Joseph Ratzinger’s stages (II): Prefect (1982–2005)

As prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Joseph Ratzinger carried out an immense and hidden work, but he also became known for the lucidity of his conferences, courses and interviews, which developed his theological contribution and placed him in the life and reflection of the Church.

Juan Luis Lorda·8 de septiembre de 2022·Tiempo de lectura: 8 minutos

Original Text of the article in Spanish here

When Joseph Ratzinger became Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (1982) he was a well-known German theologian, with a small body of work, a successful book (Introduction to Christianity, 1968) and a small manual (Eschatology); in German he had a fair number of articles and a few books. Not much more. And one would have expected that his work as Prefect would put an end to his research. Moreover, his work there was intense and absorbing, over many years: 1982–2005, twenty-three years, the same length as his time as professor of theology (1954–1977). But, fortunately, he did not disappear as a theologian. And this is due, in the first place, to the fact that the post placed him face to face with the great questions raised in the Church; with what John Paul II wanted to do; with the doctrinal problems that arrived at the Congregation, the work of the ecumenical commissions, the International Theological Commission and the Pontifical Biblical Commission, and with the concerns and consultations of the world’s episcopate.

A way of working

Another Prefect would, perhaps, have passed on the responsibility of studying these matters to expert theologians, reserving to himself an ultimate prudential judgment. Ratzinger could call on other experts, but being an “expert theologian” himself, he also needed to have a clear personal opinion on these questions, to increase his knowledge and to develop his judgment. And it was up to him to explain his mind in the various forums of work in the Congregation and in meetings with bishops. In 1982, for instance, he gave a course to Celam on Jesus Christ; in 1990, another to the bishops of Brazil on the situation of catechesis, collected in The Church: a community always on the way (1991). Most of these interventions, conferences, courses and contributions to tributes (festschrifts) were written by him personally, unlike the normal way of working in this type of position. He wrote them out in pencil, in his minute handwriting; and he reworked them for publication. Then, with remarkable perseverance, he collected them together in books each with a certain thematic unity, retouching them again and carefully explaining the origin of each text. In this way, the threads of the story which originated from his time as a teacher were developed, enriched and coordinated over the years. His work is not, therefore, a collection of occasional writings that needed to get done, but a powerful body of ideas on the great themes.

A media impact

Certainly, given his personality and his shyness, Ratzinger never thought of a media strategy. But it happened anyway. The beginning was a surprise book-length interview, The Ratzinger Report (1985), on the way the Council had been applied, responding to the journalist Vittorio Messori. Uncomfortable, because it was still in bad taste in ecclesiastical circles to insinuate that something had gone wrong, despite the obvious figures: no one wanted to admit that the traditionalist reaction might have a point. But Joseph Ratzinger did not like this stupid two-sided scheme. He had no doubts about the value of the Council, but he had misgivings about the drifts. Later, the magazine 30 Days, of Comunione e Liberazione (which was set up in 1988 and closed in 2012), disseminated his conferences and interviews in many languages, generating a growing interest. In 1996, he published an interview with Peter Seewald, Salt of the Earth, and in 2002, God and the World, which allowed him to express himself with frankness and simplicity. In 1998, when he was already a well-known personality and was speaking and writing more actively, the Zenit news agency was set up; it immediately began to translate and distribute Ratzinger’s commentaries in many languages on the Internet. This helped to multiply the editions of his books, because everything was of interest. Minor works and sermons from his time as a professor and when he was archbishop of Munich were republished. In a difficult time for the Church, Cardinal Ratzinger had become the point of reference for many intellectual questions, which accompanied the work of renewal of John Paul II. And this continued to grow until he was elected Pope in 2005.

In this way, Ratzinger went from a few well-known works (above all, Introduction to Christianity) to a considerable body of books in many languages, with a certain dispersion of titles. Materials later reordered, again systematically, for his Collected Works.

Work in the Congregation

Ratzinger’s task in the Congregation was, in the first place, to back up Pope St John Paul II in his endeavors. Especially in the encyclicals with greater doctrinal weight: Donum vitæ (1987), on the morality of life; Veritatis splendor (1993), on the foundations of Catholic morality; Fides et ratio (1998); as well as the Catechism of the Catholic Church (1992). In each of these documents, there was much preparatory work and important subsequent commentary by the then-Cardinal Ratzinger. On the encyclicals and moral questions, for example, his book Faith as a Way (1988). The whole activity of John Paul II and his initiatives on the millennium, the purification of historical memory, the thematic synods and ecumenical relations demanded a lot of work from Ratzinger. He also had to deal with the most difficult aspects of the Church, the grave sins of the clergy, which were then reserved to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith: it was up to him to clarify and confront the entire child abuse crisis, intervene in cases, demand investigations, renew the protocols of action and promote the appropriate canonical expression. In addition, there were six major areas of doctrinal tension, which required a great deal of theological discernment. We can divide them into two groups: those having to do with the coherence of Catholic theology, and those having to do with ecumenical dialogue and dialogue with other religions.

Discernments on Catholic theology

1. Modern culture produced and produces questions on doctrinal and moral issues, with all that is uncomfortable to believe (Divinity and Resurrection of Christ, Eucharistic presence, eschatology, angels…) or to practice (sexual morality, gender issues, no to abortion and euthanasia). They required constant clarifications, such as, among many, the apostolic letter Ordinatio sacerdotalis (1994) on the impossibility of the female priesthood; and corrections: Küng, Schillebeeckx (1984), Curran (1986)… which were discussed with the authors, and distorted inexhaustibly in the media.

