A Liberation Ecclesiology?

The Quest for Authentic Freedom in Joseph Ratzinger’s Theology of the Church

by Sean Corkery (Author)
©2015 Monographs XIV, 576 Pages


Freedom, one of the most potent ideals of the post-Enlightenment era, came to remarkable prominence in ecclesiology through the emergence of liberation theologies in the twentieth century. At the same time, Joseph Ratzinger – a German university professor – was appointed a bishop of the Roman Catholic Church and prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. His interaction with the pioneers of the liberationist movement led him to engage directly with the Christian understanding of freedom and its significance. As a result, his interest in freedom as a theological question expanded from the 1970s onwards.
This book explores whether the basis for a liberation ecclesiology can be attributed to Ratzinger in his own right. While the volume’s focus is ecclesiological, the author also gathers together many strands of Ratzinger’s core theological insights in an attempt to establish how he approaches an issue that is both provocative and highly topical.
Ratzinger is a controversial and engaging figure, and this book is essential reading for those who wish to understand how he deals with a theological topic of ongoing concern to society in general and the Catholic Church in particular.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • Acknowledgements
  • Abbreviations
  • Introduction
  • Section I Contexts
  • Chapter 1: Discovering the Importance of Freedom: Formative Influences on Joseph Ratzinger and his Theology
  • 1.1. A Life Marked by the Theme of Freedom
  • 1.2. Theological Attitude towards Ideology
  • 1.3. Encounter with Augustinian Ecclesiology: Self-Surrender in Love
  • 1.4. The Dynamic Meaning of Revelation in Bonaventure and the Emergence of the Principle of Dialogue
  • 1.5. Exploring the Truth of Being Human
  • 1.6. Emergence of a Christological Hermeneutic
  • 1.7. Conclusion
  • Chapter 2: Reading the Contemporary Cultural and Ecclesial Dynamics of Freedom
  • 2.1. Freedom as a “One-Sided” Idea in Modern Intellectual History: From Luther to Sartre
  • 2.2. Contemporary Cultural Dynamics of Freedom
  • 2.3. Contemporary Ecclesial Dynamics of Freedom
  • 2.4. Basic Orientations of an Ecclesiology of Liberation
  • 2.5. Conclusion
  • Section II Foundations
  • Chapter 3: The Foundations of Human Freedom – Christological Contours
  • 3.1. The Dimensions of the Figure of Christ as Liberator
  • 3.2. Christology and Freedom
  • 3.3. Conclusion
  • Chapter 4: The Shape of Human Freedom: Anthropological Contours
  • 4.1. Being Free in the World – The Human Search for Meaning
  • 4.2. Two Scriptural Categories Shaping Freedom: Monotheism and Creatureliness
  • 4.3. Comparing the Modern and Christian Syntheses
  • 4.4. Acknowledging the Truth of Human Nature: Sin as Suppressed Truth
  • 4.5. Conclusion
  • Chapter 5: Growth in Human Freedom: Ecclesiological Contours
  • 5.1. A Sacramental Framework: God’s Church, not “our” Church
  • 5.2. The Faith Dimension: Belief Requires Community
  • 5.3. The Love Dimension: Faith that Works through Freedom and Love
  • 5.4. The Hope Dimension: Only Truth Frees
  • 5.5. Conclusion
  • Section III Manifestations
  • Chapter 6: The Church at Worship: The School of Human Freedom
  • 6.1. Prayer as Affirmatory, Purificatory and Identificatory
  • 6.2. Ecclesial Faith and Freedom: The Act of Trust and Obedience
  • 6.3. Worship and Human Ecology
  • 6.4. Conclusion
  • Chapter 7: The Church and the Office of ἐπίσκοπος: Overseeing Growth in Authentic Freedom
  • 7.1. Custodian of Religious Liberty
  • 7.2. Advocate for Creation and Creative Reason
  • 7.3. Exercising Magisterial Authority
  • 7.4. Living the Tension between the Prophetic and Hierarchic Charisms
  • 7.5. Being Ready to Suffer
  • 7.6. Conclusion
  • Chapter 8: The Church as Witness: Practising Freedom in the World
  • 8.1. The Personal Level of Conscience
  • 8.2. The Communal Level of Martyrdom and Sainthood
  • 8.3. The Societal Level of Civil Religion
  • 8.4. Conclusion
  • Chapter 9: Concluding Evaluation
  • 9.1. The Significance of Ratzinger’s Contribution
  • 9.2. Potential Avenues of Future Enquiry
  • Epilogue
  • Bibliography
  • Index


