Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, Prefect of the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, has established among a large body of vanguard Catholics, a reputation as the enemy of aggiornamento. Ratzinger's main opponents tend to be ranked among the clergy, and when they are not fierce they are stubborn. As a rule, the people whom Ratzinger worries most are those who have carved out roles - and even careers - for themselves as Church "reformers". The horrible thought which Ratzinger prompts in the minds of many a critic is that the work of the past 25 years might have been a mistake.
Then there is another group of Catholics for whom Ratzinger is music to the ears. In this group lay Catholics predominate. For some, the Ratzinger assessment of the post-conciliar Church resonates with their basic instincts; for others the Cardinal's words are things they have said themselves, though perhaps not so gracefully nor with the benefit of such deep learning.
For these Catholics the work of Cardinal Ratzinger has been a confirmation and a consolation, though they have no illusions, now that Rome has made clear its judgement that the work of renovation will be anything but slow and patchy.
Between the clergy-dominated opposition and the lay-dominated Ratzinger supporters are the mass of Catholics. In Australia three-quarters of them no longer practise their religion. Of the remaining quarter that do - not a bad figure given that, from a strictly human viewpoint, the Church has hardly been a credible force of late in Western society - they will follow the lead of whoever has charge of their parish or diocese.
The big question is: what will be the decisive influence at the local level? Will it sink in here that at many points - in doctrine, liturgy, spirituality, and moral teaching - the post-conciliar Church has undergone corruption rather than the intended reform? To spell out this unwelcome message has been the job of Cardinal Ratzinger and what has confounded his critics is that they have not been able to treat his message as one from a theological lightweight. The difficulty they face is that they are being challenged by a man who, by their own standards, must rank among the paramount theologians of the modern era.
"By choosing one of the major theologians of our time," writes the German philosopher Robert Spaemann, "to head that ministry which in the Church has responsibility for ensuring the integral transmission of the faith, Pope John Paul II has changed the face of the Congregation.
"The choice of such a man was made necessary because of the growing complexity of modern theology, the full import of the conclusions of which can no longer be evaluated adequately by a man of average intelligence, and because of the desire of the Council that the Church's highest doctrinal body should assume a form more disposed to dialogue. Not withstanding the inevitable hostility, in a few years Cardinal Ratzinger has raised the reputation enjoyed by the office of the Grand Inquisition to a level that it has never known in all its long history."
Another reason for choosing Ratzinger to head the Congregation was that, during the Council, in his role as peritus to Cardinal Frings, Ratzinger played a major part in formulating key elements of the motu proprio Integrae Servandae, issued by Paul Vl on the last day of the Council, which set out a radical reform of the Roman Curia, including the Holy Office, then under Cardinal Ottaviani. Now, Ottaviani had the reputation of being something of a theological cop on the beat. Consequently, the Congregation was regarded with contempt and indifference in the proud milieu of modern theology.
But all this has changed with the advent of Ratzinger, who took up the post of Prefect on 25 November 1981. While the critics of the Congregation are still many and furious, they can no longer call into question the competence and seriousness with which the Congregation now does its work. According to Austrian theologian Christopher von Schonborn:
"The ministry of Joseph Ratzinger is profoundly tied to the pontificate of Pope John Paul II. The presence of these two theologians at so high a level in the Church leadership is an important phenomenon. The function of magisterial teacher, which until just recently seemed to have become almost the exclusive domain of the theologians, has now been strictly reunited to the episcopal ministry. It is reverting to the model set by the great bishop-theologians of the past whose role was the norm in the early Church. This development has a beneficial influence in the Church, above all for the ordinary faithful; to witness in their own pastor one who confesses the faith clearly and articulates it with rationality and precision is an experience which will restore to many their courage. Ratzinger is restoring the credibility of the Church's Magisterium."
The Ratzinger Report
Even if the typical response from within the clerically-orientated Church bureaucracies has been one of hostility towards the Cardinal Prefect and his now famous Ratzinger Report, which sums up his analysis of the post-conciliar crisis, the cogency of his arguments and their acclaim in lay circles has thrown the "Church progressives" onto the defensive.
The fact is that any theologian trying to make a reputation for himself would be envious of the success in the market place of The Ratzinger Report. With editions in Italian, German, French, Spanish, Portuguese, English, Tagalog, and Korean, and more than half-a-million copies sold, not counting those clandestinely circulating in Eastern bloc countries, few theologians could claim an equal success. Yes, especially among lay people, Cardinal Ratzinger is being listened to, and that is something which calls into question the power of the theological establishment to continue remoulding the Church after its own image - an image which, under the scrutiny of Ratzinger's theological professionalism, has lost something of its old self- confident demeanour.
