Essay Addresses Question of Universal and Particular Churches
VATICAN CITY, 28 MAY 2001 (ZENIT).
Which comes first: the universal Church or the diocesan Church?
That question lies at the heart of a running debate between the German
cardinals Joseph Ratzinger and Walter Kasper. Kasper sharpened the
debate with a recent article in the Jesuit magazine America, a piece he
penned when he was still bishop of Rottenburg-Stuttgart and before
receiving his red hat.
In simplified terms, Cardinal Kasper argues that the diocesan, or
particular, Church takes precedence over the universal Church, whereas
Cardinal Ratzinger holds that the universal Church is prior to the local
Church both historically and ontologically. The debate isn't purely
academic, however, since it touches on episcopal authority and how
bishops should be enforcing norms handed down by Rome.
It's a debate that another cardinal, Avery Dulles, steps into, in an
essay in the upcoming issue of Inside the Vatican magazine.
"Kasper's grievance against the papacy and the Roman curia,"
writes Cardinal Dulles, "comes from his practical experience as a
pastor. As bishop he found that many of the directives coming from Rome
were resented and ignored by the priests and people of his diocese. If
the priority of the particular church were respected, he believes, the
diocesan bishop could adapt general regulations to the situation of his
Cardinal Dulles recounts the Ratzinger-Kasper debate and cites a
document put out by the congregation headed by Cardinal Ratzinger.
He writes: "The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in its
1992 letter 'Communionis notio' maintained that the universal Church 'is
not the result of a communion of the churches, but in its essential
mystery it is a reality ontologically and temporally prior to every
individual particular church' (no. 9). Expanding on this sentence,
Ratzinger insists that the universal Church is not simply the result of
the expansion of an initially local community. For him it is the
'Jerusalem above,' which Paul describes as 'our mother' (Gal
"Kasper, for his part, does not deny the pre-existence of the
Church," writes Cardinal Dulles. "[...] But pre-existence, he
holds, belongs not only to the universal Church but also to the concrete
historical churches, which are likewise grounded in God's eternal
mystery. He does not show that the new Jerusalem described in the New
Testament and in the patristic sources consists of multiple
In this debate, Cardinal Dulles sides with Ratzinger's argument.
Dulles writes: "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.
"Historically, too, the priority of the universal Church is evident
because Christ unquestionably formed the community of the disciples and
prepared the apostles for their mission while they were still gathered
together. Particular churches emerged only after the Church became
dispersed, so that it became necessary to establish local congregations
with their own hierarchical leaders."
Continuing his critique, Cardinal Dulles states: "Kasper maintains
that Ratzinger proceeds by Plato's method, starting from universal
concepts rather than, as Kasper prefers, taking the universal concept as
a mere abstraction from concrete reality, which is particular. I suspect
that Ratzinger has a certain affinity for Christian Platonism, but in
the present debate he takes his arguments from Scripture and tradition
rather than from Platonic philosophy. He makes it clear that the
universal Church animated by the Holy Spirit exists here on earth,
within history. In an unsigned article published a year after
Communionis notio, commonly attributed to Ratzinger, the author insists
that there can be nothing more concrete than the gathering of the 120 at
At another point, Dulles focuses on key phrases in the Second Vatican
Council's dogmatic constitution on the Church, "Lumen Gentium."
"Kasper states correctly," he writes, "that according to
Vatican II the bishop receives his office of government (munus regendi)
directly from Christ through the sacrament of ordination (Lumen gentium
21), but he fails to note that the bishop cannot govern a particular
diocese unless he is duly appointed by canonical mission and remains in
hierarchical communion with the college of bishops and its head, the
bishop of Rome (Lumen gentium 24). The bishop's powers of teaching and
government 'can be exercised only with the consent of the Roman pontiff'
(Lumen gentium 22)."
Referring to Cardinal Kasper's pastoral concerns, the Dulles article
mentions the rules regarding admission to the Eucharist of non-Catholic
Christians and of divorced and remarried Catholics. Dulles sees local
solutions to such questions as problematic.
"Good arguments can be made both for and against allowing Holy
Communion to be given in certain problematic cases," Cardinal
Dulles writes. "But in the context of Kasper's article the
essential question is whether the solutions should be worked out by
particular churches on their own authority. Is the situation in the
diocese of Rottenburg-Stuttgart so peculiar that it should be allowed to
go its own way on these two questions?
"From reading Kasper's text I do not see why the problems in
Rottenburg or Stuttgart differ significantly from those in Munich,
Johannesburg, or New York. Whatever policy is permitted in Rottenburg-Stuttgart
does not concern that diocese alone; it will inevitably have
repercussions all over the world."
Cardinal Dulles concludes with a strong defense of the Petrine office
and writes: "Kasper, who is by no means an extremist, would
certainly agree that 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 globalization 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." ZE01052820