The universal church and the local churches

The following two position papers, one by Cardinal Kaspar, the other by Cardinal Ratzinger, present divergent views on the relationship between the universal church and the local churches. It may be noted that, in an article subsequent to and commenting on the debate between Cardinals Ratzinger and Kaspar, the American theologian Cardinal Avery Dulles came down decisively on the side of Cardinal Ratzinger.

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On the Church   By Walter Kasper

Among Catholic theologians "the relationship between the universal church and the particular [local] churches” is a burning question today; they continue to debate it intensely. In 1999 I published my opinion in an essay “On the Office of the Bishop.” In 2000 Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger responded in a lecture “On the Ecclesiology of the Second Vatican Council” and took a highly critical stance against my position. Since the resolution of the issue has far-reaching consequences, the debate should continue.

A Pressing Pastoral Problem

I reached my position not from abstract reasoning but from pastoral experience. As the bishop of a large diocese, I had observed how a gap was emerging and steadily increasing between norms promulgated in Rome for the universal church and the needs and practices of our local church. A large portion of our people, including priests, could not understand the reason behind the regulations coming from the center; they tended, therefore, to ignore them. This happened concerning ethical issues, sacramental discipline and ecumenical practices. The adamant refusal of Communion to all divorced and remarried persons and the highly restrictive rules for eucharistic hospitality are good examples.

No bishop should be silent or stand idly by when he finds himself in such a situation. He faces, however, an awkward dilemma. While his task is to be a bond of unity between the See of Rome and his people, he is pulled in two directions. On the one hand, he is a member of the universal episcopal college in solidarity with the pope and his brother bishops; he must therefore protect the unity of the Catholic Church. On the other hand, he is the shepherd of a local church; he must, therefore, take care of his own people, respond to their expectations and answer their questions. Has not the Second Vatican Council enjoined every bishop to listen to the faithful, especially to the clergy?

But how can any bishop bring the two parties together and help them to understand each other when their minds are far apart, even to the point of holding mutually exclusive positions, as happens often in our days? If the bishop attempts to enforce the general norms ruthlessly - as his Roman superiors sometimes expect - his effort is likely to be useless, even counterproductive. If he remains passive, he is quickly judged disobedient. He seems to be caught in an impasse. Yet there is a solution: the bishop must be granted enough vital space to make responsible decisions in the matter of implementing universal laws.

To grant such responsible freedom does not mean opening the door to cheap compromises. It does not permit a local bishop to make concessions in matters of faith. His duty is to bear witness to the truth, whether it is opportune or not; he must always respect the integrity of our tradition. Beyond the immutable articles of faith and morals, however, there is the broad field of ecclesiastical discipline, which is essentially changeable, even when the norms were created to support, closely or loosely, some doctrinal position. Our people are well aware of the flexibility of laws and regulations; they have experienced a great deal of it over the past decades. They lived through changes that no one anticipated or even thought possible.

To grant freedom to local bishops to implement universal laws responsibly is within our tradition, not contrary to it. From its beginnings, the church has developed a broad range of principles and rules for the responsible and flexible adaptation of universal regulations to particular and concrete situations. The Western church always held the cardinal virtue of prudence in high regard. When it was warranted by special circumstances, it permitted exceptions to general norms, imposed justice tempered by mercy, gave scope to equity and created an extensive system of dispensations. Moreover, the church recognized the right of the local bishop to “remonstrate”; that is, to suspend a new law temporarily if he judged it harmful in his territory. The Eastern church developed the doctrine and practice of oikonomia, “economy”: a superior wisdom that guides bishops and allows them to resolve problems that the laws cannot handle.

Such principles are well grounded in sound theology, in particular in the theology of the local church and the office of the bishop. The local church is neither a province nor a department of the universal church; it is the church at a given place. The local bishop is not the delegate of the pope but is one sent by Jesus Christ. He is given personal responsibility by Christ. He receives the fullness of power through his sacramental consecration - the power that he needs to govern his diocese. This is the teaching of the Second Vatican Council.

This understanding of the bishop’s office should have led to decentralization in the church’’s government. The opposite happened: the trend toward centralization returned after the council.
Not all the blame, however, for this reactionary development should be put on the Roman Curia. We must recognize that at times the Curia had to intervene, not because it was craving for power, but because some local churches seemed to have forgotten the need for unity - so strongly emphasized in the New Testament. They let false movements develop toward excessive pluralism, local particularism and religious nationalism. More, the worldwide movement of “globalization” placed its own demands on the church: we live in “one village,” and singular solutions in particular churches are not always desirable. In addition, the ease of communication between the center and the provinces is a powerful force for “unification.” Less desirably, the local churches themselves can promote centralization whenever they abdicate their responsibility and turn to Rome for a decision - a ruse to evade their duty and find cover behind a superior order.

Whatever happened, by now such “unifying” activities and processes have gone too far. The right balance between the universal church and the particular churches has been destroyed. This is not only my own perception; it is the experience and complaint of many bishops from all over the world. [In a note Cardinal Kasper refers to a talk given at Oxford by Archishop John Quinn, archbishop emeritus of San Francisco, and to reported statements by Cardinal Carlo Maria Martini, archbishop of Milan, and Cardinal Franz Koenig, archbishop emeritus of Vienna.]

Regrettably, Cardinal Ratzinger has approached the problem of the relationship between the universal church and local churches from a purely abstract and theoretical point of view, without taking into account concrete pastoral situations and experiences. When I objected to an assertion found in the “Letter to the Bishops of the Catholic Church on Some Aspects of the Church Understood as Communion,” issued in 1992 by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, he defended it. The assertion, criticized by many, claims that “in its essential mystery, the universal church is a reality ontologically and temporally prior to every individual church.” I took exception to this theory.

In his response, Cardinal Ratzinger accused me of proposing an understanding of the church that has no theological depth and reduces its essence to empirically developed separate communities. This badly misrepresents and caricatures my position. I affirmed the opposite in the article to which he objects and in many other publications. Throughout my ministry as a bishop, I consistently fought against sociological tendencies that wanted to reduce the church to disconnected assemblies. Precisely because I have defended the unity of the church, I have taken many a beating.

