Politics & Policy

Reviewing Ratzinger

The Ratzinger Report: an exclusive interview on the state of the Church, by Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, with Vittorio Messori.

Editor’s Note: This book review originally ran in the March 14 1986 issue of National Review.


The Ratzinger Report: An Exclusive Interview on the State of the Church, by Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, with Vittorio Messori.

The rare occasions when he had spent the day worrying about the state of the Church, John XXIII would ask himself, “Angelo? Who’s running the Church, Angelo or the Holy Spirit? All right, then, go to bed.” For the faithful of the Church, concerning whose ultimate governance Angelo Roncalli was never in the least doubt, to think otherwise is to court despair; it is to surrender the very citadel against which the Church had been told that not even the gates of Hell would prevail. But in the confused and chaotic aftermath of Vatican II, word got around that the unthinkable had happened: While Good Pope John serenely slept, sly Old Mother Church had up and married the Spirit of the Age. Leaving her children bereft and, soon after, herself a widow.

An exaggeratedly bleak picture of apostasy, to be sure. But the true picture was enough to move Pope John Paul II to convoke the Extraordinary Synod last fall in order to call the Church back to her own transcendent roots. And move his most able troubleshooter, the redoubtable Joseph Ratzinger, Cardinal Prefect of the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, to unburden his mind last summer to an Italian journalist, Vittorio Messori, about the dangers that threaten a Church forgetful of those roots.

The interviews have now been published as The Ratzinger Report, required reading for all who have the care of souls. It is a compendium of what went wrong in the heady days after the Council:

Developments since the Council seem to be in striking contrast lo the expectation of all, beginning with those of John XXlll and Paul VI . . . What the Popes and the Council Fathers were expecting was a new Catholic unity, and instead, one has encountered a dissension which — to use the words of Paul VI-seems to have passed over from self-criticism to self-destruction. There had been the expectation of a new enthusiasm. and instead too often il has ended in boredom and discouragement. There had been the expectation of a step forward, and instead one found oneself facing a progressive process of decadence that to a large measure has been unfolding under the sign of a summons to a presumed “spirit of the Council” and by so doing has actually and increasingly discredited it.

Scrubbed down, the problem is ecclesiology. i.e., the Church’s understanding of herself. While evidence of disintegration may be found anywhere — from depleted pews, rectories, and religious houses, with not a few survivors in a state either of shell-shock or of mutiny; to aberrations of Liturgy, catechetics, and morality — what remains at the heart of the Church’s crisis is the failure to understand who she is. And this, paradoxically, at a time when ecclesial self-understanding, sublimely expressed in Lumen Gentium, Vatican II’s Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, had achieved maximum penetration.

To an alarming extent, Ratzinger argues, opinion since the Council has coalesced around various reductionist models of the Church, her nature and mission; the tendency of each has been to view her as so many disposable parts harnessed to ends entirely set by men. Is the Church really only externality, a thing to be manipulated as one would any institution fashioned out of history? “Many no longer believe that what is at issue is a reality willed by the Lord Himself. Even with some theologians, the Church appears to be a human construction, an instrument created by us and one which we ourselves can freely reorganize according to the requirements of the moment.”

Certainly the Church’s membership consists of fallen human beings (why else was she instituted if not to help redeem them?), at liberty more or less to reshape her external visage. “But behind this, the fundamental structures are wined by God Himself, and therefore they are inviolable. Behind the human exterior stands the mystery of a more than human reality, in which reformers, sociologists, organizers have no authority whatsoever.”

Indeed, at the deepest level, the Church, like her analogue, the moon, radiates a light belonging wholly to Another, to Christ. “The essence of the Church,” Ratzinger has written elsewhere, “is that it counts for nothing in itself, in that the thing about it that counts is what it is not, in that it exists only to be dispossessed, in that it possesses a Light that it is not and because of which alone it nonetheless is.” And thus, he later insisted before the Synod, it is of utmost importance that the Church understand herself primarily as mystery, as the sacrament of Someone transcendent to herself. “The division of power in the Church could not be the central theme of the Synod. Moreover a Church that speaks too much of herself, that is too concerned with herself, does not in truth speak well of herself.”

Of Whom she is meant to speak could not be more plain; the Church is charged with speaking the Word of One Who remains the perpetual font of her being, her fruitfulness. This, by the way, is the thread running through all the documents of Vatican II, which Ratzinger is at considerable pains to retrace. The trouble is that hardly anyone has read those documents. And, in any case, for the progressive wing, the whole conciliar experience has ceased to matter very much; it was at best a launching pad for additional reforms that, according to Ratzinger, have led to “the unleashing within the Church of latent polemical and centrifugal forces.” These forces, in combination with the Church’s “confrontation with a cultural revolution in the West” have nearly succeeded in wrecking the enterprise altogether.

Does Ratzinger have a practical solution for what ails the Church? In a word, yes: sanctity. “Every council, in order really to yield fruit, must be followed by a wave of holiness. Thus it was after Trent, and it achieved its aim of real reform precisely for this reason.” The ground of that renewal of which the Council spoke twenty years ago is personal sanctity. And here, Ratzinger notes, our greatest and most obvious exemplar is Mary. It is Mary who reveals in her own life the truth about the Church, which neither apparatus nor power nor any configuration of men can explain: that the Church is finally a Person, a Woman, a Mother. “We cannot make the Church,” concludes Ratzinger, in a Conference on the Ecclesiology of the Council given on the eve of the Synod, “we must be her. And only to the extent that faith, beyond our doings, molds our being, are we Church, is the Church within us. Only in being Marian do we become Church. Even in the beginning, the Church was not made, but generated. She was generated when in the soul of Mary there awakened the fiat. This is the most profound desire of the Council: that the Church awaken within our souls. Mary shows us the way.”


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