By Robert Sungenis, Ph.D.
R. Sungenis: Protestant Michael Horton, whom I know personally and have debated on two occasions, has done the Catholic Church and Pope Benedict XVI a great service. Dr. Horton has traced the theological history of Pope Benedict XVI as it was formulated by the then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger. In his attempt to show how distant Pope Benedict XVI is from Horton’s Calvinistic-Reformed theology, Horton shows us all the places in Ratzinger’s writings in which the Cardinal was adhering to the traditional beliefs of the Catholic Church, and at no time does Horton show any place where Ratzinger has departed from those beliefs. I, myself, did not realize how faithful the Cardinal has been to Catholic doctrine, and I thank Michael Horton for renewing my faith in the pope once again.
BY MICHAEL S. HORTON
In his first speech as pope, Benedict XVI declared, “The current Successor assumes as his primary commitment that of working tirelessly towards the reconstitution of the full and visible unity of all Christ’s followers.”1 Before he took the name Pope Benedict XVI, Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger had already established a name for himself as the “Vatican’s doctrinal watch-dog,” head of the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith. In that capacity, Cardinal Ratzinger was the guiding hand in John Paul II’s famous encyclicals, such as Dominus Iesus, which continued to regard the theology of the Reformation as “gravely deficient.” Yet he has also led Vatican consultations with mainline Protestants and evangelicals. What can Modern Reformation readers expect of the new pope? Will he look back to the pre-conciliar legacy of the Inquisition (the former name of the Congregation he headed was once upon a time called the Holy Office of the Roman Inquisition)? Or will he be a catalyst for Roman Catholic-Protestant unity? Or perhaps something in between? For all of us who care about truth and unity, these are not irrelevant questions.
What I’m offering here is not an essay so much as a series of quotations from some representative works written by then-Cardinal Ratzinger over the last twenty-five years. A prolific and colorful writer, Ratzinger is also a first-rate theologian: clear in argument, concise in presentation, and conversant with other traditions.
First, some background is necessary. While John Paul II can certainly be praised for his uncompromising stand on Christian social ethics and called for greater Christian unity, it must not be forgotten that he was regularly calling for a renewal of devotion to traditional Roman Catholic teaching, the cult of Mary, and in his papal visits to Latin America especially, warned against the incursion of Protestantism as if the Council of Trent had never been convened. All along the way, Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger was his theologian-in-residence.
In 1988, John Paul II issued a document calling the faithful to obtain plenary indulgences (offered every 25 years) in the jubilee year of the Church in 2000, which caused the World Alliance of Reformed Churches to pull out of the jubilee celebrations in Rome, although the Lutheran World Federation remained involved. The 1988 papal declaration outlined the conditions for the indulgence: “Catholics must have been to confession, and on the day they wish to receive the indulgence they must receive the Eucharist and pray in one of the various places, such as churches in Rome, Jerusalem, Bethlehem and Nazareth, in a Catholic cathedral or in any place where they are visiting those in difficulty. An indulgence can also be obtained in a jubilee year by refraining from smoking or alcohol and ‘donating a proportionate sum of money to the poor’ or by ‘devoting a suitable portion of personal free time to activities benefiting the community, or other similar forms of personal sacrifice.’”
On February 9-10, 2001, the Vatican’s Council for Promoting Christian Unity called upon the Lutheran World Federation and the World Alliance of Reformed Churches to engage in a consultation on indulgences. Dr. Idair Pedroso Mateus, a Reformed theologian from Brazil, who served on the consultation, likened indulgences to the “prosperity theology” of neo-pentecostalism.2 “An official ‘note’ by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, prefect of the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, warns that describing Protestant churches as ‘sister churches’ can cause ‘ambiguities,’” since the Church of Rome “’is not sister but ‘mother’ of all the particular Churches’” Furthermore, this appellation can only apply to “those ecclesial communities that have preserved a valid episcopate and Eucharist.” The cardinal’s note, approved by Pope John Paul on June 9, is ‘to be held as authoritative and binding,’ according to Cardinal Ratzinger’s letter to the bishops’ conferences.”3
Then in September, 2000, the encyclical Dominus Iesus, signed by Ratzinger and promulgated by Pope John Paul, ignited a firestorm of protest, especially from Lutheran and Reformed bodies that had been engaged in fruitful ecumenical dialogue. On the other hand, defenders of “Evangelicals and Catholics Together” (ECT) read Dominus Iesus differently, as a statement on Rome’s side of “honest ecumenism,” which is only read negatively by left-of-center ecumenists. The phrase “gravely deficient” is directed at non-Christian religions. Non-Catholics are in a state of grace, their baptism is recognized, and they are therefore “in a certain communion, albeit imperfect, with the Church.”4
At the same time, The Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity was engaged in ecumenical discussions on justification especially with the Lutheran World Federation, which issued in the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification (ET, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2000): “The present Joint Declaration  has this intention: namely, to show that on the basis of their dialogue the subscribing Lutheran churches and the Roman Catholic Church are now able to articulate a common understanding of our justification by God’s grace through faith in Christ,” despite remaining questions and issues (10-11). Building on previous consultations, the Joint Declaration affirmed remarkable agreement in essential points regarding justification and should be closely read as a clear advance in the ecumenical discussion. Nevertheless, key aspects of the evangelical doctrine of justification are, as in joint statements issuing from the U. S.-based group, Evangelicals and Catholics Together, are left unresolved while a common agreement in the gospel is nevertheless assumed. In other cases, particularly the capitulation on the Lutheran World Federation side to a definition of faith as “faith, hope, and love,” the evangelical doctrine of faith is explicitly rejected. Faith is love of God and neighbor, the document says (32). The conclusion of the Declaration is that the anathemas of each body no longer apply. “The teaching of the Lutheran churches presented in this Declaration does not fall under the condemnations of the Council of Trent. The condemnations in the Lutheran Confessions do not apply to the teaching of the Roman Catholic Church presented in this Declaration. Nothing is thereby taken away from the seriousness of the condemnations related to the doctrine of justification (26).
