This is the story of two German Cardinals. Why it is a story which concerns Forward in Faith will shortly appear. The two Cardinals are Joseph Ratzinger and Walter Kasper. Well-founded rumour has it that they have never ‘got on’. Said a Catholic source in Tubingen, where Kasper taught, in less exalted days, his treatment when he entered to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith was little short of scandalous. ‘It was as though this talented and intelligent man was given a pencil and an exercise book and told to amuse himself in the next room.’

Walter Kasper is getting his own back.

In an article in the Jesuit magazine America, written when he was still bishop of Rottenburg–Stuttgart, and before receiving his red hat, Kasper attacked the public stance of the Congregation at its beating heart: the doctrine of central authority. In simple terms he has argued that the diocesan or particular Church takes precedence over the universal Church. Ratzinger, of course, is famous for taking the opposite (and some would say ultramontane) view that the universal Church is prior to the local Church, both historically and ontologically.

What is at stake in this dispute?

Kasper, it appears, grounds his view, to some extent at least, on his own pastoral experience as a bishop. As the chief pastor of an increasingly secularised diocese in one of the most secularised areas of Europe, he found that both priests and people tended to resent and ignore Vatican directives on faith and especially morals. He saw the necessity, in other words, of asserting the priority and authority of the local bishop, who could then, wisely and pastorally, adapt general regulations and prohibitions to the situation of his own flock.

Ratzinger, on the other hand, constantly fears that such an approach will condemn the authority of the Church (a world-wide communion responsible to its own history and the Lord of that history) to the death of a thousand diocesan moderations and qualifications.

The dispute looks like the age old one between Aristotelian realism and Platonic idealism, except that Ratzinger bases his arguments less on Platonic philosophy than on scripture and tradition. For him the Universal Church is not simply the expansion of an initially local community. It is the ‘Jerusalem above’ which Paul describes as ‘the mother of us all’ (Galatians 4.26).

Kasper, it appears, does not deny the pre-existence of the Church; he merely asserts that pre-existence belongs not only to the Church Universal, but also to concrete historical churches, which are likewise grounded in God’s eternal mystery.

There are strands in recent authoritative documents regulating and describing the nature of the Church which support both positions. The Code of Canon Law, for example makes it clear that ‘by their episcopal consecrations, Bishops receive, together with the office of sanctifying, the offices also of teaching and ruling, which however, by their nature, can be exercised only in hierarchical communion with the head of the College and its members.’ Lumen Gentium (The Dogmatic Constitution on the Church of the Second Vatican Council), however, goes on to say (para 21) ‘by means of the imposition of hands and the words of consecration the grace of the holy Spirit is so conferred and the sacred character so impressed that bishops in an eminent and visible way undertake Christ’s role as teacher, shepherd and High Priest and that they act in his person.’

It is not entirely clear how much authority Cardinal Kasper would like to see exercised by the bishop of a particular Church. But members of Forward in Faith will already, in this brief description of the arguments, have read the runes and taken sides.

Kasper is arguing, in the midst of a world-wide crisis of authority and credibility in Anglicanism, for an Anglicization of the Roman Church. The Anglican disease is the disease of wilful autonomy. Ours is a polity which tolerates (thus far at least) any and every local ‘adaptation of doctrine’. It has, at the centre, no regulating structure or legislative authority. Some, like Archbishop Peers of Canada, have argued passionately against even modest proposals to establish some pattern of inter-provincial regulation. Fears have even been voiced of ‘Carey’s Curia’, and of a neo-Papal authority being accorded to the Archbishop of Canterbury.

Traditional Anglicans in some provinces, who are hounded and persecuted for holding opinions which, in other provinces are mainstream and unexceptionable, cannot but admit that Ratzinger has a point. There is clearly a sense in which a Church which has no central authority and no means of reaching a common mind has ceased to be a Church. It has degenerated into an arena of competing ideologies.

But, paradoxically, their experience also gives them some sympathy with Kasper. For, they will ask (having seen entryists gain control of province after province) what happens if the entryists take the final citadel and assume the supreme authority? Liberal Roman Catholics long ago adapted the doctrine of papal infallibility to mean the infallibility of the next Pope but one (who, of course, inevitably, will share their views!).

The truth is that Anglicanism is the reductio ad absurdum of the dispute between Kasper and Ratzinger. It is a sign of the maturity and vitality of the Roman Church that such a debate can take place; and a sign of the wilful infantilism of contemporary Anglicanism that every attempt to have it seems doomed to failure.

But what conclusion should we reach on the central question? You will draw your own conclusions; but mine accord with those of Cardinal Avery Dulles:

‘The ontological priority of the Church universal appears to me to be almost self-evident, since the very concept of a particular church presupposes a universal Church to which it belongs, whereas the concept of the universal Church does not imply that it is made up of distinct particular churches… the Catholic Church must be on guard against degenerating into a loose federation of local or national churches. She has learned much from the experience of Gallicanism and analogous movements in past centuries. In this age of globalisation and multiple inculturation, it is more imperative than ever to have a vigorous office that safeguards the unity of all the particular churches in the essentials of faith, morality and worship.’

Geoffrey Kirk is Vicar of St Stephen’s, Lewisham in the Diocese of Southwark.