2. During the Council there had been a certain transfer of doctrinal authority from bishops to experts and theologians. This sometimes encouraged an unbalanced attitude, as if the theologians were the protagonists. But the faith is not sustained by theological speculation, and it is better expressed in the liturgy and prayer of the faithful than at the theologian’s desk. Thus was born the Instruction Donum veritatis, on the ecclesial vocation of the theologian (1990). With his commentaries and other writings, the cardinal would compose The Nature and Mission of Theology (1993).

The authentic interpretation of the Council was also at issue: whether it should be based on the approved “letter” or on the “spirit” of the Council, incarnated in certain theologians, according to the shocking proposal made by the historian Giuseppe Alberigo. On the other side there was Lefevbre’s criticism of the Council, which occupied the Prefect a lot, trying to avoid a schism. In addition to the Ratzinger Report, Joseph Ratzinger had already written a great deal about the contribution of the Council; all of this is collected in volume XII of his Complete Works.

4. On the other hand, the Communist ideology, with points of contact with the Christian spirit (concern for the poor) but with very distant presuppositions and methods, pushed towards total revolution, utopian and “redeeming”, and not towards NGOs, modest and transforming, which would only resurface after the ideological gale. Moreover, in the explosive social situation of some Latin American countries, Communism gave wings to the Theologies of Liberation and to revolutionary allegiences that proved successful in overthrowing governments but disastrous in running countries. A discernment was necessary, and it was made in the Instructions Libertatis nuntius (1984) and Libertatis conscientia (1986). Besides correcting the work of Leonardo Boff (1985), who did not accept correction, and dialoguing with Gustavo Gutierrez, who was never censored and whose position evolved.

Discernments in ecumenism and with other religions

1. Ecumenical relations made it necessary to clarify—first with the Anglicans, and then with the Orthodox—the meaning of the communion of particular Churches in the universal Church, and also Papal primacy. With the Protestants, a historic agreement was reached (with reservations) on the classic theme of justification (1999), and the sacrament of Holy Orders was also discussed. The notion (and exercise) of “communion”, a very important theme in the theology of the 20th century, is a crucial one for the Orthodox to be able to see themselves in communion with the Catholic Church, leaving aside the difficulties of history and mentality. Hence the Letter Communionis notio, on some aspects of the Church considered as communion (1992), which is related to many of the Cardinal’s earlier and later writings on ecclesiology and ecumenism (volume VIII of his Complete Works).

2. The dynamism of Christian life, especially in India but also in Africa, demanded a view of the value of religions, religious syncretism and the place of Christ and the Church, and also of liturgical inculturation. The letter Orationis formas (1989), on the form of Christian prayer, and the notification on the writings of De Mello (1998), pointed the danger of possible syncretism. Meanwhile the Declaration Dominus Iesus, on the uniqueness and salvific universality of Jesus Christ and the Church (2000), laid the theological foundations for the Church’s dialogue with the religions of the world at the beginning of the third millennium. Ratzinger worked extensively on this theme, both before and after the Declaration; particularly important were his lectures at the Sorbonne (1999). These and other writings went into his Truth and Tolerance: Christian Belief and World Religions (2003).

Three major themes

Nevertheless, there were three more key themes in the mind of the Prefect and theologian. The first was the Liturgy which, in his growing experience, is the soul of the Church’s life, where she expresses her faith. Ratzinger collected his many interventions on liturgical themes, renewed during his time as archbishop of Munich. In addition, he composed a new study, The Spirit of the Liturgy (1999), on the essence and form of the liturgy and the role of art; and in parallel, he compiled his preaching on the liturgical seasons and the saints, and reaffirmed that true theology must draw its experience from holiness. These make up volume XIV of his Complete Works

Then there was Ratzinger’s concern for the new exegesis, from which he learned much, but which seemed to him to come too much between the Bible and the Church, and which could alienate the figure of Christ. The document of the Pontifical Biblical Commission on The Interpretation of the Bible in the Church (1993) did not excite him; he took advantage of his honorary doctorate at the University of Navarra to speak on the place of exegesis in theology (1998). In addition, he had for years been shaping a “Spiritual Christology” with a faith-based exegesis. He had already published Behold the Pierced One (1984), as well as the Celam course on Jesus Christ (1982) and other beautiful texts on the Heart of Jesus. And in his book A New Song for the Lord (1999), in addition to materials on liturgy, he brought together two courses on Christ and the Church (one at the Escorial, 1989); he also vindicated the living figure of the Lord in On the Way to Jesus Christ (2005). He wanted to retire in order to write this “Spiritual Christology”, with an adequate exegetical background, but he was only able to do so, in snatched moments, when he became Pope.

Finally, in conferences to concrete requests, he develops a “new political thought” on the situation of the Church in the post-Christian world. He collects them in several books: in Truth, Values, Power: The Cornerstones of a Pluralistic Society (1993); in Europe: Today and Tomorrow (2004), which contains among other things his famous dialogue with Jürgen Habermas; and in Christianity and the Crisis of Cultures (2005), with his last conference in Subiaco, on the brink of the papal election.

These are themes that will become famous: “the dictatorship of relativism”, the need for a pre-political moral foundation (“etsi Deus daretur”), the convenience of “broadening reason” in the face of the reductive pretensions of the scientific method, and also that the new sciences function, de facto, with “another first philosophy”.

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