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Joseph Ratzinger

Ratzinger Versus Kierkegaard on Desecularization

June 26, 2023


Fr. Emery de Gaál is an eminent scholar steeped in the works of Pope Benedict XVI and author of The Theology of Pope Benedict XVI: The Christocentric Shift.

This original essay is featured as part of Word on Fire’s tribute to the faith and thought of Pope Benedict XVI. Discover more in the latest edition, Issue 16, of the Word on Fire Institute’s journal Evangelization & Culture, dedicated to the life of Pope Benedict XVI.


Admittedly, comparing Pope Benedict XVI (1927–2023) to the Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard (1813–1855) is prima facie surprising and might strike one as completely unwarranted: too obvious are the asymmetries. In glaring contrast to the Danish thinker, Ratzinger is one of the most celebrated theologians in recent memory, while Kierkegaard died in obscurity. The former—a universally acclaimed Catholic thinker, the latter—a philosopher who critiqued his own Lutheran Church. Pope Benedict makes but once mention of Kierkegaard, namely in his internationally acclaimed theological bestseller Introduction to Christianity.1 But what unites both is the earnestness with which they call upon Christians of all denominations to seriously follow Jesus Christ and—whether invited or scorned—remind them of the cost of serious Christian discipleship. For both, Jesus Christ is not an abstract, philosophical proposition but an existential reality. Both have become in their respective unique life paths uncomfortable, disconcerting callers in the desert, second to John the Baptist.

One may think in this context also of the German Lutheran witness of faith and martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906–1945). Certainly, Ratzinger also draws inspiration from Russian philosopher Vladimir Soloviev (1853–1900), who had penned the unsettling, prophetic History of the Anti-Christ. He mentioned the Russian thinker in a homily delivered at St. Peter’s Church in New York in 1988.2 In his brief text, Soloviev correctly foresees a situation in which the majority of Christians will subscribe to a bourgeoisie-pleasing reinterpretation of Jesus Christ supplied by a celebrated Scripture scholar, who actually is the Anti-Christ, while the remnant of real Christians will be marginalized and frowned upon, which is reminiscent of the Arian crisis in the fourth century. 

Bonhoeffer begins his 1937 Nachfolge (Discipleship) with the familiar words corresponding to the title: “Cheap grace is the mortal enemy of our church. Our struggle today is for foolish grace.”3 This tension between the world and the divine order is acutely experienced by all Christians. While Kierkegaard opts for a radical primacy of the divine, Ratzinger’s view is more balanced: giving eloquent expression to the Catholic “et . . . et,” “as well as.”4 There is an inner relationship between fides et ratio surpassing and contradicting Kierkegaard’s fideism and neo-Scholasticism’s rationalism. Ratzinger argues that Christ intends to be incarnate ever again in the hic et nunc.

Addressing in 1967 a restive body of students and educated people from different academic disciplines and utopian Marxism in the air, young Professor Ratzinger uses Kierkegaard’s analogy of a Christian preacher. A circus clown tries to convince people of an extremely serious message until in the end the village is engulfed in flames. Ratzinger warns his audience, listening with bated breath, that one cannot take the Christian Gospel lightly, as a mere option.5 Prior to his lectures, collected in the Introduction to Christianity, he had penned these words:

This is precisely what ultimately constitutes man as man, that he reaches beyond the world, that he is capable of the Absolute, that he carries in himself that referentiality of existence which points him beyond all world contexts to the Eternal Self, and which thus also gives him the surplus value which protects him as a partner of God from any appropriation by the merely worldly.6

