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Ratzinger’s reply to the Dialogue for Austria

The following letter was written by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, the Vatican’s top doctrinal official, sometime before Christmas 1998, presumably as a consequence of the Austrian bishops’ ad limina visit to the Vatican one month earlier. At that time, the bishops presented Pope John Paul II with the results of the Dialogue for Austria. Addressed to Cardinal Christoph Schönborn of Vienna, Ratzinger’s letter was not made public, but Austrian journalist Thomas Hofer obtained a copy and published it in the March 29 issue of the newsmagazine Profil.

Ratzinger, though Bavarian rather than Austrian, has nevertheless inserted himself at key moments during the Dialogue for Austria. In June 1997, Ratzinger wrote to the Austrian bishops instructing them to exclude We Are Church, the country’s main reform group, from the Delegates Assembly at which the conclusions of the dialogue were to be debated and voted upon. After a number of lay groups vowed not to participate if We Are Church was left out, Ratzinger wrote again to the bishops on March 7, 1998, saying he would accept “carefully circumscribed” participation by We Are Church.

We Are Church in Austria spearheaded a 1995 petition drive that garnered a half-million signatures demanding five reforms: local selection of bishops; ordination of women as deacons and priests; optional celibacy for priests; tolerance of birth control; and an emphasis on positive proclamation rather than condemnation.

This letter offers Ratzinger’s point-by-point commentary on key results from the Dialogue for Austria. It is published here in full, in NCR’s English translation from the German original.

The results of the Dialogue for Austria (which culminated in a Delegates Assembly in Salzburg, Oct. 23-26) were grouped into 12 themes, with several recommendations under each (NCR, Nov. 6, 1998). Ratzinger is especially concerned with Theme 3 (on love and sexuality), Theme 4 (on remarried divorcees and laicized priests), and Theme 7 (on women in the church).


The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, after careful review, has come to the conclusion that several of the recommendations from the Delegates Assembly held in Salzburg for the “Dialogue for Austria” present doctrinal problems (Part A) or do not correspond with the discipline of the universal church (Part B).

Part A: Doctrinal Problems

Several recommendations in dialogue groups 3, 4 and 7 are not fully correct in terms of doctrine or are so ambiguously formulated that they could easily be interpreted to contradict church teaching.

Theme 3, Recommendation 1

In the first recommendation it says that Christian sacramental marriage is “our goal and ideal,” but finishes: “We respect, however, apart from the type of marriage sealed in the church, different forms of partnership in which love, responsibility and loyalty are practiced. ... young people especially in the search for a form of lived sexuality appropriate for them, may not yet be prepared for the demands of lifelong partnership and the responsibility of parenthood corresponding with that.”

These remarks undermine the teaching of the church, according to which marriage is uniquely and solely the place for complete sexual devotion. Sexual intercourse before or outside marriage is always seen by the church as a serious offense against chastity.

Sexuality, “in which men and women give themselves to one another through the acts reserved to and appropriate for married persons, is in no way something purely biological, but it concerns the core of the human person as such. It is only truly human if it is integrated into that love to which the man and the woman commit themselves unreservedly unto death. The complete devotion of the love would be a lie if it did not create signs and fruit of the more complete unity which the entire person, in its temporal dimension, experiences with the other.” (Familiaris Consortio, 11; viz. Persona Humana 7, 11-12; Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC) 2348-2350, 2353, 2396).

Theme 3, Recommendation 2

The recommendation on the question of regulating birth first correctly recalls the responsibility of parenthood given to married couples. Then it says: “It falls to the partners to select the method of regulating birth best suited to their concrete situation, after considering church instructions in the sense of a responsible decision of conscience.”

This expression is not fully consistent with church teaching on the regulation of birth. Contraception is in itself an evil act (intrinsece malum) that cannot be made good through a decision of conscience. “While sexual union in its very essence brings to expression the partners’ total giving of themselves, contraception is an objectively contradictory gesture of a giving that is less than total. Through this active rejection of openness to life comes a falsification of the love appropriate to total personal devotion.” (Familiaris Consortio, 32; viz. Gaudium et Spes, 51, Humanae Vitae 14, CCC 2330, 2399).