I wish to express my sincere appreciation to Most Rev. William Crean, Bishop of Cloyne for his generous support and encouragement during the latter stages of these studies and to Most Rev. Dermot Clifford, apostolic administrator of Cloyne (2009–2013) for initially permitting me to undertake doctoral studies in theology. I am truly grateful to Most Rev. Brendan Leahy, Bishop of Limerick for guiding, supporting, and encouraging me in the research and writing process of my doctoral dissertation, which I now present in book format. My gratitude is very much extended to the staff and students of the Pontifical Faculty of Theology at St. Patrick’s College, Maynooth, the staff and students of the Fakultät für Katholische Theologie in Universität Regensburg, the staff and students of the Goethe Institut in Dublin, and the staff of the Institut Papst Benedikt XVI, Regensburg, especially its former director Rev. Professor Rudolf Voderholzer who has since been ordained Bishop of Regensburg. Along the way I have been privileged to have had conversations and assistance from many people. I want to pay a special tribute to Mr Donal McMahon for his comments on the text. Without Peter Lang publishers, this book would never have made it into print. I express my sincere gratitude to all its dedicated and professional team. I thank my brother priests in Cloyne and beyond for always encouraging me and enquiring about my progress. To my mum and dad, brothers and sister for looking on with great patience and care at my preoccupation with theological research. My extended family and friends have always been there with prayer and encouragement. I will never forget the kindness of the parish community of Saggart, Rathcoole, Newcastle and Brittas in the Archdiocese of Dublin, and the parish communities of Midleton and Fermoy in my own diocese for encouraging me in both my priestly ministry and my studies in these years. At times, many ← xi | xii → of them have asked me the most incisive questions and have helped me to ground my reflections in the reality of ecclesial life today. Finally, I give thanks to the heavenly Father for granting me the health and strength to bring my work to this important juncture. ← xii | xiii →



In Washington in 1990, Joseph Ratzinger posed what he understood to be a fundamental question about the human condition: “what is freedom and where does man find that road which doesn’t just go anywhere, but leads to true freedom, to the real ‘promised land’ for human existence?”1 Twenty years earlier, he voiced a similar concern for freedom and its full and proper flourishing: “[t]here is a cry for liberation from the prison of positivism, as there is too, for liberation from a form of faith that has allowed itself to become a burden instead of a vehicle of freedom.”2 At all times, both in those years and up to the present day, he has explored and promoted an answer to the question that considers the Church as Raum der Freiheit – as “locus” or “sphere” of freedom in terms of divine-human relationality,3 ← 1 | 2 → the liturgy,4 reconciliation,5 faith,6 hope,7 theological endeavour,8 and society.9 It is a rich and dynamic expression intended to acknowledge the nuanced ← 2 | 3 → and multifaceted challenge existing today for ecclesiologists who wish to reflect on the concept of freedom in its relation to (modern) religious man.

The purpose of this book is to consider how cogently Ratzinger presents the case for the Church’s presence in the world as a liberating force for humanity. It asks: how does Ratzinger characterize the Church as a sphere beneficial to humanity’s yearning for liberation in a time when disgruntlement towards it has, arguably, increased exponentially?10 In doing so, it ← 3 | 4 → will be necessary to consider his understanding of how the contemporary cultural and philosophical attitude toward freedom emerged, to research and present the tenets of his anthropology of liberation, and finally, to study how his presentation of ecclesiology may be fruitful in realizing growth in authentic human freedom.

