Benedict’s Intellectual Mentors and Students

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.

Henri de LubacDe 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.

romano_guardiniAlong 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.”

josef pieperAlso 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.

Tracey Rowland


Professor Tracey Rowland is Dean and Permanent Fellow of the John Paul II Institute for Marriage and Family (Melbourne). She earned her doctorate in philosophy from Cambridge University and her Licentiate in Sacred Theology from the Pontifical Lateran University in Rome. She is the author of Culture and the Thomist Tradition after Vatican II (2003), Ratzinger’s Faith: The Theology of Pope Benedict XVI (2008) and most recently, Benedict XVI: A Guide for the Perplexed (2010).

  • Michael Paterson-Seymour

    Hans Urs von Balthasar’s first piano teacher was a pupil of Clara Schumann. Another remarkable influence of influences over the generations

  • Regis Martin

    What a splendid summary you’ve put together! I had no idea that it was Pieper who had been the catalyst for the meeting between the two men destined, each of them, to become pope. That is what I call serendipity. Thank you for the roll call of giants, on whose shoulders we pygmies are privileged to stand.

  • We are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses!
    Reading Romano Guardini and Josef Pieper changed my life — no exaggeration.
    And anybody who knows the least bit about the Christian humanism of Von Balthasar, Guardini, Pieper, Maritain, Edith Stein, Dawson, De Lubac, and Giussani, and then calls Pope Benedict “conservative,” meaning “politically reactionary,” is a liar or a fool.

    • Wow, I love hearing that from a fine professor and scholar! It means I’m probably on the right path, because I can also say that reading Pieper changed my (admittedly short) life.

      I guess that also means I have to add some more names to my list! Awesome! 😉

      • Follow the path of de Lubac, von Balthasar et. al. and you’ll definitely be on the WRONG path. See my previous post.

        • Alexander Turpin

          Well, I think it’s pretty clear that JP2 and B16 loved these scholars. De Lubac and Von Balthasar were even named to the cardinalate, if I’m not mistaken. I think your “studied silence” about this is pretty telling. For me, I’ll stick to the good theologians – the ones who understood the proper place of Vatican II in the Church’s tradition – and not give them the time of day to reactionary concerns about either “extreme traditionalism” or “neo-modernism.” I’ll follow the Holy Fathers, thank you very much.

          I wonder if you’ve ever actually read any of these guys. Pieper is the furthest thing from “modernism” – whatever that means, exactly – that I’ve ever seen. Oh, and by the way, the world didn’t have a “catastrophic slide” because of Vatican II. A faulty interpretation of the Council led the Church into difficulties; the Council itself was a beautiful thing. You should read some of the documents.

          • I used to think as you do. I then did my homework and was forced to embrace some very unpleasant, most unwelcome truths. If you’re interested in the truth rather than comfort, you might begin with the books I cited above. Also explore the website of Angelus Press.

            • Alexander Turpin

              Oh, I’m interested in the truth, all right. That’s why I read Pieper and Thomas and Ratzinger – because I want truth more than anything. If I were interested in comfort I wouldn’t be entering the seminary, and I certainly wouldn’t be carrying around books by B16 at my university.

              Thanks anyway, though. But I know exactly where the truth is.

              • Entering a seminary is far from conclusive proof of interest in truth, especially today. Further questions must be asked.

                For example, are you entering a seminary suffused with the diabolical disorientation of Vatican II, which includes the propagation of the pitifully tortured concepts of “reform of the reform” and “hermeneutic of continuity”? Will you be trained to offer, instead of the Catholic Mass, the consciously Protestantized Novus Ordo service (whether in Latin or not), a service that has clearly proven to be displeasing to God and thus barren and indeed destructive of faith? Have you actually studied The Ottaviani Intervention? Amerio’s Iota Unum? The Catechism of the Crisis in the Church? Open Letter to Confused Catholics? And so on.

                But perhaps painful, bitter experience must be your teacher. Throughout, when you’re wishing that you would have listened to these words, remember the titles I cited above. Never, ever forget them.

                • Alexander Turpin

                  Wow. Just wow.

                  I’ll pray for you.

