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The Canon of Criticism


Peter Seewald: Referring to criticism of the Church, you once spoke of a classical "canon of issues": women's ordination, contraception, celibacy, the remarriage of divorced persons. This discussion seems to be going wearyingly in circles. Perhaps a few clarifications would help us get beyond this impasse.

Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger

Referring to criticism of the Church, you once spoke of a classical "canon of issues": women's ordination, contraception, celibacy, the remarriage of divorced persons. This list is from 1984. The "Petition of the People of the Church" of 1995 in Austria, Germany, and Switzerland shows that this canon of issues hasn't changed one iota. The discussion seems to be going wearyingly in circles. Perhaps a few clarifications would help get beyond this impasse. It seems to me that many don't know exactly what they're talking about when they speak of the papacy and priesthood, that they actually don't know the meaning of these terms.

I would stress again that all of these are certainly genuine issues, but I also believe that we go astray when we raise them to the standard questions and make them the only concerns of Christianity. There is a very simple reflection that argues against this (which, by the way, Johann Baptist Metz has mentioned in an article on the "Petition of the People of the Church"). These issues are resolved in Lutheran Christianity. On these points it has taken the other path, and it is quite plain that it hasn't thereby solved the problem of being a Christian in today's world and that the problem of Christianity, the effort of being a Christian, remains just as dramatic as before. Metz, if I recall correctly, asks why we ought to make ourselves a clone of Protestant Christianity. It is actually a good thing, he says, that the experiment was made. For it shows that being Christian today does not stand or fall on these questions. That the resolution of these matters doesn't make the gospel more attractive or being Christian any easier. It does not even achieve the agreement that will better hold the Church together. I believe we should finally be clear on this point, that the Church is not suffering on account of these questions.

The Dogma of Infallibility

Let us begin, then, with a point that the Protestants crossed off the list quite early on, the dogma of infallibility. Now, what does this dogma really mean? Is it correctly or falsely translated when we assume that everything the Holy Father says is automatically sacred and correct? I would like to put this question at the beginning of the canon of criticism because it seems especially to agitate people, for whatever reasons.

You have in fact touched upon an error. As a matter of fact, this dogma does not mean that everything the Pope says is infallible. It simply means that in Christianity, at any rate, as Catholics believe, there is a final decision-making authority. That ultimately there can be binding decisions about essential issues and that we can be certain that they correctly interpret the heritage of Christ. In one form or another this obligatoriness is present in every Christian faith community, only it is not associated with the Pope.

For the Orthodox Church, too, it is clear that conciliar decisions are infallible in the sense that I can be confident that here the inheritance of Christ is correctly interpreted; this is our common faith. It's not necessary for each person, as it were, to distill it and extract it from the Bible anew; rather, the Church has been given the possibility of reaching communal certainty. The difference from Orthodoxy is only that Roman Christianity recognizes another level of assurance in addition to the ecumenical council, namely, the successor of Peter, who can likewise provide this assurance. The Pope is of course bound to certain conditions in this matter, conditions that guarantee and in addition put him under the deepest obligation that he doesn't decide out of his own subjective consciousness but in the great communion of the tradition.

It did take a long time, though, to find this solution.

Well, councils were also held before there was any theory of councils. The Fathers of the Council of Nicaea, the first council, which was held in 325, didn't have any idea what a council was; in fact it was the emperor who had convoked it. Nevertheless, they were already clear that not only they themselves had spoken but that they were entitled to say (what the council of the apostles also says) "It has seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us" (Acts 15:28). This means: the Holy Spirit has decided with us and through us. The Council of Nicaea then speaks of three primatial sees in the Church, namely, Rome, Antioch, and Alexandria, thus naming jurisdictions connected with the Petrine tradition. Rome and Antioch are the episcopal sees of Saint Peter, and Alexandria, as Mark's see, was, as it were, tied to the Petrine tradition and assumed into this triad.

Very early on the bishops of Rome knew clearly that they were in this Petrine tradition and that, together with the responsibility, they also had the promise that helped them to live up to it. This subsequently became very clear in the Arian crisis, when Rome was the only authority that could face up to the emperor. The bishop of Rome, who naturally has to listen to the whole Church and does not creatively produce the faith himself, has a function that is in continuity with the promise to Peter. To be sure, only in 1870 was it then given its definitive conceptual formulation.

Perhaps we ought also to note that in our day an understanding is awakening even outside Catholic Christianity that a guarantor of unity is necessary for the whole. This has emerged in the dialogue with the Anglicans, for example. The Anglicans are ready to acknowledge, as it were, providential guidance in tying the tradition of primacy to Rome, without wanting to refer the promise to Peter directly to the Pope. Even in other parts of Protestant Christianity there is an acknowledgment that Christianity ought to have a spokesman who can express it in person. And also the Orthodox Church has voices that criticize the disintegration of the Church into autocephalies (national Churches) and instead of this regard recourse to the Petrine principle as meaningful. That is not an acknowledgment of the Roman dogma, but convergences are becoming increasingly clear.

The Gospel: Affirmation or Condemnation?

The traditional morality of the Church, according to one criticism, is really based on guilt feelings. It is above all negative in its evaluation of sexuality. The Church, it is said, has also imposed burdens that have nothing to do with revelation. Now there is the idea that we ought to cease basing Christian theology on sin and contrition. It is necessary and possible, they say, to rediscover the mystery of religious experience beyond religious norms.

