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French cardinal challenges Ratzinger

NCR Staff

A French cardinal seen by some Vatican-watchers as papabile -- a candidate for pope -- has challenged Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, the church’s top doctrinal officer, on the need for Catholicism to make structural changes arising from dialogue with the modern world.

Cardinal Pierre Eyt of Bordeaux published his comments in the French Catholic newspaper La Croix in December, in response to a speech by Ratzinger at the University of Paris in November 1999. Ratzinger had lamented modernity’s rejection of the synthesis between “reason, faith and life” developed by ancient Christianity.

Ratzinger in turn responded to Eyt in La Croix.

In his December 1999 article, Eyt wrote that Ratzinger had left out another element of the ancient Christian synthesis -- law. That makes the situation more complex, Eyt said, because in the ancient world law was often used to impose religious belief and to punish dissenters. At different times Christians were both the victims and the perpetrators of the coercive use of law, Eyt said.

This shows, Eyt said, that Christians cannot fall back on a “Golden Age” as the basis for policies today.

Eyt said Ratzinger overlooked law because he sees structural questions as secondary to matters of faith. Eyt disagreed: “I believe on the contrary that all these problems are related and of an equal gravity. … They belong to an indivisible unit.”

Lay Catholics have insights to contribute in areas such as politics, bioethics and theology, Eyt said, but when it comes time for the church to draw structural conclusions, the conversation is “brutally closed.”

“Only rarely do our conclusions satisfy,” he wrote. The church seems to “mark time without going beyond the initial question.”

Responding in La Croix, Ratzinger said he thought “institutional” problems reflect a deeper crisis of faith. If there is no “common conviction” among the faithful, he said, the church’s pronouncements would be ineffective and seen as repressive.

Eyt wrote that Cardinal Carlo Maria Martini of Milan had identified the core areas needing reform in a speech at the October European Synod in Rome. They included “the role of women in society and the church, the participation of the laity in certain ministerial responsibilities, sexuality, the discipline of marriage, penitential practice, relations with the Orthodox sister churches, the need to revive ecumenical hopes, the relationship between democracy and values and between civil and moral law.”

Eyt said the evolution of Pope John Paul II’s teaching on the death penalty in recent years might be a model for progressive adaptation in other areas.

Ratzinger said he agreed with Eyt that the church cannot evoke a “Golden Age.”

“Nothing is further from my intention than wanting to limit ‘reason’ to the state that it had reached at the time of the fathers of the church,” Ratzinger said.

This is not the first time Ratzinger has crossed swords in print with a fellow cardinal. In the English Catholic newspaper The Tablet in 1998, retired Cardinal Franz König of Vienna, Austria, accused Ratzinger of over-reacting in his investigation of Belgian Jesuit Jacques Dupuis’ views on religious pluralism; Ratzinger in turn expressed “astonishment,” insisting he sought only dialogue.

The joust with Ratzinger will cast a new spotlight on Eyt, 64, seen as a “moderate conservative” on most theological issues. He was named archbishop of Bordeaux in 1989 and made a cardinal in 1994.

Eyt served as a second lieutenant in the French army during the Algerian war of independence, before he entered the seminary. He acquired a doctorate in theology at Rome’s Gregorian University, where his dissertation concerned theology in the era of Luther. He became a faculty member and then vice chancellor at the Catholic University in Toulouse, and later directed the Catholic Institute of Paris.

Eyt has served as a member of the International Theological Commission, a body that advises the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, and has led the doctrinal commission of the French bishops’ conference. In the early 1990s, John Paul II named him to the editorial committee for the Catechism of the Catholic Church.

Currently Eyt sits as a member of Ratzinger’s congregation.

The La Croix exchange is not the first time Eyt has expressed reservations about Vatican policies. In 1993, Eyt complained about Ratzinger’s criticism of three German bishops who suggested more pastoral treatment of Catholics who divorce and remarry under civil law. In 1997, Eyt said that a Vatican document restricting lay ministry had created a “climate of defiance” in the church.

Eyt is said to be close to the “new movements” in France, such as the Neocatechumenate, Communion and Liberation, and Focolare.

At last fall’s European Synod, Eyt impressed some observers by not backing down from confronting European culture and its “rising paganism,” yet without the tone of condemnation that many conservatives invoked.

Europe is mission territory, Eyt said, arguing for the need to “inculturate” the gospel. “The natural soul of Europe,” he said, “is thus not Christian.”

Marco Politi, Vatican affairs writer for Rome’s la Repubblica newspaper, wrote at the time that Eyt had emerged as a strong candidate for the papacy.

In 1995, during intense debate over controversial French Bishop Jacques Gaillot, Eyt was asked what sort of epitaph he would like to see affixed to his episcopacy. He responded: “A traditional moderate who tried to hold onto the old Catholic liberal wing because he knew they were sincere.”

The Catholic News Service contributed to this report.

National Catholic Reporter, February 18, 2000