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Dialogue Mass - CXXXIX

Benedict XVI Had No Use for Scholasticism

Dr. Carol Byrne, Great Britain
Although the young Ratzinger’s early seminary formation included courses on Scholasticism – it was, after all, mandatory for seminarians throughout the Catholic world – it evidently made no impact on his mind. He described his formation as “completely biblically oriented, working from Holy Scripture, the Fathers, and the liturgy,” adding that “it was ecumenical.”

He unabashedly admitted: “The Thomist-philosophical dimension was missing; maybe that was the real benefit.”1

Philosophical deformation

But Thomism had not just “gone missing” from Ratzinger’s intellectual formation: it was deliberately purged from his mind by his theological mentor at the major seminary at Freising, with the result that ever afterwards he studiously avoided it like the plague. We know that from the testimony of his lifelong friend, Fr. Alfred Läpple, who took the young Ratzinger under his wing and exerted a formative influence on him. This was later acknowledged by Ratzinger when he was Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.2

Alfred Lapple

Fr. Alfred Läpple initiated the young Ratzinger in Progressivism, this Neo-Modernism

In a revealing interview,3 Fr. Läpple expanded on their relationship. They spent much time in each other’s company discussing the “New Theology” on their frequent walks, which Ratzinger enjoyed immensely. It was during these occasions that Fr. Läpple encouraged him to adopt a neo-modernist approach to the Faith, which would color his outlook for the rest of his career. It was he who introduced the works of Henri De Lubac SJ, The Supernatural to him:

“I gave it to him thinking it would make a nice surprise. And in fact he writes in his autobiography that it became a reference book for him, and offered him a new relationship with the thinking of the Fathers, but also a new standpoint on theology. In effect, more than a third of the book was made up of quotations from the Fathers.”4

Ratzinger was instantly bowled over by this work of De Lubac, and was eager to read his entire œuvre. His admiration for his “hero” was unbounded, and he expressed his sense of indebtedness:

“In the fall of 1949, Alfred Lapple had given me Catholicism, perhaps Henri de Lubac’s most significant work, in the masterful translation by Hans Urs von Balthasar. This book was for me a key reading event. It gave me not only a new and deeper connection with the thought of the Fathers but also a new way of looking at theology and faith as such.”5

De Lubac

Ratzinger was strongly influenced by de Lubac's condemned books

But that “new way” proposed by de Lubac was censored by Rome and denounced by Pius XII in Mystici Corporis as a “false mysticism” corrosive of the true Faith. It goes without saying that de Lubac, whose seminary training left much to be desired, also set aside Scholastic philosophy and theology in favor of biblical and patristic studies.

With role models like these, it is not surprising that Ratzinger developed an early aversion to anything that smacked of Scholasticism or that came out of the “Manualist tradition.” Instead, he was persuaded to go directly to the Bible and the Fathers of the Church as the preferred theological source.

Fr. Läpple showed how Ratzinger was impervious to the Scholastic teachings of the Professor of Philosophy at Freising, Arnold Wilmsen, whose lectures he attended:

“Wilmsen’s lectures slipped off like water off a raincoat. He said to me: I regret the time I’m wasting, it would be much more useful to go for a stroll with you.”

The effects of this deficient education became evident in his later theological output, as Professor, Cardinal and Pope, which was largely characterized by Neo-Modernism.

Fr. Hans Urs von Balthasar wanted to destroy the ramparts of Scholasticism

Fr. Läpple explained: “The impulse to consider the truth as a possession to be defended has always unsettled him. He didn’t feel at ease with neo-scholastic definitions that seemed to him like ramparts, whereby what is inside the definition is the truth, and what is outside is all mistaken.”

But the Church has always claimed to have possessed the truth from the very beginning of Christianity and has defended it at all costs, to the point of death if necessary. Ratzinger’s objection to the “ramparts of the neo-scholastic definitions” that had supported the Catholic Faith by means of “fixed formulas” is revealing. For the modernist heirs of our day, faith and all its manifestations (doctrine and liturgy) never reach fixed truth but are continually evolving.

“Ramparts” were also a favorite target of Ratzinger’s progressivist colleagues. Fr. Urs von Balthasar, for example,6 identified Scholasticism as one of the ramparts to be brought down. After describing himself as “languishing in the desert of Neo-Scholasticism,” he fancied himself, perversely, as a latter-day Samson bringing the house down on the Philistines (traditionalists):

“My entire period of study in the Society of Jesus was a grim struggle with the dreariness of theology, with what men had made out of the glory of revelation. I could not endure this presentation of the Word of God and wanted to lash out with the fury of a Samson: I felt like tearing down, with Samson’s own strength, the whole temple and burying myself beneath the rubble. But it was like this because, despite my sense of vocation, I wanted to carry out my own plans, and was living in a state of unbounded indignation.”7

Balthasar’s efforts contributed significantly to the collapse of apologetics, moral certitude and catechetical instruction, to name just a few casualties of his iconoclastic urges.

Consequences of razing the bastions

Without a reasoned defense of the Faith that pinpoints the distinction between such things as truth and error, good and evil, nature and grace, the flesh and the Spirit, the faithful quickly become submersed in a morass of confusing theories put about by today’s neo-modernists. As a result, many Catholics today have lost the ability to tell the difference between right and wrong in God’s eyes.