The sloganlike opposition between "condemnation" and "affirmation" [Droh-BotschaftlFroh-Botschaft: threatening news/ good news] is one that I have never thought highly of. For whoever reads the Gospel sees that Christ preached the good news but that precisely the message of judgment is a part of it. There are quite dramatic words of judgment in the Gospel that can really make one shudder. We ought not to stifle them. The Lord himself in the Gospel obviously sees no contradiction between the message of judgment and the good news. On the contrary. That there is a judgment, that there is justice, at least for the oppressed, for those who are unjustly treated, that is the real hope and in that sense good news. Those who belong to the oppressors and the workers of injustice are primarily the ones who feel threatened.

Even Adorno said that there can really be justice only if there is a resurrection of the dead, so that past wrongs can be settled retroactively, as it were. There must, in other words, somewhere, somehow be a settling of injustices, the victory of justice; that is what we are awaiting, at least. Nor are Christ and his judgment a victory for evil. No, He is the victory of the good, and, in this sense, the fact that God is righteous and is the judge is profoundly good news. Naturally, this good news puts me under an obligation. But when I conceive of the good news only as self-affirmation, in the final analysis it is meaningless; there is an anesthetization going on somewhere. For this reason we must become familiar again with the dimension of judgment precisely with a view to those who suffer and those who have received no justice but who have a right to it and then also agree to put ourselves under this standard and to try not to belong to the doers of injustice.

Of course, there is an unsettling element in the message of judgment, and that is a good thing. I mean, when you see how the medieval rulers committed injustice but then, when judgment was approaching, tried to make amends by benefactions and good deeds, you see that consciousness of judgment was also a political and social factor. The awareness that I really mustn't leave the world in this state, that I have to put things right somehow, in other words, that there was an even higher threat hanging over the powerful, was extremely salutary. That benefits everyone concretely.

However, we have to add that we know that as judge Christ is not a cold legalist but that he is familiar with grace and that ultimately we may approach him without fear. But I think that everyone must find this inner balance, must feel that he is under judgment and recognize: I can't simply muddle along as I please, there is a judgment over me without, however, surrendering to scruples and anxiety.

This, it seems to me, also suggests an orientation for the Church's preaching and pastoral ministry. She must also be able to threaten the powerful; she must also be able to threaten those who neglect, squander, even destroy their lives, for the sake of the right and the good and their own well-being, their own happiness. But she must not become a power that instills fear; she must also know with whom she is speaking. There are sensitive, almost sick souls, who are quickly plunged into fear. They have to be retrieved from the zone of fear; the word of grace has to shine very powerfully into the soul. I believe that both aspects must be kept together in a whole, but in such a way that judgment is also good news, because it assures us that the world makes sense and good triumphs.

We Are the People of God

The term "people of God" is understood today as the idea of an autonomy vis-a-vis the official Church. The motto is "we are the people", and what the people says has to be done. On the other hand, there is also the expression "vox populi, vox Dei". How do you understand this term?

If we are theologians and believers, we listen first to what the Bible says. In other words, we ourselves can't invent the major concepts: "Who is God?" "What is the Church?" "grace", and so forth. The gift of faith consists precisely in the fact that there is a prior given. The term "people of God" is a biblical one. The biblical use is thus also normative for how we might use it. It is first and essentially an Old Testament term; the term "people" comes long before the era of nations and is connected more with the clan, with the family.

Above all it is a relational term. More recent exegesis has made this very clear. Israel is not the people of God when it acts simply as a political nation. It becomes the people of God by turning to God. It is the people of God only in relation, in turning to God, and in Israel turning to God consists in submission to the Torah. In this sense, the idea of "people of God" in the Old Testament includes, first, the election of Israel by God, who chooses it for no merit of its own, despite the fact that it is not a great or significant people but one of the smallest of the peoples, who chooses it out of love and thus bestows his love upon it. Second, it includes the acceptance of this love, and concretely this means submission to the Torah. Only in this submission, which places Israel in relation to God, is it the people of God.

In the New Testament, the concept "people of God" (with perhaps one or two exceptions) refers only to Israel, that is, to the people of the Old Covenant. It is not a concept that applies directly to the Church. However, the Church is understood as the continuation of Israel, although Christians don't descend directly from Abraham and thus actually don't belong to this people. They enter into it, says the New Testament, by their descent from Christ and thereby also become children of Abraham. Thus, whoever belongs to Christ belongs to the people of God. One could say that the term "Torah" is replaced by the person of Christ, and, in this sense, the "people of God" category, though not applied directly to the new people, is tied to communion with Christ and to living like Christ and with Christ, or, as Saint Paul says, "hav[ing] the mind of Christ" (Phil 2:S). Paul goes on to describe the "mind of Christ" with the words: "He became obedient unto death on the cross." Only when we understand the term "people of God" in its biblical usage do we use it in a Christian way. Everything else is an extra-Christian construction that misses the real core and is, in my opinion, also a product of arrogance. Which of us can say that we are the people of God, while the others perhaps are not.

But regarding the statement "we are the people" I would add a very practical consideration. The "we are the people" functions as the premise for the conclusion "we decide." If, for example, in Germany all the members of a certain association got together and said, "We are the people, and therefore we decide that now it is thus and so", all the people would just laugh. Every nation has its institutions; everyone knows that it's not the town council but the parliament, in other words, an institution that really represents the whole, that votes on federal laws. And in this way not just anyone is the comprehensive "we" of the Church with the corresponding authority to make decisions, but only everyone together is this "we", and the individual group is this "we" only insofar as it lives in the whole. It would, in fact, be completely absurd even on the purely popular understanding of democracy if groups pretended to vote about the whole themselves. A parish council or a diocesan forum should take in hand its affairs. But it cannot claim to decide the affairs of the universal Church as such.