Now, wishing to avoid further misunderstandings, I offer a thorough explanation of my position. This is all the more important in that, as I see it, the resolution of the problem of the relationship between the universal church and the local churches has far-reaching pastoral and ecumenical consequences.

Historical Dimensions

The relationship between the universal church and the local churches cannot be explained in the abstract by way of theoretical deductions, because the church is a concrete historical reality. Under the guidance of God’’s Spirit, it unfolds in history; to history, therefore, we must turn for sound theology.
Among the complex historical data, the main trends of development can be discerned.

The starting point must be the Scriptures. In the letters of Paul, the local church is clearly and firmly at the center. When in his principal letters Paul uses the word “church” (ecclesia) in the singular, he refers to a particular church or to a given community. When he speaks of “churches” in the plural, he refers to several local assemblies. For Paul, the one church of God comes to life in each local church. Thus there is the church of God in Corinth and so forth. The church of God is present in each of them. In the captivity letters (which in the opinion of many scholars are not by Paul), this meaning of ecclesia recedes into the background and the universal church as a whole comes into focus.

In the Gospel of Luke, the word ecclesia can signify a domestic community as well as a local community; further, Luke already has a theological conception of the universal church.

The early church developed from local communities. Each was presided over by a bishop; the one church of God was present in each. Because the one church was present in each and all, they were in communion. From this communion flowed appropriate practices: at least three bishops were needed to ordain a local bishop; also, from the third century on, neighboring bishops met and deliberated in synods. In A.D. 325 the Council of Nicaea gave the many churches a unifying structure: it gathered the local churches into provinces and the provinces into larger units, later called patriarchates. In 343 the Council of Sardica continued this organizational work; it even created an administrative system on the basis of the principle of subsidiarity, as we would call it today. Each particular church remained significant, but none of them had autonomy. They existed within the network of a communion of metropolitan and patriarchal churches, all of them bonded together as the universal church.

From early times and within the network of communion, the See of Rome assumed a certain responsibility and authority. In the beginning of the second century, Ignatius of Antioch addressed the Roman church as “presiding in charity.” This address was not a statement about universal jurisdiction in doctrine and discipline; it meant that the Roman church was the leading and guiding authority in determining what the essence of Christianity was. Although Rome was the first among episcopal sees, its power was circumscribed. The decrees of the Council of Constantinople in 381 (Canon 3) and of the Council of Chalcedon in 451 (Canon 28) clearly show that the bishop of Rome possessed a leading moral authority. For the Eastern church this authority did not encompass jurisdictional power, but it was more than mere primacy of honor. In sum, the ecclesiology of the first millennium excluded a one-sided emphasis on the local churches as well as a one-sided emphasis on the universal church.

Although this historical summary is brief, it contains data of fundamental importance for any further theological reflection precisely because it provides information about convictions and practices that in the first millennium were common to the churches of the East and the West. What has been our common possession in the past can be our common guide in the present.

In 1976, in a lecture in Graz, Austria, Cardinal Ratzinger stated: “What was possible in the church for a thousand years cannot be impossible today. In other words, Rome must not demand from the East more recognition of the doctrine of primacy than was known and practiced in the first millennium.” This so-called “Ratzinger proposition” was well received; it had a wide echo and has become the major theme of several ecumenical dialogues.

The proposition is all the more significant in that after the separation of the East from the West, that is, from the beginning of the second millennium, the West alone developed a new conception of the church that put the emphasis on universality. This trend culminated in attributing all authority to the pope. Yet Thomas of Aquinas remained cool toward such doctrine; he opposed Bonaventure, who favored it.
The doctrine of absolute and exclusive papal authority played a strong role in the fight against conciliarism, the Protestant Reformation, state absolutism, Gallicanism and Josephinism. The First Vatican Council, with its teaching on the primacy of jurisdiction of the pope, reinforced it. Finally, the Code of Canon Law of 1917 put the seal on this development.

The Second Vatican Council sought to revive the beliefs and attitudes of the early church and to bring them into harmony with the teachings of the First Vatican Council. It did so successfully through its enactments regarding the local church, the sacramental character of episcopal ordination and episcopal collegiality. After the council there was an effort to bring the full meaning of the council’’s teaching to light through an “ecclesiology of communion.” In 1985 the Extraordinary Synod of Bishops stated that “communion” was the central and foundational idea of the Second Vatican Council. This approach has become increasingly rewarding: the idea of “communio” has taken the central place as the common goal of the ecumenical movement.

In 1992 the Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith, in its letter to the bishops “On Some Aspects of the Church Understood as Communion,” approached the issue in a fundamentally positive way. It objected correctly to a one-sided ecclesiology that gave excessive weight to the local churches and saw the universal church as the end result of the coming together of local churches. Indeed, according to the teaching of Vatican II, the local churches and the universal church exist in each other. The congregation, however, went beyond the limits of the council’’s doctrine, which is that the universal church exists “in and from” the local churches. The congregation asserted that the local churches exist “in and from” the universal church. Then, intending to oppose the thesis of the primacy of the local church as proposed by some theologians, it put forward the thesis of “the ontological and historical priority of the universal church.”

Many questions can be raised concerning the position of the congregation on the basis of the historical data that we have surveyed. Indeed, it provoked a great deal of criticism, which led to a quasi-official clarification one year after the publication of the document.

Common Foundations in Ecclesiology

Before explaining my own position, I wish to state the doctrinal points in which Cardinal Ratzinger and I agree. So far as possible, I wish to exclude any misunderstanding. The common doctrine that Catholic theologians must accept can be summed up in three points:

1. Jesus Christ wanted only one single church. For this reason we profess in the Creed that “we believe in the one, holy, Catholic and apostolic church.” As we believe in one God, one redeemer Jesus Christ, one Spirit, one baptism, so we believe in one church. This “one-ness” is not in a future ideal that we strive to reach through the ecumenical movement: the one church exists in the present. It is not, however, a sum of the “fragments of the one church” - as if at present each church were a mere fragment of the one church. The one church of Christ “subsists” in the Roman Catholic Church; it is concretely present in the same, in spite of all its weaknesses, by God’’s fidelity throughout history.

