‘Denzinger’ still filling void

Heinrich Denzinger had a good idea. So good, in fact, that his idea is still going strong after 160 years.

Father Denzinger, a German theologian of the 19th century, saw a need for a collection of creeds, ecumenical council decrees and teaching documents of popes to help theologians, homilists and serious readers concerned to know what the Catholic Church really teaches, as the teaching is set forth in official documents of the magisterium — the Church’s teaching authority.

German Catholic theology

The first edition of the volume users would come to call simply “Denzinger” rolled off the press in 1854 — by coincidence, the year Pope Pius IX infallibly defined the dogma of Mary’s Immaculate Conception.

It featured texts from 100 documents of the pope of that day, Pius IX. By contrast, the contents of the recently published 43rd edition extend from an Ethiopian “Letter of the Apostles” dating between A.D. 160 and 170 to an instruction on bioethics published by the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in 2008 (“Compendium of Creeds, Definitions, and Declarations on Matters of Faith and Morals,” (Ignatius Press, $69.95)).

The English translation of this new edition is the first in that language since the 30th edition in 1957. It joins editions in Italian, French, Spanish, Portuguese and Croatian — as well as German, of course. Korean and Chinese translations also are planned.

For people accustomed to using Denzinger in their work, the English version’s publication is a notable event as well as a formidable specimen of book publishing.

Along with the texts in their original languages (usually Latin, occasionally Greek) accompanied by versions in the vernacular, its 1,437 pages include a “systematic index” grouping the documents under 12 headings (“God Reveals Himself,” “God Saves Man through Jesus Christ,” “God Calls Man to a Moral Life in Community,” etc.), several specialized indexes and a historical introduction by the volume’s current editor, Peter Hünermann.

The texts are organized chronologically, with documents grouped according to the pontificates during which they were published.

By far the largest set is the one from the long pontificate of Pope St. John Paul II, which began with his election on Oct. 16, 1978 and ended with his death on April 2, 2005. Texts in Denzinger from the Johannine era number 49.

Heinrich Denzinger, the father of this ongoing landmark in the systematic study of Catholic doctrine, was born in Liège, Belgium on Oct. 10, 1819. The family moved to Wurzburg, Germany, in 1831. The young man studied there and in Rome, and in 1844 was ordained a priest. Starting in 1848, he taught systematic theology until his death on June 19, 1885.

Father Denzinger was an important figure in promoting what has been called the special character of German Catholic theology — careful investigation of the historical development of theological thinking.

Theological rationalism

In his introduction, Hunermann says Father Denzinger’s aim in compiling the first edition was to combat the “theological rationalism” that he saw infiltrating German theology.

He and his work are perhaps best understood in this context.

Presumably, all theology is rational, but theological rationalism is something else.

Under the influence of the 18th century intellectual movement called the Enlightenment and its religious companion, deism, theological rationalism undermined belief in the supernatural dimension of religion and paved the way for the rise of the religious “liberalism” so strongly opposed later in the 19th century by writers like the British convert and later Cardinal John Henry Newman.

Father Denzinger’s compendium evidently met a need — the first edition was followed by two more in the first 18 months.

The fifth edition in 1874 was the last to which he himself contributed. Among the editors since then was Jesuit Father Karl Rahner an influential German theologian responsible for the 28th to 31st editions who played a key role at the Second Vatican Council (1962-65). The 32nd edition in 1963 was “completely reworked” by Jesuit Father Adolf Schonmetzer — so much so that the volume thereafter was sometimes referred to as “Denzinger-Schonmetzer,” rather than “Denzinger” alone.

Hunermann, a former president of the European Society for Catholic Theology, has been editor since 1981.


Despite its durable appeal, the book has had its critics. Some complained of “Denzinger theology” — meaning theological writing that only repeats what the magisterium has said, without attempting to shed additional light on doctrine. Dominican Father Yves Congar, a prominent French theologian who, like Father Rahner, also was influential at Vatican II, warned against presenting the magisterium as some sort of “unique superbeing” that “watches over [believers and] treats them like children.”

He cited other agents for the preservation and protection of orthodox teaching besides the magisterium, including the teaching of the doctors and Fathers of the Church. Hunermann notes the Congar criticism, but then he writes: “The appropriate theological use of ‘Denzinger’ precisely does not lead to a sterile ‘Denzinger theology.’

“The latter represents, rather, a misuse of this collection of texts. The rich profit of ‘Denzinger’ about which Congar speaks begins to flow forth for the one who deals with this collection in a genuinely theological way.”

It’s a view of the magisterium and its teaching that the Catechism of the Catholic Church shares. “The pastoral duty of the Magisterium,” it says, “is aimed at seeing to it that the People of God abides in the truth that liberates” (No. 890).

Heinrich Denzinger would agree.

Russell Shaw is an OSV contributing editor.

Newest Edition
The most recent edition of “Compendium of Creeds, Definitions, and Declarations on Matters of Faith and Morals,” first written by Father Heinrich Denzinger and edited by Dr. Peter Hunermann, was released in 2012. It has a total of 1,437 pages. The newest version contains several undates including the following: