Cardinal Ratzinger’s Retraction: The Fruit of Theological Maturation

Pope Emeritus Benedict showed wisdom and humility when he retracted his statement in favor of Communion for divorced-and-remarried Catholics.

(photo: CNA file photo)

VATICAN CITY — News broke weeks ago that a new volume of Benedict XVI’s collected works was being released in German with an updated version of a 1972 essay, which no longer suggests that the divorced and remarried can receive Communion, as it once did.

But thanks to Sandro Magister and his translator, Matthew Sherry, the full text of his “Retractatio” is now available in English.

As CNA reported Nov. 25, Joseph Ratzinger published an essay in 1972, while a priest of the Archdiocese of Munich and Freising, which argued for access, under certain limited conditions, to Communion for the divorced and remarried. This line of argument was taken up in a 1977 book by Walter Kasper, who was then a priest of the Diocese of Rottenburg.

Father Kasper is now Cardinal Kasper, who, in a February address to cardinals advocating for the admission to Communion of the divorced and remarried, cited Ratzinger’s essay.

But as doctrine developed, Ratzinger moved away from his 1972 essay, humbly retracting the suggestion he had then offered.

In 1991, he wrote that the suggestions had been made “as a theologian in 1972. Their implementation in pastoral practice would, of course, necessarily depend on their corroboration by an official act of the magisterium, to whose judgment I would submit. … Now, the magisterium subsequently spoke decisively on this question in the person of (St. John Paul II) in Familiaris Consortio.”

Nicholas Healy, an assistant professor at the John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and Family, told CNA Nov. 24 that the development in Cardinal Ratzinger’s thought “shows us what it means to think with the Church. Sentire cum Ecclesia means allowing one’s partial perspectives to be integrated into the greater whole of the Church’s faith and occasionally corrected by the teaching office of the Church.”

Magister’s Dec. 3 article includes both the original conclusion of Cardinal Ratzinger’s 1972 essay and the new conclusion written in 2014. He writes that “it comes as no surprise … that Ratzinger should have maintained that it was inappropriate for Kasper to cite his 1972 article in support of his own theses, as if nothing had happened after that year.”

The new version of the essay has more than doubled in length — from 922 words in English to 2,059. And it reflects a personal maturation of thought, from the writing of a 45-year-old theologian-priest to an 87-year-old man who has been a bishop, the Vatican’s guarantor of doctrine, pope and, finally, pope emeritus.

The Original Essay

In 1972, then-Father Ratzinger wrote that, while the Church “cannot stop proclaiming the faith of the New Covenant,” in light of man’s hardness of heart, “very often, it is forced to begin its concrete life somewhat below the standards of the Scriptures.”

He wrote that, “in clear emergency situations,” the Church “can make limited exceptions in order to avoid worse things,” but that “this action cannot bring into question the foundational form itself by which the Church lives.”

He held that the divorced and remarried, in certain conditions, “find themselves in an emergency situation of a special nature” and that they can be granted Communion, citing two justifications in Tradition for this concession: the margin of latitude found in annulment processes and the attendant potential for injustice; and a corresponding practice known to at least some of the Church Fathers.


42 Years Later

But in 2014, Pope Emeritus Benedict has different concerns, writing a retraction that departs from the original text before the end of its first sentence.

In light of man’s hardness of heart, he now asks, “What can be done concretely, especially at a time in which the faith is being watered down more and more, even within the Church, and the ‘things with which the pagans are concerned,’ against which the Lord warns the disciples, threaten to become ever more the norm?”

The Church’s role, Benedict writes, is, first of all, to proclaim the faith, so that it will be “living and strong,” saying that “the healing of ‘hardness of heart’ can come only through faith,” but that the Church must also “plumb the breadth and boundaries of the words of Jesus.”

Since nullity can arise from both a lack of form and a lack of understanding (of consent), Benedict asks, “Can it still be presumed today that persons know ‘by nature’ about the definitiveness and indissolubility of marriage and that they consent to it with their Yes? … Can the intention of the definitive Yes be taken for granted or should one not expect the contrary, that there is already a predisposition to divorce?”

“This makes it clear how important a correct preparation for the sacrament is today,” the emeritus bishop of Rome writes.

In light of all this, processes of annulment have to live in the tension between two poles: They mustn’t become “a disguised form of divorce,” but they must also “examine with the necessary conscientiousness the issues of possible nullity and, where there may be just reasons in favor of annulment, express the corresponding sentence.”

Two further elements Benedict has identified as problems in the area of marriage validity are that while some are unable to contract marriage because of “psychological factors,” and we are now better able to perceive these, nullity should not be “rashly construed” on the basis of psychological problems; and a difficulty arises in the case of “baptized pagans” — those who have been baptized yet “not believe and have never known the faith.”

On the basis of all this, Benedict says, the Catholic Church “on the one hand knows that it is strictly bound to the word of the Lord on the indissolubility of marriage; but on the other hand [it] has also sought to recognize the limits of this guideline in order not to impose on persons more than is necessary.”

The pope emeritus notes in particular the value of pastoral care for the divorced, saying it is an “important task” that “perhaps has not yet been sufficiently incorporated into the Church’s everyday life.”

The divorced can and should participate in the Church’s life, Benedict said, adding, “I think that they should be granted the possibility of participating in ecclesial associations and even of becoming godfathers or godmothers, something that the law does not provide for as of now.”

The push for the divorced and remarried to receive Communion is acute, he writes, because nearly everyone who attends Mass goes to receive. In light of this, he says, “I maintain that St. Paul’s warning about examining oneself and reflecting on the fact that what is at issue is the body of the Lord should be taken seriously once again,” adding that such self-examination would “represent a form of solidarity with divorced-and-remarried persons.”

As a final suggestion for pastoral care, the former pope noted that it is in some places now customary that those who cannot receive Communion approach the priest for a blessing, “which is given to them as a sign of the love of Christ and of the Church.”

“This form could certainly be chosen also by persons who are living in a second marriage and therefore are not admitted to the Lord’s table,” he concludes. “The fact that this would make possible an intense spiritual communion with the Lord, with his whole body, with the Church, could be a spiritual experience that would strengthen and help them.”