Saturday, April 7, 2012

An Open Letter to Prof. Josef Ratzinger, Pope Benedict XVI

Dear Joe,

Some years back when you were still the head of the Holy Office (“of the Sacred Inquisition” is, as you know, stilled chiseled in stone over its dark building immediately next to St. Peter’s square), I wrote you an open letter concerning the role of women in the Catholic Church. At that time I addressed you with a familiar “Dear Joe,” relying on our relationship from the late 60s/early 70s when I was frequently a Visiting Professor at the Catholic Theology Faculty of the University of Tübingen, and you were Professor Ordinarius there. I did so in the thought that this form of address would tell you that I seriously hoped you might open your mind and heart to hear what I wanted to say to you. I have no way of knowing what success I may have had, if any, in that regard. However, relying on our former “collegiality,” I am approaching you once again in this fraternal fashion.

I am disturbed that especially of late you have been giving signals that are in opposition to the words and spirit of Vatican Council II, during which you as a leading young theologian helped to move our beloved Catholic Church out of the Middle Ages into Modernity. Further, while a professor at our Alma Mater University of Tübingen, you, along with the rest of your colleagues of the Catholic Theology faculty, publicly advocated 1) the election of bishops by their constituents, and 2) limited term of office of bishops (see the book Democratic Bishops for the Roman Catholic Church).

Now you are publicly rebuking loyal Catholic priests for doing precisely what you earlier had so nobly advocated. They, and many, many others across the universal Catholic Church, are following your youthful example, trying desperately to move our beloved Mother Church further into Modernity. I deliberately use the word “desperately,” for in your own homeland, Germany, and elsewhere in Europe, the churches are empty, and also are so many Catholic hearts when they hear the chilling words coming from Rome and the “radically obedient” (read: “yes-men”) bishops. In my own homeland, America, the birthplace of modern freedom, human rights, and democracy, we have lost — in this generation alone! — one third of our Catholic population, 30,000,000, because the Vatican II promises of its five-fold Copernican Turn (the turn toward 1. freedom, 2. this world, 3. a sense of history, 4. internal reform, and above all, 5. dialogue) have all been so deliberately dashed by your predecessor, and now increasingly by you.

Joe, you were known as one of the Vatican II theologians who promoted Pope St. John XXIII’s call for aggiornamento (bringing up to date) by the reforming spirit of returning to the energizing original sources (resourcement!) of Christianity (ad fontes!—to the fountains!). Those democratic, freedom-loving sources of the Early Church were exactly the renewing “sources,” the “fountains,” of renewal that were spelled out in detail by you and your Tübingen colleagues.

I am urging you to return to that early reforming spirit of your youth. I am reminded of that spirit now in preparation for the 50th anniversary celebration of the Journal of Ecumenical Studies (JES), which my beloved wife Arlene and I launched in 1964. There in the very first issue of JES are articles by your friend and fellow Vatican II theologian Hans Küng, and yourself (!), looking to bridge over the isolating Counter-Reformation gulf that divided the Catholic Church from the rest of Christianity, and indeed the rest of the modern world.

Joe, in that spirit, I urge you to return to your reforming fountains: Return ad fontes!



Leonard Swidler, Ph.D., S.T.L.
Professor of Catholic Thought and Interreligious Dialogue, Temple University
Co-Founder, Association for the Rights of Catholics in the Church

See also the previous PCV posts:
Hans Küng's Letter to the Bishops
Belgium Catholics Issue Reform Manifesto
American Catholic Council Issues "Declaration for Reform and Renewal"
Council of the Baptized Launched in Minneapolis-St. Paul
Hans Küng Says Only Radical Reforms Can Save the Catholic Church
Urgent Tasks for for Church Renewal
The Call of the Baptized: Be the Church, Live the Mission
Gerald Arbuckle on the "Critical Role of Dissent"
Creating a Liberating Church (Part 1)
Creating a Liberating Church (Part 2)
Creating a Liberating Church (Part 3)


  1. Anybody who 50 years ago used a familiar form of address when speaking to a German professor would not be remembered these days except with mild distaste at the remembrance of such a crude American.

