Faith in the Year of Faith: The Early Proposal of Joseph Ratzinger

…It is only when we exercise obedience and the expression of our own personality at the same time that we have real faith. Faith is born from the union of the two freedoms: God’s and ours.


A young Professor Ratzinger. Painting: Christ talking with the woman at the well.

In his Introduction to Christianity, written while he was living in a revolutionary Tübingen, Professor Ratzinger examined the problem of faith in contemporary society. He was writing in the famous year of 1968, surrounded by the student riots, and in a context of polemic and skepticism that is almost ancient history today. The three Ms—Mao, Marx, and Marcuse—were put up against Kierkegaard, Heidegger, and Barth, names that were already gathering rust. The question addressed in the book was how to understand faith in that turbulent world. Ratzinger turned to a story once told by Kierkegaard: “A traveling circus in Denmark had caught fire”—related Ratzinger, in front of a numerous public—“The manager thereupon sent the clown, who was already dressed and made-up for the performance, into the neighboring village to fetch help. … The clown hurried into the village and requested the inhabitants to come as quickly as possible to the blazing circus and help to put the fire out. But the villagers took the clown’s shouts simply for an excellent piece of advertising, meant to attract as many people as possible to the performance; they applauded the clown and laughed till they cried.” 1

Conversion and Encounter

They applauded and laughed: belief can be expressed as an attitude, a wager, a risk. The professor of Tübingen puts this in existential terms, realizing that Christian belief reveals how the deepest essence of the human person cannot be nourished simply by the sensible and tangible, but longs to go deeper. 2 In spite of the inevitable doubt that can assail us, faith reveals itself in the invisible, he says. Ratzinger continues along these lines: we can arrive at this attitude through what the Bible calls “reversal,” “con-version.” A person needs to change in order to become conscious that he is blind when he believes only in what he can see with his own eyes. Faith always has something to do with breaking free and leaping. “It has always been a decision calling on the depths of existence, a decision that in every age demanded a turnabout by man that can only be achieved by an effort of will.” 3 On the other hand, this faith cannot be understood alone: Ratzinger has always been eager to examine the relationship between the gifts of charity and of faith, between the beauty of faith and the exercise of human reason. 4  We shall see this in the words that follow.

Faith, Doubt, and Conversion

Faith is not a leap in the dark, but the believer will have the impression—which also carries potential risks—that he can walk over firm land. Ratzinger spoke about the necessity of conversion for arriving at faith. Doubt is a stage prior to the act of faith; the latter exists only when we overcome the temptation of doubt, through conversion to Christ and the message that he offers to us. Speaking about the dialogical structure of the act of faith, Ratzinger adds:

We saw earlier that the Creed is pronounced in the framework of baptism as the triple answer to the triple question, “Do you believe in God—in Christ—in the Holy Spirit?” We can now add that it thereby represents the positive corollary to the triple renunciation that precedes it: “I renounce the devil, his service, and his work.” This means that faith is located in the act of conversion, in the shift of gravity from worship of the visible and practicable to trust in the invisible. The phrase “I believe” could here be literally translated by “I hand myself over to” … to use Heidegger’s language, one could say that it signifies an “about-turn” by the whole person which from then on constantly structures one’s existence … it is a conversion, an about-turn, a shift of being. 5

The German theologian reminds us repeatedly that conversion is an obligatory intermediate stage before arriving at any act of faith, including our own. If we wish to consider what we ought to do to communicate the faith, we must ask ourselves about our own and others’ conversion. Ratzinger presents a beautiful psychological and phenomenological analysis, making use of a biblical example, in which we see how a common experience can convert firstly into a religious experience and, later, into a true act of faith. He refers to the episode of the Samaritan woman at Jacob’s well (cf. Jn 4). The encounter between Jesus and the woman takes place in the context of an ordinary human requirement: thirst. The dialogue that follows begins from the simple fact that thirst demands many daily trips to the well, and here a transition is made to something more transcendent: the thirst for life. The woman is thus made aware of something she has always known: that nothing she has access to is able to quench that essential thirst within her. 6

