Monday, January 21, 2008


Forty Years Ago. 1968 - The Year that Changed Everything

Karl Rahner and Joseph Ratzinger
at the Second Vatican Council

"It is not I who who have changed, but others."

-- See extended quote from The Ratzinger Report
Well, yes and no... I read an interesting book a few weeks ago by former priest and Australian Catholic activist Paul Collins titled God's New Man: The Election of Benedict XVI and the Legacy of John Paul II. The book did a good job of describing the the cross-currents pulling at the Church in the past few decades, highlighting the struggle for ascendancy between the competing theologies of Karl Rahner and Hans Urs Von Balthasar. Karl Rahner, probably the most important peritus at Vatican II, is generally recognized as the most influential Catholic theologian of the 20th Century. In the 21st Century, however, his name is hardly heard anymore, and the theology of Balthasar (who was not invited to the Council as a peritus) now seems to hold sway.

In this 2003 article, John Allen laid out the differences between them succinctly:

In Philosophy 101 one learns that all of Western thought, in a certain sense, can be divided into followers of Plato and of Aristotle. Likewise, the basic options in Roman Catholic theology after the Second Vatican Council (1962-65) can be expressed in terms of a choice between two German-speaking sons of Ignatius Loyola: Karl Rahner and Hans urs Von Balthasar.

If the Rahnerians held the upper hand for the first 20 years, the Balthasarians dominate today, at least in terms of official Church teaching and policy...

Expressing the difference between Rahner and von Balthasar is not easy, but one way to do so is in terms of attitudes towards “the world.” Rahner stressed the presence of grace at the deepest level of every human being — the so-called “supernatural existential.” Von Balthasar saw an “analogy of being” between God and humanity, which placed more distance between the two and thus left room, he felt, for greater realism about sin. Rahner was a basic optimist about culture, so much so that von Balthasar once accused him of negating the necessity of the crucifixion. Rahnerians tend to take Gaudium et Spes as their charter, while Balthasarians often see that text, and especially subsequent interpretations of it, as dangerously naïve.

Balthasar's theological outlook is shared somewhat by Pope Benedict, who left the international theological journal Concilium (of which Rahner was among the original founders, and Ratzinger was a contributor) to start the rival journal Communio, along with Balthasar.

As for the original issue - whether Joseph Ratzinger changed in his views or not... Yes and no. I think it's undeniable that in his younger days he was more progressive than he is now. His views on the liturgy, episcopal conferences, and the local church in relation to the universal church have certainly changed in ways that have been documented. On the other hand, he's always been an Augustinian in his outlook. He, like Balthasar, has always had a keen awareness of humankind's sinfulness, and has passed mixed judgement on the optimism expressed in the the Vatican II document The Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World (Gaudium et Spes).

In the years after the Council, he went on to teach at the University in Tubingen in Germany, and almost everyone agrees that the major turning point for him was the period of student unrest that swept Europe in 1968, when radical students mocked him and ran amok in his classroom. Here is someone who claims on her blog to have been directly responsible (it's fascinating... I've always wondered just who the heck was responsible).

All of this is well-known, of course, and not really in dispute by anyone. What I find interesting in the excerpt from Collins' book is the reaction that his Tubingen colleague, Hans Kung, had to the whole incident with the students. He recognized the student shenanigans as the antics of spoiled baby-boomers, and with the unrepentant exception of the blogger mentioned above, so does Paul Collins. His remarks on that generation ring true in a wry way, and are probably represented no better than in the money-grubbing commercials being done by ex-60's icon Dennis Hopper.

So what happened to the progressive theologian of Vatican II who was eventually to become inquisitor and then pope?

In 1966, Hans Kung was dean of the Catholic theology faculty at Tubingen. He says he was anxious to build up a kind of stellar group of theologians that included Rahner and Ratzinger. Rahner never came, but Ratzinger did. He seemed the ideal choice. Kung says: `Although he is only 37, he enjoys great respect, as his career so far shows. He has his own direction of research and at the same time he is very open to contemporary questions-a basis for good collaboration. I had also found him personally congenial at the time of the Council' (Memoirs). Just three years later, in summer 1969, Ratzinger resigned and left for Regensberg. Why? Kung says, `Time and again people puzzle over how so gifted, friendly, open a theologian as Joseph Ratzinger can undergo such a change: from progressive Tubingen theologian to Roman Grand Inquisitor' (Kung - Memoirs).

