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The Protestant Twist To Pope Benedict's Theological Legacy

In his Spiritual Testament, Pope Benedict XVI only cited Protestant theologians – not a single Catholic thinker. Were the Catholics not interesting enough for him? And what do Joseph Ratzinger’s pre-modern understanding of the concept of reason and inaccurate Kant quotes have to do with it?

photo of pope benedict waving

Benedict XVI in 2008 in St. Petersburg Square

Evandro Inetti/ZUMA
Friedrich Wilhelm Graf


MUNICH — Joseph Ratzinger first became known to an educated readership in 1968 when he published Introduction to Christianity. The book was widely read, selling 45,000 copies in its first year of publication.

However, in the small, elite world of German-speaking theology professors, the book came in for heavy criticism. In 1969 Walter Kasper, who was then Professor of Dogmatics at the University of Tübingen, wrote a scathing review in which he accused his colleague of having a false, overly subjective understanding of Christian theology.

Kasper claimed Ratzinger had relied too heavily on the existentialist thought of Danish theologian Søren Kierkegaard and interpretations of Kierkegaard’s work by Rudolf Bultmann, a Lutheran theologian and Professor of the New Testament at the University of Marburg. This meant that, according to Kasper, Ratzinger’s work played fast and loose with “the objective ecclesiastical form of the Church within the Christian faith.” In other words, Ratzinger’s “existentialist interpretation” risked “tipping over into a purely spiritualistic understanding of the Church.”

That was serious criticism. Kasper, who decades later moved to Rome when he was made a Cardinal of the Roman Curia and President of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, was accusing Ratzinger of being too heavily influenced by Protestant thought.

Ratzinger’s theology displays an unusually strong continuity in its interpretative patterns and ways of thinking. He often included passages from his own earlier publications in new works. This self-quoting was also a feature of his intense – sometimes approving, sometimes critical – engagement with Protestant debates. From the earliest days of his theological career, he was fixated on Protestantism, whether critically or positively.

A return to the simple gospel

In his History of Dogma, Harnack offered a critical reconstruction of the formation and development of Christian dogma. He claimed that Early Church theologians’ adoption of aspects of Hellenistic philosophy had led to a fatal distortion of Jesus’s original message.

He called for a return to the simple, undogmatic gospel of the itinerant Jewish preacher Jesus of Nazareth

The Berlin-born Church historian therefore called for a “dehellenization” of Christian belief and a return to the simple, undogmatic gospel of the itinerant Jewish preacher Jesus of Nazareth.

He argued that the Christian faith originally had nothing to do with metaphysical speculations about the dual nature of Christ or the Trinity, and that the Reformers of the 16th century were mistaken in holding to the Early Church’s creed, with its exaggerated claims about the Virgin Birth and Christ’s Descent into Hell.

Ratzinger and Kasper

photo of Cardinals Joseph Ratzinger and Walter Kasper

Fellow German Cardinals Joseph Ratzinger and Walter Kasper in Hamburg in 2005


Wrestling with Harnack

Harnack called for a version of Christianity that wasn’t shaped by Church doctrine. He claimed that all Jesus preached was the coming of the Kingdom of God and the infinite worth of every human soul. Everything else, especially the new dogmas endlessly churned out by the Roman Catholic Church, was superfluous, the weight of tradition.

While he referred explicitly to Harnack, Ratzinger saw things very differently. In his controversial speech at the University of Regensburg in September 2006, which was first and foremost a denunciation of Protestantism and secondly of Islam, he said that the Reformers’ protests against Rome represented a first wave of the “dehellenization of belief”, which reached its apotheosis in Kant’s teaching on human autonomy. He said there had been a second wave of dehellenization around 1900, led by Harnack and other liberal Protestants.

In response, Ratzinger claimed that faith was inextricably tied to the concept of reason as laid out by Hellenistic philosophy. Ratzinger’s concept of reason is consciously shaped by pre-modern European thought.

When he quotes Kant, he mostly does so inaccurately. For him, this great mind from Königsberg, who explored the limits of self-knowledge, is simply one example in a tale of deterioration that began with the nominalists of the 12th century and continued through the Reformation of the 16th century, when it led to the destruction of the unity of the Christian Church in the West.

Risks of secularization

In his controversial address in Freiburg on 25 September, 2011, Benedict XVI looked to a concept borrowed from Protestant discourse and gave it a new meaning: the concept of “de-secularization.” The ideas of “secularization” and “de-secularization” of the Church were explored in 1912 by conservative Protestant theologian Reinhold Seeberg, and later by Rudolf Bultmann.

The Church must resist all tendencies to adapt to secular culture.

In his Theology of the New Testament, Bultmann – who called for the “demythologization” of Christ in 1948 – wrote that “for Jesus […] man is de-secularized by God’s direct pronouncement to him, which tears him out of all security of any kind”. Bultmann wanted to emphasize the pious individual’s radical autonomy to resist all outside pressures from society. His Christian faith is an awareness of difference shaped by individual freedom.

Ratzinger was influenced by this talk of “de-secularization” from a young age. He made it a guiding concept for his understanding of the Church, which hinges on the contrast between the Church and the world. Of course the Church is in the world. But it is not of it. Therefore it must resist all tendencies to adapt to secular culture, every form of “secularization.”

In Freiburg, the Pope called for a new “de-secularization” of the Church. His central argument was that “the de-secularized Church’s mission and witness will be clearer.” He was convinced because of his reading of Protestant ideas about the true Church.

Photo of Pope Francis before the casket of Pope Benedict XVI

At the funeral of Pope Benedict XVI

Fabio Frustaci/ANSA via ZUMA

Truths of faith

Some of Ratzinger’s arguments about the Church were clearly Catholic: the Church is a strong, hierarchical institution for salvation, which – through its teaching, especially about morality – preserves order in a world that is increasingly threatened by chaos and anarchy. There were, however, some elements of Ratzinger’s view of the Church were very Protestant in nature. He claimed the institution was also a “community united by conviction” and led by the Holy Spirit, a community of true believers.

Ratzinger’s conception of the Church includes strong criticism of a bourgeois, secularized “people’s Church,” a Church made up of nominal Christians that has a place for unbelievers. In contrast, he emphasized the importance of a practicing, believing community. The “truths of the faith” must be lived out by individuals in “truthfulness.”

Walter Kasper was right to see in Ratzinger’s radical anti-Protestantism of 1968 many signs of a typically Protestant subjectivity. What’s more: Ratzinger’s references to Protestant discourses also revealed his most sectarian tendencies.

Friedrich Wilhelm Graf is Professor Emeritus of Systematic Theology and Ethics at the University of Munich. He has recently published a biography of Ernst Troeltsch.

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Screenshot of OpenAI's ChatGPT homepage with a flag of Ukraine in the background

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The past 365 days, like other Ukrainians, have been consumed by a war that seems drudged up from the 19th century. But I have long been interested in the potential of Artificial Intelligence and the machine revolution, I believe in the three laws of robotics, and have grown up on the new-wave of American science fiction.

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