This extract from an interview with Pope Benedict XVI that took place last November is part of a new book on the work of the late Cardinal Leo Scheffczyk, a Pole who spent his career in Germany, and who was a personal friend of Joseph Ratzinger. Scheffczyk died in December 2005. The extract was published in the Oct 20 issue of Corriere della Sera, Italy's leading daily newspaper. The translation from Italian is by NCR. The interview with Benedict XVI was conducted by Fr. Johannes Nebel, a member of a new religious order called "The Spiritual Family 'The Work'", to which Scheffczyk was especially close.
Holy Father, do you have any memory of Leo Scheffczyk from the seminary period in the city of Freising?
Certainly. I arrived in the seminary of Freising on January 3, 1946, and Leo Scheffczyk was also there as a war refugee. I can still see him, very clearly, standing before me as a man of silence, and, so to speak, extremely sensitive. Naturally, there was a great distance between our courses; while we were just beginning, he was finishing his theological studies – in fact, he had already done the major part of his theological studies at Breslau – and therefore the personal conacts between us were not numerous. His reserve notwithstanding – maybe I should say, his timidity – and his great humility, he was known to all of us. In December 1946 he and his fellow students were consecrated as deacons, and as deacons, they had to preach in the cathedral. In that way, through listening, the whole course to which that year was dedicated entered us, so to speak, in our ears and in our hearts.
You met Scheffczyk repeatedly in your professorial activity, as the Archbishop of Munich-Freising, and as Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. What do you remember of these meetings?
tAfter his priestly ordination, which happened in 1947, Leo Scheffczyk became chaplain in Grafing and Traunwalchen, in a place very close to where I was born; but at that time, we travelled very little. I only knew that he was occupied in that region, without really meeting him. Fairly soon he was relieved so he could study, earning his doctorate under the guidance of his teacher from Breslau, Franz Xaver Seppelt, whose courses on church history I also had the opportunity to follow. Afterwards, he went into dogmatic theology; not long afterwards, we learned that he was teaching this discipline at Königstein.
tThen we both became professors – I believe it was more or less at the same time – he at Tübingen, and me in Bonn – so that from then on, we began to follow one another’s publications. At that time he was writing essays on the Middle Ages that I read, especially one of his publications dedicated to John Scotus Erugena. Already in that essay, I noticed his extraordinary level of culture. I also found especially significant another one of his important publications, which was a pamphlet he edited on ‘creation’ as part of a manual on the history of dogma, in which his notable erudition in both the history of dogma as well as theology was evident. Soon I also began to notice his capacity to take positions on current events: begining from the theme of creation, for example, he found himself in a discussion of the claims of Teilhard de Chardin. His theology was always pervaded by a notable richness of understanding and spirituality.
Concretely, we met again only when, after the Council, the Doctrinal Commission of the German Episcopal Conference was instituted, which we both participated in as theologians. At that time, the situation was extremely confused and restless, and the doctrinal position of the church was not always clear. In fact, claims were circulated that seemed to have become suddenly possible, even though in reality they were not consistent with dogma. In that context, the discussions within the doctrinal commission were full of strong positions, and extremely difficult. It was here that I was able to notice how Leo Schezzczyk – this man of silence, even timid – was always the first to take a very clear position.
I myself, in that context, was almost too timid with respect to what I should have dared to do in order to get directly to the point. He, on the other hand, always said immediately and with great clarity, and, at the same time, with punctual theological justification, what made sense and what didn’t. Leo Scheffczyk was, in this way, the true ‘ice-breaker’ in these discussions. If before this we knew one another only from a distance, from that time forward we became closer. We realized that we were fighting together for the vitality of the faith in our epoch, for its expression and intelligibility for the people of this time, in fidelity, in the end, to its deepest identity. For these reasons, our common work in the Doctrinal Commission of the German Episcopal Conference is the strongest personal memory I have of Leo Scheffczyk, a memory that, at the same time, is truly full of gratitude for the depth of his thought, for his culture, as well as for his courage and his clarity.
Later, we were both invited in 1975 to be part of a rather large group from the Catholic Academy of Munich to take part in a pilgrimage to the Holy Land. In this way, we found ourselves together once again. On that occasion, obviously, it wasn’t a matter of taking part in theological discussions; rather, each of us was invited to deliver a homily. While we were on the bus, Leo Scheffczyk and I often sat together, and that gave us the chance, so to speak, to confirm and deepen our theological ‘brotherhood,’ if I can put it that way.
When I was the Archbishop of Munich-Freising, Leo Scheffczyk was for me a guarantee that – holding the chair in dogmatics in Munich – the discipline would be taught correctly in my diocese. Every now and then, we would see one another during meetings with the entire theological faculty, in the course of which, however, we didn’t have the chance for talks that were especially deep.
I have to add that Leo Sceffczyk was, in a certain sense, the pillar of the priestly association of Linz; the cornerstone to look to in a particularly confused theological situation. [Note: The “Priests’ Association of Linz,” or Linzer Priesterkreis, is considered a leading forum for traditional Catholic thought. It sponsors an annual Summer Academy in the small Austrian town of Aigen.] He participated every year in the summer theological academy, enriching the meetings with his presentations: in this sense, Leo Scheffczyk did a great deal for Austria.
During my activity as Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, we often asked Scheffczyk to elaborate a votum. [Note: the term refers to a formal theological judgment.] We were aware that, from the moment he was asked to do something, he would not only do the work efficiently, but very well. This was the fruit of a common path we had taken over many years, and thus Leo Scheffczyk was a great help to me.
At one point, the Holy Father asked me if there was a theologian in Germany who was over 80 years old, who might be worthy of being made a cardinal. I had already spoken of Leo Scheffczyk to Pope John Paul II several times, and the pope too knew him personally. In fact, it was John Paul who told me that the name ‘Scheffczyk’ is a Polish name that means ‘little shoemaker.’ We all know how good it was that Scheffczyk was created a cardinal. In this period, we got to know one another again.
What was the significance of making Leo Scheffczyk a cardinal?
I think its significance was that of making his theology better known publicly, acnowledging it in this way by the church, the pope and the magisterium as truly Catholic and contemporary. In fact, the books written by Scheffczyk had already found an audience, but in a relatively restricted circle. Only when he became a cardinal did his theology really become ‘public’ in Germany at the level of the whole church, and it was thus able to play a role in the great debates with the weight that’s due to a member of the Sacred College. In this sense, Cardinal Scheffczyk always moved with great style in his public role, making the force of his culture and his spiritual depth newly fruitful, as well as the clarity of his judgment which came from faith. It was very important that Leo Scheffczyk became a ‘public figure of the church,’ because in that way he was able to take part, with a notable influence, in the great disputes of the present, and could not be ignored or set aside as just another professor.”