the majority. By separating itself from the magisterium it loses the ground from under its feet, the very ground that sustains it, and by passing from the sphere of thought to that of the power play it falsifies its scientific nature as well, so that it lacks both foundations of its existence. We hope that the exposition of the difference between judicious types of tension and incorrect, unacceptable types of opposition between theology and the magisterium will be helpful in recreating a climate of detente in the Church. The Church needs a healthy theology. Theology needs the living voice of the magisterium. This Instruction should contribute to a renewed dialogue between the magisterium and theology and thus serve the church during this brief period in the second millennium and, along with her, humankind in its struggle for truth and freedom.

1 L’Osservatore Romano , English Weekly Edition, July 2, 1990, p. 5.