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Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger on women's ordination... an Interview of Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger with Peter Seewald

Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger on women's ordination...


from Salt of the Earth: The Church at the End of the Millennium ,

an Interview of Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger with Peter Seewald (Ignatius Press, 1997):

Women's Ordination

[Journalist Peter Seewald:] On another issue, women's ordination, an absolute "no" has been "promulgated by the Magisterium in an infallible way". This was reconfirmed by the Pope in the fall of 1995. "We do not have the right to change this", reads the statement. So here, too, it is the historical argument that counts. But if one takes that seriously, there ought never to have been a Saint Paul, for everything new also does away with holy and venerable things. Paul did new things. The question is: When can you put an end to a particular [disciplinary] regulation? How can new things come into being? And: Can't the foreshortening of history also be an idolatry that is incompatible with the freedom of a Christian?

[Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger] Here, I think, it is necessary to state a few things more precisely. The first point is that Saint Paul did new things in the name of Christ but not in his own name. And he emphasized very explicitly that anyone who acknowledges Old Testament revelation as valid but then, on the other hand, alters a few things without authorization is acting unjustly. There could be new things because God had done new things in Christ. And as a servant of this newness, he knew that he hadn't invented it but that it came out of the newness of Jesus Christ himself. Which then in turn has its conditions; and in that matter he was very strict. If you think, for example, of the account of the Last Supper, he says expressly: "I received myself what I have handed on to you", thus clearly declaring that he is bound to what the Lord did on the last night and what has come down to him by way of tradition. Or think of the message of Easter, where he says once more: This I received, and I also encountered him myself. And so we teach, and so we all teach; and whoever doesn't do that estranges himself from Christ. Paul distinguished very clearly between the new things that come from Christ and the bond to Christ, which alone authorizes him to do these new things. That is the first point.

The second is that in all areas that aren't really defined by the Lord and the apostolic tradition there are in fact constant changes — even today. The question is just this: Does it [the teaching] come from the Lord or not? And how does one recognize this? The answer, confirmed by the Pope, that we, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, gave to the issue of women's ordination does not say that the Pope has now performed an infallible act of teaching. The Pope rather established that the Church, the bishops of all places and times, have always taught and acted in this way. The Second Vatican Council says: What bishops teach and do in unison over a very long time is infallible; it is the expression of a bond that they themselves did not create. The responsum appeals to this passage of the Council (Lumen Gentium, 25). It is not, as I said, an infallible act of the Pope, but the binding authority rests upon the continuity of the tradition. And, as a matter of fact, this continuity with the origin is already something significant. For it was never something self-evident. The ancient religions, without exception, had priestesses, and it was so in the Gnostic movements as well. An Italian scholar recently discovered that in southern Italy, around the fifth or sixth century, various groups instituted priestesses and that the bishops and the pope immediately took steps against this. Tradition didn't emerge from the surrounding world but from within Christianity.

But I would now add a further piece of information that I find very interesting. I am referring to the diagnosis that one of the most important Catholic feminists, Elisabeth Schussler Fiorenza, has given in this matter. She is a German, an important exegete, who studied exegesis in Munster, where she married an Italian-American from Fiorenza, and who now teaches in America. At first she took a vehement part in the struggle for women's ordination, but now she says that that was a wrong goal. The experience with female priests in the Anglican Church has, she says, led to the realization that "ordination is not a solution; it isn't what we wanted." She also explains why. She says, "ordination is subordination, and that's exactly what we don't want." And on this point her diagnosis is completely correct.

To enter into an ordo always also means to enter into a relationship of subordination. But in our liberation movement, says Schussler-Fiorenza, we don't want to enter into an ordo, into a subordo, a "subordination", but to overcome the very phenomenon itself. Our struggle, she says, therefore mustn't aim at women's ordination; that is precisely the wrong thing to do. Rather, it must aim at the cessation of ordination altogether and at making the Church a society of equals in which there is only a "shifting leadership". Given the motivations behind the struggle for women's ordination, which does in fact aim at powersharing and liberation from subordination, she has seen that correctly. But then one must really say there is a whole question behind this: What is the priesthood actually? Does the sacrament exist, or should there be only a shifting leadership in which no one is allowed permanent access to "power"? I think that in this sense perhaps the discussion will also change in the near future.

