Wednesday, January 14, 2015
The Heavyweight Prelate Debate
Editors, "New Oxford Notes," New Oxford Review (December 2014), pp. 17-19:
The questions of Communion for divorced-and-remarried Catholics and how to welcome homosexuals into parishes were the flashpoints in October’s Extraordinary Synod on the Family (see the preceding New Oxford Note), and a great many observers focused their attention on how and where these issues clash with Church doctrine and practices. But to restrict one’s focus to the immediate concerns of the synod is to risk losing the broader perspective — you know, the forest for the trees and all that. By stepping back and taking the longer view, we see that the synod is itself a flashpoint in a larger struggle within the Church — one that pits two opposing camps against each other, both of which are led by high-profile, heavyweight prelates who’ve dominated the post-Vatican II ecclesiastical landscape. The struggle involves the very definition of the Church; the main combatants are two Germans: Joseph Ratzinger and Walter Kasper.
In an article in the National Catholic Register (Oct. 19), Fr. Raymond J. de Souza, editor-in-chief of Convivium magazine, alludes to the debates Cardinals Ratzinger and Kasper carried out in theological journals toward the end of the previous millennium and the beginning of the current one. Ratzinger, de Souza writes, “argued that the Church universal was prior to the local Churches,” while Kasper “took the opposite view.”
What bearing does this have on the recently concluded synod? The debate took on a very public nature when, in 1993, Kasper, as a bishop in Germany, issued “pastoral instructions” to his diocesan priests to allow divorced-and-remarried Catholics to receive Holy Communion. The next year, Ratzinger, in his role as prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF), issued, with the approval of Pope St. John Paul II, a “Letter to the Bishops of the Catholic Church Concerning Reception of Holy Communion by the Divorced and Remarried Members of the Faithful,” which effectively overruled Kasper’s pastoral letter. It reminded the bishops of the world that “if the divorced are remarried civilly, they find themselves in a situation that objectively contravenes God’s law. Consequently, they cannot receive Holy Communion as long as this situation persists.”
But that wasn’t the end of the debate; it enlarged, covering additional topics, including the nature of the Church as expressed in the 2001 CDF instruction Dominus Iesus, of which Kasper was outspokenly critical.
For greater insight into this ecclesial sparring match, we dipped into the NOR archives in order to re-examine an article from our April 2002 issue titled “The Kasper-Ratzinger Debate & the State of the Church” by Philip Blosser, who currently teaches philosophy at Sacred Heart Major Seminary in Detroit. According to Dr. Blosser, the Kasper-Ratzinger debate was “representative of a much broader conflict” in the Church in those days — a conflict “between those, on the one hand, who are concerned to safeguard the unity of traditional faith and morals, and those, on the other hand, who are concerned with keeping abreast of the changing times.”
Sound familiar? The debates in this October’s synod centered on this same fundamental conflict. And here we thought, with Kasper’s retirement and Ratzinger’s abdication of the papacy, that this debate had been relegated to gathering dust on some back shelf in the Vatican archives. Alas!
Blosser examines Kasper’s 2001 article “On the Church” (published in English by the Jesuit weekly America), which, Blosser tells us, “was directed against Cardinal Ratzinger by name.” Essentially, Blosser says, Kasper “wants to argue that the early Church developed from ‘local communities,’ and that its centralized, hierarchical structure was a late development.” Although Kasper cedes Ratzinger’s point about the “pre-existence” of the Church in the eternal will of God, prior to all the accidents of historical development, he denies that this pre-existence can be used to argue, as Ratzinger does, for the “ontological primacy” of the universal Church over particular (or local) churches. Instead, Kasper hypothesizes a “simultaneous pre-existence” of the two, asserting that “the local church is neither a province nor a department of the universal church.” If particular churches retain the same level of primacy as the universal Church, then the various and sundry practices taking place at the local level rival the authority of impositions in the area of faith and morals “from above” — and from far away, in many cases. One can easily read in Kasper’s formulation an implicit defense of his earlier pastoral letter allowing Holy Communion for divorced-and-remarried Catholics in his particular diocese.
Kasper’s article, says Blosser, “is devoted to making the case for greater pastoral flexibility, primarily by stressing the need to ‘balance’ the Church’s legitimate concern for ‘unity’ with a greater allowance for ecclesial ‘diversity’ at the local level.” Yet, as is so often the case with radical ecclesial reformers, Kasper tips the scales in favor of diversity — as he understands it — over unity. In sum, Kasper’s article “is animated by a desire to secure greater ‘pastoral flexibility’ in areas where a gap seems to be widening between the Church’s official positions and the actual practices of many local churches” — and he seeks to do this by decentralizing Church governance. The gaps, then as now, involve the Church’s “widely controverted and ignored prohibitions against homosexual acts, premarital cohabitation, and ‘remarriage’ outside the Church — and her ban prohibiting those involved in these things…from receiving Holy Communion.” These so happen to be the very points of contention debated at the October synod.
