Henri de Lubac famously said of Hans Urs von Balthasar that he was the most cultured man in Europe of his time (1905-1988). Von Balthasar grew up in a family where everyone spoke at least four languages and had a high level of musical education. His father was a Church architect, his mother was in charge of the Swiss League of Catholic Women, his uncle was a Hungarian bishop who was martyred on Good Friday in 1945 and is now honored as Blessed Vilmos Apor, another relative on the Apor side was a Hungarian envoy to the Holy See, and his sister became the General of a Franciscan order of nuns. In the Balthasar family tree there was also a Jesuit who worked on missions in California. In short Balthasar was born into a family loaded with Catholic cultural capital.
De Lubac came from a similar background in France. He had been born into an aristocratic family of the Ardèche and his father was a banker. During the First World War he served in the French army and was wounded in the head but survived. During the Second World War he worked for the French Resistance assisting in the publication of an underground journal called Témoinage chrétien or Christian Witness which was intended to convince French Catholics of the complete incompatibility of Nazi ideology with Christian beliefs. Given that some of their ecclesial leaders were encouraging them to support the Vichy Regime this was quite important. De Lubac was often in hiding from the Germans and several of his co-workers on the journal, including his fellow Jesuit, Yves de Montcheul, were captured by the Gestapo and executed.
Von Balthasar came under the influence of de Lubac while a student at La Fourvière in the years 1933-37 while Joseph Ratzinger studied de Lubac’s works when he was seminarian in the late 1940s. Ratzinger was later to write that reading de Lubac’s Catholicism was for him a key reading event which gave him not only a new and deeper connection with the thought of the Fathers but also “a new way of looking at theology and faith as such.” Ratzinger also read de Lubac’s Corpus Mysticum in which he found a new understanding of the unity of the Church and the Eucharist, and this in turn helped him to better understand the ecclesiology of St. Augustine.
Ratzinger and de Lubac both found themselves serving as Periti at the Second Vatican Council, and then in 1972, together with Hans Urs von Balthasar, they founded the International Catholic Review: Communio. Ratzinger once observed that it was impossible for him to say how much he owed to de Lubac and von Balthasar as intellectual mentors. It was Ratzinger who hosted von Balthasar’s 80th birthday party and Ratzinger who delivered von Balthasar’s funeral homily.
Along with de Lubac and von Balthasar another great name to appear on the honour roll of significant intellectual friends of Ratzinger is Romano Guardini. Guardini influenced a whole generation in his position as the chaplain to the German youth movement. He was also one of von Balthasar’s lecturers at the University of Berlin and one of Ratzinger’s at the University of Munich. Karl Rahner praised him for showing German Catholics a way out of their intellectual and cultural ghetto. Ratzinger spoke of his flair for illustrating key theological concepts with literary examples and events drawn from the lives of the saints. Guardini’s The Essence of Christianity (1938) can be read as a precursor to Ratzinger’s Introduction to Christianity (1968) which was a best-seller translated into 17 languages and Guardini’s Spirit of the Liturgy published during the First World War was the model for Ratzinger’s own work with the same title published in 2000.
Ratzinger once wrote that he was taught by Guardini that the essence of Christianity is not an idea, not a system of thought, not a plan of action. The essence of Christianity is a Person: Jesus Christ himself. This principle became enshrined in the Conciliar document Dei Verbum (1965) which Ratzinger helped to draft and formed the central theme of his first encyclical, Deus Caritas Est (2007).
After Guardini, another prominent teacher of the young Joseph Ratzinger was Gottlieb Söhngen (1892-1971). Söhngen was the Professor of Fundamental Theology at the University of Munich who supervised both of Ratzinger’s theses, the doctoral dissertation on Augustine’s ecclesiology and the habilitationsschrift on St. Bonaventure’s theology of history. It was also under Söhngen that Ratzinger studied Newman’s Grammar of Assent. Söhngen was an admirer of the work of de Lubac and when the young Fr Ratzinger ran up against some opposition to his habilitationsschrift on the grounds that it was anti-Suárezian, (something seriously politically incorrect in the 1950s), Söhngen defended him. It is said that at the oral examination of the thesis Ratzinger said very little and strategically allowed Söhngen to take on the Suárezians. At Söhngen’s funeral Ratzinger described his former teacher as “a radical and critical thinker” and a “radical believer.”
Also on the Honour Board of intellectual friends and associates is Josef Pieper. Ratzinger/Benedict’s interest in the theological virtues of faith, hope and love can be tracked to his studies of Pieper’s philosophy. He has acknowledged that his own publications on the theological virtues were an attempt to extend the philosophical insights of Pieper into the territory of theology. His pre-papal work, The Yes of Jesus Christ: Spiritual Exercises in Faith, Hope and Love was dedicated to Pieper on his 85th birthday.
In 2009 on the establishment of a Center for Josef Pieper Studies at the Faculty of Theology in Paderborn, Benedict XVI wrote: “During my years in Münster (1963-1966) I was lucky to build up a personal friendship with the master [Pieper] himself, which accompanied me until his death—a friendship for which I can be nothing but grateful.”
It was Pieper who first put Ratzinger in touch with Karol Wojtyła, then the Cardinal Archbishop of Krakow. Pieper had heard the Polish philosopher deliver a paper at a conference and thought that he and Ratzinger should get to know one another. With Pieper’s prompting Ratzinger sent Wojtyła a copy of his Introduction to Christianity and the rest, we can say, is world history. Ratzinger ended up serving John Paul II in a quarter century partnership as his Prefect for the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith.
While Hans Urs von Balthasar, Henri de Lubac, Romano Guardini, Gottlieb Söhngen and Josef Pieper were friend/mentors, the young Professor Ratzinger himself became a friend/mentor to his own doctoral students who now form something of an international network and have been meeting with him annually for converzatione at Castel Gandolfo. Cardinal Christoph von Schönborn of Vienna, a former post-doctoral researcher under Ratzinger’s guidance, is a member of this circle. So too is the founder of Ignatius Press, Fr Joseph Fessio SJ who has been responsible for the translation of the works of de Lubac, von Balthasar and Joseph Ratzinger, into English.
With the decision of Ratzinger/Benedict to hand over the papacy to a younger man the Church has entered a period when she will have her first post-Conciliar pontiff. Whereas Blessed John Paul II attended the Council as a bishop and Benedict XVI as an expert theological advisor, whoever is the next pope will be someone who was too young to have attended the Council in the 1960s.
Two of the front-runners, however, are next generation Communio scholars. Both Cardinal Angelo Scola and Cardinal Marc Ouellet belong to the second generation of the circle of scholars who formed around von Balthasar and de Lubac in the 1970s. Scola was also influenced by Luigi Giussani, the founder of the ecclesial movement Communio e liberazione which has been particularly effective in contending with Marxism and common garden variety secularism in Italy. When Scola was an undergraduate student his campus was infested with Marxist student operatives. He earned his bravery stripes early at the University of Milan.
The Holy Spirit and the Cardinal’s themselves, may well have another candidate in mind, but if we do end up with either Cardinal Ouellet or Cardinal Scola as our next pontiff then the Church will continue to draw upon the cultural capital of the Balthasar family.
Editor’s note: The individuals portrayed in the body of the article, in order of appearance, are Henri de Lubac, Romano Guardini, and Josef Pieper.