Friday, May 27, 2011

“The Question of Truth lies at the Centre of Theology” – by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, Part 1

[Subtitle: “But ‘Tradition,’ that ever-so-malleable ace-in-the-hole we possess, allows us to mold historical fact into whatever form we need it to be.”]

This is published on the EWTN site. It is an address given by Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, speaking in his official capacity as Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (the “Holy Office” and earlier, “the Inquisition”):
The symposium on “The Primacy of the Successor of Peter”, sponsored by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, opened on Monday, 2 December 1996, with an address by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, the Congregation’s Prefect Here is a translation of his talk, which was given in Italian.
1. In carrying out its task of promoting the doctrine of faith and morals throughout the Catholic world, the Congregation wishes to encourage studies aimed at increasing understanding of the faith and answering, always in the light of faith, new problems arising from advances in knowledge and theological research.
In other words, “history has thrown us a curveball”.

It is in this general perspective that the present initiative is set, to sponsor a symposium on the theme: “The Primacy of the Successor of Peter”. It follows other similar initiatives which the Congregation has carried out in recent years, …

In particular, the decision to devote a symposium to this topic stems from an earlier connection with another symposium held here in Rome in October 1989, directed by the Pontifical Committee for Historical Sciences, at the request of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, on the theme: The Primacy of the Bishop of Rome in the First Millennium: Research and Evidence. According to the plan assigned to this study meeting, the theme was discussed from a historical-theological standpoint, restricting the research chronologically to the first Christian millennium. As the published Acts testify, this symposium made a significant scholarly contribution to increasing information, knowledge and historical studies regarding an ecclesiological problem that is still topical and burning: the primacy of the Bishop of Rome over the universal Church.

The Congregation’s request to study the historical aspect of the theme was naturally aimed at formulating some historical conclusions, which in the light of a comprehensive view of the problem would permit a new examination and in-depth study from the doctrinal and theological standpoint. Moreover, the results of the historical research bring out its underlying doctrinal importance, particularly the need to reflect on the theological dimension of Tradition.
Note the process here. The 1989 historical study was needed in order to be able to have the doctrinal and theological study. To my knowledge, the results of the 1989 historical study have not been published. In fact, if anyone is able to track down the published results of this study, I’d be most interested in knowing where they are.

2. In the meantime, the Holy Father, promulgating the Encyclical Ut unum sint (May 1995), stated among other things: “I am convinced that I have a particular responsibility in this regard, above all in acknowledging the ecumenical aspirations of the majority of the Christian Communities and in heeding the request made of me to find a way of exercising the primacy which, while in no way renouncing what is essential to its mission, is nonetheless open to a new situation” (n. 95).

3. Therefore in compliance with the Holy Father’s concern, the Congregation decided to continue studying the theme, indicating more precisely the object to be examined at a future symposium: to highlight the doctrinal outline underlying the historical research already carried out in the previous symposium, stressing also the theological dimension of Tradition, and thereby identifying what was held as the depositum fidei during the first millennium concerning the Primacy of the Successor of Peter, and how the conviction of faith developed in this regard, up to its definition by the First Vatican Council and to the Second Vatican Council’s teaching.
I have always been impressed with Rome’s fuzzy use of the language, and this is a study for the exegetes.