In the Church, there is another element in addition to the example given us by the law of the state (which also has significance for the Church), namely, the fact that the Church lives not only synchronically but diachronically as well. This means that it is always all even the dead who live and are the whole Church, that it is always all who must be considered in any majority in the Church. In the state, for example, one day we have the Reagan administration, and the next day the Clinton administration, and whoever comes next always throws out what his predecessor did and said; we always begin again from scratch. That's not the way it is in the Church. The Church lives her life precisely from the identity of all the generations, from their identity that overarches time, and her real majority is made up of the saints. Every generation tries to join the ranks of the saints, and each makes its contribution. But it can do that only by accepting this great continuity and entering into it in a living way.

But of course there is also a continuity of the state that is independent of individual presidents.

Correct. What I said just now was a bit exaggerated. It's also the case in the state that not every government starts all over again from the beginning. Each of them is in the great tradition of the state and, being bound to the constitution, can't reconstruct the state from zero, as it were. So what holds for a state holds also for the Church, only in an even stricter and more far-reaching way.

Now, there are "we are the people" movements that no longer group themselves around the traditional laws, rules, parliaments, but simply go off on their own.

In the state, you mean? Yes, yes. In that sense, the phenomenon is also nothing peculiar to the Church. But these popular democratic movements show us that this really doesn't work in the state. The Soviet Union began like that. The "base" was supposed to decide things via the councils; all were supposed to take an active part in governing. This allegedly direct democracy, dubbed "people's democracy", which was contrasted with representative (parliamentary) democracy, became, in reality, simply a lie. It would be no different in a Church made up of such councils.

The slogan "we are the people" is also attractive because in our most recent past it proved to be successful in the protest movements in the former East Germany.

That's quite true. But in that case the people obviously stood behind it. By now, the consensus has fallen apart again. It was sufficient for a great protest, but it's not enough for the positive task of governing a commonwealth.

Sacred Rule and Brotherhood

Why must the Church continue to operate even today with authoritarian methods and be organized according to "totalitarian" structures? Many people have the idea that democratic models could be possible in the Church, too. It's argued that you can't sue for democracy and human rights in society and then leave them at the door of your own house. You can't go around demanding a sense of fellowship and then operate yourself predominantly with accusations of guilt, laws, and a pointing finger.

First, to the word "hierarchy". The correct translation of this term is probably not "sacred rule" but "sacred origin". The word arche can mean both things, origin and rule. But the likelier meaning is "sacred origin". In other words, it communicates itself in virtue of an origin, and the power of this origin, which is sacred, is, as it were, the ever-new beginning of every generation in the Church. It doesn't live by the mere continuum of generations but by the presence of the ever new source itself, which communicates itself unceasingly through the sacraments. That, I think, is an important, different way of looking at things: the category that corresponds to the priesthood is not that of rule. On the contrary, the priesthood has to be a conduit and a making present of a beginning and has to make itself available for this task. When priesthood, episcopacy, and papacy are understood essentially in terms of rule, then things are truly wrong and distorted.

We know from the Gospels that the disciples argued about their rank, that the temptation to turn discipleship into lordship was there from the first and also always is there. Therefore, there is no denying that this temptation exists in every generation, including today's. At the same time, however, there is the gesture of the Lord, who washes the feet of his disciples and thereby makes them fit to sit at table with him, with God himself. When he makes this gesture, it is as if he were saying: "This is what I mean by priesthood. If you don't like that, then you are no priests." Or, as he says to the mother of the Zebedees: The prior condition is drinking the cup, that is, suffering with Christ. Whether they then sit at the right or at the left or anywhere else, that has to remain open. So that this is another way of saying that to be a disciple means to drink the chalice, to enter into a communion of destiny with the Lord, to wash another's feet, to lead the way in suffering, to share another's suffering. This, then, is the first point, namely, that the origin of hierarchy, in any event its true meaning, is not to construct a structure of domination but to keep something present that doesn't come from the individual. No one can forgive sins on his own initiative; no one can communicate the Holy Spirit on his own initiative; no one can transform bread into the presence of Christ or keep him present on his own initiative. In this sense, one has to perform a service in which the Church doesn't become a self-governing business but draws her life again and again anew from her origin.

A second general preliminary remark. The word "brotherhood" is, to be sure, a fine word, but we oughtn't to forget its ambiguity. The first pair of brothers in the history of the world were, according to the Bible, Cain and Abel, and the one murdered the other. And that is an idea that also occurs elsewhere in the history of religions. The mythology surrounding the origin of Rome has the same thing: Romulus and Remus. It also begins with two brothers, and one murders the other. So, siblings are not automatically the quintessence of love and equality. Just as fatherhood can turn into tyranny, we also have sufficient examples of negative brotherhood in history. Even brotherhood must be redeemed, as it were, and pass through the Cross in order to find its proper form.

Now to the practical questions. Perhaps there really is too much decision making and administration in the Church at the present time. In reality, office by nature ought to be a service to ensure that the sacraments are celebrated, that Christ can come in, and that the Word of God is proclaimed. Everything else is only ordered to that. It ought not to be a standing governing function but have a bond of obedience to the origin and a bond to the life lived in this origin. The officeholder ought to accept responsibility for the fact that he does not proclaim and produce things himself but is a conduit for the Other and thereby ought to step back himself we have already touched on that. In this sense, he should be in the very first place one who obeys, who does not say, "I would like to say this now", but asks what Christ says and what our faith is and submits to that. And in the second place he ought to be one who serves, who is available to the people and who, in following Christ, keeps himself ready to wash their feet. In Saint Augustine this is marvelously illustrated. We have already spoken of the fact that he was really constantly busy with trivial affairs, with foot washing, and that he was ready to spend his great life for the little things, if you will, but in the knowledge that he wasn't squandering it by doing so. That would, then, be the true image of the priesthood. When it is lived correctly, it cannot mean finally getting one's hands on the levers of power but, rather, renouncing one's own life project in order to give oneself over to service.

