The Intellectual Relationship between Joseph Ratzinger and Romano Guardini

Author: Silvano Zucal

The Intellectual Relationship between Joseph Ratzinger and Romano Guardini

Silvano Zucal

The Intellectual Relationship Between the Future Pope and the Great Italian-German Thinker

From liturgical theology to concrete-living of the faith in Jesus Christ

Romano Guardini, the great Italian-German thinker, died on 1 October 1968 in Munich. This year is the 40th anniversary of his death. Symposia, seminars and congresses seeking to reinterpret his extraordinary contribution to philosophical and theological thought — the contribution of the man whom his biographer, Hanna-Barbara Gerl, likes to describe as the "father of the 20th-century Church" — will be dedicated to him in Italy and Germany as well as in other European countries.

In this essay we shall be focusing attention on his relationship with Joseph Alois Ratzinger, today Pope Benedict XVI. The Pope described Guardini as a "great figure, a Christian interpreter of the world and of his own time" (cf. Perché siamo ancora nella Chiesa, Milan, Rizzoli, 2008, p. 186) and he often turns to Guardini in almost all of his writings.

In reality, Ratzinger considers that Guardini's voice is still relevant although it must be made audible once again. The Italian-German thinker, in fact, not only wrote many books, translated into many languages, but in his time succeeded in shaping an entire generation, the generation to which the Pontiff himself feels that he belongs. Indeed, this is proof of the lasting fruit of Guardini's teaching.

Before we fully venture into Guardini hermeneutics proposed by the current Pontiff', let us first of all pause to look at the surprising connections between these two figures' biographies.

A specific aspect, indeed a unique "encounter", came to light during Pope Benedict XVI's Visit to Verona on 19 October 2006. It. should be remembered that Verona is the city where Guardini was born on 17 February 1885, and the Holy Father was deeply moved on receiving the gift, precisely in Verona, of a copy of die baptismal record of Guardini, who was baptized in the Church of San Nicolò all'Arena.

In this regard it might be said that there was a singular convergence of destinies between Romano Guardini and Joseph Ratzinger.

Guardini left Italy in his early childhood to become "German" in terms of his intellectual and spiritual formation. After his years teaching in Berlin (1923-39), in the post-World War II period and after three years teaching in Tubingen, from 1945 to 1948, he was to teach the "Christian world-view" (christliche Weltanschauung) in Munich permanently. Thus Guardini's chosen city, was Munich, where, in fact, he died in 1968.

Ratzinger would make the same journey, but in reverse. After teaching dogmatic and fundamental theology at the high school in Freising, he was to continue his teaching activity in Bonn (1959-69), the city where Guardini was educated and began his career, in Münster (43-66) and lastly for three years (1966-69) at Tübingen then where Guardini had also taught.

However, from 1969 Ratzinger taught dogmatic theology and the history of dogma at the University of Regensburg, until he was appointed Archbishop of Munich and Freising, on 25 March 1977, by Pope Paul VI.

Just as it had been for Guardini before him, Munich also seemed to be Ratzinger's final destination. On the contrary, their ways parted. The Veronese philosopher was called definitively to the north, to the city of Munich, to which he was so deeply attached, feeling that it was a sort of city synthesis in which his Italian soul could also feel at home.

The German theologian, on the other hand, was to see his future in the south. Moreover, he would not return home again, not even when his desire to return to his Bavaria was compelling and seemed possible to satisfy. Rome and Italy would become his definitive spiritual "homeland".

Apart from their paths that crossed and travelled in opposite directions, these two extraordinary figures were able to meet personally.

Ratzinger was not only one of Guardini's readers but also on certain occasions a "listener", as the great theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar had been in Berlin.

In the years between 1946 and 1951, the very same years in which Ratzinger was studying at the School for Advanced Studies in Philosophy and Theology in Freising, on the outskirts of the Bavarian capital, and then at the University of Munich, in the same city, in that University and in that local Church of Munich, Guardini assumed the role of intellectual and spiritual leadership.

For Ratzinger, then only 20 years old, a figure like Guardini was indisputably fascinating and was to make a strong impression on his intellectual outlook.

When, in 1952, he began his teaching activity at the School in Freising where he had been a student, the echo of Guardini's lectures resounded very clearly in the small town which basked in the atmosphere of all the cultural and intellectual events that took place in the nearby Bavarian capital. Moreover, the intellectual relationship between the future Pope and "Maestro" Guardini was extraordinarily intense.

In fact, many elements are common to these two thinkers who were later to become crucial figures of the 20th-century Church. If the one would become Cardinal, and then Pope, Guardini would also be offered a cardinalate although he was to refuse it.