The nucleus of his approach is found in his desire to reconcile the form of faith as a statement of meaning with the scientific, technological worldview which, at its heart, is a positive development that remains incapable of imparting the spirit of selfless service that keeps humanity true to itself:

Mankind needs a framework of meaning that imparts the strength to serve, which creates an interior freedom from the world and thereby gives individuals the ability to live and work unselfishly, because a man’s hope is more deeply rooted than his external career aspirations. Yet all that cannot last without the mighty force of living faith that is in itself disinterested. In this regard, service to the faith is an existential need for man, even today and especially today. The technician who strives to find new possibilities of material survival and the believer who is at the service of the faith and seeks new ways of spiritual survival are working at two different sides of ← 4 | 5 → one and the same common task. They should not allow themselves to be played off against each other but, rather, should extend to each other a helping hand with the one project to which they are committed.11

From a Philosophy of Freedom to a Liberation Ecclesiology?

At the outset, a cautionary note is required to preclude this book from being misconstrued as a comparative study of several modes of liberation theology.12 As a study of Ratzinger’s ecclesiology from the perspective of his christocentric anthropology, this book can best be viewed as the expansion of his philosophy of freedom into a “liberation ecclesiology.” However, while it is not the first time the latter attribution has been applied to Ratzinger, it is not a term he himself has ever used.13 This present study, in other words, attempts to discern whether or not it can be said that Joseph Ratzinger’s theology of the Church merits the appellation of a liberation ecclesiology in its own right. ← 5 | 6 →

The term “liberation ecclesiology” itself was used in 1996 by the Mexican Jesuit and Professor of Ecclesiology at the Theological Institute in Mexico city, Alvaro Quiroz Magaña (b. 1942), to describe the Church as the sacrament of historical liberation, and the sign and servant of the Reign of God. Magaña also said it promoted the need to overcome divisions in the Church and the importance of new forms of service and ministries, along with new forms of Church structure.14 What is of note from the Latin American experience is Magaña’s encounter with the oppression of the poor: “[w]e went to them to bring them the gospel of liberation, and we discovered that we were being evangelised by them.”15 Despite the indigenous underpinning of Magaña’s work, he also has an awareness of the universal aspect of the nature of freedom when he says one of the tasks of an ecclesiology of liberation is “to continue to demonstrate to the greater church the legitimacy of this way of being church. … A greater openness on the part of the church in the difficult times of this winter of faith may be decisive if the people are to have life.”16 Magaña’s acknowledgement of the universal ecclesial participation in the search for freedom can be considered significant from a Western perspective if one recognizes that the paralysis oppressing people in western societies is largely of a different order. It can therefore be argued that if Christ is the liberator of the entire cosmos, then an ecclesiology of liberation cannot be something confined ← 6 | 7 → to the commercially subjugated countries of the world who, by and large, have been paralysed by the pervasiveness of capitalism.17

To the extent, then, that “liberation ecclesiology” is cognisant of the western dilemma of freedom and constraint, it provides an acceptable term to describe the reflections which Ratzinger makes on the Church as sphere of growth in freedom. His primary motivation is the understanding that there is poverty in Western societies, albeit of a different order, but nonetheless an oppression of the human person ensnared in a “winter of faith.” He sees the western cry for additional freedom as both an essential part of human nature and a symptom of the denial of the truth about humanity’s destiny. In this context, his motivation is precisely that of an ecclesiological liberationist: to liberate the Church in the West from its Babylonian Exile.18

A Cultural Perspective with Ecclesial Ramifications

From a theological perspective, even the most cursory glance at western culture over the past 500 years establishes the need to engage resourcefully with the topic of human freedom. Today, the West tends to pride itself on the maintenance of a liberal democratic polity with a value-system comprised of (at a minimum) individual liberty, privacy, free speech, due ← 7 | 8 → process of law and equality before the law, representative and transparent government, procedural democracy and a regime of equal rights and entitlements for all. And even if this set of values is not always fully realizable, it serves as the western world’s defining aspiration. From an ecclesiological perspective, the Church’s visible institutional presence is destined to be probed by the new cultural trends within western society.