Part of that, of course and here I am citing Augustine again is to reprimand and to rebuke and, thereby, to cause problems for oneself. Augustine illustrates this in a homily in the following terms: You want to live badly; you want to perish. I, however, am not allowed to want this; I have to rebuke you, even though it displeases you. He then uses the example of the father with sleeping sickness whose son keeps waking him up, because that is the only chance of his being cured. But the father says: Let me sleep, I'm dead tired. And the son says: No, I'm not allowed to let you sleep. And that, he says, is precisely the function of a bishop. I am not permitted to let you sleep. I know that you would like to sleep, but that is precisely what I may not allow. And in this sense the Church must also raise her index finger and become irksome. But in all this it must remain perceptible that the Church is not interested in harassing people but that she herself is animated by the restless desire for the good. I must not allow you to sleep, because sleep would be deadly. And in the exercise of this authority she must also take Christ's suffering upon herself. What let's put it in a purely human way gives Christ credibility is, in fact, that he suffered. And that is also the credibility of the Church. For this reason she also becomes most credible where she has martyrs and confessors. And where things go comfortably, she loses credibility.


Curiously, nothing enrages people more than the question of celibacy. Even though it concerns directly only a tiny fraction of the people in the Church. Why is there celibacy?

It arises from a saying of Christ. There are, Christ says, those who give up marriage for the sake of the kingdom of heaven and bear testimony to the kingdom of heaven with their whole existence. Very early on the Church came to the conviction that to be a priest means to give this testimony to the kingdom of heaven. In this regard, it could fall back analogously to an Old Testament parallel of another nature. Israel marches into the land. Each of the eleven tribes gets its land, its territory. Only the tribe of Levi, the priestly tribe, doesn't get an inheritance; its inheritance is God alone. This means in practical terms that its members live on the cult offerings and not, like the other tribes, from the cultivation of land. The essential point is that they have no property. In Psalm 16 we read, You are my assigned portion; I have drawn you as my lot; God is my land. This figure, that is, the fact that in the Old Testament the priestly tribe is landless and, as it were, lives on God and thereby also really bears witness to him was later translated, on the basis of Jesus' words, to this: The land where the priest lives is God.

We have such difficulty understanding this renunciation today because the relationship to marriage and children has clearly shifted. To have to die without children was once synonymous with a useless life: the echoes of my own life die away, and I am completely dead. If I have children, then I continue to live in them; it's a sort of immortality through posterity. For this reason the ultimate condition of life is to have posterity and thereby to remain in the land of the living.

The renunciation of marriage and family is thus to be understood in terms of this vision: I renounce what, humanly speaking, is not only the most normal but also the most important thing. I forego bringing forth further life on the tree of life, and I live in the faith that my land is really God and so I make it easier for others, also, to believe that there is a kingdom of heaven. I bear witness to Jesus Christ, to the gospel, not only with words, but also with this specific mode of existence, and I place my life in this form at his disposal.

In this sense, celibacy has a christological and an apostolic meaning at the same time. The point is not simply to save time so I then have a little bit more time at my disposal because I am not a father of a family. That would be too primitive and pragmatic a way to see things. The point is really an existence that stakes everything on God and leaves out precisely the one thing that normally makes a human existence fulfilled with a promising future.

On the other hand, it's certainly not a dogma. Couldn't the question perhaps be negotiated one day in the direction of a free choice between a celibate and a noncelibate form of life?

No, it's certainly not a dogma. It is an accustomed way of life that evolved very early in the Church on good biblical grounds. Recent studies show that celibacy goes back much farther than the usually acknowledged canonical sources would indicate, back to the second century. In the East, too, it was much more widespread than we have been able to realize up until now. In the East it isn't until the seventh century that there is a parting of the ways. Today as before, monasticism in the East is still the foundation that sustains the priesthood and the hierarchy. In that sense, celibacy also has a very major significance in the East.

It is not a dogma. It is a form of life that has grown up in the Church and that naturally always brings with it the danger of a fall. When one aims so high, there are failures. I think that what provokes people today against celibacy is that they see how many priests really aren't inwardly in agreement with it and either live it hypocritically, badly, not at all, or only live it in a tortured way. So people say ...

... it ruins them ...

The poorer an age is in faith, the more frequent the falls. This robs celibacy of its credibility and obscures the real point of it. People need to get straight in their minds that times of crisis for celibacy are always times of crisis for marriage as well. For, as a matter of fact, today we are experiencing not only violations of celibacy; marriage itself is becoming increasingly fragile as the basis of our society. In the legislation of Western nations we see how it is increasingly placed on the same level as other forms and is thereby largely "dissolved" as a legal form. Nor is the hard work needed really to live marriage negligible. Put in practical terms, after the abolition of celibacy we would only have a different kind of problem with divorced priests. That is not unknown in the Protestant Churches. In this sense, we see, of course, that the lofty forms of human existence involve great risks.

The conclusion that I would draw from this, however, is not that we should now say, "We can't do it anymore", but that we must learn again to believe. And that we must also be even more careful in the selection of candidates for the priest hood. The point is that someone ought really to accept it freely and not say, well now, I would like to become a priest, so I'll put up with this. Or: Well then, I'm not interested in girls anyway, so I'll go along with celibacy. That is not a basis to start from. The candidate for the priesthood has to recognize the faith as a force in his life, and he must know that he can live celibacy only in faith. Then celibacy can also become again a testimony that says something to people and that also gives them the courage to marry. The two institutions are interconnected. If fidelity in the one is no longer possible, the other no longer exists: one fidelity sustains the other.

