Paul VI makes Joseph Ratzinger (future Pope Benedict XVI) a cardinal in 1977.

This article first appeared in the November 15, 1985 issue of Commonweal


Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger is one of the most powerful officials in the Catholic church. As prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, he is also a distinguished theologian in his own right. The interviews he has given, now assembled into an approved text (The Ratzinger Report, with Vittorio Messori, translated by Salvator Attanasio and Graham Harrison, Ignatius Press, $9.95, 205 pp.), have provoked heated discussion in Europe and the U.S. Commonweal has asked two leading theologians, one Protestant and one Catholic, as well as a close observer and experienced official of the American church to comment on Cardinal Ratzinger's "report."




But If One Despairs...



When normal channels of communication and control fail, try the mass media. This is the strategy Cardinal Ratzinger has followed in this book-length interview (which he has reviewed and approved). It is hard to think of any other explanation for why the head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, successor to Grand Inquisitors, second only to the pope, has unburdened himself at great and uninhibited length to a popular journalist.

This explanation fits with what the cardinal says regarding the institutional weakness of his position. He notes, for example, that when he was Archbishop of Munich he presided over a large and well-financed ecclesiastical bureaucracy, while his present staff is small, over-worked, and underpaid (the same, by the way, holds for the Curia as a whole). More generally, Rome has lost the support it may once have had from non-ecclesiastical establishments. Even within the church, the press and the academy are arrayed against it. They are swayed, Ratzinger believes, by the culturally decisive class in Western countries: the affluent, educated, liberal bourgeoisie (which an American, following Daniel Bell, might call the “new class’’).

The cardinal regards this class as the producer, product, and victim of the present late stage of free-market capitalism (unlike American neo-conservatives, his anti-Marxism does not lead him to be pro-capitalist). Western societies have lapsed into a hedonistic consumerism, destructive of both nature and tradition, ending in aimlessness. Many try to compensate for the vacuum of meaning in their lives by psychological therapies, Eastern spiritualities, and fashionable neo-Marxisms. Catholic “progressives” (Ratzinger dislikes the term) accommodate to these developments in an effort to make the faith attractive and relevant, but in the process betray both Christianity and humanity. Morality is relativized, the clergy and religious are in disarray, questionable forms of feminism flourish, the authority of Scripture and doctrine erodes, and the very christological foundations of the faith are undermined by revisionist interpretations. So pervasive is the malady that traditionalist reactions such as that of Archbishop Lefebvre are understandable. They are in their way as bad at the primary disease, but in present circumstances less dangerous.

Ratzinger’s analysis of liberation theologies is representative of his wider critique. Contrary to the self-image they try to project, they do not grow out of grass-roots struggles against oppression, but are culturally-imperialistic European and North American exports promoted in the third world by Westernized intellectuals. The fight of these intellectuals against sinful social structures may at times be personally costly for them, but it also brings far more press coverage (and, if successful, far more power) than does the lonely battle against sin in the heart. (It is on the doctrine of sin that Ratzinger would like to work if he had a chance to return to scholarship.)

Needless to say, those whom the cardinal regards as authentically devout among ordinary believers resist the self-appointed prophets. They suspect that neo-Marxism even in Christian guise will in the long run do no better in providing food, freedom and justice than do the older varieties of Communism. What they chiefly want from the church, in any case, is not bread for the body (which, to be sure, Ratzinger is careful to insist is important), but the same, eternal, life-giving meat and drink which it has always offered. This is true of the common people everywhere, whether they be the non-intellectuals of the first world, the politically oppressed of the second, or the poverty-stricken (as well as intellectually and politically deprived) of the third. It is on behalf of these, the poor and lowly, that Ratzinger sees himself battling against the powers that be. Yet so strong are these powers, so effectively have they immobilized even bishops, that he (like John Paul II himself, though in a different way) has adopted the populist tactic of mobilizing mass opinion in support of Rome against what he regards as an elite opposition.