2. The one church of Jesus Christ exists “in and from” the local churches. It exists, therefore, in each local church; it is present there especially in the celebration of the Eucharist. It follows that there can be no local church in isolation, for its own sake, but only in communion with all other local churches. As the universal church consists “in and from” local churches, so each local church exists “in and from” the one church of Jesus Christ. The unity of the universal church is a unity in communion. It excludes all egocentrism and national independence in the local churches. The local churches and the universal church mutually include each other.

3. Just as the local churches are not mere extensions or provinces of the universal church, so the universal church is not the mere sum of the local churches. The local churches and the universal church are intimately united. They share the same existence; they live within each other. The church is not like the federation of several states, nor is it like one centrally governed state. Its constitutional structure is unique; no social science can account for it. Its unity is ultimately a mystery. It is constituted after the image of the Trinity, one God in three persons. The unity of the church is not uniformity; it includes diversity.
In affirming these three points, I think I am in substantial agreement with Henri de Lubac, who expressed such essentials in a concise formula: “Whenever there is mutual presence and inclusion, there is a perfect relationship.” The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in its documents exceeded these essentials when it used this “doctrine of mutual inclusion” to assert the primacy of the universal church. To validate such an assertion, valid proofs would be necessary.

Controversy: Points of Disagreement

Cardinal Ratzinger defends the thesis of the historical and ontological primacy of the universal church over the local churches with arguments from historical sources and systematic reflections.
He claims that the doctrine of the primacy of the universal church follows from the history of the Pentecostal event reported by Luke in the Acts of the Apostles. “In time, the church comes into existence on the day of Pentecost. It is the community of the 120, with Mary and the Twelve Apostles. There the Apostles represent the one church; later they will be the founders of the local churches. They are the carriers of a message sent to the whole world. The church already speaks all the languages.”
This argumentation is highly questionable. Many exegetes are convinced that the “Pentecostal event” in the Acts of the Apostles is a construction by Luke. Similar “Pentecostal events” also occurred, probably from the beginning, in the communities of Galilee. Further, Michael Theobald [a professor of theology at the Centre Sèèvres in Paris] correctly noted that the narration of the “Pentecostal event” does not refer to the universal church as such but to the gathering of the Jewish “diaspora,” which in the course of time, through the guidance of the Holy Spirit, will expand into a church of all nations. This is what Luke intended to show. The correct history of the beginnings of the church is found comprehensively in the narrations of its initial expansion and not in Luke’’s isolated passage about Pentecost.

Clearly, Cardinal Ratzinger must be aware of the weakness of his historical argument, because he admits that a historical proof is difficult; hence the issue must be decided, ultimately, on the basis of the intrinsic connection between the universal church and the local churches. The strength of the proof of the ontological primacy [as distinct from the historical one] is therefore the more important issue.
But in what does this “proof” consist? Surprisingly, Cardinal Ratzinger grounds his theory of the ontological primacy in a thesis about the pre-existence of the church. He finds the justification for this thesis in the words of Paul the Apostle, who speaks of the heavenly Jerusalem from above as our mother, as the city of the living God, the community, ecclesia, of the firstborn whose names are written in heaven (see Heb. 12:22 ff.). The Fathers of the Church Clement, Origen and Augustine commented amply on this text. Also, the idea of “pre-existence” had its parallel in early Judaism: it was a widespread opinion that the Torah was a heavenly reality before the creation of the world. Similar conceptions were current in other religions and in the schools of Platonic philosophy.

By this doctrine of the pre-existence of the church, St. Paul means that the church is not the product of accidental historical circumstances, developments and decisions but is grounded in the eternal saving will of God. Its origins lie in the eternal mystery of God who saves. This is precisely what Paul is stressing when in his letters he speaks of the eternal saving mystery of God that was hidden in earlier times but is manifest now in the church and through the church (Eph. 1:3-14; 3:3-12; Col. 1-26 ff.).

Such a pre-existence of the church cannot be contested; it is indispensable for the correct theological understanding of the church. But it is not an argument in favor of the ontological primacy of the universal church. Who would assert that when Paul speaks of the pre-existence of the church in God’’s saving will, he refers only to the universal church and not to the concrete historical church that exists ““in and from”” the local churches? Who would say that the one historical church, existing ““in and from”” the local churches, does not pre-exist in its entirety in God’’s mystery?

The Pauline texts about the pre-existence of the church do not at all support the thesis about the pre-existence of the universal church. They do support, however, the doctrine defended by me and many others of the simultaneous pre-existence of the universal church and the particular churches.
Cardinal Ratzinger’’s doctrinal reflections fail to prove the primacy of the universal church, just as the historical arguments failed. The pre-existence of the church must be understood as the concrete church that consists ““in and from”” particular churches. No less a scholar than Henri de Lubac stated, ““A universal church which would have a separate existence, or which someone imagined as existing outside the particular churches, is a mere abstraction.”” He explained further: ““God does not love empty abstractions. He loves concrete human beings of flesh and blood. God’’s eternal saving will intended the incarnation of the Logos in view of the concrete church composed of people of flesh and blood.””

A Freely Disputed Issue

When the question of the ““primacy of the churches”” is critically examined, it becomes clear that the debate is not about any point of ““Catholic doctrine.”” The conflict is between theological opinions and underlying philosophical assumptions. One side [Ratzinger] proceeds by Plato’’s method; its starting point is the primacy of an idea that is a universal concept. The other side [Kasper] follows Aristotle’’s approach and sees the universal as existing in a concrete reality. Aristotle’’s approach, of course, should not be misconstrued as if it were reducing all knowledge to mere empirical data.