Rahner gives Hans Kung a piece of his mind at the Council

Kung has his own theories, but before we look at those let us try to understand it from Ratzinger's own perspective. In one sense he would argue that others have changed and that he has remained steadfast. In one way that is true. There is a consistency between the pre- and post-Council Ratzinger. He always remained an Augustinian. For him the world, especially a culture divorced from faith, has little or nothing to offer the church. That is why he never supported the Council document on `The Church in the Modern World'. It all sounded too optimistic, too convinced that the world could teach the church. Although he only makes passing reference to him, what Ratzinger really objected to was the remote but pervasive influence of the thought of the Jesuit paleontologist and cosmologist Pierre Teilhard de Chardin (1881-1955) in the document. The French Jesuit's optimistic vision of the world and of the whole process of material evolution moving towards greater spiritual complexity and a kind of cosmic consummation in Christ was regarded as unrealistically optimistic and lacking any real sense of the fallen human condition by the future CDF prefect. For him the world needed a redemption that could only come from Jesus' crucifixion. Divorced from this, the world had nothing to offer, and could often explode in what were essentially demonic outbreaks.

This was why Ratzinger reacted so badly to the student radicalism and riots of 1967-68. These occurred right across the United States, Europe, especially in Paris, and also in Britain and Australia. The riots culminated for the sheltered academic theologians of Tubingen in April-May 1968 when their radicalized students adopted Marxist terminology to describe the New Testament as an exploitative text and the death of- Jesus on the cross as a `sado-masochistic glorification of pain'. Ratzinger says he was horrified, and no doubt he was. He says that he increasingly came to see this lack of respect for authority and the constant demands for more rights, for example gay rights, as symptomatic of an abandonment of Catholic teaching and moral standards. Kung adopted a much calmer viewpoint. He saw student radicalism for what it was-delayed adolescence-and treated it as such. Revolting students were certainly a dreadful nuisance, but nothing more. Of course, most of these same student `radicals' were to go on to become neo-conservatives, captains of industry and comfortable 'baby boomers' whose selfishness is well known. These are the people who now insist on charging their own children to go to university after getting a free tertiary education themselves. But by any objective standards, Ratzinger's response to student radicalism in 1968 seems very much like a massive overreaction. Despite the student revolt, at Tubingen he was still able to write what is generally considered his masterpiece, his Introduction to Christianity (1968), an exposition of the Apostles Creed.

The year 1968 also saw the publication on 24 July of' the encyclical Humanae Vitae by Pope Paul VI. This was the Vatican's response to the contraceptive pill. The Pope's teaching against the pill caused a storm of protest right across the Catholic world, especially in developed countries where the use of contraception was already widespread. So Catholics could not avoid the issue. Theologically, the Humanae Vitae affair confronted the church with the question of the status of non-infallible (Paul VI made it clear that this was not an infallible decision) but authoritative papal teaching that was ignored and even directly rejected by the very people to whom it was directed. As a result, the church today is still confronted not by the question of contraception (most people of fertile age have made up their own minds on this issue), but the status of non-infallible papal teaching power, the 'ordinary magisterium' as it is called.


Richard said...

I read this same book a little over a year ago, which I reviewed here:

I hadn't realised Balthasar had gained the ascendency you say he has, symptomatic perhaps of a more inward-looking church?

Michael J. Bayly said...

Great post!

You might be interested in this recent interview with German theologian Uta Ranke-Heinemann. She also knew the current pope in his earlier days, and has some interesting (albeit pessimistic) things to say about the current state of the Roman Catholic Church.



crystal said...

Interesting post. I like Rahner but I'm getting to like von Balthasar more as I learn more about him, not that I understand either of them very well :-)

Meg said...

Love the photo of them all wearing ties. That was one of the most visible signs to me of JPII's papacy. In the early days, invite a priest for dinner and he wore his civvies - jacket and tie. Now, invite a priest for dinner and he's in his Roman collar. ALWAYS.

Not sure whether we have to Hans or Karl to blame for that, though.


Charles of New Haven said...

Great stuff, Jeff, thanks!

For me, I can't put Benedict into either the style of Rahner or von Balthasar. Yes, his Augustinian leanings--Benedict is a Bonaventurian at heart after all!--gives him a certain pessimism that takes him away from Rahner.

On the other hand, he is just as much a child of German idealism as Rahner, caring much for the "supernatural existential" style of discourse. When he was elected I was still in theology, and I found a classmate sitting outside reading his "Introduction to Christianity." I asked what he thought, and he said, "Where has this book been all my life? It's like reading Rahner, but you can understand it!"

Liam said...

Very interesting post, Jeff.

The woman with the blog seems a bit unhinged.

Jeff said...

Richard Gillingham!

Hey, thanks for stopping by for a visit. I noticed about a year or so ago that you’d linked me for a couple of items. I appreciate it. :-) Nice review, I think you pretty much had it right.

I think we are in a more inward-looking period right now as you suggest, with Benedict looking to restore a Large “C” Catholic identity as best he can. I’m not a theology student, but Collins’ book, Allen’s article, and the preponderance of what I see in the overwhelmingly conservative Catholic blogosphere suggests to me that Balthasar’s theology is ascendant over that of Rahner’s if not the theology of Joseph Ratzinger himself, which would not be surprising, considering how long he was at the helm of the CDF… At least as far as the hierarchy is concerned... A quote regarding Balthasar from John Allen’s article:

“What the pope intended to express by this mark of distinction, and of honor, remains valid,” Ratzinger said. “No longer only private individuals but the Church itself, in its official responsibility, tells us that he is right in what he teaches of the faith.”

That’s about as official an endorsement from the hierarchy as you are likely to get, while at the same time, perhaps suggesting implicitly that the theology of Rahner isn’t right.

Hey Michael,

Good to see you again. Yes, I had noticed that interview over at your place several days ago. Interesting what she said about Lehmann (who was pretty tight with Rahner) I was wondering what old Uta has been thinking lately. Haven’t heard much from her since 2005 or so. I thought Eunuchs for the Kingdom of Heaven was superb. I highly recommend it. Putting Away Childish Things was well-written and quite challenging, but ultimately I don’t see the utility in challenging the basic elements of the Creed. I’m pretty much with Luke Timothy Johnson on that issue. That’s one of the reasons why I like theologians like Rahner and exegetes like Raymond Brown so much. They can translate what is old into something new for today’s hearers of the word, but carefully building upon what came before, rather than deconstructing it.

Hi Crystal,

You like that suggestion by Balthasar that perhaps no one winds up in hell?

Hi Meg,

Well, that suggests a lot doesn’t it? Seeing Joseph Ratzinger, an ordained priest, in a jacket and tie? That’s proof enough that he was once more progressive-minded than he is now. In a similar setting today, clericals would be insisted upon.

Hi Friar Charles.

Thanks again for the tip on Joe Schriner. :-) That’s an interesting take you offer on the current topic. When you speak of the German idealism and the “supernatural existential”, is that like Rahner’s “transcendent theology”? Did Benedict look to Immanuel Kant in some ways, like Rahner did?

Hi Liam,

We’ll see if she weighs in. :-)

cowboyangel said...

Interesting post, Jeff. I didn't know much about Rahner and Von Balthasar.

He saw student radicalism for what it was-delayed adolescence-and treated it as such. Revolting students were certainly a dreadful nuisance, but nothing more. Of course, most of these same student `radicals' were to go on to become neo-conservatives, captains of industry and comfortable 'baby boomers' whose selfishness is well known.

