Ratzinger on Ecumenism With Protestants

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In previous posts (here, here, and here, I wrote about the resistance of Pope Benedict XVI, when he was Cardinal Ratzinger, to Pope John Paul II's movement toward recognizing something closer to historic Protestant views on justification. I have to take that back. Ratzinger did not oppose John Paul II's movements in that direction. What had led me to say that was a document hastily prepared by some cardinals under Ratzinger's direction, and he apparently opposed them in this because he didn't think they understood the issues properly. The rest of this post is an email I received from someone who knows much more directly what went on with these events. [The JDDJ is the Joint Declaration between Lutherans and Catholics that I've referred to in other posts.]

Dear Jeremy -

I was a consultant to the international Lutheran-Roman Catholic Dialogue during the time the JDDJ was being approved, and my present Dean, Michael Root, was one of its drafters. What I was told by immediate participants was something like this: the drafters had responded to multiple detailed critiques by theological experts of the Congregation, and had satisfied them. The Response however was drafted in another corner of the Congregation, over which Ratzinger by no means had total control. Some of the cardinals in the Congregation had little or no personal experience of Lutherans and no real knowledge of the history of the dialogues; their picture of Lutheranism was based on dimly remembered antitheses in pre-Vatican II textbooks. From the standpoint of someone who knew the dialogue history, the Response was a tad embarrassing, because it raises issues that had been discussed to death even in the 16th century as though no one had ever thought of them before. Remember that the JDDJ explicitly presupposes the preceding 50-year history of dialogue and attempts only to summarize, not to rehash the arguments, which could not have been done in a brief declaration.

Notice that the Response, though it bears this rather grand title, "The Response of the Roman Catholic Church," is also self-described as a "Note," which is quite low on the totem-pole of Vatican documentary status (cf. "Clarifications" #3). It is also a very confused document, which doubtless bears witness to internal struggles in the Congregation. All the negative stuff is presented as matters of "Clarification" which follow a section called "Declaration" which acknowledges that "a high degree of agreement has been reached, as regards both the approach to the question and the judgement it merits. It is rightly stated that there is 'a consensus in basic truths of the doctrine of justification'." On the other hand, the negative stuff is so negative, and as you say, seems to deny that the Lutheran teaching presented in the JDDJ is compatible with Trent.

The different attitudes of Catholics and Lutherans to the Response were fascinating. Most Catholics I knew took the attitude: "A lot of paper comes out of Rome, the main thing is whether or not Rome goes ahead and signs the JDDJ." For them, the corporate action was the decisive thing, and trumped the paper. But Lutherans, of course, think in terms of paper: where you stand is determined by your documents. And the Response did leave Lutherans with an intolerable uncertainty with regard to paragraph 41, even if Rome did sign. Given the Report, would the Romans really be agreeing that "the teaching of the Lutheran churches presented in this Declaration" does not fall under the condemnations of the Council of Trent"? So there was a real crisis, and for a time it did not seem clear that the signing could take place.

This is the point at which Ratzinger re-enters the story. According to my information, Ratzinger was disturbed precisely because the Congregation had had multiple opportunities to register concerns beforehand, and these concerns had been taken into account in the drafting process. In short, he felt that his word of honor had been compromised at least by the way in which the Report created confusion. I am told that he therefore unofficially made a major, perhaps decisive, contribution to working out the main lines of what became the "Official Common Statement" and the "Annex to the Official Common Statement," which clarify the situation with respect to paragraph 41 and address some of the concerns of the Response. [An "annex" is actually a diplomatic category, an explanatory note added to a treaty by mutual consent without the need for re-negotiation. The idea was to clarify the JDDJ without having to resubmit a new version to all the member churches of the Lutheran World Federation.]

My guess is that your original informant knew that the problem came from the Congregation, and therefore assumed that it came from Ratzinger personally. The internal complexity of these Rpman bureaucracies is hard to get one's head around, but it isn't often that one official has entire control over anything.

I think this episode brings out two important things about Ratzinger/Benedict. One of course is the sense of honor and responsibility that animated his actions. The other is his essentially committed attitude to ecumenism. His job as Prefect was to make ecumenical agreement hard, and as a theologian, he has been brutally honest about the difficulties in moving towards Christian unity. But he is ecumenically sophisticated: his deep orthodoxy is not of the "paint-by-numbers" variety; he is capable of making sense of the notion of a "differentiated consensus" that doesn't treat all differences as disagreements, nor all disagreements as church-dividing. And he really does want the churches to move towards unity, though he wants it to be real, and therefore expects that the movement will be made up of a lot of small hard-won steps. So I am not at all inclined to think that his description of Christian unity as his "primary responsibility" is mere window-dressing. Indeed, I think it's possible that he may be able to provide crucial leads for the strategic rethinking of the whole ecumenical enterprise that I think is so profoundly needed right now.

Thanks for your blog,

David S. Yeago
Michael C. Peeler Professor of Systematic Theology
Lutheran Theological Southern Seminary
Columbia, South Carolina

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Christian Carnival from Kentucky Packrat on May 4, 2005 6:52 AM

Welcome to the Christian Carnival! I have been so blessed to be able to read all of these posts ahead of time, so I'll hurry up and let you get to them too. Please excuse my methods of order, but I am a Packrat, I just gather stuff into the first pile tha Read More


Following the 'rending of the veil,' where in the New Testament is there validation of a priesthood?