While mainline Protestants demonstrate ambivalence about this new pope, probably in large measure because of their liberal biases in theology and ethics, evangelicals have been practically unanimous in their praise. While doctrinal tensions still exist, Benedict XVI is seen as building on the “culture of life” so admirably defended by John Paul II. As for Norman Geisler, “He’s going to hold the line” against liberalism and relativism.5
With this background, we now turn to some of the representative statements by Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, to obtain a better idea of what we might expect from his pontificate. Hopefully we will see that there is much to appreciate in an age of increasing pressure to conform the church’s message to the spirit of the age, while also recognizing the distance that remains between genuinely evangelical churches and the Bishop of Rome.
Current Trends in Catholic Doctrine
I will refer throughout to Cardinal Ratzinger, since the writings from which I am drawing pre-date his papacy, and I begin with The Ratzinger Report (1985).6 In describing the structure and content of Catholic faith, he argues against those who reduce the gospel to a banishment of all negative thinking, when sin is the obvious backdrop that cannot be underplayed. “The attempt to give Christianity a new publicity value by putting it in an unqualifiedly positive relationship to the world—by actually picturing it as a conversion to the world—corresponds to our feeling about life and hence continues to thrive” (56). Such “progressivism,” so widely praised in the years after Vatican II, “has today come under suspicion of being merely the apotheosis of the late-capitalist bourgeoisie, on which, instead of attacking it critically, it sheds a kind of religious glow.” “A Christianity that believes it has no other function than to be completely in tune with the spirit of the times has nothing to say and no meaning to offer…It is not the ideology of adaptation that will rescue Christianity,” despite their immediate publicity value, but only re-entering “the apostolic tradition [1 Cor 4:13]; nothing can rescue it but the prophetic courage to make its voice heard decisively and unmistakably at this very hour.” “Anyone who looks, however briefly, at the history of religion will learn to what extent it is dominated by the theme of guilt and atonement, with what abstruse and often strange efforts man has attempted to free himself form the burdensome feeling of guilt without being able actually to do so” (58). But the answer is metanoia, which is not only “repentance” (change of mind), as one finds it in Greek, but a full conversion of the soul and its actions (60-1).
Referring directly to the Hitler Youth movement’s slogan, says Rantzinger, Dietrich von Hildebrand writes, “Thus the fluidity of existence that is required of the Christian is, at the same time, ‘the exact opposite…of the cult of constant activity….’ In other words, Christian metanoia is, to all intents and purposes, identical with pistis (faith, constancy), a change that does not exclude constancy but makes it possible” (62). But it’s more than “a ‘formal conservatism,’ which is not necessarily grounded in truth (63). “In contrasting the two modes of change, von Hildebrand, I think, has made abundantly clear the true nature of the Christian readiness to change as opposed to that of the [Nazi] ‘cult of activity’” (64). “One thing above all should be clear [from the gospel as “good news”]: the joyous character of Christian faith does not depend on the effectiveness of ecclesiastical events. The Church is not a society for the promotion of good cheer, whose value rises and falls with the success of its activities,” like various social and civic institutions (81). He says he does not understand why theology cannot be communicated to the church today the way Luther’s catechism did, instead of the tortured textbooks we now have. In this respect, at least, the Reformation was simply recovering ancient catechesis, at least in form (Decalogue, Our Father, the sacraments, the Creed) (131).
