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 The Word From Rome

November 28, 2003
Vol. 3, No. 14

global perspective


There is a "moral schism within the church" caused by Catholics distancing themselves from the teaching of the magisterium in both theory and practice. "This is something new in history. An emancipation of Christian conscience from the ecclesiastic communio."

Fr. Livio Melina,
vice president of the John Paul II Institute at Lateran University

Debating Karl Rahner and Hans urs Von Balthasar; Interview with David Schindler; Appointments in the Roman Curia; Archbishop Laurent Monsengwo of Kisangani


In Philosophy 101 one learns that all of Western thought, in a certain sense, can be divided into followers of Plato and of Aristotle. Likewise, the basic options in Roman Catholic theology after the Second Vatican Council (1962-65) can be expressed in terms of a choice between two German-speaking sons of Ignatius Loyola: Karl Rahner and Hans urs Von Balthasar.

If the Rahnerians held the upper hand for the first 20 years, the Balthasarians dominate today, at least in terms of official Church teaching and policy.

Rome in the last month has offered unmistakable evidence of the point, from a consistory in which two more disciples of von Balthasar entered the College of Cardinals, to a conference at the Lateran University where von Balthasar’s influence on a slew of high-profile prelates and theologians was palpable.

Expressing the difference between Rahner and von Balthasar is not easy, but one way to do so is in terms of attitudes towards “the world.” Rahner stressed the presence of grace at the deepest level of every human being — the so-called “supernatural existential.” Von Balthasar saw an “analogy of being” between God and humanity, which placed more distance between the two and thus left room, he felt, for greater realism about sin. Rahner was a basic optimist about culture, so much so that von Balthasar once accused him of negating the necessity of the crucifixion. Rahnerians tend to take Gaudium et Spes as their charter, while Balthasarians often see that text, and especially subsequent interpretations of it, as dangerously naïve.

The Balthasarian ascendance was clear at the Oct. 21 consistory, when cardinals Angelo Scola of Venice and Marc Ouellet of Quebec got their red hats. Scola, 62, is a leading Italian interpreter of von Balthasar, and once produced a book-length interview with him. Ouellet, 59, did his graduate work at the Gregorian University in the 1970s on von Balthasar, and kept up a personal correspondence with the Swiss theologian. In a recent interview in 30 Giorni, Ouellet said von Balthasar “illuminated my mind and my heart.”

Likewise, the Nov. 20-22 Lateran conference, marking the 10th anniversary of John Paul’s encyclical Veritatis Splendor, highlighted von Balthasar’s vogue. In addition to Scola, several speakers, including powerful cardinals Joseph Ratzinger and Camillo Ruini, indirectly paid tribute to von Balthasar and the journal he founded, Communio. The John Paul II Institute on Marriage and the Family at the Lateran, which sponsored the conference, draws heavily on von Balthasar’s thought.

Such favor runs to the top. Pope John Paul II designated von Balthasar a cardinal in 1988, though he died two days before the consistory. At his funeral, Ratzinger said the nomination was a seal of approval.

“What the pope intended to express by this mark of distinction, and of honor, remains valid,” Ratzinger said. “No longer only private individuals but the Church itself, in its official responsibility, tells us that he is right in what he teaches of the faith.”

* * *

I called Rahner (1902-1984) and von Balthasar (1905-1988) “sons of Loyola” because both once were Jesuits, though von Balthasar left the order in 1950 to found the lay Community of St. John with mystic Adrienne von Speyr.

Early on, Rahner and von Balthasar spoke of collaborating on a common theological project, but discovered that they were moving in opposite directions. It’s interesting to note the trajectories their careers took, which exemplify broader trends in the post-conciliar church.

Rahner was a peritus, or theological expert, at Vatican II and influenced many conciliar texts. Von Balthasar was not invited. Yet when Pope Paul VI formed the International Theological Commission on May 1, 1969, as an advisory body to the newly renamed Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, both Rahner and von Balthasar were members.

By 1974, Rahner was off the ITC, complaining that it merely “rubber-stamped” decisions of the congregation. Later, Rahner charged that some of his former colleague s were backtracking on the council. In 1979, while Ratzinger was archbishop of Munich, he blocked the appointment of theologian Johann Baptist Metz to the local university. Rahner wrote in protest:

“Twenty-five years ago the Holy Office in Rome forbade me to write anything further on the subject of concelebration,” Rahner wrote. “That was a senseless, unscientific manipulation by church bureaucrats. I judge your action against Metz to be of the same category.”

