From Salt of the Earth: The Church at the End of the Millennium, by Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, an Interview with Peter Seewald (Ignatius Press, 1997):
Referring to criticism of the Church, you once spoke of a classical "canon of issues": women's ordination, contraception, celibacy, the remarriage of divorced persons. This list is from 1984. The "Petition of the People of the Church" of 1995 in Austria, Germany, and Switzerland shows that this canon of issues hasn't changed one iota. The discussion seems to be going wearyingly in circles. Perhaps a few clarifications would help get beyond this impasse. It seems to me that many don't know exactly what they're talking about when they speak of the papacy and priesthood, that they actually don't know the meaning of these terms.
I would stress again that all of these are certainly genuine issues, but I also believe that we go astray when we raise them to the standard questions and make them the only concerns of Christianity. There is a very simple reflection that argues against this (which, by the way, Johann Baptist Metz has mentioned in an article on the "Petition of the People of the Church"). These issues are resolved in Lutheran Christianity. On these points it has taken the other path, and it is quite plain that it hasn't thereby solved the problem of being a Christian in today's world and that the problem of Christianity, the effort of being a Christian, remains just as dramatic as before. Metz, if I recall correctly, asks why we ought to make ourselves a clone of Protestant Christianity. It is actually a good thing, he says, that the experiment was made. For it shows that being Christian today does not stand or fall on these questions. That the resolution of these matters doesn't make the gospel more attractive or being Christian any easier. It does not even achieve the agreement that will better hold the Church together. I believe we should finally be clear on this point, that the Church is not suffering on account of these questions.
The Dogma of Infallibility
Let us begin, then, with a point that the Protestants crossed off the list quite early on, the dogma of infallibility. Now, what does this dogma really mean? Is it correctly or falsely translated when we assume that everything the Holy Father says is automatically sacred and correct? I would like to put this question at the beginning of the canon of criticism because it seems especially to agitate people, for whatever reasons.
You have in fact touched upon an error. As a matter of fact, this dogma does not mean that everything the Pope says is infallible. It simply means that in Christianity, at any rate, as Catholics believe, there is a final decision-making authority. That ultimately there can be binding decisions about essential issues and that we can be certain that they correctly interpret the heritage of Christ. In one form or another this obligatoriness is present in every Christian faith community, only it is not associated with the Pope.
For the Orthodox Church, too, it is clear that conciliar decisions are infallible in the sense that I can be confident that here the inheritance of Christ is correctly interpreted; this is our common faith. It's not necessary for each person, as it were, to distill it and extract it from the Bible anew; rather, the Church has been given the possibility of reaching communal certainty. The difference from Orthodoxy is only that Roman Christianity recognizes another level of assurance in addition to the ecumenical council, namely, the successor of Peter, who can likewise provide this assurance. The Pope is of course bound to certain conditions in this matter, conditions that guarantee — and in addition put him under the deepest obligation — that he doesn't decide out of his own subjective consciousness but in the great communion of the tradition.
It did take a long time, though, to find this solution.
Well, councils were also held before there was any theory of councils. The Fathers of the Council of Nicaea, the first council, which was held in 325, didn't have any idea what a council was; in fact it was the emperor who had convoked it. Nevertheless, they were already clear that not only they themselves had spoken but that they were entitled to say (what the council of the apostles also says) "It has seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us" (Acts 15:28). This means: the Holy Spirit has decided with us and through us. The Council of Nicaea then speaks of three primatial sees in the Church, namely, Rome, Antioch, and Alexandria, thus naming jurisdictions connected with the Petrine tradition. Rome and Antioch are the episcopal sees of Saint Peter, and Alexandria, as Mark's see, was, as it were, tied to the Petrine tradition and assumed into this triad.
Very early on the bishops of Rome knew clearly that they were in this Petrine tradition and that, together with the responsibility, they also had the promise that helped them to live up to it. This subsequently became very clear in the Arian crisis, when Rome was the only authority that could face up to the emperor. The bishop of Rome, who naturally has to listen to the whole Church and does not creatively produce the faith himself, has a function that is in continuity with the promise to Peter. To be sure, only in 1870 was it then given its definitive conceptual formulation.