An untiring foe of theologians who threaten traditional Catholic teaching, Ratzinger defends Vatican II while nevertheless challenging the left-wing excesses that followed in its wake. (Even the Council itself was divided between advocates of ressourcement (going back to the sources for the current situation) and aggiornamento (openness to change). “We need only recall the names of Odo Casel, Hugo Rahner, Henri de Lubac, Jean Danielou to have before our eyes a theology that knew—and knows—that it was close to the Scriptures because it was close to the Fathers. This situation seems, in the meantime, to have ceased to exist” (134). The historical-critical method and the faith of the Church are affirmed together in Vatican II (Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation), but these are in origin and purpose at odds. For the Church holds “the understanding of Holy Scripture as an inner unity in which one part sustains the other, has its existence in it, so that each part can be read and understood only in terms of the whole” (135-6).
He doesn’t think that Karl Rahner’s theology of self-transcendence gets it right either. Rahner was a key theologian at Vatican II, who argued that humanity is essentially open to God, revelation, and grace, and thus underscored the correlation between revelation and general human experience. Because of this, all people—even atheists, reveal that God’s grace is at work in their lives when they display love for their neighbor. But Ratzinger remains unconvinced:
Is it true that Christianity adds nothing to the universal but merely makes it known? Is the Christian really just man as he is? Is that what he is supposed to be? Is not man as he is that which is insufficient, that which must be mastered and transcended?...Is not the main point of the faith of both Testaments that man is what he ought to be only by conversion, that is, when he ceases to be what he is? Does not Christianity become meaningless when it is reinstated in the universal, whereas what we really want is the new, the other, the saving trans-formation?...A Christianity that is no more than a reflected universality may be innocuous, but is it not also superfluous? And, it might be noted in passing, it is simply not empirically true that Christians do not say anything in particular that can be opposed; that they say only what is universal. They say much that is particular. Otherwise, how could they be a ‘sign that is rejected’ (Lk 2:34)? (166).
He also offers terrific criticisms of existentialist theologies that pit ontology against history, as if the Chalcedonian affirmation, “Christ is God” (the “is” being an ontological statement), could be conceived as anything but historical (contra Docetism). The danger in Luther, fully realized in the existential theologies, was that it was “eventually forced to conclude that there is no ‘in itself’ outside the ‘for me,’ so that, ultimately, the existential interpretation becomes identified with what is interpreted” (186). In such theologies, too, he writes in his ‘In the Beginning…’: A Catholic Understanding of the Story of Creation and the Fall, tr. Boniface Ramsey, O.P. (Eerdmans, 1990), “…nature is undermined for the sake of grace; it is robbed of its belongings and gives way, so to speak, before grace…There is a series of stages that must not be absorbed into a monism of grace.” Creation comes before redemption (94). Otherwise, there is “…a Gnostic disenchantment with creation” (95). He contrasts “the Gnostic model” and “the Christian model.” “Gnosticism will not entrust itself to a world already created, but only to a world still to be created” (97). “Only if the Redeemer is also Creator can he really be Redeemer…We can win the future only if we do not lose creation” (100). As we can see, there is much in Ratzinger’s critique of modern theology to appreciate.
Earlier in this report, Ratzinger expresses concerns repeated in other writings about the approach taken to doctrine in the church today. He had said at a conference in 1966, “And it seems important to me to discern the dangerous new triumphalism, a tendency to which precisely the very critics of the old triumphalism often succumb. So long as the Church is in pilgrimage on the earth she has no ground to boast of her own works” (cited here, 13). Those who argue for orthopraxis over orthodoxy forget that with this “facile” and “superficial slogan,” that “the contents of orthopraxis, the love of neighbor, radically change (always, but today above all) in keeping with the manner and way orthodoxy is understood” (23). “Heresy still exists…The word of Holy Scripture is valid for the Church of all times, just as man’s capacity for error remains. Hence the warning of Peter to protect oneself ‘from false prophets…false teachers, who will insinuate their own disruptive views’ (2:1) is still relevant and valid. Error is not a complement to truth.” Nevertheless, excommunication itself is executed with restorative intentions (25).
He criticizes the “individualistic theology” of our time. “Every theologian now seems to want to be ‘creative.’ But his proper task is to deepen the common deposit of the faith as well as to help in understanding and proclaiming it, not ‘to create’ it” (71). “In this subjective view of theology, dogma is often viewed as an intolerable straight-jacket, an assault on the freedom of the individual scholar. But this loses sight of the fact that the dogmatic definition is rather a service to the truth, a gift offered to believers by the authority willed by God. Dogmas—as someone has said—are not walls that prevent us from seeing. On the contrary, they are windows that open upon the infinite” (72).
