e-mail us
In rare U.S. visit, Ratzinger urges scholars to ‘think with the church’

NCR Staff
Menlo Park, Calif.

Against a backdrop of controversy over the Catholic identity of church-affiliated universities, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger Feb. 12 emphasized the need to bring colleges and theologians into greater harmony with Rome.

Ratzinger, the church’s top doctrinal officer, appeared at a Menlo Park news conference Feb. 12. The session with reporters came at the conclusion of four days of wide-ranging private meetings here between curial officials and an international assortment of prelates.

It was Ratzinger’s first visit to the United States in eight years.

While there was no disagreement on matters of substance, some interesting contrasts in emphasis and tone surfaced from several bishops who appeared alongside Ratzinger.

A statement said that the bishops had discussed issues such as the role of theologians, feminism, homosexuality and collaboration with Rome. But it was the Catholicity of the nation’s Catholic colleges and theologians that arose as the first major issue at the news conference.

Ratzinger said that by insisting on adherence to magisterial teaching, Rome actually promotes academic freedom.

“As you see with a medical faculty, you have complete academic freedom, but the discipline is such that the obligation of what medicine is determines the exercise of this freedom. As a medical person, you cannot do what you will. You are in the service of life,” Ratzinger said.

“So theology also has its inner exigencies. Catholic theology is not individual reflection but thinking with the faith of the church. If you will do other things and have other ideas of what God could be or could not be, there is the freedom of the person to do it, clearly. But one should not say this is Catholic theology.”

Tighter controls

Since John Paul issued Ex Corde Ecclesiae in 1990, calling for tighter controls on the Catholic identity of colleges and universities, the Vatican and American colleges have been locked in back-and-forth discussions over implementation. Rome recently set out norms that include loyalty oaths and hiring provisions that favor “faithful Catholics” (NCR, Feb. 19). Many university officials have expressed alarm at the proposals.

Ratzinger said his office must balance the rights of academics against the interests of ordinary Catholics.

“It is the great responsibility we have to give, on the one hand, the authentic witness of the faith, because Catholic people have the right to know what is Catholic and what is not Catholic, to defend Catholic identity, but also it is the great responsibility to not impose obligations and limitations of thinking where Catholic identity does not depend on these limitations,” he said.

Ratzinger said he and the other bishops had not discussed the specifics of the Ex Corde debate but instead dealt generally with the questions of Catholic theology and Catholic education.

The meetings brought staff from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith together with representatives from doctrinal committees for the United States, Canada and Oceania -- a region that includes Australia, New Zealand, Papua New Guinea, the Solomon Islands and other Pacific islands. The meetings took place at the San Francisco archdiocese’s Vallombrosa Retreat Center.

From the U.S. bishops’ conference, Archbishop Daniel Pilarczyk of Cincinnati, chair of the doctrinal committee, and Archbishop William Levada of San Francisco participated. Levada worked on Ratzinger’s staff in the early 1980s.

While several prelates echoed Ratzinger’s themes in their own remarks, some different notes were struck on other matters.

Cardinal Aloysius Ambrozic from Toronto had some positive things to say about feminism. He called the relationship between the church and feminist thought “mutually enriching.”

“What feminism has helped us to do, I think, is to perceive certain aspects of the Bible a little more fully than we did before. For instance, God not only as a master, as a creator, but God as a friend -- something that women appreciate I think more than men,” Ambrozic said.

“The other thing I think we have learned from women a little better is that ultimately being is more important than doing, that sanctity is more important than structure and that actually the structure of the church, as important as it may be, is really in service of something much greater than itself.”

Ambrozic said “women could not find an ally more clearly determined than the church to recognize and defend their dignity.”

In response to a reporter’s question, Ambrozic reiterated the church’s ban on women priests.

Progressive tone

Bishop Peter Cullinane of Palmerston North, New Zealand, who drew notice for the progressive tone of his interventions at the recent Synod for Oceania, rose to discuss evangelization. Despite the presence of Catholicism’s top doctrinal official, Cullinane suggested that doctrine should be only a secondary concern for the church.

“When God wanted to show us how much we mean to him, just how much human nature, God’s creation, is precious to God, God couldn’t say it simply in statements and doctrines. The only way God could say it was in the form of a person, whom you and I know to be Jesus of Nazareth,” Cullinane said. “Doctrines and statements are only the spinoffs, if you like, of what it means to know him. He is the truth.”

