Thursday, March 24, 2011

Book Review: "The Ratzinger Report"

Since the publication of Luther's famous Ninety-Five Theses in the early fifteen century, the "war" between Protestantism and Catholicism has raged. It is interesting to note, however, that beneath this layer of open schism there are strata of internal disputes and borders disputes that complicate the matter considerably.

Joseph Ratzinger was a lecturer on church dogmatics when, in 1962, he was invited to participate in Vatican II as a theological consultant. He quickly won a reputation among the so-called "progressive" caucus, for his openness to adapt church practice and discipline to modern times. This bloc found itself in a particularly vexing dispute with the more "traditionalist" conference, who favored the older traditions, especially the Latin Mass. Ratzinger's reputation was secured when he became one of the founders of the progressive periodical "Concilium," that became one of the primary dogmatic disputants with the official Catholic organ of dogma: the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, formerly the Holy Office, formerly the Roman and Universal Inquisition.

However, some years later Ratzinger separated from this caucus and this periodical. He would maintain his openness to adaptation and "the modern times," but Ratzinger insisted that any progressive caucus must recognize the authority of Catholic Tradition (and not seek to reinvent everything anew) and the true spirit of Vatican II (without regard for some hypothetical Vatican III that would trump it). The Church must "remain true to Vatican II, to this today of the Church, without any longing for a yesterday irretrievably gone with the wind and without any impatient thrust toward a tomorrow that is not ours" (pg. 19).

In 1977, Ratzinger was appointed by Pope Paul VI to the rank of Cardinal and Archbishop of Munich. Four years later, in 1981, he was selected by Pope John Paul II to be the head and Cardinal Prefect of the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. In this position, Cardinal Ratzinger often found himself butting heads with his former progressive colleagues, as he sought to establish the post-Vatican II identity of the Catholic Church. Indeed, Ratzinger can be directly credited with moderating these divergent influences, and for reining in some of the more liberal doctrines that were promulgated (perhaps most notably by the liberation theology movement). By the time he was elected to the papal seat, succeeding Pope John Paul II and taking the name Pope Benedict XVI, Ratzinger was already the Dean of the College of Cardinals, and the most highly regarded theologian in the Catholic Church.

All of this should tell you just how important Cardinal Ratzinger was, even before his election as Pope. It should also give you some idea how significant it was when Ratzinger agreed to be interviewed by Vittorio Messori, an Italian journalist with a focus on religious issues. This interview was doubly significant because it would last for several days, and would wind up not just as an article but as an entire book, from the most important theologian in the Church besides the Pope himself, speaking from a privileged position about the state of the Church. The interview was trebly significant because of the historical secrecy associated with the Holy Office, and the Cardinal's own reticence about interviews.

The book is fantastic.  The introduction, written by Messori, is in my opinion an exemplar of journalistic integrity and honesty. However, the content is the far more impressive aspect of the work. The text, taken almost entirely from Ratzinger's words in the interview, ranges a whole gamut of issues, from the very notion of the Church to the doctrine of sexual ethics, to the conflicts within the Catholic Church and their presumed resolutions.  Though it was published in 1985, it remains entirely relevant today, even in the wake of the debilitating crisis wrought by the child abuse scandal among American Catholic clergy and the far different circumstances faced by the now-Pope Benedict XVI.  I would highly recommend this book to anyone interested in Catholicism. The clarity and mental dexterity displayed by Cardinal Ratzinger is a genuine delight.

If you'd like to purchase this book, check it out at
Ratzinger Report: An Exclusive Interview on the State of the Church

This was cross-posted at my book and film review blog, Worthy of Note.

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