The medieval controversy between the Platonic and the Aristotelian schools was a debate within the parameters of the common Catholic faith. Thus Bonaventure and Thomas Aquinas chose different paths in their approach to theological issues, including the matter of the universal authority of the pope. Yet both are revered as doctors of the church; both are honored as saints. If such a diversity was admitted in the Middle Ages, why should it not be recognized as possible today?

Consequences for the Ecumenical Movement

The resolution of the relationship between the universal church and the local churches is highly relevant for the pastoral situations that I mentioned at the beginning of this article. Originally, I myself regarded the issue as a pastoral one within the church. Now I see it as a major problem affecting our relations with other Christian churches. The goal of the ecumenical movement is not unity in uniformity but the existence of one church embracing peacefully a great diversity. The particular churches must remain churches, and yet more and more they must become one church. The goal of the ecumenical movement is therefore ““unity through the communion of the churches,”” oneness in communion.
In the large ecumenical world, we cannot credibly advocate such a goal unless in our own Catholic Church we promote a healthy relationship between the universal church and the particular churches——unless, that is, we promote both unity and diversity. A one-sided emphasis on universality is bound to awake painful memories and provoke mistrust; it frightens away other Christians. In our dialogues with the Orthodox and the Protestant churches (ecclesial communities), it is important to make clear that a particular church cannot be fully a church of Jesus Christ outside the community that is universal. Such ““unity in communion”” does not oppress the legitimate traditions of the particular churches; it brings them space for freedom. No Christian community will ever find another way toward the fullness of the church of Christ.

Such a balance between the universal church and the local churches does not oppose the ministry of the papacy; quite the contrary, the papacy has as its principal task to create such a balance. The pope’’s mission is ““to strengthen his brethren.”” He must therefore strengthen and hold them together in the unity of the episcopate and the local churches. Pope John Paul II invited the churches to an ecumenical dialogue to see how all this can be accomplished in the concrete order.
 

Note on the author of the above article:
When the pope issues an invitation to such a friendly dialogue, then surely it cannot be improper to express one’s opinion concerning the relationship between the universal church and the local churches.
Walter Kasper, the bishop of Rottenburg-Stuttgart, Germany, from 1989 to 1999, was formerly a professor of theology at the University of Tüübingen. He was made a cardinal in February of this year and soon after was appointed president of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity. The German text of the present article was originally published in the journal Stimmen der Zeit (December 2000). The translation was prepared by Ladislas Orsy, S.J., a visiting professor at Georgetown University Law Center in Washington, D.C. Click here for a sample of author's writings in America and for books by author at amazon.com. Link to "sample writings" is slow; link to amazon may list books by authors with similar names.

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(Ratzinger's rejoinder)

The Local Church and The Universal Church  By Joseph Ratzinger

The editors of America have kindly invited me to respond to an article by Cardinal Walter Kasper (4/23), in which he, the president of the Council for Promoting Christian Unity, reacted to remarks of mine that, in turn, were a reply to an earlier text by Kasper in which he sharply criticized a crucial statement from a document by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. For a long while I hesitated to accept this invitation because I do not want to foster the impression that there is a longstanding theological dispute between Cardinal Kasper and myself, when in fact none exists.

After much reflection, however, I was finally moved to take up America’’s offer after all. My first reason is that the article by Cardinal Kasper is a response to texts that are largely unknown to both German and American readers. The article by Walter Kasper that set off the dispute is tucked away in a festschrift read only by specialists. My own piece, which covers a much broader thematic gamut and in which only two of its 23 pages deal with Kasper, has been published in German only in excerpts, and thus far in English (to my knowledge) not at all. Even though Cardinal Kasper sincerely strove in his “friendly exchange” to inform readers about what he was responding to, his necessarily sketchy allusions can hardly provide a clear picture of those previous texts, although they are the focus of his article.

Of course, I cannot give the reader a really satisfactory notion of them either; but it may nonetheless be useful to shed some light on the prehistory of this disagreement from a different perspective, to get a better understanding of the general shape and significance of the discussion. Above all, however, I would like to invite people to read the original texts.

The second reason why I finally decided to write is a pleasant one: Kasper’s response to my statements has led to clarifications whose scope readers will hardly be able to appreciate clearly unless they are familiar with what went before. Pointing up the progress made in this debate strikes me as significant.
It all began, as mentioned, not with anything I wrote, but with a “Letter to the Bishops of the Catholic Church on Some Aspects of the Church as Communio,” which was published, with the pope’s approval, by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith on June 28, 1992. The term communio, which played a rather marginal role in the texts of the Second Vatican Council, was moved to the center of the question of the church by the Extraordinary Synod of Bishops of 1985 - and in so doing the synod was surely following the council’s intentions. Since this word had been used, and misused, in many different ways, an explanation by the magisterium of the essential elements of communio-ecclesiology seemed appropriate; and such was the purpose of the letter from the congregation.

In that letter, then, we also find the principle that the universal church (ecclesia universalis) is in its essential mystery a reality that takes precedence, ontologically and temporally, over the individual local churches. This principle was given a sharp critique by Walter Kasper, who at the time was bishop of Rottenburg, Germany, that culminated in the statement: “The formula becomes thoroughly problematic if the universal church is being covertly identified with the church of Rome, and de facto with the pope and the Curia. If that happens, the letter from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith cannot be read as an aid in clarifying communio-ecclesiology, but as a dismissal of it and as an attempt to restore Roman centralism.”

The attack on the doctrinal letter from the congregation sounds at first, from a linguistic point of view, hypothetical: were one to identify the universal church with the pope and the Curia, then the restoration of Roman centralism would be at hand. But in the second half of the statement, the attack clearly takes on the tone of an affirmation, because the claim that there is a will to bring on a Roman “restoration” makes sense only if Rome itself is thinking and acting that way, not if such interpretations are merely proposed, so to speak, by a third party.

