Ratzinger on the Papacy (Excerpts)

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."


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.

And Catholic?

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.)


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

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.


Peter and Succession | by Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger
         From Called To Communion: Understanding the Church Today

Editor's note: This is the second half of a chapter titled "The Primacy of Peter and Unity of the Church." The first half examines the status of Peter in the New Testament and the commission logion contained in Matthew 16:17-19.

The principle of succession in general

That the primacy of Peter is recognizable in all the major strands of the New Testament is incontestable.

The real difficulty arises when we come to the second question: Can the idea of a Petrine succession be justified? Even more difficult is the third question that is bound up with it: Can the Petrine succession of Rome be credibly substantiated?

Concerning the first question, we must first of all note that there is no explicit statement regarding the Petrine succession in the New Testament. This is not surprising, since neither the Gospels nor the chief Pauline epistles address the problem of a postapostolic Church—which, by the way, must be mentioned as a sign of the Gospels' fidelity to tradition. Indirectly, however, this problem can be detected in the Gospels once we admit the principle of form critical method according to which only what was considered in the respective spheres of tradition as somehow meaningful for the present was preserved in writing as such. This would mean, for example, that toward the end of the first century, when Peter was long dead, John regarded the former's primacy, not as a thing of the past, but as a present reality for the Church.

For many even believe—though perhaps with a little too much imagination—that they have good grounds for interpreting the "competition" between Peter and the beloved disciple as an echo of the tensions between Rome's claim to primacy and the sense of dignity possessed by the Churches of Asia Minor. This would certainly be a very early and, in addition, inner-biblical proof that Rome was seen as continuing the Petrine line; but we should in no case rely on such uncertain hypotheses. The fundamental idea, however, does seem to me correct, namely, that the traditions of the New Testament never reflect an interest of purely historical curiosity but are bearers of present reality and in that sense constantly rescue things from the mere past, without blurring the special status of the origin.

Moreover, even scholars who deny the principle itself have propounded hypotheses of succession. 0. Cullmann, for example, objects in a very clear-cut fashion to the idea of succession, yet he believes that he can Show that Peter was replaced by James and that this latter assumed the primacy of the erstwhile first apostle. Bultmann believes that he is correct in concluding from the mention of the three pillars in Galatians 2:9 that the course of development led away from a personal to a collegial leadership and that a college entered upon the succession of Peter. [1]

We have no need to discuss these hypotheses and others like them; their foundation is weak enough. Nevertheless, they do show that it is impossible to avoid the idea of succession once the word transmitted in Scripture is considered to be a sphere open to the future. In those writings of the New Testament that stand on the cusp of the second generation or else already belong to it-especially in the Acts of the Apostles and in the Pastoral Letters—the principle of succession does in fact take on concrete shape.

The Protestant notion that the "succession" consists solely in the word as such, but not in any "structures", is proved to be anachronistic in light of what in actual fact is the form of tradition in the New Testament. The word is tied to the witness, who guarantees it an unambiguous sense, which it does not possess as a mere word floating in isolation. But the witness is not an individual who stands independently on his own. He is no more a wit ness by virtue of himself and of his own powers of memory than Peter can be the rock by his own strength. He is not a witness as "flesh and blood" but as one who is linked to the Pneuma, the Paraclete who authenticates the truth and opens up the memory and, in his turn, binds the witness to Christ. For the Paraclete does not speak of himself, but he takes from "what is his" (that is, from what is Christ's: Jn 16: 13).

This binding of the witness to the Pneuma and to his mode of being-"not of himself, but what he hears" -is called "sacrament" in the language of the Church. Sacrament designates a threefold knot-word, witness, Holy Spirit and Christ-which describes the essential structure of succession in the New Testament. We can infer with certainty from the testimony of the Pastoral Letters and of the Acts of the Apostles that the apostolic generation already gave to this interconnection of person and word in the believed presence of the Spirit and of Christ the form of the laying on of hands.

The Petrine succession in Rome

In opposition to the New Testament pattern of succession described above, which withdraws the word from human manipulation precisely by binding witnesses into its service, there arose very early on an intellectual and anti-institutional model known historically by the name of Gnosis, which made the free interpretation and speculative development of the word its principle. Before long the appeal to individual witnesses no longer sufficed to counter the intellectual claim advanced by this tendency. It became necessary to have fixed points by which to orient the testimony itself, and these were found in the so-called apostolic sees, that is, in those where the apostles had been active. The apostolic sees became the reference point of true communio. But among these sees there was in turn–quite clearly in Irenaeus of Lyons–a decisive criterion that recapitulated all others: the Church of Rome, where Peter and Paul suffered martyrdom. It was with this Church that every community had to agree; Rome was the standard of the authentic apostolic tradition as a whole.

Moreover, Eusebius of Caesarea organized the first version of his ecclesiastical history in accord with the same principle. It was to be a written record of the continuity of apostolic succession, which was concentrated in the three Petrine sees Rome, Antioch and Alexandria-among which Rome, as the site of Peter's martyrdom, was in turn preeminent and truly normative. [2]

This leads us to a very fundamental observation. [3] The Roman primacy, or, rather, the acknowledgement of Rome as the criterion of the right apostolic faith, is older than the canon of the New Testament, than "Scripture".

We must be on our guard here against an almost inevitable illusion. "Scripture" is more recent than "the scriptures" of which it is composed. It was still a long time before the existence of the individual writings resulted in the "New Testament" as Scripture, as the Bible. The assembling of the writings into a single Scripture is more properly speaking the work of tradition, a work that began in the second century but came to a kind of conclusion only in the fourth or fifth century. Harnack, a witness who cannot be suspected of pro-Roman bias, has remarked in this regard that it was only at the end of the second century, in Rome, that a canon of the "books of the New Testament" won recognition by the criterion of apostolicity-catholicity, a criterion to which the other Churches also gradually subscribed "for the sake of its intrinsic value and on the strength of the authority of the Roman Church".

We can therefore say that Scripture became Scripture through the tradition, which precisely in this process included the potentior principalitas–the preeminent original authority–of the Roman see as a constitutive element.

Two points emerge clearly from what has just been First, the principle of tradition in its sacramental form-apostolic succession—played a constitutive role in the existence and continuance of the Church. Without this principle, it is impossible to conceive of a New Testament at all, so that we are caught in a contradiction when we affirm the one while wanting to deny the other. Furthermore, we have seen that in Rome the traditional series of bishops was from the very beginning recorded as a line of successors.

We can add that Rome and Antioch were conscious of succeeding to the mission of Peter and that early on Alexandria was admitted into the circle of Petrine sees as the city where Peter's disciple Mark had been active. Having said all that, the site of Peter's martyrdom nonetheless appears clearly as the chief bearer of his supreme authority and plays a preeminent role in the formation of tradition which is constitutive of the Church-and thus in the genesis of the New Testament as Bible; Rome is one of the indispensable internal and external- conditions of its possibility. It would be exciting to trace the influence on this process of the idea that the mission of Jerusalem had passed over to Rome, which explains why at first Jerusalem was not only not a "patriarchal see" but not even a metropolis: Jerusalem was now located in Rome, and since Peter's departure from that city, its primacy had been transferred to the capital of the pagan world. [4]

But to consider this in detail would lead us too far afield for the moment. The essential point, in my opinion, has already become plain: the martyrdom of Peter in Rome fixes the place where his function continues. The awareness of this fact can be detected as early as the first century in the Letter of Clement, even though it developed but slowly in all its particulars.

Concluding reflections

We shall break off at this point, for the chief goal of our considerations has been attained. We have seen that the New Testament as a whole strikingly demonstrates the primacy of Peter; we have seen that the formative development of tradition and of the Church supposed the continuation of Peter's authority in Rome as an intrinsic condition. The Roman primacy is not an invention of the popes, but an essential element of ecclesial unity that goes back to the Lord and was developed faithfully in the nascent Church.

But the New Testament shows us more than the formal aspect of a structure; it also reveals to us the inward nature of this structure. It does not merely furnish proof texts, it is a permanent criterion and task. It depicts the tension between skandalon and rock; in the very disproportion between man's capacity and God's sovereign disposition, it reveals God to be the one who truly acts and is present.

If in the course of history the attribution of such authority to men could repeatedly engender the not entirely unfounded suspicion of human arrogation of power, not only the promise of the New Testament but also the trajectory of that history itself prove the opposite. The men in question are so glaringly, so blatantly unequal to this function that the very empowerment of man to be the rock makes evident how little it is they who sustain the Church but God alone who does so, who does so more in spite of men than through them.

The mystery of the Cross is perhaps nowhere so palpably present as in the primacy as a reality of Church history. That its center is forgiveness is both its intrinsic condition and the sign of the distinctive character of God's power. Every single biblical logion about the primacy thus remains from generation to generation a signpost and a norm, to which we must ceaselessly resubmit ourselves. When the Church adheres to these words in faith, she is not being triumphalistic but humbly recognizing in wonder and thanksgiving the victory of God over and through human weakness. Whoever deprives these words of their force for fear of triumphalism or of human usurpation of authority does not proclaim that God is greater but diminishes him, since God demonstrates the power of his love, and thus remains faithful to the law of the history of salvation, precisely in the paradox of human impotence.

For with the same realism with which we declare today the sins of the popes and their disproportion to the magnitude of their commission, we must also acknowledge that Peter has repeatedly stood as the rock against ideologies, against the dissolution of the word into the plausibilities of a given time, against subjection to the powers of this world.