Anthony Clifford Grayling (b. 1949), former professor of philosophy at Birkbeck College, University of London and long-time associate of the neo-atheist movement in the UK, says the western world’s defining aspiration has been the result of a singular process of “enfranchisement.”19 To his mind, the progress made in human “enfranchisement” has necessitated the final breaking of the hegemony of a single Church over the lives of individuals, as well as the overriding of absolute monarchy, replacing it with more representative systems of government and citizen participation. He says: “[b]oth processes were occasionally revolutionary but mostly evolutionary, plagued by setbacks, made slow and difficult by the reluctance of both religious and temporal powers to give anything away. Many died in furthering these processes – in fire at the church’s stake, in chains in royal dungeons, on the battlefield.”20 On the other hand, and particularly from the ← 8 | 9 → perspective of the twentieth-century, the world has experienced an unparalleled series of ideological and bloody misuses of freedom. Paradoxically, the same century was marked by an unprecedented cry for freedom to be definitively procured. According to former professor of moral theology at Maynooth’s Pontifical University, Vincent Twomey, by the time Pope Paul VI (1897–1978) published Humane Vitae in 1968 entire populations were motivated by the condition of freedom’s possibility:

Freedom was the new catchword – freedom from the constraints of the past, freedom from alienating authorities (Church, State, and traditional families), freedom from the limits imposed on us by our bodies, freedom of expression, including sexual expression. Anything goes. Within the Church, the reforms of the Second Vatican Council were being implemented with haste, above all through the introduction of the new rite of Mass. They engendered a sense of freedom from what was perceived as ← 9 | 10 → the shackles of tradition. Change was in the air, not least in the field of moral theology, which the Council had stressed was in need of a radical rethink, which it was.21

In the intervening time, much has happened, with historical causality increasingly being blamed for the continuing vulnerability of the western way of life. Even someone like Grayling muses on the present troubled state of western culture: the phenomenon of terrorism, the changing demographics of western populations in decline, and a general malaise towards the price paid for freedom by our predecessors. He believes that the gains of previous generations are so precious and yet so precariously at risk that only an affirmative answer must be given to the last part of his question: “Do we record the fact that the age of liberty might have passed its best point, after so brief a period of flourishing, or do we fight to keep all that the struggle to win it gained for us?”22

There are others, however, who are not uncritical of the modern concept of human freedom. Writing in 1950, Romano Guardini (1885–1968), a professor of philosophy and theology at the University of Munich, felt that in the preceding thirty years, humanity had come to distrust its own nature and, had begun to search for liberation in opposition to the Judaeo-Christian heritage that creation was created good by God who is good.23 Analogous to the shift in the perception of nature, Guardini believed that the new sense of the finite would bring a changed attitude to the understanding of personhood and subjectivity, the outcome of which would lead to “the not-human man” and the “not-natural nature.” This would bring ← 10 | 11 → humanity towards an existence consisting of the freedom to further their lordship of creation, even to its last doomed consequences:

This mastery will be open to him because he has permitted himself utter freedom: the freedom to determine his own goals, to dissolve the immediate reality of things, to employ its elements for the execution of his own ends. These things he will do without any consideration for what had been thought inviolate or untouchable in nature. He will ignore that strong sense of the sacredness of nature which had endured within mankind’s earlier vision.24

Canadian philosopher, Charles Taylor (b. 1931), who has arguably produced the most important recent study on subjective relationality and culture, uses more contemporary terminology to capture the shift in perspective which has taken place. He asks about the belief structures of western society: “why was it virtually impossible not to believe in God in say, 1500 in our western society, while in 2000 many of us find this not only easy, but even inescapable?”25 For him, the rise of the “secular age” is a unique phenomenon within the history of western civilization. Though notoriously difficult to define, for him “a secular age is one in which the eclipse of all goals beyond human flourishing becomes conceivable; or better, it falls within the range of an imaginable life for masses of people.”26 It is the result of a societal principle which declares human flourishing to be no longer a good, but the good, beyond which no ultimate goal exists. For the first time in history, he says, a self-sufficient or “self-sufficing humanism” has come to be widely available which carries no allegiance to anything else beyond itself.27 ← 11 | 12 →

