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Catholic World News News Feature

The Future Pope Speaks May 01, 2005

Twenty years ago, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger-already an extremely influential theologian as well as prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith-was introduced to a broader reading audience with the publication of a book-length conversation with the Italian journalist Vittorio Messori. The resulting volume, known as The Ratzinger Report, fascinated readers because of the cardinal's trenchant observations and his frank treatment of controversial issues. Few who read the book were left indifferent by this remarkable “conversation about the faith.”

A decade later, in 1993, the German cardinal had set a new agenda, with the publication of the Catechism of the Catholic Church and a fresh set of debates shaking the cultural foundations of the Catholic world. In 1993, in preparation for a face-to-face interview, correspondents for Time magazine sent Cardinal Ratzinger a series of preliminary written questions, to which he replied in considerable detail. But very little of the oral interview, and almost nothing of the written responses that appear below, was included in the Time profile entitled “Keeper of the Straight and Narrow.”

In our January 1994 issue, CWR published the entire text of Cardinal Ratzinger's replies to the questions posed by Time, in the belief that these full written responses would help our readers understand a key figure in the Vatican leadership. We reproduce the text herewith, believing that the interview offers a fascinating portrait of Pope Benedict XVI.


Regarding the new Catechism of the Catholic Church, the 1985 Synod said this would be a “point of reference.” But will it have a more precise function, defining the standard against which your congregation, bishops, and religious superiors are to judge the orthodoxy of teachers and writings?

Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger: The Catechism was not conceived as a means of control, but as an aid in perceiving what the Catholic Church believes. It is not the work of a sort of spiritual police force that needs the most precise possible rules, but the result of cooperation among believers worldwide who want to publicly bear witness to that which sustains their lives.

We live in a world which, on the one hand, is growing steadily closer together through technology and communications but at the same time is drifting apart in more and more hostile particularisms. Unifying points of reference are necessary. Every culture will express its beliefs in its own way, but for this very reason we must make plain what we have in common, what we can all say, and what binds us together.

Preparing the Catechism was a wonderful experience for us because we found that people from all over the world with very different theological, philosophical, and political orientations speak a common language and could formulate their beliefs together.

Conservative Catholics complain that youth and the parish faithful are very confused about what the Church teaches. How severe is this problem, and was this a reason for issuing this Catechism?

Ratzinger: No one can deny that there was great uncertainty about what the Church believes and teaches. Well into this century, there was something like a common basic language of Catholic belief which, moreover, partly coincided with the basic language of non-Catholic Christians. People knew what mercy meant, what sin was, what was meant by the Last Things. Recently this common language has disappeared.

It is not only separated Christians who find it difficult to understand each other; mutual understanding has become difficult even within the Catholic Church. But as thought without speech is impossible, there can be no real spiritual unity without a minimum of common language. Faith becomes faceless and Church unity loses its strength if it is not also felt with the senses-in language and liturgical ritual.

The bishops of the 1985 Synod obviously felt this very strongly from their own experience. The success of the Catechism, which nobody could control, shows that they were right. People want to have the Catechism because they want to know what it actually means now “to be a Catholic.” Today, we can talk of a plebiscite of the People of God that confirms the necessity for such a book far beyond all expectations.

The Catechism addresses missions. Liberal Christians oppose seeking converts from non-Catholic faiths, calling this religious “imperialism,” or saying that followers of other faiths are already “anonymous Christians” who should not be intruded upon. What is your reply? Is it still true that there is no salvation outside the Church?

Ratzinger: We must carefully differentiate the three questions which you have posed. Your first question asks: Is mission a kind of religious imperialism? This impression was given rise to in modern times, when mission and colonialism joined forces. To some extent the European powers actually did see the spread of Christianity as a way of securing their power. But even in modern times, this was only limitedly the case. For the Spanish conquistadors often regarded the activities of Franciscans, Dominicans, and other missionary orders as a hindrance to their ends, and rightly so, since baptism gave the natives the same legal status as they had, and the missionaries placed limits on their objectives. A similar thing happened in the 19th century.

But most important is to think back to the point of departure of the notion of mission. After the executions of Stephen and the apostle James, when Christians began to carry the name of Jesus “to the ends of the earth,” they had no power to support them and could only predict persecution for their followers. But they were convinced that they had found something that they could not keep to themselves: the redeeming truth about how man should live. There are things that must be passed on because they do not belong to one person alone. The faith, where it is truly recognized, is one of these.