No one can deny that this is the current situation we are faced with where people mix up reality with emotions which then become the standard of truth for them. Yet only a few decades ago everyone was taught (from the “Manualist tradition”) that to accept Revelation was to assent to a truth or body of truths on account of the authority of God revealing, and that what was required of the believer was the submission and homage of his intellect and his will.

Ratzinger’s crusade against Scholasticism

From his younger days as a seminarian to the end of his life, Ratzinger never took upon himself the onus of the Scholastic system that was central to the Catholic theological tradition. This was a major break with the policy of pre-Vatican II Popes. It was clear that he himself had no use for it. That does not mean that he never acknowledged its strengths, but on the rare occasion when he praised the tradition, he did so as a formality in a manner that was distant, calculated and devoid of any personal warmth.

For example, in 2009 he stated that “in reading the Scholastic summae one is struck by the order, clarity and logical continuity of the arguments and by the depth of certain insights.”8 But this was merely faint praise, for his words were not accompanied by any conviction that it should serve a useful purpose in the Church as an important – even indispensable – method of explaining and preserving the Faith.

Hans Kung and Joseph Ratzinger

Kung & Ratzinger - both committed to change

It is not just that Ratzinger thought that Scholasticism was an irrelevance in the modern age; incomprehensibly, he regarded it as a lethal threat to the survival of the Catholic Faith, a threat that he felt it was his duty to combat. In 1971, he wrote an article that was published in a book of essays edited by Karl Rahner, in which he stated:

“I want to emphasize again that I decidedly agree with [Hans] Küng when he makes a clear distinction between Roman theology (taught in the schools of Rome) and the Catholic Faith. To free itself from the constraining fetters of Roman Scholastic Theology represents a duty upon which, in my humble opinion, the possibility of the survival of Catholicism seems to depend.”9

One cannot fail to notice the subversive undertones of this polemical passage. His aim was to detach Catholic theology from the very system that supported it, leaving it defenseless against attack, on the grounds that Truth can look after itself, and does not need defending by means of “exterior safeguards.” Not long before he became Pope, Ratzinger reiterated this point:

“But might not she [the Church] be taken to task for holding the reins a bit too tightly, for the creation of too many laws, given that not a few of these helped abandon the century to disbelief rather than save it? In other words, might she not be rebuked for trusting too little that power of truth that lives and triumphs in the faith, for entrenching herself behind exterior safeguards instead of relying on the truth, which is inherent in liberty and shuns such defenses?”10

It was a characteristic of Vatican II’s optimistic outlook that modern man, ever more conscious of his “human dignity,” would naturally turn to the truth. That was the message contained in the Opening Speech delivered by John XXIII but influenced, as we have seen, by Ratzinger himself. The corollary to the message was that people today enjoy unprecedented freedom and do not need infallible pronouncements to be imposed on them by the Church, especially not in the Name of God.

For Catholics, however, the highest goal is not Liberty, but the attainment of Truth amidst snares of the devil and the afflictions of fallen human nature, which is exactly what the Scholastic Manuals were helping them to attain.

To be continued

  1. Benedict XVI with Peter Seewald, Last Testament, p. 83.
  2. In a letter to Fr. Läpple dated June25, 1995, Card. Ratzinger thanked him for providing essential support in his philosophical and theological journey at the beginning of his academic career. (J. Ratzinger, ‘Tu sei all’inizio del mio cammino filosofico-teologico,’ 30 Days, February 1, 2006).
  3. Gianni Valente and Pierluca Azzaro, “That new beginning that bloomed among the ruins: Inteview with Alfred Läpple,” 30 Days, February 1, 2006.
  4. Ibid.
  5. Joseph Ratzinger, Milestones: Memoirs 1927-1977, trans. Erasmo Leiva-Merikakis, San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1998, p. 98.
  6. Urs von Balthasar, Razing the Bastions: On the Church in This Age, trans. Brian McNeil, San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1993
  7. Peter Henrici SJ, “Hans Urs von Balthasar: A Sketch of His Life,” Communio, vol. 16, Fall 1989, p. 313. Note 15 gives the original source as the Introduction by Hans Urs von Balthasar (ed.) to Adrienne von Speyr, Erde und Himmel. Ein Tagebuch (Earth and Heaven: a Diary), Part 2, Die Zeit der Grossen Dictate (The Age of the Great Dictates), Einsiedeln: Johannes Verlag, 1975, p. 195. Fr. Henrici was von Balthasar’s nephew, and Adrienne von Speyr was his close companion and inspiration.
  8. Benedict XVI, “Monastic Theology and Scholastic Theology,”, General Audience, St Peter’s Square, October 28, 2009.
  9. J. Ratzinger, “Widersprüche im Buch von Hans Küng” (Contradictions in Hans Küng’s Book), Stimmen der Zeit (Contemporary Voices), (ed. Karl Rahner), vol. 187, Freiburg: Herder, 1971, pp. 97-116.
  10. J. Ratzinger, The Ratzinger Reader: Mapping a Theological Journey, Bloomsbury Publishing, 2010, p. 212.

Posted June 10, 2024


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