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Ratzinger explains how condemnation was right then, wrong now


In a recent document, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger has decided to apply the historical-critical method, commonly used in the interpretation of scripture, to the understanding of the church’s magisterium. This nota of the Congregation of the Doctrine of Faith of July 1, 2001, signed by the cardinal, is the first ecclesiastical document to adopt this approach. The nota first lifts the condemnation of 40 propositions drawn from the philosophical work of Antonio Rosmini pronounced in 1887 and then explains how the magisterium can do this without involving itself in an internal contradiction.

Can the magisterium be right when it made the condemnations and right when it lifted them? Where does this leave the truth?

The nota, published in Osservatore Romano (July 1 and 2, 2001), is available in French translation in La Documentation Catholique (Aug. 5 and 19, 2001).

Antonio Rosmini (1797-1855) was an Italian philosopher and ardent Catholic whose holy life was widely acknowledged. Rosmini’s most famous book was The Five Wounds of the Church, written in 1832 upon the election of Pius IX as a program for church reform. Among other things, Rosmini suggested the involvement of both the clergy and the people of a diocese in the selection of their bishop.

This book was one of two that were put on the Index of Forbidden Books in 1849 and yet his entire work was declared above suspicion in 1854, one year before his death. But in 1887, the decree post obitum of the Holy Office condemned as erroneous 40 propositions drawn from his writings, some of which were published posthumously. Since July last year, these propositions are no longer erroneous. Is this a switch?

No, says Ratzinger. He admits that “a superficial reading” of these events suggests “an intrinsic and objective contradiction” in the magisterium. But “an attentive reading,” he explains, interprets the decree post obitum “in the light of its historical context and thus reveals its true meaning.”

Never before, I wish to add, has the magisterium applied the historical-critical method to its own teaching.

What was the historical context of the 40 condemnations in 1887? Ratzinger mentions the effort of Leo XIII in his encyclical Aeterni Patris (1879) to unify the theological education of the clergy by making neo-Thomism the church’s official philosophy. Ratzinger says that many passages in Rosmini’s writings were ambiguous and, when read from a neo-Thomistic perspective, were clearly erroneous, implying a contrary point of view, and hence rightly deserved ecclesiastical condemnation. The situation was urgent, the cardinal continues, because at that time non-Catholic philosophers were interpreting Rosmini in line with their own orientation. Hence the decree post obitum was justified.

Today the situation is different. First, according to Ratzinger, serious research has shown that if Rosmini’s ambiguous and obscure passages are interpreted in the light of his own philosophical work, which is, of course, the only honest way of reading a philosophical text, then their meaning is not contrary to the Catholic tradition. Second, in his encyclical Faith and Reason of 1998, John Paul II has welcomed philosophical pluralism in the church and, in fact, mentioned with great respect Antonio Rosmini among several Catholic thinkers of the 19th century. That is why, at the present time, lifting the condemnations decreed in 1887 is justified.

The nota of July 2001 is an important ecclesiastical document because it applies the historical-critical method to the understanding of the magisterium. Yet has Ratzinger’s “attentive reading” demonstrated that lifting the condemnation does not involve the magisterium in an internal contradiction? I do not think so.

He has shown that the condemnation of Rosmini’s propositions in 1887 were justified in terms of the church’s pastoral policy and hence could be lifted without inconsistency later. Yet he does not raise the truth question. The readers of the condemnation of 1886 were made to believe that these propositions were erroneous: They were not told that they were erroneous only when read from a neo-Thomist perspective and that their true meaning should not be pursued at that time because Pope Leo XIII wanted neo-Thomism to become the church’s official philosophy.

The nota demonstrates that the condemnation of 1886 exercised a useful ecclesiastical function, not that it was true. Ratzinger’s explanation reveals that the Holy Office showed no respect for the truth at all. Its intentions were tactical and political. The Holy Office at that time saw itself as a servant of the church’s central government and judged ideas in terms of their ecclesiastical implications, not their truth.

Still, the nota is an important document since it is the first time an ecclesiastical statement wrestles with a question that has troubled Catholics for a long time. How are we to interpret apparent contradictions in the magisterium?

Here is a famous example. In the bull Unam Sanctam of 1302, Pope Boniface VIII wrote these words: “We declare, we set forth, we define that submission to the Roman pontiff is necessary for the salvation of any human creature.” And the Council of Florence solemnly declared in 1442 that outside the Catholic church there is no salvation, neither for heretics nor schismatics, even if they should live holy lives or shed their blood in the name of Christ. Vatican Council II appeared to proclaim an entirely different doctrine. We read in Gaudium et Spes that since Christ has died for all humans and since the destiny of humanity is one, we are to hold that, in a manner known to God, participation in the mystery of redemption is offered to every human being.

We are bound to ask with Ratzinger whether there is an internal contradiction in the magisterium. Were the solemn declarations of Boniface VIII and the Council of Florence wrong? The words of Boniface were so emphatic, “we declare, we set forth, we define,” that the reader may wonder whether Vatican Council II has made a mistake. At the same time, the declarations of Boniface and the cardinals in attendance at the Council of Florence were hard to reconcile with the teaching of the Church Fathers of the second and third centuries who believed that God’s redemptive Word, incarnate in Christ, was operative wherever people sought the truth. There may have been good church-political reasons for Boniface and the cardinals of the Council of Florence to make these harsh declarations, yet -- I would argue -- these declarations were wrong. The magisterium has made mistakes. The church, guided by the Spirit, is forever learning.

Ratzinger’s document has sent theologians off into a new area of research.

Gregory Baum is emeritus professor of religious studies at McGill University in Montreal and editor of The Ecumenist.

National Catholic Reporter, January 25, 2002