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Austrian liturgy specialist censured by Ratzinger

NCR Staff

Insisting that the earliest layers of Christian tradition cannot be used to question later declarations of church authorities, the Vatican Dec. 6 issued a strongly worded 16-point censure of Austrian theologian Fr. Reinhard Messner, a little-known specialist in liturgical history.

The censure (formally called a “notification”) appeared in German and Italian over two full pages of L’Osservatore Romano, the Vatican newspaper, and was issued by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith headed by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger.

The text said Messner had accepted the Vatican rebuke, and is now obliged to follow it in all future theological activity and publications.

Messner, 40, a professor of liturgical science at the University of Innsbruck, has been under investigation since January 1998. The two works at the heart of the inquest were written during his graduate studies before he became a professor in 1996. His research focuses on challenges to Catholic theology posed by Martin Luther and the Protestant Reformation in the relationship between the Bible, apostolic tradition and later developments in the church.

Martin Luther, for example, attacked church theology and practices that could not be specifically traced to the Bible. He and other reformers asserted that layers of dogma had obscured the essence of the gospel.

Liturgical experts in Rome told NCR that Messner has a generally stellar reputation among those who know his work, but because he is new to the field he does not yet have a wide following.

In its criticism of Messner, who has suggested that later church traditions should be evaluated by their correspondence to primitive Christian experience, the Vatican insisted that there is no “rupture” between the first Christians as presented in scripture and subsequent evolutions such as the sacramental priesthood or the Latin Mass. This is so, the Vatican said, because only the magisterium, meaning the pope and the bishops, can be a sure guide to interpretation of revelation.

“The Catholic faith is not deduced solely from the text of scripture; in fact, the church does not obtain its certainty on all revealed matters solely from scripture,” the Vatican statement said.

“It exceeds the possibilities of theology to explain the word of God in a manner binding for the faith and the life of the church,” the statement said. “This duty is entrusted to the living magisterium of the church.”

The Vatican also demanded that Messner and other Catholic theologians teach that Christ instituted each of the seven sacraments, that Christ founded the “apostolic succession” by which Catholic clergy trace their authority to Jesus, and that there can be no contradiction between the declarations of church authorities and the practice of the church in liturgies. In other words, historical liturgical texts or data may not be regarded as authoritative when they conflict with church teaching.

While stressing that Messner had raised important points and that “many questions remain open,” the Vatican accused him of picking up ideas from Protestant authors such as Adolf Harnack (1851-1930) and presenting them as Catholic theology. The Vatican charged that, like Harnack, Messner regards largely as “misunderstanding and decadence” the medieval period of church history and the Council of Trent, the 16th-century church council that reasserted and clarified church doctrines in light of the Reformation.

Messner told NCR that normally a new professor in an Austrian theology department would receive a nihil obstat from Rome, clearing him to teach. In his case, however, Jesuits who sponsored the theology faculty of Innsbruck did not request such a clearance before authorizing the appointment in 1996, and Messner said he believes that’s why the congregation launched a formal investigation at such an early stage in his career.

Also among the16 points in the censure were:

  • “The concept of apostolic tradition -- the church’s teaching that the Catholic priesthood evolved in an unbroken line from the apostles -- is transmitted in the church under the influence of the Holy Spirit and is broader than that which was placed explicitly in writing in scripture.”
  • “Between magisterial definitions of the faith … and their actualization in the liturgy there cannot be any contradiction. The defined faith is binding for every liturgy, as well as for its interpretation and for new forms of the liturgy.”
  • “In the vocation and the mission of the Twelve Apostles, according to the faith of the church, Christ at the same time founded the ministry of apostolic succession, that in its full form is realized in the bishops as successors of the apostles. The priestly ministry in its triple degrees -- bishop, priest, deacon -- is a form of development of the ministry of apostolic succession legitimately unfolded in the church and therefore binding for the church.”
  • “The church in faith knows and therefore teaches in a binding way that Christ, beyond the sacrament of baptism that remits sins, instituted the sacrament of penance as the sacrament of pardon.”

Twice during the three-year investigation, Messner was required to submit clarifications of his views to Rome, on Nov. 13, 1998, and again on Nov. 3, 1999. In both cases, the Vatican statement indicated, the responses contained “improvements and clarifications,” but “did not totally resolve the questions” in Messner’s work.

The Vatican statement acknowledged that in some places Messner has offered “valid stimulation that must be evaluated as a positive contribution to the discussion.”

“Clearly leaving open questions that are purely theological, the congregation nevertheless considers it a duty to recall in an unequivocal way the doctrines of the faith, which must be held firmly in these discussions if a theology deserves to be called ‘Catholic,’ ” the statement said.

Messner said his basic reaction was relief. “The case has officially come to an end, and I can continue teaching liturgical studies as a professor here in Innsbruck,” he said.

The censure of Messner, printed in L’Osservatore Romano Dec. 6, received the pope’s approval on Oct. 27 and carried the signatures of both Ratzinger and the secretary of the congregation, Archbishop Tarcisio Bertone. But as if to make the point that this was not an exercise in infallibility, the newspaper neglected to include the papal consent and the two signatures on Dec. 6, and was obliged to print the following day a correction to what it called this “displeasing hitch.”

The e-mail address for John L. Allen Jr. is jallen@natcath.org

National Catholic Reporter, December 15, 2000