Question of Truth Lies at Centre of Theology

Author: Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger


Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger

The symposium on "The Primacy of the Successor of Peter", sponsored by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, opened on Monday, 2 December 1996, with an address by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, the Congregation's Prefect Here is a translation of his talk, which was given in Italian.

1. In carrying out its task of promoting the doctrine of faith and morals throughout the Catholic world, the Congregation wishes to encourage studies aimed at increasing understanding of the faith and answering, always in the light of faith, new problems arising from advances in knowledge and theological research.

It is in this general perspective that the present initiative is set, to sponsor a symposium on the theme: "The Primacy of the Successor of Peter". It follows other similar initiatives which the Congregation has carried out in recent years, such as the symposium on original sin (1989) and on Catholics and the pluralistic society: the case of imperfect laws (1995).

In particular, the decision to devote a symposium to this topic stems from an earlier connection with another symposium held here in Rome in October 1989, directed by the Pontifical Committee for Historical Sciences, at the request of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, on the theme: <The Primacy of the Bishop of Rome in the First Millennium: Research and Evidence.> According to the plan assigned to this study meeting, the theme was discussed from a historical-theological standpoint, restricting the research chronologically to the first Christian millennium. As the published Acts testify, this symposium made a significant scholarly contribution to increasing information, knowledge and historical studies regarding an ecclesiological problem that is still topical and burning: the primacy of the Bishop of Rome over the universal Church.

The Congregation's request to study the historical aspect of the theme was naturally aimed at formulating some historical conclusions, which in the light of a comprehensive view of the problem would permit a new examination and in-depth study from the doctrinal and theological standpoint. Moreover, the results of the historical research bring out its underlying doctrinal importance, particularly the need to reflect on the theological dimension of Tradition.

2. In the meantime, the Holy Father, promulgating the Encyclical <Ut unum sint> (May 1995), stated among other things: "I am convinced that I have a particular responsibility in this regard, above all in acknowledging the ecumenical aspirations of the majority of the Christian Communities and in heeding the request made of me to find a way of exercising the primacy which, while in no way renouncing what is essential to its mission, is nonetheless open to a new situation" (n. 95).

3. Therefore in compliance with the Holy Father's concern, the Congregation decided to continue studying the theme, indicating more precisely the object to be examined at a future symposium: <to highlight the doctrinal outline underlying the historical research already carried out in the previous symposium, stressing also the theological dimension of Tradition, and thereby identifying what was held as the depositum fidei during the first millennium concerning the Primacy of the Successor of Peter, and how the conviction of faith developed in this regard, up to its definition by the First Vatican Council and to the Second Vatican Council's teaching.>

Our symposium's purpose is <to explain and clarify the indispensable elements of the doctrine on the primacy of the Successor of Peter,> taking into account the principle, also mentioned in the Letter of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, <Communionis notio>, to the Bishops of the Catholic Church on some aspects of the Church understood as communion, that it is necessary to distinguish in the Petrine ministry the substance of the divine institution from the concrete forms or expressions of its exercise as historically practiced in the past two millenniums (cf. n. 17).

Thus the nature of the symposium is also evident. It does not wish to be merely theological-academic, in the sense that it does not intend to settle beforehand the goal of analytically exploring the whole <status quaestionis> of the matter, nor does it intend fully to compare and contrast Catholic theology and the positions of the non-Catholic Christian confessions.

As has been emphasized in the explanatory note distributed to all participants, the symposium is characterized by its properly <doctrinal> nature, aimed at extracting the essential points of the substance of the doctrine on the Primacy, according to the Catholic Church's conviction of faith, indicating at the same time the problems legitimately open to theological discussion. It is not the symposium's objective however to deal with them specifically.

4. This explains the deliberate conciseness of the reports, which corresponds to the nature and objectives mentioned above. In the course of preparing for the symposium, co-ordinated by the Steering Committee, formed of several consultors and experts, some doctrinal points which require further study were singled out. After attentive examination, it was decided to divide the study meeting into three sessions:

—In the first, attention will be dedicated to the dogmatic meaning of the primacy of the Successor of Peter and its transmission.

—In the second, the theme of the relationship between primacy and collegiality.

—In the third, the nature and aim of the primatial interventions of the Bishop of Rome concerning the particular Churches will be described.

5. Summaries of the exegetical and historical-theological data, and doctrinal and theological-speculative summaries have been planned for each of these areas.

This interweaving of <biblical exegesis and doctrine, of history and theology reveals the basic methodological organization of the study and reflection we are engaged in.>

Given the historical nature of Christian Revelation, an attentive co-operation between historical and theological methods is essential to enable theological reflection, also critically justified, to fulfil its task. Undoubtedly, it is true that history as such cannot provide an apodictic certitude of the truth of faith. It should nevertheless be borne in mind that the true meaning of historical facts—even in profane matters-is not revealed by a mere photographical recording of facts as such, but unfolds only in a light that comes from elsewhere, from a vision of reality which can never be simply reduced to the limited horizons of a fact empirically considered. From this point of view it is even logical that the interpretation of faith cannot be indisputably imposed on the historian. What is essential however is that such an interpretation should not be excluded from the facts.

From these methodological premises, it seems to me an important consequence for our theme follows: the collaboration between history and theology can be fruitful if the growing knowledge of historical (and exegetical, with reference to the Bible) facts leads to a deeper theological vision of the Roman Primacy and its ecclesiological function, which helps to distinguish better and better what is necessary and cannot be renounced, from what is accidental or non-essential to the truth of faith. Moreover, this collaboration requires that the question of the doctrinal evaluation of historical facts be made in the light of Tradition, as me locus and criterion of the self-verifying consciousness of the Church's faith.

6. Lastly, the <importance of the theme for ecumenical discussion> cannot be ignored. It is true that the symposium does not intend to make a theological comparison of the different viewpoints of the Christian confessions, as would be the case with an ecumenical colloquium. On the other hand, it is quite obvious that the question of the Primacy of Peter and its continuation in the Bishops of Rome is one of the most burning issues in ecumenical dialogue. And it is precisely the awareness that at the centre of theology lies the question of truth, which obliges us to place the service of truth as the basis and goal of the search for Christian unity itself, without prejudice and in obedience to the Lord.

The invitation extended to Prof. Pannenberg and Prof. Chadwick to come to our symposium as representatives of the Lutheran and Anglican confessions (unfortunately Prof. Clement was unable to take part due to unexpected illness) attest to the interest with which the Catholic Church looks to a greater and ever deeper knowledge of the positions of non-Catholic Christians even on this particularly difficult topic. For Catholics, criticism of the papal primacy by other Christian brothers and sisters is like an earnest request to carry out the Petrine service in a way which is more and more in conformity with Christ. In turn, for non-Catholic Christians, the Roman primacy is a permanent and visible challenge to concrete unity, which is a task of the Church and must be her distinguishing mark before the world.

7. As I express my personal hopes and those of the Cardinals who are members of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith that this symposium may be a favourable occasion to further the in-depth knowledge of faith about this aspect of ecclesiological doctrine, in conformity with the Holy Father's wishes, I am profoundly pleased to conclude my greeting by reading the Holy Father's Message of good wishes to all the participants, which I have the honour to convey.

Taken from:
L'Osservatore Romano
Weekly Edition in English
1 January 1997

L'Osservatore Romano is the newspaper of the Holy See.
The Weekly Edition in English is published for the US by:

The Cathedral Foundation
L'Osservatore Romano English Edition
320 Cathedral St.
Baltimore, MD 21201
Subscriptions: (410) 547-5315
Fax: (410) 332-1069