According to Blosser, the “danger” implicit in Kasper’s calls for diversity and pastoral flexibility is that “certain kinds of compromises in areas of ecclesiastical ‘discipline’ (such as a policy of open communion for…practicing homosexuals and Catholics ‘remarried’ outside the Church) are leading to widespread rejection of Church doctrines that those areas of ecclesiastical discipline uphold (such as the very authority of the Catholic Church, the reservation of sex for marriage, and the indissolubility of marriage).” And to propose, as Kasper does, that “the disagreements at issue fall into the category of those where the Church has historically recognized legitimate differences of opinion” is to suggest to the unwitting observer that “certain questions of faith and morals (the indissolubility of marriage, the immorality of sex outside of marriage, etc.) may fall into the category of changeable matters of differing interpretation and legitimate debate.”
And this is precisely where we find ourselves once again, a dozen years later, in the wake of the Extraordinary Synod on the Family.
In opposition to Kasper’s 2001 article, Cardinal Ratzinger wrote an article titled “The Local Church and the Universal Church: A Response to Walter Kasper” (also reprinted in English in America), asserting that there is only one Bride, one Body of Christ, not many brides or many bodies. As explained by Blosser, “That the one Body has many parts does not abrogate the superordinating principle of unity. Diversity becomes richness only through underlying unity” — and that unity is found in the See of Peter. And here we have Ratzinger’s defense of his CDF letter rejecting Kasper’s approval of Communion for the divorced and remarried.
Fr. de Souza wonders whether Ratzinger, now Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, would be “surprised,” or perhaps “rueful,” that this debate has followed him and Kasper into retirement. What must he be thinking now that his successor, Pope Francis, has lavished so much praise on his onetime rival? De Souza finds it “breathtaking” that of all the cardinals Francis could have lauded in his first Angelus address as Pope, “it was the one most known over two decades for public conflict with Ratzinger/Benedict.” And, de Souza notes, it was “not lost on the College of Cardinals that, with Benedict less than two weeks into retirement, Pope Francis was highlighting the work of his longest and most vocal critic in the Curia.”
Also of no small significance is that, one year later, Francis invited Kasper to address the February 2014 consistory of cardinals — and he alone was allowed to speak; no alternative viewpoints were given consideration. Topping it all, de Souza finds it “astonishing” that Kasper was given “a leading role” in the October synod.
Noteworthy too, as our friend Phil Lawler at Catholic World News pointed out, is that while Kasper “repeatedly hinted that he was speaking for the Pontiff,” Francis “remained silent” — he neither confirmed nor denied Kasper’s assertion, leaving observers to draw their own conclusions. For those prone to doubt, the Pope’s actions speak loud enough.
Fr. de Souza reminds us of a forgotten episode in recent Church history: He takes us back to November 1985, when Pope John Paul II summoned the world’s bishops for an extraordinary synod to discuss the implementation of the Second Vatican Council, on the twentieth anniversary of its closing. Making waves at the time was a book titled The Ratzinger Report, a lengthy interview with the CDF prefect on an array of topics, including the state of the post-conciliar Church at the time. The book’s notoriety was so great that it prompted Godfried Cardinal Danneels to exclaim at a press conference, “This is not a synod about a book; it is a synod about a council!” Yet The Ratzinger Report proved to be a major factor in setting the framework for the synod’s debates, the lasting achievement of which was the promulgation of The Catechism of the Catholic Church seven years later.
De Souza points to a “peculiar symmetry” between that synod and the most recent one, three decades apart: The role Ratzinger played in the lead-up to the 1985 synod in “advancing John Paul’s agenda” was done this time around by Kasper for Pope Francis. All that was missing was some exasperated churchman to exclaim, “This is not a synod about a book; it is a synod about the family!” The book in question would be Kasper’s Gospel of the Family — the published version of his talk given before the consistory of cardinals (reviewed by Stephen J. Kovacs, Sept.) — which set the framework for the synodal debates that followed.
If indeed there is an odd symmetry between these two synods, with the Catechism as the “lasting achievement” from 1985, what will history determine to be the lasting achievement from 2014? As we await the outcome, we marvel at the reversal of roles of the two German cardinals: Ratzinger, who ascended to the pinnacle of power in the Church, is now overshadowed by his longtime rival, whose moment of glory might be yet to come.
Yet the chance remains that Kasper’s moment has already come — and gone. Jeff Mirus, Lawler’s colleague at Catholic World News, has expressed what he calls the “optimistic hope” that Kasper’s proposals are “actually now dead” (Oct. 24) since the synod’s final report failed to implement them. Time will tell whether his ideas live on in the mind of Jorge Bergoglio. Mirus also speculates that Kasper, in his old age (he’s 81), is “losing his grip.” Be that as it may, we mustn’t forget that Kasper’s greatest intellectual rival — the most convincing and authoritative voice to express opposition to Kasper’s ideas — willingly forfeited his grip on the levers of Church governance, effectively silencing himself. Even the ideas Joseph Ratzinger expressed so eloquently over so many decades are increasingly marginalized in Pope Francis’s Church.
One wonders: What must the Emeritus Pope be thinking now?
The foregoing New Oxford Note "The Heavyweight Prelate Debate," was originally published in the New Oxford Review (December 2014), and is reproduced here by kind permission of New Oxford Review, 1069 Kains Ave., Berkeley, CA 94706.