Man of the moment

Msgr Ireneusz Skubis talks to Archbishop Alfons Nossol about the significance of the election of Pope Benedict XVI for the universal Church.

On 19 April 2005, in the morning, so before the actual election of Pope Benedict XVI, some questions for the interview concerning Cardinal Ratzinger as a future pope were prepared. These questions were presented to Archbishop of Opole, Alfons Nossol. He has been a friend of the present Pope Benedict XVI for years. Of course, the first question was asked after the election. We are grateful to Archbishop Nossol, outstanding Polish theologian, for the interview.

Fr Ireneusz Skubis: - You have known the Holy Father Benedict XVI for years, which is connected with the fact that Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger is an eminent theologian. What was your reaction to the decision of the conclave on the evening of 19 April?

Archbishop Alfons Nossol: - I will not exaggerate to say that it was the second happiest day in my priestly life, similar to the day of 16 October 1978, when we received another news from the Vatican: Habemus Papam Karolum Wojtyla. The election of Benedict XVI is a magnificent continuation of what the pontificate of John Paul II began. Therefore, I was very pleased. Frankly speaking, I was not very surprised since I expected such a vote of the College of Cardinals. The Pope, who is such an excellent theologian and who has such a profound knowledge of theological subjects, and at the same time he possesses such a unique gift of wisdom and experience of life: we are very much in need of such a pope today. And the continuation of the great message, great legacy of John Paul II was needed. It was Cardinal Ratzinger that knew him best. Ratzinger was his closest collaborator, and perhaps his closest friend. And it seems that this election was the most suitable one.
I felt only one fear that Cardinal Ratzinger would not accept this most difficult service in the contemporary world, not only because of his age or physical condition but first of all because he realised what it meant to be Peter of our times. But I am convinced that it was John Paul II that managed to beg the Divine Providence to give him this grace of election, and that's why he did not dare to reject it.

- Cardinal Ratzinger was Prefect of the very important Congregation, in which one must be an outstanding theologian. Would you characterise Cardinal Ratzinger as a theologian, especially in the light of today's problems, say German theology (e.g. Eugen Drewermann)? What was Cardinal Ratzinger's reaction to 'the novelties' coming from German speaking countries?

- Undoubtedly, he is one of the greatest contemporary specialists in systematic theology. At the same time he is an excellent expert in contemporary philosophy, both classical and modern. His discussion with the critical philosopher and theologian J(rgen Habermas has showed how well aetiologically Cardinal Ratzinger was able to explain philosophical aspects of today's reality. He astonished Habermas in many cases as far as accuracy, logic and consistency of thinking are concerned. And one must admit that very few people could rival him as a theologian. His knowledge of theology is very profound but also wide: there is no strictly theological field he would not embrace with his reflective faith. However, what is more important, he never contents himself with ordinary knowledge, with the science of theology understood as scienta sui generis. He is also more concerned with theological wisdom, wisdom increased by life experience. Thus he is not afraid of any theological problems, even those aggressively presented problems ( la K(ng or Drewermann. By the way, their theories have never surprised him. But he was astonished by their behaviour. Furthermore, he valued Hans K(ng and he even collaborated closely with him in T(bingen. I got to know it myself when I wrote to K(ng about Karl Barth and it was Ratzinger who replied to my letter addressed to K(ng because the latter was a visiting professor in the United States. When Ratzinger went away it was K(ng who often answered on his behalf. That was something natural because there were friendly relationships between them. One must remember that Hans K(ng was a great theologian but at the same time he was a man of vast ambition. That made his theology oversimplified and led him towards religious studies. And consequently, now he puts forward his leading thesis about international, all-human religious ethos.

- And what does K(ng intend to do now?

