Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (formerly the Holy Office) since 1983, has exercised enormous influence within the Catholic Church.  In late 2002, he was elected dean of the College of Cardinals, a largely ceremonial and honorary position to be sure, but one that reflects his continuing influence and stature.

Ratzinger personifies the right flank of the present Vatican establishment, which is to say that he is considerably to the left of his preconciliar predecessors.  The cardinal has doubtless moved to the right since the days of his priesthood, when he roamed the corridors of the Second Vatican Council in coat and tie.  Still, he is a man of many weaknesses, some of which become clear in God and the World.

The book is an extended interview con-ducted by journalist Peter Seewald, a follow-up to the successful Salt of the Earth, published in 1997.  God and the World is interesting but not gripping; Ratzinger is too moderate by temperament to adopt positions that the reader will find particularly surprising or unexpected.  It is, nevertheless, worth reading, partly because Ratzinger deftly handles the questions and objections that Seewald poses to him—frequently from the perspective of a hypothetical atheist—and partly because, especially toward the end of the book, we see some of the timidity of even the most conservative of post-Vatican II churchmen.

Ratzinger has been very critical of the postconciliar “reform” of the Roman liturgy, which he has described as “a banal, on-the-spot product” whose abrupt break with Catholic tradition has led to “consequences that could only be tragic.”  In God and the World, the cardinal once again expresses his support for those who wish to attend Mass according to the traditional liturgy of the Roman Missal of 1962:

For fostering a true consciousness in liturgical matters, it is also important that the proscription against the form of liturgy in valid use up to 1970 should be lifted.  Anyone who nowadays advocates the continuing existence of this liturgy or takes part in it is treated like a leper; all tolerance ends here.  There has never been anything like this in history; in doing this we are despising and proscribing the Church’s whole past.  How can one trust her present if things are that way?  I must say, quite openly, that I don’t understand why so many of my episcopal brethren have to a great extent submitted to this rule of intolerance.

Such a remark must surely be welcomed by any sensible Catholic.  

Asked about the practice of receiving Holy Communion in the hand, however, Ratzinger brushes aside the issue: “I wouldn’t want to be fussy about that.”  What would have been considered a sacrilege two generations ago, the cardinal now calls “a perfectly reasonable way to receive Communion.”  Likewise, concerning the practice of standing for Communion: “Earlier, Communion used to be received kneeling, which made perfectly good sense.  Nowadays it is done standing.”  No preconciliar pope would ever have been so cavalier about a practice so beautiful and fitting or have shown no sorrow at seeing it go.

These issues touch upon the very heart of what it means to be a Catholic.  Most people do not read papal encyclicals; their connection with the Faith comes from what they see and experience.  When Mrs. Jones gives Holy Communion in the hand to communicants standing just outside where the altar rail used to be—where people once knelt for Holy Communion—is it really a surprise that 70 percent of Catholics between ages 18 and 44 now believe that they are receiving only a “symbol” of Christ?  It is utterly at variance with the sensus catholicus to dispense with acts of piety hallowed by well over a millennium of tradition.

The Catholic left, which continues to propel the liturgical revolution ever forward, was determined from the beginning to have its way without compromise.  The “resistance” it encountered, such as it was, was largely of the Ratzinger variety: Since the change in question did not touch directly on doctrine, it was acceptable.  The problem, of course, is that the sum of such changes not only disoriented the Catholic faithful, as Cardinal Newman had warned it would over a century ago, but tended materially to undermine the faithful’s adherence to doctrines to which they were and are absolutely bound.

Cardinal Ratzinger blithely sets aside the Church’s traditional understanding of indulgences—remissions of the temporal punishment due to sin that remains once the eternal punishment has been remitted in Confession.  This is all “very mechanistic,” he explains.  He then goes on to describe a lengthy (but not especially helpful) “new interpretation” of indulgences that cannot be reproduced here because of space considerations (but which curious readers may find on page 424).  It is a good example of the ceaseless “reinterpretations” and “new formulations” to which hapless Catholics have been subject since Vatican II.

Ratzinger never gives Seewald a direct answer to his question about the status of the Jews.  Is the Old Covenant salvific for them, or do they need to profess explicit belief in Christ?  Unfortunately, Seewald does not press the issue.

In place of the evangelical urgency of the preconciliar Church, we have the vaguely Hegelian formula of the ecumenical establishment: Christian unity will be achieved not by the return of “dissidents” to a single Church but by a shared spiritual journey in which the religious sentiment common to mankind comes to its full realization in some new dispensation that is the exclusive possession of no single group.  Ratzinger writes,

As Catholics, we are persuaded that the basic shape of this one Church [in which Christian unity will at last be realized] is given us in the Catholic Church, but that she is moving toward the future and will allow herself to be educated and led by the Lord.

Pius XII said that the Mystical Body of Christ and the Catholic Church are one and the same thing, and, in 1949, the Dutch bishops, instead of attending an ecumenical congress, offered a Mass for “the return of the dissidents.”  Ratzinger, on the other hand, adopts the approach so in fashion in ecumenical circles these days: The Catholic Church, while constituting the “basic shape” of the Church of Christ, is not to be identified with Her absolutely.  As we “go forward together” with the separated brethren, the true contours of Christ’s Church will be revealed.

That Ratzinger’s view of the Church is quite expansive is made clear when he remarks:

I have nothing against it, then, if people who all year long never visit a church go there at least on Christmas Night or New Year’s Eve or on special occasions, because this is another way of belonging to the blessing of the sacred, to the light.  There have to be various forms of participation and association; the Church has to be inwardly open.

None of my criticism is intended to imply that Catholics should not appreciate Cardinal Ratzinger’s occasionally helpful comments, since, at times, he does serve to restrain the more obviously degenerate branches of modern Catholicism.  Likewise, his statements in favor of the preconciliar liturgy have been bolder than those of any American bishop, nearly all of whom treat the traditional liturgy of their own Church as a contagion to be contained, while happily approving of guitar Masses and charismatic hysteria.

Those who consider Ratzinger a conservative, however, must be unfamiliar with his writings, with those of his genuinely conservative predecessors, or with both.  By and large, the people who console themselves that, in Cardinal Ratzinger, they have an advocate in the Vatican are the same ones who weave apologies for the Republican leadership, whom they consider to be generally good men forced to compromise under adverse circumstances.  A Taft Republican—or even an Eisenhower Republican—of the 1950’s would have had nothing but contempt for the present Republican Party; and it can scarcely be doubted that the great Cardinal Ottaviani, who held Ratzinger’s present post in the 60’s, would be similarly appalled at the liberalism that today passes for conservatism in some Catholic circles.

Some people simply cannot bring them-selves to believe that things are as bad as they are or cannot bear the loneliness that comes from positioning themselves outside the establishment.  I wish I could share the optimism of those who choose to look at the world this way, but, as Ronald Reagan memorably observed, facts are stubborn things.


[God and the World, by Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger (San Francisco: Ignatius Press) 460 pp., $18.95]