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Ratzinger Reader

Ratzinger Reader

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In this text, Ratzinger addresses particular questions and challenges for
the Christian faith and theology that he believes emerged in the 1990s.

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Having first revisited the ‘crisis for liberation theology’43

, which he identi-
fies as an attempt to try and make political ideology (namely, Marxism),
the basis of human redemption and to make human effort and praxis the
core of theological reflection, he notes how the political events of 1989
and beyond (the fall of the Berlin Wall and collapse of Eastern European
state totalitarianism) pose new challenges and he suggests ‘new forms’ of
the Marxist view of the world will emerge. Liberation theology is blamed
for setting in motion a malaise with regard to faith and theology.
In particular he identifies ‘relativism’ as the new ‘dominant philosophy’
and the ‘central problem of faith for our time’. He admits a certain amount
of relativism in the political sphere is no bad thing, but with regard to
faith he laments the rise of the pluralistic theology of the religions, forms
of such he believed reached their peak in the 1990s. He sees pluralistic
theology as being a product of the Western world view and yet echoing
much of the ‘Asian’ understanding of religion: ‘postmetaphysical philo-
sophy’ from the former combines with the ‘negative theology’ of the latter.
He singles out the English Presbyterian philosopher of religion and
theologian, John Hick, as epitomizing the approach he rejects. Hick
believes the different religions are leading towards the same ultimate real-
ity in necessarily different ways. Ratzinger sketches a caricature of such an
approach, which he believes requires that all religions’ viewpoints become
equal and teaches that no particular faith or historically manifested path
to God can be deemed superior to any other.
In particular, Ratzinger criticizes relativism in Christology and in
ecclesiology, whereby Christ is somehow seen as one saviour or media-
tor for humanity among others and possibly even just a human being
who was not literally divine, and where no particular church is afforded
pre-eminence over and against others. Ratzinger equally rejects modified
forms of pluralism based on the primacy of orthopraxis over orthodoxy.
A further development here is the rise in ‘New Age’ religions and
the revival of older forms of religion and ritual. Furthermore a ‘grey
pragmatism’ has emerged in the Church, with regard to not just faith,
but also church organisation, morals and even the liturgy, where local
congregations are calling for the right to determine even the form of the
mass relative to their context.
Ratzinger’s supporters would identify such arguments as marking a
turning of the tide in theological understandings of the relations between
different faiths. They would point out that Christian uniqueness, particu-
larly that of salvation in Christ, is so fundamental an aspect of the faith

43 Which may, at first, appear a little strange in this context until one appreciates Ratzinger’s general
ecclesiological perspective (see Chapter Three of this volume).

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that any theological position that undermines it therefore undermines the
faith itself. Liberal political ideas, ideologies and philosophies had infected
theological positions within Catholicism for too long, according to such
views, and thus what Ratzinger offers is a corrective to such a theological
malaise. But his critics say that Ratzinger offers only an exaggerated
caricature and ‘straw man’ portrayal for each of liberation theology,
Marxism, relativism, pluralism, Asian religions and philosophy and ‘New
Age’ approaches to life and religion, as opposed to what the proponents
of these various standpoints actually argue and believe. For example,
John Hick replied at length to Ratzinger in publication, indicating that
Ratzinger had misrepresented and misunderstood his work in numerous

Indeed, even Ratzinger himself admitted (in a footnote in the
original), that his account of both Hick and Paul Knitter was based on his
reading of a secondary discussion of their work.

[. . .] Relativism – The Dominant Philosophy45

[R]elativism has become the central problem for faith in our time. It by no means
appears simply as resignation in the face of the unfathomable nature of truth, of
course; rather, it defines itself positively on the basis of the concepts of tolerance,
dialectic epistemology, and freedom, which would be limited by maintaining one
truth as being valid for everyone . . .. In the realm of politics and society, therefore,
one cannot deny relativism a certain right. The problem is based on the fact that
it sees itself as being unlimited. And now it is being quite consciously applied to
the field of religion and ethics. [. . .] The so-called pluralistic theology of religions
had in fact been gradually developing since the fifties, but it did not occupy the
center of attention for Christians until now. With respect to the ramifications of the
questions it raises, and likewise to its being present in the most various cultural
spheres, it occupies much the same place as did liberation theology in the past
decade; it is also frequently combined with the latter in an attempt to give it a
new, updated form. It appears in widely varying forms, so that it is impossible
to express it in a short formula and present its essential elements briefly. On the
one hand, this is a typical product of the Western world and of its thought forms,
yet, on the other hand, it is astonishingly close to the philosophical and religious
intuitions of Asia, and especially of the Indian sub-continent, so that in the current
historical situation the con tact of these two worlds gives it a particular impact.

44 John Hick, Dialogues in the Philosophy of Religion. London: Palgrave Macmillan, 1993, pp. 149–168
(Hick’s reply being from p. 157 ff.).
45 [From ‘The New Questions that Arose in the Nineties: Faith and Theology Today’, in Joseph
Ratzinger, Truth and Tolerance: Christian Belief and World Religions. San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2004,
pp. 115–137].