Jesus talks for a while with the woman, but soon he takes her out of her comfort zone and helps her to come face to face with herself: “Call your husband” (Jn 4:16). This command is intentional and necessary: it is here that the call to conversion begins. “Thus, the real dilemma appears in the most natural of ways as an existential dilemma: the woman is in front of herself.” 7 After this first, merely empirical, encounter, the woman faces an “existential experience.” Now the subject of the conversation is not simply mundane and material, but it touches on the most intimate and deep dimensions of her own being. In that moment, she faces the essential point: the question about herself becomes a question about God. Now the woman discovers the real thirst that she has. And now she can, finally, understand why she is thirsty. The experience of God is now reached through conversion and faith: “The conversion is in the way in which the person finds herself and addresses the fundamental question: how can I adore God? It is the question about her own salvation.” Ratzinger notes that this question arrived at by the Samaritan woman is the same one that must be asked by every Christian and by anyone to whom we transmit the faith. 8

Faith, Reason, and Relationship

Ratzinger also employs the concept of person to explain and deepen the nature of the act of faith. It will be, on the one hand, gift and task, receptivity and activity, giving and receiving, a gift from God that we have received, never something produced or invented. Faith must be found using our freedom and initiative. The theological and personalist background of this idea is evident, but at the same time he assumes the atmosphere of the Existenzphilosophie. 9 In this way, the German theologian describes the personal character of the act of faith: “We have not yet spoken,” he says, “about the most important characteristic of the Christian faith: its personal character. His key formulation is not ‘I believe in something,’ but ‘I believe in you.’” It is an encounter with Jesus, in which we experience the sense of the world and the person. The faith is, then, to find a “you” that holds me and “feels that the intelligence does not exist in a pure state, but that it knows and loves me; that I can trust him with the same security with which a baby finds its problems solved in the you of its mother.” 10 Faith is the fruit of a personal relationship: it is—as we will see—a friendship, a confidence that brings us knowledge.

To the Whole Person

“Faith is an orientation in the totality of our existence,” wrote the then Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in the 1990s.

It is a fundamental option which spreads out in all the dimensions of our existence, and, as such, it can be reached only if it brings all the force of our existence. Faith is not only an intellectual event, neither is it something strictly voluntary, neither something merely emotional, but all of these at the same time: it is an act of the “I” in its totality, of the whole person in his or her complete unity. In that sense, the Bible calls it an act of the “heart” (Rom 10:9). 11

Intelligence, freedom, feelings, the “heart,” and the whole of life play a role in every conversion and act of faith. We have just spoken about the personal character of the act of faith and how it consists in establishing a relationship with God in Jesus Christ; now we are going to examine how this act implicates the totality of the person. In a conference held in 1997 at the Academy of Moral and Political Sciences in Paris, Ratzinger spoke of the universality of the Christian faith as vera religione in relation with the “unitotality” of the person. Faith in the one God implies necessarily the recognition of God’s will: adoration of God is not an abandonment of our nature, but it requires all the energies of the intelligence, of the sensibility, and of the will.

“Faith in God does not renounce the truth, a truth which can be defined in its contents, although the importance of the apophatical element {remains}.” 12 Faith brings us to knowing in an incomplete way; although it is a relationship that generates positive knowledge, it is not an exhaustive one and does not account for all the truth. In a similar vein, Ratzinger wrote in a 1975 article that, aside from leading us to conversion and a change in our conduct, faith illuminates our knowledge. Lights and shadows always appear together. “Ignorance of God, atheism, is expressed—concretely—in a lack of respect and reverence from man to man; knowing God means to see the man with other eyes.” 13 As Ivan Karamazov said, following the premises of an atheist intellectual, “If God does not exist, everything is allowed to me,” even if it is harmful to myself or others. Faith has a series of eminently practical manifestations, including those in the ethos of the person; it implies praxis and theory, action and knowledge, ethics and noetics. Faith involves all the potentialities of the human being.

