Letter from Rome: Truth is ecumenical, says Ratzinger

Christianity was not always called Christianity. In fact, during its first years, the Christian religion was simply known as “the way.” Saint Paul, in his speech to the Jews at the vestibule of the Temple in the Book of Acts (22:4) says “I persecuted this way.” He meant he had persecuted Christians. “The way” appears a half- dozen times in Acts—that rich record of the earliest years of the Christian Church which is our single source for much of that period—as the name for Christianity.

Over the centuries, the name was superseded by others. Followers of Christ were called many things—the Roman authorities called them criminals and enemies of the human race—and they have called themselves many names—Catholics, Arians, Monophysites, Protestants, Orthodox, Baptists, and so on.

It was striking, then, when Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger—as head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the Vatican’s chief doctrinal officer—recently chose an especially important and solemn occasion to return to this primitive usage.

Speaking to the world press on October 5 in Rome, where he was introducing the new papal encyclical on morality, Veritatis splendor (The Splendor of Truth), Ratzinger opened his remarks with these words: “In its earliest beginnings, even before the word Christians was coined, the Christian religion was simply called ‘the way.’” Ratzinger’s use of this language was striking because it was so simple, and because it was—most importantly, I believe—so “non-denominational.”

The Roman Catholic Church is hierarchically organized, liturgically elaborate, protective of its privileges and of its name. Yet, on an occasion when 400 reporters from around the world were jamming the Vatican press office to hear Ratzinger’s official presentation of a long-awaited encyclical, the white-haired German theologian who holds the second highest office in the Church did not stand on ceremony. He did not say, “Pope John Paul II declares . . .” or “The Roman Catholic Church lays down . . . ”

No, he said: “If Christianity is called the way, this fact means above all that it indicated a certain way to live. . . . It is precisely through their morality that the Christians in the ancient world could be distinguished from others. . . . In accordance with her very nature, the Church must again and again ‘make the way known.’ ”

Ratzinger’s use of the primitive name for Christians, “followers of the way,” is an unmistakable signal that he and Pope John Paul II view this new moral encyclical, not as a Roman Catholic matter, but as a Christian matter, that this reflection is significant to all who consider themselves followers of “the way” today, in the late-twentieth century, whether they called themselves Roman Catholics, Episcopalians, or Presbyterians.

The rhetoric, in short, is ecumenical. But the “ecumenical” dimension of Ratzinger’s rhetoric went further. He stated quite openly that the encyclical was written for two reasons, “an internal reason and an external reason”: to address certain internal, Catholic concerns, but also to address certain external matters of concern to humanity in general, not just Catholics.

“In the homogeneous, technical civilization which now encompasses the entire world,” Ratzinger said, “the old moral certainties that up to now have sustained the great individual cultures have been largely shattered.”

Consider the rhetoric: “the entire world,” “the great individual cultures.” Ratzinger is clearly speaking to an audience outside of the church, an audience including men and women from non-European and non-Christian cultures. He went on:

The technical view of world is value-free. It asks not “ought we?” but “can we?” Indeed, to many the question of the “ought” appears outdated, irreconcilable with the emancipation of man from all constraints. What one can do, one should do, many think today. But the actual problem lies still deeper. In contrast to the incontrovertible certitude which attends technical things, all moral certitudes appear fragile and questionable. Many hold that only what I ineluctably see to be the case, as with mathematical and technical formulae, is reasonable. But where is such incontrovertibility to be found in truly human things, in matters of morality and right human living? Despite important elements which they have in common, the fact the great cultures again and again say something different increasingly allows relativism to become the prevailing opinion.

Ratzinger’s words make it clear that the Pope’s encyclical is addressed to the problem of “right human living” not just “right Christian living.” And Ratzinger stated this in a way which leaves no room for ambiguity. “The question which moved the Pope in the drafting of the encyclical Veritatis splendor thus concerns, to be sure, the dispute in moral theology in the Church herself, but it reaches far beyond this,” Ratzinger said. “It is an expression of concern for man. It stems from sharing the burden of the great problems of mankind today.”

Ratzinger’s remarks suggest that many interpretations of this encyclical have been superficial. The Associated Press account, for example, began by characterizing the encyclical as “issued to enforce the Church’s teachings,” and thus overlooked the fact that much of the encyclical is directed to non-Church members.

