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Our readersNovember 26, 2001

From the President of the Council for Promoting Christian Unity

The editors of America have kindly invited me to respond briefly to the reply from Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger (11/19). I am happy to do so, since Cardinal Ratzinger’s reply shows that two cardinals, both of whom are active in the Roman Curia and who have to rely on solid cooperation, can engage in a theological dispute leading, not to fisticuffs, but to joint progress toward knowledge.


I thankfully take as a sign of such progress that in his reply Cardinal Ratzinger no longer sees my position as threatening to dissolve the church into purely sociological entities. This serious accusation, which he originally voiced, has been bruited all over; it has affected discussions in ecumenical bodies where the Council for Promoting Christian Unity is involved, and it has not exactly made my position there any easier. When one of my coworkers returned from a session of the Faith and Order Commission in Cuba and reported to me about it, I decided, after long hesitation, to answer the charge made by the prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.

I am all the more grateful that Cardinal Ratzinger now affirms our common ecclesiological foundations and even agrees with the formula that local churches and the universal church are incorporated into and interpenetrate one another, so that one can speak of their being simultaneous. If this formulation, as Cardinal Ratzinger says, holds true for the church as it has existed throughout history, then I no longer care to attribute too much importance to the really rather speculative question of whether the situation is precisely the same or perhaps different with regard to the pre-existence of the church. In any case I can invoke for my position a witness as prominent as Henri de Lubac, whom both Cardinal Ratzinger and I highly respect as one of the Church Fathers of present-day theology.

I also note yet another step in the right direction and a no less important rapprochement here. In his argument in support of the pre-existence of the universal church Cardinal Ratzinger quite rightly says that there is only one bread and only one body. He does this by way of making over the thesis of the priority of the church universal into the thesis of the priority of inner unity. On both philosophical and scriptural grounds I can fully concur with this latter thesis, which avoids the confusing language about the precedence of the universal church. The fact that unity as a transcendental determination of being makes variety and multiplicity possible to begin with is a fundamental insight of both Platonic and Aristotelian-Thomistic metaphysics, which thereby stand in opposition to the postmodern principle of absolute pluralism.

So in the end we are left with only two marginal notes and a question. Needless to say, Cardinal Ratzinger and I agree that one becomes a member of the Catholic Church through baptism. But one becomes so, as the temporal-spatial event of baptism makes clear, in a specific (episcopally structured) local church. The principle of simultaneity holds true precisely of the sacramental event. And as for the somewhat artificial controversy between Rudolf Bultmann, whom Cardinal Ratzinger would surely not like to echo on many other issues, and Joachim Gnilka, let me point out that in my friendly exchange I also quoted the other statement by Gnilka, which I explicitly appropriated, that the writings of St. Paul, like the rest of the New Testament, bear witness to the church not as some sort of amalgamation of individual communities but as the one holy church that we confess in the Apostles’ Creed.

The question to Cardinal Ratzinger with which I should like to close is whether such reflections really have to remain as devoid of concrete consequences as his article might appear to claim. If one takes seriously the fact that in the Catholic view the church is not some sort of Platonic republic, but a historically existing divine-human reality, then it cannot be wholly wrongheaded and be chalked off as mere political reductionism to ask about concrete actions, not in political, but in pastoral life.

(Cardinal) Walter Kasper
Rome, Italy

Moving Commentary

The editorial reflection on the meaning of Christianity in the wake of the horrors of Sept. 11, Here in This November (11/5), is the most moving commentary on the subject to have appeared in print. Beautifully written, it is as brilliant as it is inspiring. It should be required reading in all Catholic schools. The next time some smug intellectual slams the Jesuits for not being Catholic enough, I’ll give him this piece. End of story.

William A. Donohue
President, Catholic League for
Religious and Civil Rights
New York, N.Y.

Shine Anew

The expression between the notes, which violinist Isaac Stern used to describe where the music lies (Between the Notes, 11/5), is a good analogy for the type of theology our church sorely needs today. It seems that all too often we ministers and teachers get caught up in the polemics of notes—which one is too sharp, which is flat—thus missing the beauty of the music which is the message of the church of Christ. The theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar was moved to reflect on God’s beauty because he himself was so moved by the music of Schubert and Tchaikovski, which he had played on the piano since his childhood. According to Balthasar, we are attracted to God in the way music or art attracts us: by beauty, which is inherently attractive and cannot be explained by any system or set of propositions (hence Balthasar’s four-volume work The Glory of the Lord).

Perhaps if the musicians entrusted with bringing to life the symphony that is God’s revelation to humanity would concentrate their energies on the melody itself rather than the individual notes, gender-specific language, who’s obeying whom, which vision of church is correct, the music of the Composer would shine anew with its irresistible beauty.

Thank you to Fay Vincent for reminding us that Isaac Stern was one brilliant reflection of that divine beauty.

James M. Gibson, C.R.
Chicago, Ill.