As befits a populist tract, Ratzinger’s remedy in this book is uncomplicated: adhere to Vatican II in what an American might call a strict-constructionist way. Both traditionalist rejections of the council and progressivist attempts to go beyond it by “following its spirit” must be opposed. No changes are allowable except those explicitly authorized by the council and by its authentic interpreter, the Holy See. It is almost as if Ratzinger had reverted to a Denzinger mentality. The content of the church’s teaching has expanded (Ratzinger does genuinely approve of Vatican II and thinks the church would be even worse off without it), and the style of exercising authority is different, but the hermeneutics of doctrine remain much the same.

Ratzinger says, however, that he has not changed. He claims to be no different now than when he was numbered among the progressives in the sixties and was (until 1973) an active member of the editorial board of Concilium. It is others who have altered. Yet in this book he does not say, as he has in the past, that the Eastern Orthodox need not accept the Roman dogmas of the last thousand years (i.e., since the schism) as a condition for reunion. Also he admits to now being more in favor of traditional Marian devotions (e.g., Lourdes and Fatima) and extra-liturgical practices (e.g., the rosary and Benediction) than he once was. Further, he here seems to think that appeals to the continuity and unanimity of tradition suffice to settle such issues as women’s ordination, whereas he elsewhere shows himself well aware that some unanimous and long-standing teachings of the church (for example, on slavery and religious liberty) have drastically altered. If positions change in one area, why not another? Differentiating criteria are needed, but what the cardinal offers is, “Rome has spoken, the case is closed.”

This reliance on the central magisterium seems, however, more the product of despair than of authoritarianism. Bishops cannot act effectively as individuals, and regional episcopal synods cannot be trusted. An even more basic problem is that scholarly ressourcement (the historical-critical return to the sources of the faith in the Bible and in early tradition which offered so much promise at the time of Vatican II) has become hopelessly complex and confusing. Only the Holy See remains as a bulwark against chaos, but even this, so the cardinal concludes, is ineffective: it is disregarded both by the traditionalist right and the progressivist left.

There is no recourse except to mobilize the masses, but whether they are as much in favor of the cardinal’s positions as he thinks is doubtful. The Baroque Bavarian piety in which he grew up (and of which he speaks appreciatively) has few remaining counterparts. Nor does it seem likely that the new developments he approves, such as the Cursillo and charismatic movements, will be the dominant shapers of the folk Catholicism of the future. In places like the United States, the Roman Catholic populace has now been largely incorporated into the new class and is deeply imbued with the progressivism Ratzinger deplores. The majority has been resistant to Rome on birth control, and may well prove equally intractable on many other issues. Only time will tell.

Meanwhile, Ratzinger has produced a highly intelligent, learned, readable, and at times infuriatingly undiscriminating broadside. Christological errors, wayward exegesis, and support for women’s ordination, for example, often sound in this interview as if they were part of a seamless whole. Such jumbling of categories can on occasion offend those who are basically on his side (on christology and the defects of Bultmann’s exegesis, but not on women’s ordination, for example) even more than against his primary targets. Further, non-Roman friends of Rome, whether Eastern Orthodox, Anglican, or Reformation Protestant, will be appalled at what appears to be his stress on the unilateral supremacy of the central teaching office. They have hoped for a Roman magisterium in dialogue with the whole church and visibly subject to God’s Word as witnessed to in Scriptures and tradition. This, however, becomes impossible if one despairs, as Ratzinger seems to have done, of the struggle pursued at Vatican II for a spiritually, intellectually, and communally persuasive hermeneutic which incorporates traditional emphases and yet does not reject a historically critical approach. This despair over access to the sources of the faith and consequent uncritical and one-sided emphasis on the official magisterium is, for a Lutheran such as myself, the fundamental theological failure of this book.


I Respect but Deplore...