Christians are sola scriptura.

Well, Peter talks about our being a holy priesthood, for one. Hebrews talks about how Jesus is our high priest, with the implication that we're the priests that he's the high priest of. Paul uses the language of priestliness more than once to describe our service to God in holy living. The priests made sacrifices, and we're to perform the sacrifice of ourselves, for instance.

If you're wondering why Catholics think that some people are specially priests, you'd have to ask them. I'm not defending every Catholic belief. I'm simply pointing out that one place where Catholics have differed from Protestants, in fact the most important one, is something they, from the very top, are moving back in the Protestant direction on. If you read the posts I've linked to above, you'll see that.

Protestants are sola scriptura. Not all Christians are. The gospel doesn't include the explicit statement that the Bible is the only infallible source of information about our faith and practice. Those who think it does are elevating merely true and important claims to the level of central gospel importance, which the biblical authors roundly condemn.

Why do Catholics believe some people are "specially" priests? John 20: 21-23 is one reason.

That's a pretty disputed passage to base much of anything on. There are the questions about whether it's the same event as Pentecost (I think not) and whether it's supposed to be accomplishing the same purpose as Pentecost in a different event (again, I say no), whether it's anticipatory of Pentecost (which seems likely), and whether Jesus actually imparts anything to them here (the text doesn't say he does, so I assume not). It doesn't say who the group he's talking to is besides that they're disciples, so it could be the 12, but that's usually specified. It's not clear if the people included in what he's saying involve more than who's there, as is often the case in John, and it might just be all believers. So I'd say it's a pretty flimsy argument.

Of course it's just one part. And of course Protestants protest, otherwise where would they be?

This is followed by John 20: 24-29. This seems to make it more clear that the other Apostles were there previously as of course was John.

John 21: 14 "This was now the third time that Jesus was revealed to the disciples after he was raised from the dead." (RSV)

Then there is John 21: 15-17. A very specific charge to Peter.

To Peter, yes. It doesn't say it's an office that continues in a line of apostolic succession.

How odd that would be, Our Lord creates a temporary, one time only office. After that, you're all on your own? There's no Biblical basis for that interpretation but there is for succession, see below. As well as giving Peter the keys of the kingdom. But it was all ended with Peter's death? Why bother in the first place?

However, Peter felt it was important to fill the vacant office of Judas Iscariot, succession in other words. But not his own office?

BTW... If it's all sola scriptura, what did they do when there were no Scriptures? From the time Our Lord ascended to Heaven and the time all the NT was written? Those Christians weren't sola scriptura, they couldn't be. Or until the Council's settled on which books were part of the canon. No sola scriptura then either.

Who said the command to Peter to feed his sheep had anything to do with an office? I see two offices in scripture, elder and deacon. I see no evidence anywhere in scripture for some other office. There were Old Testament offices that are obsolete. The priesthood continues, but it's pretty clear in scripture that we are all priests. Thus it's not an office anymore. The office of prophet also seems to be no longer in effect. Prophecy is a gift that some may have or not have at different times. It's not the office it once was. The office of apostle seems to have disappeared. Some fulfill the task of apostle by being sent as missionaries, but the office as far as I can tell was never transferred from one person to another. Since Jesus had chosen twelve, they completed its numbers as recorded in Acts, but I see no continuing body of twelve beyond that point, and no view today that I can tell believes that there are twelve apostles now.

The apostles continued in the teaching they had, and they followed God's continuing revelation as he was completing the canon. The teaching of the apostles was recorded, and we now have it. They relied on that same teaching while the apostles were around.

The councils settled on which books were already canon. That means they were already canon. They were simply confirming God's choice. Protestants and Catholics do not disagree on this, so I'm not sure why you're thinking it has any relevance.

I'm not interested in turning this into a debate between Catholic and Protestant positions. This post was about the movement toward each other between Protestants and Catholics on justification. I'm working on a longer post that discusses Catholic and Protestant disagreements, but my point there will be that the same as my point here. Despite the disagreements, there is not necessarily a gospel disagreement over any of the issues I will address. That applies to the priesthood issue as well as the sola scriptura issue. I don't intend this series to be a place to debate the issues where there are differences. I intend it to be a place where we might discuss whether the differences are enough to justify either side declaring that the other side does not believe the gospel.

This post is an addendum to my discussion on justification and does not get into the other issues. Your comments are thus off-topic. My obligation, since it's my site, is to respond to them or delete them. I don't intend to delete them unless it gets out of hand, but that happened with someone recently who would not let up on off-topic comments despite my repeated urgings that he not continue them, and I will do it here if you continue to post off-topic comments that I feel I do not have enough time to keep responding to. It hasn't gotten out of hand yet, but these comments are irrelevant to the post, and they don't belong here. This is not a discussion board where people should be free to discuss whatever topic the earlier material leads them to think about and want to discuss. It's a blog post, and it's about something. My readers expect the comments on a post to be about the issues raised in the post. That's not the case with this discussion. It's thus unfair to my readers to continue an off-topic discussion with increasing detail.