Confessional Protestants will resonate with the new pope’s concern about the state of catechesis: “Since theology can no longer transmit a common model of the faith, catechesis is also exposed to dismemberment and to constantly changing experiments,” in an interest not of teaching the whole Catholic faith, but in simply making “some elements…humanly ‘interesting’ (according to the cultural orientations of the moment).” Thus, our subjective interests and experiences, normed by the cultural moment, rather than the teaching of the Church is what is passed down to our children (72). In some circles, “catechism” is regarded as obsolete, but this is a break from the ancient church, revived in the Reformation and Counter-Reformation (73).
The bond between Bible and Church has been broken. In the Protestant sphere this separation began at the time of the Enlightenment in the eighteenth century and of late has also found entry into some Catholic scholarly circles. The historico-critical interpretation has certainly opened many and momentous possibilities for a better understanding of the biblical text. But by its very nature, it can illumine it only in its historical dimension and not explain it in its present-day claim on us. Where it forgets this limit it becomes illogical and therefore also unscientific. But then one also forgets that the Bible as present and future can be understood only in a vital association with the Church. The upshot is that one no longer reads it from the tradition of the Church as a point of departure and with the Church, but, instead, one starts from the newest method that presents itself as ‘scientific.’ With some scholars this independence has become outright opposition—so much so that for many the traditional faith of the Church no longer seems justified by critical exegesis but appears only as an obstacle to the authentic ‘modern’ understanding of Christianity. (74).
But “the separation of Church and Scripture tends to erode both from within.” A Church without Scripture is merely a human organization, while the Bible without the Church “is also no longer the powerfully effective Word of God, but an assemblage of various historical sources…” The scholar has taken the place of the Magisterium and the Bible has become a “closed book” to the whole church (75). “The rule of faith, yesterday as today, is not based on the discoveries (be they true or hypothetical) of biblical sources and layers but on the Bible just as it is, as it has been read in the Church since the time of the Fathers until now.” In fact, the saints, who did not have the benefit “scientific” exegesis, “were the ones who understood it best” (76). Although the history of the church cautions us against reverted back to an infallible magisterium, Ratzinger’s points about the necessity of a teaching office in the church and the superiority of premodern exegesis have been made by confessional Protestants for some time.
The Trinity is in need of rediscovery as well, since in much of theology today “The Son [is] reduced, the Father forgotten.” At least a practical “Arianism” is alive and well even among some “Catholic” theologians, where the faith centers on the “Jesus project” rather than on the Son of God. But especially since Freud, the Father has fallen under suspicion as well (77). One now wants a partner, a friend, perhaps a lover, but not the Creator God (78). Some catechisms and theologies don’t even start with God, creation, and Adam, but with Abraham. “By so doing, God is no longer God—if reduced in this way to Christ alone, if possible even only to the man Jesus.” Not surprisingly, such theologies don’t know what to do with the materiality of this world, including the concreteness of “the Eucharist, the virginity of Mary, the concrete and real Resurrection of Jesus, the resurrection of the body promised to all at the end of history.” By contrast, the Apostles’ Creed begins with “God the Father Almighty, Creator of heaven and earth” (78).
From here, Ratzinger insists that we must “restore a place to original sin,” a doctrine to which he hopes to devote an entire volume (78). “In fact, if it is no longer understood that man is in a state of alienation (that is not only economic and social and, consequently, one that is not resolvable by his efforts alone), one no longer understands the necessity of Christ the Redeemer. The whole structure of the faith is threatened by this. The inability to understand ‘original sin’ and to make it understandable is really one of the most difficult problems of present-day theology and pastoral ministry” (79).
In an evolutionist hypothesis of the world (which corresponds to a certain ‘Teilhardism’ in theology), there is obviously no place for an ‘original sin.’…Acceptance of this view signifies, however, turning the structure of Christianity on its head: Christ is displaced from the past to the future. Salvation would simply mean moving toward the future as the necessary development to the better.
If there is no original sin in history, then there is no need of redemption in history (80).
“The Christian would be remiss toward his brethren if he did not proclaim the Christ who first and foremost brings redemption from sin; if he did not proclaim the reality of the alienation (the ‘Fall’) and, at the same time, the reality of the grace that redeems us, that liberates us; if he did not proclaim that, in order to effect a restoration of our original nature, a help from outside is necessary; if he did not proclaim that the insistence upon self-realization, upon self-salvation does not lead to redemption but to destruction; finally, if he did not proclaim that, in order to be saved, it is necessary to abandon oneself to Love” (81).
While we differ on the details, the following challenges to a reconstitution of the church as a voluntary society are bracing: “But the Church of Christ is not a party, not an association, not a club. Her deep and permanent structure is not democratic but sacramental, consequently hierarchical” (49). He complains that in the new liturgy, “Lord Jesus Christ, look not upon my sins…” has been changed to “…our sins,” which can hide “the necessity of a personal admission of one’s own fault” and need for “personal conversion” in “the anonymous mass of ‘We,’ of he group, of the ‘system,’ of humanity. Hence, in the end, where all have sinned, nobody seems to have sinned.” The “I” and the “we” are intertwined, but neither can be lost (51). Even the pope had to pray this prayer, although it did not entail that the Church herself “as such was also a sinner” (52). Bishops are often becoming administrators, bureaucrats, specialists, managers, and public relations officers, rather than pastors (65-6).