When we see this in the facts of history, we are not celebrating men but praising the Lord, who does not abandon the Church and who desired to manifest that he is the rock through Peter, the little stumbling stone: "flesh and blood" do not save, but the Lord saves through those who are of flesh and blood. To deny this truth is not a plus of faith, not a plus of humility, but is to shrink from the humility that recognizes God as he is. Therefore the Petrine promise and its historical embodiment in Rome remain at the deepest level an ever-renewed motive for joy: the powers of hell will not prevail against it . . .


[1] Die Geschichte der synoptischen Tradition, 2d ed. (198 1), 147- 51; cf. Gnilka, 56.

[2] For an exhaustive account of this point, see V. Twomey, Apostolikos Thronos (Münster, 1982).

[3] It is my hope that in the not-too-distant future I will have the opportunity to develop and substantiate in greater detail the view of the succession that I attempt to indicate in an extremely condensed form in what follows. I owe important suggestions to several works by 0. Karrer, especially: Um die Einheit der Christen. Die Petrusfrage (Frankfurt am Mainz, 1953); "Apostolische Nachfolge und Primat", in: Feiner, Trütsch and Böckle, Fragen in der Theologie heute (Freiburg im.Breisgau, 1957), 175-206; "Das Petrusamt in der Frühkirche", in Festgabe J. Lortz (Baden-Baden, 1958), 507-25; "Die biblische und altkirchliche Grundlage des Papsttums", in: Lebendiges Zeugnis (1958), 3-24. Also of importance are some of the papers in the festschrift for 0. Karrer: Begegnung der Christen, ed. by Roesle-Cullmann (Frankfurt am Mainz, 1959); in particular, K. Hofstetter, "Das Petrusamt in der Kirche des I. und 2. Jahrhunderts", 361-72.

[4] Cf. Hofstetter.


"Primacy in Love": The Chair Altar of Saint Peter's in Rome
| Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger | From Images of Hope

Anyone who, after wandering through the massive nave of Saint Peter's Basilica, at last arrives at the final altar in the apse would probably expect here a triumphal depiction of Saint Peter, around whose tomb the church is built. But nothing of the kind is the case. The figure of the Apostle does not appear among the sculptures of this altar. Instead, we stand before an empty throne that almost seems to float but is supported by the four figures of the great Church teachers of the West and the East. The muted light over the throne emanates from the window surrounded by floating angels, who conduct the rays of light downward.

What is this whole composition trying to express? What does it tell us? It seems to me that a deep analysis of the essence of the Church lies hidden here, is contained here, an analysis of the office of Peter. Let us begin with the window, with its muted colors, which both gathers in to the center and opens outward and upward. It unites the Church with creation as a whole. It signifies through the dove of the Holy Spirit that God is the actual source of all light. But it tells us also something else) the Church herself is in essence, so to speak, a window, a place of contact between the other-worldly mystery of God and our world, the place where the world is permeable to the radiance of his light. The Church is not there for herself, she is not an end, but rather a point of departure beyond herself and us. The more transparent she becomes for the other, from whom she comes and to whom she leads, the more she fulfills her true essence. Through the window of her faith God enters this world and awakens in us the longing for what is greater. The Church is the place of encounter where God meets us and we find God. It is her task to open up a world closing in on itself, to give it the light without which it would be unlivable.

Let us look now at the next level of the altar: the empty cathedra made of gilded bronze, in which a wooden chair from the ninth century is embedded, held for a long time to be the cathedra of the Apostle Peter and for this reason placed in this location. The meaning of this part of the altar is thereby made clear. The teaching chair of Peter says more than a picture could say. It expresses the abiding presence of the Apostle, who as teacher remains present in his successors. The chair of the Apostle is a sign of nobility--it is the throne of truth, which in that hour at Caesarea became his and his successors' charge. The seat of the one who teaches reechoes, so to speak, for our memory the word of the Lord from the room of the Last Supper: "I have prayed for you that your faith may not fail; and when you have turned again, strengthen your brethren" (Lk 22:32). But there is also another remembrance connected to the chair of the Apostle: the saying of Ignatius of Antioch, who in the year 110 in his Letter to the Romans called the Church of Rome "the primacy of love". Primacy in faith must be primacy in love. The two are not to be separated from each other. A faith without love would no longer be the faith of Jesus Christ. The idea of Saint Ignatius was however still more concrete: the word "love" is in the language of the early Church also an expression for the Eucharist. Eucharist originates in the love of Jesus Christ, who gave his life for us. In the Eucharist, he evermore shares himself with us; he places himself in our hands. Through the Eucharist he fulfills evermore his promise that from the Cross he will draw us into his open arms (see Jn 12:32). In Christ's embrace we are led to one another. We are taken into the one Christ, and thereby we now also belong reciprocally together. I can no longer consider anyone a stranger who stands in the same contact with Christ.

