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Conversion and Cognitive Dissonance: Evaluating the Theological-Ecclesial Program of Joseph Ratzinger/Benedict XVI

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  08 January 2014

Lieven Boeve*
Catholic University of Leuven


In this article, the concept of “cognitive dissonance” is used to explain why Pope Benedict XVI resigned, indicating that a massive clash occurred between the theological ideas Joseph Ratzinger holds and the actual situation in which both the Christian faith and the church find themselves. For Ratzinger, the Christian faith is in the first instance about conversion, and the church is called to be a beacon of light and truth, inviting the fallen modern world to conversion. The same church, however, has been weakened by scandals. In the analysis presented in this article, it is precisely because the church closed in on itself to protect itself from a world perceived as inimical that it forgot that it itself is in need of conversion before it can call the world to convert.

Editorial Essay
Horizons , Volume 40 , Issue 2 , December 2013 , pp. 242 - 254
Copyright © College Theology Society 2013 

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1 Cf. McLeod, Saul A., “Cognitive Dissonance Theory,” Simply Psychology (2008)Google Scholar, (emphasis in the original).

2 Festinger, Leon, Riecken, Henry, and Schachter, Stanley, When Prophecy Fails (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1956)CrossRefGoogle Scholar; see also Festinger, Leon, A Theory of Cognitive Dissonance (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1957)Google Scholar.

3 McLeod, Cognitive Dissonance Theory.”

4 The first version of this text was delivered at the 2013 Catholic Theological Society of America convention in Miami, which was dedicated to the theme of conversion.

6 Cf. Ratzinger, Joseph, Einführung in das Christentum: Vorlesungen über das Apostolische Glaubensbekenntnis (Munich: Kösel-Verlag, 1968)Google Scholar; English translation: Introduction to Christianity, trans Foster, J. R. (San Francisco: Communio Books, 2004)Google Scholar; Theologische Prinzipienlehre: Bausteine zur Fundamentaltheologie (Munich: Wewel, 1982)Google Scholar; English translation: Principles of Catholic Theology: Building Stones for a Fundamental Theology, trans. McCarthy, Mary Frances (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1987)Google Scholar.

7 Cf. Ratzinger, Joseph, “Theologie und Kirche,” Internationale Katholische Zeitschrift 15 (1986): 515–33Google Scholar, at 519.

8 Ratzinger, Introduction to Christianity, 51–52.

9 Ratzinger, “Theologie und Kirche,” 520 (my translation).

10 Cf. Ratzinger, Theologische Prinzipienlehre, 60.

11 Ratzinger, “Theologie und Kirche,” 524 (my translation).

12 Cf. Ratzinger, Theologische Prinzipienlehre, 65.

13 Cf. Ratzinger, Joseph, “Kirchenverfassung und Umkehr: Fragen an Joseph Kardinal Ratzinger,” Internationale Katholische Zeitschrift 13 (1984): 444–57Google Scholar, at 445.

14 For the sacrament of penance, see, e.g., Ratzinger, Theologische Prinzipienlehre, 67; and Ratzinger, “Kirchenverfassung und Umkehr,” 449–50.

15 Ratzinger, “Theologie und Kirche,” 518 (my translation).

16 As a matter of fact, both the prominence of the themes of conversion and truth and the major attention to the productive encounter of biblical faith and Hellenistic thought (and especially Augustine in this regard) in the encyclical Lumen Fidei clearly reveal that Pope Emeritus Benedict still held the pen of Pope Francis's first encyclical on faith. The same holds true for the antagonism toward modernity that the encyclical displays already from its very beginning (LF 2–3).

17 Ratzinger, Joseph, Volk und Haus Gottes in Augustins Lehre von der Kirche (Munich: Zink, 1954), 16Google Scholar. Cf. Nichols, Aidan, The Theology of Joseph Ratzinger: An lntroductory Study (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1988)Google Scholar, 27 ff.

18 Bonaventura, In III Sent., d. 24, a. 1, q. 3, c: “Explicatio accidit fidei nec mutat essentiam fidei, sic et variatio temporis determinat, non variat fidem”; as quoted in Ratzinger, Theologische Prinzipienlehre, 188 (my translation).

