Rorate Caeli

The "Ratzinger Formula"

“Rome must not require more from the East with respect to the doctrine of primacy than what had been formulated and was lived in the first millennium . . . Rome need not ask for more. Reunion could take place in this context if, on the one hand, the East would cease to oppose as heretical the developments that took place in the West in the second millennium and would accept the Catholic Church as legitimate and orthodox in the form she had acquired in the course of that development, while, on the other hand, the West would recognize the Church of the East as orthodox and legitimate in the form she has always had.” Joseph Ratzinger, Principles of Catholic Theology, San Francisco, Ignatius, 1987, p. 199.

The preceding is quoted in Tracey Rowland, Ratzinger’s Faith: The Theology of Pope Benedict XVI, Oxford UP, 2008, p.100. She makes no acknowledgment of how problematic its first line is for the unity of the Church’s faith, nor does she mention the use which has been made of this quote by ecumenists who wish Rome to declare full communion with the Orthodox without the Orthodox having to accept the dogmas defined since 1054 by Florence, Trent, Vatican I and certain Popes. Cardinal Kasper has referred to it as the “Ratzinger Formula”. Similar to the full passage quoted above, many ecumenists and some Orthodox seem to envisage something like the mutual attitude which eventually came to prevail between Jesuits and Dominicans, in full communion obviously, once Rome prohibited them from calling each others' doctrines on grace heretical. Just as Thomists came to see Molinism as untrue but not contradictory to revelation, so Orthodox will supposedly be in full communion with Rome once they come to see papal primacy as merely someone else's theology rather than heresy, all the while declining to accept it as true. The reason this is not a solution is the fact that unlike the competing theories of grace in the seventeenth century, papal primacy has been defined as a dogma of faith . . .

One can read lengthy articles by ecumenists who make grateful use of the “Ratzinger Formula” while also quoting a plethora of agreed statements, documents and declarations which have emanated from Rome or dialogue commissions in the last 45 years of ecumenism. And yet only rarely if ever do they cite a 1997 official letter of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, co-signed by none other than Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, which in effect retracts what he had earlier said.

The context of this de facto self-correction was the declaration signed by a large majority of Catholic Melkite bishops at a conference in Lebanon in 1995. The assembled prelates agreed that they believe what Eastern Orthodoxy teaches and that they are in communion with the Bishop of Rome, as the first among the bishops, within the limits recognized by the holy Fathers of the East in the first millennium and before the separation. We will only mention in passing here that various holy Fathers of the East expressed the primacy of Peter and his successors, although in an inchoate way. But to the knowledge of this blogger there are no texts which claim and specify “limits” in the way schismatic Eastern Orthodox do. The Roman letter to the Melkite Patriarch in the wake of the Melkite declaration puts it this way: “It cannot be ignored that the doctrine regarding the Primacy of the Roman Pontiff has seen an evolution in the course of time, within the framework of explication of the faith of the Church.” (emphasis added) And then the letter signed by Ratzinger corrects the “Ratzinger Formula”: “it [the doctrine on the Roman Pontiff] must be accepted, therefore, in its entirety which incorporates the origins down to the present day.” (See 30 Days, vol. 11, 1997, p. 15. Full text and background are available at

This may be a major instance of what still Cardinal Ratzinger wrote in his April 2005 preface to Joseph Ratzinger. Life in the Church and Living Theology (by Maximilian-Heinrich Heim, Ignatius Press, San Francisco, 2007): “[I]t was an absorbing reading experience for me to see the paths and detours of my own thinking, in its continuity and in its alterations (emphasis added). . .” May God give Pope Benedict XVI many years of guarding the deposit.