John Hunwicke continues his investigation into the theology of Pope Benedict, by considering the seemingly arcane debate about the nature of the Church between him and Cardinal Kasper, which has implications for a free province

Ratzinger’s star is falling; Kasper’s is rising.’ I cannot remember when I read that analysis, in a report from the Vatican; but, if it was accurate, one can only observe that a temporary glitch seems to have interrupted the Fall. Only time will tell what will happen to the Rise. Perhaps the comment dated from those remarkable months at the end of the last millennium when two cardinals, Ratzinger and Kasper, were engaged in a public theological spat. That, in itself, was something of a novelty.

Before John Paul II’s time, curial infighting tended to lurk behind a public front of unanimity. A novel situation was created by the prolific willingness of Joseph Ratzinger, while he was Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF), from 1981 until his election this year as Pope Benedict XVI, to print controversial books and articles, and give extensive interviews, as a private theologian.

By this remarkable policy of openness, he deliberately rendered his views vulnerable to criticism and public debate. Such expressions of opinion had no technical, ‘magisterial’ status. Accordingly, nobody was under any obligation to treat them with the respect which his official utterances, made as Cardinal Prefect and ‘approved’ by the pope, called for. You could – and liberals did – slag them off without even a shadow of a possibility of a slap on the wrist. But on this occasion, it was a formal CDF document, ordered to be published by the pope, which another cardinal criticized.

That other cardinal was rather a junior one – he had only just been put in charge of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity. And that appointment had itself caused some raised eyebrows: Kasper had a ‘liberal’ reputation. (Presumably, John Paul, whose desire for Christian unity was genuine, was acting on the management principle that, if you really want something done, it is sensible to give the job to somebody whose heart will be in it.)

Local and universal

Is the universal church a reality that in its essential mystery is logically and ontologically prior to the particular churches? Please do not turn off and turn over, because this really is a theological conundrum at the heart of Anglican problems about ‘provincial autonomy,’ not to mention ecumenism; and it has a bearing on the theological status of a ‘new province.’ But let’s go back to the roots.

In the twentieth century, communio became a theological motto. It relates to the fellowship between Christians, rooted in their fellowship in the life of the Trinity. A succession of Orthodox theologians (John Zizioulas, Metropolitan of Pergamon, is perhaps the most significant name), built up a theology of ‘Eucharistic Ecclesiology,’ in which it is Christ in the Eucharist, every time it is offered, who there makes the church.

This enhances the status of the local or particular church, gathered for the Eucharist; it is the church and not just (like the local branch of Asda or HSBC) some low-level branch of a worldwide corporation. (Incidentally, ‘particular church’ does not mean ‘national church,’ still less ‘denomination.’) Yet there is only one ‘Body of Christ,’ not many; there are not as many Christs each morning as there are groups of Christians offering the Eucharist in millions of different places. And St Paul, as well as using Ecclesia to mean the local church, also uses it, in the singular, of the universal Church, a phenomenon which transcends even this world.


So what is the relationship between the local church and the universal? A simplistic answer would be to see the various local churches as mere parts which, when added together, make up the whole. But then the local church would not be truly the body of Christ; it would only be a fragment of that body. Zizioulas has a geometrical solution, as elegant as St Patrick’s three-leafed clover: ‘the local churches are full circles which cannot be added to one another but coincide with one another and finally with the Body of Christ and the original apostolic Church.’

Ratzinger, I feel more profoundly, roots his explanation in the great scriptural images: ‘God finds and prepares a bride for his Son, the single bride who is the unique Church, starting from the word of Genesis, that the man and his wife will become ‘one flesh,’ the image of the bride is united with the idea of the Church as the body of Christ, a metaphor which in turn comes from the Eucharistic liturgy. The one body of Christ is prepared; Christ and the Church will be two ‘in one flesh,’ one body and thus ‘God will be all in all.’ This ontological precedence of the universal Church, the one Church, the one body, the one bride, over the concrete, empirical realizations in the particular churches seems to me so obvious that I find it hard to understand the objections to it.’

Ratzinger points out the significance of certain facts: Baptism does not have to be repeated every time one seeks the fellowship of a different local church (we take this for granted; but, for example, in the mystery cult of Isis, initiation at Corinth conferred no rights in Rome); a bishop is consecrated by bishops from outside his local church; and a visiting bishop can be invited to preside at the Eucharist.