Like his predecessors, Paul VI and John Paul II, Ratzinger insists that we need also to remind ourselves of the reality of Satan. “Whatever the less discerning theologians may say, the devil, as far as Christian belief is concerned, is a puzzling but real, personal and not merely symbolic presence. He is a powerful reality (‘the prince of this world,’ as he is called by the New Testament, which continually reminds us of his existence), a baneful super-human freedom directed against God’s freedom.” Only God can liberate us from him, which is what he has done in the person and work of Christ (138-9). “The peace and innocence of paganism is one of the many myths of our time.” Caught in the grip of the devil and demonic forces, non-Christian religions cannot liberate their adherents. Christ can and, in fact, has brought liberation from fear wherever his “good news” has gone (139). We cannot simply regard the devil as a symbol for evil; otherwise, we become sociologists, not exegetes (143). And those who suggest that we can no longer believe in such things have not thought very deeply about the twentieth century.
On purgatory and limbo, Ratzinger says, “The fact is that all of us today think we are so good that we deserve nothing less than heaven! No doubt our civilization is responsible for this in that it focuses on mitigating circumstances and alibis in the attempt to take away people’s sense of guilt, of sin” (145-6). The rejection of purgatory is often founded not on the same rationale as the rejection of hell, but on “Protestant biblicism,” which could not find the doctrine in scripture (146). He cites examples from Calvin and Luther, but concludes that the pervasiveness of prayers for the dead in the world proves that “if Purgatory did not exist, we should have to invent it” (146). Ratzinger even defends the practice of indulgences (147). “Limbo” (a place where unbaptized infants go, since they have only the stain of original sin) was never a defined dogma, and Ratzinger personally believes that the Church should dispense with it, so long as the principle—viz., the necessity of baptism for remission of original sin is kept in tact (147).
Issues of Catholic Practice
We can also expect continuity between John Paul II and Benedict XVI on morality. “Economic liberalism creates its exact counterpart, permissivism, on the moral plane,” according to which Catholic social and moral teaching can only be regarded as unreasonable (83). Sex has been unhinged from marriage, motherhood, and procreation, with technological manipulation gaining ground (84). Now, “…pleasure, the libido of the individual, [has] become the only possible point of reference of sex…Hence, it naturally follows that all forms of sexual gratification are transformed into the ‘rights’ of the individual. Thus, to cite an especially current example, homosexuality becomes an inalienable right” (85). Many moral theologians are adopting the heretical (Marcion) view that the Decalogue (Ten Commandments) represents the Old Testament that has been transcended by the New and that we are even moving beyond revelation altogether into autonomous reason (89).
Especially in the United States, God’s commands have been replaced by consequentialism—the view that nothing in itself is good or bad, but the consequences (90). “Actually, all this has already been described with precision in the first pages of the Bible…: ‘You will be like God’ (Gen 3:5)” (91). We also cannot adopt whatever language we like for God, as radical feminists suggest. “Christianity is not ‘our’ work; it is a Revelation; it is a message that has been consigned to us, and we have no right to reconstruct it as we like or choose…I am, in fact, convinced that what feminism promotes in its radical form is no longer the Christianity that we know; it is another religion” (97). Christianity and feminism announce two different gods, authorities, views of human nature, doctrines of salvation, and final destiny (98). The remedy to feminism is renewing our commitment to Mary, although it may create obstacles “in the way of a reunion with our evangelical fellow Christians…” (104-5). Concerning the alleged apparitions of Mary at Lourdes and Fatima, including the “secret” prophecies of the latter, John Paul II was deeply committed, but Ratzinger seems more guarded: “No apparition is indispensable to the faith; Revelation terminated with Jesus Christ. He himself is the Revelation. But we certainly cannot prevent God from speaking to our time through simple persons and also through extraordinary signs that point to the insufficiency of the cultures stamped by rationalism and positivism that dominate us. The apparitions that the Church has officially approved—especially Lourdes and Fatima—have their precise place in the development of the life of the Church in the last century” (111).
The spiritual disciplines have fallen off because people say they don’t have time. “Well, this uncontested but significant ‘sacrifice’ [the daily office] has been replaced by TV-viewing until well into the night” (115). In the years following Vatican II, there was an emphasis on a “non-sacral” piety “open to the world,” but now there is a renewal of the ancient spiritualities of “flight from the world”—the realization that we are not defined by this world (116).
