Academic journal article Theological Studies

The Ratzinger/Kasper Debate: The Universal Church and Local Churches

Academic journal article Theological Studies

The Ratzinger/Kasper Debate: The Universal Church and Local Churches

Article excerpt

VATICAN II HAS BEEN widely recognized as a recovery of the theological significance of the particular or local churches. Therefore, the debate between Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger and Cardinal Walter Kasper on the relation between the universal Church and the local churches is of utmost importance. William Henn, O.F.M. Cap., notes that "it is widely considered to be one of the most pressing theological tasks of the Church today." (1) In my article I review here the four public documents of this conversation (two of which are not available in English) and offer some reflections and conclusions.

On May 28, 1992, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) issued a letter entitled "Letter to the Bishops of the Catholic Church on Some Aspects of the Church Understood as Communion." (2) The letter opened with acknowledging that the concept of communion "is very suitable for expressing the core of the mystery of the Church and can certainly be a key for the renewal of Catholic ecclesiology" (no. 1). But the concern of the document was mostly defensive in that it argues that some present the communion of the particular churches "in such a way as to weaken the concept of the unity of the Church at the visible and institutional level" (no. 8). Behind this focus on the particular churches is the conviction that the particular church "is a subject complete in itself, and that the universal Church is the result of a reciprocal recognition on the part of the particular churches" (ibid.). This the CDF labels as "ecclesiological unilateralism," an expression of an impoverished concept of communion (ibid.). The CDF ascribes this ecclesiological deviation, in part, to a misunderstanding of eucharistic ecclesiology. While the CDF grants undoubted value to the rediscovery of eucharistic ecclesiology, its proponents have sometimes placed "a one-sided emphasis on the principle of the local church" in claiming that "where the Eucharist is celebrated the totality of the mystery of the Church would be made present in such a way as to render any other principle of unity or universality inessential" (no. 11). In response to what the CDF considers an unbalanced presentation of eucharistic ecclesiology, it proceeds on the assumption that the particular churches are a part of the one Church of Christ, having a relationship of "mutual interiority" with the whole, that is, with the universal Church (no. 9). In every particular church the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church of Christ is truly present and active. The CDF quotes an address of John Paul II to the Roman Curia where he states that particular churches are formed "out of and in the universal Church" (ex et in Ecclesia universali). (3) This is why, the CDF continues, the universal Church cannot be conceived as the sum of the particular churches or as a federation of particular churches. The CDF then draws the conclusion: The universal Church "is not the result of the communion of the churches, but in its essential mystery it is a reality ontologically and temporally prior to every individual particular church" (no. 9). Ratzinger had already used this formulation in books published in 1989 and 1991, well before the CDF's 1992 letter. (4) Obviously, this is Ratzinger's personal formulation.

Immediately following the assertion of the ontological and temporal priority of the universal Church, the CDF cites the authorities of the Fathers that "the Church that is one and unique, precedes creation and gives birth to the particular churches as her daughters" (no. 9). (5) The Church "that is one and unique" expresses itself in the particular churches: "she is the mother and not the offspring of the particular churches" (ibid.). Pentecost is the event in which the one unique Church is manifested temporally "in the community of the 120 gathered around Mary and the Twelve Apostles, the representatives of the one unique Church and the founders-to-be of the local churches" (ibid. …

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