Cullinane later told NCR that the church would do better in evangelization to emphasize personal relationships prior to doctrinal formula. “People get such a partial glimpse of a much bigger and more wonderful reality. ... I only wish people could get to know each other better. They’d all be happier,” he said.

Though Ratzinger and Pope John Paul II have long criticized the moral and philosophical relativism they associate with modern Western culture, Archbishop Eric D’Arcy of Hobart, Australia, suggested that the West may not be getting the credit it deserves.

“We’re very conscious of moral relativism in the West, but I’m also grateful to see signs of the objective character of moral truth. I think it started with the Nuremberg trials. A number of the accused pleaded that they had done nothing against their conscience, and the Nuremberg court said that there are things whether you think so or not, they’re wrong,” D’Arcy said.

“Only a year or two after that came this astonishing achievement of the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights. ... Now in our country and in many countries there are actually commissions which protect human rights. They recognize this as a matter of objective truth. This seems to me progress.”

On homosexuality, D’Arcy reaffirmed Catholic teaching that homosexual activity is sinful but also emphasized that violence against homosexuals is wrong.

Previous regional doctrinal meetings have occurred in Bogotá, Colombia; Kinshasa, Zaire; Vienna, Austria; Hong Kong and Guadalajara, Mexico.

High-profile clashes

Though the past decade has seen several high-profile clashes between the American bishops and Rome, ranging from the Vatican’s rejection of a plan for implementation of Ex Corde to its rejection of the text of the new lectionary, Levada told NCR after the meeting that avoiding such clashes was not among the meeting’s goals. In fact, Levada said he sometimes welcomed Vatican intervention.

“I can think of one or two questions when I’ve been in the minority on votes in the American bishops, and I’m pleased that the Vatican has said, ‘Hey, wait a minute. That doesn’t seem like that’s such a good thing to us.’ Well, right on!” Levada said. “I think sometimes the American bishops take decisions in discussions that are too rushed, too agenda-driven. We don’t give enough time to points of view. I’m not saying that’s all the time, but it has happened.”

Levada said the better Rome and the American bishops communicate, the more such conflict will naturally abate.

“The fact that Ratzinger and his staff were here and initiated a dialogue with the bishops is itself a very positive sign that the Holy See wants to have the best relationship. They’re very open to saying, ‘Let’s do this kind of dialogue and exchange of ideas; let’s make sure that we’re marching along and we have the same vision so that we don’t have to have what for some people may be embarrassing reversals,’ ” he said.

During the Feb. 12 news conference, Ratzinger declined invitations to comment on impeachment or Jerry Falwell’s criticism of the Teletubbies.

The Teletubby question, however, did throw into relief some of the cultural and linguistic differences in the Menlo Park assemblage. Ambrozic, a Slovenian by birth, launched into a long peroration on European communism in the 1920s and how the passions of one era can become the outmoded clichés of another. When he was done, an American TV reporter innocently asked if that meant he agreed with Falwell. Ambrozic testily refused to answer, calling the question “capacious” -- although it was, in essence, the very one he had started out with several minutes before.

In addition to Ratzinger, Vatican officials in Menlo Park included Archbishop Tarcisio Bertone, secretary of the congregation; Msgr. Josef Clemens, Ratzinger’s personal secretary; Franciscan Fr. Adriano Garuti, head of the doctrinal section; and Fr. Charles Brown, a priest of the New York archdiocese currently working for Ratzinger.

The prepared speeches delivered at the meeting were not released to reporters. A spokesperson for the San Francisco archdiocese said that Levada will act as “repositor” of the speeches, which will be sent on to Rome for final editing. They will eventually be published in book form.

Click the links below to read past NCR coverage of the Ex Corde Ecclesiae controversy. Use your browser's Back button to return here.

To read Fides et Ratio on the Vatican's Web site. Cut and paste http://www.vatican.va/ into your browser. First select the language of your choice. Then click The Holy See for English, click The Holy Father, then click John Paul II, and, finally, click Encyclicals. You will find the link to Fides et Ratio at the top of the list.

National Catholic Reporter, February 26, 1999