Concerned that many of the new liturgies exhibit little sense of the holiness of God, Ratzinger says that it has become a “show,” like a spectacle produced by Hollywood (127-8). Our liturgy must reflect our theology: “solemnity, not triumphalism” (130). Yet “Pure archaism is fruitless, as is pure modernization” (132). The Eucharist is its heart, “the common sacrifice of the Church…the sacramental renewal of Christ’s sacrifice” (132-3). Against the advice of “the liturgical ‘archaeologists’” who insist that such things as the Corpus Christi processions never existed in the early centuries, Ratzinger insists that they are nevertheless part of the developing spirit of ancient Christianity (133). Renewal of the Rosary is a spiritual discipline that should be constantly renewed (134).
Finally, given all of the discussion of Ratzinger’s brief involvement in the Hitler Youth, it is interesting to note his observation on that period: “First of all, I am bound to say that the faithful core of the Lutheran Church played an outstanding part in resisting Hitler. I remember the Barmen Declaration of May 31, 1934, in which the ‘Confessing Church’ dissociated itself from the ‘German Christians’ and so performed a fundamental act of opposition to Hitler’s totalitarian aspirations…Karl Barth expressed this very clearly in his refusal to take the oath administered to State officials” (167). Yet he treats the German Catholic church as above the fray altogether (168), which, of course, it certainly was not.
Unflinching in his discipline of Latin American theologians, Ratzinger says that liberation theology fails to bring true liberation, since it insists on “the immanentist perspective, the exclusively earthly standpoint of secularist liberation programs,” forgetting “that radical slavery which the ‘world’ does not notice, which it actually denies, namely, the radical slavery of sin” (173). He offers both an extended critique of liberation theology (173-186) and of capitalism (186-190). “What is theologically unacceptable here, and socially dangerous, is this mixture of Bible, Christology, politics, sociology and economics. Holy Scripture and theology cannot be misused to absolutize and sacralize a theory concerning the socio-political order.” It is the call to conversion from sin, not merely “changing the social and economic structures,” that the Church proclaims (190).
Having written his doctoral dissertation on Augustine, Ratzinger displays remarkable commitment to the Augustian theological heritage and recognizes significant areas of agreement with Protestants who share it. Furthermore, he sympathizes with the concerns of the reformers in the sixteenth century, following on the heels of the schism between rival popes in Rome and Avignon. Once more, in Principles of Catholic Theology, he writes,
For nearly half a century, the Church was split into two or three obediences that excommunicated one another, so that every Catholic lived under excommunication by one pope or another, and, in the last analysis, no one could say with certainty which of the contenders had right on his side. The Church no longer offered certainty of salvation; she had become questionable in her whole objective form--the true Church, the true pledge of salvation, had to be sought outside the institution. It is against this background of a profoundly shaken ecclesial consciousness that we are to understand that Luther, in the conflict between his search for salvation and the tradition of the Church, ultimately came to experience the Church, not as the guarantor, but as the adversary of salvation.7
He adds, “The possibility remains of taking this or that position with regard to the many-faceted legacy of the Reformation and of thus actually taking new steps to leave the past behind or, on the other hand, of assimilating from that legacy whatever is of permanent value” (222). For instance, with respect to Lutherans, what would it mean to recognize the Augsburg Confession? “It certainly does not mean that this document would be shown, by historical textual analysis, to be a correct or, at least, a dogmatically unobjectionable and permissible statement of Catholic doctrine” (227).
Whatever important gains in ecumenical openness Vatican II announced, it is important to see its continuity with Trent. More recent statements confirm this fact. In Mysterium Ecclesiae (1973), drafted by Ratzinger’s successor as prefect and ratified by Paul VI, we read, “The visible Church is herself also the spiritual Church, the Church of Jesus Christ. And even more strongly: this one and only Church, which is at once spiritual and earthly, is so concrete that she can be called by name: she ‘subsists in the Catholic Church, which is governed by the successor of Peter and the bishops in union with that successor.’” There is no ambiguity, Ratzinger observes: “—the full identity between the Church of Jesus Christ and the Roman Catholic Church—is clearly set forth…; but this full concreteness of the Church does not mean that every other Church can be only a non-Church” (230-1). “The followers of Christ are not permitted to imagine that Christ’s Church is nothing more than a collection (divided but still possessing a certain unity) of churches and ecclesial communities” (231). He also defends papal infallibility (234).
Trent’s internal reforms were only progressively and never fully realized. “I am convinced that we will make progress today, not by turning away from Trent, but only by a radicalization of what is to be found there” (266).
