Cardinal Ratzinger on Communion and Episcopal Collegiality (Part 1)

Interview With Prefect of Doctrinal Congregation

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VATICAN CITY, FEB. 22, 2004 ( Ecclesial communion cannot be reduced to a sociological concept, says Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger.

The prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, in an interview with the Italian weekly Famiglia Cristiana, says that the theological meaning of this communion must be understood, in order to understand the relation between local Churches and the Holy See, and to appreciate the collegiality of the Church and the role of bishops’ conferences.

In the interview, the cardinal addresses some of the fundamental issues in his new book «Communion in the Church» («La Communione nella Chiesa»), published by St. Paul’s in Italy.

Q: What is communion in the Church?

Cardinal Ratzinger: In the First Letter of John we find a definition that offers a very complete view of communion.

St. John says that what has been given to us with the faith, with being Christian, is above all communion with God, with the God Trinity, which in itself is communion. This is the beauty that revelation offers us: God is communion and because of this, he can give communion.

By being in communion with God, man enters into communion with all other men who live in the same communion. Here the vertical and horizontal lines meet and become one reality.

The Triune God, who is communion, makes human communion greater and more profound. Communion with Christ creates this bond between God and man. This communion is incarnated, so to speak, in the sacrament of the Eucharist, with which we are united to the Lord’s body.

In this way the Church is born: It is a communion of communions, that is, it exists as a Eucharistic reality.

Every Eucharistic community in its totality is in the presence of Christ. This requires that a community not be set against the others in the name of its «own» Christ because there is only one Christ. So one can see the importance that all Churches be only one Church, because Christ is one.

I think that, from the beginning, the very constitution of the Church is made up of this unity and multiplicity. As can be seen, the communion of the Church is a theological — not a sociological — fact. Any one who transforms the concept of communion into a merely sociological concept commits an error.

Q: But, does this communion have social consequences?

Cardinal Ratzinger: I would amplify the question: It is not only about cultivating correct relations between the Roman Curia and the local Churches, but also and above all of fostering the unity and multiplicity that is the Church.

The local Churches must live their cultural and historical specificities by integrating them in the unity of the whole, opening themselves to the fruitful contribution of the other Churches, so that no one will undertake a path that the others do not recognize.

The Roman Curia, which helps the Holy Father in his service to unity, has the function of promoting this mutual understanding between the local Churches so that the diversities become a polyphonic reality, in which unity and multiplicity is lived.

Q: Of what importance is the principle of subsidiarity in the relation between the «center» and the «periphery,» between the Holy See and the diverse local Churches?

Cardinal Ratzinger: It is a technical concept that would require a more detailed discussion to describe its meaning.

It can be accepted in the sense that attention to unity must not extinguish the charisms of the local Churches; beyond that, it must encourage them and place them at the service of the one Church.

On one hand, the central service of the Roman Curia should not be involved with that which can be done better in a concrete part of the Church; on the other, however, the local Churches should not live in an autonomous manner, but orient themselves to enriching the unity, because Christ is one.

Q: Let’s give an example that is germane. If there were doubts about the orthodoxy of a theologian, should not the local Church to which the theologian belongs, attend to this, before the intervention of the congregation of which you are prefect?

Cardinal Ratzinger: Here, in the congregation, we are happy when a bishop or episcopal conference involved addresses problems of this type. However, they often tell us that they are questions that go beyond the limits of the local Church — they enter the debate of the universal Church, and want to be helped.

Q: Do they divest themselves of their responsibility?

Cardinal Ratzinger: No, I wouldn’t dare say something like that. We always encourage bishops to take into their own hands the solutions of problems as the one you just mentioned. But in an ever more globalized world, this is extremely difficult.

Q: What developments have there been in episcopal collegiality since Vatican II?

Cardinal Ratzinger: There has been great progress. I am thinking of the development of the «ad limina» visits. I remember the first one I had in 1977. I had been archbishop of Munich for only a short time. It all consisted of a meeting with the prefect of the Congregation for Bishops, a visit to the basilicas, and an audience with Paul VI.

Now, the bishops meet with all the congregations and councils. There is a lively and fruitful discussion. And the bishops are grateful for this: On one hand, it is possible to understand better what is happening in the different geographic and cultural areas; and, on the other, the bishops can address together the solutions they wish to give to the problems and also understand better what the magisterium says.

I will give you another example: the regular contacts we have with the presidencies of the episcopal conferences as well as the reciprocal visits. In this way, mutual understanding grows.

Moreover, the synods of bishops must not be forgotten. In a word, there is a continuous exchange between the center and the periphery that gives vigor to the common commitment for the one Church.

Q: Shouldn’t the episcopal conferences be valued more as a means of collegiality?

Cardinal Ratzinger: I would distinguish between small conferences, with 10 or 15 members, and large conferences, with, perhaps, more than 200 bishops.

In the first case, the episcopal conference can really be an instrument of coordination, of common vision, of reciprocal help and also of fraternal correction, when it is necessary.

In the case of the large conferences, when the assemblies are faced with reams of papers that must be read, orders of the day with dozens of points to discuss, I think that a profound dialogue is really impossible. There is also the risk that the discussions and the solutions are taken ahead of time by the offices, by the bureaucracy.

In the case of the large conferences, the debate should perhaps be limited to a few relevant arguments, and decentralize the rest to each of the local Churches. It is important that the conferences be a flexible instrument.

Q: You mentioned the synod as one example of progress in collegiality. Do you like the present method of synodal assemblies?

Cardinal Ratzinger: I would say, although it is a totally personal opinion, that it is a somewhat ritualized method. It guarantees an agile rhythm in the working sessions, but it has the disadvantage that a genuine discussion between the bishops participating is not possible.

It is certainly necessary to safeguard the speed of work. But time must also be found for a real and fruitful discussion.

[Translation by ZENIT]

[Part II of this interview will appear Monday]

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