                  • Please do. But if it’ll include any trace of resentment or feeling of superiority, please don’t – for your sake.

                • Patrick

                  Lots of amazingly pompous comments on this website.

                  • John200

                    Thank you for adding an amazingly pompous comment. Malheureusement, you have not earned the right to be pompous by contributing any deep ideas.

                    Would you like to try?

  • Father Joseph Fessio, SJ is NOT a member of the Ratzinger circle of theological doctoral students. He attended one class of Pro. Ratzinger. This has been confirmed by Fr. D. Vincent Towmey S.V.D. A former doctoral student under Joseph Ratzinger in his book on Pope Benedict XVI “The Conscience of Our Age”.

    • Mahrt

      Fr. Fessio’s online CV includes:

      Th.D. – 1975 Doctorate in Theology
      University of Regensburg, West Germany
      Subject: The Ecclesiology of Hans Urs von Balthasar
      Thesis Director: Joseph Ratzinger

  • Note: Fr. D. Vincent Towmey, S.V.D. as reference in my last comment refers to Father Joseph Fessio, S.J. thus in his book “The Conscience of Our Age”: “Father Joseph Fessio, S.J., who in fact spent a relatively short time in Regensburg. Considering the number of postgraduate students who studied under Ratzinger (somewhere between forty and fifty)…
    Page 171.

  • There’s nothing conservative about de Lubac or von Balthasar – either politically or theologically. Like Ratzinger/Benedict, they now appear conservative only because of the world’s catastrophic slide left since Vatican II.

    And as Ratzinger/Benedict has repeatedly said, while the world changed since Vatican II, he didn’t change. And he was known as a liberal then.

    It’s no accident that Pope Pius XII acted against – in Humani generis, for example – De Lubac and Von Balthasar. Much more could be said about this. I would direct interested readers to, for instance, the following essays available via Google:

    “Where is the New Theology Leading Us?” by Fr. Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange, O.P.


    “A Short Catechism on the New Theology” by John Vennari


    “The Oath Against Modernism vs. the ‘Hermeneutic of Continuity'” by John Vennari

    Also go to Audio Sancto and listen to this recent sermon:

    Quo Vadis Petre–Where Are You Going Peter?

    • Michael Paterson-Seymour

      “Where is the New Theology Leading Us?” asked Père Garrigou-Lagrange. We know where the Neo-Thomism of the early 20th century lead him – To support the “Catholic Atheism” and neo-fascism of Charles Maurras and Action Française and, later and logically, the Vichy régime of Philippe Pétain.

      • Mercier

        Very impressive turning an extremely complex issue into a slander against an intellectual giant. One should not forget that Maritain supported Action Française originally as did many other good and faithful Catholics.

        Why don’t you actually adress the issues at hand instead of resorting to ad hominens. Von Balthasar supported the pseudo-mystic Adrienne Von Speyer and his teaching on Christ’s descent into Hell is not in continuity with the tradition of the Church (See Alyssa Pitstick’s impressive work on this issue). As for De Lubac the recent work of men such as Steven Long and Lawrence Feingold have shown that De Lubac departed from the Thomistic understanding of nature and grace. In fact if you want to go back further De Lubac’s theses were strongly critiqued by men such as Giuseppe Colombo, Juan Alfaro, Guy de Broglie, and Marie-Rosaire Gagnebet.

        • Michael Paterson-Seymour

          So far from departing “from the Thomistic understanding of nature and grace,” De Lubac restored it, after it had been travestied by the Neo-Scholastic followers of Suarez. His was a truly Thomistic (and Augustinian) understanding in which the “natural desire” for God is not a mere generalised wish fo r the transcendent, but an orientation of the intellect to God – “Fecisti nos ad te…” Man was created for the Beatific Vision. This is something de Lubac shared with Blondel, Maréchal and others.

          At the root of Catholic support for Action Française was what Laberthonnière, the Oratorian editor of Blondel’s « L’Annales de philosophie chrétienne » called “a false theological notion of some state of pure nature and therefore imagined the state could be self-sufficient in the sense that it could be properly independent of any specifically Christian sense of justice,” a notion rooted in the Neo-Scholastic claim that the natural and the supernatural have utterly separate ends in and of themselves.

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