Pride in Transformation

Kenneth L. Woodward’s keynote speech at the Unda-USA General Assembly on Oct. 17 in San Antonio, Tex., (Signs of the Times, 11/5) apparently made quite an impression. His comments about fundamentalists were harsh but correct. I had not heard of Baptists proselytizing at ground zero in New York. As a native New Yorker with friends and neighbors who joined the New York City Police and Fire Departments, it’s just as well I did not—my blood pressure might not have withstood this assault on human dignity.

Sadly, this tale of proselytizing at ground zero had the ring of truth. One can only hope that these actions did not have the general support of Baptists.

When I was growing up in the Bronx in the 1950’s, members of both N.Y.P.D. and N.Y.F.D. seemingly had but two religions: Catholic and Very Catholic. I learned later that there were also Jewish and Protestant police and firefighters. Most important, I’ve come to realize that such distinctions are without any significance whatsoever to getting the job done. Today, both N.Y.P.D. and N.Y.F.D. are multihued and multigendered and worship in many different faith traditions. Again as a native New Yorker, this transformation is a source of pride and seems only to have improved on a good thing.

The key point is that joining N.Y.P.D. or N.Y.F.D. seems as much a vocation as the priesthood. It is certainly not just a job. What else would motivate a person to join in such dangerous and financially unrewarding professions, regardless of which church, synagogue, mosque or temple they attended? The police, firefighters and rescuers who responded at ground zero were illuminated fiercely by that light that can never be darkened (Jn. 1:5). Were they saved, in Baptist parlance? Perhaps. But who can be so bold and thoughtless even to suggest that these brave and holy souls needed salvation? On the contrary, they dispensed salvation with their actions and their very lives.

John Rich
Arlington, Va.

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17 years 5 months ago
I would like to participate in the discussion regarding the preaching in our parishes after the events of Sept. 11 (Letters, 11/26/01). I was not scheduled to preach on the Sunday immediately following the tragedy. I did preach on the Sunday following that with readings that were sharply focused on social justice. The prophet’s call to stop exploiting the poor led me to explore in my homily how unfettered capitalism wreaks havoc in third world countries. I lightly connected the anger of much of the world at American obliviousness and arrogance to the events of Sept. 11. I challenged my congregation to rethink their assumptions about the way our world economy works without haranguing them. Many parishioners welcomed what I said and some hated it. Those who hated it told me that they had come to church that morning seeking words of comfort for their pain but found instead my personal political agenda. I struggled to listen to them without being defensive.

In hindsight, I think my parish did not respond well to the tragedy in those early weeks. No parishioner of ours was killed at the Pentagon, though dozens work there and lost acquaintances. Some parishioners clearly were grieving more deeply than we realized. We should have done more in those first weeks to comfort them. Why couldn’t we?

One reason was the overwhelming media coverage—it went on 24 hours a day, day after day. The same video and commentary footage was relentlessly repeated. A bit of “new news” grafted onto what was already known passed for a major story. I know that I got to a point where I could not stand to hear about it, watch it or read about it any more. The last thing I wanted to do was to reflect on its meaning and preach about it. I should have been able to push through this exhaustion with the topic, but I couldn’t.

A second and more difficult reason: whose pain are we talking about? The monolithic and transparent parish of old bears no resemblance to St. Camillus in Silver Spring. Our diversity in race, income, language and age means that any assumptions about what our parishioners are feeling are going to miss the mark for many or most. One quick example: some of our parishioners are low-income men and women who are in this country without documentation. Their jobs in hotels and restaurants were tenuous before Sept. 11, and they disappeared almost overnight. They are in a great deal of pain. They cannot use the immigration system to become legal as they used to be able to do (with difficulty), and they are out of work besides. Their pain is very different, however, from the pain of white middle-class persons like me, whose stable and comfortable world has been shattered. Whose pain do I address when I look out at a sea of very different faces ready for an eight-minute homily? I should have found a way to address it all, but I couldn’t.

A third reason we hesitated and failed, I think, was based on a reluctance to offer superficial comfort. It is better to simply say, “I am very sorry about your loss” and to stop than it is to continue and deliver platitudes. We should be capable of deeper words of comfort, but I found them hard to find in those days.

Finally, our training is at least partially responsible for our good and bad performance. It is so ingrained in me to preach from the text and only from the text that I rarely consider the possibility of doing something else! I think that this very fundamental insistence rooted in our homiletics training is responsible for helping to gradually raise the quality of preaching in our Catholic parishes, but it comes at the cost of reducing our ease in responding to external events and other situations. I hate preaching on Mother’s Day, the Fourth of July and similar days because of the normal incongruity between the readings and the theme. I should have broken free and reacted, but I couldn’t.

Should’ve, would’ve, could’ve. I am trying to learn from my failures and to continue to g

17 years 5 months ago
Thank you for inviting Cardinal Walter Kasper to respond (11/26) to Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger’s reflections (11/19) on Cardinal Kasper’s thoughts about the universal and local church (4/23). This sort of dialogue, carried on in the pages of America, puts your magazine in a class by itself. Can you imagine any other publication that could provide a forum for this high-level dialogue? Three cheers. I’ve been a reader for a number of years and don’t know what I would do without America.

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