( April 12, 1985) While I was down under in Australia last month, spreading the word about Pope John XXIII, something strange was happening in the Vatican. Prominent people had been making statements well to the right of anything Pope John Paul II had said. One wonders why.
The chief offender is Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith ( CDF). Unlike his predecessors who maintained a poker-faced silence in all that was not the official line of duty, Ratzinger seems to enjoy giving interviews.
When he speaks in his own name, his opinions carry no more weight than anyone else's. He cannot expect the afterglow of the magisterium to rub off on his off-the-cuff remarks. Once he descends from the CDF chair, he has to justify his opinions as any theologian does. Mere assertion is not enough. He has to produce evidence.
Take his view that an episcopal conference has "no theological status or reality." He stated this most clearly when addressing the Jan. 18, 1983, consultation of the U.S. bishops' pastoral letter.
Ratzinger then said, "A bishops' conference as such does not have a mandate to teach. This belongs only to the individual bishops or to the college of bishops with the pope."
One can see the practical reason Ratzinger wishes to propound this thesis. An episcopal conference (typically the Brazilian or the U.S. Catholic Conference) can stand up to him, but individual bishops find it much more difficult. They cave in at the first threat of a withdrawn imprimatur.
Alternatively, the theory is useful to Ratzinger when he thinks a conference has gone collectively soft. In that case, the individual "sound" bishop (let's say Archbishop John J. O'Connor) can redeem the whole pack. It is a risky operation and depends for its success on no one's knowing what is really happening.