The Ratzinger Report

There are zingers and then there are ratzingers. The Rapporto sulla fede, an interview with the Cardinal Prefect of the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, is chock full of both.

If a zinger can be defined as a barbed remark, deftly delivered, a ratzinger is a simple truth about the Catholic faith and/or Vatican II which takes on an edge because its opposite has been stated by seemingly authoritative figures for all too long.

The Ratzinger Report, by Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger and Vittorio Messori, has been published in a translation by Salvator Attanasio and Graham Harrison by Ignatius Press, Box 18990, San Francisco, CA 94118; $9.95). It is without doubt the most refreshing, sustained and sensible look at what has actually taken place in the post-conciliar Catholic Church ever to appear. The Cardinal uses the term “crisis” again and again. Like anyone else with eyes to see he knows that the faithful have been subjected to a systematic perversion of Vatican II that began even before the final session drew to a close. In these frank discussions, he makes no effort to disguise this situation. Things are bad but they can only get worse if we do not face up to reality.

This book grew out of interviewing sessions Cardinal Ratzinger granted Messori, an Italian journalist, for an article which appeared a year or so ago in an Italian publication and which was variously quoted and misquoted around the world. For the book, Messori conjoins with the remarks made during the interviews, passages from other writings and talks of Cardinal Ratzinger. The result, a remarkable presentation of the thoughts of a great theologian and now powerful Curia official, will come as a consolation to Catholics who have found these past years trying ones.

From time to time, during the years since the Council, I have heard intelligent people seriously say that the Church has made more progress in the past five, ten, fifteen years than in the preceding two thousand.

How this cheerful estimate could accord with the liturgical antics, the triviality and heterodoxy of much religious instruction, the revolt of the theologians, the exodus of priests and nuns, the abandonment of their patrimony by Catholic colleges and universities, the scandal of easy annulments, the strange stories of seminary life in the Age of Aquarius and all the rest of the sad litany that has marked the decline of the Roman Catholic Church would be difficult to say.

With few exceptions, our bishops have been spectators of this disarray, diverting themselves with unnecessary pastorals addressed to God knows who, while under their noses the aberrations listed above have gone on apace. It is not too much to say that there is a pseudo-tradition of heterodoxy that has established itself in these last years that will be very difficult to uproot. This can best be illustrated by the 1968 encyclical Humanae Vitae, Pope Paul VI’s reiteration of the Church’s ban on artificial contraception.

The dissident response to this encyclical was unparalleled in its boldness and insolence. Moreover, it was worldwide. Although elsewhere national conferences of bishops seemed to crumble before the onslaught, the response of America’s bishops was loyal. Of course, their expression of solidarity with the Pope and the Church’s immemorial tradition did not settle the matter. The dissent crescendoed rather than abated and the official countering of it weakened. Charles Curran’s tenure dispute at The Catholic University was symbolic of the struggle and when Curran received tenure the battle on behalf of the Magisterium seemed lost. Soon individual bishops were voicing personal difficulties with the doctrine/One auxiliary bishop, alleging personal anguish over the Church’s opposition to contraception, married a divorcee. A monsignor cashiered himself, saying he was unable to support the Pope. The situation was rich in comedy. But there was more than comedy, and I tried to present the complexity of it all in my 1973 novel The Priest.

It was the theological establishment which consolidated the confusion. Karl Rahner spoke of a second Magisterium of the theologians, one that competed with the episcopal Magisterium. This odd novelty was eagerly seized upon to legitimate the systematic questioning, obscuring and countering of Catholic doctrine on the part of those who were presumably its conveyors, explicators and systematizers. Soon there was no surer way to become confused about Catholicism than to take a course in theology at a Catholic college or university. No dogma was safe from the comment that “Some theologians wonder…”, with the suggestion that nothing was settled, everything open to fundamental change. And what of the meantime? Who was to adjudicate for the confused layman a dispute between pope and bishops, on the one hand, and theologians, on the other? Rahner suggested that history must decide.

Confusing discussions of the divinity of Christ, the Real Presence and the Resurrection might seem to have no immediate impact, but calling into question moral absolutes influences what one does here and now. Masturbation, premaritial sex, contraception, of course, and, of late, abortion and euthanasia are said by moral theologians to be sometimes morally permitted to Catholics. The erosion of Catholic moral practice as a result of this steady assault on Catholic moral doctrine by Catholic moral theologians over a period of two decades was inevitable.

