Cardinal Ratzinger and Norris W. Clarke

It’s been a while since I cracked open Ratzinger’s Introduction to Christianity, but I recently had the opportunity to appreciate it’s insight. In responding to an inquiry from someone researching a provocative quote by Ratzinger (“the undivided sway of thinking in terms of substance is ended; relation is discovered as an equally primordial mode of reality”) I came across the following passage in his chapter on the Trinity, which I found very interesting for reasons I’ll explain below:

. . . With the perception that, seen as substance, God is One, but that there exists in him the phenomenon of dialogue, of differentation and of relationship through speech, the category of relatio gained a completely new significance for Christian thought. To Aristotle it was among the “accidents”, the chance circumstances of being, which are separate from substance, the sole sustaining form of the real. The experience of God who conducts a dialogue, of the God who is not only logos but also dia-logos, not only idea and meaning but speech and word in the reciprocal exchanges of conversation — this experience exploded the ancient division of reality into substance, the real thing, and accidents, the merely circumstantial. It now became clear that the dialogue, the relatio, stands beside the substance in an equally primordial form of being.

With that, the wording of the dogma to all intents and purposes settled. It expresses the perception that God as substance, as “being” is absolutely one. If we nevertheless have to speak of him in the category of triplicity this does not imply a multiplication of substances but means that in the one and indivisible God there exists the phenomenon of dialogue, the reciprocal exchange of word and love. This again signifies that the “three persons” who exist in God are the reality of word and love in their attachment to each other. They are not substances, personalities in the modern sense, but the relatedness whose pure actuality (“parcel of waves”!) does not impair the unity of the highest being but fills it out. St. Augustine once enshrined this idea in the following formula: “He is not called Father with reference to himself but only in relation to the Son; seen by himself he is simply God.” 1 Here the decisive point comes beautifully to light. “Father” is purely a concept of relationship. Only in being-for the other is he Father; in his own being-in-himself he is simply God. Person is the pure relation of being-related, nothing else. Relationship is not something extra added to the person, as it is with us; it only exists at all as relatedness.

Expressed in the imagery of Christian traditionl this means that the First Person does not beget the Son in the sense of the act of begetting coming on top of the finished Person; it is the act of begetting, of giving oneself, of streaming forth. It is identical with the act of giving. Only as this act is it person, and therefore it is not the giver but the act of giving, “wave” not “corpuscle” . . . In this idea of relativity in word and love, independent of the concept of substance and not to be classified among the “accidents,” Christian thought discovered the kernel of the concept of person, which describes something other and infinitely more than the mere idea of the “individual.” Let us listen once again to St. Augustine: “In God there are no accidents, only substance and relation.”2 Therein lies concealed a revolution in man’s view of the world: the undivided sway if thinking in terms of substance has ended; relation is discovered as an equally valid primordial mode of reality. It becomes possible to surmount what we call today “objectifying thought”; a new plane of being comes into view. It is probably true to say that the task imposed on philosophy as a result of these facts is far from completed — so much does modern thought depend on the possibilities thus disclosed, but for which it would be inconceivable.

Ratzinger’s references to “parcels of waves” refers to an earlier mention of Austrian physicist Erwin Schrodinger (p. 25), who:

. . . defined the structure of matter as “parcels of waves” and thereby fallen upon the idea of a being that has no substance but is purely actual, whose apparent “substantiality” really results only from the pattern of movement of superimposed waves. In the realm of matter such a suggestion may bell be physically, and in any case philosophically, highly contestable. But it remains an exciting simile for the actualitas divina, for the absolute “being-act” of God and for the idea that the densest being — God — can subsist only in a multitude of relations, which are not substances but simply “waves”, and therein form a perfect unity and also the fullness of being. We shall have to consider this idea more fully later on; it is already formulated to all intents and purposes in St. Augustine, when he develops the idea of pure act-existence (“parcels of waves”).

This novel use of Schrodinger’s theory seems to me quite the stretch and something that will raise a few eyebrows (or snarls of disgust) in traditionalist camps, but perhaps we can forgive this flight of theological fancy considering Ratzinger wrote it in the 60’s.

Ratzinger’s chapter on the Trinity contains numerous references to St. Augustine. The scarcity of attention paid by Ratzinger to the preeminent doctor of theology, St. Thomas Aquinas, is fodder for criticism by traditionalists, who portray the Cardinal together with Pope John Paul II as opponents of Thomistic theology, never ceasing to cite as evidence Ratzinger’s memorable lines from Milestones. See for example this amusing little tirade from the SSPX (“The Memories of a Destructive Mind”):

Ratzinger loved St. Augustine, but never St. Thomas Aquinas: “By contrast, I had difficulties in penetrating the thought of Thomas Aquinas, whose crystal-clear logic seemed to be too closed in on itself, too impersonal and ready-made” (op. cit., p.44). This aversion was mainly due to the professor of philosophy at the seminary, who “presented us with a rigid, neo-scholastic Thomism that was simply too far afield from my own questions” (ibid.). According to Cardinal Ratzinger, whose current opinions appear unchanged from those he held as a seminarian, the thought of Aquinas was “too closed in on itself, too impersonal and ready-made,” and was unable to respond to the personal questions of the faithful. This opinion is enunciated by a prince of the Church whose function it is to safeguard the purity of the doctrine of the Faith! Why, then, should anyone be surprised at the current disastrous crisis of Catholicism, or seek to attribute it to the world, when those who should be the defenders of the Faith, and hence of genuine Catholic thought, are like sewers drinking in the filth, or like gardeners who cut down a tree they are supposed to be nurturing?

However, there does appear to be parallels to Ratzinger in contemporary Thomistic thought. It was upon reading Ratzinger’s chapter on the Trinity that I was reminded of — and proceeded to dig out from my cluttered closet — an outstanding lecture by W. Norris Clarke, S.J. that greatly impressed me when I read it several years ago. Note the similarities between Ratzinger’s writings in Introduction to Christianity and Person and Being, Clarke’s 1993 Aquinas Lecture, Marquette University:

Within the divine being, the relations of procession between the Three Persons are not accidental but constitutive of the very nature of the divine substance. Substantiality and relationality are here equally primordial and necessary dimensions of being itself at its highest intensity. And the ultimate reason why all lower beings manifest this relationality as well as substantiality is that they are all in some way images of God, their ultimate Source, the supreme synthesis of both. [pp. 15-16]

According to Norris, all being is by its nature dyadic, composed of an introverted or “in itself” dimension (as substance) and a “extraverted” dimension, oriented towards others, as related through action. Philosophy goes astray when it prioritizes one dimension and devalues the other. The “emasculated substances” of classical modern philosophy — the “isolated, unrelated substance” Descartes, “that which needs nothing but itself (and God) to exist; the “static substance” of Locke, “the inert substratum needed to support accidents but unknowable in itself”; the separable substance” of Hume, “which, if it existed would have to be empiraccly observable as separated from all its accidents, hence an impossible fiction”) — provoked modern philosophers (Bergson, Whitehead, Heidegger and most phenomenologists) to “reject substance entirely as a nonviable mode of being,” resulting in the reduction of the person to nothing but a set of relations. On the contrary, says Clarke, “the inseperable complimentarity of in itself and towards others must be maintained: to be is to be substance-in-relation (pp. 17-19).

Further investigation revealed why Clarke’s work seemed so familiar — as it turns out, in the preface to his article he cites the very same passage from Ratzinger as having inspired his work:

One of the stimuli for this line of thought has been the challenge laid down some years ago by Cardinal Josef Ratzinger (in what I might call his earlier incarnation as a creative, even daring, theologian), namely, that Christian thinkers had developed a relational notion of the person for use in theology, to help explain the Trinity of three Persons united in one God, but had not exploited it adequately, if at all, in their philosophical analyses of the person. He explicitly reproaches St. Thomas himself for this, and calls for a new, explicitly relational conception of the very nature of the person as such, wherein relationality would become an equally primordial aspect of the person as substantiality.” [p. 2]

Similar criticism was made in the philosophical writings of Karol Wojtyla (Pope John Paul II), says Clark, who sees it as his task to rectify the problem. Clark acknowledges that this aspect of Aquinas’ thought was never explicitly worked out, but believes the “dynamic, relational notion of the person” is implicit within his theology and can be developed and completed. In so doing, Clarke believes it will compliment (or rather supplement to what is otherwise lacking) in the phenomonelogical analyses of philosophers and psychologists (Heidegger, Gabriel Marcel, Martin Buber, Levinas, Victor Frankl):

We are faced, on the one hand, with a rich older metaphysical tradition of the person that has left the relational dimension underdeveloped and, on the other, with a more recent phenomenological tradition that has highly developed the relational aspect but losts its metaphysical grounding. What is urgently needed is a creative integration of these two valuable but incomplete lines of thought into a more complete and well-rounded philosophy of the person. What I hope to do is to make a start on this integration by grafting the self-communicative, relational dimension of the person right onto the Thomistic metaphysics of being as existential, self-communicative act, showing how it is already in principle implicit therein.

W. Norris Clarke’s Person and Being is an incredible experiment in philosophy, and I highly recommend it. (Those who find they like it might also want to look at the article “To Be Is to Be Substance-in-Relation,” in .

Perhaps other bloggers more schooled than I in Thomistic theology/philosophy will pick up where I’ve left off and discuss the elements of this post in greater depth. At any rate, I was highly impressed by how a philosopher like Clarke took Ratzinger’s challenge and ran with it in such an excellent collaboration between philosophy and theology.

Related articles:

  1. Augustine, Enarrationes in Psalmos 68, p. I, 5, in CChr 39, 90 5 (Patropologia Latina [PL] 36, 845).
  2. Cf. De Trinitate, V, 5, 6 (PL 42, 913f.)


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