The Essential Nature and Task of the Church | Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger | From God and the World: A Conversation With Peter Seewald (Ignatius Press, 2002)
The Essential Nature of the Church
Let's stay with this rebirth. What is the Church supposed to be? What kind of body is she meant to be? Her nature is always specified as being apostolic and catholic. What does that mean?
Apostolic signifies the horizontal cross-connection of the Church through all the ages. She is first of all fixed to the historical origin in the eleven men whom Jesus chose (eleven were left, plus Matthias, who was elected to the office). This is not just some mythology or other, an invented piece of ideology, but is truly anchored in the historical events concerned with Jesus Christ and can always at any time be renewed from these apostolic origins. At the same time, this expresses not only fidelity to the witness, to the faith of the apostles, but also a sacramental dimension. Because of this, we cannot simply rethink the Church whenever we like; she stands rather in an unbroken relationship with her origins, in constant continuity with them. The sacrament of ordination to the priesthood expresses this relationship to something we have not ourselves invented and, at the same time, refers to the Holy Spirit as guarantor of this continuity.
The translation of Catholic is "including the whole"; it signifies "relating to the whole". It is a way of expressing the fact that the Church belongs to the whole world, to all cultures and every age. That is quite essential. For the Church must never shrink to being a national Church. She is always there to ensure that boundaries are transcended. She is to prevent the occurrence of Babel. The Church is there to prevent the confusion of opposition and contradiction from dominating mankind. She should, instead of this, bring the whole wealth of human existence, in all its languages, to God--and should be thereby herself a power for reconciliation among mankind.
There is a quite particular Catholic habit of thought. Thus is a certain way of looking at events and people and everything that happens on the stage of this world. Can we define thus habit of thought in any way?
That is hard to say. Catholicism is fed by the whole of the history of belief, but in its characteristic form it developed in the Western Church. In that sense, much of what we today call a Catholic way of thinking is not beyond the limitations of time, nor is it unchangeable. It may be subject to modification, development, and renewal through the arrival new peoples or the departure to new historical ages.
Protestants have in their faith, so it seems to me, the rigorous either-or stand, whereas with Catholics a flexible both-and is dominant; what unites is important. So it's a matter, in each case, of Scripture and tradition, of authority and freedom, of faith and works. What is the specific difference between what is Protestant and what Catholic?
I don't think it's so easy to say what it is, and you certainly can't make it all dependent on one single point. Although the categorical dividing into either-or is indeed deeply rooted in Protestantism. In Lutheran thinking, at any rate, the principle solus Christus--Christ alone--is very strongly emphasized, whereas for Catholicism the attempt at a synthesis was more typical. But we should beware of any schematic definition of this difference, above all because Protestantism exists in great variety of forms and because, when it comes down to it, the Catholic Church also has a wealth of different forms--and, over and beyond this, is confronting a range of historical possibilities that are still far from exhausted.
It is of course true that the Catholic Church has always rejected certain sola formulae--for instance, that only Scripture counts. The Catholic Church believes that Scripture and a living tradition belong together, since it is tradition that is the agent in providing the Scriptures and the agent when the Church interprets them. Another point is that she only allows the sola fide in a limited sense. In the sense, that is, that faith is in the first instance the only door by which grace can reach us, but that this faith, as the Letter to the Galatians says, is actively at work in love. The power of justification of the Christian life thus consists in an amalgam of faith and love. So here, too, the sola must be broken open.
So this tendency to open up, which rejects exclusive categories--whose importance we must not fail to recognize--as liable to be one-sided is one of the essential points of difference. ...
The Task of the Church
The task of the Church is exciting and almost supernatural. Perhaps we can't quite entirely describe it. Paul in one of his great sayings, calls the Church the pillar and the foundation of truth. She is, he says, on one hand, the divinely appointed teacher of the faith and, on the other hand, has also to ensure that nothing of this faith is lost and that no error finds its way into the faith. The Church as strict guardian of the grail--is that what she is?
You are quoting here from the Pastoral Letters, which a majority of modern exegetes say are not by Saint Paul, but that need not concern us here. In any case, these letters stand in the Pauline tradition; and they take Paul's ideas a step farther, at least within the Pauline school. It is already evident in the great Pauline letters that the Church is the living agent carrying the truth of Christ. It is for her to hold fast to this truth, to be, so to say, a pillar upon which it can stand and also to live it out in reality, to hand it on, so that it remains accessible and comprehensible, so that it can develop and unfold. We have also heard how, in all of this, the Spirit leads her into the truth, so that fidelity and development go together.
Which some people dispute.
Luther objected that there was no need for an office of teaching in the Church, as Scripture itself was sufficient. A Magisterium, or teaching office, so Luther says, is an imposition; whoever reads Scripture aright will understand it aright, as it is comprehensible in its own terms. Today more than ever we can see that a book on its own is always open to the risk of ambiguity. It belongs without question in the living context of the Church, within which the Word comes to life properly. In that sense, then, a fully authoritative reference for questions of interpretation is necessary, though certainly this agent of reference must be aware that it does not stand above the Word of God, but in service under the Word, and must be judged by the Word.
At this point, by the way, processes of ecumenical reconciliation are already underway. For, on one hand, the determinative force of Scripture is becoming evident in all clarity even in the Catholic Church and, on the other, the situation of the Word, embedded in the living teaching activity of the Church, as being active in interpreting the Word, is clearly seen today by Protestants. In the course of time, the following conclusion has been drawn from these perception: If the Church interprets responsibly, then the support, the promise, must be given her that she is truly interpreting accordance with the Spirit of God, which guides her. It is in this way that the teaching about infallibility ultimately developed.