Both were concerned with finding the essence of Christianity, seeking to respond to Feuerbach's provocation. On this topic, Guardini was to write in 1938 the splendid book entitled The Essence of Christianity, while Ratzinger would dedicate his Introduction to Christianity to the subject, which he wrote in 1968, undoubtedly his most famous work and, in all likelihood, his most important.

They shared an equal concern for the Church, her meaning and her destiny. If Guardini foretold in 1921 that "a very important process has begun: the Church is awakening in consciences" then Ratzinger would present the ecclesiological problem more dramatically, yet with the same radicalism, based on what he considered the overturning of the Guardinian thesis which today, in his opinion, would sound like this:

"In fact, a very important process is under way — the Church is being extinguished in souls and is disintegrating in communities" (cf. ibid.).

In this regard it suffices to think of the vast impact made by the somber discourse Ratzinger delivered on 4 June 1970 to the Bavarian Catholic Academy of Munich to 1,000 people on the theme: Why am I still in the Church today?

He then declared: "I am in the Church for the same reasons that I am Christian: because one cannot believe on one's own.... One can only be Christian in the Church, not beside her" (cf. ibid., pp. 153-154).

They also had the same concern for the future of Europe that was tending to reject its past. It suffices to remember Guardini's lectures on Europe and of the interventions, even recent, of the future Pontiff who even as Pope has recalled the meaning of Europe and of its roots, maintaining that Europe is "a binding heritage for Christians" (cf. ibid., pp. 163-83).

A crucial point of convergence between the present Pope and Guardini is undoubtedly the liturgy. They are united by their common passion for the liturgy. Ratzinger's debt to Guardini is reflected in the title of his book Introduction to the Spirit of the Liturgy, published on the Feast of St. Augustine in 1999 and which met with extraordinary success (four editions in a single year) which recalls Guardini's famous book published in 1918: The Spirit of the Liturgy.

Ratzinger himself wrote in the preface to his own work: "One of the first books I read when I began studying theology at the beginning of 1946 was Romano Guardini's first work, The Spirit of the Liturgy, a small book published at Easter in 1918 as the volume inaugurating the series 'Ecclesia orans', edited by Abbot Herwegen and reprinted several times until 1957.

"This work can rightly be considered the "beginning of the liturgical movement in Germany. It made a crucial contribution to ensuring that the liturgy, with its beauty, hidden riches and grandeur that crosses time, was rediscovered as the vital centre of the Church and of Christian life. It made its contribution to having the liturgy celebrated in an 'essential' (a term very dear to Guardini) manner.

"What he desired was an understanding of the liturgy based on its nature and inner form as an inspired prayer and guided by the, Holy Spirit himself, in which Christ continues to become our contemporary and come into our lives".

And the comparison continues. Ratzinger compared his own intention with Guardini's and considered that it perfectly coincided in spirit, even in a radically different historical context:

"I would like to hazard a comparison, which like all comparisons is largely inadequate but is helpful in order to understand. One might say that some aspects of the liturgy then — in 1918 — could be compared to a fresco that had been preserved intact, but had been almost completely covered by a subsequent layer of plasters: in the missal, that the priest used to celebrate it, its form was fully present, just as it had developed from its origins. But for believers much of it was hidden beneath instructions and forms of prayer of a private kind. Thanks to the liturgical movement and — definitively — thanks to the Second Vatican Council, the fresco was brought back to light and we were for an instant fascinated by the beauty of its colours and its figures".

For Ratzinger today, however, after the cleaning of the fresco, the problem of the "spirit of the liturgy" has come up again. Continuing with the metaphor, for the current Pope various and mistaken attempts at restoration and reconstruction and disturbance caused by the throngs of visitors have caused the fresco to he seriously endangered and it will be threatened by ruin unless the necessary measures are taken to put an end to these harmful influences.

For Ratzinger it is not a question of returning to the past, and indeed he says: "of course one must not go back to replastering the surface but a new understanding of the liturgical message and its reality is necessary so that having brought it back to light will not become the first step to its definitive ruin. This book intends, precisely, to make a contribution to this renewed understanding".

"Its intentions thus substantially coincide with what Guardini had set out to do in his time. For this reason", Ratzinger concludes, "I deliberately chose a title that expressly refers to that classic title of liturgical theology".

Furthermore, in the course of the text, especially in the first chapter, he addresses Guardini's theses and especially his famous definition of the liturgy being like a "game".

On the other hand, in the commemorative address of 1985, Ratzinger reflected on the historical and philosophical foundation of the liturgical renewal proposed by Guardini.

In his work Liturgical Formation of 1923, the philosopher hailed with relief the end of the modern epoch since it represented the disintegration of the human being and, more generally, of the world: a schizophrenic split between a disembodied and deceitful spirituality and a brutalized materialism that, is merely an instrument in the hands of man and his objectives.

