It is by now a regular appointment in Ratzinger’s annual agenda.
Between the end of August and the first days of September, Benedict XVI interrupts, for a few hours, the fast and methodic pace of his commitments, whether ordinary or extraordinary, to meet with the more or less aged members of his Schülerkreis, the circle of his former pupils, who over the Sixties and Seventies prepared their theses for their Ph.D. in theology or studied to achieve their qualification as University teachers under the guide of Professor Joseph Ratzinger.
This year, the appointment is set for next weekend. Ratzinger’s former students will meet in Castel Gandolfo to discuss the possible contribution of theology to the New Evangelization, the topic at the center of the next Synod of Bishops.
The new topics for discussion will be the analyses assigned to two “external” experts: theologian Hanna-Barbara Gerl-Falkowitx and Austrian-born Otto Neubauer, an influential member of the Emmanuel Community.
There are still people who wonder why Benedict XVI, even now that he is Pope, keeps promoting an annual meeting with his former students; these people read this choice as an old-professor’s habit, or perhaps a form of loyalty tinged with nostalgia about Ratzinger’s own past.
However, it is exactly the “radiography” of Ratzinger’s Schülerkreis, its evolution, its composition and its mechanism codified over time that help identifying significant aspects of the human and intellectual sensitiveness of the current St. Peter’s successor and his way of serving the Church.
The circle of Ratzinger’s “PhD students” started to form already during his teaching years in Münster (1963-1966), unveiled its organizational structure during the Tubinga years (1966-1970), but it experienced its golden years in the first half of the Seventies, in Ratisbon.
Ratzinger reinterpreted in his own way the codified German academic tradition of students gathered around their Doktorvater, “professor-father”.
Over the years, the group of students, asking to write under Ratzinger’s guide their university theses, and joining in from all over Germany and from all over the world, increased in size – triggering quite significant academic envy.
Over those years, Ratzinger, due to lack of time and to meet the increasing demand, experimented his own new method. He did not follow the PhD students on an individual basis.
He gathered them together in scheduled appointments usually held on Saturday morning, every two weeks.
During that shared half-day, in turn, each student submitted the results of their researches to the critique of the others.
The wide spectrum of the themes covered by the theses assigned – from Nietzsche to Saint Augustine, from Camus to the Council of Trent, from the great medieval theologians to the personalist philosophers – it is sufficient to confirm that it was not a theological conventicle fossilized on its esoteric rituality.
As Stephan Otto Horn, Ratzinger’s assistant during his teaching years in Regensburg and diligent organizer of the Schülerkreis meetings, explained, “If Joseph Ratzinger wanted and could convey to his PhD students a specific imprint, I believe that, above all, it should be seen as the effort to open their eyes to the wide spectrum of the faith and the fullness of theological perspectives.”
Specifically to promote such critical ability, Ratzinger did not impose his ideas on anyone. He guides the discussions of the Doktoranden-Colloquium following a maieutic-socratic method, reducing his participation to a minimum, with a super partes approach even in case of controversies triggered by the discussion, stimulated by the democratic-collective atmosphere and the various theological sensitiveness among the members of the group.
Ratzinger’s brain trust is not a source of clones prepackaged according to the teacher. Many Monsignors who went through the Roman Curia, such as Helmut Moll (curator of the XX century German martyrology) were part of it along with unrepentant Ecumenists such as the cooperator of the First Hour, Vinzenz Pfnür; German parish priests such as Martin Trimpe and monks such as Passionist Martin Bialas and Franciscan Cornelio Del Zotto (the only Italian in the group, who started his own unique community in Tanzania).
Among the over fifty names in the list-address book, there are also the Redemptorist Rèal Tremblay – teacher of moral theology at the Pontifical Alphonsian Academy – and the other theologian moralist Vincent Twomey – who has recently distinguished himself for his proposal of eliminating the Irish episcopate sectors generationally involved in the clergy sexual abuse scandals – and Korean-born Jung-Hi Victoria Kim, who in her years of study in Regensburg wrote under Ratzinger’s guide a more than unique thesis on the comparison between the caritas of Tommaso d’Aquino and the jen, the central concept of Confucianism.
Many of those young theologians distinguished themselves later as supporters of theological theses not necessarily aligned with the rules of the Pontifical Roman Academies.
Some of them, including Hansjürgen Verweyen and Wolfgang Beinert, took also distant positions from those of their old teacher, especially on disputed matters such as women priests and the choice of creating a single Catechism for the entire Catholic Church.
The group of people convened in Castel Gandolfo does not even have the appearance of a ring of Curia careerists or ecclesiastic academy. None of them seems to have profited from their participation to the Ratzinger’s circle.
The most famous among them is the Archbishop of Vienna, Christoph Schonborn, Dominican theologian made Cardinal by John Paul II. In the years of Ratzinger’s papacy, only the priest of Benin, Barthélemy Adoukonou was recruited in the Roman Curia as Secretary of the Pontifical Council for Culture.
However, his curriculum – Studies to define Christian hermeneutics in Voodoo, a long period as General Secretary for the Episcopal Regional Council for French-speaking West Africa (CERAO) and the foundation of the ecclesial movement Le Sillon Noir – makes it clear that his nomination had little to do with his participation to the Schülerkreis of his former Bavarian professor.
Since the times in Tubinga, under recommendation of the then assistant Peter Kuhn, the circle had started the custom of organizing meetings on specific topics every six months, to discuss them with famous professors and theologians outside the faculty.
All the “VIPs” of Catholic and Protestant theology – from Karl Barth to Yves Congar, from Karl Rahner and Walter Kaasper to Wolfhart Pannenberg – were “visited” or met with the lively group of Ratzinger’s scholars.
When the group traveled to Basel to meet Hans Urs von Balthasar, some of them asked him non-previously-agreed questions on the balthasarian theological thesis on the empty hell, upsetting the great Swiss theologian.
The regular meeting-discussion model with external experts and external researchers inspired the self-perpetuation method of Ratzinger’s Schülerkreis when the former Doktorvater became Archbishop of Munich, Curia Cardinal and finally Bishop of Rome. Only in the months between 2005 and 2006 the continuity of the closed door seminars among the Pope and his former students experienced a critical moment.
It happened when the impulsive American Jesuite Joseph Fessio, after having participated to the meeting in Castel Gandolfo, spoke about that brain storming in an interview dedicated to the discussion between the Christian revelation and Islam on which occasion Benedict XVI sustained the inadaptability of the Islamic culture to the modern day and the incompatibility between Koran and democracy.
Conjectures immediately exploited by the American neoconservative circles and denied both by the lecturers and by the participants to the meeting.
The event, which risked to get complicated, was resolved with a public withdrawal by Father Fessio: the Jesuit, publisher of Ratzinger’s books in the USA, in a letter published on The Washington Times, humbly admitted to “have reported incorrectly what the Holy Father had effectively said”, due to his poor understanding of the German language.