Austrian Liturgy Specialist Censured by Ratzinger

By Allen, John L. JR. | National Catholic Reporter, December 15, 2000 | Go to article overview

Austrian Liturgy Specialist Censured by Ratzinger


Allen, John L. JR., National Catholic Reporter


Told early church experience should not be used to evaluate later church practice

Insisting that the earliest layers of Christian tradition cannot be used to question later declarations of church authorities, the Vatican Dec. 6 issued a strongly worded 16-point censure of Austrian theologian Fr. Reinhard Messner, a little-known specialist in liturgical history.

The censure (formally called a "notification") appeared in German and Italian over two full pages of L'Osservatore Romano, the Vatican newspaper, and was issued by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith headed by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger.

The text said Messner had accepted the Vatican rebuke, and is now obliged to follow it in all future theological activity and publications.

Messner, 40, a professor of liturgical science at the University of Innsbruck, has been under investigation since January 1998. The two works at the heart of the inquest were written during his graduate studies before he became a professor in 1996. His research focuses on challenges to Catholic theology posed by Martin Luther and the Protestant Reformation in the relationship between the Bible, apostolic tradition and later developments in the church.

Martin Luther, for example, attacked church theology and practices that could not be specifically traced to the Bible. He and other reformers asserted that layers of dogma had obscured the essence of the gospel.

Liturgical experts in Rome told NCR that Messner has a generally stellar reputation among those who know his work, but because he is new to the field he does not yet have a wide following.

In its criticism of Messner, who has suggested that later church traditions should be evaluated by their correspondence to primitive Christian experience, the Vatican insisted that there is no "rupture" between the first Christians as presented in scripture and subsequent evolutions such as the sacramental priesthood or the Latin Mass. This is so, the Vatican said, because only the magisterium, meaning the pope and the bishops, can be a sure guide to interpretation of revelation.

"The Catholic faith is not deduced solely from the text of scripture; in fact, the church does not obtain its certainty on all revealed matters solely from scripture," the Vatican statement said.

"It exceeds the possibilities of theology to explain the word of God in a manner binding for the faith and the life of the church," the statement said. "This duty is entrusted to the living magisterium of the church."

The Vatican also demanded that Messner and other Catholic theologians teach that Christ instituted each of the seven sacraments, that Christ founded the "apostolic succession" by which Catholic clergy trace their authority to Jesus, and that there can be no contradiction between the declarations of church authorities and the practice of the church in liturgies. In other words, historical liturgical texts or data may not be regarded as authoritative when they conflict with church teaching.

While stressing that Messner had raised important points and that "many questions remain open," the Vatican accused him of picking up ideas from Protestant authors such as Adolf Harnack (1851-1930) and presenting them as Catholic theology. The Vatican charged that, like Harnack, Messner regards largely as "misunderstanding and decadence" the medieval period of church history and the Council of Trent, the 16th-century church council that reasserted and clarified church doctrines in light of the Reformation. …

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