Death & Eternal Life According to Ratzinger

December 2008By Arthur C. Sippo

Arthur C. Sippo is a physician and specialist in aerospace medicine who has written and lectured as a Catholic apologist for over 30 years. He writes from southern Illinois.

Eschatology: Death and Eternal Life, Second Edition.  By Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger. Translated by Michael Waldstein. Edited by Aidan Nicholls, O.P. Catholic University of America Press. 307 pages. $14.95.



Originally written in German in 1977 as volume nine in the Dogmatic Theology series, Eschatology was first translated into English in 1988 and published by the Catholic University of America Press. A total of three volumes of this series were translated, including Church: The Universal Sacrament of Salvation and General Doctrine of the Sacraments and the Mystery of the Eucharist. When I realized this was a series, I called CUA Press and asked if it would be possible to subscribe to the series. The woman at the Press office laughed and told me that they would probably not be publishing any further volumes from this series because the readers thought the books were “too conservative.” A series of books on Catholic dogmatics written by some of the brightest minds in the German Catholic Church is just too orthodox for a Catholic publisher to consider printing? Therein lies a lesson about the state of affairs in the Church today.

This particular volume was written by Joseph Ratzinger, a former professor at the Universities of Mün­ster, Tübingen, and Regens­burg. He was a peritus at the Second Vatican Council and a founding member, during the Council, of Concilium, a theology publication. As he became aware of heterodox elements in this movement in 1972 he broke from it and helped found the Com­munio movement, whose magazine is a premier source of orthodox Catholic theology in our day.

Eschatology: Death and Eternal Life was written by Ratzinger just before he assumed his diocesan responsibilities in Bavaria. Even though he wrote the most recent Foreword after he had been elected to the papacy, this is clearly a non-magisterial work of private theological opinion written by Joseph Ratz­in­ger the theologian, not by Pope Benedict XVI. Even so, one could hardly come across a more erudite exposition of Catholic dogmatics that includes biblical, patristic, magisterial, ecumenical, and theological insights from the very heart of Catholicism and its patrimony.

In his new Foreword, Pope Benedict tells us that this book was intended to be both a textbook and a manual for spiritual reflection on eschatology, which he considers to be the very essence of Christian hope.

I myself do not read German, but I am familiar enough with translations of German theological works to understand how difficult it is to take thoughts from a Germanic idiom and place them into English. In this volume, Ratzinger is well served by Michael Waldstein’s translation and Fr. Nicholls’s editing. Eschatology is not only a well-constructed theological treatise, it is also literate, unpretentious, and accessible to the intelligent adult Catholic.

The book is divided into three parts. Part One deals with the problem of eschatology and its relationship to the very essence of Christianity. Here, Ratzinger interacts with many of the modern theories concerning eschatology, including proposals put forth by major figures from our separated brethren such as Barth, Bultmann, Cullman, and Dodd. In short, he discusses the meaning of Christ’s return, and what we as believers can look forward to at His coming.

Part Two deals with the theology of death and the various notions of human immortality that have existed from Jewish antiquity up through our own day. Ratzinger points out that the Jewish understanding of Sheol, where the shades of the dead lingered, was sim­ilar to the opinions of neighboring cultures. The idea of bodily resurrection was an innovation over and against the common human expectation of a bodiless afterlife, and resurrection was itself the natural outgrowth of the Hebrew concept of man as a creature made body and soul in the image of God. Death of the body was shown in Genesis 1-3 to be a punishment for breaking fellowship with God and not the natural end of a life. Salvation from sin and death, therefore, was salvation of man from his alienation from God. The healing of that rift of necessity meant the restoration of man to bodily immortality. The intermediate state of the soul after death, therefore, was a result of the sinfulness of man, and it was natural that some elements of purgation would be associated with it in preparation for the restoration of man to bodily life in resurrection.