Is that a conjecture when you say that there is a connection between the crisis of celibacy and the crisis of marriage?

That seems quite apparent to me. In both cases the question of a definitive life decision is at the center of one's own personality: Am I already able, let's say at age twenty-five, to arrange my whole life? Is that something appropriate for man at all? Is it possible to see it through and in doing so to grow and mature in a living way or must I not rather keep myself constantly open for new possibilities? Basically, then, the question is posed thus: Does the possibility of a definitive choice belong in the central sphere of man's existence as an essential component? In deciding his form of life, can he commit himself to a definitive bond? I would say two things. He can do so only if he is really anchored in his faith. Second, only then does he also reach the full form of human love and human maturity. Anything less than monogamous marriage is too little for man.

But if the figures about the breakdowns of celibacy are correct, then celibacy collapsed de facto a long time ago. To say it again: Is this question perhaps one day negotiable in the sense of a free choice?

The point is that, in any case, it has to be free. It's even necessary to confirm by an oath before ordination one's free consent and desire. In this sense, I always have a bad feeling when it's said afterward that it was a compulsory celibacy and that it was imposed on us. That goes against one's word given at the beginning. It's very important that in the education of priests we see to it that this oath is taken seriously. This is the first point. The second is that where there is living faith, and in the measure in which a Church lives faith, the strength to do this is also given.

I think that giving up this condition basically improves nothing; rather, it glosses over a crisis of faith. Naturally, it is a tragedy for a Church when many lead a more or less double life. Unfortunately, this is not the first time that has happened. In the late Middle Ages we had a similar situation, which was also one of the factors that caused the Reformation. That is a tragic event indeed that calls for reflection, also for the sake of the people, who also really suffer deeply. But I think that, according to the findings of the last synod of bishops, it is the conviction of the great majority of bishops that the real question is the crisis of faith and that we won't get better and more priests by this "uncoupling" but will only gloss over a crisis of faith and falsely obtain solutions in a superficial way.

Back to my question: Do you think that perhaps one day priests will be able to decide freely between celibate and noncelibate life?

I understood your question. I simply had to make it clear that in any event, at least according to what every priest says before his ordination, celibacy is not a matter of compulsion. Someone is accepted as a priest only when he does it of his own accord. And that is now the question, of course: How deeply do priesthood and celibacy belong together? And is

not the wish to have only one [without the other] a lower view of the priesthood? Nor do I think that in this matter it's enough simply to point to the Orthodox Churches and Protestant Christianity. Protestant Christianity has per se a completely different understanding of office: it is a function, it is a ministry coming out of the community, but it is not a sacrament in the same sense; it is not priesthood in this proper sense. In the Orthodox Churches we have, on the one hand, the full form of the priesthood, the priest monks, who alone can become bishops. Alongside them are the "people's priests", who, if they want to marry, must marry before ordination but who exercise little pastoral care but are really only liturgical ministers. This is also a somewhat different conception of priesthood. We, on the other hand, are of the opinion that everyone who is a priest at all must be so in the way that the bishop is and that there cannot be such a division.

One ought not to declare that any custom of the Church's life, no matter how deeply anchored and well founded, is wholly absolute. To be sure, the Church will have to ask herself the question again and again; she has now done so in two synods. But I think that given the whole history of Western Christianity and the inner vision that lies at the basis of the whole, the Church should not believe that she will easily gain much by resorting to this uncoupling; rather in any case she will lose if she does so.

Can one say, then, that you do not believe that one day the Catholic Church will have married priests?

At least not in the foreseeable future. To be quite honest, I must say that we do have married priests, who came to us as converts from the Anglican Church or from various Protestant communities. In exceptional cases, then, it is possible, but they are just that exceptional situations. And I think that these will also remain exceptional cases in the future.

Mustn't celibacy be dropped for the simple reason that otherwise the Church won't get any more priests?

I don't think that the argument is really sound. The question of priestly vocations has many aspects. It has, first of all, to do with the number of children. If today the average number of children is 1.5, the question of possible priests takes on a very different form from what it was in ages when families were considerably larger. And there are also very different expectations in families. Today we are experiencing that the main obstacles to the priesthood often come from parents. They have very different expectations for their children. That is the first point. The second point is that the number of active Christians is much smaller, which means, of course, that the selection pool has become much smaller. Looked at relative to the number of children and the number of those who are believing churchgoers, the number of priestly vocations has probably not decreased at all. In this sense, one has to take the proportion into account. The first question, then, is: Are there believers? And only then comes the second question: Are priests coming from them?


Your Eminence, many Christians do not understand the Church's position on contraception. Do you understand that they don't understand it?

Yes, I can understand that quite well; the question is really complicated. In today's troubled world, where the number of children cannot be very high given living conditions and so many other factors, it's very easy to understand. In this matter, we ought to look less at the casuistry of individual cases and more at the major objectives that the Church has in mind.

I think that it's a question of three major basic options. The first and most fundamental is to insist on the value o£ the child in society. In this area, in fact, there has been a remarkable change. Whereas in the simple societies of the past up to the nineteenth century, the blessing of children was regarded as the blessing, today children are conceived of almost as a threat. People think that they rob us of a place for the future, they threaten our own space, and so forth. In this matter a primary objective is to recover the original, true view that the child, the new human being, is a blessing. That by giving life we also receive it ourselves and that going out of ourselves and accepting the blessing of creation are good for man.

