Principles of Catholic Theology

Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger's Principles of Catholic Theology, pages 193-203



A. The Ecumenical Situation—Orthodoxy, Catholicism and Protestantism

Anyone who wants to make a prognosis for the future of ecumenism must first clarify what he understands by ecumenism, that is, how he sees the division of Christianity and what model of unity he has in mind. It seems to me that, among the incalculable number of divisions by which Christianity is torn, there are two basic types to which two different models of unity correspond. We encounter the first type in the divisions in the ancient Church between Chalcedonian and non-Chalcedonian churches; it is also typical of the split between East and West, although ecclesial differences of a hitherto unknown radicality played a role there. We encounter the second type in the divisions that have been formed in the wake of the reform movements of the sixteenth century.

The basic historical types of division in the Church

Let us attempt to analyze the two types in somewhat greater detail so that we may know what models of unity are appropriate to them and, thus, the hopes as well as the obstacles for ecumenism today. The split between the Chalcedonian and pre-Chalcedonian churches concerned the confession of Jesus Christ and was thus obviously central in nature: where there is no unity in confessing Christ, there can also be no unity with regard to the sacrament of Christ's presence, and thus the Body of the Lord is rent. We should note, however, that this confessional split refers only to a very recondite point in the conceptual elucidation of the mystery of Christ, for both sides are united in their acceptance of the Council of Nicaea as well as in confessing the consubstantiality of the Son with the Father and the Incarnation of God in Jesus. But this unity in accepting Nicaea assumes the unity of ecclesial and doctrinal structure that underlay Nicaea. It means unity not only with regard to a particular point but unity in the way in which the Church was formed from the word of Jesus and of the apostles, in the way in which Christianity was historically fashioned. This means that, along with Scripture, the Church that came into existence from and in Scripture is also truly and irrevocably accepted, in the basic form in which she had developed before Nicaea, as a vessel of the word. It belongs to this basic form that the bishops, by virtue of their sacramental consecration and the ecclesial tradition they received with it, personify the Church's unity with her source. In other words, that basic factor that has been expressed since the second century in the concept of the successio apostolica, the apostolic succession, belongs intrinsically to this structure. This means, in turn, that the structural unity has not been destroyed. Although the point at issue is a central one and thus brings about a separation, the basic form of the acceptance of the word in history, that is, the supporting nexus as such, is not disputed.

All this, as we have said, is basically true also of the separation between Rome and Constantinople that became the starting point of the division between East and West. Not everyone, it is true, especially on the Orthodox side, would agree with this opinion—which shows how time has served to intensify the gravity of the dispute. For, from the Orthodox point of view, at least according to one interpretation, the _monarchia papae_ means a destruction of the ecclesial structure as such, in consequence of which something different and new replaces the primitive Christian form. Because this aspect of the problem is, generally speaking, more or less foreign to us in the West, I should like to indicate in a few words how this impression has arisen in the East. For such a view, the Church in the West is no longer, under the leadership of her bishops, a nexus of local churches that, in their collegial unity, go back to the community of the twelve apostles; she is seen, rather, as a centrally organized monolith in which the new legal concept of a "perfect society" has superseded the old idea of succession in the community. In her, the faith that was handed down no longer (so it seems) serves as the sole normative rule—a rule that an be newly interpreted only with the consensus of all the local churches; in her, the will of the absolute sovereign creates a new authority. Precisely this difference in the concept of authority grew steadily more intense and reached its climax in 1870 [Vatican I] with the proclamation of the primacy of jurisdiction: in one case, only the tradition that has been handed down serves as a valid source of law, and only the consensus of all is the normative criterion for determining and interpreting it. In the other case, the source of law appears to be the will of the sovereign, which creates on its own authority (ex sese) new laws that then have the power to bind. The old sacramental structure seems overgrown, even choked, by this new concept of law: the papacy is not a sacrament; it is "only" a juridical institution; but this juridical institution has set itself above the sacramental order.

