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Keeping the spiritual pulse of today’s world

A talk with Palo Blanco Sarto and Francesc Torra Rosellò, winners of the 2023 Ratzinger Prize, on the theology of the late Pope Benedict XVI. By José García.

When did you discover Joseph Ratzinger as a theologian?

Pablo Blanco: I started working on a doctoral thesis on him in 2001, back when he had yet to achieve full recognition as an author. I completed my dissertation just one month before he was elected Pope—a curious coincidence. I was living in Munich at the time, and the prevailing atmosphere ran the gamut from enthusiasm to skepticism, but I learned a lot from it. I am also quite grateful for the treatment I received at the Faculty of Protestant Theology. After studying the relationship between faith and reason and his theory of religion, I decided—at the suggestion of the late German theologian Jutta Burggaf, who was teaching at our university at the time—to conduct a systematic examination of his theological thought. I learned a lot, and Ratzinger ended up becoming my most important teacher in theology.

Francesc Torralba: I had the opportunity to study him in depth during my training as a theologian. I particularly recall his Introduction to Christianity, but also his ecclesiology and his Christology. I was very interested in his treatment of contemporary philosophers such as Friedrich Nietzche, Søren Kierkegaard, the first generation of the Frankfurt School, and Karl Marx. I was captivated by his subtle speculative efforts to find a rational basis for the choice of faith. His first two encyclical Deus caritas est and Spe salvi made a deep impression on me.

What is it about the theology of Joseph Ratzinger that stands out the most for you personally?

Pablo Blanco: The most remarkable thing about him is his internal consistency, the profound unity between the various areas of theology in his thought. Unlike most great theology professors, Ratzinger did not write systematic works of dogmatic theology. Rather, his thought arose spontaneously, in the context of his service in the Church as priest, archbishop, prefect, Pope, and Pope Emeritus. What may appear to be a weakness is in fact his greatest strength, as it communicates to us a way of thinking that is in direct contact with reality. Pope Francis likes to emphasize the pastoral dimension of theology, and I believe Ratzinger’s theology embodies this well.

Francesc Torralba: His work is incredibly wide-ranging, erudite, rigorous, and complex. It is very difficult to sum it up in a few words. There are three key elements I would emphasize: His critique of the “dictatorship of relativism”, his philosophical and theological proposal of an “economy of the gift” that overcomes the globalized neoliberalism that dominates the world and is guided by the principle of gratuitousness, and his critique of the “technocratic paradigm” that sacralizes technology and makes it into the savior from all of our ills.


Which of Joseph Ratzinger’s works do you consider to be particularly relevant in our time?

Pablo Blanco: To me, his best work is his Jesus of Nazareth, because not only does it comprise a synthesis of the Bavarian theologian’s thought; it also provides a contemporary reflection on the figure of Jesus Christ, one in which he engages with the leading representatives of contemporary Catholic and Lutheran exegesis and Christology, especially in German, and also deals with some interesting perspectives of Eastern Orthodox thought. In my opinion it’s the book of his lifetime. It’s quite remarkable that despite the numerous obligations and commitments of his pontificate, he never stopped writing this work during that time. Perhaps because he saw it as one of the central tasks of his office to speak about Jesus Christ.

Francesc Torralba: I’ve read Joseph Ratzinger’s work in minute detail, from his 1968 Introduction to Christianity to his final encyclical Caritas in veritate. I took a particular interest in his desire to expand the concept of modern rationality and to overcome the positivist way of viewing things. I find his analysis of “philosophers of suspicion” such as Friedrich Nietzsche and Karl Marx to be quite stimulating. His willingness to engage in dialogue with the leading philosophers of his age, in particular Jürgen Habermas, is something I consider to be very important.

In your opinion, is there a continuity between Vatican II, John Paul II, and Benedict XVI?

Pablo Blanco: In my opinion, there is a clear and direct continuity. John Paul II worked mainly on the Pastoral Constitution Gaudium et spes and the Declaration on Religious Freedom, which deal with anthropological, ethical, and practical matters. Ratzinger dealt with more speculative topics such as ecclesiology, the relationship between Scripture and Tradition, and the theology of mission, as well as the theological portion of the aforementioned Pastoral Constitution. Wojtyla and Ratzinger were very different, but they complemented one another quite well. Perhaps there’s something here for us to learn from as well, about how one might achieve fruitful collaboration despite existing legitimate differences. It’s about discovering a deep core of harmony and common ground.

Francesc Torralba: I believe that ideas from his magisterium are completely in line with the Second Vatican Council and include concepts that are still useful today. I’m thinking of things like the “Courts of the Gentiles” dialogue forums that are held in cities throughout the world under the guidance of Cardinal Gianfranco Ravasi. Dialogue between believers and non-believers is something that I believe is essential in a context of social, political, and spiritual polarization, in which it is all too easy to fall victim to a crude and simplistic Manichaeism. I believe that his willingness to understand secular culture in all its forms and manifestations is an indispensable and essential undertaking, as is the critique of the technocratic paradigm that prevails unchallenged in our cultural landscape.


Apart from “academic” theology, what influence has Joseph Ratzinger had in your personal life?

Pablo Blanco: It’s taught me the power of vocation and readiness to serve, in whatever capacity that may be. There were some things in Ratzinger’s life that he did not want to do, yet he did them quite well because he always believed he was following his vocation and the will of God. He put his talents at the service of God, from his first response to the call to the priesthood all the way to his act of resignation. This ready disposition often gives me food for thought.

Francesc Torralba: In my work as professor of philosophy and theology, it means rigor, open-mindedness, and creativity. It creates new and unique forms of expression that need to be developed further and anticipates future scenarios that will become reality. We need to think very carefully about what it means to be a creative minority, how we can withstand the process of secularization with dignity, how we are to react to the dictatorship of relativism and fundamentalism, and how we can make Christianity intelligible and meaningful in our world. I believe that Joseph Ratzinger elaborates a theology that has the capacity—without any loss of academic rigor—to reflect the spiritual pulse of today’s world and to make a stand in the face of great challenges. I am particularly inspired by his treatment of the great philosophers of his age.

Pablo Blanco Sarto, 59, is Professor of Systematic Theology at the University of Navarra in Spain. He works with the Pope Benedict XVI Institute in Regensburg, Germany, and is co-editor of the Spanish edition of the Collected Works of Joseph Ratzinger, published by B.A.C. He is a priest of Opus Dei 

Francesc Torralba Rosellò is a philosopher, educator, teacher, and historian. He currently teaches at University Ramon Llull in Barcelona and offers courses and seminars at other universities in Spain and the United States. He is married and has five children.

This interview appeared in the German Catholic weekly Die Tagespost.