Ratzinger on the Church

SALT OF THE EARTH. The Church at the End of the Millennium; An Interview with Peter Seewald. By Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger (Ignatius Press, P.O. Box 1339, Fort Collins, Colo. 80522, 1997), 283 pp. PB $12.95.

This book is something like a sequel to The Ratzinger Report, which appeared in 1985. That volume caused quite a stir because of the bluntness of the Cardinal and because Catholics were not accustomed to hear such forthright and strong views from the Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF). But there is a significant difference between the two volumes. In the first one, the journalist, Vittorio Messori, wrote a series of essays as chapters and told us what the Cardinal thought about this and that. That was fine but there was an intermingling of the views of the author and those of the Cardinal.

The presentation of the ideas of Cardinal Ratzinger in this volume are in his own words because the whole book is a series of questions by the author and then responses from Ratzinger. So everything from Ratzinger is in the first person rather than the third person. There is a certain advantage in that.

The journalist, Peter Seewald, is unknown to me but is probably well known in Germany. He is conversant with many of the problems in the Church, especially as they relate to the situation in Germany.

The book contains three distinct parts: 1) a personal biography of the Cardinal; 2) current problems in the Catholic Church; 3) questions about the future of the Church in the third millennium.

The first part deals with Cardinal Ratzinger’s family and upbringing. His father was a minor official in the government who had nothing but contempt for Hitler and the Nazis. The young Ratzinger majored in theology, became a professor and a theological advisor to his bishop at the Second Vatican Council. In those days he was quite liberal in his views, but he does not stress that. In 1977 Pope Paul VI made him Archbishop of Munich, a post he held until John Paul II made him prefect of the CDF in 1981.

In the second part he answers some tough questions about current problems in the Church, such as divorce and annulments, celibacy, contraception, women’s ordination, ecumenism, liturgy, and the relationship between the Church and the State. Of course, he defends the teaching of the Church on all these issues. He is especially strong in defending the celibacy of priests in the Roman Rite and the important role it plays in the life of the Church. He also says that the traditional Latin Rite “should be granted much more generously to all those who desire it” (p. 176).

Ratzinger, who, as prefect of the CDF, has the task of defending the integrity of the faith, lists some of the major problems confronting the Church and they are: liberation theology, feminist ideology, inculturation or the quest for one’s own cultural identity, ecology, and philosophical relativism (pp. 132-134). These are the kinds of questions that he has to deal with on a regular basis.

In the third part he talks about the Church’s relations with Islam and Judaism and the prospects for the future, especially in the next century. In this context he brings out how important Pope John Paul II considers the Church’s current efforts in the matter of ecumenism. The Pope seems to be very optimistic about the growing unity of the Church in the next millennium, after a millennium of divisions from the Orthodox and Protestants. Ratzinger does not share that optimism (p. 238). He thinks that the Church will get smaller, as it is now declining in the West, and that there will be small pockets of Catholics who intensely live their faith.

Towards the end he criticizes the increased bureaucracy in the Church and says we have “too much” of it (p. 266). He stresses the importance of the Bible in the life of each Catholic and reminds us that it belongs to the faithful and not to the Scripture scholars. He says further that true reform of the Church will not come from “forums and synods,” but rather, “Reforms will come from convincing personalities whom we may call saints” (p. 270).

In summary, Cardinal Ratzinger offers us a good overview of many of the pressing problems in the Church today. One drawback of the book is that the interviewer throws a barrage of difficult questions at him and he does not get a chance to give adequate answers to many of them. But it is reassuring to find out from the prefect of the CDF what the problems are and that he is doing the best he can to defend the faith wherever it is denied or attacked.

Kenneth Baker, S.J.
Ramsey, N.J.

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