At this point, we should also call attention to the fact that the division regarding the concept of the relationship of sacrament and law was not something new in the second millennium; it reached deep into the history of the ancient Church. Rome had always acknowledged the validity of baptism even outside the orthodox community and, correspondingly, also the validity of ordination outside it, thus recognizing a certain distinction between the sacrament and the legal entity of the Church. For the East, the link between sacrament and Church had always been so total that it could never feel comfortable with this interpretation, which, in fact, also left it theologically somewhat helpless vis-a-vis the Christian reality of heresy; nor was the gradually evolving distinction between oikonomia [Greek characters in original] and akribeia [Greek characters in original] particularly helpful. Be that as it may, it is clear from our reflections that, in the second millennium, the suspicion was increasing in the East that the split with Rome was more extensive than earlier ones had been, that it destroyed the basic structure of the Church herself.

On the other side, the judgments of Rome regarding the East were becoming noticeably more stringent. The more primacy was seen to be a prerequisite for Church membership and, consequently, a prerequisite for salvation, the more inevitable was the question about the degree to which one could speak of real Church membership where this central prerequisite was wanting. As for the Western distinction between the validity and the liceity of the sacraments, the validity, it is true, was generally not questioned, but the more liceity came to be regarded as crucial, the less significant validity became. In summary, we must say that the division between East and West contained a fearful danger—that of growing into a break that would raise the question of the existence of Christian attitudes on either side. Behind the threatening cloud, however, the elements of healing remained. Unlike the East, Rome, it is true, placed great weight on those passages of the New Testament that speak of Peter, thus actually remaining true to the original tradition, of which a more apt and concrete expression exists nowhere else. The applications of these passages have, it must be admitted, in many respects outgrown their initial heritage so that, at first glance, they may seem to overlook the basic sacramental structure. But, in the real life of the Church and at the solid core of her constitution, the relationship with the sacraments remained always vital and, precisely by reason of its union with the office of Peter, sustained the whole structure. A closer approach to and awareness of one another can hardly ignore this fundamental unity, which, in the whole course of the dispute, has never been impugned. The West may point to the absence of the office of Peter in the East—it must, nevertheless, admit that, in the Eastern Church, the form and content of the Church of the Fathers is present in unbroken continuity. The East may criticize the existence and function of the office of Peter in the West, but it must also be aware that, because of it, no other Church exists in Rome than that of the first millennium—of the time when a common Eucharist was celebrated and when but one Church existed.

With Luther another kind of division that had its roots in Augustine appeared in the Church. The split between Donatists and Catholics that rent the Church of his African homeland caused the great doctor of the Church to distinguish with a sharpness until then unknown between the theological greatness of the Church as a salvific reality and her empirical existence: many who seem to be in the Church are outside her; many who seem to be outside her are in her. The true Church is the number of the predestined who, on the one hand, transcend the visible Church while, on the other hand, the reprobate are present at her very center. For Augustine, it must be admitted, this concept had no adverse repercussions with regard to the value of the sacramental and apostolic structure of the Church and her tradition. But the great Western schism of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries had imbued it with a degree of realism that would have been inconceivable up to that time. 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. The concept of the Church was limited, on the one hand, to the local community; on the other hand, it embraced the community of the faithful throughout the ages who are known only to God. But the community of the whole Church as such is no longer the bearer of a positively meaningful theological content. Ecclesial organization is now borrowed from the political realm because it does not otherwise exist as a spiritually significant entity. Thus there does, it is true, exist an important community of belief with the ancient Church wherever the credal texts are taken seriously, but its ecclesial anchor and, therefore, the binding authority that sustains its agreements or disagreements remain unclear although, in the ecclesiological development of the Protestant community, much has been restored as a matter of actual necessity that has in principle lost its raison d'etre.

