God, Creation and Humanity: The ‘Lost Lectures’ of Benedict XVI Collected in New Book

’It is indeed a gift to be human.’

Pope Benedict XVI, May 11, 2010
Pope Benedict XVI, May 11, 2010 (photo: Mazur / www.thepapalvisit.org.uk)

Six lectures of Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger were almost lost forever. But now, they have been collected in a new Ignatius Press book, The Divine Project: Reflections on Creation and Church.

“It’s a wonderful summation of what God intends in creating us and redeeming us, in six lectures. It’s just a great find,” Jesuit Father Joseph Fessio, president of Ignatius Press, told CNA. “It’s written for students and spoken for students. It’s really quite readable.”

The future Pope Benedict XVI delivered the series of lectures in 1985 at the bishop of Gurk’s formation house at St. George’s Abbey in Längsee in the southern Austrian state of Carinthia. They were recorded on audio cassettes, but the tapes were misplaced for 30 years and forgotten. By chance, they were rediscovered.

“It was a treasure that was lost and found again,” said Father Fessio, who studied under Ratzinger when the future pontiff was a theologian and university professor. Ratzinger would serve as a cardinal under Pope John Paul II. He was elected pope in 2005.

The lectures were first published in German in 2008, but Ignatius Press is the first to publish them in English, in a 177-page book.

Father Fessio stressed Ratzinger’s emphasis on Scripture.

“He always goes back to Scripture when he is presenting on any topic,” Father Fessio commented. “This is theological. It has to do with faith, of course. His interpretation of Genesis brings it right up to the present. He understands traditional scholarship and the historical-critical method, but he’s able to make it come alive.”

Cardinal Ratzinger’s lectures reflect upon God as the creator of a reasonable cosmos, in which each man and woman is ultimately a creature made in the image and likeness of God. He considers how to read the Bible and understand original sin and redemption.

Cardinal Ratzinger considers the first eight lines of the Book of Genesis, about the creation of the heavens and the earth.

“Is this merely a beautiful passage, or does this beauty also reveal something of the truth?” he asks. “And if so, how do we find it?”

He reflects on explanations of Genesis that engage scientific accounts of the universe and of humankind, including evolutionary theory. He asks whether and how the scientific and Christian approaches can complement each other, and he ponders the place of the Genesis account of creation in historic Christian thought, including the fall of humankind through Adam.

The early Church and the Middle Ages “understood that the Bible is one whole and that we can only truly hear what it is saying if we hear it as coming from Christ,” Cardinal Ratzinger explains.

“This means hearing it in the freedom that he has given us and from the depths where, through the screen of images, he reveals the true and enduring reality, the solid ground on which we can always stand,” he says.

Father Fessio told CNA that the Book of Genesis is written in “a very parabolic or even mythical way.” In Cardinal Ratzinger’s commentary, the Old Testament must be read as a preparation for the New Testament. The Bible should be read as a whole.

“Its parts help to understand each other and [to understand] that Christ is the goal and therefore the key of interpretation,” Father Fessio said. He added that Cardinal Ratzinger’s lectures show “how creation was made for the worship of God, for the Sabbath, for the day of worship, and the day that God rested.”

“If God is the Creator, it means we are creatures,” Father Fessio added. “It means that we do not create ourselves: We depend for existence on God and on others.

“[Cardinal Ratzinger] spends a lot of time on how man is relational. We come from parents; we live for others. We give ourselves to a project we can’t consider ourselves,” he said.

“We’re not just autonomous monads floating around each other,” Father Fessio said. “Rather, we’re connected to each other because we’re connected to God, who himself is relationship as the Trinity.”

Cardinal Ratzinger considers the place of necessity and chance in creation and contemporary attitudes about the place of each person in the world. He notes that many object, saying, “No one ever asked me if I wanted to be born!”

To this, Cardinal Ratzinger responds: 

“It is only when we know that there is One who did not cast lots blindly, when we know that our existence is not an accident, but is rather born of freedom and love, only then can we, whose existence is not necessary, be thankful for this freedom and know, with gratitude, that it is indeed a gift to be human.”

According to Father Fessio, Cardinal Ratzinger is “expounding the Catholic faith, but doing it in a contemporary language.”

“Sin is the destruction of that relationship with ourselves and God and then among each other. [Cardinal Ratzinger] makes the very important point that there’s no such thing as an individual sin that doesn’t have effects on others,” the priest said. “Every turn away from God’s plan, God’s law, affects not only oneself, but everyone else, as well.”

This can be healed “by losing self and turning to Christ,” the source of our love, Father Fessio commented. Cardinal Ratzinger emphasizes “how important the Eucharist is in restoring fallen man to unity with himself and with God.”

Other topics in The Divine Project include technology and ecology, the cross and the Eucharist, religious pluralism, the teaching authority of the Catholic Church, and the nature of the Church.

For Father Fessio, the theologian’s former student, the qualities of Benedict XVI are evident in the book.

Cardinal Ratzinger was “brilliant and humble, warm, holy, a good listener,” Father Fessio said.

“He had a tremendous ability to synthesize the thoughts of others and present them in a clear and compelling way,” he said. “He was just simply a great teacher. And therefore, those of us who are learners do well to turn to that great teacher whenever we can.”