The Catechetical Political Theology of Joseph Ratzinger

Joseph Ratzinger’s Introduction to Christianity is a sort of catechism; it teaches, initiates, guides. Happily enough, this is clear in its title in both German and English: Einführung in das Christentum (“Ein,” meaning “into”[1] and “Führung,” “direction, steering, stewarding”),[2] Introduction to Christianity (“intro,” meaning “into,” “duco,” “to lead, to pull”).[3] According to Ignatius Press, this fondly-regarded text “is still very timely and crucial for the spiritual needs of modern man.”[4] In other words, Ratzinger’s book is a catechetical aid, it helps us bring our contemporaries into the thoughtful, rational, and wonderful world of Christian belief, and, thereby, into the serene discipline that is Catholic theology.

I do not disagree with this, but, on a close reading of his sources and life, the book is far more: it betrays itself to be a kind of theological politics. Now Pope Emeritus Benedict has effectively admitted this in his most recent preface to the text. This is how it opens, how he introduces Introduction:

Since this work was first published, more than thirty years have passed, in which world history has moved along at a brisk pace. In retrospect, two years seem to be particularly important milestones in the final decades of the millennium that has just come to an end: 1968 and 1989. The year 1968 marked the rebellion of a new generation, which not only considered postwar reconstruction in Europe as inadequate, full of injustice, full of selfishness and greed, but also viewed the entire course of history since the triumph of Christianity as a mistake and a failure. These young people wanted to improve things at last, to bring about freedom, equality, and justice, and they were convinced that they had found the way to this better world in the mainstream of Marxist thought. The year 1989 brought the surprising collapse of the socialist regimes in Europe, which left behind a sorry legacy of ruined land and ruined souls. Anyone who expected that the hour had come again for the Christian message was disappointed. Although the number of believing Christians throughout the world is not small, Christianity failed at that historical moment to make itself heard as an epoch-making alternative. Basically, the Marxist doctrine of salvation (in several differently orchestrated variations, of course) had taken a stand as the sole ethically motivated guide to the future that was at the same time consistent with a scientific world view.[5]

It is my contention, in light of his sources and his life’s work, that the Introduction to Christianity represents part of Ratzinger’s move toward an “ethically motivated” faith that can stand as a meaningful alternative to secular ideologies for modern people—one that is not merely intellectual or rational (though it is these) but that is also morally enlivening and politically responsible. It is primarily two of his sources in the text—though they barely appear—that signal his concern: St. Bonaventure and Erik Peterson.

Though, per the index of the most-recent edition, each of these authors is only cited once,[6] their influence was and remains immense on the pope emeritus. In remaining attentive to this dimension of his thought, we may discover a role for Introduction to Christianity that transcends its role as a catechetical text, making it part of Benedict’s life-long project of establishing a politically-salient Christianity that speaks to (and perhaps saves) the modern world.

Revelatory History

St. Bonaventure pops up very briefly in this seminal work. Ratzinger writes (in a section dedicated to contrasting instrumental reason and faith-filled rationality):

And one cannot deny that the Freiburg philosopher [Martin Heidegger] has a good deal of justification for expressing the fear that in an age in which calculating thought is celebrating the most amazing triumphs man is nevertheless threatened, perhaps more than ever before, by thoughtlessness, by the flight from thought. By thinking only of the practicable, of what can be made, he is in danger of forgetting to reflect on himself and on the meaning of his existence. Of course, this temptation is present in every age. Thus in the thirteenth century the great Franciscan theologian Bonaventure felt obliged to reproach his colleagues of the philosophical faculty at Paris with having learned how to measure the world but having forgotten how to measure themselves.[7]

Here, the saint appears as a corrective force, one who argues for the necessarily-humanistic side of philosophical inquiry. We may know a lot about the world in quantitative terms, but this is no excuse (nor even an alternative) to the life of self-inquiry, that is, the life of faith. But there is more going on here as well: Bonaventure emerges as a figure who—providentially—leads us to a better understanding of the nexus of revelation, rationality, and history.

This is not apparent from the quotation above. It makes more sense, however, when we consider that Ratzinger’s Habilitationsschrift (a dissertation that qualifies one for a professorial post) concerned itself with the relationship between history and Logos in the philosophy of St. Bonaventure. In his self-presentation as a member of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, then Cardinal Ratzinger seems to recall this research with great relish:

Generally, our formation was historically oriented, and so, although my area of speciality was systematic theology, my doctoral dissertation and my postdoctoral work presented historical arguments . . . My postdoctoral work was about St. Bonaventure, a Franciscan theologian of the thirteenth century. I discovered an aspect of Bonaventure’s theology not found in the previous literature, namely, his relation with the new idea of history conceived by Joachim of Fiore in the twelfth century. Joachim saw history as progression from the period of the Father (a difficult time for human beings under the law), to a second period of history, that of the Son (with more freedom, more openness, more brotherhood), to a third period of history, the definitive period of history, the time of the Holy of Spirit. According to Joachim, this was to be a time of universal reconciliation, reconciliation between east and west, between Christians and Jews, a time without the law (in the Pauline sense), a time of real brotherhood in the world. The interesting idea which I discovered was that a significant current among the Franciscans was convinced that Saint Francis of Assisi and the Franciscan Order marked the beginning of this third period of history, and it was their ambition to actualise it; Bonaventure was in critical dialogue with this current.[8]