Experience and Knowledge

We have mentioned the necessity of the cognitive dimension of the act of faith; now we will take a deeper look at this idea which the theologian, Ratzinger, emphasized constantly. In an article published in the Deutsche Tagepost (German Daily Journal—editor’s translation), the prefect readdressed this ever-present theme of his writings and preaching. The love for God and for others, which we have discussed, has implications for the entire person. To highlight the intensity of this demand, the Old Testament speaks about the heart, the soul, and the strength as bearers of this love to God (cf. Dt 6:5). Jesus adds a fourth element: the mind (cf. Mt 22:37; Mk 12:30; Lk 10:27). Using this passage, Ratzinger underlines that reason takes part in our relationship with God, and in our love for him. “Faith is a matter not only of the feelings: it is something that, as consequence of a religious aspiration in the human existence, we develop as a private matter juxtaposed to the rational purposes of the private life. The faith is, first of all, the order of the reason, something without which it loses the measure and the capacity of the purposes.” 14 Once again, faith is directed to the reason and based on it; at the same time, faith goes further. Faith will also become knowledge at the same time that it is a privileged encounter; it is a relationship that engenders and generates knowledge. In both cases, they come of {something} indispensable.

Faith is a mediated knowledge, but knowledge nevertheless, as Ratzinger has insisted repeatedly. On the occasion of his receiving an honorary doctorate at the University of Wroclaw in the year 2000, the theologian-prefect attempted a new approach to the question of faith as rational knowledge, which can be useful to us as a recompilation. In ordinary language, it is said: “I believe that tomorrow will be a good day,” or, “I believe that this or that news is not true.” The word “believe” here means to have an opinion; it expresses an imperfect way of knowing. In this context, faith would mean something that has not yet reached the status of knowledge. Ratzinger comments, “Many people probably think that this meaning of ‘believing’ is also applicable in the realm of religion, so that the contents of the Christian faith are an imperfect, preliminary stage of knowledge.” 15 But this is not the intended meaning of the word we use repeatedly in the Creed. “In reality, for the believing Christian, the words ‘I believe’ articulate a particular kind of certainty—one that is in many respects a higher degree of certainty than that of science, yet one that does indeed carry within it the dynamic of ‘shadow and image,’ the dynamic of the ‘not yet.’” 16

In brief, the new evangelization, and the transmission of faith, require a consideration of all the dimensions and faculties that play a role in the act of faith. They can be achieved neither with spiritualist, nor with secularist, and purely horizontal, outlooks. They must move and stimulate the will and the intelligence, the heart and the reason; they call us both to adoration and to rational reflection. Can we achieve faith without asking for it, without kneeling? Faith comes not only from rational understanding, but also from listening. It is a gift, something received. At the same time, this assent will be united to the unavoidable task of thinking. This task never reaches its conclusion, its resting place. Faith is a pilgrimage of thought that is always on the road:

That is also why it is, says Thomas, that within faith, however firm the assent, a contrary motion (motus de contrario) can arise: Struggling and questioning thought remains present, which ever and again has to seek its light from that essential light which shines into the heart from the word of God. 17

Confidence and knowledge, belief and doubt, remain in equal conditions for the act of faith, which is sure and uncertain at the same time. The shadow of doubt is combined again with the light of the act of faith.