In the same year, but in a completely different spirit, von Balthasar defended the pope’s decision to revoke Swiss theologian Hans Küng’s license to teach Catholic theology.

“John Paul II is safeguarding nothing less than the fundamental substance of Catholic faith,” von Balthasar wrote. “No one can deny that this was urgent after years of dogmatic, moral and liturgical permissiveness … Perhaps it is inevitable that the pope should give the impression of Hercules cleaning out the Augean stables.”

While Rahner became an icon of the church’s liberal wing, von Balthasar spoke for those who worried the dream of ressourcement, meaning a return to the sources, was being obscured by a post-1968 frenzy of rebellion. It should be stressed that despite their differences, the two remained friends.

In the College of Cardinals today, the most powerful disciple of von Balthasar is undoubtedly Ratzinger. They co-authored a book in 1971,Two Say Why: Why I am Still a Christian. Signs of affection abound. With Ratzinger’s backing, then-Fr. Christoph Schönborn, now the cardinal of Vienna, in 1989 helped found a residence outside Rome for men discerning a vocation to the priesthood called the “Casa Balthasar.” Another co-founder was Ouellet. (American Jesuit Fr. Joseph Fessio, who studied with Schönborn under Ratzinger in the late 1970s, was also among the pioneers of the “Casa Balthasar.” Today Fessio is chancellor of the upstart Ave Maria University in Florida).

Meanwhile, German Cardinal Karl Lehmann is perhaps the closest thing in the college to a disciple of Rahner. He is a former teaching assistant of Rahner and the editor of a collection of his theological writings. Despite the fact that Lehmann in 1972 joined Ratzinger, von Balthasar, Henri de Lubac and others in founding Communio, his theological outlook has hewed closer to Rahner’s on many issues.

The abortion counseling dispute in Germany in the late 1990s perhaps offers one practical contrast between Rahner- and von Balthasar-inspired worldviews. In brief, post-reunification Germany legalized abortion in the early weeks of pregnancy, but required women to obtain counseling. Hundreds of Catholic counseling centers sprang up, and each year approximately 20,000 women visited them. Some 5,000 decided to carry their babies to term, while the others had abortions. The situation posed a classic ethical dilemma: was this 5,000 abortions each year the church prevented, or 15,000 in which it was complicit?

Ratzinger insisted that the bishops withdraw from the system, over Lehmann’s opposition. Ratzinger prevailed.  In highly synthetic fashion, one could say that Lehmann saw the system in Rahnerian terms as dialogue with a world striving for transcendence even while sometimes erring on the objective plane, while Ratzinger worried about equivocation on moral absolutes in a world already asphyxiating with relativism.

It’s important to make clear that von Balthasar was no shallow or reflexive pessimist; he was one of the great students of culture of the 20th century, and a lover of beauty in all its forms. He practiced a “kneeling theology,” and his work is frequently passionate where Rahner can be cerebral and almost impenetrable. Yet there is no denying his ambivalence about realities not explicitly illuminated by the word of God. (In that sense, von Balthasar shared much with one of his mentors, the great German Protestant theologian Karl Barth).

As von Balthasar wrote in his 1988 Retrospective:

Christ sent his believers into the whole world as sheep among wolves. Before making a pact with the world, it is necessary to meditate on that comparison.”

* * *

The Lateran conference was titled “Walking in the Light: Perspectives for Moral Theology Ten Years after Veritatis Splendor.” When the encyclical appeared in 1993, critical commentary focused on its reassertion of the ban on artificial contraception and other moral norms. (The late Catholic moral theologian Bernard Häring, who supported a more flexible stance, said that after reading Veritatis Splendor, “I suffered long-lasting seizures of the brain and looked forward hopefully to leaving the church on earth for the church in heaven.”)

That was not the mood at the Lateran.

Ratzinger told the conference that for him, the “great disappointment” of Veritatis Splendor was not that it caused polemics. “Coming from Germany, I’m used to it,” he joked.

Rather, Ratzinger said, he regretted that the public debate never picked up the main challenge of the encyclical, which was to revitalize Gaudium et Spes’ vision of a Christian morality rooted in scripture and the person of Christ, as opposed to a manualistic, natural law understanding. This project was waylaid, Ratzinger argued, by a number of factors, including the fact that scripture offers few direct answers to the moral problems of our time, and that the language of scripture is too far removed from the positivistic culture of post-modernity. What resulted, Ratzinger argued, is a moral theology that sees scripture as a motivation, a “horizon,” rather than a source of content.