Nor could this attack be justified as the kind of abstract theological questioning that has long gone on in the academy. It did not confine itself to professional journals or to the aulae of graduate schools. It was advocacy in the undergraduate college classroom, not a discussion among peers, and the corrupt doctrine soon descended into high school religious instruction and, of course, into marriage preparation courses. Even when the “official” doctrine is mentioned, it is with a wink and the swift soothing assurance that one must follow one’s own conscience.

Here is but one instance of a crisis of the first magnitude. There has been a systematic misleading of the faithful as to what the teaching of the Church unequivocally is on matters of sexual morality. From the Vatican, throughout this time, there has been a steady reiteration of sound doctrine such that no doubt as to the true teaching of the Church is possible. When Pope John Paul II visited the United States, he confronted the issue head on. If there ever was an occasion when our bishops had in their very midst and on their own turf a model of episcopal leadership, it was during that visit. On television, Father Richard McBrien nightly undercut the papal message, but one hoped that the American bishops would take heart and act like masters of the faith.

It did not happen.

Here was an opportunity and need to address the faithful on the very moral foundations of family life and sexual morality and to speak with authority and clarity on an issue that required both. The opportunity was there to make clear how different the Christian vision of sexual life is from the worldly. After too much silence, this would have required great courage. It would have meant taking on the theological establishment. It would have meant telling pastors to reassume the responsibility for giving their parishioners sound doctrine. It would have meant opening themselves to the savaging of the media, whose moral standards are far more decadent than those of the mass of Americans. The need for and the making of a great pastoral letter was there for anyone to see.

It was not written.

Our bishops seemed blind to what theologians were doing, to what religious education teachers were saying, to what was happening to the faithful in their charge.

To their great credit, our bishops opposed abortion, but such opposition could appear only an exercise in power politics when it was not lodged in a broad and coherent expression of Christian sexual morality.

Some who had dissented from the Magisterium, courageously changed their minds or withdrew their objections. Father Richard Roach, S.J., not the solitary boast of Marquette’s tainted theology department, is a notable instance. He attributes his change to the prayers of Carmelites. So too Michael Novak, in Confessions of a Catholic, came a long, courageous distance from his earlier views. But the pseudo-tradition of dissent reigns all but uncontested now.

As presidents in domestic trouble seek solace in foreign policy, our bishops fled the chaos in their dioceses and, thanks to their Washington staff, managed to get on the wrong side of most Latin American issues. But the “peace pastoral” was their big bid to regain respectability. And they did. In a sense. With the leftist media, with those for whom America is always wrong. (That pastoral may one day be remembered largely because it occasioned the founding of Catholicism in Crisis.)

The heady response to the peace pastoral, led the bishops on into the thicket of the still-being-drafted pastoral on the economy. As of now, it is doubtful that a second success will be scored. (Given the money spent producing it, this pastoral may be remembered only as a stimulant to the economy it sought to criticize.)

Far worse than the content of these pastoral letters, is the notion, much favored by Cardinal Bernardin, that the bishops have hit upon a new method of teaching. By this he does not mean that pastorals are produced whose contents are not understood by those who sign them, though Dinesh D’Souza has shown this to be the case. Cardinal Bernardin has in mind listening, dialoguing, and all the rest, which produces pastorals containing what are called “prudential” judgments of the bishops. This means that the bishops are asserting things with which Catholics may respectfully disagree. Indeed, the only thing in the peace pastoral with which a Catholic cannot disagree—according to Cardinal Bernardin in a commencement address at Notre Dame in 1984—is that the direct killing of the innocent is always wrong.

This has been correctly described as a squandering of episcopal authority. At a time when the circumstances in this country cried out for clear, authentic, no-nonsense teaching on moral and dogmatic matters about which the faithful had been confused by theologians, the bishops chose to add to the confusion by inviting the faithful to disagree with them on military and economic affairs.

Such is the confused face of Catholicism in the United States of America twenty years after the close of Vatican II. Yet those of us who draw attention to it are as often as not taken to be alarmists, or “conservatives” or people nostalgic for the past. It has been by and large the lonely voices of those speaking without authority that have been stating these simple truths during the ceaseless corrosion of sound doctrine.

The bishops have not admitted how bad the situation is.

Indeed, pleased with their peace pastoral, they seem rather inclined to congratulate themselves on how well everything is going.

It is against this background that Cardinal Ratzinger’s remarkable report will be read.

Far from dodging or denying how bad these twenty years have been, he calmly asserts that we are in deep crisis.

His appraisals are realistic, not negative. It is libelous to suggest, as some have, among them Monsignor George Higgins, that Cardinal Ratzinger wishes Vatican II had not happened.