Many readers will be acquainted with The Ratzinger Report. It might be useful, then, to recall some of the Cardinal's other contributions to genuine Catholic reform.
On the vexed question of catechesis, Ratzinger made a profound contribution during two famous conferences on this theme at Lyons and Paris in January 1983. Here he spoke about the crisis in catechesis and its origins.
The problem, Ratzinger said, was that "the certainty of faith had been substituted by faith in historical hypothesis. The guarantee provided by such hypotheses has become, in a great number of catechetical texts, absolutely more important than the certainty of faith itself and this, too, has been scaled down to something vague and without precise contours. But life is not an hypothesis, and neither is death! Faith has become enclosed in the glass case of an intellectual world which has built itself up and, in the same way, can fall to pieces."
The Cardinal also criticised the ballooning growth of pedagogical methods for transmitting the faith, the unbalanced rapport between dogmatic exegesis and historical exegesis, and the erroneous, individualistic conceptions of faith that had The impact of the Prefect's contribution at these conferences was enormous. It represented the first authoritative critical reflection undertaken in the Church on post-conciliar catechesis and began a rethinking of its problems. This came to a head at the Extraordinary Synod of 1985 which approved the production of a universal Catechism. The work is to be completed by 1990. The task is in the hands of a Commission headed by Cardinal Ratzinger.
Now to the problems in moral theology. In February 1984 Ratzinger participated in two important conferences in Dallas, Texas, on the themes "Bishops, theologians, and morals" and "Dissent and proportionalism in moral theology".
In the first of these he touched on the correct understanding of conscience: "Conscience is understood by many to be sort of deification of subjectivity, a rock on which even the magisterium can founder. It claimed that in the light of conscience no other reason applies. Finally, conscience appears as the supreme level of subjectivity; but conscience is an organ, not an oracle; it requires growth, exercise and development."
And on the subject of morality, the Cardinal had this to say: "Morality is not an abstract code of behaviour; it presupposes a community of life within which morality itself is clarified and can be observed. Historically, morality does not belong to the realm of subjectivity but rather it is guaranteed by the community and has reference to the community.
In the second conference he referred to the relations between bishops and moral theologians: "The bishops witness to the moral values of the Catholic Church and the theologian finds in them his point of departure; but the function of the moral theologian is not simply to serve the teaching authority of bishops. He also must be in dialogue with the ethical questions of the time. "
And then, on the key issue of dissent, the Prefect pointed out that "it is important to distinguish between personal dissent and the dissent of a teacher or a specialist theologian. Particularly grave damage can be done, not because someone teaches his own personal dissent, but that he teaches it in the name of the Church."
Perhaps the most evident signs of corruption have been in the area of sacramental life. The practising Catholic laity come into contact with this regularly. They see the outward effects of it in the decadence of everyday liturgical practice and the reduction, piece-by-piece, of the indispensable sacrificial role of the ordained priest. In an interview on Vatican Radio, Cardinal Ratzinger dealt head-on with the suggestion that the laity could offer the sacrifice of the Mass without a priest:
"The ultimate meaning of the Christian life is communion with Christ and the Trinity. The normal means of entering into this relationship with the paschal mystery of the Lord is through the Sacrament of Penance and the Eucharist. But if a Christian, or a group of Christians, were prevented for a long period of time from having access to this sacramental presence of the Lord, this does not mean they are excluded from participation in the [Easter] mystery. [The Japanese, Korean and even some of the English martyrs are paradigm cases. On the other hand, a Eucharist which has been severed from the apostolic succession would give way to a form of destructive self sufficiency.
Not long after this, on 15 September 1986, the Congregation knocked on the head Professor Schillebeex's proposal that an "extra- ordinary ministry" of the Eucharist was a "dogmatic possibility."