With this in mind, Ratzinger reviews the teaching of the Church on human immortality. There was no clear guidance from patristic sources on what human immortality — especially in the intermediate state, but also in a resurrected body — actually meant. There was a strain of thought in the patristic period strongly influenced by Platonism in which the soul was treated almost like a “ghost in a machine” with a strong sense of the body/soul dichotomy. This Hellenistic attitude based immortality of the soul on something innate to the human person and separate from the “mortal” body. Ratzinger points out several theological problems with this and shows how they could be circumvented by St. Thomas Aqui­nas’s brilliant solution to the question based on Ar­istot­le’s notion of eternal forms as being preserved within real objects and not as members of an unchanging alternate realm. St. Thomas’s new anthropology could be summed up as anima unica forma corpus (i.e., the soul is the unifying principle of the body), and did justice to the original Hebrew understanding of man as an irreducible and integral whole.

Part Three discusses the future life in detail, including what is meant by a resurrected body, the return of Christ, the general judgment, Hell, Purgatory, and Heaven. This is the real center of the book, for which the previous material was merely preparatory.

The intermediate state is no longer seen as the immortal soul returning to spiritual fellowship with God. Rather, it is God knowing each of us and remembering everything about us in preparation for returning each human being to full bodily life at the general resurrection. It is God’s individual love for us that grants each of us temporary life with Him apart from our bodies. In that memory, those who have loved God and joined to Him through Christ are contemplated in the light of the Savior, and God reshapes us in preparation for eternal bliss with Him after the resurrection. During that time we are granted a preparatory glance of the beatific vision in eschatological anticipation of our final end in a renewed body.

In like manner, the damned are remembered in their rejection of God, and their memory invokes the wrath and sorrow of God for their wasted lives. Just as God sends the rain on the just and the unjust alike, He will also reunite His image reflected in men on both the just and the unjust alike. Embodied man was made for immortality from the very beginning and — for good or ill — all men will participate in that immortality, whether in paradise or perdition.

The return of Christ is seen as the promise that the world will reach perfection, not through the actions and plans of men, but through the transforming power of God’s love. The world will transcend its very self through Christ. In this section, Ratzinger critiques various chiliastic ideas and emphasizes transformation by Christ. This will be a qualitative change, not merely a quantitative transformation.

The section on Heaven is one of the shortest in the book, comprising only five pages. In this brief statement, Ratzinger emphasizes that Heaven is a Christological concept, not a spatio-temporal one. As such, Heaven will not be complete until all the members of Christ’s body have been gathered in to contemplate their Lord in the fullness of His body, the Church. In fact, the whole of creation will become the vessel of God’s glory.

I was surprised that more was not made of the wedding feast of the Lamb from Revelation 22 in this section. In this last section of the Scriptures, the Church is described as the Bride of the Lamb and the very term “revelation” (Greek: apokalupsis) is the term used when the bride and groom “unveil” themselves to each other on their wedding night as they consummate their marriage. In any future editions of this book, the incorporation of this biblical image will enhance its value for laymen by presenting a powerful metaphor from their own experience of marriage.

There are two appendices. The first includes supplemental reflections that interact with magisterial teaching on eschatology given after the first edition of this book in 1977. Ratzinger also responds to some criticisms of his work and integrates more contemporary ideas into his thesis.

The second appendix was written in 1987 for the English edition of this work. It was an attempt to summarize the ongoing debate up to that time on death and immortality with special attention to work done in the English language. It summarizes much of what the book discusses and can be used as a convenient digest of the book.

This is a monumental book that deserves to be read through many times. We have very little material in English that is orthodox and accessible to educated laymen, and which deals with the very essence of what it is we hope for in Christ. This is an ideal book for private devotion or for a discussion group, especially at the college level and beyond. Even though this work is not part of the Pope’s Ordinary Magisterium, it speaks with the authority of Catholic tradition and is a sound guide into the mysteries of the faith. It also is a superb text for those who pursue apologetics in defense of our Catholic faith. I pray that this book will attract a wider readership in our time, such as was achieved by The Imitation of Christ in times past.



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