This so-called report should be read only by those in sound health, supportive family situations, and deeply satisfying employment. That, however, is not entirely nor even mainly because of Cardinal Ratzinger’s positions presented therein. The trouble begins long before one can get any inkling of the cardinal’s views. The “report” is a thoroughly muddled piece of journalism. What is the opinion of the reporter, supplied subsequently, rather than of Ratzinger? Which parts of the extended leading questions, sometimes paragraphs long, were actually asked in the interviews? Where do direct quotations begin and end? Where and why have sections been lifted out of one interview and spliced into another? It is frequently not at all clear.

The text—originally a series of articles separately constructed from one interview extended over several days, granted by Cardinal Ratzinger to Italian journalist Vittorio Messori—has been put together for publication under thirteen chapter headings which suggest far more continuity and coherence than is actually achieved. The translation is hasty, awkward, and often very confusing. For these reasons it was difficult, as I read the document in galleys, to be sure about what appeared to be misprints distorting the meaning. Ratzinger, although he has now been in administrative positions for many years, was an accomplished scholar and, at one time, a collaborator with Karl Rahner. I cannot believe that some of the really foolish statements in this “report” actually came from him or represent his opinions accurately, though the general concerns are certainly his. The text of the “private document on liberation theology,” which is given entirely in italics, does seem to be directly from his pen.

Vittorio Messori claims in the first chapter that the cardinal “reviewed” Messori’s “articles as well as this book” and “has approved them by declaring that he recognizes himself in the texts,” including the translation, “beginning with the German, which is normative.” Now maybe others may conclude from that somewhat convoluted phrasing (“he recognizes himself in the texts”) that we should equate the cardinal’s true views with the highly artificial organization of this English translation. I retain some doubts.The problem is doubly annoying because the topics covered are crucial, and misunderstandings could cause a good deal of damage to relations in the church which are already strained. The concerns covered are:

• the true interpretation of the Second Vatican Council, primarily with reference to the way the church and its structure and function are understood, and further with reference to priesthood, episcopate, and authority;
• the directions in contemporary Catholic theology and the influence these have had on catechesis;
• the structure, method, and content of moral theology;
• women, and Mary as a model;
• contemporary grassroots movements of spirituality;
• style and theology of the liturgy;
• devils, angels, and the “Last Things”;
• and various reflections on the proclamation of the Gospel in our times.

The impression is inescapable that on most of these topics the interviewer takes a more rigidly conservative, and of course less informed, position than does the cardinal himself. This factor, together with the incomplete and disjointed nature of the positions reported, suggests extreme caution in responding as though to the cardinal’s statements.

Knowing Cardinal Ratzinger’s earlier work, I could see here a consolidation of a theological synthesis which I deeply respect but deplore. The synthesis is built around a trinitarian theology which conserves the major dogmatic statements of the Tradition while maintaining coherence and subtlety in its interpretations. Ratzinger’s synthesis, however, comes to a focus in an ecclesiology and soteriology which I find less coherent and far less subtle. He views church and salvation in such narrowly institutional, organizational terms that he fails to answer the burning questions arising out of contemporary human suffering. It seems to me that this is the task of theology: to appropriate in depth the ever-new questions about meaning in life, hope, and purpose as these questions arise within new experiences and cultures, and to bring them into confrontation with the divine self-revelation as received and expressed in the piety and struggles and wisdom of the generations that have gone before us in the great tradition of faith in Jesus Christ. I have the impression Cardinal Ratzinger would like a heavier emphasis on verbal orthodoxy (the faithful repetition of earlier formulations) and would require contemporary questions to be trimmed and retailored until they are the questions to which the traditional catechisms and theological manuals are the answers. I dare to suggest this only because I am drawing on a far wider knowledge of his writings and statements than could be garnered from this “report.”

In relation to most of the issues here, the statements attributed to the cardinal only express concern, without indicating what his precise solutions might be, and I must confess I share the concern although I might argue for different solutions if his were actually spelled out. On some topics, notably liturgy and spirituality, the remarks seem to be a matter of plain common sense. On the topic of women the “report” is so incomplete and garbled it would be unfair to comment.

