In 1967, when Joseph Ratzinger was a thirty-nine-year-old professor at Tübingen, he was the guest of honor at a doctoral colloquium held in Basel by Karl Barth. The topic for discussion was the Second Vatican Council’s Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation (Dei verbum). Barth and his students devised two main questions for their distinguished visitor. Both concerned how, according to the council, the transmission of the Gospel was dependent on the church.
From a theological standpoint, was it really true, the Protestants wondered, that the Gospel depends on the church if it is going to be preserved and actualized, as suggested by the wording of the dogmatic constitution? Weren’t matters really the other way around? Wasn’t it really the church that depends on the Gospel—if the church is to be truly apostolic? In other words, didn’t ecclesial life and witness always need to be tested against the living word of Scripture? And didn’t that word remain sovereign as a critical norm over against the church and its traditions? The priority of the Word over ecclesial tradition was a traditional Protestant concern.
The second question sharpened the first one to make it more concrete. How exactly did the church safeguard the Gospel’s transmission along with the church’s ever-increasing insight (as was supposed) into revealed truth? In particular, did the formation of “tradition”—the ecclesial process of reception and elaboration—really depend on the juridical-historical succession of bishops? How were the bishops, and in particular the magisterium, related to the work of the Holy Spirit? Weren’t they subject to the Holy Spirit, or was the Holy Spirit actually subordinate, in effect, to them? For the Protestants, the hierarchy’s perceived encroachment on the Spirit was another traditional concern.
In retrospect the encounter between Ratzinger, the future pope, and Barth, the twentieth century’s leading Reformational theologian, seems more significant than might have been evident at the time. As far as I know, we have no record of Ratzinger’s reflections on the occasion. However, according to one of Barth’s students, Eberhard Busch, who attended the colloquium, Barth was impressed by the eloquence and precision of Ratzinger’s ad hoc replies. After listening to him at length, Barth intervened only once. Why, he asked, didn’t Ratzinger mention the role of the Holy Spirit more explicitly in his remarks about the richness of tradition in the Catholic Church? (There is much about the Spirit in the dogmatic constitution.) And why should the authority of “tradition” still loom so large for Catholicism? Wasn’t there perhaps a certain “fear” of the Holy Spirit, and therefore of real change, in the Roman Catholic Church—change in accord with the Gospel? (Busch thought Ratzinger might have been a bit rattled by this intervention.) Barth concluded that despite large areas of agreement between Catholicism and the Reformation, no one should be deceived that ecumenical unity was just around the corner. We are still waiting, he stated, for the one apostolic church.
We can well imagine that Ratzinger might have had his own counter-questions for Barth and the colloquium, though at the time they apparently went unexpressed, perhaps out of politeness. Without an authoritative magisterium, Ratzinger might have wondered, who speaks for the Reformational churches? If hierarchy is the problem, what are we to say about Protestant “anarchy”? Are we not faced with a cacophony of Protestant voices, each with its own claim to be authoritative? Doesn’t the Holy Spirit sometimes operate in and through established ecclesiastical structures? Or is the Spirit’s work always freewheeling and charismatic? Again, doesn’t the living Word operate in and through church traditions, or is it always beyond and over against them? Laxity could hardly be the antidote to rigidity.