Representative of those who are severely critical of the trajectory of the modern understanding of freedom in the West is the Orthodox theologian, David Bentley Hart (b. 1965). Responding to what he sees as the ← 12 | 13 → sinister narrative of the anti-religious polemic of neo-atheism, he argues that being entirely modern – which few he concedes actually are – is to believe in nothing:

Modernity’s highest ideal – its special understanding of personal autonomy –requires us to place our trust in an original absence underlying all of reality, a fertile void in which all things are possible, from which arises no impediment to our wills. … We trust, that is to say, that there is no substantial criterion by which to judge our choices that stands higher that the unquestioned good of free choice itself, and that therefore, all judgement, divine no less than human, is in some sense an infringement upon our freedom.28

For Hart, the ethos of modernity has become nihilism, not in the sense of a rejection of various truths that can be identified within the world but rather a rejection of the notion that there is some total of eternal “Truth” beyond the world governing our reality. While most people, believers and unbelievers (in God) alike, acknowledge the placing of desirable limits upon the exercise of human free-will, Hart point out that the chief value of the age remains the “inviolable liberty of personal volition.” If we conform authentically to the age in which we live, we place ourselves, not at the disposal of God or gods or the Good, “but before an abyss, over which presides the empty power of our isolated wills, whose decisions are their own moral index. This is what it means to have become perfect consumers: the original nothingness of the will gives itself shape by the use it makes of the nothingness of the world – and thus we are free.”29

Such a “shift,” or at least a version thereof, could not be ignored by the Church, as it was bound to impact on the outlook of the believing ← 13 | 14 → community. For the Roman Catholic Church, the twentieth-century has been a period of intense reflection upon the theme of freedom. Jesuit theologian, Avery Dulles (1918–2008), recently described as the “dean of Roman Catholic ecclesiologists,”30 observes that a new stimulus to a theology of freedom was provided by the Second Vatican Council (1962–65). It strove to bring forms of ecclesial life abreast of (western) cultural developments since the Enlightenment: “[t]he Council, through such approaches to the question of Christian freedom, contributed to make this subject a priority item on the agenda of the post-conciliar Church.”31 In light of this, Dulles describes his own vision for the Church as that of a “liberating agency.”32 To his mind, “[t]he Church [being] par excellence the place where Christ is at work through his Spirit, carrying on his liberating task, […] the Christian is therefore both a person being liberated and one taking part in the liberation of many others.”33 ← 14 | 15 →

However, Dulles equally acknowledges the contemporary context and is not blind to the fact that “the situation of the Church as an institution gives cause for concern,”34 while the former President of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, Walter Kasper (b. 1933), says that “[t]he excess of regimentation and bureaucracy in the contemporary Church very often buries the freedom of the children of God and makes the idea of creative love wither away.”35A commonly held perception today is that the Catholic Church itself is anything but a place of freedom. Today, it is clear to both detractor and devotee alike that the Church is not immune from having questions asked of it regarding the attitudes towards liberation which it evinces in its daily witness.

Conceivably, one could speculate in several directions as to why some have come to recognize the Church as an oppressive institution. For his part, Ratzinger begins his search for an answer by interpreting the shifting cultural dynamics of western society at large. In his analysis, the Catholic Church will very much be part of this story. In the past, a large part of western theological history emphasized freedom in relation to the question of free-will and the moral agent’s striving to carry out the precepts of the God of Christendom.36 However, as a consequence of the increasing emphasis ← 15 | 16 → on the integrity of the autonomous individual, the modern secularizing ethos has seen the emphasis on freedom gradually shift away from the “act” and towards the freedom of the “subject” per se.37 Ratzinger engages with this emerging new emphasis on freedom at the level of personhood and works towards an “ontology of freedom.”38 While by no means disregarding the free action of the moral agent, he prioritizes the application of fundamental theology in his discussion of authentic freedom. Only from this starting point, to his mind, can the actions of the free agent take on their full significance. ← 16 | 17 →