The second is that today we find ourselves before a separation of sexuality from procreation such as was not known earlier, and this makes it all the more necessary not to lose sight of the inner connection between the two.

Meanwhile, even representatives of the sixties' generation, who tried it, are making some astonishing statements. Or perhaps that's just what we should expect. Rainer Langhans, for example, who once explored "orgasmic sexuality" in his communes, now proclaims that "the pill severed sexuality from the soul and led people into a blind alley." Langhans complains that now there "is no longer any giving, no longer any devoted dedication". "The highest" aspect of sexuality, he now professes, is `parenthood", which he calls "collaboration in God's plan".

It really is true that increasingly we have the development of two completely separated realities. In Huxley',s famous futuristic novel Brave New World, we see a vision of a coming world in which sexuality is something completely detached from procreation. He had good reason to expect this, and its human tragedy is fully explored. In this world, children are planned and produced in a laboratory in a regulated fashion. Now, that is clearly an intentional caricature, but, like all caricatures, it does bring something to the fore: that the child is going to be something that tends to be planned and made, that he lies completely under the control of reason, as it were. And that signals the self-destruction of man. Children become products in which we want to express ourselves; they are fully robbed in advance of their own life's projects. And sexuality once again becomes something replaceable. And, of course, in all this the relationship of man and woman is also lost. The developments are plain to see.

In the question of contraception, precisely such basic options are at stake. The Church wants to keep man human. For the third option in this context is that we cannot resolve great moral problems simply with techniques, with chemistry, but must solve them morally, with a life-style. It is, I think independently now of contraception one of our great perils that we want to master even the human condition with technology, that we have forgotten that there are primordial human problems that are not susceptible of technological solutions but that demand a certain life-style and certain life decisions. I would say that in the question of contraception we ought to look more at these basic options in which the Church is leading a struggle for man. The point of the Church's objections is to underscore this battle. The way these objections are formulated is perhaps not always completely felicitous, but what is at stake are such major cardinal points of human existence.

The question remains whether you can reproach someone, say a couple who already have several children, for not having a positive attitude toward children.

No, of course not, and that shouldn't happen, either.

But must these people nevertheless have the idea that they are living in some sort of sin if they ...

I would say that those are questions that ought to be discussed with one's spiritual director, with one's priest, because they can't be projected into the abstract.


The Church, says the Pope, will continue her vehement opposition to all measures that "in any way promote abortion, sterilization, and contraception". Such measures wound, he says, the dignity of man as an image of God and thereby undermine the basis of society. The fundamental issue is the protection of life. On the other hand, why is the death penalty, as the Catechism says, "not excluded as a right of the state"?

In the death penalty, when it is legitimately applied, someone is punished who has been proved guilty of the most serious crimes and who also represents a threat to the peace of society. In other words, a guilty person is punished. In the case of abortion, on the other hand, the death penalty is inflicted on someone who is absolutely innocent. And those are two completely different things that you cannot compare with one another.

It is true that the unborn child is regarded by not a few people as an unjust aggressor who narrows the scope of my life, who forces his way into my life, and whom I must kill as an unjust attacker. But that is nothing less than the vision we spoke of earlier in which the child is no longer considered a distinct creature of God, created in the image of God with his own right to life, but, at least as long as he is yet unborn, suddenly appears as a foe or as an inconvenience I can do with as I please. I think that the point is to clarify the awareness that a conceived child is a human being, an individual.

That the child, though needing the protection of the mother's bodily communion, is still a distinct person in his own right, and that he must be treated as a human being because he is a human being. I think that if we give up the principle that every man as man is under God's protection, that as a man he is beyond the reach of our arbitrary will, we really do forsake the foundation of human rights.

But can one then say that someone who finds herself in a great moral dilemma and decides to terminate pregnancy is a conspirator against life?

How guilt is assigned to individual persons is always a question that cannot be decided abstractly. But let's say that the act itself whoever has brought about the situation; it can also be due to pressure from men remains by its nature an attempt to resolve a conflict situation by killing a human being. We also know from psychology how deeply something like this can stick in the mother's psyche, because she knows at some level that there was a human being in her, that it would have been her child, and that it might have turned out to be someone she would have been proud of. Needless to say, society must also help to ensure the availability of other possibilities for dealing with difficult situations and to end pressure on expectant mothers and to reawaken a new love for children.

Divorced and Remarried Persons

Excommunication in the case of married people who divorce and live in a new civil marriage not recognized by the Church is something that today probably only especially loyal Catholics can agree with. It seems unjust, humiliating, and, in the end, unchristian as well. You yourself observed in 1972: "Marriage is a sacrament ... this does not rule out that the Church's communion also embraces those people who recognize this doctrine and this principle of life but are in an exceptionally difficult situation in which they especially need full communion with the body of the Lord. "

First of all, I must make a purely canonical clarification, namely, that these married people are not excommunicated in the formal sense. Excommunication is a whole cluster of ecclesiastical penalties; it is a restriction of Church membership. This ecclesiastical penalty is not imposed on them, even though what you might call the core that immediately catches the eye, the fact of not being able to receive Communion, does affect them. But, as I said, they are not excommunicated in the juridical sense. They are, indeed, members of the Church who, because of a specific situation in their lives, cannot go to Communion. It is beyond doubt that this is a great burden especially in our world, in which the percentage of broken marriages is increasing.