In this context, Ratzinger said, Christian morality was not able to respond to the challenge of relativism, which produced an exaggerated emphasis on “conscience.” The properly Christian vision, Ratzinger argued, is that morality is never subjective because the subject is always open to something greater than itself.

Scola said that paragraph 34 is the key to Veritatis Splendor, where John Paul II defended “the fundamental dependence of freedom upon truth.” Scola argued that opposing liberty to law creates a false dichotomy.

“Every act of liberty is the synthesis of two things, spontaneity and obedience,” Scola said. The model of this sort of liberty is Jesus, Scola argued, who exemplified  “filial obedience” to the Father.

“Christianity is nothing if not the place in which feelings and work are transfigured” into acts of freely chosen obedience, Scola said.

Fr. Livio Melina, an Italian who serves as vice-president of the John Paul II Institute at the Lateran, addressed the delicate question of why the moral teaching of the church as presented in Veritatis Splendor is so often rejected.

He blamed a “moral schism within the church,” with many Catholics distancing themselves from the teaching of the magisterium in both theory and practice.

“This is something new in history,” Melina said, “an emancipation of Christian conscience from the ecclesiastic communio.” He said there is a consequent effort to “demoralize” the church, assigning sexual morality to a realm of private life beyond the reach of the church’s authority.

David Schindler, academic dean of the John Paul II Institute on Marriage and Family Life at the Catholic University of America and a leading interpreter of von Balthasar, spoke on the difference between liberal and organic-creational models of culture. (By “liberal,” Schindler means not “left-wing,” but the Enlightenment-era concept of laws and institutions that privilege human liberty understood as freedom of choice).

“Morality as envisioned in Veritatis Splendor requires a new biology and physics,” Schindler said, arguing that liberalism presumes a Cartesian view of nature as purposeless, while Christianity sees a moral order already built into nature. It’s the difference, one might say, between nature as a “given” and nature as a gift.

* * *

I had the chance to sit down with Schindler during the conference. Some excerpts from that conversation follow.

What would a culture built on organic/creational principles look like?
I don’t think it’s possible to give an answer in terms of an a priori blueprint. … We are historical beings, and we begin from where we are. The idea that we just sort of abruptly overturn what we have is wrong. It’s rather a case of … recuperating the elements of truth within the dominant culture of liberalism.

Could you give a concrete illustration?
Take television and computers. Those are not neutral instruments. The form already favors a certain understanding of experience and knowledge. I would recommend that young children learn what communication is as independently as possible from a television and a computer. A computer, for example, emphasizes experience as acquisition. So the whole idea of embodied communication that takes time, that involves surprise, that has to be patient — all such features are missing from a computer, and likewise television. People complain about sound bites; but the point is that the medium itself inclines communication toward sound bites.

Do you believe that the Catholic church is insufficiently vigilant about the threats posed by liberal culture?
I’m inclined to accept what Alasdair MacIntyre says — and I quote it often — that most of the public debates today are among different strains of liberalism: conservative liberalism, liberal liberalism, and radical liberalism. … Often Catholics have prematurely followed liberalism in the sense of assuming that its institutions are good and that freedom of choice is good, as long as both are used for the right purposes. If you press deeply enough, there’s an ontologically self-centered utilitarianism already built into the original logic of our (liberal) institutions and freedom.

Do Catholics need to recover their Catholicity?
It must always be both big “C” and small “c” Catholicity. The recuperation of the fullness of revelation, and our understanding of a sacramental/hierarchical church and its tradition and so forth, has to be understood simultaneously with its “catholic” meaning. There has to be a recuperation of the integrity of nature, of what it means to be human. Otherwise you get a moralistic recuperation.

One that is positivistic, in the sense of obeying for the sake of obedience.
Precisely. Obedience becomes moralistic if we don’t operate from within the structure of being as obedience, in the sense that my very being is obedience to a destiny.

Even though you’re seen as “conservative,” you are sometimes in conflict with other “conservatives” [such as George Weigel and Michael Novak] sympathetic to liberalism. How do you manage that tension?
To be faithful to a Catholic-Christian understanding of creation and ontology, it seems to me, implies a certain uneasy relationship with political alignments as they’re currently structured. …The problem is, we’re historical animals and there are problems that require immediate solutions. … But the nature of the problems we face is such that what it requires most truly is an ontological response. … It has to do in the first instance with transforming your own being, and the being of those around you, into a community of persons.

