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The Key to Understanding

Joseph Ratzinger first became an international best-selling author with his Introduction to Christianity (1968), a book that is as inspiring today as it was back then. But even more so, this book is of lasting importance as an introduction to the thought of Ratzinger.


by Davide De Caprio

Cover - Einführung in das Christentum von Joseph Ratzinger

Introduction to Christianity
Ratzinger's Introduction to Christianity is, without a doubt, the classic text of 20th century theology. Anyone who wants to know what he or she is professing in the Creed every Sunday should have read this book. Since the  book originated from a series of lectures for students from all faculties, it appeals especially to non-theologians. It's a book for anyone interested in and committed to the Church. 

Are you really he? The believer will repeatedly experience the darkness in which the contradiction of unbelief surrounds him like a gloomy prison from which there is no escape, and the indifference of the world, which goes its way unchanged as if nothing had happened, seems only to mock his hope. We have to pose the question, 'Are you really he?', not only out of intellectual curiosity and because of reason's responsibility, but also in accordance with the interior law of love, which wants to know more and more him to whom it has given its Yes, so as to be able to love him more. Are you really he? Ultimately, all the reflections contained in this book are subordinate to this question and thus revolve around the basic form of the confession: 'I believe in you, Jesus of Nazareth, as the meaning (logos) of the world and of my life.'

Joseph Ratzinger in Introduction to Christianity

When looking at the entire body of a work of a great thinker, it cannot be said that any one book is more representative than others. There are, however, books which might be considered exemplary. They are exemplary in that they offer a key to understanding the thinker’s work as a whole and still inspire readers to pick them up long after their publication. In the case of Joseph Ratzinger/Benedict XVI, this is clearly an apt description of his 1968 book Introduction to Christianity.

Joseph Ratzinger am Schreibtisch

Any reader who wishes to learn more about the thought and the faith of Joseph Ratzinger/Benedict XVI will find something of value here.

The success of Introduction to Christianity is not only reflected in the numerous editions and translations into about twenty languages, but is also tied to the enduring relevance of the subject matter treated in the book. This book provides an answer to the question, posed by believers and non-believers alike, of what it means to be a Christian. Ratzinger writes in a way that shows him to be as intelligent as he is knowledgeable, yet his writing remains appealingly accessible. This is the real reason for the popularity of Introduction to Christianity.

In this book, Ratzinger not only addresses the question of what it means to be a Christian; he also explains why this question needs to be asked again and again – by believers and non-believers alike. Any reader who wishes to learn more about the thought and the faith of Joseph Ratzinger/Benedict XVI will find something of value here – far beyond the partial reconstructions of journalists or digging up obscure secrets that then turn out to be “fake news”.

Papst Benedikt XVI. am Schreibtisch

When we read Introduction to Christianity, we are also getting an Introduction to Ratzinger. This book combines the two.

Introduction to Christianity offers readers an opportunity to get to know Ratzinger directly. Those who read this book will encounter that intelligent (and never opportunistic) blend of intellectual rigor, irony, radicality, and humility that has always distinguished Ratzinger. This has in no small way contributed to the special interest in his person and his work among friend and foe alike. To sum up, when we read Introduction to Christianity, we are also getting an Introduction to Ratzinger. This book combines the two.

Introduction to Christianity is the published version of a series of theology lectures at the university for listeners from a variety of disciplines. This shows that Ratzinger considers it to be of paramount importance to understand that Christianity is about reality. He emphatically reminds everyone of this – believers, theologians, laypeople, and atheists. Yet his emphasis is not just on establishing a matter of historical reality (the birth of a man names Jesus of Nazareth);  Ratzinger is concerned with the reality in which we now live, in which our efforts should be directed toward a better future.

Christians must not allow themselves to be put on the defensive

Paradoxically, the historical circumstances under which the book was published help us to detach it from the past and apply it to our current situation. Ratzinger wrote it at a time that was greatly preoccupied with matters of renewal and criticism, both within the Church and without (e.g., the reception of the Second Vatican Council, the beginning of the 1968 student revolts in West Germany). He was not interested in merely condemning anything new. Quite the opposite, in fact. The book, originally subtitled Lectures on the Apostle’s Creed, is animated by the urgency to recognize within Christianity that fundamental phenomenon of the world of religions and of Western culture that has been a source of contention from very beginning.

In the face of the push for change, criticism of the status quo, in the face of the great challenges and conflicts of our time; in short, in the face of all those things that convulse humanity (not only in the West), the Christian is called to not allow himself to be put on the defensive. His efforts are to be directed towards the “explosive” content of Christian hope, which is still at the center of our approach to reality.

Getting to the heart of Christianity

Man has a tendency to turn against himself. Societies can become dangerously anti-Christian when then Christian message of hope is no longer responsibly communicated (think of communism, or today’s illusion of man being surpassed by artificial intelligence). The intended audience of the Christian message is all of mankind.

But where is the original meaning of Christianity to be found? Ratzinger gives his answer in this book, as well as in other publications at that time, by exploring the meaning behind the formal propositions of the Creed and helping the reader to understand them.

At first glance it may seem counterproductive to attempt to get to the heart of Christianity using a term that describes the “dogmatic” aspect of Christianity, its Catholic matrix. But for Ratzinger, it is precisely in the Symbolum (the Creed) that the very newness of the Christian faith is expressed.

Joseph Ratzinger hält sein Buch in der Hand

Neither sheer nihilism nor pure rationality can provide the answer, which grows out of the dialogue that takes place in the love between God and man.

The Symbol of the Apostles (“I believe in God, in Christ, in the Holy Spirit”) is structured in the form of a dialogue. The Creed is a dialogue between the Word of God, which we encounter in the face of Jesus and in the presence of his love, and the response of the believer. On the one side is an inquiry, something that comes from outside the person (“Do you believe?”). On the other side is the inner assent to that which will never be ours entirely (“I believe in Thee”).

What this means is that Christianity cannot but serve as constant witness to the opening of this dialogue. It is witness to an encounter in which we are the ones addressed, and in which it is we who respond. This response can only be made in accordance with human reason, which seeks to know the meaning of life. Neither sheer nihilism nor pure rationality can provide the answer, which grows out of the dialogue that takes place in the love between God and man.

[Translate to English:] De Caprio Protrait

The author, Davide De Caprio, works in the Faculty of Catholic Theology at the University of Strasbourg, where he teaches philosophical anthropology and the history of modern philosophy. The title of his doctoral dissertation is “Theology and Philosophy in the Thought of Joseph Ratzinger”.