Kierkegaard—A Necessary Signpost and Corrective 

In intellectual history, Kierkegaard is an enigmatic character. His writings are quirky and yet central. He is a great counterweight to the grand systematizers and rationalizers that had immediately preceded him. He is self-consciously fragmentary, off-beat, one may say provocatively bizarre. He incurred public opposition and scorn. Quite deliberately he opted for a non-bourgeois existence: breaking off from his father—at least for a time—and deciding to remain unmarried. Oftentimes his Christian motivations are ignored. In the year 1930, Hans Urs von Balthasar (1905–1988) does greater justice to him in his dissertation Geschichte des eschatologischen Problems in der modernen deutschen Literatur, where he compares Kierkegaard and Nietzsche.7 Kierkegaard fired a passionate broad-side against the established Danish Lutheran state Church and its supposed spiritual complacency, thereby antagonizing his countrymen even further. He objected to calling the deceased Lutheran bishop Jakob Peter Mynster “a witness to truth” in a eulogy. The obituary composed by Mynster’s successor, Bishop Martensen, merely secured the Lutheran Church’s prestigious social status and lucrative income. Kierkegaard advocated radical disengagement from all worldly affairs.8 He critiqued Martin Luther’s coziness under the protection of the ruler of Saxony and considered celibacy and religious life indispensable for the Church’s credible Christian witness, even speaking of a character indelibilis, a term commonly reserved for Catholic priests.9

One of Kierkegaard’s great nemeses was the German philosopher Georg Friedrich Wilhelm Hegel (1770–1831), who had produced one of the greatest syntheses of human thought. He divined in Hegel’s grand edifice an Ersatz reconciliation. In Kierkegaard’s view, the unhappy consciousness of Hegel that lacked a grasp of a whole as personal meaning could have been a chance to embrace faith. Alas, Hegel sublimates this sense of alienation from the whole by establishing such a synthesis occurring in history by way of an inexorable process—lacking personal volition, mercy, adoration, and virtue. To Danish Kierkegaard such a view ignores the inescapably postlapsarian state of the human being and—more importantly—the human pining to personally encounter the divine. All of history attests to human existence being roiled and conflicted, as it is already in some kind of relationship with the numinous. It seeks a form of reconciliation it cannot self-generate. Hegel neither confronted the inevitability of evil nor that of personal guilt. He saw the abstract entity of humankind becoming quite solipsistically in the give and take of history the bearer of good tidings on a suprapersonal level. 

In contrast to Hegel’s great harmony in which all of humankind is moving in one, grand, collective movement, Kierkegaard emphasizes the individual, the particular, the unique, the tragic and the salutary moment. This is brought out eloquently in his writings The Concept of Anxiety10 and Sickness unto Death. The last and ultimate reality is the individual person standing in disarmed solitude before God and forced to address his reality, discovering to his anguish his estrangement from God, being lost in sin and despair. The fallen human being faces guilt, and from such guilt experience flows the awareness of having passed definitively and irreversibly a boundary that leads to despondency and sickness unto death. Such a situation is inescapable. To Kierkegaard’s mind it is a question of existential veracity to acknowledge it. Nothing within human reach can lift us up; this includes pace to German idealism, the human mind, the preferred space of action for Hegel. 

As he develops in Philosophical Fragments,11 salvation must come from without. It requires a radical leap of faith that puts to shame all the great rational constructs. All human beings need to move from a mere aesthetic, uninvolved posture to an ethically grounded sense of responsibility and finally toward commitment on a third and final level, which he calls the religious level of conversion. The Socratic or Hegelian mindset is content to articulate thoughts that are immanent to and seemingly affirm the human person. Such Socratic thinking must be interrupted to reach the moment. In Jesus, a radically new question comes to the fore. Christ must become the pierre de touche for the human being’s subsequent life. Man must admit—unlike Hegel—that he is not in possession of the truth and discover that he is untruth. Only the human being is responsible for such alienation from God. God alone saves him from his self-destructive imprisonment. Such is the nature of the fleeting moment, when man experiences divine mercy or providence, such when Abraham is willing to sacrifice his only son Isaac. This moment becomes the fullness of time, when the eternal enters the temporal, personal realm.12 Here God acts out of sheer, self-emptying charity.

God appears provocatively in the form of a servant. Such lowliness is not mere livery. The human mind must reel at this “paradox”—contra Hegel. The cerebral, passionless mind à la Kant flees from this reality and retreats to the limited range of human reason as the last and final court of appeal, writing off the paradox as irrational absurdity.13 Against Kant and Hegel, Kierkegaard favors loyalty to the paradox of the Incarnation.