[Journalist Peter Seewald:] All these questions that we have just touched upon have for years been constantly reorchestrated, sometimes with more, sometimes with less, response from the people. How do you judge undertakings like the "Petition of the People of the Church" in Germany?

[Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger] I already said a few things about that when we were talking about the situation of the Church in Italy and in other countries. I find that Metz's remarks in many respects are right on the mark. If I recall correctly, he points out that this movement merely tries to cure the symptoms, whereas it excludes the question that is really at the core of the crisis in the Church, which he terms — and the expression is perhaps not entirely felicitous — a "God-crisis". As far as the content is concerned, he has indicated exactly the decisive point. And when we spoke earlier of the modern consensus that is opposed to faith, I described it in these terms: God no longer counts, even if he should exist. If we live in this way, then the Church becomes a club, which now has to search for substitute goals and meanings. And then all the things that can't be explained without God are vexatious. In other words, the precise point that is centrally at issue is bracketed out. Metz then — I'm still following my memory points out that the "Petition of the People of the Church" is on the whole met in the Protestant Churches. It is quite obvious that this does not protect them from the crisis. So the question is raised — he says something more or less like this — why we want to make ourselves a clone of Protestant Christianity. I can only agree with all that.

It seems that something like a Western-liberal civilizational Christianity has formed, a sort of secularized faith that regards many things as one and the same. This culture, which often no longer really has much to do with the essence of Christianity — or of Catholicism — clearly seems to be becoming more attractive. One has the impression that the official Church has hardly anything, at least theologically, to say against this philosophy, which is represented especially by Eugen Drewermann.

The Drewermann craze [Welle] is already beginning to abate. What he proposes is indeed just a variant of that general culture of secularized faith of which you spoke. I would say that people don't want to do without religion, but they want it only to give, not to make its own demands on man. People want to take the mysterious element in religion but spare themselves the effort of faith. The diverse forms of this new religion, of its religiosity and its philosophy, all largely converge today under the heading "New Age". A sort of mystical union with the divine ground of the world is the goal to which various techniques are supposed to lead. So there is the idea that it is possible to experience religion in its highest form and at the same time to remain completely within the scientific picture of the world. In contrast to this, the Christian faith seems complicated. It is doubtless in a difficult situation. But, thank God, great Christian thinkers and exemplary figures of Christian life have not been lacking even in this very century. They show the relevance of Christian faith and make evident that this faith helps one attain the fulfillment of humanity. For this reason there are most definitely new movements toward a decisive Christian life precisely in the younger generation, even if this can't become a mass movement.

The "canon of criticism" just treated is apparently not so easy to be rid of. If that is so, how must one deal with it? Is it possible to wait out all these questions? Will we ever be rid of them?

In any case, they will lose their urgency as soon as the Church is no longer looked upon as a final end, an end in itself, and as a place for gaining power. As soon as celibacy is once again lived convincingly out of a strong faith. As soon as we see eternal life as the goal of Christianity instead of ensconcing ourselves in a group in which one can exercise power, I am convinced that a spiritual turning point will come sometime and that then these questions will lose their urgency as suddenly as they arose. After all, in the end, they are not man's real questions, either.

Everything revolves again and again on this point: What must the Church salvage from her tradition and what must she, if the need arises, discard. How is this question decided? Is there a list with two columns? On the right: always valid; on the left: capable of renewal?

No, it's obviously not that simple. But there are various degrees of importance in the tradition. It was once customary in theology to speak of degrees of certitude, and that was not so wrong. Many say that we have to go back to that. The term hierarchy of truths does seem to point in this direction, namely, that not everything has the same weight, that there are, so to speak, essentials, for example, the great conciliar decisions or what is stated in the Creed. These things are the Way and as such are vital to the Church's existence; they belong to her inner identity. And then there are ramifications that are connected with these essentials and that certainly belong to the whole tree but that are not all of the same importance. The identity of the Church has clear distinguishing marks, so that it is not rigid, but the identity of something living, which remains true to itself in the midst of development.

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