Perhaps we ought also to note that in our day an understanding is awakening even outside Catholic Christianity that a guarantor of unity is necessary for the whole. This has emerged in the dialogue with the Anglicans, for example. The Anglicans are ready to acknowledge, as it were, providential guidance in tying the tradition of primacy to Rome, without wanting to refer the promise to Peter directly to the Pope. Even in other parts of Protestant Christianity there is an acknowledgment that Christianity ought to have a spokesman who can express it in person. And also the Orthodox Church has voices that criticize the disintegration of the Church into autocephalies (national Churches) and instead of this regard recourse to the Petrine principle as meaningful. That is not an acknowledgment of the Roman dogma, but convergences are becoming increasingly clear.
The Gospel: Affirmation or Condemnation?
The traditional morality of the Church, according to one criticism, is really based on guilt feelings. It is above all negative in its evaluation of sexuality. The Church, it is said, has also imposed burdens that have nothing to do with revelation. Now there is the idea that we ought to cease basing Christian theology on sin and contrition. It is necessary and possible, they say, to rediscover the mystery of religious experience beyond religious norms.
The sloganlike opposition between "condemnation" and "affirmation" [Droh-BotschaftlFroh-Botschaft: threatening news/ good news] is one that I have never thought highly of. For whoever reads the Gospel sees that Christ preached the good news but that precisely the message of judgment is a part of it. There are quite dramatic words of judgment in the Gospel that can really make one shudder. We ought not to stifle them. The Lord himself in the Gospel obviously sees no contradiction between the message of judgment and the good news. On the contrary. That there is a judgment, that there is justice, at least for the oppressed, for those who are unjustly treated, that is the real hope and in that sense good news. Those who belong to the oppressors and the workers of injustice are primarily the ones who feel threatened.
Even Adorno said that there can really be justice only if there is a resurrection of the dead, so that past wrongs can be settled retroactively, as it were. There must, in other words, somewhere, somehow be a settling of injustices, the victory of justice; that is what we are awaiting, at least. Nor are Christ and his judgment a victory for evil. No, He is the victory of the good, and, in this sense, the fact that God is righteous and is the judge is profoundly good news. Naturally, this good news puts me under an obligation. But when I conceive of the good news only as self-affirmation, in the final analysis it is meaningless; there is an anesthetization going on somewhere. For this reason we must become familiar again with the dimension of judgment precisely with a view to those who suffer and those who have received no justice but who have a right to it — and then also agree to put ourselves under this standard and to try not to belong to the doers of injustice.
Of course, there is an unsettling element in the message of judgment, and that is a good thing. I mean, when you see how the medieval rulers committed injustice but then, when judgment was approaching, tried to make amends by benefactions and good deeds, you see that consciousness of judgment was also a political and social factor. The awareness that I really mustn't leave the world in this state, that I have to put things right somehow, in other words, that there was an even higher threat hanging over the powerful, was extremely salutary. That benefits everyone concretely.
However, we have to add that we know that as judge Christ is not a cold legalist but that he is familiar with grace and that ultimately we may approach him without fear. But I think that everyone must find this inner balance, must feel that he is under judgment and recognize: I can't simply muddle along as I please, there is a judgment over me — without, however, surrendering to scruples and anxiety.
This, it seems to me, also suggests an orientation for the Church's preaching and pastoral ministry. She must also be able to threaten the powerful; she must also be able to threaten those who neglect, squander, even destroy their lives, for the sake of the right and the good and their own well-being, their own happiness. But she must not become a power that instills fear; she must also know with whom she is speaking. There are sensitive, almost sick souls, who are quickly plunged into fear. They have to be retrieved from the zone of fear; the word of grace has to shine very powerfully into the soul. I believe that both aspects must be kept together in a whole, but in such a way that judgment is also good news, because it assures us that the world makes sense and good triumphs.
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