Your second question: Are not all people anonymous Christians? Frankly, I consider that a rather unfortunate turn of phrase. A Muslim could just as easily say we were all anonymous Muslims, and so on. It is true that Christianity spiritually touches all the other great religions, that the great religious currents, like the great cultural ones, somehow approach each other from within. But to say that because of that everyone is really already a Christian, whether he knows it or not, wants to be or not, seems to me fantastic. That is more what I would call a kind of spiritual imperialism.

Your third question: Is it still true that there is no salvation outside the Church? We must remember that this expression was formulated by St. Cyprian in the 3rd century in a quite concrete situation. There were those who thought they were better Christians who were unhappy with the Church of bishops and separated themselves from her. In answer to that, Cyprian says separation from the Church community separates one from salvation. But he did not mean to lay down a theory on the eternal fate of all baptized and non-baptized persons.

The Church Fathers always bore two points of view in mind. On the one hand, they wanted to show that Christianity “is as old as mankind,” that salvation was always possible because one could always take the path that leads to Christ. St. Clement of Rome, for example, made this concrete when he said: It was always possible for anyone to do penance and so to live the essence of what Christ expects from us. The other point of view was this: the Church is not an end in itself but serves the whole. Just as Israel knew that in being chosen it was fulfilling a mission for the whole of mankind, so Christians knew that (about themselves) in heightened fashion from Christ. Even if they cannot reach everybody in quantitative terms, nevertheless, what they are and do is important to everyone. In this sense, their missionary zeal is vital. For if they cease to proclaim their faith, that is a sign that they no longer properly understand and live it.

Please comment on the important issues addressed in the 1992 Catechism that were not even contemplated at the time of the Roman Catechism of 1562. These might include: genetic experimentation, capitalism, ecology, women's liberation, civil rights for homosexuals, tolerance of pre-marital sexual relations, Mariology, neo-Pentecostal practices, the ecumenical movement.

Ratzinger: I assume you do not expect me to discuss each topic in detail; to do that, I would have to write volumes. I will confine myself to a basic observation.

Of course, belief has developed further since 1562; after all, there was the Second Vatican Council and after that things could not stand still. Above all else, new areas of ethical problems have arisen, which particularly affect political ethics, economic ethics, social ethics, ecology, and lastly sexual ethics and human rights. You have mentioned the theological questions of Mariology and ecumenism. It was not the task of the Catechism to develop new theories on these topics. It cannot and should not claim originality. Rather, it should repeat and clarify that which is already recognized Catholic teaching.

This was not too difficult with regard to Mariology and ecumenism, since official documents exist which clearly lay out the teaching and practice of the Catholic Church. It was much more difficult with the ethical problems, because constant advances in various aspects of science mean that the moral questions are continuously expanding and changing. The Catechism could not fall into a minute casuistry, having an answer ready for every question. It must lay down the principles which help the conscience to find the right solutions. But of course it could not be too general because it is in this area that people are seeking advice and help. The standard could only be the Word of God, which historically the Church has always tried to interpret and unfold anew. As regards the details, I can only invite you to read the text.

What significance does the new Catechism have for Catholic politicians who advocate or administer legalized abortion?

Ratzinger: The Catechism reiterates that the primordial right of man is the right to live. Nobody is entitled to bestow or take away another's right to life. Whoever is a human being has this right from within himself, not from another. Without this basic insight, there can be no human rights and no human dignity. The Catechism assumes that a human being is a human being from the moment of conception on, and that he must therefore be treated in accord with his human rights. Whoever willingly and actively takes these rights away from a group of people and lets them be killed, thus violates the basic laws of human rights. Everyone must accept the consequences of violating these laws.

Your extended interview with Vittorio Messori in 1984, later published in book form, was very pessimistic about trends in honoring Church authority and doctrine. In your view, has the situation improved, remained the same, or deteriorated further since then? What specific incidents cause you to think so?

Ratzinger: “Pessimistic” and “optimistic” are emotional categories not worthy of mention. If someone is analyzing a community situation he should not ask if he is “pessimistic” or “optimistic” but rather he should look for certain parameters which throw light on developing tendencies in the community and thus on its state of health. The Church, moreover, does not live in a world apart but is made up of people from present-day society. It is evident today that all the great civilizations are suffering in varying ways from the crises of values and ideas which in some parts of the world assume dangerous forms.

It is not hard to find examples of this. Take for instance the internal crisis of the peoples of the former Soviet Union; look at large parts of Africa and Latin America, at the different Asian cultures, at trends in the societies of Europe and North America. In many places, we are on the brink of ungovernability.

Violence is a sign of the failure of moral forces; seeking refuge in drugs is fleeing from real life altogether. In such a world, the Church cannot be a quiet island of the blessed, and whoever maintains that it can be is simply shutting his eyes to reality. The Church takes part in the epochal crisis of the second half of the century, which for her, manifests itself as a crisis of belief, of vocations, of internal unity of Church life. There is, however, an important new aspect: whereas 30 years ago, people were predicting the end of religion and a completely secular age, today we can see everywhere a new impulse toward the religious, a setting out on the path of religion. However, in general, the answer to this impulse is less likely to be sought in the great churches than in new communities, which adopt their form and content from many influences.

Despite this, it would be wrong to say that the religious renaissance is passing the Catholic Church by (I am not well enough informed to be able to discuss other Christian communities). The so-called movements are just one way in which even the Church becomes a bearer of new religious awakenings. Generally speaking, we can see that the younger generation no longer needs to come to terms with the faith of the past that the generation of religious rebels after Vatican II was, and is, so heavily concerned with. They do not need these denials, because it is not their past. On the contrary, they regard this kind of self-contradiction as displeasing and certainly not to be imitated. They want faith to be total, joyful, and natural, in the form of today, but rooted in an encounter with the living God.

A broad question: You are aware that many persons, Catholic as well as non-Catholic, reject as outdated the whole idea of the Church defining doctrines and morals, and requiring those who teach in its name to follow these definitions. Please explain the justification for such requirements in the modern world.

Ratzinger: I discussed these questions in detail in my book, The Essence and Task of Theology, so I would like to be brief here. The degree of definition of content is different for each Christian community. The Reformation, working on the principle of “Scripture alone,” left it for the most part to the conscience of each individual to interpret the words of the Bible. But even then, one cannot simply believe whatever one likes, since the Bible has, after all, a definite content, even if it is not always easily defined. Luther believed that the Scripture was so clear that any attentive reader must plainly recognize the content and no further definitions were necessary. At this point, he has been superseded by the problems of historical research, but his intention remains clear: he too saw the transcribed content of Christianity as indispensable; his quarrel with Calvin and Zwingli over the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist shows this clearly enough.

Nowadays, if one thinks that there should be no definition of content on religious and moral matters, one is following a definite trend in modern thinking which says that the mind can only attain definitive knowledge in the field of mathematics and science; religion would thus belong to the area of emotion and is therefore to be assigned to the domain of the subjective. But it is precisely this interpretation that has actually caused the current crisis in moral values: in the actual human sphere, there would then be no common ground at all. I think that in order for people to be able to live together, it is essential to have common ground that can be attested to in moral and religious matters.

The act of faith is more than an expression of a “feeling for the infinite” (as Schleiermacher thought); it is the entering into a common ground of content in which people can understand each other, give meaning to their lives and build unity over and above the limitations of the individual. Let me point to what I said above about the Catechism. If someone wants to teach in the Church's name, he cannot simply communicate his private views. If the Church had nothing to teach, she should not give anyone the task of teaching in her name. She would have to say: there is nothing to say in my name because I myself have nothing to say.

Vatican II endorsed religious freedom in civil society and recognized the importance of personal conscience. Liberal Catholics contend this includes theological freedom for priests and nuns (for instance, Father Richard McBrien of the University of Notre Dame complains that the “defeated minority at Vatican II and their heirs” have staged a “slow-motion coup” against Vatican II during John Paul II's pontificate, resulting in “silencings, censorship, loyalty oaths” and the like). What is your view about what Vatican II taught about freedom of conscience for theologians and Catholics generally?

Ratzinger: I think that the answer is clear from what we have just said. Everyone-thank God-is free to decide whether or not he is able and willing to subscribe to the Catholic faith with responsibility before God and his conscience. If he does so, this means he agrees with the common content of that faith. St. Paul says baptism is “obeying a form of teaching” (Rom 6:17). It seems to me that theologians who maintain that in matters of faith every Christian can say and teach what he likes, simply need to re-read the Scriptures, especially St. Paul.