While Ratzinger displays careful exegesis of relevant texts and affirms a sense in which Christ’s mediation is exclusive, he argues that because Christ himself cannot be separated from his body, the church through its priesthood participates in that mediatorial work. “In consequence, the Church, insofar as she is ‘one in Christ Jesus,’ shares in his mediatorship. She is mediation with God because she is the form in which Christ remains present in history” (272-3). His real targets often are Kung and Schillebeeckx, not to mention the liberation theologians. Replacing “church” with “community”: “It should be noted that the concept of ‘gospel’ is as obscure as the concept of ‘community’ in recent Catholic publications. The fact that it is most frequently used in texts that are critical of the Church shows something of its Reformation character, although it is not clear (as Luther’s doctrine of justification is clear) precisely in what this consists. Instead of the great religious earnestness that Luther’s criticism of the Church manifests precisely because of this doctrine of justification, vague attitudes frequently appear that regard the ‘gospel’ all too often from the banal perspective of something ‘happy’ (the ‘good news’)” (291, fn 17).
In the Ratzinger Report, we are told that Vatican II has been left behind by the liberals and excoriated by some conservatives as a virtual repudiation of Trent and Vatican I. “Over against both tendencies, before all else, it must be stated that Vatican II is upheld by the same authority as Vatican I and the Council of Trent, namely, the Pope and the College of Bishops in communion with him, and that also with regard to its contents, Vatican II is in the strictest continuity with both previous councils and incorporates their texts word for word in decisive points.” Therefore, “It is impossible (‘for a Catholic’) to take a position for Vatican II but against Trent or Vatican I” (28). “It is not Christians who oppose the world, but rather the world which opposes itself to them when the truth about God, about Christ and about man is proclaimed. The world waxes indignant when sin and grace are called by their names. After the phase of indiscriminate ‘openness’ it is time that the Christian reacquire the consciousness of belonging to a minority and of often being in opposition to what is obvious, plausible and natural for that mentality which the New Testament calls—and certainly not in a positive sense—the ‘spirit of the world.’ It is time to find again the courage of nonconformism, the capacity to oppose many of the trends of the surrounding culture, renouncing a certain euphoric post-conciliar solidarity” (37). Charles Borromeo’s Catholic reforms (38-9). Trent was only made effective as its doctrinal reforms led to “a wave of holiness” among the people (42). “As John Paul II said in his commemoration of Borromeo in Milan: ‘the Church of today does not need any new reformers. The Church needs new saints’” (42-3). “Even with some theologians, the Church appears to be a human construction, an instrument created by us and one which we ourselves can freely reorganize according to the requirements of the moment. In other words, in many ways a conception of the Church is spreading in Catholic thought, and even in Catholic theology, that cannot even be called Protestant in a ‘classic’ sense. Many current ecclesiological ideas, rather, refer to the model of certain North American ‘free churches,’ in which in the past believers took refuge from the oppressive model of the ‘State Church’ produced by the Reformation. Those refugees, no longer believing in an institutional Church willed by Christ, and wanting at the same time to escape the State Church, created their own church, an organization structured according to their needs” (45-6).
But for Catholics, there is behind the human façade a structure willed by God, a “more than human reality…Thus without a view of the mystery of the Church that is also supernatural and not only sociological, Christology itself loses its reference to the divine in favor of a purely human structure, and ultimately it amounts to a purely human project: the Gospel becomes the Jesus-project, the social-liberation project or other merely historical, immanent projects that can still seem religious in appearance, but which are atheistic in substance (46).
The church is not simply “the People of God,” but “the Body of Christ”—ecclesiology is anchored in Christology (47).
A decided distinction is drawn between “classic” Protestantism (identified with Lutheran and Reformed confessions) and “sects,” which show little regard for the history of the church.
Whereas the theology of the Eastern Churches has never aspired to anything but patristic theology, the attitude of the Reformation toward the Fathers was, from the beginning—and still is—ambiguous. Melanchthon strove emphatically to prove that the heritage of the ancient Church, which had been abandoned by medieval Catholicism, was restored in the Confessio Augustana; Flaccius Illyricus, the first great historian of the Reformation, followed in his footsteps, and the work of Calvin, with its radical reliance on Augustine, takes the same direction. By contrast, Luther’s attitude to the Fathers, including Augustine, was always more critical (140).
Ratzinger is concerned with the spread of millennial-eschatological sects is in part a reaction against the poor preaching and teaching in the churches, but thinks that the apocalyptic prophecies delivered by Mary at Fatima can be a good alternative to such sects (118). “Sola scriptura” has led to a “free church” ecclesiology. “For the modern man in the street, the most obvious concept of the Church is what technically one would call Congregationalist or Free Church” (156-7).
