Joseph Ratzinger in Communio: Vol I, The Unity of the Church – Review

Tony Sig

Joseph Ratzinger in Communio: Vol I, The Unity of the Church

Eerdmans – 978-0-8028

Get it Here

My thanks to Eerdmans for the review copy!

Before he became Pope Benedict the XVI, he was Joseph Ratzinger; what is not known by all is that he has been one of the greatest Roman Catholic theologians of the post Vatican II era.  It is unfortunate, much like the venerable Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams, that his time in a significant See has been deeply controversial, marred as it has been by many unfortunate and very public happenings.  Indeed, his actions as Pope have often confused and frustrated me.

But I have come to know much more about Pope Benedict on account on the first of what aims to be a three volume collection of essays put out by then Joseph Ratzinger in the massively influential journal Communio.  Published by Eerdmans, these are part of a larger series dealing with the “Ressourcement” thinkers within Roman Catholicism.  This certainly solidifies Eerdmans as a premier ecumenical publisher and their work in this series is to be greatly appreciated.

This first volume of essays float around the topic of “The Unity of the Church.”  The future volumes will deal roughly with “Anthropology” and “Theological Renewal.”  Many of these essays are previously untranslated and I must point out how much I enjoyed these translations.  Oftentimes I’ve found translations of German theology to sound rough and rude; these on the other hand maintain a warm and learned tone throughout.  The essays are all thoughtful, purposeful, and academically serious but none are abstract and could be read by most any thoughtful Christian.  This quality, along with the relative brevity of the essays themselves, make for very fast reading, which gave me a sense of accomplishment and allowed me to finish the book quite quickly.

What was also rewarding was that some of my own fears with respect to ecumenical dialogue were put to rest by learning that Pope Benedict has spent time thinking about topics that I’ve wondered whether they are considered at such a high level of authority within Roman Catholicism.  For instance he considers in “What Unites and Divides Denominations? Ecumenical Reflections” that it may just be the nitpicking insanity of theologians and bishops arguing about angels and pin heads that keeps us apart; a conclusion that he does not feel is sound; or also, in his essay on the ecclesiology of Vatican II, he explores several ways of seeing the Church; as Mystical Body; as Eucharistic body; as related to the collegiality of bishops; and as the People of God.  This resists some who claim that the “body of Christ” vision is a single minded and ideological ecclesiology within Roman Catholicism.

There are many topics covered in this volume, from relations with Jews, discussions on Luther’s theology to an excellent essay about the theology of Hans Urs von Balthasar.  Much like the sympathetic and concise readings of Barth and de Lubac by Balthasar himself, when Ratzinger discusses his friend Balthasar one feels like they are let in on a fireside conversation between scholars; a treat to be sure.  Ratzinger looks into liturgy and sacred music, justice and religion, economics and the Church and much besides.

In my opinion one thing that the book obviously needs is an index but otherwise I greatly enjoyed this, I look forward to the future volumes, and I highly recommend it for the edification of a divided Church.



  1. Eric,

    He does in fact mention Focolare in his essay “The Theological Locus of Ecclesial Movements.” He doesn’t continue to base his essay specifically off them but speaks more broadly of ecclesial movements. He also mentions Neocatecumanate and Communion and Liberation as well.


    I think Derek is right, but the “Universalism” he discusses with reference to Balthasar (the two books are “Explorations in Theology I and II) is more of a universal humanism that relates all lived human experience – art, religion, love…- to the Word and Spirit of God. This is in opposition to Barth’s absolute “Nein!” to such a theology, a sort of natural theology.


  2. Balthasar’s makes the point to distinguish between universal salvation as hope and universal salvation as in all are saved. He supported the former and like the rest of the church rejects the latter.


  3. @Tony – I see, thanks for the clarification. That universalism sounds interesting as well – my guess is that Benedict was on board with Balthasar on that one.


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