The one topic with which I would like to take issue in a more thorough way is the statement on liberation theology. The cardinal’s remarks reveal significant misunderstandings, not least of which is a distorted sense of Marx’s term “class struggle.” Other misunderstandings include a failure to take into account the distinctions among various types of liberation, which these theologians themselves have made quite explicit, and a failure to distinguish among strands of Marxist thought and movements. To clarify these matters would require more time and space than is available here, but I believe the task is important because the “Instruction of the Congregation for the Faith Concerning Certain Aspects of Liberation Theology,” which is reflected in Ratzinger’s “private statement,” appears to be the outcome of deliberate misinformation supplied to the Sacred Congregation for political reasons. 


Knocking Down Straw Men



The neo-Modernists are ululating in agony over the contents of the book. The true believers, on the other hand, are ecstatic. It appears that the book is a sign of contradiction, designed to be the occasion for the rise and fall of many.

—Father Vincent P. Miceli, from a review of The Ratzinger Report in The Wanderer

That’s rather heavy stuff. According to Webster, to ululate means “to howl, as a dog or a wolf; to wail; also to hoot, as an owl.” Maybe I have not been listening carefully enough, but I have yet to hear any of Cardinal Ratzinger’s critics express themselves in one or the other of these three unseemly animal-like voices. Nor have I found a “neo-Modernist” among them—unless, of course, people who disagree with Father Miceli and the editors of The Wanderer fall by definition into that self-servingly ambiguous category.

In any event, Father Miceli is right on target when he says that the “true believers” (also a self-servingly ambiguous category) are ecstatic about The Ratzinger Report. They have already begun to tout the book aggressively for their own polemical purposes. The Wanderer, for example, is not only running advertisements of the book free of charge (with a quote from Miceli’s review as the centerpiece of the ads) but is also offering copies to its subscribers at generous pre-publication discount rates. Why not? The cardinal’s views, according to A. J. Matt, Jr., editor of the paper, “largely affirm the judgments expressed over the last twenty years by The Wanderer and other orthodox individuals and organizations” (the opposite of “orthodox” being, of course, “heretical”). I doubt that Cardinal Ratzinger will be deliriously and unqualifiedly happy about being so closely identified with the views expressed in The Wanderer since Vatican II. But who knows? In any case, the “true believers” are off and running and can sniff blood at the end of the trail.

It might be argued, of course, that all of the above is much ado about nothing, and that one ought to concentrate on the contents of the Ratzinger book and simply ignore what The Wanderer and company are doing with it for their own purposes. I disagree. It is highly significant—and a worrisome portent of stormy weather ahead—that the “true believers” are systematically striving to create the impression that Cardinal Ratzinger has, in effect, given his imprimatur to their almost apocalyptically negative point of view regarding the current state of Catholicism. It is clear that they have decided to use his book polemically as a quasi-official litmus test of the loyalty and orthodoxy of those who disagree with them, including, of course, any number of U.S. bishops whom The Wanderer has already found seriously wanting under both of these headings.

This is bad news, I think, especially for Cardinal Ratzinger. Both he and his book deserve better. Mr. Matt is correct when he says that the cardinal’s report on the current state of Catholicism “cannot be dismissed” and that “the Catholic people, from bishops to laity, must honestly address the problems outlined by His Eminence.” Agreed. But to address these problems “honestly” is easier said than done. As Nicholas Lash of Cambridge University has cautioned in a special Ratzinger issue of New Blackfriars, it calls for “much patience, courageous trust in the integrity of other people, the taking of great pains to ensure that we report as accurately as possible the views of those with whom we disagree.”

