Catholics, Lutherans and Unity: What Cardinal Ratzinger Said

This post is a little more academically-oriented than my usual fare. As such, I ask more questions that usual 🙂 If you’re interested in Catholic/Lutheran dialog keep reading. If not, please come back tomorrow 🙂

I just finished reading an interview of (then) Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict XVI. It is entitled “Luther and the unity of the churches: an interview with Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger.” I’m not sure where it was published, as I just stumbled upon it and the article didn’t include publication information. If you know, please leave a comment so I can correct it.

Pope Benedict made some fascinating observations. I’d always heard that he was a Luther scholar, and it is evident in this interview. In these days when he has opened a path for Traditional Anglicans to enter in communion with the See, some of what he says of Lutheranism is telling.

In one instance he refers to a quip made by Cardinal Volk who was on-hand to celebrate the anniversary of the Augsburg Confession in 1980. A different Cardinal remarked that in reading the Augustana that “the roots remained.” Cardinal Volk replied, “Now I would like to know if the contraption of which we speak here is, for instance, a potato or an apple-tree?” Benedict explains that remark this way: “Is everything, with the exception of the roots, merely leaves, or is it the tree which grew from the roots that is important? How deep does the difference really go?”

Unpacking further: if Lutherans and Catholics were to seriously sit down and try to find agreement, is the Augsburg Confession (or the entire Book of Concord, for that matter) enough or will we be dealing with everything that’s happened since too? I have my answer, as I suspect Pope Benedict does as well, and I think we both have our reading glasses on. What do you think?

As far as real impediments to any kind of reconciliation, the (at the time) Cardinal offered two: congregational polity and the distinction between Law and Gospel. (And so the Pope proves himself a hypo-European). He acknowledges that for Lutherans the organization of separate congregations is “empirically useful, indeed necessary, but they are also interchangeable under different circumstances.” He acknowledges this as completely opposite the Catholic understanding, “the community of bishops among themselves together with the Pope . . .instituted by the Lord.” (221)

As for Law and Gospel, Ratzinger said, “I would say that the dialectic of Law and Gospel expresses most poignantly Luther’s new experience and that it illustrates most concisely the contradiction with the Catholic concepts of faith, salvation, Scripture, and church.” This statement is somewhat vexing for me. I think Ratzinger infers that Law and Gospel presuppose the primacy of forensic justification against a God who, by virtue of my sinning against the Law, is the enemy. Thus for Ratzinger Law/Gospel would necessarily entail such things as the assurance of salvation, the chasm affixed between justification and sanctification and other, non-Catholic doctrines.

So, if there are any Catholics out there who are knowledgeable about Lutherans and the Law/Gospel dialectic, speak up. Did Ratzinger understand Law/Gospel correctly? Is this really the most poignant and consise illustration of the divergence of Lutheran and Catholic theology? From the Lutheran side, Does the distinction between Law and Gospel necessarily entail such things that Ratzinger believed it did?

One comment on “Catholics, Lutherans and Unity: What Cardinal Ratzinger Said

  1. I remember reading and reacting to the same things in the essay, Pr. Hall. I don’t think that the pope understood in what way the congregation has primacy in Lutheran thinking (and offered an essay on the topic here: As to the Law and the Gospel’s distinction, I think he is accurate that this is a huge stumbling block with Rome. Of course, there is not a chasm but a distinction between Law/Gospel; Justification/Sanctification and so on. The Lutheran position is simply that you cannot bring any single thing that you do before God as the basis for your justification, save the one, final, perfect righteousness and sacrifice of Christ: “Thy grace alone, dear Lord, I plead; Your death is my life indeed, For You have paid my ransom.”

    And I am not sure he fully credits that the distinction between Law/Gospel is not so much dogmatic as pastoral in orientation. One thinks of how St. Theresa of Lisieux puts it:

    I am very happy that I am going to heaven. But when I think of this word of the Lord, “I shall come soon and bring with me my recompense to give to each according to his works,” I tell myself that this will be very embarrassing for me, because I have no works. … Very well! He will render to me according to His works for His own sake.

    In the evening of this life I shall appear before Thee with empty hands because I do not ask Thee, Lord, to count my works. All our just acts have blemishes in Thine eyes. Therefore I want to wrap myself up again in Thy justice, and to receive from Thy love the eternal possession of Thee Thyself.

    Thus she came to peace in the last months of her life by way of the law/gospel distinction, though she may not have realized that was what it was!

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