19 Cf. Ratzinger, Joseph and Messori, Vittorio, The Ratzinger Report: An Exclusive Interview on the State of the Church, trans. Attanasio, Salvator and Harrison, Graham (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1985)Google Scholar; Ratzinger, Joseph, Salt of the Earth: Christianity and the Catholic Church at the End of the Millenium—An Interview with Peter Seewald, trans. Walker, Adrian (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1997)Google Scholar; Ratzinger, Joseph, Wendezeit für Europa? Diagnosen und Prognosen zur Lage von Kirche und Welt (Einsiedeln: Johannes, 1991)Google Scholar; English translation: A Turning Point for Europe?: The Church in the Modern World: Assessment and Forecast, trans. McNeil, Brian (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1994)Google Scholar; Ratzinger, Joseph, Werte in Zeiten des Umbruchs: Die Herausforderungen der Zukunft bestehen (Freiburg im Breisgau: Herder, 2005)Google Scholar; English translation: Values in a Time of Upheaval, trans. McNeil, Brian (New York: Crossroad, 2006)Google Scholar.

20 Cf. Ratzinger, Joseph, “Europe in the Crisis of Cultures,” Communio: International Catholic Review 32 (2005): 345–56Google Scholar; for a discussion of Ratzinger's view on modernity and Europe, see Boeve, Lieven, “Europe in Crisis: A Question of Belief or Unbelief? Perspectives from the Vatican,” Modern Theology 23 (2007): 205–27CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

21 See Reimund Bieringer's remarks about the way in which Dei Verbum is quoted in Verbum Domini Openbaring, Schrift en interpretatie: Een bijbels-theologisch perspectief”, in Vaticanum II: Geschiedenis of interpretatie? Theologische opstellen over het tweede Vaticaans concilie, ed. Lamberigts, Mathijs and Kenis, Leo (Antwerp: Halewijn, 2013), 3363Google Scholar.

22 It would even seem that the many efforts by Joseph Ratzinger/Benedict XVI to bring more unity to the church in fact have resulted in more division. This holds true not only for the reallowance of the Tridentine liturgy, but also for other initiatives, such as the Personal Ordinariate of Our Lady of Walsingham for Anglicans joining the Roman Catholic Church, and the new English translation of the Roman Missal.

23 For an elaboration of this point, see Boeve, Lieven, “Revelation, Scripture, and Tradition: Lessons from Vatican II's Constitution Dei verbum for Contemporary Theology,” International Journal of Systematic Theology 13 (2011): 416–33CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

24 Cf. Boeve, “Revelation, Scripture, and Tradition,” 430, in reference to Hoping, Helmut, “Dei verbum,” in Herders Theologischer Kommentar zum Zweiten Vatikanischen Konzil, ed. Hünermann, Peter and Hilberath, Jochen (Freiburg: Herder, 2005), 3:695831Google Scholar, at 809 (with further references).

25 Cf. Ratzinger, Joseph, “Scopi e metodi del Sinodo dei vescovi,” in Il Sinodo dei vescovi: Natura—metodi—prospettiva, ed. Tomko, Josef (Vatican City: Libreria ed. Vaticana, 1985), 4558Google Scholar.

26 See, e.g., the Instruction on the Ecclesial Vocation of the Theologian (Donum Veritatis), May 24, 1990,

27 See Hinze, Bradford E., “A Decade of Disciplining Theologians,” in When the Magisterium Intervenes: The Magisterium and Theologians in Today's Church, ed. Gaillardetz, Richard R. (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2012), 339Google Scholar.

28 Cf. Ratzinger and Messori, The Ratzinger Report, chap. 2.

29 Others have made similar remarks; see Anthony J. Godzieba in his editorial in Horizons 40.1 (2013): v: “One reason for Benedict's resignation, I am convinced, is the failure of his ‘ordered’ and ethereal Neo-Platonic/Augustinian worldview: it eventually collided with the plurality of truths outside the Vatican and the almost willful disorder and corrupt behavior within the Vatican, and could not ‘solve’ (solvere, unravel) any of it or put it into any order. A similar view has been voiced by Leonardo Boff (the ‘collapse’ of Ratzinger's theology) and by Martin Drobinski, writing in Munich's Süddeutsche Zeitung of the current repudiation of Ratzinger's ‘hermetic’ view of the Church as a little ship tossed about on a stormy ‘relativist’ sea, forced to batten down the hatches and pull in the sails.”

30 His symbolic gestures in particular are very telling in this regard: e.g., his washing of the feet of Muslim women on Holy Thursday (March 28, 2013), his statement that unbelievers too can be saved when they live a good life (May 22, 2013), and his visit to the detention camps for illegal immigrants in Lampedusa (July 8, 2013).

31 Illustrative of this are the primary identification of the pope as the bishop of Rome, the intended reform of the Curia, and the appointment of a “crown council” of eight cardinals to assist the pope in his governing the church (April 13, 2013).

32 Very significant might be the announcement on July 5, 2013, of the canonization of Pope John XXIII without need of a second miracle (and this in conjunction with the canonization of Pope John Paul II).