In recent times, Ratzinger has also played a decisive role in the field of Ecclesiology (or the theory of the Church). First, the Cardinal has rejected the notion that the Church is just a sociological phenomenon - like a social movement, a professional organisation or a political party. In a conference held at Foggia on the eve of the Extraordinary Synod of 1985, Ratzinger spelled out the Church's position this way:
"Christ gives himself only in his body and never as a mere ideal. The Church is not an idea, it is a body; and the scandal of this becoming flesh, which was a stumbling block for so many of the contemporaries of Jesus, remains today in the Church. The ecclesiology of communion is at the very heart of the doctrine of the Church of Vatican II. No-one is able to make himself "Church" on his own. No group can simply gather together, read the New Testament and say - 'We are now the Church because the Lord is there wherever two or three are gathered together in His name'. An essential element of the Church is that of receiving, since the faith derives from listening and is not the product of anyone's personal decisions. This receiving structure we call sacrament."
Secondly, at the meeting of Cardinals held immediately before the opening of the Extraordinary Synod, Cardinal Ratzinger, developing the themes raised at Foggia, dealt with the question of collegiality:
"The Church is not a Papal monarchy along the lines of a secular monarchy in which the will of the king is the supreme law and where all power derives solely from him. On the contrary, the Church is an organic body animated by the spirit of Christ. The word communion correctly expresses the essence of the Church. On the other hand, it is not a confederation of particular churches the unity of which arises as something secondary from the sum of the individual churches. Just as in the human body the organism precedes and sustains the individual organs, since the organs do not exist if the body does not, so also the unity of the Catholic Church precedes the plurality of the particular churches."
One has not had scope here to touch on Ratzinger's contribution to Catholic social doctrine or to the Church's thinking about the liturgy. Suffice it to say that his contributions in both areas have shattering consequences for contemporary thought and action in both areas. But this article cannot end without taking note of the Cardinal's appraisal of the relations between theology and philosophy, a crucial issue given the present day practice of each discipline denying the relevance of the other to their own particular field.
In 1984, at a conference in St Paul, Minnesota, Ratzinger put the far sounder Christian view, based upon the practical experience of history: that the irrational mutual antagonisms between theology and philosophy lead to gnosticism which, in turn, has been the seed-bed of powerful movements of moral corruption, namely the Manichean and Albigensian phenomena.
The re-emergence of gnosticism, the Cardinal argued, demands that theology and philosophy return to their natural alliance. Indeed, the Cardinal seemed to suggest that the split between philosophy and theology is itself a sign of gnostic influences. It is not by chance, the Cardinal said, that gnostics refuse even to use the term "philosophy":
"For them, philosophy was not sufficient because it remains a question, something awaiting an answer which it alone cannot provide itself. They wanted to have clear knowledge, a knowledge which is power, with which they would be able to dominate the world. Gnosis became the negation of philosophy, whereas faith defends both its greatness and its humility. Are we not today in a similar position? We are tired of classical philosophy with its fundamental uncertainty. We don't want philosophy, but rather gnosis: precisely documented knowledge. But philosophy acquires precision at the cost of its greatness. In this way philosophy becomes no longer capable of putting the questions proper to it from the point of view of totality, but rather from that of individuality ... Faith is certainly not a threat to philosophy, instead it defends philosophy against the penetrating threat of gnosis."
In broadest over-simplification, what Ratzinger was saying is that human beings want finality (or truth), not mere speculation. Doctrine expresses (or should express) truth. Philosophy analyses, criticises, rationalises, verifies. Truth (or doctrine) provides the basic presupposition. Philosophy illuminates, but does not replace, them.
This is Ratzinger at his brilliant best, for such is the man who can accurately plumb the depths of an age and use his perceptions as the basis for practical action. In short, we are looking at a man of real genius. The enormous grasp of the man's mind, which reaches out from theology to philosophy and ethics, explains why Ratzinger has been able to exert such an enormous influence in the whole life of the Church comparable only to that of the Pope himself. According to Spaemann, this achievement is due to his great competence and willingness to judge arguments only after he has understood them.
"I myself have noted his amazing ability to recapitulate other people's arguments with an accuracy which surpasses the original formulation. There is also his willingness to judge critical formulations, not in theory, but in the field, whether it be in France, Canada or South America."
For Spaemann, however, Ratzinger is definitely not a censor. Rather he is a "critical guide who always provides original theological stimuli. "
And yet, continues Spaemann, he "does not shrink from putting an end to theological debates which undermine the substance of the faith and threaten to dissolve the liberating truth of revelation in interminable discussions over hypothetical points. But what is closest to his heart is that the authority of the Church, contrary to what happened in the days of modernism, should no longer be perceived as an external limitation on the freedom of theology, but rather as that interior foundation which makes it possible."