Ratzinger’s Spirited Defense of Christian Discipleship

Since the 1960s, Ratzinger had increasingly appeared as an at times isolated, upright prophet in an increasingly secularized German Catholic Church. This becomes glaringly obvious when considering the German public’s reaction—unisono both secular and Catholic—to the speech he delivered to 1500 men and women representing Catholic intellectuals and people working for the institutional Church at all levels, from chanceries to parishes, while visiting Germany in Freiburg im Breisgau on September 25, 2011, in its concert building, ever since famous. There he questioned with a calm voice and the serene style of a gentleman much like St. John Henry Newman (1801–1890) this particular Church’s suspiciously confident self-perception, structures, and lifestyle. Without discussing the merits of his arguments, let alone responding equally graciously, the German Verbandskatholizismus (associational Catholicism) reacted with scorn and rejection to his almost Kierkegaardian admonishments. He said, “Blessed Mother Teresa was once asked what in her opinion was the first thing that would have to change in the Church. Her answer was: you and I.”14 All Catholics baptized are equally members of the Church and are called to personal conversion to Christ ever afresh. Reorientation to its source, Jesus Christ, rejuvenates the Church. He elaborated:

In the concrete history of the Church, however, a contrary tendency is also manifested, namely that the Church becomes self-satisfied, settles down in this world, becomes self-sufficient and adapts herself to the standards of the world.15

He continued:

Secularizing trends—whether by expropriation of Church goods, or elimination of privileges or the like—have always meant a profound liberation of the Church from forms of worldliness, for in the process she as it were sets aside her worldly wealth and once again completely embraces her worldly poverty. In this she shares the destiny of the tribe of Levi, which according to the Old Testament account was the only tribe in Israel with no ancestral land of its own, taking as its portion only God himself, his word, and his signs. At those moments in history, the Church shared with that tribe the demands of a poverty that was open to the world, in order to be released from her material ties: and in this way her missionary activity regained credibility.16

The project of Entweltlichung had been a cantus firmus throughout his life. In 1958 he had used the term when discussing The new pagans and the Church in a lecture.17 In 1966 he had used the term again in a talk titled “Weltoffene Kirche” (a Church open for the world). He wrote, “De-worldliness of the Church, which, as it were, strips itself of its worldly wealth and again assumes all its worldly poverty.”18 

Had his 2011 words been given the proper attention they deserved, people would have discovered that he did not advocate the abolition of the debatable Church tax but a change of heart. Neither structures nor bureaucracy but the inner mindset needs to be converted to Christ. Christians are called to evangelize, “to proclaim the good news to the whole creations” (Mark 16:15). As he bore out to a full house:

The Church . . . must constantly rededicate herself to her mission. The three Synoptic Gospels highlight various aspects of the missionary task. The mission is built first of all upon personal experience: “You are witnesses” (Lk 24:48); it finds expression in relationships: “Make disciples of all nations” (Mt 28:19); and it spreads a universal message: “Preach the Gospel to the whole creation” (Mk 16:15). Through the demands and constraints of the world, however, this witness is constantly obscured, the relationships are alienated, and the message is relativized. If the Church, in Pope Paul VI’s words, is now struggling “to model itself on Christ’s ideal,” this “can only result in its acting and thinking quite differently from the world around it, which it is nevertheless striving to influence” (Ecclesiam Suam, 58). In order to accomplish her mission, she will need again and again to set herself apart from her surroundings, to become in a certain sense “unworldly.”19

The Holy Father emphasized the need for a proper orientation toward the transcendent reality in order for the created order to find its proper gravitational center and purpose. Therein lies the actual point of the Gospel. With these words Benedict XVI slipped into the role of an emaciated John the Baptist or of the revolutionary Savonarola (1452–1492). Like an uneasy prophet, Ratzinger reminded his audience of their lost, suppressed mission amid all worldly concerns. Like a prophet of old, Benedict forecast the future after a clear and unvarnished analysis. This is fulfilled today even more. Much like consulting firms, elements of the Church prefer impersonal “structural reorganization” versus personal conversion of hearts. Such forms of immunization vis-à-vis the truth who is Jesus Christ disinvite a much-needed correction of self. He observed: “the Church . . . gives greater weight to organization and institutionalization than to her vocation to openness towards God, her vocation to opening up the world towards the other.”20

