American presidents are well-advised not to nominate candidates for the federal courts who have a lengthy paper trail. A large number of judicial decisions and other published writings gives members of the U.S. Senate who are otherwise not disposed to support the nominee ample opportunity to find something objectionable in that record. The case of Judge Robert Bork, nominated in 1987 to the U.S. Supreme Court by President Ronald Reagan, is a classic example.
The church’s new pope, Benedict XVI, formerly Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, head of the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, was in exactly the same situation going into the recent conclave. But unlike Judge Bork, whose nomination went down to defeat in the U.S. Senate nearly 20 years ago by a simple majority vote, Cardinal Ratzinger won the support of at least two-thirds of his fellow cardinal-electors.
The media almost immediately began picking over Cardinal Ratzinger’s record. One has reason to ask, however, if Cardinal Ratzinger’s record as head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith is a reliable predictor of the record he will fashion as Pope Benedict XVI? Will he use the full power of his new office to clamp down even more firmly on alleged deviations from orthodoxy?
One of the documents that has been mentioned most frequently, by way of example of Cardinal Ratzinger’s troubling views, is Dominus Iesus, released by his Congregation in early September 2000. It immediately stirred a proverbial hornets’ nest of controversy.
Many complained at that time that the statement had reversed the ecumenically enlightened teaching of Vatican II and rehabilitated the pre-conciliar claim that the Catholic Church is the “one, true Church,” outside of which there is no salvation.
However, Dominus Iesus did not say that the true Church of Christ continues to exist only in the Catholic Church. It said that it is only in the Catholic Church that it continues to exist fully.
As Francis Sullivan, SJ, for many years professor of theology at the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome and currently at Boston College, put it in a letter to The Boston Globe, “The difference between those two statements is the difference between the doctrine of Pius XII and that of Vatican II.”
Nor did the document consign non-Catholics to eternal perdition. On the contrary, it cited Vatican II’s teaching that, because Christ died for all, “the Holy Spirit offers to all the possibility of being made partners, in a way known to God, in the paschal mystery” (Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, n. 22).
Nothing in Dominus Iesus contradicted this teaching. Indeed, it was faithful to the council in recognizing that the various non-Catholics churches are, by the action of the same Holy Spirit, instruments of salvation for their own members (n. 17, para. 3).
To be sure, Father Sullivan had earlier expressed a concern about the tendency of Cardinal Ratzinger’s Congregation to collapse, or at least blur, the distinction between definitive, or infallible, teachings (namely, dogmas) and official, but non-infallible, teachings of the hierarchical magisterium and of the papal magisterium in particular.
Cardinal Ratzinger himself, given his own considerable theological expertise, was surely aware of this difference. Unfortunately, many others in the Catholic Church who lack a sufficient theological background were led to believe that theologians who raise questions about non-infallible teachings are disloyal, even heretical.
Are there no limits, however, to Catholic orthodoxy? Of course, there are.
It would be beyond those limits to deny the triune nature of God, the divinity and humanity of Jesus Christ united in one divine person, the redemptive value of his Crucifixion and Resurrection, the spiritual efficacy of the seven sacraments, the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist and our hope in the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body and life everlasting — just to mention a few obvious examples.
But are these central truths of Catholic faith no more definitive than, let us say, the teachings and disciplinary decrees on contraception, ordination of women, obligatory celibacy for priests of the Roman rite or the admission of divorced-and-remarried Catholics to the reception of Holy Communion?
For too many Catholics, there is no difference, because in their minds all official teachings are equally authoritative, unless, of course, those teachings touch upon moral issues such as capital punishment, the forgiveness of Third World debt, the war in Iraq, the responsibilities of governments toward the poor, immigration policy and the like.
The misleading epithet, “cafeteria Catholicism,” also applies to those on the right who pick and choose among the papal teachings they like and those they prefer to ignore or explain away.
Father McBrien is a professor of theology at the University of Notre Dame.