I do not mean to say that Ratzinger was some of sort of apocalyptic follower of early-Franciscanism. The important point here is that Bonaventure’s understanding of history implies the need for a continuing unfolding or interpretation of revealed truth throughout time; rational inquiry united to faith cannot exist or present itself statically. This does not imply that Ratzinger supports a simple aggiornamento, but it is undeniable that his postdoctoral work (and his mention of Bonaventure in Introduction) betray an interest in history as a realm for the unfolding of rational discourse, a place in which faith and reason do not contradict but instead contend with alternatives. Tradition, reason, and revelation interact. Ratzinger himself admits just this:

These insights gained through my reading of Bonaventure, were later on very important for me at the time of the conciliar discussion on revelation, Scripture, and tradition. Because, if Bonaventure is right, then revelation precedes Scripture and becomes deposited in Scripture but is not simply identical with it. This in turn means that revelation is always something greater than what is merely written down. And this again means that there can be no such thing as pure sola scriptura [“by Scripture alone”], because an essential element of Scripture is the Church as understanding subject, and with this the fundamental sense of tradition is already given.[9]

Bonaventure, then, helps us make sense of why and how Ratzinger might have seen the need to write an introduction to the Faith: modern man had to be reached differently, had to see the old with new eyes. As he wrote in the 1968 preface, “The question of the real content and meaning of the Christian faith is enveloped today in a greater fog of uncertainty than at almost any earlier period in history.”[10] This recognition motivated the drafting of the text. No wonder then that, when he was pope, Benedict went out of his way to visit Bonaventure’s grave![11]

Political Theology

There is one other source worth investigating in this reinterpretation of the role of the Introduction to Christianity: Erik Peterson. Again, Peterson’s name only appears once. He comes up in reference to the fact that “the ecclesiastical belief in the Trinity shattered the politically usable molds, destroyed the potentialities of theology as a political myth, and disowned the misuse of the Gospel to justify a political situation.”[12] In other words, he references Peterson with regard to the relationship among history, faith, and politics. Specifically, he contends that the doctrine of the Trinity (as revealed to us in history, per Bonaventure) made impotent the idea that a single divine sovereign (the God of monotheism) could be reflected simply in the idea of a divinely-instituted earthly sovereign. The Triune God makes impossible an easy correspondence between divine power and its mundane analogue. Peterson most especially had in mind the ideas of his once friend (turned Nazi supporter) Carl Schmitt, who understood politics to be modern, secularized theology. Again, it would seem to make the most sense to let Ratzinger speak in his own words:

Perhaps at this point I should insert a personal reflection. I first discovered the figure of Erik Peterson in 1951. At the time I was chaplain in Bogenhausen, and the director of the local publishing house Kosel, Mr. Wild, gave me the volume, just published, “Theologische Traktate” (Theological Tractates). I read it with increasing curiosity and let myself be truly impassioned by this book, because the theology I was looking for was there: a theology that employs all the historical seriousness to understand and study the texts, analyzing them with all the seriousness of historical research, and not allowing them to remain in the past, but that, in his research, he participates in the self-surmounting of the letter, enters into this self-surmounting and lets himself be led by it and in this way enters into contact with the One from whom theology itself comes: with the living God. And thus the hiatus between the past, which philology analyzes, and the today, is surmounted by itself, because the word leads to the encounter with reality, and the entire timeliness of what is written, which transcends itself toward reality, becomes alive and operating. Thus, from him I learned, in the most essential and profound way, what theology really is, and I also felt admiration, because here he does not only say what he thinks, but this book is an expression of a path that was the passion of his life.[13]

Peterson was a Catholic convert, one who took—as Ratzinger says—history seriously. He took it seriously by creating a living theology that could speak to contemporary issues. In his case, these problems that needed to be addressed were by and large political. Peterson lived through two World Wars, and, as previously mentioned, lived to see his friend Carl Schmitt transform from a Catholic jurist to an apologist for absolutely-secular politics, a thinker who essentializes Hobbes’ questions: Quis interpretabitur, quis iudicabit? (who will interpret, who will judge?). The answer is complicated and need not concern us here. What matters is our recognition that buried within Introduction is a nod to Erik Peterson, that is, a nod to the political salience of the Trinity. Ratzinger’s initiation into the Christian faith shows itself to be much further reaching; catechesis has a political dimension.