- K(ng as if accepted his fate. By the way, he always finds an explanation favourable to him. In his opinion he and Ratzinger are two personalities who are symptomatic of priesthood in the Catholic Church in general. K(ng thinks he himself has chosen the way of freedom and accuses Cardinal Ratzinger of choosing the way of career. If he had chosen career, he would have been at least a cardinal - that is what he thinks of himself. The first volume of his scientific biography has already appeared and the second one will be published soon. It is radiant with that self-awareness, absolute self-confidence, but this is especially symptomatic of two categories of scholars, people who should be particularly spiritual by nature, namely of theologians and artists. If they finally reach the end with their ABC they lose their popularity and then they want to astonish the world by provoking artificial problems. They want people speak about them, speak even bad things but at least they will be spoken of. That's why they cannot offer anything creative and begin scandalising. Then they are on the roll, as Germans usually say 'in', they are popular and they are invited to take part in discussions.
Cardinal Ratzinger has never been afraid of these novelties that reached Rome from the West, especially from Germany. He knew them and approached them aetiologically in his theological wisdom, i.e. looking at the causes, roots. He used counter arguments to show they were wrong but by doing that he as if cleared them of mines.

- Referring to Cardinal Ratzinger you have used the expression 'the way of career'. Could you specify what you meant?

- It is Hans K(ng who uses this expression to describe his old friend. However, you can understand this word in a positive way: career in the Roman meaning - falla cariera - to follow the way of your destiny with endurance, to serve the Church and through the Church to serve all humanity. But K(ng uses the word 'career' in the negative sense. He understands it 'to shine, gain popularity, be in newspaper headlines, etc. Surely, Cardinal Ratzinger does not belong to such people. He is not a man who desires a meaningless career, he has never been a careerist and he would never like to be one. With all his profound knowledge and wisdom he remains a very modest man, humble, deeply loving the truth. His bishop's and now papal motto shows that very well - cooperatores veritatis - and he is completely faithful to this. Where is the truth, there is no place for career in the negative sense of the word and he knows that very well. He has been aware of the power of his knowledge but although it is based on reason, on reflection, it is always illuminated by faith. He is a clear proof that there is no authentic theology without humility. He knows that theology as scientia sui generis cannot do without faith, which is the main cognitive organ of theologian. If someone does not accept this main cognitive organ of theology he unintentionally goes into religious studies and within religious studies you can take the liberty of doing various kinds of excessive things. Cardinal Ratzinger would never allow such a compromise because he is an authentic theologian.

- German speaking countries have always caused problems to popes, including John Paul II. How did Cardinal Ratzinger see these problems and will he now as the Pope work with the German Church and with the Church in Austria?

- Cardinal Ratzinger, particularly as 'the guardian of the faith, Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, knows these problems very well. That's why he was a man of the moment in this position. Once again we can state that he knew aetiologically, causally, why these problems were theologically formulated in this way in the West. And he could oppose them in the aetiological way, at their very causes or reasons, and with enormous competence, and somehow deprived them of their destructive power. Furthermore, we should admit that Ratzinger counted on his colleagues, younger German theologians who supported him, and he knew that they would not allow German theology, which always took into account the systematic theology (after all, apart from the French theology, nouvelle th(ologie, the German theology was a leading one as far as the systematic theology was concerned) to take a wrong direction. Such theologians as Cardinal Walter Kasper, later Bishop of Rottenburg-Stuttgart, and nowadays President of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, or Cardinal Karl Lehmann, President of the German Bishops Conference, belong to top theologians in the world. In certain theological dispute about leading theologians I told the Holy Father frankly, 'These two thinkers Karl Lehmann and Walter Kasper belong to the same class of theologians as Cardinal Ratzinger'. The Holy Father John Paul II looked at me as if he was not fully convinced but I then mentioned the discussion between Cardinal Ratzinger and Cardinal Kasper, President of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, in which Cardinal Ratzinger was a fervent adherent of the principle of the priority of the universal Church over the local Church. Then Cardinal Kasper put forward a bold thesis saying that it was true but not in the sense Cardinal Ratzinger meant - ontological priority, but rather scientistical one, priority in the cognitive aspect. He justified his thought in a very convincing manner: the universal Church occurs only in the local Church and the universal Church is carried by the local Church and this is some kind of paradox. What is universal exists only in what is made concrete; this is the mystery of Christianity, the everlasting Word that was made flesh. Their discussion was published in three articles on the pages of L'Osservatore Romano. I also wanted someone from the country of Luther to become a member of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity. And indeed, Bishop of Rottenbur-Stuttgart became first its secretary and after Edward Idris Cardinal Cassidy he became President of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity. It is worth noticing the diversified philosophical foundations of these two theologians. Benedict XVI is strongly based on the thought of St Augustine, thus his theology is directed towards idealism and consequently, he puts forward his thesis about the ontological priority of the universal Church. On the other hand, Cardinal Kasper is rather inspired by modern Thomism and he is an Aristotelian realist, and the consequence of that is his theory about cognitive priority, and not an ontological one. As far as the relationships of Benedict XVI with the German and Austrian Churches are concerned he is a man of the moment because he knows the Western mentality well. There are sometimes strong controversies, sometimes even very profound, in this theological reflection. He can prevent them. And he can help by his own example so that some theologians - especially the radical ones - should not forget that authentic theology cannot do without humility. The greater and more powerful theologian is, the more humble he must be because he is only a servant of the truth and its fellow worker. Theologian does not create the truth because God himself reveals us the truth. The source of all truth is no one else but Triune God.