With the exception of some of the more militant “true believers,” reviewers of The Ratzinger Report are, by and large, doing their level best to meet these minimal canons of civil discourse. Of the dozen or so British, French, and U.S. reviews that I have seen thus far, not one has questioned the cardinal’s motives or integrity, or misrepresented his point of view. A few prestigious commentators—notably, Cardinal Henri de Lubac, a distinguished theologian in his own right—have praised the book very highly. Others have challenged the author rather sharply on specific points and, in general, have argued that he is much too pessimistic about the state of Catholicism twenty years after Vatican II.

I share the latter point of view. I found the Report extremely dispiriting. From beginning to end it is distressingly grim and doleful and, despite occasional and fleeting references to flickering signs of progress and renewal, is oppressively negative. In short, I share the reaction of Fergus Kerr, O.P., editor of New Blackfriars, who has observed that the cardinal’s “analysis is pervaded with images of entropy. It is as if the church had been infected by some degenerative malady, some morbid deterioration of the doctrinal tissue, with the fatal germs being carried by certain theologians right through the system.”

I think that’s a fair and accurate summary of the cardinal’s overall point of view. (To be sure, the cardinal, as one might expect, frequently affirms his unshakable conviction that the Holy Spirit is unfailingly guiding the church at every stage of its pilgrimage and will keep it faithful to its mission until the end of time.) The cardinal’s interlocutor, Vittorio Messori, disagrees; he says it would be misleading to assess the book in optimist/pessimist terms. We may be dealing here with semantics. Certainly it is clear that by comparison with the preparatory documents submitted to the secretariat for the forthcoming synod by British, U.S., and other national hierarchies, the cardinal’s assessment of the current state of Catholicism is decidedly pessimistic in the ordinary sense of that word.

Whatever of that, Messori is on shaky ground when he says that “no other personage in the church—apart from the pope, of course,—could answer our questions with greater authority” than Cardinal Ratzinger. I doubt that the cardinal would make such a sweeping claim on his own behalf. To the contrary, he would want it clearly understood, I think, that the theological opinions expressed in the Report are strictly his own and must be judged by his peers on their merits.

It is clear, moreover, that much of what the cardinal says in the Report falls under the heading, not of theology as such, but, rather, religious sociology. And it goes without saying that the cardinal’s writ, whether as a ranking official of the Roman Curia or as an individual scholar, does not run to sociology. Even Father Joseph Fessio, SJ, director of Ignatius Press, U.S. publisher of the Report, readily concedes this point. Although Fessio thinks that the evidence of the last twenty years entirely supports the cardinal’s judgment and “stands before our eyes like a naked emperor,” he admits that it is beyond the cardinal’s jurisdiction to express an authoritative judgment on the state of faith or morals in the church. Such a judgment is one for which no divine guarantees have been given.”

That needed saying, and one is grateful to Fessio for saying it—and grateful also to The Wanderer for printing it, albeit, as part of a crotchety editorial aimed at unmasking (with a generous assist from Fessio) the National Catholic News Service and “the modernist establishment it serves.”

Under the heading of sociology, as distinct from theology, I would question the Report on two points in particular, merely by way of example: its negative treatment of episcopal conferences, and its one-sided assessment of North American culture as it allegedly influences the U.S. theological community.

The cardinal’s treatment of episcopal conferences is both theological and sociological in nature. He says that episcopal conferences are not based on theological foundations, as is the office of individual bishops, but on practical, factual considerations. He also claims that episcopal conferences, as such, have no real teaching authority. These are questions on which I am not qualified to comment. The record will show, however, that competent theologians, including Father Avery Dulles, SJ, of The Catholic University of America, and Father John Mahoney, SJ, of Heythrop College, London, have already challenged Ratzinger on the issue of episcopal conferences, and convincingly so in the judgment of many of their peers. The cardinal will undoubtedly be challenged again on this subject during the forthcoming extraordinary synod of bishops. No doubt one or more of the synodal delegates will feel constrained to quote him against himself, reminding him that what he is now saying about the theology of episcopal conferences is exactly the opposite of what he said more than once in cold print both during and immediately after Vatican II.