What would the response be if Martin Luther had appeared on the scene today? Ratzinger replies, “Yes, I do think that even today we would have to speak with him very seriously, and that today too his teaching could not be regarded as ‘Catholic theology.’ Otherwise, there would be no need of the ecumenical dialogue, which is a way of getting into a critical discussion with Luther and asking how the great things in his theology can be held fast while what is un-Catholic can be overcome” (157-8). At the heart is his aberrant ecclesiology, which placed the exegete above the magisterium (158). Good signs: “An exclusive insistence on the sola scriptura of classic Protestantism could not possibly survive, and today it is in crisis more than ever precisely as a result of that ‘scientific’ exegesis which arose in, and was pioneered by, the Reformed theology” (160). For the churches of the Reformation, “it will always be hard, if not impossible,” to accept the Catholic doctrine of apostolic succession, which in principle denies ministerial orders to Protestant ministers (160-1). “As an example he [Ratzinger] cites Rome’s renewed refusal to allow ‘intercommunion,’ i.e., the possibility of a Catholic participating in the eucharist of a Reformed church. He says, ‘But it is not a question of intolerance or of ecumenical reticence: the Catholic confession is that without the apostolic succession there is no genuine priesthood, and hence there can be no sacramental Eucharist in the proper sense. We believe that the Founder of Christianity himself wanted it this way’” (161). Although there is reciprocal recognition of each other’s sacraments and ministry, the Orthodox also remain separated from Rome. “They cannot accept that the Bishop of Rome, the Pope, is the principle and center of unity in a universal Church understood as communio…Humanly speaking I do not see how there could be complete union, beyond the initial phase of practical steps which have already been taken” (162). The break with Protestantism remains serious. “The Eucharist is life, and, so far, we cannot share this life with those who have such a different understanding of the Church and the sacraments” (163). He adds that he has never been attracted to Protestantism, either in theology or practice (166).
With respect to other religions, Ratzinger reaffirms Vatican II while attempting to steer clear of a religious relativism.
It is part of the Church’s ancient, traditional teaching that every man is called to salvation and de facto can be saved if he sincerely follows the precepts of his own conscience, even without being a visible member of the Catholic Church. This teaching, however, which (I repeat) was already accepted and beyond dispute, has been put forward in an extreme form since the Council on the basis of theories like that of ‘anonymous Christians’ [Karl Rahner’s term]…According to these theories the Christian’s ‘plus’ is only that he is aware of this grace, which inheres actually in all people, whether baptized or not.” But this is to sever “the connection which the New Testament creates between salvation and truth, for as Jesus explicitly affirms, it is knowledge of the truth that liberates and hence saves (197).
Already in Vatican II we have the “emanation” theory of relation to Rome, according to which religions are connected to Christ as rays to the sun. Some are fuller of the sun’s brightness than others. In Redemptor Hominis (John Paul II's first encyclical, 1978), and The Attitude of the Church Toward the Followers of Other Religions (1984), Islam was recognized as a way to God, since Moslems are “spiritual descendents of Abraham” This is quite remarkable, given the New Testament argument that not even Jews are "spiritual descendents of Abraham" unless they have faith in Christ. In Lumen Gentium 16, Jews are closest of all non-Christian religions (with their own covenant of salvation), “followed by those who acknowledge the Creator, first of these being Muslims who profess the faith of Abraham; they are followed by those who seek the unknown God in shadows and images; and finally come those who have never heard of the gospel but try to live a good life according to their consciences.”
At the end of the day, therefore, our divisions remain because outstanding and unsettled differences over matters at the very heart of the Gospel, and therefore, of that faith that we profess. Not only Roman Catholics, but Protestants—including evangelicals, will have reason to be encouraged by many of the new pope’s teachings. And even where we disagree, often the same—sometimes worse, aberrations can be found in our own ambit. What we all need most is a new reformation that once again is struck by the wonder of a gospel that is by grace alone, through faith alone, because of Christ alone—to the glory of God alone. We pray earnestly for a widespread rediscovery of this heavenly message prophesied by the prophets, incarnated in Christ, and proclaimed by his apostles. Only in that prayer can we anticipate a fuller unity for the followers of Jesus Christ.
1. Mark Galli, Christianity Today Magazine on-line, April 21, 2005, p. 3
2. Reported by Edmund Doogue, Christianity Today, 2/1/01
3. Reported by Luigi Sandri in Rome, Cedric Pulford in London, and Edmund Doogue in Geneva, Christianity Today, Oct 23, 2000, p. 1, citing Ratzinger’s note dated June 30, 2000, published by Adista, a Catholic publication in Rome
4. Christianity Today editorial, Oct 23, 2000
5. Christianity Today, April 18, reported by Adelle M. Banks, Religious News Service
6. Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger with Vittorio Messori, tr. Salvator Attanasio and Graham Harrison, The Ratzinger Report: An Exclusive Interview on the State of the Church (San Francisco, Ignatius Press, 1985)
7. Principles of Catholic Theology, op.cit., 196