As a matter of fact, in the same article Kasper writes as follows, non-hypothetically: “This determination by the council has undergone, after the council...a further development by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith that practically amounts, more or less, to a reversal of it.” Thus Kasper’s text was quite rightly understood everywhere as a warning cry against a new, theologically veiled form of Roman centralism and as an emphatic criticism of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.
A warning like this from the mouth of a bishop with solid theological credentials carries weight. If theology or any interpretation of the faith by the magisterium is misused to introduce a strategy for gaining power or to reverse the council, that is a serious matter. Kasper’’s critique, as has no doubt become obvious, was not directed against me personally, but against a text from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, which is the office of the Holy See in charge of doctrine. Some sort of clarification was therefore unavoidable.

As prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, I tried to find the least polemical way to clear up the problem. An opportunity to do so arose when I was invited in the spring of 2000 to speak at a symposium, on the 35th anniversary of the conclusion of Vatican II, about the ecclesiological vision of its “Dogmatic Consitution on the Church” (Lumen Gentium). In so doing I tried above all to spotlight the link between the church and the question of God: the church is not there for itself, but to serve God’’s presence in the world.

In this broad context I addressed the relationship between the universal church and the local churches and, in the process, briefly explained that the letter from the congregation never dreamt of identifying the reality of the universal church with the pope and Curia, and hence that the fears voiced by Kasper were groundless. In order to do this, I mainly tried to shed light on the rich implications of the term “universal church,” which may at first sound abstract.

The most positive feature of Cardinal Kasper’’s response to my talk is that he tacitly dropped the reproach from his first article and now assigned to our argument the rank of a “controversy over a scholastic dispute.” The thesis of the ontological and temporal priority of the universal church to individual churches was now treated as a question, “not of church doctrine, but of theological opinions and of the various related philosophies.” The statement by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith was categorized as my personal theology and tied in with my “Platonism,” while Kasper traced his own view back to his more Aristotelian (Thomistic) approach. By reframing the dispute in this way, the question was basically blunted and shifted to another level. The charge was no longer that the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith was intent on centralism, restoration and turning the church around. Instead, Cardinal Kasper now noted two different theological points of view separating his theology and mine, which can and perhaps should coexist peacefully.

Above and beyond that, Kasper’s “friendly exchange” had two further positive results. He unambiguously emphasized - and I am very grateful to him for this - our common ecclesiological foundations, and he modified his own rejection of the ontological and temporal precedence of the universal church over the individual churches, when he characterized the “pre-existence” (properly understood) of the church as indispensable for understanding it.

To be sure, he claims that this pre-existence applies not only to the universal church, but also to the concrete church, which is composed “in and of ” local churches. As opposed to the notion of the “primacy” of the universal church he defends the “thesis of the simultaneity of the universal church and the particular churches.” What he means by this becomes clearer when he writes: “The local church and the universal church are internal to one another; they penetrate each other and are perichoretic.”

I can certainly accept this formula; it is valid for the church as it lives in history. But it misses the actual point at issue as seen in the reference to the “pre-existence” of the church. In order to clarify what is at stake here, let me quote a few sentences from my talk on this topic. In it I argued that the fathers of the church saw the church as a greater Israel, now become universal; and from that standpoint they also adopted the rabbinical view of the meaning of creation, which is based on the Bible itself: Thus creation is conceived in such a way that there is a place in it for God’s will. But this will needs a people that lives for God’s will and makes it the light of the world.

From the standpoint of Christology, the picture is expanded and deepened. History is, once again in connection with the Old Testament, interpreted as a love story between God and humanity. God finds and prepares for himself the bride of the Son, the one bride, which is the one church. On the strength of the saying in Genesis that a man and his wife become “two in one flesh” (Gen. 2:24), the image of bride fused with the idea of the church as the body of Christ, which for its part is based on eucharistic piety. The one body of Christ is made ready; Christ and the church will be “two in one flesh,” one body; and thus God will be all in all.

The basic idea of sacred history is that of gathering together, of uniting - uniting human beings in the one body of Christ, the union of human beings and through human beings of all creation with God. There is only one bride, only one body of Christ, not many brides, not many bodies. The bride is, of course, as the fathers of the church said, drawing on Psalm 44, dressed “in many-colored robes”; the body has many organs. But the superordinate principle is ultimately unity. That is the point here. Variety becomes richness only through the process of unification.

I can only repeat what I said in that talk. I cannot understand how my position can be refuted by means of biblical theology. The inner priority of unity, of the one bride to her essential variety, seems to be plainly evident.

At the same time, in my talk I tried to understand where the resistance to this self-evident biblical view of history comes from; and I came up with two closely interrelated motives. The first is that mentioning the universal church and its ontological (or should we say teleological?) precedence over the individual churches leads people to think immediately about the pope and the Curia, and the need to avert centralism. Hence, the problem of centralism and of the role of the local bishops also lies at the root of Cardinal Kasper’s reaction to my thoughts.

Forgive me if I say quite candidly that this linkage, objectively speaking, makes no sense. The church of Rome is a local church and not the universal church - a local church with a peculiar, universal responsibility, but still a local church. And the assertion of the inner precedence of God’s idea of the one church, the one bride, over all its empirical realizations in particular churches has nothing whatsoever to do with the problem of centralism.

Once this has been made clear, another question arises: why does this same association keep coming up everywhere, even with so great a theologian as Walter Kasper? What makes people suspect that the thesis of the internal priority of the one divine idea of the church over the individual churches might be a ploy of Roman centralism?

This brings us to the second reason why the plain biblical evidence is not, in fact, functional today. The term “universal church” is understood to refer only to the pope and the Curia. It seems, as Kasper says in his response, echoing Henri de Lubac, to be a pure abstraction. That is why in my talk I made a deliberate effort to present the practical reality of the Catholic Church and how it actually works, in close conjunction with the “Dogmatic Constitution on the Church.”