These are all, however, in no way remote mystical thoughts. Eucharist is the basic form of the Church. The Church is formed in the eucharistic assembly. And since all assemblies of all places and all times always belong only to the one Christ, it follows that they all form only one single Church. They lay, so to speak, a net of brotherhood across the world and join the near and the far to one another so that through Christ they are all near. Now we usually tend to think that love and order are opposites. Where there is love, order is no longer needed because all has become self-evident. But that is a misunderstanding of love as well as of order. True human order is something different from the bars one places before beasts of prey so that they are restrained. Order is respect for the other and for one's own, which is then most loved when it is taken in its correct sense. Thus order belongs to the Eucharist, and its order is the actual core of the order of the Church. The empty chair that points to the primacy in love speaks to us accordingly of the harmony between love and order. It points in its deepest aspect to Christ as the true primate, the true presider in love. It points to the fact that the Church has her center in the liturgy. It tells us that the Church can remain one only from communion with the crucified Christ. No organizational efficiency can guarantee her unity. She can be and remain world Church only when her unity is more than that of an organization--when she lives from Christ. Only the eucharistic faith, only the assembly around the present Lord can she keep for the long term. And from here she receives her order. The Church is not ruled by majority decisions but rather through the faith that matures in the encounter with Christ in the liturgy.

The Petrine service is primacy in love, which means care for the fact that the Church takes her measure from the Eucharist. She becomes all the more united, the more she lives from the eucharistic dimension and the more she remains true in the Eucharist to the dimension of the tradition of faith. Love will also mature from unity, love that is directed to the world. The Eucharist is based on the act of love of Jesus Christ unto death. That means, too, that anyone who views pain as something that should be abolished or at least left to others is someone incapable of love. "Primacy in love": we spoke in the beginning about the empty throne, but now it is apparent that the "throne" of the Eucharist is not a throne of lordship but rather the hard chair of the one who serves.

Let us now look at the third level of the altar, at the Fathers who bear the throne of serving. The two teachers of the East, Chrysostom and Athanasius, embody together with the Latin Fathers Ambrose and Augustine the entirety of the tradition and thus the fullness of the faith of the one Church. Two considerations are important here: love stands on faith. It collapses when man lacks orientation. It falls apart when man can no longer perceive God. Like and with love, order and justice also stand on faith; authority in the Church stands on faith. The Church cannot conceive for herself how she wants to be ordered. She can only try ever more clearly to understand the inner call of faith and to live from faith. She does not need the majority principle, which always has something atrocious about it: the subordinated part must bend to the decision of the majority for the sake of peace even when this decision is perhaps misguided or even destructive. In human arrangements, there is perhaps no alternative. But in the Church the binding to faith protects all of us: each is bound to faith, and in this respect the sacramental order guarantees more freedom than could be given by those who would subject the Church to the majority principle.

A second consideration is needed here: the Church Fathers appear as the guarantors of loyalty to Sacred Scripture. The hypotheses of human interpretation waver. They cannot carry the throne. The life-sustaining power of the scriptural word is interpreted and applied in the faith that the Fathers and the great councils have learned from that word. The one who holds to this has found what gives secure ground in times of change.

Finally, now, we must not forget the whole for the parts. For the three levels of the altar take us into a movement that is ascent and descent at the same time. Faith leads to love. Here it becomes evident whether it is faith at all. A dark, complaining, egotistic faith is false faith. Whoever discovers Christ, whoever discovers the worldwide net of love that he has cast in the Eucharist, must be joyful and must become a giver himself. Faith leads to love, and only through love do we attain to the heights of the window, to the view to the living God, to contact with the streaming light of the Holy Spirit. Thus the two directions permeate each other. The light comes from God, flows downward awakening faith and love, in order then to take us up the ladder that leads from faith to love and to the light of the eternal.

The inner dynamic into which the altar draws us allows finally a last element to become understandable. The window of the Holy Spirit does not stand there on its own. It is surrounded by the overflowing fullness of angels, by a choir of joy. That is to say, God is never alone. That would contradict his essence. Love is participation, community, joy. This perception allows still another thought to emerge. Sound joins the light. We think we hear them singing, these angels, for we cannot imagine these streams of joy to be silent or as talking idly or shouting. They can be perceived only as praise in which harmony and diversity unite. "Yet you are... enthroned on the praises of Israel", we read in the psalm (22:3). Praise is likewise the cloud of joy through which God comes and which bears him as its companion into this world. Liturgy is therefore the eternal light shining into our world. It is God's joy, sounding into our world. And it is at the same time our feeling about the consoling glow of this light out of the depth of our questions and confusion, climbing up the ladder that leads from faith to love, thereby opening the view to hope.