In all the maelstrom surrounding the Synod, and with the surprisingly timely publication of Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI’s newest volume of collected works, it seems only fitting to recall the momentous thing that happened on this day 33 years ago. On November 25, 1981, St. John Paul II, knowing a good thing when he saw it, named Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, President of the Pontifical Biblical Commission, and President of the International Theological Commission.
As we all know, in 1972 Ratzinger wrote an essay in which, after he accurately summarized the massive scriptural and traditional basis for the non-admission of the civilly remarried to communion, nevertheless toyed with a rudimentary version of the Kasper thesis. But, like any responsible theologian who matures in his thinking, Ratzinger distanced himself from this early essay more and more as time went on. And in this new volume, he rewrote the essay, altogether removing the material he had come to see as false, unworthy, and dangerously manipulable.
After the promulgation of Familiaris consortio by John Paul II, Ratzinger distanced himself from his early suggestion whenever this embarrassing essay was brought up. For example, in 1991, he said that what he had written "formed part of a suggestion (Vorschlag) I made as a theologian in 1972. Their implementation in pastoral practice would of course necessarily depend on their corroboration by an official act of the magisterium to whose judgment I would submit. . . . Now, the magisterium subsequently spoke decisively on this question in the person of the present Holy Father in Familiaris Consortio."
And again in 1996, in Salt of the Earth, when asked "Is discussion of this question [of reception of Communion by the divorced and remarried] still open, or is it already decided and settled once and for all?," Cardinal Ratzinger replied:
As a matter of principle it is decided, but of course factual questions, individual questions, are always possible. For example, perhaps in the future there could also be an extrajudicial determination that the first marriage was invalid. This could perhaps also be ascertained locally by experienced pastors. Such juridical developments, which can make things less complicated, are conceivable. But the principle that marriage is indissoluble and that someone who has left the valid marriage of his life, the sacrament, and entered into another marriage cannot communicate, does in fact as such hold definitively.
In this latest astute, mild-mannered, and intellectually responsible action, the Pope Emeritus displays once again that while his authority of office is gone, his mind is as sharp and clear as ever.