Sociologically speaking, the cardinal takes an extremely dim view of episcopal conferences as they have developed in practice since the end of Vatican II. He says, among other things, that when the bishops come together in these conferences, they run the risk of having their distinctive teaching role stifled by the bureaucrats who staff these agencies. By that he means that the bishops are becoming too dependent on staff people who do their research for them and draft their official documents, He further contends that conference bureaucrats, in an effort to strike a balance between conflicting points of view, often tend to flatten or blunt the evangelical message which the bishops as teachers of the faith should be putting forth. In other words, the cardinal thinks that the bishops, instead of fearlessly exercising individual apostolic leadership in the church, are settling for a kind of group conformism.

I think the cardinal has got the episcopal conference issue almost completely wrong, at least in the case of our own National Conference of Catholic Bishops. He seems not to be very well informed on the working of NCCB. Moreover, he would be hard put, I think, to support his overall complaint in the case of other national episcopal conferences. I have no doubt that many if not most of the delegates to the forthcoming synod, speaking for their own national conferences, will, if given the opportunity, reject his complaint and will recommend that the authority of episcopal conferences be strengthened rather than weakened. There is every reason to think that Bishop James Malone, president of our own conference, will be among those taking the lead on this crucial issue.

The cardinal is extremely rough on his fellow theologians. In frequent flashes of what many will perceive as anti-intellectualism, he tends to contrast them indiscriminately and pejoratively with the “simple” faithful. The cardinal is particularly harsh in his treatment of liberation theologians and of U.S. theologians working in the field of moral theology. Since he never cites chapter and verse and never identifies his hapless targets by name, it is almost impossible to know exactly what he is driving at here. To quote Nicholas Lash again, the cardinal’s style “relies for effectiveness on dark but unspecific reference to ‘tendencies’” and on ‘the accumulation of disapproving epithets.” In any event, the theologians are fully capable of speaking for themselves, and undoubtedly will be doing so in print as time goes on. Most of them, I suspect, will conclude that he is knocking down straw men. For present purposes, I should like to differ with the cardinal on only one point—again, a sociological one.

The cardinal repeatedly charges that many theologians, particularly in the United States, have succumbed to the wiles of bourgeois materialism and, more specifically, to the wiles of economic liberalism, by which he means a model of the free market [which] imposes its implacable laws on every aspect of life.” Economic liberalism, he says, creates its exact counterpart, “permissiveness” on the moral plane; and theologians, especially U.S. theologians, have sold out to this liberal, free market ideology.

That’s a curiously unhistorical or ahistorical line of argument. If the argument were valid, Western theologians in general, and U.S. theologians in particular, in the late nineteenth century or the early twentieth century, when economic liberalism was in its heyday, should have been the ones to sell out to the system, not the theologians of the 1980s when economic liberalism in the sense in which the cardinal is using the term, has been greatly attenuated and is even said to be fighting for its life. Fighting for its life against whom? In many cases, against the very theologians whom Ratzinger is attacking.

Needless to say, the cardinal’s critique of Western bourgeois values is not completely without merit. On this and a number of related subjects he has pointed to problems which, to quote Mr. Matt again, “the Catholic people, from bishops to laity, must honestly address.” Let us hope that we will all address them with civility. The cardinal has written a serious book which deserves to be taken seriously, but God forbid that it should be bandied about polemically as “a sign of contradiction designed to be the occasion for the rise and fall of many.” To repeat, both the cardinal and his book deserve better than that. So do we all.


Click here for more on the mind of Cardinal Ratzinger (now Pope Benedict XVI).

Monika Hellwig is president of the Association of Catholic Colleges and Universities.

George A. Lindbeck is a Lutheran theologian and professor emeritus of the Yale Divinity School.

The late Msgr. George G. Higgins was a theologian, an activist, and the foremost labor priest in the United States.
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Published in the 1985-11-15 issue: View Contents
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