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Relativism in Theology – The Revocation of Christology

That is clearly visible in the work of one of its founders and principal representa-
tives, the English Presbyterian J. Hick, whose philosophical starting point is found
in Kant’s distinction between phenomenon and noumenon: we can never know
ultimate reality in itself but only ever its appearance in the way we perceive things,
seeing it through various ‘lenses’. Everything we perceive is, not actual reality as it
is in itself, but a reflection corresponding to our capacities. This approach, which
Hick first tried to apply in a context that was still christocentric, he transformed
after a year’s stay in India, in what he himself calls a Copernican turning point
in his thinking, into a new form of theocentrism. The identification of one single
historical figure, Jesus of Nazareth, with ‘reality’ itself, with the living God, was
now rejected as a relapse into myth; Jesus was consciously relativized, reduced
to one religious genius among others. There can be no abso lute entity in itself,
or absolute person in himself, within history, only patterns, only ideal figures,
which direct our attention toward the wholly other, which in history cannot in fact
be comprehended in itself. It is clear that by the same token Church, dogma,
and sacraments must thereby lose their unconditional status. To regard such
finite mediations as abso lute, or even as real encounters with the universally
valid truth of the God who reveals himself, amounts to setting up one’s own
experience as absolute and thus failing to perceive the infinity of the God who is
wholly other.

From such a standpoint, which dominates thinking far beyond the scope
of Hick’s theories, the belief that there is indeed truth, valid and binding truth,
within history itself, in the figure of Jesus Christ and in the faith of the Church, is
referred to as fundamentalism, which appears as the real assault upon the spirit
of the modern age and, manifested in many forms, as the fundamental threat to
the highest good of that age, freedom and tolerance. Thus to a great extent the
concept of dialogue, which certainly held an important place in the Platonic and
in the Christian tradition, has acquired a different meaning. It has become the
very epitome of the relativist credo, the concept opposed to that of ‘conversion’
and mission: dialogue in the relativist sense means setting one’s own position or
belief on the same level with what the other person believes, ascribing to it, on
principle, no more of the truth than to the position of the other per son. Only if my
fundamental presupposition is that the other person may be just as much in the
right as I am, or even more so, can any dialogue take place at all. Dialogue,
it is said, has to be an exchange between positions that are fundamentally of
equal status and thus mutually relative, with the aim of achieving a maximum
of cooperation and integration between various religious bodies and entities.
The relativist elimination of Christology, and most certainly of ecclesiology, now
becomes a central commandment of religion. To turn back to Hick: the belief in
the divinity of an individual, he tells us, leads to fanaticism and particularism, to

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the dissociation of faith from love; and this is the thing that must be overcome.46

The Recourse to Asian Religions

In the thought of J. Hick, whom we have particularly in mind here as a prominent
representative of religious relativism, the postmetaphysical philosophy of Europe
converges in a remarkable way with the negative theology of Asia, for which the
Divinity can never enter, in itself and undisguised, into the world of appearances
in which we live: it only ever shows itself in relative reflections and in itself remains
beyond all words and beyond all comprehension in absolute transcendence. In their
starting points, as in the direction they give to human existence, the two philosophies
are in themselves fundamentally different. Yet they appear nonetheless to support
one another in their metaphysical and religious relativism. The a-religious and
pragmatic relativism of Europe and America can borrow a kind of consecration from
India, which seems to give its renunciation of dogma the dignity of a heightened
reverence for the mystery of God and of man. Conversely, the way that European
and Amer ican thinking has turned back to India’s philosophical and theological
vision has the effect of further strengthening that relativizing of all religious figures
which is part of India’s heritage. Thus it now actually seems imperative in India,
even for Christian theology, to extract from its particularity the figure of Christ,
regarded as Western, and to set it beside Indian redemption myths as if it were of
similar status: the historical Jesus, so people now think, is actually no more uniquely
the Logos than any other savior figures from history are. The fact that here, in the
context of the encounter between cultures, relativism seems appropriate as the true
philosophy of humanity gives it (as we have already suggested) such an appre-
ciable impact, both in East and West, that it hardly seems possible to offer further
resistance. Anyone who opposes it is not only setting himself against democracy
and tolerance, that is the fundamental rules of human intercourse; he is obstinately
insisting on the preeminence of his own Western culture and thus refusing to share
in that coexistence of cultures which is obviously the order of the day. [. . .]

New Age

The relativism of Hick and Knitter and other related theories is ultimately based on a
rationalism that holds that reason in Kant’s sense is incapable of any metaphysical
knowledge; religion is then given a new basis along pragmatic lines, with either
a more ethical or a more political coloration. There is, however, a consciously
antirationalist response to the experience that ‘everything is relative’, a complex
reality that is lumped together under the title of New Age. The way out of the
dilemma of relativism is now sought, not in a new encounter of the ‘I’ with the
‘Thou’ or the ‘We’, but in overcoming subjective consciousness, in a re-entry into

46 Cf., for example, J. Hick, An Interpretation of Religion: Human Responses to the Transcendent. New Haven:
Yale University Press, 1989; Menke, Einzigkeit Jesu Christi. Freiburg: Johannes-Verlag, 1995, p. 90.