Essentially, “the theological dimension of Tradition” is going to be stressed, in order to “identify what was held as the depositum fidei (“the deposit of faith”) concerning “the Primacy of the Successor of Peter”. Understand, at this point, in 1996, after centuries in power, they still don’t really know “what was held as the deposit of faith” on the topic of “the primacy of the successor of Peter.”
Our symposium’s purpose is to explain and clarify the indispensable elements of the doctrine on the primacy of the Successor of Peter, taking into account the principle, also mentioned in the Letter of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Communionis notio, to the Bishops of the Catholic Church on some aspects of the Church understood as communion, that it is necessary to distinguish in the Petrine ministry the substance of the divine institution from the concrete forms or expressions of its exercise as historically practiced in the past two millenniums (cf. n. 17).
Now, it is this “substance of the divine institution” that is in question. For if there is a “divine institution,” then the Pope is who and what he says he always has been. But note, also, what Shotwell and Loomis have said: “That Peter went to Rome and founded there his See, is just as definitely what is termed in Catholic theology a dogmatic fact. This has been defined by an eminent Catholic theologian as “historical fact so intimately connected with some great Catholic truths that it would be believed even if time and accident had destroyed all the evidence therefor.” In this sense it may be said that Catholics accept the presence of Peter at Rome, on faith. But they assert at the same time that faith is really not called upon, since the evidence satisfactorily establishes the event as an historical fact”. As of 1927, the “substance of the divine institution” was so firmly intertwined with the historical facts that the historical facts would be re-created as an act of faith, even if the history were to be completely undermined. As it turns out, historical studies have done that very thing.

Thus the nature of the symposium is also evident. It does not wish to be merely theological-academic, in the sense that it does not intend to settle beforehand the goal of analytically exploring the whole status quaestionis of the matter, nor does it intend fully to compare and contrast Catholic theology and the positions of the non-Catholic Christian confessions.

As has been emphasized in the explanatory note distributed to all participants, [this current] symposium is characterized by its properly doctrinal nature, aimed at extracting the essential points of the substance of the doctrine on the Primacy, according to the Catholic Church’s conviction of faith, indicating at the same time the problems legitimately open to theological discussion. It is not the symposium’s objective however to deal with them specifically.

4. This explains the deliberate conciseness of the reports, which corresponds to the nature and objectives mentioned above. In the course of preparing for the symposium, co-ordinated by the Steering Committee, formed of several consultors and experts, some doctrinal points which require further study were singled out. After attentive examination, it was decided to divide the study meeting into three sessions:

—In the first, attention will be dedicated to the dogmatic meaning of the primacy of the Successor of Peter and its transmission.

—In the second, the theme of the relationship between primacy and collegiality.

—In the third, the nature and aim of the primatial interventions of the Bishop of Rome concerning the particular Churches will be described.

5. Summaries of the exegetical and historical-theological data, and doctrinal and theological-speculative summaries have been planned for each of these areas.

This interweaving of biblical exegesis and doctrine, of history and theology reveals the basic methodological organization of the study and reflection we are engaged in.
Again, I’m not certain where any of these have been published. I have a work that discusses “the second,” but I’ve not seen any of the others published in either an official or unofficial way.

And, consider this scene: Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, the Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, is addressing a symposium full of Roman Catholic theologians and teachers, outlining this up-coming study, and they don’t know what doctrinal points are “essential points of the substance of the doctrine,” and which are mere “accidents” of history. For all the bluster about infallibility, you’d think they knew this already. Maybe have it written down somewhere, so they don’t get it wrong.

To be continued.


  1. I said above, I’m not certain where any of these have been published. I have a work that discusses “the second,” but I’ve not seen any of the others published in either an official or unofficial way.

    John Quinn, former Archbishop of San Francisco, wrote in his 1999 "Reform of the Papacy," that "the papers given at this symposium have been published" in Italian. Only one, Micael J. Buckley, S.J., "Papal Primacy and the Episcopate" (New York: Crossroad, 1998) had been publsihed in English. I've commented briefly on the Buckley work, here.

  2. Your excellent posts regarding the shifting sands that the RC church stands upon seems to highlight for me the amazing tendency of people to not think about why they believe what they believe and why they attach themselves to particular organizations.

    Be these organizations political, religious, or some sort of combination which they inevitably are.

    In ongoing discussions that I have as a Pastor with people, I keep noticing the trend to let people believe and lets not think too deeply about why or what someone believes.

    I think the fuzzy language would make Donald Rumsfield proud.

  3. Thanks GREV. I tend to be hopeful, and I generally think that, with the greater availability of knowledge and information on the Internet, that we will soon be experiencing a rising tide that will lift all boats.