Against this background we can now weigh the possibilities that are open to Christian ecumenism. The maximum demands on which the search for unity must certainly founder are immediately clear. On the part of the West, the maximum demand would be that the East recognize the primacy of the bishop of Rome in the full scope of the definition of 1870 and in so doing submit, in practice, to a primacy such as been accepted by the Uniate churches. On the part of the East, the maximum demand would be that the West declare the 1870 doctrine of primacy erroneous and in so doing submit, in practice, to a primacy such as been accepted with the removal of the Filioque from the Creed and including the Marian dogmas of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. As regards Protestantism, the maximum demand of the Catholic Church would be that the Protestant ecclesiological ministries be regarded as totally invalid and that Protestants be converted to Catholicism; the maximum demand of Protestants, on the other hand, would be that the Catholic Church accept, along with the unconditional acknowledgement of all Protestant ministries, the Protestant concept of ministry and their understanding of the Church and thus, in practice, renounce the apostolic and sacramental structure of the Church, which would mean, in practice, the conversion of Catholics to Protestantism and their acceptance of a multiplicity of distinct community structures as the historical form of the Church. While the first three maximum demands are today rather unanimously rejected by Christian consciousness, the fourth exercises a kind of fascination for it—as it were, a certain conclusiveness that makes it appear to be the real solution to the problem. This is all the more true since there is joined to it the expectation that a Parliament of Churches, a "truly ecumenical council", could then harmonize this pluralism and promote a Christian unity of action. That no real union would result from this, but that its very impossibility would become a single common dogma, should convince anyone who examines the suggestion closely that such a way would not bring Church unity but only a final renunciation of it.

As a result, none of the maximum solutions offers any real hope of unity. In any event, church unity is not a political problem that can be solved by means of compromise or the weighing of what is regarded as possible or acceptable. What is at stake here is unity of belief; that is, the question of truth, which cannot be the object of political maneuvering. As long as and to the extent that the maximum solution must be regarded as a requirement of truth itself, just so long and to just that extent will there be no other recourse than simply to strive to convert one's partner in the debate. In other words, the claim of truth ought not to be raised where there is not a compelling and indisputable reason for doing so. We may not interpret as truth that which is, in reality, a historical development with a more or less close relationship to truth. Whenever, then, the weight of truth and its incontrovertibility are involved, they must be met by a corresponding sincerity that avoids laying claim to truth prematurely and is ready to search for the inner fullness of truth with the eyes of love.

On the question of reunion between East and West

How, then, are the maximum demands to be decided in advance? Certainly, no one who claims allegiance to Catholic theology can simply declare the doctrine of primacy null and void, especially not if he seeks to understand the objections and evaluates with an open mind the relative weight of what can be determined historically. Nor is it possible, on the other hand, for him to regard as the only possible form and, consequently, as binding on all Christians the form this primacy has taken in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The symbolic gestures of Pope Paul VI and, in particular, his kneeling before the representative of the Ecumenical Patriarch were an attempt to express precisely this and, by such signs, to point the way out of the historical impasse. Although it is not given us to halt the flight of history, to change the course of centuries, we may say, nevertheless, that what was possible for a thousand years is not impossible for Christians today. After all, Cardinal Humbert of Silva Candida, in the same bull in which he excommunicated the Patriarch Michael Cerularius and thus inaugurated the schism between East and West, designated the Emperor and people of Constantinople as "very Christian and orthodox", although their concept of the Roman primacy was certainly far less different from that of Cerularius than from that, let us say, of the First Vatican Council. In other words, Rome must not require more from the East with respect to the doctrine of primacy than had been formulated and was lived in the first millennium. When the Patriarch Athenagoras, on July 25, 1967, on the occasion of the Pope's visit to Phanar, designated him as the successor of St. Peter, as the most esteemed among us, as one also presides in charity, this great Church leader was expressing the essential content of the doctrine of primacy as it was known in the first millennium. Rome need not ask for more. Reunion could take place in this context if, on the one hand, the East would cease to oppose as heretical the developments that took place in the West in the second millennium and would accept the Catholic Church as legitimate and orthodox in the form she had acquired in the course of that development, while, on the other hand, the West would recognize the Church of the East as orthodox and legitimate in the form she has always had.