The Focus of this Book

Various scholars have compiled introductory studies of Ratzinger’s life and work but research dedicated specifically to his ecclesiology from the perspective of freedom remains to be undertaken. In terms of the general topic of liberty in the Church, Ratzinger’s writings have largely been understood from the perspective of his (and his Congregation’s) interface with the emergence of liberation theologies, and the topic of academic freedom within catholic theology.39 One of Ratzinger’s own former students, and ← 17 | 18 → now retired professor of fundamental theology at Freiburg University, Hansjürgen Verweyen, is perhaps typical in this regard.40 Verweyen surveys the historical emergence of liberation theology in Latin America in general, and in Chile in particular. Then, while acknowledging the correctness of Ratzinger’s analysis of this situation in principle, Verweyen decries the strangeness of the intervention of a European intellectual perspective which is not only alien, but perhaps even obscurantist to concrete indigenous efforts to tackle structural injustice in South America. Verweyen points out that indicative of Ratzinger’s approach is his call to represent the “logic of faith” in terms that embody a real response to lived experience, as opposed to any idealistic notion that seeks to build the kingdom of God on earth solely through human strength.41 Inevitably, however, introductory studies like Verweyen’s cannot be expected to capture the theological rationale behind the academic positions which Ratzinger has articulated in his writings. The focus of this book is to pinpoint and analysis the core rationale that informs Ratzinger’s understanding of freedom. Before formally entering our study, let’s look at some general comments by others on Ratzinger’s theological approach.

In the first instance, University of Augsburg academic, Peter Hofmann, alludes to Joachim Meisner’s analogy with Mozart in suggesting that there ← 18 | 19 → is a “mozartische Ton” (“Mozart-like tone”) to Ratzinger’s work which appeals to people who tend towards an ontological or universalist vision of the Christian mystery.42 Hofmann suggests that Ratzinger develops his vision through an ensemble of objective statements of faith – one tenet of faith points to all others and therefore cannot be understood in isolation from them. Hence there is an echo of a symphonic perichoresis, so to speak, whereby all doctrinal formulas are essentially connected to the centre. Hence, faith is not defined so much by individual concepts but remains an incomparable mystery. In effect, Hofmann maintains, Ratzinger has confidence in the premise that exploring the Christian faith does not lead to a reductio in mysterium but that when “recognised as a whole, faith develops is own ratio.”43 The overarching locus of Ratzinger’s vision is the mystery of God. To carry forward Hofmann’s analogy, God is the “composer” of a living symphony. Michael Schneider, professor of dogma and liturgy at the Sankt Georgen Graduate School of Philosophy and Theology in Frankfurt am Main, reiterates this point in Ratzinger’s work: “Everything in human existence is determined by how Joseph Ratzinger stresses the question of God.”44 Given that Ratzinger’s frame of reference for his treatment of freedom over the years has been precisely through this divine-human spectrum, an in-depth study of the issue represents a good example of how to penetrate and access his universal vision of the Christian mystery. This book is dedicated to coming to terms with how Ratzinger links his understanding of freedom with the overall Christian mystery – i.e. via the frame of dialogical theology. ← 19 | 20 →

Schneider’s also makes another key observation which informs virtually every strand of Ratzinger’s presentation of the Christian understanding of freedom: “The question of truth and the question of freedom go together in human life. But the question of truth, as well as the reality of man, is based on the question of God. The reason for this is found in the nascent Christian confession that Jesus is ‘substantially equal with the Father’.”45 The theme of the inseparability of truth and freedom (cf. John 8:32) is key to understanding Ratzinger’s proposal for an ecclesial understanding of human freedom. Other theologians, including Laurence Paul Hemming, research fellow at Lancaster University, and Robert Tilley, lecturer in Biblical Studies at the Catholic Institute of Sydney have, each in their own way, addressed Ratzinger’s search for truth but neither of them sufficiently discussed the challenge to the Church’s mission posed by modern understandings of freedom. Nor did they sufficiently address the presuppositions upon which Ratzinger builds his arguments.46 Hence, the ← 20 | 21 → first task of this book will be to demonstrate that freedom is a theme that emerges from Ratzinger’s examination of the philosophical cross-pressures within western societies in general, and the Church in particular. It will be particularly concerned with identifying the nature of the suspicion with which the Church is presently viewed. Reflection upon the impasse that emerges here helps Ratzinger identify a way forward.