- Cardinal Ratzinger is a man of culture. It seems he has a similar attitude towards culture as John Paul II did. Will this help the Holy Father to lead the Church?

- I think his love for culture will help his ministry very much, in particular to lead the Church. In the very root of the word 'culture' there is cult. For there is no authentic culture without some cult in reference to the highest value. And the source of the highest value is always God. An authentic man of culture, its authentic representative who cares for development of culture, its spreading, strengthening, cannot be an atheist in his final overtones, he cannot create in some vacuum since he knows that the values, which culture wants to stress in one way or another through the truth, good and beauty, must have certain metaphysical roots, some anchor. Benedict XVI can accomplish a lot in this field because his mentality is similar to that of John Paul II. I dare to claim that John Paul II was more a man of poetic beauty. Whereas Benedict XVI perceives culture more generally, more completely. He looks at culture as a whole, on the basis of the truth, good, beauty and love. For him beauty also decides to a large extent about artistic culture; beauty is also 'shape of love' as the Holy Father John Paul II stressed after Cyprian Kamil Norwid. In this respect he took a lot from Hans Urs von Balthasar but in a creative way: he valued him very much, but he never copied him. He could emphasise his own proprium in his cultural vision and his theory of culture, and he could make this culture more worthy of our times. He has always been concerned with development of culture, wanted to make it attractive and never separate it from sacrum, from the Church. The space for authentic culture in history has always been the ecclesiastical space. He has always been aware of that and he knew how to show this to contemporary man and how to convince and encourage him not to deprive culture of its dynamic and inner strength of further development and meeting the challenges of the present.

- During the Mass, which inaugurated the conclave, Cardinal Ratzinger took a stance on some contemporary problems, among others on the problem of relativism. Will this way of looking at contemporary problems help the Church to find her place in today's world?

- We may remember some comments, which were full of outrage: how he dared to speak like that as if he dictated the future pope what to do: what he should first of all deal with, what reality he will confront (as if he created an area of activities for him and obliged him to these or those ways of behaviour). He was accused that he in some sense charted a programme for the future pope. But he - although he would not suspect that it would be him to overcome all those difficulties, including that great danger of relativism - sketched accurately the situation of the Church in this concrete moment of history as Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. One of the painful processes is relativism, which also moved and took root in the field of theology and the space of the Church. And it is destructive, is like some poison that deprives man of his orientation; relativism is not able to give deep sense to human life, to history of humanity and history of the world; it cannot create unambiguous perspectives which will present ecclesiastical, all-theological and cultural subjects in the evangelical way, i.e. joyfully, and will let them develop in the contemporary world. Therefore, Cardinal Ratzinger regards relativism as an extremely dangerous phenomenon. He continues what John Paul II already stressed strongly and against what he wanted to protect the Church and theology. Benedict, as a systematic theologian, may assume even a sharper approach than John Paul II.
One should remember that John Paul II asked Archbishop Ratzinger after his three-year-old ministry in Muenich-Freising to preside over the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith. Then he refused claiming that he was not ready yet, and apart from that he was only three years in the diocese and he obliged himself to minister there. But when after three more years he was again called to become Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith he asked Pope John Paul II one question: 'could he still practice theology?' It was an indispensable part of his life. Therefore, he asked if he could still write and discuss as an independent theologian at the same time being Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. Then the Holy Father was to say, 'I will find out whether one can combine these two things'. And he replied very quickly: 'yes, it can be done'. Then Cardinal Ratzinger accepted this hard task. Despite numerous tasks of huge responsibility as Prefect of the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith he wrote lots of excellent publications, though not very bulky, but - in some way you can daringly claim - almost academic for the general public. These works inform contemporary people about complexities of various currents of thinking, where all foundations of traditional science were rendered relative as if they were 'gnawed', upset. And he began ordering and stabilising them in a consistent way. He presented his works and delivered speeches all over the world and tried to restore the established natural order of things. Before his every visit to some country or continent he studied the culture of the place very thoroughly, entered into its inhabitants' mentality in order to get to know the contextualism in which he was to speak. He always realised that sometimes context was more meaningful than the text itself, and one cannot plunge into the text without contextualism of the mystery.

- Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger is the author of many books and documents. Are the thoughts of this great theologian and dignitary coming from the German circle, which are included in his output, placed on the meeting ground of contemporary theological and philosophical thoughts?

- Unquestionably yes, since Ratzinger is not only a theologian but also an outstanding philosopher. He got to know German idealism penetratingly. So did almost all great German theologians whose doctoral dissertations or postdoctoral work were on issues of German idealism: critical Kant, objective Shelling, subjective Fichte or logical Hegel. He mainly dealt with Augustine and thus he is rather a Platonic, opting for intuitive cognition. All human matters are not only matters of reason but also of heart. His doctoral dissertation was dedicated to Augustine and his postdoctoral work was about Bonaventura's views. He chose such a philosophical thought deliberately because he held the conviction that Platonism was as if closer to Christian thought and the way of its formulation. Therefore, he could render greater services to Christian thought than pure Aristotelism did, even the Christianised one. But in his reflections he drew on the former and the latter and he could combine those currents of thinking in a perfectly synthetic way. He always had to combine philosophy and theology in his reflections.
I want to remind you of his famous discussion which aroused a lot of interest and surprise both in the world of philosophers and in the world of great contemporary theologians - his conversation with J(rgen Habermas. It is worth knowing that he is a leading philosopher in the West, setting the tone for philosophical vision in the future. He was impressed with the power and depth of Cardinal Ratzinger's philosophical ideas, the way of their interpretation and combining with the theological thought. Therefore, that will surely constitute a strong point of his pontificate: he can delight people with the power of his vision of the future and show the people of the Church the right way to reach everlasting future.

- The Pope must inspire pastoral work in the whole Church as John Paul II did. Will the new Pope be chief pastor of the world?

- He must be pastor as cooperator veritatis. And whoever has seriously embarked on co-operating with the truth realises that the truth always refers to all humanity and the entire world. Thus he will not only want to serve one continent - Europe, but the universal Church, and he has been well prepared to fulfil this task. He knows perfectly well the problems of particular continents, their philosophy, and theology. He knows their customs, and consequently, he knows what huge challenges he is to face. As Pope he is not only chief pastor of the world but he wants to move forward - he wants to fulfil the role of an authentic 'fellow worker in the truth'. And this means that he must be a 'fellow worker in the good and beauty' as well.

- How did Cardinal J. Ratzinger see the problems of Europe, Africa, America, especially South America, in his work in the Vatican, for example the problem of inculturation?