Concerning which, there is obviously a great need of further enlightenment.
This doctrine obviously needs to be understood very precisely within its correct limitations, so as not to be misused or misunderstood. It doesn't mean that every word that ecclesiastical authorities say, or even every word said by pope, is infallible. It certainly does mean that wherever the Church, in the great spiritual and cultural struggles of history, and after all possible prayer and grappling with the truth, insists that this is the correct interpretation and draws a line there, she has been promised that in this instance she will not lead people into error. That she will not be turned into an instrument of destruction for the Word of God, but remains the mother, the living agent, within whom the Word is alive and truly expresses himself and is truly interpreted. But that, as we have said, is linked to certain conditions. For all those in positions of responsibility in the Church, this means that they themselves must, in all seriousness, subject themselves to those conditions. They are not allowed to impose their own opinions on the Church as doctrines, but must set themselves within the great community of faith, and at its service, and must learn to listen to the Word of God. They must allow themselves to be judged and purified by this Word, in order that they may be able to convey it correctly.
The spirit of contradiction and confession is obviously a part of the Church's task. This gives her an aspect of rebelliousness, something radical and unaccommodating. The Church is also, if I'm not mistaken, always in opposition to the dictates of fashion. The Pope, in any case, has specified this as his principal task, to set his apostolic contradicitur against the world: We contradict, he cries. A protest against the power of mere empiricism, against the excesses of materialism and the insanity of a world without morals.
There is no doubt that being prepared to contradict and to resist is a part of the task of the Church. We have seen that man always has a tendency to resist the Word that has been given him, to want to make it more comfortable for himself, to be the only one to decide what is right for him, by formulating ideologies and developing dominant fashions according to which people shape and conform their life-styles.
Let's go back to Simeon's prophecy. He says, concerning Christ, this man will be a sign that will be contradicted. And let's recall the saying of Jesus himself: "I have not come to bring peace, but the sword." We can see here that the Church has been given this great and essential task of contradicting fashions, contradicting the power of empirical thinking, the dictatorial power of ideologies. Within this last century, she has had to raise her voice in opposition to the great dictatorships. And today we are suffering for the fact that she did not contradict them enough, that she did not cry, out, into the world, "We contradict!" loudly enough or dramatically enough. Thank God when official spokesmen are weak, because of diplomatic considerations, there are martyrs, who suffer this contradiction in their own bodies, as it were.
But certainly, this opposition ought not to arise from a taste for contradiction in principle. Nor indeed from a reactionary attitude, nor from an incapacity to adjust to the contemporary world or to face the future. She must always preserve the capacity to be open to what is good in any period, to whatever new possibilities it opens up--which will always reveal entirely new dimensions of the Word of God. But in all this, faith must not dissolve into something arbitrary, must not lose all definition. It must in fact itself contradict whatever contradicts God--to the point of finding the courage for martyrdom.
It is one thing for faith to contradict the spirit of the age so often. To an even greater extent, the spirit of the age sets itself against belief and that's hardly new. Guardini once wrote: "Anyone who keeps company with the Church will, at first, experience a certain irritation and impatience with the way she always puts him in opposition to what other people want," The believer will even feel that he's being reactionary, in opposition to the prevailing opinion, which is always in the first instance looked on as being modern. Guardini then said: "But once the blindfold has been taken from his eyes then he will recognize how the Church always liberates those who live in her company from the power of the contemporary world and puts them in touch with enduring standards; the strange thing is, no one is more sceptical, no one has more inward independence, over against 'what everyone says', than the person who truly lives with the Church."
Yes, and that has certain autobiographical dimensions. Guardini was a student at a time when the heritage of liberalism was very much alive, even in Catholic theology. One of his teachers at Tübingen, he was called Koch, was very much influenced by it. And naturally Guardini, in his youth, was on the side of this teacher. It's obvious that students will support a teacher who says new things, who says them more clearly and boldly, who sets them free from the chains of tradition and, in doing so, crosses swords with Rome.
It was in the course of his time as a student, at any rate, during which he suffered great doubts concerning his faith, that Guardini finally came face-to-face with the real Church, in the liturgy. And without abandoning his particular liking for this teacher, as he himself says, he developed an anti-liberal position, because he found that, when it came down to it, the only truly independent mind in this whole story was the Church. And that keeping her company, entering into her, entrusting yourself to her faith--which is allegedly being nothing but infantile and dependent--represents in reality the greatest degree of independence from the spirit of the age and signifies greater boldness than is embodied in any other possible position. Guardini is among the pioneers who got rid of the liberal trend in theology. In doing so they awakened, in that whole period, from about 1920 to 1960, great joy in the Church, in thinking with her and believing with her. For Guardini personally this sprang from this experience of having the scales drop from his eyes, of suddenly seeing that it was really quite different. That is not an infantile dependence; that is courage to contradict and the freedom to go against prevailing opinions, the freedom that offers us a firm footing and which the Church has not invented for herself.
Some astonishing parallels open up...
(These excerpts were from pages 349-352 and 354-360 of God and the World: A Conversation With Peter Seewald.)
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Peter Seewald is a German journalist who has been a staff writer for two of Germany's top weekly magazines as well as for one of the country's most respected newspapers.
Joseph Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict XVI, was for over two decades the Prefect for the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith under Pope John Paul II. He is a renowned theologian and author of numerous books. A mini-bio and full listing of his books published by Ignatius Press are available on his IgnatiusInsight.com Author Page.
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