Cardinal Ratzinger’s Far-Sighted Address on Current Challenges in the Church

In a talk given to European bishops in 1989, the future pontiff foresaw many of the challenges afflicting the Church today, and proposed how to understand and effectively deal with them.

(photo: Register Files)

How can we best understand and handle what seem today to be incessant challenges to the faith from inside as well as outside the Church?

Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger gave some helpful pointers in a prophetic 1989 address in which he showed not only how these new revolutionary “paradigms” have evolved, but how to understand their specious nature, and in what way the faithful can effectively respond to them.

In his discourse to doctrinal commissions in Laxenburg, Austria, entitled Difficulties Confronting the Faith in Europe Today, the then-prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith pinpointed a “litany of objections” to the Church’s teaching and practice repeated by “progressive-thinking Catholics.”

The first of these objections, he said, was the rejection of the Church’s teaching on artificial contraception — a long-standing dissension which, during this 50th anniversary year of Blessed Paul VI’s encyclical Humanae Vitae, is now, for the first time, being promoted without censure by papal-appointed Vatican figures.

Cardinal Ratzinger said the rejection takes the form of placing artificial birth control on “the same moral level of every kind of means for the prevention of conception upon whose application only individual ‘conscience’ may decide.”

A second objection concerns the Church’s “discrimination” with regards to homosexuality, and the “consequent assertion” by progressive-thinking Catholics of a “moral equivalence for all forms of sexual activity as long as they are motivated by ‘love’ or at least do not hurt anyone.” Connected with this, he singled out the “admission of the divorced who remarry to the Church’s sacraments,” and, lastly, “the ordination of women to the priesthood.”

Cardinal Ratzinger noted how these “objections” question both sexual morality and the Church’s sacramental order, but are “very much linked together,” springing from “a particular notion of human freedom” and difficulties relating to the “Church’s traditional sexual morality.” Today, he said, man feels he has to “come to terms with his sexuality in a differentiated and less confining way” and he thus urges a revision of standards, ones which are deemed “no longer acceptable in the present circumstances, no matter how meaningful they may have been under past historical conditions.”


Conscience Rules

Such thinking, he added, claims to show how today we have “finally discovered our rights and the freedom of our conscience” and how we are “no longer prepared to subordinate it to some external authority.”

He added that for those who hold such opinions, the “fundamental relationship between man and woman” should be reordered in such a way that “outmoded role expectations” must “be overturned and that complete equality of opportunity be accorded women on all levels and in all fields.”  

The cardinal said it would be surprising if the Church, being the “conservative institution that she is,” would go along with such an ideology, but if she did, she would be obliged to “set aside the theological justification of old social taboos, and the most timely and vital sign of such a desire at the present moment would be her consent to the ordination of women to the priesthood.”

The future pope then turned to the roots of this “progressive-thinking,” and noted that its “key concepts” are the words “conscience” and “freedom” which, although supposed to “confer the aura of morality,” actually are a “surrender of moral integrity” and the “simplifications of a lax conscience.”

Conscience, he pointed out, is no longer understood as knowledge derived from a “higher form of knowing” but rather the “individual’s self-determination” — each person deciding for himself “what is moral in a given situation.”

Furthermore, he said the concept of “norms,” or the “moral law,” take on “negative shades of dark intensity,” and while an “external rule may supply models for direction,” for the progressive Catholic thinker it can in “no case serve as the ultimate arbiter of one’s obligation” — an argument used recently by a member of the Pontifical Academy for Life who placed conscience and responsibility above the moral precept of artificial contraception as an intrinsic evil.

These changes in approach, Cardinal Ratzinger said, are portrayed as “liberation” but actually lead to the disappearance of the differentiation between the sexes, precipitated by the separation of “sexuality and procreation” that was first “introduced with the [contraceptive] pill” and “brought to its culmination” by being able to “‘make’ human beings in the laboratory.”  

It has led, he added, to seeing as “unimportant” the differences between homosexuality and heterosexuality as well as other extra-marital relations — a “revolutionary vision” which lies behind the litany of objections to Church teaching he laid out at the beginning.

“Without a doubt this will be one of the principal challenges for anthropological reflection in coming years,” the cardinal said presciently, and predicted meticulous work is needed to discern which is in opposition to the faith’s vision of man, and which could be “quite meaningful corrections to traditional notions.”


Breathing in Paradigm Shifts

He then looked at how such thinking has come to be adopted by Christians, and concluded that it rests on a “far-reaching change of ‘paradigms’” that appear plausible while removing the old ones for consideration. Many Christians “breathe in” such an atmosphere, he said, which can easily appear more attractive.

“Who would not be for conscience and freedom and against legalism and constraint?,” he asked rhetorically. “Who wishes to be put into the position of defending taboos? If the questions are framed in this way, the faith proclaimed by the Magisterium is already manoeuvred into a hopeless position. It collapses all by itself because it loses its plausibility according to the thought patterns of the modern world, and is looked upon by progressive contemporaries as something that has been long superseded.”

To effectively respond to this, Cardinal Ratzinger advocated expressing the “logic of the faith in its integrity, the good sense and reasonableness of its view of reality and life.”

He also stressed the need to understand how this new revolutionary “paradigm” came into existence, and put it down to changes in three areas: The complete disappearance of the theological doctrine on creation which is connected to the demise of metaphysics; man’s “imprisonment in the empirical,” that is, knowledge based only on the senses, which has led to a “weakening of Christology” and essentially a lack of belief in the divinity of Christ; and lastly a loss of belief in the Last Things, and the fact that belief in eternal life “has hardly any role to play in preaching today.”

This has led, he continued, to the “Kingdom of God” being almost “completely substituted” by the “Utopia of a better future world,” but it is a yearning that “does not suffice.” Rather, it is dangerous, he added, “if the better world terminology predominates in prayers and sermons and inadvertently replaces the faith with a placebo.”

Cardinal Ratzinger ended by not wishing to appear too negative, but rather to set out the “obstacles to the faith in the European context” and to examine the “deepest motives which give rise to the individual difficulties in ever changing forms.”

“Only by learning to understand that fundamental trait of modern existence which refuses to accept the faith before discussing all its contents, will we be able to regain the initiative instead of simply responding to the questions raised,” he advised.

“Only then can we reveal the faith as the alternative which the world awaits after the failure of the liberalistic and Marxist experiments,” he added. “This is today’s challenge to Christianity, herein lies our great responsibility as Christians at the present time.”

The talk can be read in full on the Vatican website here.