Cardinals in conflict

 — Apr. 28, 200128 avril 2001

Oddities in the appointment of new cardinals in February led many to wonder what was going on in the Vatican. At the heart of it, according to the diplomatic correspondent and former editor of the German weekly Die Zeit, is a crucial struggle between German cardinals over the future shape of the Church. The stakes are high.

The recent elevation of 44 new cardinals may have seemed to show that for the Catholic Church, it was business as usual. In reality the ceremony marked a radical break. For this first consistory of the new millennium was at the same time a farewell ceremony for a whole era — the era of Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger. The eminent prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF), that capable and controversial guardian of Roman Catholic orthodoxy, had enjoyed a monopoly of spiritual power under papal primacy. Now that was challenged. The consistory was both an individual personal drama and an institutional setback to Roman centralism.

Nothing went with clockwork precision this time. It was unusual enough for the names of the cardinals to be announced in two batches on two consecutive Sundays in January. The German bishops hardly had time to express their disappointment that Karl Lehmann, the president of the German Catholic bishops’ conference, had once again been passed over before he was indeed given the red hat a week later. Lehmann himself was astounded when the nuncio’s phone call came through on the Friday telling him to prepare himself for the appointment on Sunday. He subsequently told journalists in Rome that he had asked the nuncio, “Are you joking?”

Why has Lehmann finally been made a cardinal? And why was his name not on the list the first time round on the first Sunday? We will probably never know the answer precisely. But this at least seems certain: even the Pope is not absolutely sovereign and totally independent of the need to elicit a consensus. Did John Paul watch to see whether his list of cardinals was agreeable to all? Did he want to leave the possibility open of adding to the list if necessary?

Cardinal Kasper, for his part, said in a radio interview the day after he himself had been nominated in the first batch that Lehmann deserved to be among the names and he regretted he had been passed over. Was this a lapse on the part of a newcomer to the College of Cardinals or an attempt to influence matters on the part of an old hand? According to Vatican experts, Kasper’s remarks were circulated in case the Pope had his ear to the ground, and several Polish churchmen also pleaded for Lehmann.

During the ceremony in St Peter’s Square, it was noticeable how cordially Cardinal Sodano, Secretary of State, embraced Lehmann at the kiss of peace, whereas Ratzinger’s congratulation was monosyllabic. Sodano had originally supported Lehmann’s position in the controversy over whether the Catholic Church in Germany should continue to provide some of the pregnancy counselling centres there, as Lehmann desired. The question was whether the Church was colluding in abortion by issuing certificates confirming that pregnant women in distress had been given counselling, if these were then used to secure a termination. It had been Sodano’s opinion that such matters could be decided by the local bishops’ conferences, but eventually he was forced to sign a decree together with Ratzinger which compelled the German Catholic bishops to pull out.

This high-profile controversy caused the public to ask: will Karl Lehmann now be made a cardinal? Will he ever be made a cardinal? Why hasn’t he been made one up to now? Then the question became: why was he finally made one after all?

The red hat for Walter Kasper, former Bishop of Rottenburg-Stuttgart, was even more of a sensation. A year ago Kasper was called to Rome as secretary of the Council for Promoting Christian Unity. It was obvious that this appointment only made sense if, in due time, Kasper succeeded the then president of the council, Cardinal Edward Cassidy — whereupon, if not before, he would have to be raised to the rank of cardinal.

But here again a battle has been going on behind the scenes — and again with Cardinal Ratzinger. This conflict goes even deeper than the conflict with Lehmann. Whereas the issue between Ratzinger and Lehmann was about how to put moral teaching into practice, the argument between Kasper and Ratzinger is directly concerned with the constitution of the universal Church. Ratzinger initially emerged as the winner of the contest with Lehmann, but his struggle with Kasper continues — and has even escalated. The two cases are closely linked. In the one practice is at stake, in the other principle, but in both Lehmann and Kasper seek to curb Roman centralism in favour of the teachings of the Second Vatican Council on the independence of the episcopal office. As a result of the recent appointments to the cardinalate, the score between these three German cardinals is now 2-1 against Ratzinger.

Walter Kasper spelt it all out in 1999 in a commemorative publication for Bishop Josef Homeyer of Hildesheim. It contains an essay by Kasper which is explicit. “The ‘progressive’ interpretation of Vatican II as a criticism and overturning of the centralism of Vatican I is being thwarted,” he wrote. “An attempt at restoration is working to restore the centralism which the majority at the Second Vatican Council clearly wanted to overcome.”

Kasper then hit out at a document entitled The Church as Communion issued under the auspices of Cardinal Ratzinger by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in 1992. The text, according to Kasper, was “more or less in effect a reversal” of the Second Vatican Council. What, Kasper asked, was one to understand by the terms Church and Universal Church? Look at the original Christian community in Jerusalem, Kasper suggested, as St Luke describes it in the Acts of the Apostles. “Luke presents this Church as both universal and local. That is his perspective, though historically there were presumably several communities from the beginning: besides the one in Jerusalem, there were several in Galilee. The one Church therefore consisted of local Churches from the beginning.”

