The Cardinal Ratzinger Nobody Knows

A recent book-length interview shows the head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith has little in common with the rigid guardian of the Faith fashioned by the American media

Salt of the Earth, Peter Seewald's thought-provoking interview with Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger (translated into English by Adrian Walker) ranges over a great many topics, but a few themes recur: Christianity's essential message, internal problems of the Catholic Church, Catholicism's quarrel with aspects of modernity, and contributions that an intact Catholicism can offer to the modern world.

Cardinal Ratzinger, a learned theologian and prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) since 1981, lives up to his description of himself as an Augustinian theologian. He clarifies the Catholic faith in simple terms as does Augustine in his homilies: he respects and uses reason, but thinks with the Church and brings contemporary thought into discussion with the Christian faith. Furthermore, the cardinal defends Christianity as an “ethical power” in the world.

In Hitler's Shadow

Joseph Ratzinger was born in 1927 and, therefore, had to endure Hitler's Third Reich between 1933-1945. He grew up in Bavaria, near the Austrian border, in a family of modest means. The relative poverty and financial difficulties created a strong bond of solidarity among his family members. As a young boy, Joseph attended the music festivals in Salzburg and developed a great appreciation for Mozart. He was also fortunate to receive a solid early education, including exceptional training in Greek and Latin. His father's religious fervor and antagonism to Hitler's regime wasn't lost on the young Ratzinger or his siblings.

After the war he finished his seminary and university studies and eventually became a well-known and respected theology professor in Germany.

“I tried, in the style of Saint Augustine, to place as much of the material as possible in a clear relationship to the present and to our own struggles,” he tells Seewald. His knowledge of theology, philosophy, literature, contemporary culture, and languages undoubtedly aided the effort.

Another outstanding characteristic of Cardinal Ratzinger is—contrary to his prevailing image in the American media—his openness to seeking the truth through discussion. As a professor he had the opportunity to have in-depth conversations with such theologians as Karl Rahner, Karl Barth, and Yves Congar.

About these conversations he said, “We didn't spare one another either. We knew that there wasn't any animosity among us, but that we were helping each other by analyzing things critically.”

As head of the CDF, Cardinal Ratzinger remains ever the inquiring theologian as he goes about his work. He has expressed special satisfaction with the CDF's work on the new Catechism of the Catholic Church, its statements on liberation theology and bioethics, and its extensive contacts with bishops'conferences around the world.

About his leadership of the CDF he says, “[W]hat I really have at heart is keeping this precious treasure, the faith, with its power to enlighten, from being lost, and this applies to the good and beautiful things that have accrued to it in our history.”

In the late 1960s the cardinal attempted to reveal the essence of Christianity by sketching six principles in a brief section of his well-known Introduction to Christianity. His sixth principle riveted my attention. It is the primacy of acceptance.

“From the point of view of the Christian faith, man comes in the profoundest sense to himself not through what he does but through what he accepts. He must wait for the gift of love, and love can only be received as a gift.”

The Essence of Christianity

In the interview with Seewald, the cardinal continues attempting to formulate the essential Christian message, not systematically, but in short snippets. For example, “The core of faith rests upon accepting being loved by God, and therefore to believe is to say Yes, not only to him, but to creation, to creatures, above all to all human beings, to try to see the image of God in each person and thereby to become a lover.” In other words, being able to receive from God, his Word and his grace, is the indispensable condition for loving others in the proper manner. The character of all human relationships depends on people's decision to love God or not.

Cardinal Ratzinger returns to this theme in the last two pages of the interview when Seewald asks, “What, Your Eminence, is the true history of the world? And what does God really want from us?” Before giving his answer the cardinal mentions Goethe's view that history is the struggle between belief and unbelief along with Augustine's well-known judgment that it is “the struggle between two kinds of love, between love of God unto sacrifice of self, and self-love unto the denial of God.” Cardinal Ratzinger tries to make Augustine's thought more precise and comprehensible by saying that history is the struggle between love and the inability or the refusal to love. God wants us to become loving persons.

The Church's mission, then, is to persuade and admonish people not to live badly. She must urge people to do all that love requires: the observance of negative and positive commandments, fidelity to prayer, the reception of the sacraments and adherence to the Creed. While the cardinal's comments on the essence of Christianity are crystal clear, he still has the same questions that everyone else has: “Why is the world as it is? What is the meaning of all the suffering in it? Why is evil so powerful in it when God is the one with the real power?”

Cardinal Ratzinger recognizes that appropriating the Christian faith is no easy matter these days. Catholic culture has disappeared from society and, in the cardinal's mind, is not likely to become a significant influence in the future. He places his hopes instead in the formation of pilgrim communities within the Church.