    This would particularly apply to someone who keeps referring to the "spirit of Vatican Council II" and not to the 16 documents of the Council.

    Much like with the Council of Trent of the 16th Century, the final imprint of a Church Council takes many years to make its mark on the Church.

    Much like Alinskyite radicals, some of those in attendance at the Council quickly converted the Catholic news media to their views on how the Council should have decided the issues facing it and those were quickly spread, in error, to the worldwide Church. Only today are we seeing the teachings of the Council being brought into conformance with the actual documents of the Council:

    The Constitutions:
    Dei Verbum on Divine Revelation
    Lumen Gentium on the Church
    Sacrosanctum Concilium on the Sacred Liturgy
    Gaudium et Spes on the Church in the Modern World

    Gravissimum Educationis on Christian Education
    Nostra Aetate on Non-Christian Religions
    Dignitate Humanae on Relgious Freedom

    Ad Gentes on the Mission Activity of the Church
    Presbyterium Ordinis on the Ministry and Life of Priests
    Apostolicam Actuositatem on the Apostolate of the Laity
    Optatem Totius on Priestly Training
    Perfectae Caritatis on the Adaptation and Renewal of Religious Life
    Christus Dominus on the Pastoral Office of Bishops in the Church
    Unitatis Redintigratio on Ecumenism
    Orientalum Ecclesiarum n the Catholic Churches of the Eastern Rites
    Inter Mirifica on the Media of Social Communications

    It's time to stop pleading for a return to the airey-fairy fantasies of a spirit of Vatican II that existed only in the minds of people created what they wanted, and not what was written down.

    And if you do decided to cite arguments from thje documents of Vatican II, don't act like the Protestants and cited verses out of the entire context of the documents. In other words, don't plead for the use of the vernacular language without acknowledging that the documents say that Gregorian Chant has pride of place in the Church's liturgy and that

    In particular, always include this sentence from Sacrosanctum Concilium in any comments on the Liturgy: "No other person, even if he be a priest, may add, remove, or change anything in the liturgy on his own authority."

    Whining will get you nowhere.

    1. You're right about "anybody" addressing a German professor 50 years ago with a familiar form of address, except - we are not "50 years ago", and one professor to another, of similar ages, could well use familiar forms.

      In your reminder to Prof Swidler of the full documents of the council, you seem to be ignoring that one who has been teaching theology for 50 years is likely to have more than a passing understanding of them. During much of that time, according to your own bio, you were "slothfully inactive" as a Catholic.

      Are you not as disrepectful to him, as you accuse him of being to a fellow theologian?

  2. Michael, thank you for publishing Leonard Swidler's thought-provoking statement. I dare this Easter time to hope that the Spirit can find ways to cast light even into the darkest places in the church--and so I'm glad that Leonard Swidler cares enough to write this letter to his former colleague and to address him fraternally as he does so.

    Blessings and happiness to you this Easter day, with gratitude for the wonderful gifts you offer so many of us at this site and Wild Reed.

  3. Well, well, well, Ray. How can you read all those documents, study the schema development they went through before acceptance, and look at the difference between Catholic practice now compared to pre-Council practice and say that there is not a "spirit" of Vatican II? Haven't you experienced events in your life after which your mind opened to new and life-altering insights? It is metaphorical to call the expanded consciousness that comes after an event the "spirit" of the event, but why scold people for using that metaphor? Len and Joe are two distinguished old brothers. I do wish Joe would listen to Len.

  4. "not be remembered these days except with mild distaste at the remembrance of such a crude American."

    What need is there of such unfortunate language? Isn't this exactly how the opposers of the Church wish to see us - 'Look how these Christians do not love each other.'

    A little charity would go a long way. And yes, we are not living fifty years ago - the Church has moved on - New every morning is the Love.