I think that this burden can be carried if it becomes clear that there are also other people who may not receive Communion. The real reason why the problem has become so dramatic is that Communion has become a sort of social rite and that one is really stigmatized if one doesn't participate in it. If it becomes plain again that many people should be saying to themselves: I've got a few things to answer for, I can't go up to Communion as I am now; and if, as Saint Paul puts it, the discernment of the body of Christ is once more practiced in this way, the situation will immediately take on a different look. That is one condition. The second is that they have to feel that, in spite of everything, they are accepted by the Church, that the Church suffers with them.

But that sounds like a pious wish.

Of course, that would have to find some expression in the life of a community. And, conversely, by taking this renunciation upon oneself, one does something for the Church and for humanity, in that one bears a kind of witness to the uniqueness of marriage. I think that this in turn also has a very important aspect, namely, the recognition that suffering and renunciation can be something positive and that we have to find a new appreciation for these things. And finally, that we also recover the awareness that one can meaningfully and fruitfully participate in the celebration of the Mass, of the Eucharist, without going to Communion each time. So, it remains a difficult matter, but I think that when a few connected factors get straightened out again, this will also become easier to bear.

Still, the priest does say the words, "Happy are those who are called to the Lord's supper "Consequently, the others ought to feel that they are unhappy.

Unfortunately, this has been somewhat obscured by the translation. The words do not refer directly to the Eucharist. They are, in fact, taken from the Book of Revelation and refer to the invitation to the eternal marriage feast that is represented in the Eucharist. Therefore, someone who cannot receive Communion at the moment is not necessarily excluded from the eternal wedding feast. There has to be, as it were, a constant examination of conscience. I have to think about being fit for this eternal meal and communicate now so that that actually happens. Even someone who cannot receive Communion now is, like all the others, exhorted by this call to think while he is on the way that he will one day be admitted to the eternal marriage banquet. And perhaps, because he has suffered, that he can be even more acceptable.

Is discussion of this question still open, or is it already decided and settled once and for all?

The principles have been decided, but factual questions, individual questions, are of course always possible. For example, perhaps in the future there could also be an extrajudicial determination that the first marriage did not exist. This could perhaps be ascertained locally by experienced pastors. Such juridical developments, which can make things less complicated, are conceivable. But the principle that marriage is indissoluble and that someone who has left the valid marriage of his life, the sacrament, and entered into another marriage cannot communicate does in fact hold definitively.

Everything revolves again and again on this point: What must the Church salvage from her tradition and what must she, if the need arises, discard. How is this question decided? Is there a list with two columns? On the right: always valid; on the left: capable of renewal?

No, it's obviously not that simple. But there are various degrees of importance in the tradition. It was once customary in theology to speak of degrees of certitude, and that was not so wrong. Many say that we have to go back to that. The term hierarchy of truths does seem to point in this direction, namely, that not everything has the same weight, that there are, so to speak, essentials, for example, the great conciliar decisions or what is stated in the Creed. These things are the Way and as such are vital to the Church's existence; they belong to her inner identity. And then there are ramifications that are connected with these essentials and that certainly belong to the whole tree but that are not all of the same importance. The identity of the Church has clear distinguishing marks, so that it is not rigid, but the identity of something living, which remains true to itself in the midst of development.

Women's Ordination

On another issue, women's ordination, an absolute "no" has been "promulgated by the Magisterium in an infallible way". This was reconfirmed by the Pope in the fall of 1995. "We do not have the right to change this", reads the statement. So here, too, it is the historical argument that counts. But if one takes that seriously, there ought never to have been a Saint Paul, for everything new also does away with holy and venerable things. Paul did new things. The question is: When can you put an end to a particular [disciplinary] regulation? How can new things come into being? And: Can't the foreshortening of history also be an idolatry that is incompatible with the freedom of a Christian?

Here, I think, it is necessary to state a few things more precisely. The first point is that Saint Paul did new things in the name of Christ but not in his own name. And he emphasized very explicitly that anyone who acknowledges Old Testament revelation as valid but then, on the other hand, alters a few things without authorization is acting unjustly. There could be new things because God had done new things in Christ. And as a servant of this newness, he knew that he hadn't invented it but that it came out of the newness of Jesus Christ himself. Which then in turn has its conditions; and in that matter he was very strict. If you think, for example, of the account of the Last Supper, he says expressly: "I received myself what I have handed on to you", thus clearly declaring that he is bound to what the Lord did on the last night and what has come down to him by way of tradition. Or think of the message of Easter, where he says once more: This I received, and I also encountered him myself. And so we teach, and so we all teach; and whoever doesn't do that estranges himself from Christ. Paul distinguished very clearly between the new things that come from Christ and the bond to Christ, which alone authorizes him to do these new things. That is the first point.

The second is that in all areas that aren't really defined by the Lord and the apostolic tradition there are in fact constant changes even today. The question is just this: Does it come from the Lord or not? And how does one recognize this? The answer, confirmed by the Pope, that we, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, gave to the issue of women's ordination does not say that the Pope has now performed an infallible act of teaching. The Pope rather established that the Church, the bishops of all places and times, have always taught and acted in this way. The Second Vatican Council says: What bishops teach and do in unison over a very long time is infallible; it is the expression of a bond that they themselves did not create. The responsum appeals to this passage of the Council (Lumen Gentium, 25). It is not, as I said, an infallible act of the Pope, but the binding authority rests upon the continuity of the tradition. And, as a matter of fact, this continuity with the origin is already something significant. For it was never something self-evident. The ancient religions, without exception, had priestesses, and its was so in the Gnostic movements as well. An Italian scholar recently discovered that in southern Italy, around the fifth or sixth century, various groups instituted priestesses and that the bishops and the pope immediately took steps against this. Tradition didn't emerge from the surrounding world but from within Christianity.