To my astonishment, Cardinal Kasper said not a word about this extensive and central passage of my text. Here I can only make the briefest of allusions to my remarks. I showed that the council answers the question, where one can see the universal church as such, by speaking of the sacraments:

There is, first of all, baptism. It is a Trinitarian, that is, a thoroughly theological event, and means far more than being socialized into the local church.... Baptism does not arise from the individual community; rather, in baptism the door to the one church is opened to us; it is the presence of the one church, and it can come only from her - from the Jerusalem that is above, our new mother. In baptism the universal church continually precedes and creates the local church.

On this basis the letter of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith can say that there are no strangers in the church. Everyone in it is at home everywhere.... Anyone baptized in the church in Berlin is always at home in the church in Rome or in New York or in Kinshasa or in Bangalore or wherever, as if he or she had been baptized there. He or she does not need to file a change-of-address form; it is one and the same church. Baptism comes out of it and delivers (gives birth to) us into it.

To my pleasure, I was recently on hand when Cardinal Kasper made this very argument in a discussion about the church and cited an example from his own life. Early on, he and his parents had left the parish where he was baptized - yet in baptism he had not been socialized into this particular community, but born into the one church. As far as I am concerned, this statement clears up the controversy - for that is the issue here. I would like to make just one more point, taken from the longer discussion in my talk, about the concrete content of the phrase “universal church,” specifically, about the word of God. I said:

Anyone who speaks of baptism is automatically dealing with the word of God, which for the entire church is only one, and which always precedes the church in all places, calls it together, and builds it up. This one word is above the church and yet in it, entrusted to it as to a living subject. In order to be really present in history, the word of God needs this subject; but this subject cannot subsist without the vivifying power of the word, which makes it a subject to begin with. When we speak of the word of God we also mean the Creed, which stands at the center of the baptismal event. It is a way the church receives and appropriates the word, which is in a sense both word and response. Here too the universal church, the one church, is quite concretely and palpably present.

If one strips away all the false associations with church politics from the concept of the universal church and grasps it in its true theological (and hence quite concrete) content, then it becomes clear that the argument about church politics misses the heart of the matter. It becomes clear that the problem is not Platonism or Aristotelianism, but the key notion of salvation history in the Bible. And then one can no longer also say that the “universalistic view” of the church is “ecumenically off-putting.”
I would really like to go on and address many other points that Kasper makes - for example, his objections to my analysis of the account of Pentecost in the Acts of the Apostles. But perhaps I had better leave that to a future personal conversation.

Let me, if I may, add only one rather humorous little note. In the section “Historical Perspectives,” which supplies in a few sentences some very good information about the essential issues, Cardinal Kasper, invoking J. Gnilka, observes that “in Paul the local community is the focus.”

But in Rudolf Bultmann we can read the exact opposite. According to Bultmann: ...the church’’s organization grew primarily out of the awareness that the community as a whole takes precedence over the individual communities. A symptom of this is that the word ekklesia [church] is used to refer, in the first instance, by no means to the individual community but to the “people of God”.... The notion of the priority of the church as a whole over the individual community is further seen in the equation of the ekklesia with the soma Christou [body of Christ], which embraces all believers. (Theology of the New Testament, 3d ed., Tüübingen 1958, p. 96)

This conflict between Gnilka and Bultmann shows, first of all, the relativity of exegetical judgments. But for that very reason it is especially instructive in our case, because Bultmann, who vigorously defended the thesis of the precedence of the universal church over the local church, could certainly never be accused of Platonism or of a bias in favor of bringing back Roman centralism. Perhaps it was simply because he stood outside these controversies that he was able to read and expound the texts with a more open mind.

Note on the author of the above article:

Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger is the prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. The translator is Peter Heinegg, professor in the department of the humanities at Union College, Schenectady, N.Y.

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Some years later, as Pope Benedict XVI, Ratzinger preached the following homily.


VATICAN CITY, MAY 23, 2010  - Benedict XVI says local Churches should always remember that the universal Church precedes them, and conform to her in unity and universality.

The Pope said this today during his homily for the Mass he celebrated in St. Peter's Basilica for the feast of Pentecost.

Noting that the Holy Spirit is the "new and powerful self-communication of God," he said the Spirit "triggers a process of reunification of the divided and dispersed parts of the human family."

The effect of God's work is unity, the Holy Father declared, such that "unity is the sign of recognition, the 'business card' of the Church in the course of her universal history."

"From the very beginning, from the day of Pentecost, she speaks all languages. The universal Church precedes the particular Churches, and the latter must always conform to the former according to a criterion of unity and universality. The Church never remains a prisoner within political, racial and cultural confines; she cannot be confused with states nor with federations of states, because her unity is of a different type and aspires to transcend every human frontier," he affirmed.

The Pontiff suggested that a criterion for discernment comes from this: "When a person or a community limits itself to its own way of thinking and acting, it is a sign that it has distanced itself from the Holy Spirit.

"The path of Christians and of the particular Churches must always confront itself with the path of the one and catholic Church, and harmonize with it."

This is not a "homogenization," he clarified, as can be seen by the multiple languages at Pentecost. Instead, the "unity of the Spirit is manifested in the plurality of understanding. The Church is one and multiple by her nature, destined as she is to live among all nations, all peoples, and in the most diverse social contexts," he said.

Purifying fire

Benedict XVI drew another reflection from Pentecost, recalling how the Holy Spirit came as fire.

"How different this fire is from that of wars and bombs," he exclaimed. "How different is the fire of Christ, spread by the Church, compared with those lit by the dictators of every epoch, of last century too, who leave a scorched earth behind them. [...] It is a flame that burns but does not destroy, that, in burning, brings forth the better and truer part of man."

Yet, the Pope affirmed, the Holy Spirit's fire does cause a transformation. "It must consume something in man," he said, affirming that it takes away "the waste that corrupts him and hinders his relations with God and neighbor."

This is frightening, the Holy Father acknowledged, because "we are afraid of being 'burned,' we prefer to stay just as we are."