Kasper then takes up an expression used in the CDF document, “the Church in and consisting of Churches” (whereas for Vatican II the Church is a communion of local Churches, for Ratzinger the universal Church precedes the local Church). This phrase, Kasper argues, “becomes really problematic when the one universal Church is stealthily identified with the Roman Church, and de facto with the Pope and the Roman Curia. When this happens, the CDF document must be understood not as a clarification of Vatican II’s doctrine of the Church as communion but as a departure from it and as an attempt to restore Roman centralism.”

One could not have thrown down the gauntlet more obviously, and Ratzinger’s rejoinder came in an article published in Italian and in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung for 22 December 2000. He first of all complained that “for theologians who think anything of themselves today it seems to have become a duty to criticise CDF documents negatively.” And this is followed by a direct, personally aimed and almost schoolmasterly rebuke for Kasper and a clash with Kasper’s arguments. The CDF document did not stealthily identify the universal Church with the Roman Church, and de facto with the Pope and the Roman Curia, Ratzinger maintained. “It is precisely when one identifies the local Church in Jerusalem at the beginning with the universal Church that this temptation arises. For then the definition of the Church has already been reduced to the communities which make it up empirically and its theological depth has been lost.”

Kasper replied in the December issue of Stimmen der Zeit, the Jesuit monthly published in Munich. His article had the subtitle: “A friendly argument with Cardinal Ratzinger.” However friendly the article was, Kasper did not budge an inch. Ratzinger, he said, had perpetrated “a caricature of my opinions.”

The ferocity of the two churchmen’s quarrel impinges on two dimensions. One concerns the pastoral problems of the local Churches in their different situations. In this context one recalls the joint attempt by Kasper, Lehmann and Saier — the bishops of Rottenburg-Stuttgart, Mainz and Freiburg — to allow remarried divorcees under certain conditions to receive communion. This cautious step forward was rejected by Rome.

The other dimension concerns ecumenical relations — particularly with the Churches of the Reformation. In recent years the CDF under Ratzinger had thrown a spanner in the works here. First there was that brusque note which nearly derailed the joint Lutheran-Catholic declaration on the doctrine of justification, causing Protestant theologians sharply to object. Finally the joint declaration was signed. But it was above all the CDF document Dominus Iesus in September 2000 that caused a furore, with its dismissal of many Christian denominations as “not Churches in the proper sense.”

In criticising Roman centralism, Kasper was speaking not only as a theologian, but as the president-to-be of the Council for Promoting Christian Unity. For the understanding of the relationship between the universal and the local Church not only has important consequences for pastoral practice within the Catholic Church, but is urgent for ecumenism between the Churches, as Kasper pointed out in December. “The ultimate ecumenical aim is not a uniform united Church, but one Church in reconciled diversity,” he said. He took up a definition which the various European Reformed Churches had used to describe their relationship to one another in 1973: “A Church in reconciled diversity.”

Kasper declared: “We can only represent this aim credibly if in our own Church we are exemplary in showing that the universal Church and the local Church are related as unity in diversity and diversity in unity. A one-sided universal view awakens painful memories and mistrust. It is a deterrent to ecumenism.” In the very next sentence he made it clear he would not allow anyone to tell him to keep quiet, for he referred to “Protestant Churches and Protestant church communities respectively.” He was not going to follow the Dominus Iesus line and reject the word Churches here.

That Walter Kasper knows what he is doing and intends became evident at the very time when he was made a cardinal. In an address at Tübingen he said: “In its ecumenical approach, Vatican II took a standpoint centred on Christ. This was a new and decisive step. Until then the standpoint was centred on the Church. The accepted view was that ecumenism meant a ‘return’ to the Catholic Church. The formula was: `The Catholic Church is the true Church of Jesus Christ, therefore unity is only possible if the others return to the Roman Catholic Church.’ But Vatican II gave up this view.”

This contest is extraordinary not only because of its content, but because it has been carried on in public between the prefect of the CDF and today’s president of the Council for Promoting Christian Unity. And it is even more extraordinary that the Pope made Ratzinger’s opponent a cardinal despite the ongoing dispute.

John Paul II himself has not taken sides. In a letter on 6 January this year he reverted to a very traditional style. “With similar ardour,” he wrote, “we must engage in ecumenical dialogue with our brothers and sisters of the Anglican community and with the church communities of the Reformation.” (Not a word there about these being proper Churches.) But by making Kasper and Lehmann cardinals, the Pope appears to have acknowledged that the dispute itself is legitimate.

Who decides, however, which side is right? That question can only be settled at the end. For the moment, all one can say is that rarely have so many new beginnings been possible at the end of a papacy.

Posted: Apr. 28, 2001 • Permanent link:
Categories: TabletIn this article: church, ecclesiology, Joseph Ratzinger, Second Vatican Council, theology, Walter Kasper
Transmis : 28 avril 2001 • Lien permanente :
Catégorie : TabletDans cet article : church, ecclesiology, Joseph Ratzinger, Second Vatican Council, theology, Walter Kasper

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