Even a constitutional judge cannot think up an ideal constitution and pass judgments according to his fantasy creation. If he wants to be a constitutional judge, he has to base his verdicts on the actual constitution. If I call myself a “Catholic,” I accept a certain set of beliefs that put me in a worldwide diachronic and synchronic community. If I come to the conclusion that I can no longer support this set of beliefs, then it is a matter of honesty to declare this and draw the consequences. It is absolute nonsense to say that Vatican II left it up to the individual to decide which religious ideas he would adopt and which he would not. The minority at the council did indeed occasionally impute to the majority that their decisions would, in the end, provoke this kind of opinion. We have always vehemently denied the kind of assumption about Vatican II that Father McBrien, with apparently no knowledge of the workings of the Council, seems to be making. And I would be making a liar of myself if I did not do so now.

A related concept is “academic freedom” on campus, which has been claimed since 1967 by Catholic universities also. Please detail your concept of the intellectual restrictions under which seminaries and Church-related universities operate.

Ratzinger: Academic freedom has different levels and varies according to the particular subject in different faculties. Unfortunately I cannot go into the historical origins and original objectives of academic freedom here, interesting though that would be. But it is obvious, for example, that a law professor who lectured against the democratic constitution and called for totalitarian experiments would misuse his academic freedom. Similarly, a philosopher whose teaching on race leads to violence against other races would not be acting within the boundaries of academic freedom. A doctor who carried out experiments on people, thus disregarding the liberty and dignity of others, would be outside the realm of academic freedom.

One could go on. Every subject has its freedom, and in every subject one could imagine actions that seem to be acts of freedom but in fact destroy the underlying principles of freedom. Religious freedom includes the right of a religious community to set up theological faculties to reflect upon its faith, its quite particular faith, and try to show its reasonability. One of the rights of freedom of a religious community is to be able to teach according to its own principles. It would be an internal contradiction if its faith was not pondered but instead had its foundation disputed. Anyone wanting to do that should not say he wants to teach Catholic (or Orthodox, or Lutheran) theology.

Let us not forget that even teachers of the Reformation churches, working under the banner “Scripture alone,” are acquainted with disciplinary proceedings. Thus, a Protestant pastor in Germany who defended the primacy of the Pope as in accord with Scripture would be, quite understandably, banned from preaching. Even in recent times, disciplinary proceedings against teachers have taken place with corresponding results.

The rules of an ecclesiastical university try to ensure a balanced relationship between freedom of research, professors' rights to freedom, students' demands, and the obligation to teach the content of the Catholic faith. Those who know the actual situation at the universities would have to say honestly that the concept of obligation to faith in teaching is handled so liberally that the students sometimes rightly ask whether they are still being taught what they came to learn-namely, Catholic theology. There is no question of narrow-minded vigilance.

A recent decree from your congregation states that a local bishop has the right to intervene to ensure that a Catholic university or seminary honors Church teachings. Does the Holy See expect bishops in the future to become more vigorous than at present in monitoring orthodoxy on Catholic campuses?

Ratzinger: Firstly, we must differentiate between “Catholic” and “Church” universities. The legal connection between the “Catholic” universities and Church authority is relatively loose and has become in many cases even less clearly defined by the fact that the religious orders decided that they could no longer run the universities and handed over the legal reins to lay boards. The university decree Ex Corde Ecclesiae-which was recently issued by the Congregation for Catholic Education in Rome after lengthy consultations with associations of Catholic universities-created a clear, legal framework as to what minimum conditions must be fulfilled for a university to be able meaningfully to call itself “Catholic.”

If young people choose to study at a Catholic university, and parents recommend this type of institution to their sons and daughters wishing to study, then a certain degree of religious content is expected; benefactors' financial gifts are also connected with the idea of a certain spiritual direction. It is not a question of tying anyone to apron strings in matters of religious content or discipline, as can easily be seen in the decree for universities mentioned above. Bear in mind that the words “catholic” and “university,” philologically speaking, mean the same thing: “openness for the whole,” “search for entirety.” The concepts “catholic” and “university” can only relate to each other and be linked together at all because of this inner alignment between them. The principle of the “catholic” involves the will to find entirety, to recognize the whole, to obey the truth and be free for the truth.

It is no coincidence that the institution of the “university” grew up in the Christian world, nor is it coincidence that up to the beginning of the Reformation wherever it appeared, it was legally supported by the papacy and not by political bodies, because this was how its breadth and independence could be guaranteed. The university is the institutional form of the search for truth, at the core of which is an image of man and an image of God which makes such a search both necessary and meaningful and at the same time gives it its moral rules. Truth needs freedom but it also needs discipline. The limits set by the principles of Catholicism in the formation of the university always serve responsibility toward truth and thus also serve freedom.