"This," he said, "is because our life is often formed according to the logic of having, of possessing and not the logic of self-giving. Many people believe in God and admire the person of Jesus Christ, but when they are asked to lose something of themselves, then they retreat, they are afraid of the demands of faith. There is the fear of giving up something nice to which we are attached; the fear that following Christ deprives us of freedom, of certain experiences, of a part of ourselves. On one hand, we want to be with Jesus, follow him closely, and, on the other hand, we are afraid of the consequences that this brings with it."

In this context, the Pontiff recommended that "we always need to hear the Lord Jesus tell us what he often repeated to his friends: 'Be not afraid.'"

"Like Simon Peter and the others we must allow his presence and his grace to transform our heart, which is always subject to human weakness," he said. "We must know how to recognize that losing something, indeed, losing ourselves for the true God, the God of love and of life, is in reality gaining ourselves, finding ourselves more fully. Whoever entrusts himself to Jesus already experiences in this life peace and joy of heart, which the world cannot give, and it cannot even take it away once God has given it to us."

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Benedict XVI's Pentecost Homily
"God Is Reason, God Is Will, God Is Love, God Is Beauty"

VATICAN CITY, JUNE 12, 2011 - Here is a translation of the homily Benedict XVI gave when he celebrated a Mass for the feast of Pentecost in St. Peter's Basilica, on June 11, 2011.

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Dear Brothers and Sisters!

Today we celebrate the great solemnity of Pentecost. If, in a certain sense, all of the Church's liturgical celebrations are great, this one of Pentecost is so in a singular manner, because, arriving at the 50th day, it marks the fulfillment of the Easter event, of the death and resurrection of the Lord Jesus, through the gift of the Risen Lord's Spirit. The Church has prepared us in recent days for Pentecost with her prayers, with the repeated and intense plea to God for a renewed outpouring of the Holy Spirit upon us. The Church re-lived in this way the events of her origins, when the Apostles, gathered in the cenacle in Jerusalem "were perseverant and united in prayer together with some women and Mary, the mother of Jesus, and his brothers" (Acts 1:14). They were gathered in humble and confident expectation that the Father's promise communicated to them by Jesus would be fulfilled: "Before long you will be baptized in the Holy Spirit … you will receive the power of the Holy Spirit, who will descend upon you" (Acts 1:5, 8).

In the Pentecost liturgy, corresponding to the narrative of the Acts of the Apostles of the birth of the Church (cf. Acts 2:1-11), is Psalm 103, which we heard: a praise that goes up from all creation, exalting the Creator Spirit, who did everything with wisdom: "How many are your deeds, O Lord! You have done them with wisdom; the earth is filled with your creatures … may it always be the glory of the Lord; may the Lord rejoice in his works" (Psalm 103:24, 31). What the Church wishes to tell us is this: The creator Spirit of all things, and the Holy Spirit whom Christ had sent from the Father to the community of disciples, are one and the same: creation and redemption belong reciprocally to each other and they constitute, in their depths, a single mystery of love and salvation. The Holy Spirit is first of all the Creator Spirit and so Pentecost is the feast of creation. For us Christians the world is the fruit of an act of the love of God, who made all things and who rejoices in them because they are "good," "very good," as the account of creation states (cf. Genesis 1:1-31).

Thus God is not totally Other, unnamable and obscure. God reveals himself, he has a face, God is reason, God is will, God is love, God is beauty. The faith in the Creator Spirit is the faith in the Spirit whom the risen Christ bestowed upon the Apostles and bestows on each one of us; they are therefore inseparably joined.

Today's second reading and Gospel show us this connection. The Holy Spirit is he who helps us recognize the Lord, and he makes us pronounce the Church's profession of faith: "Jesus is Lord" (cf. 1 Corinthians 12:3b). "Lord" is the title given to God in the Old Testament, a title that in the reading of the Bible took the place of his unspeakable name. The Church's Creed is nothing more than the development of what is said with this simple affirmation: "Jesus is Lord." St. Paul tells us of this profession of faith that it is from the word and work of the Holy Spirit. If we want to be in the Spirit, we must adhere to this Creed. Making it our own, accepting it as our word, we acquiesce to the work of the Holy Spirit.

The expression "Jesus is Lord" can be read in two senses. It means: Jesus is God, and at the same time: God is Jesus. The Holy Spirit illuminates this reciprocity: Jesus has divine dignity, and God has the human face of Jesus. God shows himself in Jesus and with this conveys to us the truth about ourselves. The event of Pentecost is letting ourselves be deeply enlightened by this word. Reciting the Creed we enter into the mystery of the first Pentecost: There occurs a radical transformation in the chaos of Babel, in those voices that vie against each other: the multiplicity becomes a multiform unity; from the unifying power of Truth comes growth in understanding. In the Creed that brings us together from the four corners of the earth, which, through the Holy Spirit, does this in a way that permits understanding even in the midst of the diversity of languages, through faith, hope and love, is formed the new community of the Church of God.

The Gospel passage offers us a marvelous image to clarify the connection between Jesus, the Holy Spirit and the Father: the Holy Spirit is represented as the breath of the risen Jesus Christ (cf. John 20:22). The Evangelist John borrows an image here from the account of creation, where it says that God breathed into man's nostrils a breath of life (cf. Genesis 2:7). The breath of God is life. Now the Lord breathes into our soul the new breath of life, the Holy Spirit, his most intimate essence, and in this way we are welcomed into the family of God. With baptism and confirmation we are given this gift in a specific way, and with the sacraments of the Eucharist and penance it is continually repeated: the Lord breathes a breath of life into our soul. All of the sacraments, each in its proper way, communicate the divine life to man thanks to the Holy Spirit who works in them.