The work of Irish-born theologian, Gerard Mannion, has been very much concerned with the present-day situation of postmodernity.47 In the course of presenting his analysis of the modern cultural narrative of western society, he identifies a form of neo-exclusivism which is becoming increasingly problematical. To his mind, neo-exclusivism has grown up in response to postmodernity’s shunning of absolutes, and the discourse that engages ← 21 | 22 → positively with relativist thought. From the perspective of Catholicism, he believes that the Vatican is experiencing a rise in neo-exclusivism which, born out of a fear of postmodernity, endeavours to impose an ecclesiological unilateralism that stems from a universalist communio ecclesiology:48 “[w]hat Vatican II intended to be guiding and facilitative teaching is turned into more rigid, fixed, and determined dogma.”49 With Ratzinger’s writings on Vatican II’s ecclesiology of communion to the fore of his critique, Mannion says “a pessimistic assessment of the state of contemporary culture and the contemporary world vis-à-vis the Church has been one of the most consistent elements of [Ratzinger’s] writings.”50 Calling for resistance to this burgeoning neo-exclusivism, Mannion suggests its popularity is associated with an anti-pluralistic polemic that is ultimately counterproductive in the post-modern environment.51 Despite his critique of Ratzinger, however, ← 22 | 23 → it seems to me that Mannion’s core question is not one Ratzinger would dismiss. In fact, as this book will demonstrate, it is one which Ratzinger will seek to address: “What sort of ecclesiological methodology might be developed in light of such ‘postmodern critical consciousness,’ and how could an ecclesiology embrace and respect, indeed celebrate the other as other, while remaining comfortable in the celebration of fundamentals of its own tradition?”52

In terms of specific studies of Ratzinger’s ecclesiology, attention can be drawn to a number of studies, including James Massa’s research at Fordham University in 1996.53 Massa shows how Ratzinger’s interpretation of communio is a fruitful instrument for addressing a multiplicity of theological problems, particularly, ecumenical issues of unity. However, while there is a valuable ecumenical urgency to Massa’s work, there is a necessary cultural imperative behind this present study. In a milieu where Ratzinger feels freedom has undergone a remarkable metamorphosis into a form of isolation and personal enslavement, this book focuses on how Ratzinger envisages ecclesiology responding to such cultural developments.

In 1998, Miroslav Volf (b. 1956) conducted a three-way ecclesiological study of the Catholic, Orthodox and “Free Church” traditions, using Ratzinger to illustrate the perspective of Roman Catholic theology.54 Volf points out that the key to Ratzinger’s approach is that of Christus totus. This concern for the “whole” expresses itself in a “spirituality of divestment” that corresponds to Ratzinger’s basic understanding of communality.55 Christian ← 23 | 24 → “divestment” – which could also be described as self-dispossession in the name of Christian discipleship – is related to the “whole” of the human person’s reality. The goal of the Church’s life is for the human being to become an anima ecclesiastica: “a person who has come to herself and who at the same time stands as a free being in communion with fellow human beings and with the triune God.”56 A spirituality of divestment is an important theme which Ratzinger develops in his ecclesiology through the notion of the purification of man’s image into its true form. How Ratzinger develops what Volf has highlighted in a cursory way as “divestment” forms an important part of this book. It will mean exploring more fully the theme of relationality and the safeguarding of personal freedom in the midst of the Church’s social – and therefore, institutional – setting.