People aspired to the "pure spirit", and ran up against abstraction: the world of ideas, of formulas, of apparatus, mechanisms and organizations.

Ratzinger stressed that Guardini's self-distancing from modernity coincided with his enthusiasm for the medieval paradigm, which was well illustrated by the martyr of Nazism, Paul Ludwig Lansberg in his book The Mediaeval and Us, published in 1923.

For Guardini this did not mean abandoning himself to a romantic view of the Middle Ages but, rather, to draw from it a permanent lesson. The Christian's true self-fulfilment lies in the liturgical celebration. Thus in the struggle over symbolism and the liturgy what is at stake, Ratzinger points out in the wake of Guardini's lesson, is the development of man's essential dimension.

The future Pope was then to reflect on Guardini's last affirmations concerning the liturgical question expressed in the famous letter he addressed in 1964 to the participants in the third Liturgical Congress, taking place in Mainz, and which contained. the famous question:

"Is liturgical action, and above all what is referred to as 'liturgy' historically bound to the ancient and medieval world which, for the sake of honesty, ought now to be completely abandoned?".

This question, in fact, concealed a dramatic query: would the man of the future still be able to carry out the liturgical action which requires a sense of religious symbolism, now threatened by extinction in addition to the mere obedience of faith?

No longer with the optimistic pathos of his younger days, Guardini glimpsed the face of post-modern man with features very different from those he had previously hoped for. The invasion of the technological civilization, gave him a true and proper spiritual shock, as his Letters from Lake Como of 1923 already testified.

For this reason, Ratzinger stated, "something of the difficulty of recent times is to be found, despite his joy at the liturgical reform of the Council that resulted from his work, in his letter of 1964.... Guardini urged the liturgists gathered in Mainz to take seriously the extraneousness of those who view the liturgy as no longer practicable and to reflect on 'how it is possible, if the liturgy is essential, to bring them closer to it"' (Perché siamo ancora nella Chiesa, p. 246).

Guardini, Ratzinger recalls, found himself in the thick of the drama of the modernist crisis. How could he emerge from it? Faithful to the lesson of Wilhelm Koch, the theologian of Tubingen and his first teacher, but also attentive to the limitations and risks of that perspective, he sought a new foundation and found it with his conversion.

"The brief scene", the future Pope emphasizes, "of how Guardini, together with his friend, Karl Neundörfer, however, each one for himself, after losing the faith could penetrate it anew, has something great and exciting about it, precisely in the modesty and simplicity with which Guardini describes the process.

"Guardini's experience in the attic and on the balcony of his parents' house shows a truly astounding similarity with the scene in the garden in which Augustine and Alipius saw their lives unfold before them. In both cases the innermost part of a man is revealed by looking within to what is most personal and most concealed, in listening to a person's heartbeat, one suddenly perceives the greatest stroke of history, because: it is the hour of truth, because a man has encountered the truth" (ibid., pp. 249-50).

This was no longer an encounter with God in the universal sense but with "God in the concrete". At that moment Guardini, Ratzinger stresses, knew that he held everything in his hands, his whole life, that he had it at his disposal and indeed, had to make use of it.

He chose to give his life to the Church and from this stems his fundamental theological option: "Guardini was convinced that only thinking in harmony with the Church leads to freedom and especially, makes theology possible... A programme that is once again topical today and should be taken into consideration in the deepest possible way, as required by modern theology" (ibid., p. 290-91).

In Guardini's opinion a constructive theological knowledge can never be achieved as long as the Church and dogmas appear merely "as limitations and restriction".

Hence his motto, provocative from the theological viewpoint: "we were decidedly not liberals", which alludes to the fact that for him, the future Pope notes, Revelation presented itself as the ultimate criterion, an "originating fact" of theological knowledge and the Church was "its messenger".

Dogma thus became the fruitful ordering of theological thought. An effective basis of Guardini's theology was, which, for him, was the overcoming of the modern spirit and, especially, its subjectivist post-Kantian drift. Thus, for our thinker, "it is not reflection that comes first but rather experience. All that is later presented as content, was developed on the basis of that original experience" (ibid., p. 252).

In describing the fundamental structure of Guardini's thought, the future Pope reflected on what, to his mind, constitute the principal categories within the unity of liturgy, Christology and philosophy. First of all the "relationship between thought and being".

This relationship implies attention to the truth itself, the search for being behind doing. It suffices to think of the words Guardini spoke at his trial lecture in Bonn: "Thought seems inclined to turn reverently again to being".

In the footsteps of Nicolai Hartmann, Edmund Husserl and, especially, Max Scheler, Guardini's approach, according to Ratzinger, expressed "optimism over the fact that philosophy was starting out again as a questioning of the events themselves, a beginning that single-handedly guided it in the direction of the great syntheses of the Middle Ages and of the Catholic thought they had formed" (ibid., p. 253). For Guardini, the future Pope underlines, the truth about man is essentiality, conformity to being, or better still, "obedience to being" which in primis is the obedience of our being before the being of God. Only in this way can one achieve the force of truth, that orientation and key primacy of the logos over the ethos on which Guardini always insisted. What he wanted, Ratzinger explained, was always "a further advance towards being itself, the demand for the essential that is found in the truth" (ibid., p. 256).

With the fundamental phenomenological category of the obedience of thought to being — to what shows itself and is — arose many other categories from Guardini's thought which the future Pope was to sum up:

"Essentiality, which Guardini countered to a merely subjective veracity; obedience that results from man's relationship with the truth and expresses his way of becoming free and of being one with his own essence; lastly, the priority of logos over ethos, of being over doing" (ibid.).

Another two categories that emerge from Guardini's methodological writings should he added to these. The "concrete-living" and "polar opposition". The "concrete-living", in addition to being a general category of Guardini's thought, also, in Ratzinger's opinion assumes a Christological value: "Man is open to the truth, but the truth is not in some place but rather in the concrete-living, in the figure of Jesus Christ. This concrete-living demonstrates as truth precisely through the fact that it is the unity of what are apparent opposites, since the logos and the a-logon are united in it. The truth is found only in the whole" (ibid., p. 261).

The "apparent opposites" are alluded to in the other fundamental methodological category, that of the "polar opposition" of opposites which, while they contend they also refer to each other: silence-word, individual-community. Only those who are able to keep them together can abandon every form of dangerous exclusivism and all harmful dogmatism.

On 14 March 1978, the Catholic Academy of Bavaria awarded Alfons Goppel, the President of the Land of Bavaria. the "Romano Guardini Award", and, as was the practice, Joseph Ratzinger was called upon to deliver the Laudatio in his capacity as President of the Bavarian Bishops' Conference.

It was an extraordinarily full text, in which he reviewed the various dimensions of the "political": politics as art, the grounding of politics in a territory, responsibility to the State, the relationship between truth and conscience in the political sphere. In the latter passage Ratzinger once again takes up Guardini's lesson: "In Germany we have experienced the kind of tyranny that sentences to death, bans and confiscates.... The unscrupulous use of words is a particular kind of tyranny, which in its own way likewise sentences to death, bans and confiscates.

"Today there are certainly sufficient reasons to express similar warnings and to recall the forces that can prevent this kind of tyranny that is increasing before our eyes.

"The experience of Hider's bloody tyranny and Romano Guardini's vigilance before new threats caused him in his last years, almost contrary to his temperament to issue dramatic warnings about the destruction of politics through the annihilation of consciences'. It drove him to call for a just, not merely theoretical interpretation of the world, but indeed one that was real and effective, in accordance with the person whose political action is based on faith" (ibid., p. 236).

Guardini proposed these important themes to the German academic world from Berlin to Tubingen, and to Munich. The relationship of the thinker, according to the future Pope, with the German Universities was controversial: from the times of his Berlin professorship which made him suffer "because of the impression that he was outside of the methodological canon of the University and, likewise, that he was not recognized by it.

"He consoled himself with the thought that, with his struggle to understand, judge and give form, he was able to be the precursor of a University that did not yet exist" (ibid., p. 263).

And with a remark that reminds one of recent polemics in Italy concerning the Pope's cancelled Visit to La Sapienza, "It is to the credit of the German University that Guardini was able to find room in it, with all his experience and was always able to feel it was the home of his own specific vocation" (ibid.).

Nazism only temporarily removed his Chair from him, and remembering that tragic event, after the War, the future Pope stressed, "Guardini, in an intense academic discourse on the Jewish question defended the University passionately as the place where the truth was investigated, where human affairs and human events were measured according to the criteria of the great past and without the onslaught of the present, where the responsibility for the community should be more alert".

The Third Reich would not have triumphed, the future Pope recalls with Guardini's words, if the German University had not met its "downfall" due to the removal of the question of the truth by the prevalent academic models:

"At the time Guardini stated his position with a heartfelt appeal that seemed quite foreign to him, against the politicization of the University and its infiltration by party leadership, political chatter, street rumours, and shouted to his listeners: 'Ladies and Gentlemen: Do not let it happen! It is a matter that concerns us all, our future history"' (ibid., p. 264).

University of Trent
Editor of Guardini's complete works,
Opera omnia (Morcelliana)

Taken from:
L'Osservatore Romano
Weekly Edition in English
10 December 2008, page 8

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