“I Believe in the Church”

We cannot forget that Ratzinger is also an ecclesiologist; this is evident in much of his writings, beginning with his first work on Saint Augustine. In his Introduction to Christianity, while insisting on the above-mentioned personal dimension of the act of faith, Ratzinger spoke also about the social, ecclesial, and communitarian dimensions. It is evident that faith is not simply the result of solitary, deep thought in which my fantasy takes wing, and, free from all restraints, considers exclusively the truth; the act of faith “is the result of a dialogue, the expression of a hearing, receiving, and answering which guides man through the exchanges of ‘I’ and ‘You’ to the ‘We’ of those who all believe in the same way. ‘Faith comes from what is heard,’ says St. Paul (Rom 10:17).” 18 Fides ex auditu:

Faith is not something thought up by me but something that comes to me from outside, its word cannot be treated and exchanged as I please; it is always foreordained, always ahead of my thinking. The positivity of what comes towards me from outside myself, opening up to me what I cannot give myself, typifies the process of belief or faith. 19

Faith is a personal and interpersonal gift: it depends on something—someone—who is outside of myself. 20

The Church, Place of Faith

It is true that faith comes from outside, but it is also something that is profoundly interiorized. It is only when we exercise obedience and the expression of our own personality at the same time that we have real faith. Faith is born from the union of the two freedoms: God’s and ours. Ratzinger explained the social and communitarian dimension of the act of faith using the etymology of the word “symbol.” “Symbolum” comes from symballein: a Greek verb that means “to fuse or put together.” The background of the image is an ancient rite: the two parts of a ring, or of a seal, that could be joined together were the signal through which guests, messengers, or parties to a contract could be identified. “The symbolum requires another to be complete, generating in this way unity and mutual recognition: it expresses the unity and, at the same time, makes it possible.” 21 For this reason, faith is expressed in a prayer, in the Symbol, in the communal recitation of the Creed. “It is not merely a dogmatical expression, but an aspect of our divine cult and conversion; it is a glance in direction to God and the others.” 22 From the “I believe,” we arrive at the “we believe”: we believe always in the Church and with all the Church.

Faith, Liturgy, and the Sacraments

In faith, the believer goes beyond a mere intellectual or sentimental monologue and arrives at a true dialogue with Jesus Christ in the Church. This is also achieved through the sacraments. In Baptism,faith and belonging to the Church (1976), Ratzinger arrives at the question of the sacramental origin of incorporation into the Church, and as a result, into faith. After some preliminary considerations on the existential value of the sacraments, he reminds us that these signs come before faith and belonging to the Church. Thus, “baptism establishes the community in the Name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. In this perspective, it is very similar to the process of the celebration of marriage, which creates a community between two persons, founded in the word; the word which expresses the fact that, from now on, the two constitute a new unity.” 23 Faith is the meeting of two free wills, we have said. Thus, insists Ratzinger, the reception of the faith requires a long learning process, a continuous catechumenate: “The baptismal formula, which is a creed in the form of a dialogue, presupposes a long path of instruction. It demands not only to be learnt and understood as a text, but it must be exercised as expression of an existential orientation.” 24 Faith and works, theory and existence, orthodoxy and orthopraxy are requisites for receiving baptism in adults, and are necessary for all wishing to live Christian life in its fullness. 25

To illustrate these ideas, we can look at an image that the prefect takes from the Gospel, which expresses the love and knowledge that is born in the encounter with Christ in the Church through the sacraments: the encounter that is faith. We have said that God is known not only with the intelligence, but at the same time with the will, and the heart. That knowledge of God, the encounter with Christ, requires the totality of our being. Luke explains this in the passage of the disciples on the road to Emmaus (Lk 24:13-35). Faith comes to these disciples when they are with Christ “in the breaking of the bread,” as it comes to us in the Church. The true transmission of faith must respect the method that Christ used in Emmaus: faith and relationship, experience and knowledge, Church and communion, conversion and sacraments. It is then that the believer goes to Jesus Christ, and exclaims with total freedom: “Stay with us” (Lk 24:29). And God remains and gives us faith. This could be a worthwhile reflection for us as we transition out of this past Year of Faith.