In today's liturgy we see another connection. The Holy Spirit is both Creator and the Spirit of Jesus Christ, in a way however that the Father, Son and Holy Spirit are one single God. And in light of the first reading we can add: The Holy Spirit animates the Church. She does not derive from the human will, from reflection, from man's ability and from his capacity to organize, because if this were the case, she would have already been extinct for some time, just as every human thing passes. She is rather the Body of Christ animated by the Holy Spirit. The images of wind and fire, used by St. Luke to represent the coming of the Holy Spirit (cf. Acts 2:2-3), recall Sinai, where God was revealed to the people of Israel and he granted them his covenant; "Mount Sinai was covered in smoke," we read in the Book of Exodus, "because the Lord had descended upon it in fire" (19:18). In fact Israel celebrated the 50th day after Passover, after the commemoration of the flight out of Egypt, as the feast of Sinai, the feast of the Covenant. When St. Luke speaks of tongues of fire to represent the Holy Spirit, the ancient covenant, established on the basis of the Law received by Israel on Sinai, is recalled. Thus, the event of Pentecost is represented as a new Sinai, as the gift of a new covenant in which the alliance with Israel is extended to all the peoples of the earth, in which all of the barriers of the old Law crumble and its holiest and immutable core appears, which is love, that precisely the Holy Spirit communicates and spreads, the love that embraces all things. At the same time the Law expands, it opens while remaining more basic: It is the New Covenant that the Holy Spirit "writes" in the hearts of those who believe in Christ. The extension of the Covenant to all the nations of the earth is represented by St. Luke through the considerable list of peoples of that time (cf. Acts 2:9-11).

With this we are told something very important: that the Church is catholic from the very first moment, that her university is not the fruit of the subsequent inclusion of diverse communities. From the first instant, in fact, the Holy Spirit created her as the Church of all peoples; she embraces the whole world, she transcends all frontiers of race, class, nation; she razes all the bastions and unites men in the profession of God one and triune. From the very beginning the Church is one, catholic and apostolic: This is her true nature and as such she must be recognized. She is holy, not due to the capacity of her members, but because God himself, with his Spirit, always creates her, purifies her and sanctifies her.

Finally, today's Gospel gives us this beautiful expression: "The disciples rejoiced in seeing the Lord" (John 20:20). These words are profoundly human. The lost Friend is present again, and those who were frightened before now rejoice. But it says more than this. Because the lost Friend does not come from just anywhere but from the night of death -- and he passed through it! -- he is not just anyone but both the Friend and he who is the Truth that gives men life; and what he gives is not just any joy, but joy itself, the gift of the Holy Spirit. Yes, it is beautiful to live because I am loved, and it is the Truth who loves me. The disciples rejoice, seeing the Lord. Today on Pentecost this expression is also intended for us, because we can see him in faith; in faith he comes among us and he also shows to us his hands and side, and we rejoice in this. So, we wish to pray: Lord, show yourself! Give us the gift of your presence, and we will have the best gift: your joy. Amen!

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Ratzinger's Thesis Seen as Key to Understanding His Papacy

Translation of '57 Work on Bonaventure Published

ROME, FEB. 14, 2008  To understand the papacy of Benedict XVI, one should become familiar with his formation as a theologian, affirmed the publishers of Father Joseph Ratzinger's thesis on St. Bonaventure.

This month in the Antonian Pontifical University, an Italian translation of young Father Ratzinger's study of St. Bonaventure's theology of history, published in 1957 as part of the priest's preparation for becoming a professor, will be presented by Cardinal Cláudio Hummes, prefect of the Congregation for the Clergy.

Father Pietro Messa, director of the Antonian's faculty of medieval and Franciscan studies, which collaborated in the publication of the translation, explained to ZENIT that current interest in this study is motivated by a desire to understand the thought of the man who is now Pope.

Cardinal Ratzinger himself discussed his thesis in a Nov. 13, 2000, address to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, saying his study of the 13th century theologian uncovered untold aspects about the relationship of the saint "with a new idea of history."

In that discourse, Cardinal Ratzinger explained that in the 12th century, Joachim of Flora offered a hypothesis of history "as a progression from the period of the Father -- a difficult time for human beings under the law -- to a second period, that of the Son -- with a greater freedom, more frankness, more brotherhood -- to a third, the definitive period of history, the time of the Holy Spirit."

"According to Joachim," added Cardinal Ratzinger, "this should be a time of universal reconciliation, of reconciliation between the East and the West, between Christians and Jews, a time without laws -- in the Pauline sense -- a time of true brotherhood in the world. The interesting idea I discovered was that a significant current of the Franciscans were convinced that St. Francis of Assisi and the Franciscan Order marked the beginning of this third period of history, and it was their aspiration to make it a reality. Bonaventure maintained a critical dialogue with this current."

Father Ratzinger's work, emphasized Father Messa, "has been resumed by numerous studies regarding the theology of St. Bonaventure, as the bibliographical references included at the end of this publication indicate, and this certainly shows its importance in Bonaventurian studies."

"Thanks also to this text," he added, "the research has been able to advance and some conclusions have been outdated, both because of the progress in the research and because currently we can benefit from many more critical works than those used by Ratzinger in 1957."

Then and now

Regarding the role of Father Ratzinger's thesis in Benedict XVI's pontificate, Father Messa said, "There are many elements in this study that could have a correspondence in the magisterium of the Pontiff," such as the centrality of Christ, supported by St. Bonaventure and fully present in the papal magisterium.

The priest referred further to words from well known Dominican theologian Father Yves Congar.

"Beginning from this study and the issue of the relationship between the local Churches and the universal Church, which played such a big role in postconciliar ecclesial debate, and of which one of the protagonists was Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, Father Congar wrote: 'Joseph Ratzinger, who has noted, we believe justly, some differences between Bonaventure and Thomas, gives a lot of importance to the role that the pope plays in Bonaventurian mysticism due to the Franciscan influence.'"

Taking that into account, Father Messa affirmed: "The question of if and in what way this Franciscan aspect characterizes his conception and exercise of the papacy is more than legitimate.

"Reading some of his writings and speeches, the hypothesis of a 'yes' answer is reinforced. Thus it is not surprising, rather it is fully understandable, that according to Benedict XVI, in order to understand the Petrine ministry, one has to return to St. Francis."

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