What Cardinal Ratzinger wants to do is to rescue the council from the pseudo-tradition sketched above. “We are dealing with an authentic crisis and it must be treated and cured. Thus, I confirm that even for this healing process, Vatican II is a reality that must be fully accepted. On condition, however, that it must not be viewed as merely a point of departure from which one gets further away by running forward, but as a base on which to build solidly”(p. 34). In short, he would rescue us from that notorious “spirit” of Vatican II which has been regularly invoked to justify the aberrations mentioned above.

Quite unsurprisingly, Cardinal Ratzinger sees confusion as to the very nature of the Church at the root of the crisis in Catholicism. The attacks on the hierarchical Church, the male, paternalistic Church, with which we have become all too familiar, the assertion that Vatican II’s talk of the Church as the People of God has democratized and de-hierarchized the Church, all these are appropriately ratzingered in the Report. One sees here what is wrong with Cardinal Bernardin’s description of the new method by which episcopal pastorals are written. Dissidents understandably take this to be an implicit acceptance of the democratic Church which will eventually give us women priests.

It was Cardinal Ratzinger’s reiteration of his criticisms of episcopal conferences and their bureaucracies that drew the ire of a Monsignor Higgins. “The decisive new emphasis on the role of bishops is in reality restrained or actually risks being smothered by the insertion of bishops into episcopal conferences that are ever more organized, often with burdensome bureaucratic structures. We must not forget that the episcopal conferences have no theological basis, they do not belong to the structure of the Church, as willed by Christ, that cannot be eliminated; they have only a practical, concrete function” (p.59). The Catholic Church has an episcopal structure; it is not a federation of national churches. Ratzinger points out the intimidation and wheeling and dealing that go on in the voting sessions of such conferences. His critique of them is motivated by a desire to restore dignity and power to each bishop in his diocese.

Nor does the cardinal flinch from criticizing the criteria according to which bishops have been chosen during these past decades. Above all, he wants bishops to see their distinctive role, to assert their teaching authority, to be masters of the faith in their own dioceses.

On morality; “In a world like the West, where money and wealth are the measure of all things, and where the model of the free market imposes its implacable laws on every aspect of life, authentic Catholic ethics now appears to many like an alien body from times long past, as a kind of meteorite which is in opposition, not only to the concrete habits of life, but also to the way of thinking underlying them. Economic liberalism creates its exact counterpart, permissivism, on the moral plane” (p. 83). The divorce of sexuality from procreation, the exaggerated personalism of recent moral thought, must be countered with a Natural Law ethics. Consequentialism and proportionalism will not do.

On Women “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” (p. 97). “For the Church the language of nature (in our case, two sexes complementary to each other yet quite distinct) is also the language of morality (man and woman called to equally noble destinies, both eternal, but different” (pp. 97-8). The confused male seeks distraction in action, while the confused woman seeks solace in introspection.

Perhaps the most moving pages in the Report have to do with Mary. Ratzinger candidly admits that there was a time when he was inclined to think the emphasis on Mary exaggerated. The remark, De Maria nunquam satis, seemed too much to him. Now he better understands the role of the Mother of God. The final chapter of Lumen Gentium locates mariology firmly in ecclesiology, and the cardinal lists six ways of seeing the importance of Mary for the equilibrium and completeness of the Catholic faith.

In this connection, the discussion of the “third secret of Fatima” is intriguing. Has Cardinal Ratzinger read it? Yes. Will it be made public? Not now. Why? It might appear sensationalist. In any case, this third secret is consonant with what everyone already knows of Fatima. Since the role of Communist Russia in punishing a sinful world is at the heart of the Fatima message, the reader senses an almost apocalyptic tone in these pages. How quickly we have forgotten the Soviet part in the attempt to assassinate Pope John Paul II. What lies ahead? The Catholic Left persists in seeing President Reagan and Star Wars as the problem. But the reference to Fatima reminds us what a true pursuit of peace requires. War is the punishment for sin.

The liturgy. The need for penance. True ecumenism. There is more, much more. And the book includes the statement on Liberation Theology, which one is permitted to link with the Fatima remarks.

The Ratzinger Report could be read as a look at what has actually been made of the 16 documents of Vatican II. If he faces up to the misinterpretations of them, Cardinal Ratzinger is calling us to a correct interpretation. It is as if only now the council can begin to have its intended impact. From this point of view, one would like to think that the Report could serve as an agenda for the Extraordinary Synod which will be taking place when you read this piece. If so, we can hope for a call to order and then a new call to action in the true spirit of Vatican II.


  • Ralph McInerny

    Ralph McInerny was a popular writer, philosopher, and teacher, as well as the co-founder of Crisis Magazine. He passed away on January 29, 2010.

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