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On the Papacy, John Paul II, and the Nature of the Church | By Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger


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Excerpts from God and the World: A Conversation with Peter Seewald | Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger

On the Pope and the Papacy:

Many people have the idea that the Church is an enormous apparatus of power.

Yes, but you must first of all see that these structures are supposed to be those of service. The pope is thus not the chief ruler–he calls himself, since Gregory the Great, "Servant of the servants of God"–but he ought, this is the way I usually put it, to be the guarantor of obedience, so that the Church cannot simply do as she likes. The pope himself cannot even say, I am the Church, or I am tradition, but he is, on the contrary, under constraint; he incarnates this constraint laid upon the Church. Whenever temptations arise in the Church to do things differently now, more comfortably, he has to ask, Can we do that at all?

The pope is thus not the instrument through which one could, so to speak, call a different Church into existence, but is a protective barrier against arbitrary action. To mention one example: We know from the New Testament that sacramental, consummated marriage is irreversible, indivisible. Now, there are movements who say the Pope could of course change that. No, that is what he cannot change. And in January 2000, in an important address to Roman judges, he declared that in response to this movement in favor of changing the indissolubility of marriage, he can only say that the Pope cannot do anything he wants, but he must on the contrary continually rekindle our sense of obedience; it is in this way, so to speak, that he has to continue the gesture of washing people’s feet

The papacy is one of the most fascinating institutions in history. Besides all the instances of greatness, the history of the popes certainly does include some dramatic and abysmal low points. Benedict IX, for example, reigned, even after being deposed, as the 145th pope, as well as the 147th and the 150th. He first mounted the throne of Peter when he was just twelve years old. Nonetheless, the Catholic Church holds fast, with no exceptions, to this office of the vicar of Christ upon earth.

Simply from a historical point of view, the papacy is indeed a quite marvelous phenomenon. It is the only monarchy, as people often put it, that has held out for over two thousand years, and this in itself is quite incomprehensible.

I would say that one of the mysteries that point to something greater is quite certainly the survival of the Jewish people. On the other hand, the endurance of the papacy is also something astonishing and thought provoking. You have already suggested, with one example, how much failure has been involved and how much damage the office has had to suffer, so that by all the rules of historical probability it should have collapsed on more than one occasion. I think it was Voltaire who said, now is the time when this Dalai Lama of Europe will finally disappear, and mankind will be freed from him. But, you see, it carried on. So that’s something that makes you feel: This is not the result of the competence of these people–many of them have done everything possible to run the thing into the ground–but there is another kind of power at work behind this. In fact, exactly the power that was promised to Peter. The powers of the underworld, of death, will not overcome the Church.



On John Paul II:

John Paul II was the firm rock of the twentieth century. The Pope from Poland has left his mark on the Church more clearly than many of his predecessors. His very first encyclical,
Redemptor Hominis (The Redeemer of Man), laid out his program: Men, the world, and political systems had, he said, "strayed far from the demands of morality and justice". The Church must now offer the alternative to this, he said, through clear teaching. This fundamental thesis is to be found in all the papal encyclicals. As against the "culture of death", the Church must proclaim a "culture of life". Has John Paul II left the Church the requisite foundation for her to make a good start in the new century?

The true foundation is of course Christ, but the Church always stands in need of new stimulation; she always has to be built up again. Here you can certainly say that this pontificate has left an unusually strong imprint. It was occupied in dealing with all the basic questions of our time–and over and beyond this, it gave us a running start, a real lead.







The pope’s great encyclicals–first Redemptor Hominis, then his Trinitarian triptych, where he depicts the image of God, the great encyclical on morality, the encyclical on life, the encyclical on faith and reason–set standards and, as you have said, show us the foundations on which we can build anew. And for the reason that in this world, which has changed so much, Christianity must find a new expression.

In just such an epoch-making way as Thomas Aquinas had to rethink Christianity in the encounter with Judaism, Islam, and with Greek and Latin culture, so as to give it a positive shape, just as it had to be rethought at the beginning of the modern age–and in that rethinking, it split apart into the Reformed style and the basic outline given by the Council of Trent, which dominated the shape of the Church for five centuries–so today, at the great turning point between epochs, we have both to preserve undiminished the identity of the whole and at the same time to discover the ability of living faith to express itself anew and to make its presence known. And the present Pope has certainly made a quite essential contribution to that.



On The Church:

In the course of two thousand years of Christian history, the Church has divided time and again, In the meantime, there are around three hundred distinguishable Protestant, Orthodox, or other churches. There are way over a thousand Baptists groups in the United States. Over against these there is still the Roman Catholic Church with the pope at her head, which claims to be the only true Church. She remains at any rate, and despite every crisis, indeed the most universal, historically significant, and successful Church in the world, with more members today than at any time in her history.

I think that in the spirit of Vatican II we ought not to see that as a triumph for our prowess as Catholics and ought not to make much of the institutional and numerical strength we continue to enjoy. If we were to reckon that as our achievement and as our right, then we would step outside the role of a people belonging to God and set ourselves up as an association in our own right. And that can very quickly go wrong. A Church may have great institutional power in a country, but as soon as faith is no longer there to back it up, the institution will break down.

Perhaps you know the medieval story of a Jew who traveled to the papal court and who became a Catholic. On his return, someone who knew the papal court well asked him, "Did you realize what sort of things are going on there?" "Yes," he said, "of course, quite scandalous things, I saw it all." "And you still became a Catholic", remarked the other man. "That’s completely perverse!" Then the Jew said, "It is because of all that that I have become a Catholic. For if the Church continues to exist in spite of it all, then truly there must be someone upholding her." And there is another story, to the effect that Napoleon once declared that he would destroy the Church. Whereupon one of the cardinals replied, "Not even we have managed that!"

I believe that we see something important in these paradoxical tales. There have in fact always been plenty of human monstrosities in the Catholic Church. That she still holds together, even if she groans and creaks, that she is still in existence, that she produces great martyrs and great believers, people who put their whole lives at her service, as missionaries, as nurses, as teachers, that really does show that there is someone there upholding her.

We cannot, then, reckon the Church’s success as our own reward, but we may still say, with Vatican II–even if the Lord has given a great deal of life to other churches and communities–that the Church herself, as an active agent, has survived and is present in this agent. And that can only be explained by the fact that he grants what men cannot achieve.



Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger is the Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in Rome.

A widely acclaimed theologian and author, he has written many important books on theological and spiritual themes. Ignatius Press has published twenty of his books in English. His most recent Ignatius Press book is Truth and Tolerance: Christian Belief and World Religions, a masterful study of the challenge of truth, tolerance, religion and culture in the modern world.

Read more about Cardinal Ratzinger's life and work at his IgnatiusInsight.com Author Page.



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