The quoted citation also betrays an understanding of conscience that Pope John Paul II has expressly rejected (viz. Veritatis Splendor, 54-64). With respect to the idea that one must distinguish between an objective moral order and the norm of the individual conscience, and that the latter should decide between good and evil, the Holy Father writes: “On this basis one arrogates for himself the right to establish so-called ‘pastoral’ solutions that stand in opposition to the teaching of the magisterium and to justify a ‘creative’ hermeneutic according to which the moral conscience is not actually obligated in all cases by a certain negative law. Probably no one fails to understand that with this beginning, nothing less than the identity of the moral conscience in relation to human liberty and the law of God is called into question” (Veritatis Splendor, 56).

Theme 3, Recommendation 3

The recommendation concerning ministry to homosexual persons underscores correctly that these people are to be met with care and tact, that they should not be excluded and should be encouraged to participate in the life of the church. Beyond that it says: “Homosexuals like heterosexuals have the same moral obligation to fulfill the will of God in their lives, to affirm their sexual inclination and to integrate it into the whole of their human behavior.”

These statements remain ambiguous and could be easily interpreted in a sense contradictory to church teaching. The necessity of affirming the worth of homosexual persons and of offering them pastoral assistance must not obscure that homosexual practices are a serious offense against chastity. Supported by Holy Scripture, which defines them as sinful acts (viz. Gen 19:2-29; Rom 1:24-27; 1 Cor 6:10; 1 Tim 1:10), church tradition has always declared “that homosexual actions are disordered in themselves” (Persona Humana, 8). “They offend against natural law because transmission of life is impossible through these acts. They do not proceed from a genuine affective and sexual complementarity” (CCC, 2357; viz. Persona Humana, 8; Homosexualitatis Problema, 3-7; CCC 2396). In contrast to the notion that homosexuality is merely a variant of nature, it must also be said: “The specific inclination of the homosexual person is not itself sinful, but it creates a more or less strong tendency to morally wrong behavior. For this reason the inclination must be understood as objectively disordered” (Homosexualitatis Problema, 3; viz. CCC 2358).

Theme 4, Recommendation 1

In the recommendation concerning ministry to divorced and remarried believers it says, in conformity with relevant magisterial documents, that these people are not to be excluded from the community and must be met with understanding and sympathy. But then it says: “A personal decision according to their informed conscience to receive Communion, after careful consideration and if possible after a talk with a pastor, must be respected.”

It is obvious that this demand is not acceptable. “In the case of divorcees who remarry under civil law, they are in a situation that objectively contradicts the law of God. As long as this situation persists, they may not receive Communion. For the same reason they may not exercise certain church functions. Absolution through the sacrament of reconciliation can only be granted to those who repent having hurt the character of marriage and the loyalty due to Christ, and who commit themselves to complete continence” (CCC 1650; viz. Familiaris Consortio, 84; the 1984 CDF document). This sorrowful question revolves around not only church discipline, which could be resolved differently, but around a standard stemming directly from the indissolubility of marriage. Certainly all our powers will be necessary “to make it credible, that it is not a matter of discrimination but uninhibited fidelity to the will of Christ, who gives anew the indissolubility of marriage to us as a gift” (1984 CDF document).

Theme 7, Recommendation 3

In this recommendation the Austrian bishops’ conference is asked to intervene for the introduction of the permanent diaconate for women. In this question it is necessary to observe the proper conversational protocol. It must also be observed that the church law according to which only a baptized man can receive a valid ordination has important doctrinal implications (CCC 1576; Canon 1024).

Part B: Problems of a Disciplinary Type

Many recommendations of the Delegates Assembly are out of order according to church law: for example the demand “to permit the cooperation of remarried divorcees on pastoral councils” and to not discipline church employees after divorce (Theme 4, Recommendation 3); the request that “the rights of collaboration of the pastoral councils be further developed” (Theme 5, Recommendation 2); the recommendation to the bishops that they support “the admission of suitable and properly trained married men to the priesthood” (Theme 6, Recommendation 2).

On the demand for ordination of the so-called “viri probati” the Holy Father gave an indirect response in his speech to the Austrian bishops when he called for a reaffirmation of the priestly office and the development of a pastoral strategy in which vocations can flourish (viz. numbers 8 and 9; viz. also Pastores Dabo Vobis, 29).

The other demands cannot be decided in Austria because they concern topics that deal with the discipline of the universal church and therefore are reserved to the competent organs of the Holy See.

National Catholic Reporter, April 9, 1999