It is only necessary that the East accept the same concepts of the papacy as they accepted before the Great Schism.

Such a mutual act of acceptance and recognition, in the Catholicity that is common to and still possessed by each side, is assuredly no light matter. It is an act of self-conquest, of self-denunciation and, certainly, also of self-discovery. It is an act that cannot be brought about by diplomacy but must be a spiritual undertaking of the whole Church in both East and West. If what is theologically possible is also to be actually possible in the Church, the theological aspect must be spiritually prepared and spiritually accepted. My diagnosis of the relationship between East and West in the Church is as follows: from a theological perspective, the union of the Churches of East and West is fundamentally possible, but the spiritual preparation is not yet sufficiently far advanced and, therefore, not yet ready in practice. When I say it is fundamentally possible from a theological perspective, I do not overlook the fact that, on closer inspection, a number of obstacles still exist with respect to the theological possibility: from the Filioque to the question of the indissolubility of marriage. Despite these difficulties, some of which are present more strongly in the West, some in the East, we must learn that unity, for its part, is a Christian truth, an essentially Christian concept, of so high a rank that it can be sacrificed only to safeguard what is most fundamental, not where the way to it is obstructed by formulations and practices that, however important they may be, do not destroy community in the faith of the Fathers and in the basic form of the Church as they saw her.

Because it has two elements, the above-mentioned diagnosis admits of quite opposing prognostications. What is theologically possible can miscarry spiritually and, in consequence, become once again theologically impossible. What is theologically possible can also be spiritually possible and, in consequence, become theologically deeper and purer. Which prognostication will prove to be the correct one cannot be foretold at the present time: the factors pointing to one or other of them are almost equally strong.

But the opposing prognostications that are expressed in this diagnosis should be construed not just as a theorizing about theoretical possibilities but as a practical imperative: it is the task of every responsible Christian and, in a particular way, of theologians and leaders of the Church to create a spiritual climate for the theologically possible; under the compelling mandate of a unity without sameness, to see and experience the antithetical at all times without specious superficiality; to inquire always not just about the defensibility of union, of mutual recognition, but even more urgently about the defensibility of remaining separate, for it is not unity that requires justification but the absence of it. The fact that opposing prognostications are possible means that the prognostication is also dependent on ourselves, that it exists in the form of a mandate and that to make us aware of this fact should be the sole meaning of any encounter that does not simply impart information but makes known a task and demands an examination of conscience that compels us to action.

Prognostications as to the future of ecumenism—the question is only half answered as long as we have said nothing about the prospects of unity between the Catholic Church and the Protestant denominations. In view of the overwhelming plurality of world Protestantism, the question is admittedly much more difficult to answer than that regarding Catholicism and Orthodoxy, which can be approached uniformly, as it were, from a common and consistent model. In any event, one thing should be clear: unity between Catholicism and Orthodoxy would not hinder but rather facilitate unity with the Protestant churches. Granted, the solution that is being proposed, in this context, in the suggestion of the Ecumenical Institute of the Faculties of German Universities, seeks a healing of the division in the rejection of the dogma and structure of the ancient Church. But we have already seen that such a solution would not lead to unity but would constitute its ultimate rejection. In view of the variety of positions and situations that exist in the individual Protestant denominations, I shall limit my remarks here to those churches that bear the stamp of Luther, but a model that will serve for all Protestant churches should become recognizable in the process. Logically, the search for church unity must begin with the denominational and ecclesial structure, however much it will also respect and appreciate precisely those sources of a quite personal piety and the spiritual strength and depth that are provided for the individual. But if what we are discussing is not a union between individuals but a community of churches, then what is at stake is the confession and faith of the church of which the individual is a member and in which he is opened to a personal encounter with God. That means: the reference point of such an effort must be the confessional writings of the Evangelical Lutheran Church; writings of private theologians will be taken into account only insofar as they contribute to denominational theology. Research in recent years has led to the conclusion that it was not just for diplomatic reasons that the Confessio Augustana [henceforth CA] [the preceding bracketed phrase is bracketed in the original] was composed as the fundamental Lutheran confessional text; it was intended to be interpreted under the law of the empire as a Catholic confession; it was understood with inner conviction as a search for evangelical Catholicity—an effort to filter the seething discontent of the early reform movement in a way that would make it a Catholic reform. Efforts are being made, accordingly, to bring about a Catholic recognition of the CA—or more accurately, a recognition of the CA as Catholic—that would establish the Catholicity of the churches of the Augsburg Confession and thus make possible a corporate union despite existing differences. Certainly such a recognition of the CA by the Catholic Church would be far more than a theoretical theological action that could be worked out by historians and church politicians. It would be, rather, a concrete historical step on both sides. It would mean that the Catholic Church recognized, in the beginnings thus made, an appropriate form for realizing the common faith with the independence that was its due. On the other hand, it would mean that the Protestant churches would adapt and understand this text, which is susceptible of many interpretations, in the way that was originally intended: in unity with the dogma and basic structure of the ancient Church. It would mean for both sides that the open question as to the center of the Reformation would be solved in a spiritual decision that would recognize the Catholic orientation of the CA and that the heritage of that time would be experienced and accepted in accordance with this interpretation.