  1. Introduction to Christianity, Herder and Herder, New York 1970, p. 15. On this topic, see also: A. Nichols, The Theology of Joseph Ratzinger: An Introductory Study, T. & T. Clark, Edinburgh 1988, 110-111, 225-234; J. Murphy, Christ Our Joy: The Theological Vision of Pope Benedict XVI, Ignatius, San Francisco 2008, 62-66; L. Boeve and G. Mannion, The Ratzinger Reader, T & T Clark, New York 2010, 28-33; id., “Christ, Humanity and Salvation”,  ibid., 51-79.  {Editor’s Note: Many of Fr. Sarto’s citations come from Spanish and German sources; in translating the article into English, these were left simply to guide the reader in case he or she wants to pursue a topic further.  For academic monographs that appear also in English, we provided the English equivalents in the citations below.}
  2. Cf., Ratzinger, Principles of Catholic Theology (Ignatius Press, 1987 {1982}) 22-25.
  3.  Ibid., 25.
  4. For a wonderful discussion on this symbiosis, see Tracey Rowland, Ratzinger’s Faith: The Theology of Pope Benedict XVI (Oxford University Press, 2008), 15-25; 60-64; 112-22.
  5. Introduction to Christianity, 54-55.
  6. Cf. Principles of Catholic Theology, 353-55.
  7. Ibid.
  8. Ibid. See also R. Tura, “La teologia di J. Ratzinger. Saggio introduttivo” {“Ratzinger’s Theology: An Introductory Essay”}, 152-153.
  9. See, for example, L. Pareyson, Esistenza e persona  {Existence and Person} (1950), Il Melangolo, Genova 19854, 184-185 and 214-215.
  10. This line is quoted in J. Mouroux, Je crois en Toi. Structure personelle de la foi {I Believe in You: A Personal Structure of the Faith} (Paris 1949); C. Cirne-Lima, Der personale Glaube {The Personal Faith}, Innsbruck 1959; H. Fries, Glauben – Wissen {Faith – Knowledge}, Berlin 1960.
  11. Evangelio, catequesis, catecismo {Gospel, Catechesis, Catechism}, Edicep, Valencia 1996, 20-21. See also “Fede e teologia” {“Faith and Theology”}, Sacra dottrina 1/38 (2003) 10; Convocados en el camino de la fe {Pilgrim Fellowship of Faith: The Church as Communion}, Cristiandad, Madrid 2004, 295.
  12. La Chiesa, Israele e le religioni del mondo {Many Religions, One Covenant: Israel, the Church, and the World}, San Paolo, Cinisello Balsamo 2000, 65.
  13. Ibid., 78; here Ratzinger remembers the Pauline testimonies: 1 Thess 4:3ff.; Gal 4:8ff.; Rom 18-32.
  14. Ratzinger, Collaborators of the Truth {spanish edition} (Madrid: Rialp, 1991), 274.
  15. Ratzinger, Pilgrim Fellowship of Faith: The Church as Communion (Ignatius Press, 2005), 18.
  16. Ibid., 18-19.
  17. Ibid., 25; the quotation continues to include St. Thomas’ De veritate, q. 14 a.1 co., which refers to 2 Cor 10:5.
  18. Introduction to Christianity, 57.
  19. Introduction to Christianity, 57-58.
  20. The importance of the Church and what Ratzinger calls the Wir-Struktur can be seen in A. Bellandi, Fede cristiana come stare e comprendere {How to Live and Understand the Christian Faith}, 220-227, 361.
  21. Principles of Catholic Theology, 84.
  22. Ibid., 85.
  23. Principles of Catholic Theology, 34.
  24. Ibid., 39.
  25. The problem of the baptism of the children is studied in an appendix in ibid., 46-49; see also Evangelio, catequesis, catecismo {Gospel, Catechesis, Catechism}, 24-26.
Father Pablo Sarto About Father Pablo Sarto

Pablo Blanco Sarto has doctoral degrees in philosophy and theology, as well as a degree in philology. He has studied in Rome, Munich, and Pamplona; and his scholarly interests include aesthetics and hermeneutics, the relationship between faith and reason, ecumenism, and sacramentology. He now teaches in the Faculty of Theology at the University of Navarra.


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