I hate to be the party-pooper here, but I find this statement by Collins intellectually suspect on several levels. 1) ALL student radicalism was simply delayed adolescence? Where's his proof? Isn't that a disservice to the large number of students, especially minorities from low-income families, who were often beaten, tear-gassed or thrown in jail for trying to bring about much needed change? What about the Chicano students in Texas or Claifornia who worked with the migrant farmworkers? Would Collins say this to the parents of the kids who were killed at Kent State? 2) "most of these same student `radicals' were to go on to become neo-conservatives, captains of industry and comfortable 'baby boomers'" Again, where's his proof? What does "most" mean? 52%? 88%? Again, this is a disservice to people like my father or older friends of mine who've spent their entire lives struggling for the working class and/or against injustice. It's an ignorant - and, I believe, politicaly motivated - stereotype to say that everybody from the 1960s turned into Neo-conservatives or captains of industry or yuppie baby boomers. That's what the right-wing wants everybody to think. But there are too many examples of people who never became any of those things. They labor quietly in their neighborhoods and communities while the few who really became captains of industry get all the attention. 3) "comfortable 'baby boomers' whose selfishness is well known." How is it "well-known"? Again, no evidence whatsoever - just a cliched assessment that sounds like it came straight from Fox News. And what an arrogant and self-righteous statement! Who is Collins to make such judgments about so many people he doesn't know? It sounds like he's writing from prison, after giving all the proceeds from his book away to the poor.

You know how the media works. Do you think some black woman in Memphis who marched with King in 1968 is going to get any news coverage for becoming a teacher or a doctor? Until people like Collins offer up real statistical evidence about students in the 1960s, I say they're just regurgitating a myth that was started by the Republicans to get Ronald Reagan elected and pushed over and over again by the media. Just because it may be true in some cases doesn't make it the overall reality.

Steve Bogner said...

"In the 21st Century, however, [Rahner's] name is hardly heard anymore,"

Well I suppose it depends... a couple Sunday's ago our priest quoted Rahner in his homily. But our priest is a Jesuit, and our parish is attached to a Jesuit university so that ups the odds quite a bit :)

Jeff said...

Hi William,

Don’t tase me bro. ;-)

I hear you, but you know, Collins and I are hardly the first to indict the Baby Boomers for moving from J'accuse to Jacuzzis. I take nothing away from the sincerity of your parents, your older friends, and of those you describe who work tirelessly in professions that aren’t paid as well as captains of industry, sticking to their ideals regardless. And the last thing I’ll ever fight with you about is the absurd massacre at Kent State, where poorly trained, undisciplined guardsmen fired 62 rounds of live ammunition in 13 seconds. Two of the four students killed weren’t even in the protest. They were just on their way to class.

Nevertheless, I can’t discount what Collins is saying out-of-hand for being anecdotal rather than empirical. I happen to be a member of the Baby Boom Generation, albeit from the tail end of it. In addition to the high celebrity sellouts like Dennis Hopper, Jane Fonda, and David Horowitz, there seems to be evidence that a lot of ordinary folks too easily segued in the “Jerry Rubin into Robert Rubin” path too. Look at the union busting and cutthroat capitalism we’ve been living under since the 80s. That generation has driven it. The Baby Boomers have had an inordinate effect on the culture just by sheer weight of their numbers, and a lot of that is seen in the Me Decade of the 70s and th Go-Go Decade of the 80s just as much as the idealistic decade of the 60s. I recall guys who read read Steal This Book in High School who were cheering for G. Gordon Liddy and jeering Abby Hoffman by the time they got out of college. I remember when National Lampoon turned from progressive, anti-establishment satire into frat-boy, libertarian, Republican Party Reptile masturbatory fantasies. As you allude, the backlash associated with the cynical southern strategy and Reagan’s apocalyptic myths about welfare queens had a lot to do with where we are today, but so did plain old greed and certain excesses which discredited progressives. Actually, I recall when the Reagan era really began. It was the night the choppers crashed into the plane and burned up at Desert 1 in Iran. It was one of the first things I blogged about. I also call it “The Night the Bongs Got Put Away”. After that, most of the guys at my college just drank their brains out a like good red-blooded American Republican business administration majors should. Bongs were for liberal-arts-majoring Democrats. The beer-and-shots purists made for the perfect replicants to enter the workforce in the early 80s.

In fairness to Collins, I think his remarks had more to do with student activism in Europe than in the USA. Even though their politics might be more left wing than ours, I think that the accusation that this generation In Europe is extremely consumerist and materialistic has some legs to it.