“She will be less identified with the great societies, more a minority Church; she will live in small, vital circles of really convinced believers who live their faith. But precisely in this way she will, biblically speaking, become the salt of the earth again.”

Future of the Church

These small groups, also described by Cardinal Ratzinger as mustard seeds and leaven, “live an intensive struggle against evil and bring the good into the world.“ How faithful is the Church to her mission? Seewald goes so far as to say ”that hardly any other institution provokes the world more than the Catholic Church.“ The cardinal agrees with this observation and argues that ”it says something for the Catholic Church that she still has the power to provoke.” The Church's challenge to error and evil is necessarily a scandal to a number of people, but an unmistakable sign of her fidelity to Christ. Cardinal Ratzinger, of course, deplores the kind of scandal in the Church that stems from her mistakes and defects.

While the formation of these small groups will always be possible, there are serious obstacles to the revitalization of Christianity within the Church.

“Today's Christians are often weary of their faith and regard it as very heavy baggage that they drag along but that they really aren't joyful about.”

Many are ignorant of the Bible, he adds, don't really understand their faith or the meaning of ordinary religious language and even lack the curiosity to ask questions. To make matters worse, sometimes theologians and bishops provide further obstacles to the recovery of Christianity. “Theology is a very important and noble craft.” Theologians, however, err when they determine rather than acknowledge what the Church is, according to the mind of Christ. They also go astray if they just pose questions, give the impression that reading the Bible is just too complicated for the ordinary person, fail to offer a positive way to faith, or undermine the correct beliefs of people who “can't fight back intellectually.”

Peace Is Not Primary

While Cardinal Ratzinger has great respect for the fine work done by many bishops, his love of truth prompts a penetrating observation about Church leaders who don't “appeal to the consciences of the powerful and of the intellectuals” or address such problems as the exhaustion of faith and the lowering of moral standards.

He says: “The words of the Bible and the Church Fathers ring in my ears, those sharp condemnations of shepherds who are like mute dogs; in order to avoid conflicts, they let the poison spread. Peace is not the first civic duty, and a bishop whose only concern is not to have any problems and to whitewash as many conflicts as possible is an image I find repulsive.”

A dramatic instance of the Church's failure to educate her flock in the early 20th century is evident in the rise of Christian anti-Semitism in all European countries. This anti-Semitism “prepared the soil to a certain degree” for “Hitler's annihilation of the Jews.” Cardinal Ratzinger's honesty about this and other defects in Church life can go a long way to promote self-knowledge, reform and zeal in the lives of Christians.

The decline of the Church and of Christianity is not just an internal matter, but “is partially to blame for the spiritual breakdowns, the disorientation, the demoralization” that is evident throughout the world. By invoking the common good of society the cardinal tries to persuade Christians not to compromise their faith by bowing down before the prevailing “dictatorship of opinion” that, alas, even good people are now afraid to oppose. Of course, the cardinal also attempts to persuade Christians to practice their faith for the sake of their own personal happiness.

Wrestling with Modernity

Cardinal Ratzinger's quarrel with aspects of modernity cannot be briefly summarized. He especially criticizes relativism, liberation theology, and feminist ideology (that “is a revolt against our creatureliness”) ideas about autonomy and the opposition to authority in today's world view, along with seeing everything as a struggle for power. The autonomous person, he points out, doesn't look to nature or revelation for guidance, or make use of reason to arrive at truth.

“If the autonomous subject has the last word, then its desires are simply unlimited.” The cardinal notes that we defend the freedom of inner spiritual self-destruction, and then inconsistently deplore its outward effects in the world. For example, “the pollution of the outward environment that we are witnessing [and legitimately oppose] is only the mirror and consequence of the pollution of the inward environment [i.e., the soul], to which we pay too little heed.”

Cardinal Ratzinger believes the role of the Church in promoting justice and freedom in the modern world is indispensable. The Church's formation of the inner man or her education of the soul is “important for keeping humanity together and for maintaining its human dignity.” In other words, the Church's education of conscience contributes to personal and political well-being. The cardinal defends the Gospel's message of judgment as an additional incentive to overcome our weakness, in addition to gratitude for God's love manifested in the life and death of Jesus Christ. He further notes that the consciousness of judgment by God moved medieval rulers to make amends for their deeds of injustice by various good works.

The history of the 20th century has surely shown that the Church is a force against repression and the dictatorship of opinion. “The bond of communion that is the Church is a counter-force against all worldly, political, and economic mechanisms of oppression and uniformization. She gives men a place of freedom and sets a sort of ultimate limit to oppression.”

To understand the meaning and importance of this statement one need only recall Pope John Paul II's visit to Poland in 1979 and his recent visit to Cuba.

J. Brian Benestad is a professor of theology at the University of Scranton (Pa.) and D'Alzon visiting professor of theology at Assumption College, Worcester, Mass.

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