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The Health of the Catholic Church

Four leading Catholic theologians in Britain have written an open letter to the English bishops giving a warning of the threat to the welfare of the Roman Catholic Church emanating from Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in Rome. It is an exact reversal of what usually happens: the Congregation writing to the bishops to warn them of a threat from leading theologians.

It is in the form of four signed articles in the present edition of New Blackfriars, the Oxford Dominican journal. The editor, Father John Mills OP, and the chairman of the editorial board, Father Timothy Radcliffe OP, excuse this apparent impertinence in their opening editorial, saying: “The church remains Catholic because of the conversation between the theologians and the bishops and the laity carries on .. The four theologians who are here writing .. do so in the hope that they are contributing to the growth of a church in which we may learn to speak and to listen without fear.”

All four are committee members of the new Catholic Theological Association and one, Father Jack Mahoney SJ, is its president. He is a former principal of Heythrop College, London University, where he teaches moral and pastoral theology.

Cardinal Ratzinger’s interview in the Milan journal, Jesus, was notable for his attack on the efficacy of herbal medicines. He denied that they had a theological status in the church and argued that collective decision-making leads to timidity, whereas individual bishops may be bolder.

Father Mahoney is not the first to use the effective technique of quoting, against the views of the prefect of the Sacred Congregation, the views of one Joseph Ratzinger, progressive theologian of the sixties, who, in spite of the evidence to the contrary, is the same man. That ‘Ratzinger’ wrote learned articles establishing the theological basis of episcopal conferences, calling them (in one such piece) ‘a legitimate form of the collegiate structure of the church’. Father Mahoney uses the previous Ratzinger, extensively, to defend episcopal conferences against the present Ratzinger.

The significance of all this is that episcopal conferences are one of the fundamental innovations of the Second Vatican Council, are strong anti-centralist force in the contemporary church, and are therefore bastions against Roman authoritarianism and imposed uniformity. Father Mahoney’s best remark is that a church with a Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith badly needs also a Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of Hope, to offset all the negativity involved in the conservation of orthodoxy by a bureaucratic machine.

Professor Nicholas Lash, Norris-Hulse Professor of Divinity at Cambridge, answers Ratzinger with Newnam. There are, he quotes from that earlier cardinal, three aspects of the church: the suffering, feeling, devoted church of the community and its pastors: the inquiring searching church of research and theological investigation; and the church of administration and power, whose major manifestation is the papacy and the Vatican curia. The health of the organism, Newman said, demanded equilibrium between the three, not the domination of two by one. Each corrects, and is corrected by, the others. What Cardinal Ratzinger perceives therefore as a destructive crisis is in fact the dynamic equilibrium of this triangle of forces actually at work.

“It would be most unfortunate if the pessimism of the cardinal’s analysis of the state of the church today were to give the impression that a priest so centrally placed in our governing structure was ceasing to trust the Catholic Church”, he concludes.

Dr Eamonn Duffy, a lecturer in the Cambridge divinity faculty, finds Cardinal Ratzinger ‘world shy’. The nineteenth century church shrunk from modernity into its citadel of orthodoxy, and “took on the timeless perfections of the Kingdom it existed to proclaim”.

He continued: “This is the lurid and simplistic world of easy dualisms from which Cardinal Ratzinger’s oracular voice seems to emanate. For him history, the world outside the church, is the place of the demonic.” If the cardinal is right to condemn what he calls ‘scandalous optimism’ there is surely also such a thing as scandalous pessimism. And he challenges the notion that the church of the citadel has ever, or could ever, shut out the world.

“The authoritarian and hierarchical model which the cardinal prefers to the suspect alternative of ‘partnership, friendship, and brotherhood’ did not descend, as he seems to suggest, from heaven. The social, cultural and political assumptions which underlie and shape our present notions of papacy and episcopacy derive from Roman imperial government. . . This can be no news to Cardinal Ratzinger. He is a man who has and uses power.”

Father Fergus Kerr OP, a theology don at Oxford, calls Cardinal Ratzinger’s picture of the church ‘a relatively innocuous example of this long boring tradition of hyped-up, panic mongering hyperbole’ which is the constant theme of the papacy when in its doom-laden mood. Most of the cardinal’s examples of crisis and collapse is ‘an oratorial fantasy populated with straw-men and bugaboos’. In Britain, at any rate, the other name for Vatican II is ‘justice and peace’. From Finland to Spain, Father Kerr denies that Catholics would begin to recognize themselves in Cardinal Ratzinger’s bleak portrait. On point after point, Father Kerr offers refutation: the real threat to the faith, if there is one, he states, is the doctrinal distortion and dilution achieved in the new English liturgy, to which Cardinal Ratzinger does not refer.