What we’ve both written makes me wonder how many of those we would call student activists in those days really were. Just how radical a generation was it? Perhaps there were leaders sincere in what they were trying to do, and, as is with everything else, there were a bunch of hangers-on just having a good time and trying to meet girls. Staying out of Viet Nam might have been one heck of a motivator, but could that radicalism have lost some appeal once the war was over? As for Collins, there is a heavy price to be paid for someone who feels compelled to leave the priesthood over what he’s written. It’s not an easy road to travel after that. It’s not easy to pick up the peieces and make a living when so many of your contacts and career avenues have been taken away from you. I doubt that he’s rolling in dough.

Jeff said...

Hi Steve,

It's good to hear that the Jebs are still keeping Rahner's name out there. :-)

cowboyangel said...


I think we're talking about two different things. You're talking about "that generation" and broad cultural changes. Hey, I'm not about to argue with you that things got a lot more conservative after the 1960s. Or that a lot of people smoking dope and listening to Jimi Hendrix in 1968 didn't go on to become selfish yuppies.

(Though, I'm not sure why you want to pin union-busting on student radicals instead of on right-wing ideologues, Ronald Reagan, wealthy CEOs, corrupt union leaders, etc.)

I'm talking about Collins' specific statements.

1. He saw student radicalism for what it was-delayed adolescence.

So, all student radicals were simply acting out of "delayed adolescence"? None of them actually cared about what they were fighting for? None of them were motivated by justice, by their reading of the Bible, by having grown up in difficult conditions and wanting to change things? That's an extraordinary statement, if you ask me. The guy has just psychoanalyzed hundreds of thousands of people and lumped them together in one homogeneous group. Don't you find that an incredibly sweeping generalization? Don't you think that student radicals in the 1960s may have been motivated by many forces, some good, some not so good?

2. [M]ost of these same student `radicals' were to go on to become neo-conservatives, captains of industry and comfortable 'baby boomers' whose selfishness is well known.

Again, this is such a terrible generalization. He's not talking about students in general, or popular figures from the 1960s like Hopper, Fonda, etc. He's specifically saying that all of the students who were organizing or fighting for change somehow sold out and became greedy and materialistic. But who knows what became of every student radical? There were all kinds of people from all kinds of backgrounds. My guess is that a lot of them started the environmental groups that grew up in the 1970s and 1980s, or civil rights groups, or groups working with the homeless. I mean, who did start all those groups? The former College Republicans?

I don't think the problems that came out after the 1960s can be pinned on the radicals, per se. Some of them were pretty shady characters, true. And I'm not trying to glorify them. I'm simply pointing out that it's impossible to know what became of them all. And he has no right to judge them all as a group. Especially if he was priest. Sorry, but I don't hear Jesus in those statements.

What I think about is what would the 1980s have been like if some of those people DIDN'T continue fighting for justice? The society had basically turned against them, yet many kept right on organizing and trying to bring about change. Imagine James Watts able to do whatever he wanted, without any resistance from environmentalists. Imagine Reagan conducting his wars in Central America without the opposition from many people in the country. Don't you think some former student radicals, despite their delayed adolescence, might've been involved in those struggles?

I don't mean to be intense, but I guess I'm offended by his statements. I find them disrespectful. And untrue. Too many good people have fought for too long to be judged the way he's judging them. Also, I'm bothered because that line of thinking always seems to send out the message that young people shouldn't bother caring about justice, because people who do are just greedy sell-outs in the end.


cowboyangel said...

On a more serious note, do you want me to send you a NY Giants jersey after they win Sunday? I could get you an authentic one from Modell's. You'd probably be the only guy in your office that had one! Maybe a nice Manning #10 jersey?!


My only concern is that it's going to be a dull game, with the Pats pulling away by the 3rd quarter.

Jeff said...

Hi William,

It's such a shame that I won't tolerate anyone disagreeing with me here. Haven't you been told that? ;-D

"If you go carrying pictures of Chairman Mao, you ain't going to make it with anyone anyhow."
-- John Lennon Revolution

You know, I think you would really like Collins' book if you read the whole thing.