He might have added that the Church has her origin in God—inter alia her origin is to be found in the angel’s annunciation to Our Lady. The Church has her beginnings in Mary’s trusting fiat. Mary is the first believer, believing more in “the greater possibilities of God” than in her own talents and priorities.21 

The tempting Verweltlichung, or secularization, prompts the Church to seek adulation and confirmation by a world wholly oblivious to the spiritual and divine, and thus the need arises for her to conform to the world even more. Such a foolishly re-configured Church, however, has little to offer the world. She becomes unattractive. Membership in her is uninspiring. Contingency must not define an entity that by her very nature is of divine origin—and indeed finds such an effort wholly unfulfilling. One expects of her tolerance in the mundane sense; eclectic indifference, clad in the garments of humanitarianism, but in its core egoistic. In order to win such a Church over, to coopt her, she is being granted tempting privileges, such as permission to instruct in German public schools and to collect taxes. 

On the other hand, Entweltlichung, or de-secularization, allows the sovereign God to define the mission and the criteria for authentic life. For a Christian, Balthasarian Sendung, or mission, the vertical cross, rules over any horizontal, quantifiable function. For such a conversion to occur, every Christian must pine for the Second Coming of the Lord, must convert his heart ever anew. As the pope bears out:

It is not a question here of finding a new strategy to relaunch the Church. Rather, it is a question of setting aside mere strategy and seeking total transparency, not bracketing or ignoring anything from the truth of our present situation, but living the faith fully here and now in the utterly sober light of day, appropriating it completely, and stripping away from it anything that only seems to belong to faith, but in truth is mere convention or habit.22

Benedict XVI does not take up the cudgels for a maneuver initiating a withdrawal of the Church from the world in order to cast off worldliness but, au contraire, to be faithful to her Lord and Master and for her to become a leaven, a blessing for the world, in the sense of an inspired and inspiring engagement in the world. For, as he continued:

History has shown that, when the Church becomes less worldly, her missionary witness shines more brightly. Once liberated from material and political burdens and privileges, the Church can reach out more effectively and in a truly Christian way to the whole world, she can be truly open to the world. She can live more freely her vocation to the ministry of divine worship and service of neighbour. . . .  The Church opens herself to the world not in order to win men for an institution with its own claims to power, but in order to lead them to themselves by leading them to him of whom each person can say with Saint Augustine: he is closer to me than I am to myself (cf. Confessions, III,6,11). He who is infinitely above me is yet so deeply within me that he is my true interiority. This form of openness to the world on the Church’s part also serves to indicate how the individual Christian can be open to the world in effective and appropriate ways.23

Conclusion: Kierkegaard versus Ratzinger—John the Baptist versus Athanasius and Gregory the Great 

In the eulogy for his Doktorvater Gottlieb Söhngen (1892–1971), Professor Ratzinger preached in 1971:

In the breadth of his thinking lay his greatness and also his fate. For he who asks questions so comprehensively cannot present a closed synthesis. Söhngen knew this; he knew that the hour of theological sums had not yet struck again. He knew that he would have to be content with fragments. But he always tried to see the whole in the fragment [das Ganze im Fragment] to think the fragments from the whole and to design them as reflections of the whole. This also indicates his basic intellectual attitude: Söhngen was a radical and critical questioner. Even today one cannot ask more radically than he did. But at the same time he was a radical believer.24

Here one detects a surprising consonance between Kierkegaard, Söhngen, and Ratzinger: the deliberate affirmation of the fragmentary nature of human cognition, the elevation of the human imagination to higher plateaus, and the rejection of grand systems. On this point Ratzinger not only rejects Hegelianism with Kierkegaard but, at the same time, as a Catholic theologian, also neo-Scholasticism. Neo-Scholasticism had still been regnant in his Freising seminary. Faith is far more than the human mind’s assent to propositions.25 

In reaction to the French Revolution (1789), neo-Scholastic theologians tried to push back the Enlightenment by demonstrating the superior intelligibility of the Catholic statement. Alas, especially in the wake of Vatican I (1869–1870), it became quite rigid and impersonal, denying the need for a creative plurality. It emphasized authority and became formalistic. On the positive side, it did gain a synthetic power that deepened faith and consolidated the Church. By the time Ratzinger entered seminary it had become too impersonal, spent, and exhausted.26

Kierkegaard had no appreciation for the Church as a sacramental reality. There is no social component in his understanding of Christian existentialism. There only exists to his mind the lonesome individual in front of the awe-inspiring God, as he does not take into account the communio-forming reality of the Eucharist. Seemingly, nowadays, the immanentized eschatological hope of Hegel, the welfare state, and consulting firms reign supreme. 