You see it as a personal and cultural task.
There's the transformation of your person to recover interiority, and then I am or “have” a body that extends into culture, so I extend that interiority into culture. By the way, this is an interesting point of John Paul II. Even though I disagree with George Weigel on the pope’s social encyclicals, here he makes an interesting argument. Wojtyla’s primary reform was cultural.

The full text of the interview can be found in the Special Documents Section of the NCR Web Site, or by following this link: Interview with David Schindler

* * *

This week has seen some noteworthy appointments in the Roman Curia.

Perhaps most relevant for Anglo-Saxons is the nomination of Basilian Fr. Michael Miller as the new secretary of the Congregation for Catholic Education, replacing Jesuit Archbishop Giuseppe Pittau. This office has been the prime mover on debates surrounding Ex Corde Ecclesiae, the controversial 1990 document on Catholic colleges and universities.

Miller, who becomes an archbishop, is currently the president of the University of St. Thomas in Houston. Prior to that, he worked for five years in the Vatican’s Secretariat of State, in the English language department then led by Archbishop James Harvey, today the head of the papal household. He has written 80 articles and seven books, including 1995’s The Shepherd and the Rock: Origins, Development, and Mission of the Papacy. Besides English, he speaks Spanish, Italian, French and German.Miller, 57, was born in Ottawa, Canada.

Since Miller is a Basilian, I contacted my friend Basilian Fr. Tom Rosica, the brains behind World Youth Day in Canada and now the head of Salt and Light Television, a new Catholic TV network. Here’s what Rosica had to say about his confrere:

“Some may consider him ‘conservative,’ but you know what I think of such labels,” Rosica said. “He is open to dialogue and aware of the complexities of issues. He has actively encouraged vocations to the priesthood and religious life, and I know many people who have pursued a vocation because of him.”

“Michael possesses a unique blend of intellectual gifts and the ability to translate ideas into very practical points. He is greatly respected by the Church in the United States...far beyond the Houston area. He is a great preacher,” Rosica said.

Miller’s outlook may be suggested by his membership in the Fellowship of Catholic Scholars, a group founded in 1977 to counter what it saw as the secularization and “Americanization” of Catholic higher education in the United States. In a 1990 article in Crisis, Miller sketched his vision of Catholic theology:

Neither the bishops nor the pope are at all ‘extrinsic’ to the study of theology,” he wrote. “Theologians depend upon the magisterium as the very condition of the possibility of doing theology. The ‘mind of the Church,’ which theologians examine, is authoritatively determined and passed on by the successors of the Apostles. Without the magisterium, theologians would have no content to study!”

Miller’s attitude towards service in the Roman Curia was expressed in a 1997 article on the Secretariat of State, published in a collection called The Catholic Answer: “Sometimes referred to as the Holy Father's ‘long arm,’ the curia wields its authority in the pope’s name,” Miller wrote. “It never acts on its own. Whereas bishops enjoy their authority as ‘vicars of Christ,’ curia officials act as ‘vicars of the pope.’ They have no more power than what the pope gives them. The curia’s task is to carry out the pope’s will – not its own agenda.”

Since the prefect of the congregation is a Pole, Cardinal Zenon Grocholewski, Miller will become the main point of contact for Catholic educators in the English-speaking world. Given that Grocholewski’s background is as a canonist, Miller will also be the most senior official in the congregation with direct personal experience as an educator.

German Fr. Josef Clemens was also named this week as the new secretary of the Council for the Laity. Clemens, who previously served as Ratzinger’s private secretary, left his boss’ side to become under-secretary at the Congregation for Religious this past February.

Given that Clemens had only been in that post eight months, the move to Laity struck some observers as hasty. On the other hand, with Ratzinger’s patronage his swift ascent was all but assured. At the Council for the Laity he will serve new president Archbishop Stanislaw Rylko, a member of the informal Polish-speaking “kitchen cabinet” around the pope and Archbishop Stanislaw Dziwisz, the pope’s secretary. The combination of Rylko and Clemens should make Laity one of the most “plugged in” departments in the Vatican.

A further logic for Clemens’ move could be that the next World Youth Day will be in Cologne, Germany, in 2005, and hence having someone on intimate terms with German Catholicism in the secretary’s position would be an advantage.

One task Clemens could have taken up at the Congregation for Religious, and which he could still pursue at Laity, is the development of the Community of St. John, the group founded by von Balthasar and Speyr in 1945. It was recognized as a secular institute of diocesan right in 2000, but is an international organization in the sense of having members outside the diocese of Basel, albeit not many. Sources say the Community of St. John numbers perhaps 60 members all told, divided into three branches of lay men, lay women, and diocesan priests. In the United States, there are perhaps four or five members. Given the close affinity between Ratzinger and von Balthasar, this might be a natural “pet project” for Clemens.