But I would now add a further piece of information that I find very interesting. I am referring to the diagnosis that one of the most important Catholic feminists, Elisabeth Schussler Fiorenza, has given in this matter. She is a German, an important exegete, who studied exegesis in Munster, where she married an Italian-American from Fiorenza, and who now teaches in America. At first she took a vehement part in the struggle for women's ordination, but now she says that that was a wrong goal. The experience with female priests in the Anglican Church has, she says, led to the realization that "ordination is not a solution; it isn't what we wanted." She also explains why. She says, "ordination is subordination, and that's exactly what we don't want." And on this point her diagnosis is completely correct.

To enter into an ordo always also means to enter into a relationship of subordination. But in our liberation movement, says Schussler-Fiorenza, we don't want to enter into an ordo, into a subordo, a "subordination", but to overcome the very phenomenon itself. Our struggle, she says, therefore mustn't aim at women's ordination; that is precisely the wrong thing to do. Rather, it must aim at the cessation of ordination altogether and at making the Church a society of equals in which there is only a "shifting leadership". Given the motivations behind the struggle for women's ordination, which does in fact aim at powersharing and liberation from subordination, she has seen that correctly. But then one must really say there is a whole question behind this: What is the priesthood actually? Does the sacrament exist, or should there be only a shifting leadership in which no one is allowed permanent access to "power"? I think that in this sense perhaps the discussion will also change in the near future.

All these questions that we have just touched upon have for years been constantly reorchestrated, sometimes with more, sometimes with less, response from the people. How do you judge undertakings like the "Petition of the People of the Church" in Germany?

I already said a few things about that when we were talking about the situation of the Church in Italy and in other countries. I find that Metz's remarks in many respects are right on the mark. If I recall correctly, he points out that this movement merely tries to cure the symptoms, whereas it excludes the question that is really at the core of the crisis in the Church, which he terms and the expression is perhaps not entirely felicitous a "God-crisis". As far as the content is concerned, he has indicated exactly the decisive point. And when we spoke earlier of the modern consensus that is opposed to faith, I described it in these terms: God no longer counts, even if he should exist. If we live in this way, then the Church becomes a club, which now has to search for substitute goals and meanings. And then all the things that can't be explained without God are vexatious. In other words, the precise point that is centrally at issue is bracketed out. Metz then I'm still following my memory points out that the "Petition of the People of the Church" is on the whole met in the Protestant Churches. It is quite obvious that this does not protect them from the crisis. So the question is raised he says something more or less like this why we want to make ourselves a clone of Protestant Christianity. I can only agree with all that.

It seems that something like a Western-liberal civilizational Christianity has formed, a sort of secularized faith that regards many things as one and the same. This culture, which often no longer really has much to do with the essence of Christianity or of Catholicism clearly seems to be becoming more attractive. One has the impression that the official Church has hardly anything, at least theologically, to say against this philosophy, which is represented especially by Eugen Drewermann.

The Drewermann craze [Welle] is already beginning to abate. What he proposes is indeed just a variant of that general culture of secularized faith of which you spoke. I would say that people don't want to do without religion, but they want it only to give, not to make its own demands on man. People want to take the mysterious element in religion but spare themselves the effort of faith. The diverse forms of this new religion, of its religiosity and its philosophy, all largely converge today under the heading "New Age". A sort of mystical union with the divine ground of the world is the goal to which various techniques are supposed to lead. So there is the idea that it is possible to experience religion in its highest form and at the same time to remain completely within the scientific picture of the world. In contrast to this, the Christian faith seems complicated. It is doubtless in a difficult situation. But, thank God, great Christian thinkers and exemplary figures of Christian life have not been lacking even in this very century. They show the relevance of Christian faith and make evident that this faith helps one attain the fulfillment of humanity. For this reason there are most definitely new movements toward a decisive Christian life precisely in the younger generation, even if this can't become a mass movement.

The "canon of criticism" just treated is apparently not so easy to be rid of. If that is so, how must one deal with it? Is it possible to wait out all these questions? Will we ever be rid of them?

In any case, they will lose their urgency as soon as the Church is no longer looked upon as a final end, an end in itself, and as a place for gaining power. As soon as celibacy is once again lived convincingly out of a strong faith. As soon as we see eternal life as the goal of Christianity instead of ensconcing ourselves in a group in which one can exercise power, I am convinced that a spiritual turning point will come sometime and that then these questions will lose their urgency as suddenly as they arose. After all, in the end, they are not man's real questions, either.



Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger. "The Canon of Criticism." In Salt of the Earth (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1997), 179-213.

Reprinted by permission of Ignatius Press. All rights reserve. Salt of the Earth is available here.

The Author

Benedict73smBenedict72Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger/Pope Benedict XVI is the author of Jesus of Nazareth, Vol II, Jesus of Nazareth, Vol I, Caritas in Veritate: Charity in Truth, Saved in Hope: Spe Salvi, God Is Love: Deus Caritas Est,The End of Time?: The Provocation of Talking about God, Truth and Tolerance: Christian Belief and World Religions, Without Roots: The West, Relativism, Christianity, Islam, Salt of the Earth: An Exclusive Interview on the State of the Church at the End of the Millennium, God and the World: Believing and Living in Our Time, In the Beginning: A Catholic Understanding of the Story of Creation and the Fall, The Spirit of the Liturgy, The Ratzinger Report: An Exclusive Interview on the State of the Church, Introduction to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, Introduction to Christianity, Called to Communion: Understanding the Church Today, Milestones: Memoirs 1927-1977, Behold the Pierced One, and God Is Near Us: The Eucharist, the Heart of Life.


Copyright © 1997 Ignatius Press
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