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the dance of the cosmos through ecstasy. As in the case of Gnosis in the ancient
world, this way believes itself to be fully in tune with all the teachings and the
claims of science, making use of scientific knowledge of every kind (biology,
psychology, sociology, physics). At the same time, however, it offers against this
back ground a completely antirationalist pattern of religion, a mod ern ‘mysticism’:
the absolute is, not something to be believed in, but something to be experienced.
God is not a person distinct from the world; rather, he is the spiritual energy that
is at work throughout the universe. Religion means bringing myself into tune with
the cosmic whole, the transcending of all divisions . . ..
Objectifying reason, New Age thinking tells us, closes our way to the mystery
of reality; existing as the self shuts us out from the fullness of cosmic reality; it
destroys the harmony of the whole and is the real reason for our being unre-
deemed. Redemption lies in breaking down the limits of the self, in plunging into
the fullness of life and all that is living, in going back home to the universe. [. . .]
The gods are returning. They have become more credible than God. Aboriginal
rites must be renewed in which the self is initiated into the mysteries of the uni verse
and freed from its own self.
There are many reasons for the renewal of pre-Christian religions and cults
that is being widely undertaken today. If there is no truth shared by everyone,
a truth that is valid simply because it is true, then Christianity is merely a foreign
import, a form of spiritual imperialism, which needs to be shaken off just as much
as political imperialism. If what takes place in the sacraments is not the encounter
with the one living God of all men, then they are empty rituals that mean nothing
and give us nothing and, at best, allow us to sense the numinous element that is
actively present in all religions. It then seems to make better sense to seek after
what was originally our own than to permit alien and antiquated things to be
imposed on us. But above all, if the ‘rational intoxication’ of the Christian mystery
cannot make us intoxicated with God, then we just have to conjure up the real,
concrete intoxication of effective ecstasies, the passionate power of which catches
us up and turns us, at least for a moment, into gods, helps us for a moment to
sense the pleasure of infinity and to forget the misery of finite existence. The more
the pointlessness of political absolutisms becomes obvious, the more powerful will
be the attraction of irrationalism, the renunciation of everyday reality.

Pragmatism in Everyday Church Life

Side by side with these radical solutions, and side by side also with the greater
pragmatism of the liberation theologies, there is also the gray pragmatism at work
in the everyday life of the Church, whereby everything is apparently being done
right, yet in reality the faith is stale and declining into a shabby meanness. I am
thinking of two phenomena that I regard with some concern. On one hand, there
are attempts, some more determined than others, to extend the majority principle
to matters of faith and morals and, thus, to ‘democratize’ the Church in a decided
fashion. What is not obvious to the majority cannot have any binding claim upon

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us, so it seems. Majority of whom, in fact? Will this majority be dif ferent tomorrow
from what it is today? A faith we can decide for ourselves is no faith at all. And
no minority has any rea son to allow a majority to prescribe what it should believe.
Either the faith and its practice come to us from the Lord by way of the Church
and her sacramental services, or there is no such thing. [. . .]
The other point I would raise concerns the liturgy. The various phases of liturgical
reform have allowed people to gain the impression that liturgy can be changed
as and how you wish. If there is any unchanging element, people think, then this
would in no instance be anything other than the words of consecration: everything
else might be done differently. The next idea is quite logical: If a central authority
can do that, then why not local decision-making bodies? And if local bodies, then
why not the congregation itself? It ought to be expressing itself in the liturgy and
should be able to see its own style recognizably present there. After the rationalist
and puritan trend of the seventies, and even the eighties, people are tired of litur-
gies that are just words and would like liturgies they can experience; and these
soon get close to New Age styles: a search for intoxication and ecstasy . [. . .]

The Tasks Facing Theology

Thus, all in all, we are facing a remarkable situation: liberation theology had tried
to give a new practice to a Chris tendom that was tired of dogma, a practice by
means of which redemption was finally to become an actual event. This prac tice,
however, instead of bringing freedom, left destruction in its wake. What was
left was relativism and the attempt to come to terms with it. Yet what that offers
is in its turn so empty that the relativist theories look for help from the liberation
theology, so as thus to become of more practical use. Finally, New Age says,
‘Let’s just leave Christianity as a failed experiment and go back to the gods – it’s
better that way.’ [. . .]


If we look at the current constellation in the history of ideas that I have been
trying to sketch in outline, then it must seem like a real miracle that, despite all
this, people still hold the Christian faith . [. . .] Why has faith still any chance
at all? I should say it is because it corresponds to the nature of man. For man is
more generously proportioned than the way Kant and the various post-Kantian
philosophies see him or will allow him to be. Kant himself ought to have found
a place for this, somehow or other, among his postulates. The longing for the
infinite is alive and unquenchable within man. None of the attempted answers
will do; only the God who himself became finite in order to tear open our finitude
and lead us out into the wide spaces of his infinity, only he corresponds to the
question of our being. That is why, even today, Christian faith will come to man
again. It is our task to serve this faith with humble courage, with all the strength
of our heart and of our mind.

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