Touched a raw nerve?

Where did the authority to fill the office of Judas Iscariot come from? Other than tradition.

There was no Scripture to be sola scriptura over for many years. From c. 33 AD to at least the late 50's AD and for some books much later. Unless you have evidence of Scripture written from the time Our Lord ascended any assertion otherwise is false.

The sola scriptura argument has no Scriptural basis. Thus any 'ecumensim' has only one true outcome.


It's getting more raw. This comment thread is not supposed to be about this, and it flies in the face of the very point of the post for someone to attack Protestant distinctives in a post that was supposed to be extending an olive branch to Catholicism. Please do not try to prove that you have greater endurance in argument about off-topic issues. That's why I deleted all the off-topic rants of the last person who tried that. I don't appreciate that kind of thing.

You're assuming that the decision to replace Judas was infallible. Sola scriptura never says a decision can't be based on what seems right. It simply says the only infallible source is scripture. So if they didn't have a scriptural basis for replacing Judas, that means nothing about the decision (although many Protestants do think it was the wrong decision, as it happens, because they think Paul was the right choice and the apostles acted hastily; I see no clear support for such a position, but it's worth being aware of it).

They did have scripture then, by the way. You can't ignore the Hebrew scriptures. They also had the foundations of the gospel narratives, and they had the teachings of Christ that we no longer have preserved, because people who had been with Christ were still around. It was only as they were dying out that their writings had to be preserved to fill out what was lacking in the knowledge of those who hadn't been with him.

When we speak of Scripture we generally mean the written Word. You are smart enough to know that (praise, not a slam). There was no NT written Word for many, many years (dragging in the Torah or OT is a misplaced point). The Church was growing in many places and most (if not all) they had was by word-of-mouth. Indeed there were, afterwords, other written documents so that the Councils were needed to 'codify' the canon. You also know that, that many were reading Gnostic books as Gospels. As well as ill-written and ill-edited portions of what became the canon were in wide circulation. This was not the first century AD but hundreds of years later. In fact, the approved canon could be said to have been decided based on Tradition (as I would hope by the Spirit, but I imagine it was the Spirit that lead them to Tradition). Sola scriptura could not have decided the issue; how could it?

Thus it was impossible for early Christians to be sola scriptura without any writings available in many places for many years. And the Council ultimately had to decide the canon. In fact, if memory serves, Revelations was in dispute and barely made the canon. Which canon we have today.

I'm sorry if my posts have offended as they are not intended to do so. And this is on topic. We call it Traditon, as you know. The Roman Church and the Orthodox Church rely on Scripture and Tradition. Ecumenism cannot move forward without Tradition.

As I said, I don't have the time for this discussion. I don't think you're representing sola scriptura as what Protestants really believe. I agree with many of your statements, but I don't think your conclusions follow. I simply don't have the time to respond to off-topic charges. You have given three or four just in this one comment that would each take me more time than I have, never mind if I tried to explain my position on all of them. For those who want to read a defense of sola scriptura that I pretty much agree with, see this post and the ones that follow in the series.

I'll willingly take on challenges to things I've deliberately taken upon myself to defend. This is not something I've done that with, and I don't see why you insist on pushing at something that I've twice asked you to stop pushing at due to the nature of this post and what I want it to achieve.

This is not on topic. The post was about Ratzinger's role in Catholic and Lutheran discussions of justification. It was not about other differences between Catholics and Protestants, and it was certainly not a defense of Protestant views on the priesthood or scripture. I would understand you pressing me on these things if it had been about those. The offense isn't that you're raising the questions. It's that you've done so on posts where those questions aren't appropriate, particularly after I've twice asked you not to do so. This post isn't for this sort of thing. I'm working on one that will address such issues, and that will be a more appropriate place to discuss such things, though my emphasis there will be how Protestants should view Catholic views that Protestants disagree with, not whether Protestants have any justification for their own views. The post is not restriction of discussion. It's guarding my time so that I can actually get some progress on my piles of grading.

It seems that this discussion has ended a week ago, but I would just like to add that Justification and sanctification are all part of salvation in both Churches. One verse that helps the issue is John 15:5 where Jesus says, " without me you can do nothing " We all must come to Him first with empty and dirty hands to be washed by His blood. He then goes to work on us as we open up to Him. his work in us brings about the fruit of forensic justification. In regards to Scripture it is also helpful to note that therein lies the only depository of the words of the Creator made flesh, the Apostles He chose before there was any church and the Prophets He often quoted. These facts alone coupled with the warnings not to tamper with these teachings should be enough to give Scripture the majesterium it deserved and the superiority no sane person would deny. I did say sane person.

I think there are deeper questions, though. Sure, that's something everyone might agree on (though, actually you're wrong; the Orthodox don't seem to see any forensic element). The issues that remain beyond just there being a forensic element are discussed at length in the earlier posts. This post was just a corrective to some of what I'd said earlier. The real discussion is elsewhere, and your statement seems to oversimplify given the issues we've already discussed.

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