Secular Rationality

These references make even more sense when we consider a chief issue that has made Ratzinger famous in the later part of his life: the role of faith—politically and ethically—in a secular age. Most famously, he sat down with noted student of secular rationality Jürgen Habermas. One could write (and many have written) an abundance of articles on Benedict’s criticisms of contemporary liberal democracy and its relationship to instrumental reason. There is no space for that here. But these are problems with which we are familiar: a “dictatorship of relativism,” the idea that scientific, quantitative reasoning has suppressed the true meaning of rationality, the concern that, without Christian concepts like intrinsic human dignity and the preferential option for the poor, modernity is a hollow shell. These are concerns shared by Habermas, hence their dialogue. For both of them, as Christianity fades into the background, as the principles that it lent secular liberalism disappear, so is the fate of modern democracy imperiled.

For our purposes here, however, the most important part of this project is translation: how can we express the truths of Christianity to a world that has been taught to ignore it, to see it as mere superstition? How can faith be made viable once again? The kernel of Ratzinger’s response to this question has been that we must reclaim the universalizing, moral language of the Faith for a new era; we must uncover a new language, based in tradition, that is capable of speaking to an age ruled by the primacy of absolute conscience, on the one hand, and by the tyranny of totalizing instrumental rationality, on the other. Only if we as Christians can share a language with our secular counterparts can there be hope for egalitarianism, for universalism, for a morally-salient politics. Our age has only grown more pluralistic, with increased movement of peoples, the breakdown of cultures, and the erosion of tribal sensibilities. And yet, we seem less capable than ever of justifying this project to ourselves, precisely because we (as societies) lack the Christian theological vocabulary on which these desires were constructed. As a result, the state can become absolute and politics can become a game of unmitigated, coldly-calculating power. Ratzinger, writing in the new preface to the Introduction about the hope, impact, and failure of liberation theology worries about just this:

Man is, indeed, as Aristotle says, a "political being", but he cannot be reduced to politics and economics. I see the real and most profound problem with the liberation theologies in their effective omission of the idea of God, which, of course, also changed the figure of Christ fundamentally (as we have indicated). Not as though God had been denied—not on your life! He simply was not needed in regard to the "reality" that mankind had to deal with. God had nothing to do.

One is struck by this point and suddenly wonders: Was that the case only in liberation theology? Or, was this theory able to arrive at such an assessment of the question about God—that the question was not a practical one for the long overdue business of changing the world—only because the Christian world thought much the same thing, or, rather, lived in much the same way, without reflecting on it or noticing it? Has not Christian consciousness acquiesced to a great extent—without being aware of it—in the attitude that faith in God is something subjective, which belongs in the private realm and not in the common activities of public life where, in order to be able to get along, we all have to behave now etsi Deus non daretur (as if there were no God). Was it not necessary to find a way that would be valid in case it turned out that God did not exist?[14]

Prolegomena to Any Future Politics

Introduction to Christianity is just this sort of translation. It is an attempt to demonstrate the rationality of Christian belief to a secular world. It is important because without this role for Christian doctrine the very foundations of contemporary politics are endangered—a fact that both Ratzinger and Habermas recognize. What at first seemed a catechetical aid, an argument for Christianity, is shown to be something urgent, something necessary—something political. This is what paying attention to Ratzinger’s sources shows us: Bonaventure and Peterson pop up, because their concerns about history, revelation, and politics have always sat in the back of Benedict’s mind; their names appear because, even early in his career, Ratzinger recognized the need for this work of translation. Without it, the world as we understand it might fall sway to relativism, to Realpolitik, to a modernity that forgets its own history and foundations. Introduction to Christianity is not merely an explication of doctrine; it is a deeply-sourced return to the fundamentals of the Faith in the hope that such a recovery—expressed in a new language—might translate forgotten necessities for a decaying liberalism. But we know this. Ratzinger, in the original preface, tells us as much:

This trend cannot be countered, it is true, by merely sticking to the precious metal of the fixed formulas of days gone by, for then it remains just a lump of metal, a burden instead of something offering by virtue of its value the possibility of true freedom. This is where the present book comes in: its aim is to help understand faith afresh as something that makes possible true humanity in the world of today, to expound faith without changing it into the small coin of empty talk painfully laboring to hide a complete spiritual vacuum.[15]

[1] See:

[2] See:

[3] See:

[4] See:

[5] Ratzinger, Introduction to Christianity (San Francisco: Ignatius, 2004), 12. All citations are from this 2nd, newest, edition.

[6] For Bonaventure, see Ratzinger, Introduction, 363. For Peterson, see Ratzinger, Introduction, 374 (where his only real citation of Peterson is disguised as a reference to Carl Schmitt).

[7] Ratzinger, Introduction, 71.

[8] See:

[9] See:

[10] Ratzinger, Introduction, 31.

[11] See:

[12] Ratzinger, Introduction, 70-71.

[13] See:

[14] Ratzinger, Introduction, 16.

[15] Ratzinger, Introduction, 32

Featured Image: Giotto, St. Francis's Vision of the Empty Thrones, c. 1295; Source: Wikimedia Commons, PD-Old-100.


Chase Padusniak

Chase Padusniak is a PhD candidate in Princeton University's Department of English, where he specializes in medieval literature. In addition to his academic pursuits, Chase spends time working on creative projects such as films, poetry, and cultivating negativity.

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