Ratzinger acknowledged that “the encyclical is directed to bishops.” He said this was because it is the bishops “whose task it is preeminently to proclaim the message of faith and to make plain the path on which faith would lead us.” But Ratzinger went on to say—again using ecumenical rhetoric—that “since this path is not a private way of Christians, the encyclical shares with the bishops the common responsibility for the present and future of man.” Again, man, not Catholics.

In his press presentation, Ratzinger was at pains to highlight the fact that, as he put it, the encyclical is “open”: open to non-Catholics, open to non-Christians. “This openness of the encyclical is evident already in the introduction, when the Pope says that it is ‘on the path of moral life that the way of salvation is open to all,’ that morality is the common way of salvation,” Ratzinger said. He added, “in the third chapter of the encyclical this connection is amplified.”

And then Ratzinger offered a startling judgment, startling because it seemed tinged with the passion of prophecy, almost out of character for the extraordinarily self- controlled and rational Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith: he said that he judges this third chapter “among the greatest texts of the Magisterium; far beyond all theological disputes, it must be seen as a fundamental text for the questions which concern us all.”

Once again, observe the rhetoric: “far beyond all theological disputes,” “a fundamental text,” “questions which concern us all.” Ratzinger’s introduction to the encyclical was clearly an energetic, almost desperate attempt to preserve the encyclical from being too narrowly interpreted.

When, after having explained the “why” of the encyclical’s writing (to respond to two challenges, one within and one outside the Church) Ratzinger analyzed the structure and content of the encyclical, he again stressed the “universal” aspect of the letter.

The first chapter, Ratzinger said, “gives the connecting thread which appears again and again in the course of the text—the conversation of the rich young man with the Lord on the question: ‘What good must I do to have eternal life?’ ” (Matthew 19:16). The cardinal continued, “The encyclical understands itself as a part of this dialogue with Christ; it inserts itself into the young man’s question and wants to understand the Master’s answer as deeply as possible. In this penetrating listening to the words of Christ it emerges that the search for the good is inseparably connected to the turn toward God. He alone is good without limitation . . . Becoming good therefore means becoming like God . . .  From this it follows that whoever walks the way of the commandments is on the way to God even if he has not recognized God.”

It would be wrong to interpret these words as implying that the Pope in his encyclical or Ratzinger in his interpretation is blessing a type of Rahnerian “anonymous Christianity.” Ratzinger and John Paul do not favor anonymity in Christians. But it would not be wrong to see this, once again, as a type of openness toward those non- Christians and non-Catholics who are “on the way toward ‘the way.’ ” This is not the Grand Central Inquisitor speaking.

The encyclical was presented by the Associated Press and others as a text which “in terms of specific issues appeared to break little ground,” as AP put it. In the encyclical, the Pope made only one specific reference to sexual morality, but the AP story highlights the condemnation of “contraception, premarital sex, homosexuality, masturbation, sterilization and artificial insemination.”

Ratzinger composed a different summary. “The Pope shows here”, he said, “that ‘at the heart of the issue of culture we find the moral sense’; in the face of social and economic injustices and political corruption, he speaks of `the acute sense of the need for a radical personal and social renewal’ which alone is capable of ensuring justice. . . .” The emphasis here is on justice, not sex, on a “radical personal renewal,” not on “enforcing the Church’s teaching.”

The press, in short, has tended to interpret the encyclical as an internal Catholic Church document primarily about sex; John Paul II intended it to be a document addressed to the entire world, to the cultural crisis we face, to the loss of humanity which confronts us despite our enormous technical achievements.

Veritatis splendor is not an anathematizing encyclical  hurled down upon cowering faithful from the heights of the Vatican, resisted only by a few noble, courageous rebels—though that is how many would like to depict it. Rather, it is a prophetic, almost mystical encyclical which is at the same time extraordinarily simple and focused, an encyclical which proposes a way of living that will make us happier, abundantly happy; a way in accordance with both natural reason and the teachings of Christ, “the way”; a way ancient but ever new; open to all—all who have ears to hear.


  • Robert Moynihan

    At the time this article was published, Robert Moynihan, a long-time reporter from Rome, was writing a book on the achievement of Cardinal Ratzinger.

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