In contradistinction, both thinkers underscore the absolute primacy of Christian faith. Kierkegaard writes, “Today nobody will stop with faith; they all go further. It would perhaps be rash to inquire where to.”27 To both, contemporary forms of Christianity appear shallow and rootless because they lack a clear sense of sin and divine mercy. Both remind us that only God can bridge “the infinite qualitative distinction between time and eternity.”28 Both believe that the quest for the historical Christ is unfortunate, as it distracts from the actual personal nature of faith. The paucity of extra-biblical evidence for the historical Christ leads precisely to a liberation toward genuine faith and personal self-surrender. Both thinkers affirm the historicity of the figure of Jesus Christ. To “redeem” faith Kierkegaard embraces the absurd—much like Tertullian’s supposed credo quia absurdum.29 Pope Benedict XVI, however, does not. Ratzinger knows that the supreme logoscity, i.e., the rationality, of all being and of the human mind is indebted to Jesus Christ and related to him. Also in its postlapsarian state human rationality owns a deep kinship with the eternal Logos. Ratzinger’s approach is more balanced. Faith is not a blind leap. The human being possesses a fragment that points to that whole it does not possess. The content of faith is not fully revealed at first, but its rationality gradually takes on greater contours in the strength of the divine Logos, who is present in the Church.

In sum, Kierkegaard is correct in modestly calling his thoughts “a little pinch of cinnamon.”30 Quite deliberately, he merely intended to refer to a greater truth than the one of his own design. Therefore, it is accurate to designate him “a second John the Baptist.” On the other hand, it seems an accurate assessment to call Pope Benedict XVI “a second Athanasius” and “a second Pope Gregory the Great.” Like Athanasius, he resolutely defended the integrity of the Christological dogma. Like Gregory the Great, who amid the collapsed Roman Empire would prepare the basis upon which the Carolingian Empire would be positioned, Benedict XVI leaves the legacy of the Jesus of Nazareth trilogy. This is solid fare to master future challenges and to establish a reinvigorated, global Christian culture. Benedict XVI’s theological contributions will inaugurate a significant and long-lasting Christocentric shift. It will not be based on propositional truths à neo-scholasticism, nor on love for grand systems à Hegel, nor will it resuscitate ecclesiastical glories, such as the flabelli (peacock fans), but it will open Christianity to a genuine, personal conversion of heart to the second person of the Blessed Trinity, Jesus Christ. Assuredly, the Church will honor him one day as a Doctor of the Church.

The first year of ministry after his ordination in 1951 brought Ratzinger to the Munich parish of Heilig Blut (Precious Blood). During the Nazi regime, this parish brought forth two lay martyrs, Ludwig Baron Leonrod and Franz Sperr, and two priest martyrs, Hermann Josef Wehrle and Alfred Delp, SJ. They protested the cruelties of Hitler and his minions and had consequently been executed as witnesses to Christ. 

Expressing admiration for the brave testimony of these men for the spiritual truth of Jesus Christ over materialistic ideology, Ratzinger penned on May 24, 1952, the following words in the Poesiealbum (autograph album) belonging to a little girl in one of his religion classes in Heilig Blut Parish:

However the winds blow
You should stand against them
When the world falls apart
Your brave heart may not despair.
Without the heart’s bravery which
Has the courage to withstand unshakably
The spirits of the time and the masses,
We cannot find the way to God
And the true way of Our Lord.31

He signed the poem “In remembrance of your teacher of religion, Joseph Ratzinger.”