The question of the practical possibility of such a development—the prognosis on the basis of the diagnosis—is much more difficult than it was with regard to a rapprochement between the Catholic Church and Orthodoxy. This, too, is a question that can be answered better by action than by speculation. What action? Generally speaking, certainly, a manner of thinking and acting that respects the other in his search for the true essence of Christianity; an attitude that regards unity as an urgent good that demands sacrifice, whereas separation demands justification in every single instance. But we can define the required action even more clearly in terms of the above diagnosis. It means that the Catholic does not insist on the dissolution of the Protestant confessions and the demolishing of their churches but hopes, rather, that they will be strengthened in their confessions and in their ecclesial reality. There is, of course, a confessionalism that divides and that must be overcome: on whatever side it occurs, we must speak of confessionalism in a pejorative sense wherever the noncommunal, the anti-, is experienced as an essential constituent and thus intensifies the division. We must oppose to this confessionalism of separation a hermeneutics of union that sees the confession of faith as that which unites. Our interest, that is, the interest of ecumenism, cannot be linked to the precondition that the confession will simply disappear but rather that it will be translated from its banishment to the realm of the nonbinding into the full meaning of a binding community of faith in the Church. For only where this happens is a mutually binding community possible; only thus does an ecumenism of faith possess the necessary stability.

The question about the prognosis for ecumenism is, ultimately, a question about the forces that are operative in Christianity today and that may be expected to leave their mark on the future. Two obstacles are opposed to the realization of Church unity: on the one hand, a confessional chauvinism that orients itself primarily, not according to truth, but according to custom and, in its obsession with what is its own, puts emphasis primarily on what is directed against others. On the other hand, an indifferentism with regard to faith that sees the question of truth as an obstacle, measures unity by expediency and thus turns it into an external pact that bears always within itself the seeds of new divisions. The guarantee of unity is a Christianity of faith and fidelity that lives the faith as a decision with a definite content but precisely for that reason is always searching for unity, lets itself be constantly purified and deepened as a preparation for it and, in so doing, helps the other to recognize the common center and to find himself there by the same process of purification and deepening. It is clear that the first two attitudes are closer and more immediate to man than the third, which challenges him to excel himself and, at the same time, reduces him to utter helplessness, demands from him inexhaustible patience and a readiness to be constantly purified and deepened anew. But Christianity, as a whole, rests on the victory of the improbable, on the impulse of the Holy Spirit, who leads man beyond himself and precisely in this way brings him to himself. Because we have confidence in the power of the Holy Spirit, we hope also for the unity of the Church and dedicate ourselves to an ecumenism of faith.