- When Benedict XVI was cardinal he always willingly carried out the task of studying, discussing, writing - simply practicing theology. His visits and speeches delivered at various places of the world testify to that (he knows English and French almost as well as German; he is the only non-French cardinal who is a member of Acad(mie Fran(aise, and this is a special distinction, an expression of appreciation for the beauty of his language and knowledge of French literature). He has visited all continents, organised theological congresses there. As a Polish representative I was at one of such European congresses he organised. He organised similar congresses in Africa, the United States, South America, Australia. That openness allowed him to get to know all points of view, not only European, but also African, Asian, American. As for Europe, he thought about this continent like his predecessor John Paul II. He especially liked the urge that at last Europe would breathe with two lungs - the tradition of the East and the tradition of the West. God's Providence has its own ways. The lung of the Eastern tradition was dynamized by John Paul II. Now it is turn for the lung of the tradition of the West - secularised, laicised, which demands renewal. After all, thanks to Augustinism he has always tried to combine these two aspects. But he realises that this traditional Western lung must also be dynamized. Using the language of our Silesian poets we can define his task as following: You must not forget that what counts is not only the reason, separated from the heart, but first of all what counts is the thinking heart and loving reason. 'Wake up, my heart, and think!' - Andreas Gryphius wrote in the 17th century. The greatness of Benedict XVI is also this integral vision of reason and heart.

- The question of the Council is still present in the Church. In many documents John Paul II continued the thought of Vaticanum II. What will it look like with the new Pope?

- He will most certainly carry on the work. He realises that we have implemented only a part of the legacy of Vaticanum II in the life of the local Churches on particular continents. From time to time we hear a call for the Third Vatican Council. But we have not managed to implement this powerful potential in our daily lives; this capital of thought which Vatican Council II carries. Because of that Benedict XVI will consider implementation of the conciliar message as one of the most important tasks, taking into consideration the needs of the contemporary turning point, with the collaboration of great theological brains, depending on sensus Ecclesiae, but most of all, trusting the power of the action of the Holy Spirit.
The latest work of Ratzinger, I have it here (it was published last month), is 'Values in a Time of Upheaval' with its characteristic subtitle 'Facing future challenges'. It is worth reading in order to see how wonderful he speaks about Europe, how wonderful he speaks about the general evangelical message of the Church in today's world and what is worth emphasising, he uses a clearly optimistic tone. Therefore, I dare to say that I agree with the statement - I only formulate it slightly different - that he is 'Integrist' on the topics of the faith and truth but in the sense of integral formulation of the truths of faith and not a selective approach towards these matters under the influence of some fashion or inclination of the modern world. But he is a progressivist on the matters of love and a radical optimist on matters of hope. It is exactly this attitude that the world expects of the Church by implementing the conciliar teaching today, by using fully the richness of the Second Vatican Council. One should not be afraid of further realisation of the conciliar thought but one needs truly profound knowledge, wisdom and matter-of-fact experience. Benedict XVI meets all these criteria. This constitutes an integral part of his personality and it was John Paul II who contributed to that to a large extent, especially in the aspect of theologically perspective thinking about the universal Church.

- The question about 'virtus religionis' is important to a Christian, priest, bishop or cardinal. Can we ask such a question as far as the new Pope is concerned?

- I think that any priest, any authentic Christian, any theologian, cannot take the liberty of not being vir religionis - homo religiosus. However, in Cardinal Ratzinger's view one cannot restrict oneself to the term virtus religionis but this term must be understood in a wider sense. This is a specific virtus theologiae because religion itself has not necessarily a priori sacralization and metaphysical rooting in the source of all being. Indeed, it orients us to transcendence but at the beginning of the 20th century dialectical theology, its authors being Karl Barth and Emil Brunner, strongly emphasized that Christianity was something more than a religion. Without Christian faith pure religious thinking cannot cross the threshold of transcendence. And religion itself cannot reach the source of transcendence. That's why we acknowledge the priority of Christian religion over all other religions. Of course, all religions are some kind of ways leading to God. There are traces of God's presence in the world in each of them. But virtus religionis is not enough. One needs a more integral vertical view, from above; the theological dimension must be decisive. Being founded on God's Revelation is peculiarly significant. For in the end all our knowledge about God is the knowledge given us by God.

- Thank you very much for the conversation.

"Niedziela" 24/2005

Editor: Tygodnik Katolicki "Niedziela", ul. 3 Maja 12, 42-200 Czestochowa, Polska
Editor-in-chief: Fr Jaroslaw Grabowski • E-mail: