Catholic Culture Liturgical Living
Catholic Culture Liturgical Living

The Centrality of Truth in the Thought of Joseph Ratzinger

by Fr. Vincent Twomey, SVD


Fr. Vincent Twomey, one of Ireland's leading theologians and a former student of then-Cardinal Ratzinger, provides a brief introduction to the theme of truth in the writings of Pope Benedict XVI and the influence his theological views have had on contemporary political life in Europe.

Larger Work

Inside the Vatican


40 – 45

Publisher & Date

Urbi et Orbi Communications, New Hope, KY, November 2008

One of many newsworthy events in the life of Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger that did not seem to make the news in the Anglo-Saxon world was his election in 1992 to the French Academy to replace the Soviet dissident, Andrej Sacharov.1 The French "Immortals" were in fact paying tribute to the greatest living "dissident" in Western Europe: Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger.

His election to the Academy was, of course, in the first place a public recognition of the unique scholarly contribution he made — and continues to make — to political thought through his writings on contemporary moral and political developments (something few people were aware of up till very recently). His contribution to the public debate in Europe on contemporary political life is original and radically critical, one that is rooted in a profound theological vision. And it is Catholic in the most all-embracing sense of the term.

But, above all, his election to the Academy was the highest public recognition of one of the few voices of sanity in a world that denies the very possibility of truth, that can no longer distinguish between right and wrong — that in fact denies that any such distinction can legitimately be made.

Paradoxical as it may seem, it was not the theologians he disciplined who were the real dissidents — though they rejoiced in the title — but the rather shy, not very robust German who dared to say to them and to the rest of the world: sorry, but you are wrong.

"To Speak the Truth in Love"

The author of Ephesians exhorts us "to speak the truth in love" (Eph 4:15). By love is meant that robust love that is God's love, a love that is only concerned with the true well-being (salvation, liberation) of others. It is a love that is ready to die so that others may have life and have it to the full. "To speak the truth in love" is to speak the truth with a humble courage, and that has been the hallmark of Ratzinger's life.

The truth he spoke so eloquently was the truth he had searched for in a life completely dedicated to study and research, debate and reflection. In his writings, he tries patiently and brilliantly to answer the objections of those who denied the truths of the Faith and to find new ways to express them so that their originality and freshness could once again be experienced by his hearers and readers. But as cardinal prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, his duty was to say every so often to theologians who had crossed the line marked by the Church in her fidelity to Christ: sorry, but you are wrong — and you must either submit to the Church's teaching or stop making public statements that claim to present that teaching.

"To speak the truth in love." God Himself is the Truth. The truth is to know Christ Jesus, to be led by his Spirit into the fullness of Truth. This Truth, ultimately beyond human comprehension but yet communicable in the human words of Scripture and Tradition, has been the focus of Joseph Ratzinger's whole life and work.3

Scripture is the norm of all theology. Ratzinger knows it from cover to cover. He never attended a seminar or colloquium at the university without the Greek New Testament at his side, which he regularly consulted.4

However, Truth is accessible to us not only through revelation. God gave us the great gift of reason, which itself enables us to know the truth, admittedly here again "as in a glass darkly." One of the great themes of his more recent writings is the way revelation needs reason as much as reason needs revelation.5

What does he mean by reason? The natural capacity to know the truth about all reality, but above all that which makes life worth living and enables us to face up to death. All human beings long for the truth, since each one is capax veritatis, capax Dei — capable of knowing God (truth), capable of becoming one with God — and so since the dawn of human history all peoples have sought that truth.

Another word for this capacity for truth is conscience. More precisely, conscience is that urge to know the truth that is at the root of our humanity.6

We are all searchers. We who have the gift of faith search in a way that is other to those who are still searching for light in the darkness of a world which confuses appearances for the truth. In every generation, people have arisen in every society who find the truth, some aspect of the truth, such as the great philosophers of pagan Greece, China and India, as well as the great thinkers in every culture down to our own day. These are men of conscience, usually, like Socrates, at odds with their own contemporaries who do not see the truth.

Ratzinger — like the Fathers of the Early Church — listens not only to the Word of God in Scripture and the great Tradition of the Church but also to the echo of that Word found in the great thinkers of humanity down through the centuries, even when that echo is very often a question or an objection.

Very often the truths articulated by such great thinkers, in particular the great philosophers and poets, but also including the great heretics, help us to plumb ever more deeply the Christian mystery. Take, for example, the huge intellectual achievement of the fourth and fifth centuries in forging a language to express the mystery of God Three in One. Without the achievement of the pagan Greek thinkers before them, and without the heretics whose misunderstanding of the truth gave rise to the need to articulate the faith, it would have been impossible for the Church to formulate her doctrine.

A Superb Listener

Ratzinger is a superb listener — he listens to any serious thinker, even those, like Hegel and Marx, whose ideas are dangerously wrong, but who have had an enormous influence on men and history, and so must be taken seriously. He listens to the voices of philosophy, of literature, of the social sciences and natural sciences — but always in a discriminating way, searching for the kernel of truth that is either affirmed or denied, but in its denial points to the real truth. The most recent example is Nietzsche's objection to Christianity which Benedict XVI took as an opening for his first encyclical.

He even listens to his students. I remember vividly how closely he would listen to the discussions of his undergraduate and postgraduate students, attentive to every contribution and able to summarize the essential contours of the discussion before leading us to a deeper understanding of the subject.

That listening points to another aspect of the truth — its objectivity. Truth is not something we invent but discover. It is "out there" in a sense, waiting to be discovered. Once it is discovered, it liberates. The truth sets us free.

Cooperatores Veritatis

When he was elected archbishop of Munich in 1977, he chose for his motto: cooperatores veritatis, literally, "coworkers in the truth." It is taken from the Third Letter of John, 8. The author is congratulating the priest Gaius, the recipient of the letter, for welcoming fellow believers, evidently evangelizers, though they were strangers to Gaius. John writes: "It is our duty to welcome men of this sort and contribute our share to their work for the truth." Ratzinger saw his ministry as bishop in terms of welcoming and helping others who work for the truth. It is the motto of a humble, indeed self-effacing man of God. The plural is important: the truth is personal but not individualistic, the truth is always our truth, the "we" of the Church, a "we" that includes all former generations as well as all our contemporaries — we are all co-workers in the task of making the truth known.

Why this stress on the truth? It is because the greatest threat to the Faith today — and so to the well-being of man and society — is what he called in his memorable homily to the cardinals before his election, the dictatorship of relativism.

Addressing participants at a congress of the diocese of Rome on June 6th last year, he stressed that "today, a particularly insidious obstacle to the task of educating is the massive presence in our society and culture of that relativism which, recognizing nothing as definitive, leaves as the ultimate criterion only the self with its desires. And under the semblance of freedom it becomes a prison for each one, for it separates people from one another, locking each person into his or her own 'ego.'"7

Relativism is the assumption that there is no such thing as objectivity in religion or morality. Everything is subjective. But if that is so, then we are lost souls, adrift and alone in an incomprehensible world, each one from himself, where might is right. Society disintegrates since it is the common truths that bind us together, and life becomes meaningless; boredom becomes endemic. Truth is what unites people in society, gives meaning to life, enables us to reach out to each other, to learn from each other, to enrich each other. Truth is the source of joy.

Many of his writings are aimed at refuting the seductive claims of relativism both in the sphere of religion and in that of morality.8

There is a widespread assumption today that all religions are but different paths to the same God, who is so incomprehensible that each of mankind's religions can only reflect an aspect of his mystery. Thus, the Christian faith cannot claim any special place, apart perhaps from being a primarily European cultural phenomenon.

This is not only a basic tenet of Hinduism, for example, but it also has a very ancient tradition. It is the same argument used by the fourth-century pagan Senator Symmachus in his address to the Roman Emperor Valentinian II, trying to get him restore the statue of the goddess Victory to the Roman Senate: "It is the same thing that we all worship; we all think the same; we look up to the same stars; this is one sky above us, one world around us; what difference does it make with what kind of method the individual seeks the truth? We cannot all follow the same path to reach so great a mystery."9

Ratzinger comments: "That is exactly what the Enlightenment is saying to us today: We do not know the truth as such; yet in a great variety of images, we all express the same thing. So great a mystery as the Divinity cannot be fixed in one image, which would exclude all others — to one path obligatory for all." This, it is claimed, is tolerance.

Must Christianity therefore give up the claim it made from the beginning to be the true religion? All the internal crises of Christianity today, Ratzinger claims, can be reduced to this one question, now posed in a new way by developments associated with the Enlightenment. The answer cannot simply be a theoretical one. "It demands the interplay of perception and action on which the Christianity of the Fathers founded its power to convince people."10 In other words, we cannot convince others on the basis of argument alone; Christian witness is paramount.

Ratzinger's rich theology of the non-Christians religions11 is, needless to mention, richer than the public discussion on the Instruction of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Dominus Jesus, which carries his signature, might lead the unwary to suspect.

The starting point of this theology is his understanding of human beings as essentially cultural beings. He understands culture not as something static but as something dynamic and constantly open to change. Because people today think of culture as something static, acquired by the accident of birth in a particular community, most attempts at a theology of religions assume that the world religions, which form the core of the great cultural traditions of humanity, are likewise to be conceived as static entities. Thus each one is recommended to make the best of whatever religion he or she happens to born into, in the hope that all paths lead to the one God.

Is This Short-Changing Man?

Culture12 is the historically-formed, spiritual/linguistic, moral/symbolic environment (or womb) needed for the development of each human being's potential. Equally true, though largely ignored, is the fact that each one of us has the potential for transcending our own particular culture thanks to our capacity for God. While culture is always particular, at the same time, each culture is open to the universal. Thus the great literatures of the world are at the same time intensely particular and yet universal in scope. (Shakespeare, for example, is uniquely English, indeed Elizabethan, and yet he is universal in appeal because he plumbs the depths of the human soul.)

At the core of each ancient culture is a shared cult, religion, worship, which, rooted in some primordial experience of the ground of all being, defines the inner character of that culture. But cultures also exist in history and so are subject to change (both in the sense of enrichment or of decay) depending on whether they are open or closed to the universality of truth. Further, cultures interact. "Each particular culture not only lives out its own experience of God, the world, and man, but on its path it necessarily encounters other cultural agencies and has to react to their quite different experiences. This results, depending always on the degree to which the cultural agent may be closed or open, inwardly narrow or broad in outlook, in that culture's own perceptions and values being deepened and purified . . . A process of this kind can in fact lead to a breaking open of the silent alienation of man from the truth and from himself that exists within that culture."13

Ratzinger asks: "Can or must a man simply make the best of the religion that happens to fall to his share, in the form in which it is actually practiced around him? Or must he not, whatever happens, be one who seeks, who strives to purify his conscience and so move toward — at the very least — the purer forms of his own religion?"14

It is conscience, in its primal or ontological sense, that seeks to purify itself, that seeks to go beyond inherited practice and values, that enables one to transcend one's culture and its religious and moral values. To the extent that cultures have this "Advent-quality," i.e., are seeking to know the truth beyond them as the Jews were looking for the Hope of Israel, to that extent they are dynamic and ultimately open to the self-revelation of God in Christ through the Church. But, Ratzinger adds, the same dynamic quality is also to be found in a certain sense within Christianity itself. Christianity "is not simply a network of institutions and ideas we have to hand on but a seeking ever in faith for faith's inmost depth, for the real encounter with Christ."

In any case, within each religious tradition we find a process of enlightenment, as people question the myths of the gods they worship. This gave rise to philosophy in ancient Greece, as thinkers like Socrates, following their deeper conscience, questioned the assumptions of their society and sought for the truth behind all myth and appearance — and so, critical of external religious practices and their justifying myths, came to discover the existence of the one true God.

A similar criticism of traditional religious rituals took place in Judaism under the influence of the prophets and found its culmination in the life of Jesus Christ.

The early Christians recognized in the questioning of the philosophers kindred spirits. More, they knew that they had the ultimate answer to the philosopher's quest for truth: the person of Jesus Christ, the Logos or reason, the source of all reality that had revealed itself as infinite love. Christianity from the start saw itself as "embodying the victory of demythologization, the victory of knowledge, and with it the victory of truth, it necessarily regarded itself as universal and had to be carried to all peoples: not as a specific religion that overcomes and displaces others, not on the basis of some kind of religious imperialism, but the truth that renders mere appearance superfluous. And for that very reason it necessarily appears, within the broad tolerance of polytheistic religions as intolerable . . . [I]t is not one religion among others but represents the victory of perception and knowledge over the world of religions."15

The True Religion

The victory of Christianity in the ancient world was not simply the victory of some kind of abstract truth. The God the philosophers sought turned out to be a God who spoke to man, who approached him, who entered into history, who, to paraphrase St. Irenaeus rather crudely, got used to mixing with men so that men could get used to mixing with God. "He has entered history, has come to meet man, and thus man can now go to meet him. He can unite himself with God, because God has united himself with man."16

It is this link of metaphysics and history that constitutes the apology for Christianity being the religio vera, the true religion. Linked to this is what Ratzinger calls the "moral seriousness of Christianity, which of course Paul, yet again, had connected with the moral character of Christianity."

"What the law really means, those essential demands of the one true God upon human life that have been illuminated by the Christian faith, is identical with what is written in the heart of man, of every man, so that he can recognize the good when he meets it. It is identical with 'what is good by nature' (cf. Rom 2:14f.)"17

Here, as elsewhere, Paul is echoing the Stoic philosophers, though now transformed by the example of Jesus Christ's love. Christianity conquered the world not only by linking faith with reason but also by going beyond an ethical theory to "moral practice that was lived out in community" and was summarized in the dual commandment to love God and neighbor "and translating it into practical action."

"Looking back, we can say that the power of Christianity, which made it into a world religion, consisted in its synthesis of reason, faith, and life; and it is precisely this synthesis that is summed up and expressed in the term religio vera."18

From Micro-Evolution to Macro-Evolution

The present relativism about ultimate questions regarding God is based on a radical shift in European thought which resulted in the assumption that only scientific knowledge was true knowledge. In other words, reality was reduced to what could be measured, quantified — the physical world — whereas the world of God and the soul — the metaphysical world — was deemed unknowable. Finally the theory of evolution emerged "as a way to make metaphysics disappear, to make 'the hypothesis of God' (Laplace) superfluous, and to formulate a strictly 'scientific' explanation of the world."19 The Christian idea of God is seen as increasingly unscientific. Indeed, we no longer need to assume the existence of God to explain the world.

But is this the last word on the subject? Ratzinger answers by engaging in a dialogue with the evolutionists. On closer acquaintance, we see that science is not entirely unambiguous. There is apparently significant knowledge of micro-evolution, the "adaptive capacity of living systems, which seems marvellous." But there is no empirical evidence for the transition from micro-evolution to macro-evolution.

There is even less evidence to posit a theory of evolution that would explain all reality — that is not a scientific conclusion but a philosophical option independent of science. Now the real issue can be reduced to the question, which is not a scientific question but a philosophical one: "whether reality originated on the basis of chance and necessity . . . and, thus, from what is irrational; that is, whether reason, being a chance by-product of irrationality, is ultimately just as meaningless; or whether the principle that represents the fundamental conviction of Christian faith and its philosophy remains true: 'In principio era! Verbum' ('In the beginning was the Word') — at the beginning of all things stands the creative power of reason."

Very simply, the philosophers, like Karl Popper, who advocate the theory of evolution, claiming that reason is the by-product of irrational chance and necessity, simply by their very way of argumentation demonstrate that "reason cannot do other than to think rationally according to its own standards, that is those of reason . . . so that it immediately reintroduces the primacy of reason, which has just been denied."

Christianity, as we saw, is rooted in the primacy of reason, the Logos. One of its tasks today is to help rescue the Enlightenment tradition from undermining itself, as Ratzinger and Habermas, one of the greatest defenders of the Enlightenment today, agreed at the end of their famous debate in Munich, November 2004:20 reason needs revelation as much as revelation needs reason.

But the Church's task is even more urgent — to prevent modern enlightenment from undermining society, since the fundamental ethical principle that arises from the theory of evolution — with its canonization of the principle of the survival of the fittest — is that might is right. As Ratzinger says, "Even when people try to make it more attractive in many ways, it ultimately remains a bloodthirsty ethic."21

Relativism can only produce anarchy in society and nihilism in individuals who live under its sway. One of the great tasks today is to create a moral consensus in society that is rooted in objective morality, namely the truth about our common human nature. By objective morality we mean "the conviction that man's being contains an imperative, the conviction that he does not himself invent morality on the basis of expediency, but rather finds it already present in things."22

This conviction is common to all the great religious and wisdom traditions of humanity, which flow like tributaries into the great Christian vision of reality. "The ethical vision of the Christian faith is not in fact something specific to Christianity but is the synthesis of the great ethical intuitions of mankind from a new center that holds them together."23 And it is the ethical vision of Christianity that alone can hold society together.

The first task of the Church today is to recover her conviction that Christianity is the true religion, that it answers to the deepest longings of the human heart, that its truth is universal and so applicable to all peoples and cultures, that it does not destroy other cultures but enables them to find themselves fully, that its moral teaching reflects what all people know in the depths of their hearts, in their deepest conscience, to be true about how we humans should behave.

Truth Is the Source of Joy

This short introduction to the theme of truth in Ratzinger's writings would be incomplete, if I did not mention another theme that runs through his writing: joy. It is the term that is most frequently repeated in his homilies and addresses since his election. Truth is the source of joy, above all the truth that God is love, that creation is due to his loving design, that man's sin has been overcome by his incarnate love, that we can encounter him in Word and sacrament.24

At the Mass for the inauguration of his pontificate, Pope Benedict XVI reflected on the nature of any pastor's task: it is "a service to joy, to God's joy which longs to break into the world."25

Before his election as Pope, he spoke to his fellow cardinals, explaining what Christ meant when he commanded his apostles to bear fruit that would last, namely "love, knowledge, a gesture capable of touching hearts, words that open the soul to joy in the Lord." He prayed that the Lord would "once again give us a Shepherd according to his own heart, a Shepherd who will guide us to knowledge of Christ, to his love and to true joy."26

He did.


  1. He was appointed a "membre associe etranger" at the 'Académie des Sciences Morales et Politiques" of the "Institut de France" on November 7th, 1992, in Paris, taking the seat vacated by the death of the Soviet dissident Andrei Sacharov.
  2. See, for example, Joseph Kardinal Ratzinger, Kirche, Okumene and Politik Neue Versuche zur Ekklesiologie (Einsiedeln: Johannes Verlag, 1987), III. Teil: Kirche and Politik (English, 1988); ibid. Wendezeit fur Europa. Diagnosen and Prognosen zur Lage von Kirche and Welt (Einsiedeln: Johannes Verlag, 1991; English 1994: Turning Point for Europe? = TPE?; L'Europa di Benedetto nella crisi delle culture, with an introduction by Marcello Pera (Rome-Sienna: Cantagalli, 2005). See also his memoirs, Salz der Erde: Christentum and katholische Kirche an der Jahrthausendewende. Ein Gesprach mit Peter Seewald (Stuttgart, DVA, 1996), Kapital III. For an introduction to Ratzinger s theology of politics, as well as a selection of relevant texts, see Joseph Kardinal Ratzinger, Vom Wiederauffinden der Mitte. Grundorientierungen. Texte aus vierlahrzehtnen, edited by Stephan Otto Horn, Vinzenz Pfnür, Vincent Twomey, Siegfried Wiedenhofen, Josef Zöhrer on behalf of the Schülerkreis (Freiburg-Basel-Vienna: Herder, 1997), Teil C: Zur Theologie des Politischen.
  3. See his "Biblical Interpretation in Crisis: On the Question of the Foundations and Approaches of Exegesis Today. Erasmus Lecture 1988" in This World: A Journal of Religion and Public Life, 22 (Summer 1988), pp. 1-19; for an extended version of this text, see Joseph Ratzinger (ed.), Schriftauslegung im Widerstreit, Quaestiones Disputatae 117 (Freiburg-Basel-Vienna: Herder, 1989), pp. 7-44. See also his Theologische Prinzipienlehre (Munich: Erich Wewel Verlag, 1982), pp. 88-158.
  4. Ratzinger himself has noted that his point of departure is first of all the Word. "That we believe the word of God, that we try really to get to know it and understand it, and then, as I said, to think it together with the great masters of the faith. This gives my theology a somewhat biblical character and also bears the stamp of the Fathers, especially Augustine" (Salt of the Earth, p. 66).
  5. See his contribution to Jürgen Habermas, Joseph Ratzinger, Dialekt der Sakulariesierung (Freiburg in Bresgau, Herder, 2005). This was the central thrust of his famous lecture in Regensburg as Pope, which, regretfully, was ignored in the wake of the Islamic outrage at the famous quotation he used to set the scene for his main argument.
  6. Ratzinger's understanding of the nature of conscience is best articulated in "Gewissen and Wahrheit" in Wahrheit, Werte, Macht. Prüfsteine der pluralistischen Gesellschaft [= WWM] (Freiburg, 1993); English translation to be found in J.M. Haas (ed.), Crisis of Conscience (New York, 1996), pp. 1-20, and Peter Jennings (ed.), Benedict XVI and Cardinal Newman (Oxford, 2005), 41-52. (Quotations below are by this writer). For an earlier sketch of the insight articulated here, see Joseph Ratzinger, "The Church's Teaching Authority — Faith — Morals" in Principles of Christian Morality [= PCM], translated by Graham Harrison, (San Francisco, 1986), pp. 64-5; 70-3. For an outline of the centrality of conscience in the life and thought of Joseph Ratzinger, see D. Vincent Twomey, Benedikt XVI. Das Gewissen unserer Zeit. Ein theologisches Portrait translated by Peter Paul Bornhausen (Augsburg, St. Ulrich Verlag, 2006).
  7. Cf. Zenit, ZE05061027
  8. This is one of the main preoccupations in his collection of essays entitled: Glaube — Wahrheit — Toleranz. Das Christentum and die Weltreligionen (Freiburg in Bresgau: Herder, 2004), translated by Henry Taylor, Truth and Tolerance (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2004). See also his analysis of the situation in Europe before and after the Fall of the Berlin Wall in Wendezeit für Europa? (see above footnote 2).
  9. Ratzinger, Truth and Tolerance, p. 176.
  10. Ibid., p.177.
  11. Apart from Truth and Tolerance, just mentioned, see also his book Die Vielfalt der Religionen and der Eine Bund (Hagen: Verlag Urfeld, 1998.
  12. "Culture is the social form of expression, as it has grown up in history, of those experiences and evaluations that have left their mark on a community and have shaped it" (TT, p. 60).
  13. TT, p. 63.
  14. TT, p. 54.
  15. Ibid. p. 170.
  16. Ibid. p. 173.
  17. Ibid.
  18. Ibid. p. 175.
  19. Ibid. p. 178.
  20. For text, see footnote 5 above.
  21. Ibid, p. 182.
  22. TPE? pp. 28-29; there Ratzinger takes up and develops the insights of C. S. Lewis, The Abolition of Man (Oxford 1943).
  23. TPE? p. 37; PCM, pp. 43-66. In stressing what is common to the sapiential traditions of mankind, Ratzinger may have left himself open to the criticism that he fails to give sufficient attention what is specifically Christian — that newness which is our life in Christ; cf. Servais Pinckaers OP, The Sources of Christian Ethics, translated from the third edition by Sr. Mary Thomas Noble OP, (Edinburgh, 1995).
  24. Re the centrality of the theme of joy in the writings of Joseph Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict XVI, see the forthcoming book by Joseph Murphy, An Invitation to Joy. The Theological Vision of Pope Benedict XVI (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2007).
  25. Homily at the Mass for the Inauguration of the Pontificate, April 24, 2005: L'Osservatore Romano, English-language edition (April 27, 2005), p. 9.
  26. Homily at the Mass for the Election of the Roman Pontiff, April 18, 2005: L'Osservatore Romano, English-language edition (April 20, 2005), p. 3 (slightly modified translation).

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