Are we really talking about different things? We (and Collins, to a certain extent) are talking about the way that a generation changed as it got older, and presumably, that would include a number of them who were considered radicals. I'm sure that Jerry Rubin, Mark Rudd, John Haydn, Eldridge Cleaver, Huey Newton, Jane Fonda, and a few others who were at the forefront of the radical movements would all have admitted as they grew older that they still had a lot of growing up to do at the time, and that there are certain things that they wish they had done differently. And that's assuming that they haven't done a complete about-face, which some of them did. There's been quite a bit of stuff written about this. Peter Collier and David Horowitz (formerly of Ramparts) wrote Destructive Generation: Second Thoughts About the Sixties, detailing how factionalism, indiscipline, and immaturity took a lot of lustre off of the progressive movements, and P.J. O'Rourke (of whom I'm no longer a fan... formerly of National Lampoon, and who still writes for Jan Wenner's Rolling Stone... what does that tell you?) writes all the time about his transformation from a leftist into a conservative, including intimidation his old progressive group suffered at the hands of a group called (seriously) the "Balto-Cong". I don't think Collins goes anywhere near as far as to indict a whole generation the way that they do, but not everything they observed can be dismissed out of hand either.

Perhaps we need to make a distinction between student activists, and student radicals. Now, the SDS might have been one thing, but splinter groups such as the Weathermen, the YRM, and the likes of Katharine Powers were something else altogether, as were other groups like the Black Panthers, the Symbionese Liberation Army, and the MOVE people. At it's ugliest, it morphed weirdly and descended to the level of the Manson family, who had cult-status on the cover of the Village Voice for a little while... I think we both know that there were more than a few college students in the late 60s who read some Marxist/Leninist critique, put on some granny glasses, grew a goatee, and fantasized that they were going to be the Leon Trotskys of America. That's what Lennon's song is about. It was absurd, and it would be laughable that groups like the Weathermen thought that they could foment a communist revolution in the United States, but unfortunately they did some real harm and their actions eclipsed and in some ways discredited the legitimate non-violent movements that preceded them. The Weathermen with their "Days of Rage" and the Black Panthers are no heroes of mine. I don't put them in the same category as the heroes you describe, and those who would be heroes to both of us, like MLK, Cesar Chavez, and Daniel Berrigan.

Consider what Collins is describing here.

...radicalized students adopted Marxist terminology to describe the New Testament as an exploitative text and the death of- Jesus on the cross as a `sado-masochistic glorification of pain'.

Students jumping ugly in a theology class at Tubingen in Germany? What balls. The New Testament as an exploitive text? Hardly... I'm sorry, but that does sound foolish and immature to me. Perhaps some of these students went on to become Greens in Germany, who knows? You may be right. But I bet a lot of them were embarassed later on by what they'd done, in much the same way as a lot of the kids in the street at the Chicago Democratic Convention who were stoked up to chant "Humphrey's a fascist pig!" All hell broke loose (basically a police riot, I'm not blaming the students for instigating the violence), the convention was a fiasco, and Richard Nixon was elected President. Hubert Humphrey was not a fascist pig. Things would have turned out very differently in this country if Humphrey had been elected in 1968 instead of Nixon. That's something to regret.

Again, I'm not taking anything away from people who protested the war, who worked for civil rights, the environment, gender and racial equality, and so forth. I don't think Collins was either, and if you read him, that would be more apparent. Maybe a distinction needs to be made between radicals and activists. I'll also go back to a point I made before. Maybe radicalism that looked a mile wide at the time was less than an inch deep. The same generation that gave us the Summer of Love and Flower Power dismantled the New Deal. Do I pin union-busting and corporate downsizing on student radicals? No, not really. I'm more inclined instead to wonder how many radicals there really were.

The game? :-)

I've been out of my home all week, I've hardly been covering the buildup. I'm quietly confident, though.

My boss (well, actually I have a lot of bosses... I seem to work for a lot of people) is a big-time Giants fan. Not a peep heard from him all year, and now all of a sudden he's been woofing the last two weeks like he was Plaxico Burress. If the Giants win, it will be insufferable at the office. Enjoy the game.