Walter Kasper likes to present himself as a plain no-nonsense pastor: ‘I reached my position not from abstract reasoning but from pastoral experience.’ (Don’t be bamboozled by dons: he did time as a professor at Tübingen. This is just his way of saying: ‘I bishopped for ten years at Stuttgart but Jo only did four at Munich.’) He goes on to portray himself as a simple man-in-the-street Aristotelian who ‘sees the universal as existing in a concrete reality,’ against Ratzinger’s fancy (alleged) Platonism: ‘its starting point is the primacy of an idea that is a universal concept.’ He concedes that the Universal Church pre-existed ‘grounded in the saving will of God,’ but goes on to assert the ‘simultaneous pre-existence of…the particular churches.’

My problem with Kasper’s rejection of Ratzinger’s exposition is this: Ratzinger is not claiming the ontological priority of an abstract idea, Platonic or otherwise, but of a Person, Eternal Word, God the Son, and Redeemer. I therefore find it quite easy to think of Christ’s Body, the Church of all times and places, as logically prior to its particular manifestation at Broadwood Widger in the beautiful hills of West Devon (where I am privileged to offer the holy sacrifice of the Mass according to Dr Cranmer’s sonorous texts), although I certainly do affirm that our surprisingly large, keen, and friendly village congregation is ‘Christ’s Body.’

Kasper’s ‘Aristotelian’ empiricism leads to a curious practical conclusion; curious, that is, for a ‘liberal’ charged with promoting Christian unity. ‘In our dialogues with Orthodox and the Protestant churches (ecclesial communities), it is important to make clear that a particular church cannot be fully a church of Jesus Christ outside the communion that is universal.’ (I do not quite understand this. How can a church be anything other than a ‘full church’? It might be marred in its individual members, but surely it either is or is not a church – just as orders are either valid or invalid. I am reminded of the nonsense that used to be peddled by some ecumenists about all orders in a divided church being only ‘partially valid.’)

‘True particular churches’

Given the media stereotyping, you may be surprised to learn that Benedict XVI, the erstwhile Joseph Ratzinger, whether or not deceived by Plato, has a distinctly more generous view of separated particular churches: he calls them ‘true particular churches.’ ‘The Church of Christ is present and operative also in these churches,’ ‘for in every valid celebration of the Eucharist the one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church becomes truly present.’ He does say that these churches are true sister churches of the Church in Rome.

He qualifies this only by saying that they are ‘wounded’ by their separation – and in turn balances this by saying that the Roman Catholic Church too is injured by the separation. The dioceses of a new province, which found some way of relegating to history the problems which Leo XIII found with Anglican orders, would qualify for just such an analysis.

But there is politics in this disagreement. Since the aftermath of Vatican II, episcopal conferences have sprung up in the Roman Catholic Church, propped up and managed by – guess what? – powerful and self-perpetuating bureaucracies. Arguments which enhance the status of such local power points, against what is called ‘Roman centralization,’ are welcomed particularly by – guess what? – entrenched liberal elites. The ‘ontological priority’ of the Universal Church is not what such people want to hear about.

The future

Rome’s response to this problem is twofold: to emphasize that such structures have no theological standing; and to explain that it is the realities of the Universal Church, and the Local Church – bishop, presbyters, deacons, people – that do, in Scripture and Tradition, have meaning. In practical terms, what this means is that Rome likes local churches and their bishops to stand on their own two feet and not to hide behind or be intimidated by synods and their bureaucracies. And it prefers to do business with a bishop and his people rather than with committees. Among other things, it has enacted that the decisions of episcopal conferences have to be unanimous, if they are to have legal force without confirmation by Rome. Now that really would be a good idea for our Anglican synodal structures.

Not long ago, a staff member of the CDF hazarded a guess that Benedict XVI might very well devolve more power ‘locally.’ If this is what happens – and the gentleman concerned was well placed to make an intelligent guess – it will be interesting to see precisely what is devolved to whom, and whose power is in fact strengthened. If the effect is to make the Conferences more powerful, this will be an interesting U-turn from the former Cardinal Ratzinger.

If local bishops are allowed to make more of their own decisions without reference either to Rome or to their local Conferences, this will be pure Ratzinger. My own, totally uninformed, surmise is that he might construct a sophisticated ‘subsidiarity’ package which would need a very careful analysis before anybody was entirely sure exactly what all its practical consequences were likely to be.