Finally, Archbishop Jean-Louis Tauran, the former “foreign minister” in the Secretariat of State, has been named new head of the Vatican library. Since Tauran is only 60 and the library is seen informally as an end-of-career posting, many observers assume it’s a temporary assignment — what the Italians call a parcheggio, a “parking lot,” while awaiting something else.

A few news reports suggested that “poor health” may be involved, but Tauran’s friends in State reject that theory. Although Tauran has always been a bit on the delicate side, they say, there’s nothing fundamentally wrong with him.

Part of the reason it’s difficult to know what to do with Tauran may be that for now, Secretary of State Angelo Sodano seems to be staying put, even though he turned 76 on Nov. 23. This means that possible successors, such as Cardinals Giovanni Battista Re, Crescenzio Sepe, and even perhaps Tauran, are to some extent “on hold.” By keeping Sodano in place, John Paul appears to be repeating the pattern of Paul VI, who, in the twilight of his papacy, kept French Cardinal Jean Villot going despite declining health — in order, they say, not to “impose” a new Secretary of State on his successor. If John Paul were to appoint Re, 69, or Sepe, 60, a future pope might feel obliged to confirm the choice even if he preferred someone else. One senior Vatican official described this to me as a “meaty” consideration, aside from the fact that Sodano seems healthy and eager to keep working.

* * *

The conference sponsored by the Pontifical Council for Migrants and Refugees that I reported on last week ended on Nov. 22 with an “appeal” addressed to the Holy See, to the broader church, to governments and nongovernmental organizations, to civil society, and to migrants and refugees themselves.

Issued in the name of 300 participants from 100 nations, the appeal called upon the Holy See to ratify the United Nations “Convention for the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of their Families.”

The congress asked for “an increasingly more active and welcomed presence” of migrants and refugees within the church, supporting a “holistic” approach that emphasizes both pastoral care and advocacy for justice. Governments were asked to respect and protect the human dignity of people on the move, and especially not to use terrorism as a pretext to reduce their rights. Participants in the Nov. 17-22 congress called on civil society to “combat racism, xenophobia and exaggerated nationalism.”

Finally, the congress issued several suggestions for migrants and refugees:

• Learn as much as possible the language of the receiving country
• Dialogue with locals and be interested in their culture
• Respect the cultural identity of the receiving country
• Contribute to building a society that respects human dignity
• Help your children and grandchildren towards full integration.

* * *

Archbishop Laurent Monsengwo of Kisangani, Congo, addressed the migration conference on Nov. 21. A participant asked him two interesting questions. First, what about seminarians from the Third World who stay in Europe and America? Second, what influence has Latin American liberation theology had in Africa?

On the first point, Monsengwo said that the “great majority” of African seminarians return. Those who stay, he said, don’t necessarily do so out of self-indulgence.

“You must not forget that often the people of God want them here,” Monsengwo said. “Sometimes bishops ask them to stay for pastoral reasons.” Monswengo said a greater problem for African seminarians is that First World countries refuse them visas, or leave them in prolonged uncertainty.

“Maybe some remain for reasons of personal comfort,” he said, but asserted that the Vatican, the African bishops and individual dioceses are working on the problem.

On liberation theology, Monswengo said the Latin American and African experiences of colonization were very different. In Africa, he said, colonization is a much more recent phenomenon. African values were “annulled” and must be reawakened through inculturation.

“We can’t transplant the Latin American notion of liberation theology to solve our problems. Maybe it would complicate them more,” Monswengo said to applause from a crowd that contained many Africans. The response seemed to reflect a strongly felt African resistance to solutions imposed from the outside.

Intrigued, I asked Monswengo afterwards to expand on the point.

“First of all, there are values we have to recover in society,” he said. “For example, clan-based solidarity. It’s a value that can provide a basis for constructing a more human society. … The African value of brotherhood, of the extended family, can become a point of departure for the gospel of peace.

“We already have a theology of inculturation,” Monswengo said. “It’s not that we don’t consider Latin American liberation theology, but it was born in an environment completely different from ours.

“For example, in Latin America there were the great rich families that owned all the land. This was never the situation in Africa. Oppression in Africa never took this form … there was always land, and every family could develop it. Now we see precisely this tradition of belonging to a family and a clan as the basis for inculturation, and not for liberation in the social sense.”

The e-mail address for John L. Allen Jr. is

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