1 Joseph Ratzinger, Introduction to Christianity (San Francisco: Ignatius, 2004), 39.
2 Emery de Gaál, The Theology of Pope Benedict XVI. The Christocentric Shift (New York: Palgrave McMillan 2010), xiii, 81, 111, and 146.
3 Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Nachfolge, Postscript Eberhard Bethge, 14th ed. (Munich: Kaiser, 1983), 13.
4 Joseph Ratzinger, Weggemeinschaft des Glaubens, Kirche als Gemeinschaft (Augsburg: St. Ulrich, 2002), 254.
5 Ratzinger, Introduction to Christianity, 39.
6 Joseph Ratzinger, “Was ist der Mensch?“ (1966/67), in Rudolf Voderholzer ed., Mitteilungen des Institut-Papst-Benedikt XVI, vol. 1 (Regensburg: Pustet, 2008), 28–49, at 43.
7 Hans Urs von Balthasar, Geschichte des eschatologischen Problems in der modernen deutschen Literatur, first reprint (Einsiedeln: Johannes, 1998).
8 Søren Kierkegaard, The Moment and Late Writings, ed. and trans. Howard and Edna Hong (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2009). 
9 Heinrich Roos, Søren Kierkegaard auf der Suche nach dem wahren Christentum, ed. Institut für europäische Geschichte, Mainz, Vorträge Nr. 30 (Wiesbaden: Zabern, 1961), 22.
10 Søren Kierkegaard, The Concept of Anxiety. A Simple Psychologically Oriented Deliberation in View of the Dogmatic Problem of Hereditary Sin, trans. Alastair Hannay (New York: Liveright, 2015).
11 Søren Kierkegaard, Philosophical Fragments/Johannes Climacus, ed. Howard V. Hong, Edna H. Hong (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1987).
12 Kierkegaard, Philosophical Fragments, 9–22.
13 Kierkegaard, Philosophical Fragments, 37–54.
14 Benedict XVI, “Apostolic Journey to Germany: Meeting with Catholics Engaged in the Life of the Church and Society,” address, September 25, 2011,
15, 16 Benedict XVI, “Apostolic Journey to Germany.”
17 Joseph Ratzinger, “Die neuen Heiden und die Kirche,“ Hochland (Oktober, 1958), reprinted JRGS 8/2, 1143–1158, at 1149.
18 Joseph Ratzinger, “Entweltlichung der Kirche, die sich gleichsam ihres weltlichen Reichtums entblößt und wieder ihre ganze weltliche Armut annimmt,” JRGS 7/2, 999.
19, 20 Benedict XVI, “Apostolic Journey to Germany.”
21 Hans Urs von Balthasar and Joseph Ratzinger, Mary: The Church at the Source (San Francisco: Ignatius, 2005).
22, 23 Benedict XVI, “Apostolic Journey to Germany.”
24 Joseph Ratzinger “Der Glaube ist es der das Fragen ermöglicht,“ 30 Giorni, February 1,  2006,
25 Joseph Ratzinger, Milestones. Memoirs 1927–1977 (San Francisco: Ignatius, 1988),  41–60.
26 Tracey Rowland, Ratzinger’s Faith. The Theology of Pope Benedict XVI (Oxford: Oxford University), 2–7.
27 Søren Kierkegaard, Fear and Trembling, Dialectical Lyric by Johannes de Silentio, ed. Alastair Hannay (London: Penguin, 1986), 23.
28 Søren Kierkegaard, Training in Christianity, and the Edifying Discourse which ‘Accompanied’ It, trans. Walter Lowrie (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1941), 139.
29 This is an Enlightenment misconstrual, as Tertullian in De Carne Christi writes, “and the Son of God died; it is [utterly] credible, because it is unfitting; and he was buried and rose again; it is certain, because it is impossible.” (“et mortuus est dei filius: [prorsus] credibile est, quia ineptum sepultus resurrexit: certum est, quia impossibile.”) Peter Harrison, “‘I Believe Because it is Absurd’: The Enlightenment Invention of Tertullian’s Credo,” Church History 86.2 (2017): 339–364.
30 Søren Kierkegaard’s Journals and Papers, ed. Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1978), 1, # 709, 331f.
31 de Gaál, The Theology of Pope Benedict XVI. The Christocentric Shift, 20, incl. fn 35.

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