Are such efforts, practically speaking, even possible after so many years of allowing criticism of the magisterium and publications without formal permission from religious superiors?

Ratzinger: Your question refers essentially to the theological universities which naturally bear a specific responsibility. Another sensitive area is bioethics and the question of the moral limits of medicine. But that is a problem area that goes far beyond the sphere of the Catholic Church and her magisterium (teaching authority or office). Let us keep to theology.

Obviously we cannot keep theology within the bounds of faith by means of discipline; faith can only come from within: Man believes with his heart, says St. Paul (Rom 10:10). Theology is only then healthy, creative, and faithful when faith is alive. The shepherds of the Church-Pope and bishops-must direct their efforts toward making the Gospel felt with the “heart,” then the mind will accept it too. To that extent, the positive “offensive” for faith and its understanding is the essential thing for us; the Catechism of the Catholic Church moves in this direction. Of course the discussion and clarification of the identity of faith is always necessary as well.

This has always been the true physiognomy of faith as opposed to gnosticism; then follows the struggle with Arius and the Arians, the quarrel over the correct interpretation of the figure of Christ, and so on. Here too it was always necessary to draw boundaries so that faith did not vanish into vagueness. Such boundaries are needed today as well, but they cannot create believing theology; they merely contribute to its defense and explanation in a secondary way.

In a lengthy 1991 discussion with you, Cardinal Franz Koenig raised serious questions about the distinction between “artificial” and “natural” birth-control methods in light of world overpopulation. As a practical matter, do you believe the Catholic bishops and people can ever agree upon the teaching defined by Pope Paul VI in 1968?

Ratzinger: I suppose there will never be complete agreement on such a difficult topic. But belief and morals are not measured by statistics: unfortunately there are even many Catholics today, for example, who do not believe in eternal life, some who do not believe in the divinity of Christ, and so on. If you wanted to use statistics to define morals you would have to keep adjusting them down, because you would set the trend for morality to become a matter of doing whatever one pleases. That could also lead to bizarre and dangerous conclusions. We only have to think of the majorities totalitarian regimes are able to create by manipulating the consciousness. This does not mean that agreement does not matter, however; the magisterium of the Church will have to do all it can to present its norms as understandable and livable.

Your congregation criticized Father Matthew Fox, who was later suspended by the US Dominicans, for strong advocacy of women in the priesthood. Is this idea, so widely held among US theologians, a matter for doctrinal discipline?

Ratzinger: We did not criticize Matthew Fox only, or even mainly, because of his support of women in the priesthood, but because of his gnostic-syncretistic conception of the world, which distances itself from the basis of New Testament faith and practically replaces it with another religion. He speaks of creation spirituality, which in itself, could be something very good. For a long time now, I have been pointing out personally in my sermons and publications that neglecting the topic of creation is a dangerous omission in today's theology. But Fox links “creation spirituality” with a relativity of sin and redemption whereby the figure of Jesus Christ is pushed from the center and replaced to a great extent by a vague notion of the “cosmic Christ.” Anyone who studies his theories without prejudice would have to admit that despite having some valuable elements, they are not compatible with the Christianity of the New Testament. Therefore they cannot be presented justly under the label “Catholic.” For this reason, they could not be incorporated into the Dominican community, which is a Catholic order-founded, by the way, by St. Dominic to counter the misguided teaching of the day with an intellectual and spiritual alternative to fierce quarrels.

As far as women priests are concerned, the Congregation for the Faith laid out in its 1976 instruction, which was very carefully put together, that the Church “does not consider herself authorized” to depart from the apostolic tradition which does not know of women's priesthood although this was a part of the religions of the Mediterranean area. I believe the formulation chosen at that time to be very important: the Church cannot simply do whatever she likes. The Pope is not an absolute monarch but is bound, like the faithful, to obedience to the given Word and tradition; indeed he is guarantor of this obedience.

This, by the way, is the point taken up by those Anglican priests who have criticized the English decision for women's priesthood. They are not opposed, they say, because they have something against women, but because they believe that their church has assumed an authority that was not given to it. There is a difference between seeing these matters merely from a sociological point of view and seeing them with faith and understanding this faith as a binding truth.