Dennis M. Doyle, professor of Religious Studies at the University of Dayton, Ohio, conducted an examination of communion ecclesiologies which led him to the conclusion that Ratzinger’s particular interest in communio lies in a just vision of the human person and society. Doyle points out that for Ratzinger, the Church is the “event” whereby human history is drawn into the sphere of the divine and “as the place where the transcendent enters the world, [the Church] must warn the world about its own pretensions to wholeness, and must urge the world to accept what is ← 24 | 25 → humanly possible while it looks beyond itself for its ultimate fulfilment.”57 However, Doyle doesn’t explore how Ratzinger envisages the Church assuming this responsibility to be vigilant for the sake of human civilization. Indeed, from the perspective of authentic human freedom, one needs to ask why is it the case that the Church finds itself in a position of needing to be “vigilant”? What is the content of this “vigilance”? And finally, how should it perform, if at all, this task of “vigilance”? This book will look at how Ratzinger’s ecclesiology visualizes the pastoral need for vigilance on the part of the Church when faced with the reality of the possibilities and limitations of human nature.

Against the backdrop of the Constitution on the Church, Lumen gentium, Cistercian monk and Abbot of Heiligenkreuz Abbey in Austria, Maximilian Heinrich Heim (b. 1961), measures Ratzinger’s work against the intention of the Council.58 Alongside dealing with the Church’s hierarchical constitution, Heim studies Ratzinger’s view of the Church as sacrament, as the “Body of Christ,” and as the “People of God.”59 What emerges is a “eucharistic communio ecclesiology”60 and a sophisticated view of Church as sacrament which Heim suggests is a “synthesis of [Ratzinger’s] ecclesiology corresponding to the theological axiom lex orandi – lex credendi. It is true, according to this rule, that the Church, which by her nature is constituted by the Eucharist, must recognise God’s primacy as her extra nos, on which she lives.”61 In other words, the Church becomes itself through the acceptance of its orientation from outside of itself. This presses Volf’s awareness of Ratzinger’s spirituality of divestment onto an explicitly ecclesial level. ← 25 | 26 → Ratzinger himself sheds light on the proper orientation of ecclesiology in the Foreword to Heim’s work:

In the Constitution Lumen gentium the Church does not speak of herself in the final analysis, does not reflect on herself, as one might conclude from a superficial reading. The first sentence of the document reads: “Christ the light of humanity.” This light is reflected upon the face of the Church. She is – as the Fathers of the Church say – the moon that receives all of its light from the sun, from Christ. Correctly understood, the Church’s essence is found, not in the Church herself, but rather in her orientation [Verwiesensein] and her referring [Verweisen] to one beyond herself. Father Heim shows this christological structure of the Council’s teaching about the Church, which is necessarily a theo-logical structure: In Christ, man – human nature, is united with God. Through him, humanity has been taken up into the Trinitarian dynamic: The Son leads to the Father in the Holy Spirit. It is about God, and only in this way do we treat the subject of man correctly.62

Heim’s exhaustive work focused on Ratzinger’s fundamental ecclesiology. The task of carrying such fundamental orientations forward from particular perspectives remains. For example, Ratzinger’s own comments highlight the important connection between ecclesiology and anthropology. This book takes up one of Ratzinger’s many ecclesiological perspectives – namely from the point of view of human freedom. When Heim speaks of freedom in his study, he only touches briefly on issues relating to conscience, truth, and liberation theology.63 At one point he alludes to the fact that Ratzinger believes the situation of humanity cannot be resolved solely from within its historical setting:

Ratzinger’s own response to the distress of poverty is guided by a comprehensive vision of man, which formulates what is distinctive in the Christian idea of freedom in a perspective that is historical and yet also goes beyond history. He is convinced that man’s freedom “can only exist in the correct mutual allocation of these freedoms, and this is possible only if they all take the freedom of God and his truth as their criterion.”64 ← 26 | 27 →


XIV, 576
ISBN (Softcover)
Publication date
2015 (April)
Benedict catholicism church
Oxford, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Frankfurt am Main, New York, Wien, 2015. XIV, 576 pp.

Biographical notes

Sean Corkery (Author)

Seán Corkery is a priest of the Diocese of Cloyne in the Republic of Ireland. Ordained in 2008, he pursued his licentiate and doctoral studies in systematic theology at the Pontifical University, St Patrick’s College, Maynooth, Co. Kildare. He works in the Diocese of Cloyne as a Diocesan Advisor on Education and as Director of Adult Faith Formation. He is also a member of the national steering committee for Adult Studies in the Catechism.


Title: A Liberation Ecclesiology?