Rorate Caeli

Ratzinger: Hierarchy, Theologians must not scandalize "the little ones":
- Primary good of the Church is protecting Faith of Ordinary People
- Those in authority cannot abuse the Faithful's readiness to listen


"Whosoever shall scandalize even one of these little ones that believe in me, it would be better for him that a millstone were hanged around his neck and he were cast into the sea." (Mk 9:42).

In April 1986, during a visit to Ontario, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, gave a keynote address to the community of Saint Michael's College, Toronto -- it was later published in the Toronto Journal of Theology under the title "The Church as an Essential Dimension of Theology." This became widely known as the Cardinal's "Toronto Lecture."

What is less known is that the address had originally been written and delivered in a language in which the future Pope Benedict XVI reasons and writes much more comfortably, Italian, in a visit to the Diocese of Brescia: it was on March 22, 1986, in a gathering organized by the Communio journal. Based on this original text of the address, our contributor Francesca Romana brings one of the most precious pearls of theological wisdom in the post-conciliar years.

It was a thought that had been clear in the Cardinal's mind, and that would be increasingly part of his concern: those in authority in the Church -- theologians, certainly, but priests and bishops as well -- must realize the immense responsibility they bear in preserving the faith of the most unprotected, the believers themselves, those who have no power, sheep in a world of wolves, hens in a world of foxes.

In other words: in a worldly setting, usually someone has to work hard to be heard. In the Church, there is certainly quite a lot of hard work, but the reason we give more relevance to, for instance, what a pope speaks than to what a cardinal says; to what a cardinal says more than to what a regular bishop says; to what a regular bishop says than to what a priest says; the reason is that the person is in that position, not that the person is particularly bright, particularly enlightened, superior in a gnostic/initiated or pagan sense (that is not the sense of the ministerial priesthood and hierarchy in Christianity), or proved himself necessarily worthy of that position. That was the Cardinal's main point.

Therefore, in order to honor the position of authority God allowed him to have, and the trust we, the "little ones", are willing to give him in faith, the man in an ecclesiastical position of teaching authority has the obligation not to abuse this trust by speaking error, scandal, or nonsense. That is, it is not a one-way street of "pay, pray, and obey, and I'll say what I want": believers must respect, but they deserve respect as well from popes, bishops, priests, and theologians, who cannot abuse their positions. If they breach the trust they did nothing to earn, they should not be astonished that the faithful suddenly notice the emperor's new clothes, and think accordingly.


Cardinal Ratzinger in 1986

A separation of the sort between proclamation and doctrine is in profound conflict with the essence of the Biblical Word. Such a separation does nothing other than revive that division between the psychists and gnostics, with which the so-called historic Gnosis attempted to create a free area for itself, and de facto expelled itself from the Church and from the Faith. That separation [between proclamation and doctrine], in fact, presupposes the relationship there is in paganism between myth and philosophy, religious symbolism and enlightened reason; the religious criticism effected by Christianity was directed against that separation; as such, it was also critical of class-based religious thinking.

This resulted in the emancipation of ordinary [unlearned] people and also claimed for them the right to be  in the true sense of the word– philosophers; which means to say, having the knowledge of that which is characteristic and peculiar to man just as much as the academics have this knowledge; or, rather even more than the academics. The words of Jesus about the foolishness of the wise and the wisdom of the little ones (in particular Matt. 11:25 and parallels) have exactly this aim: to establish Christianity as the people’s religion, as a religion without a two-class system.

And in fact: the proclamation of predication teaches in a binding way; this is its nature. It is not something to be done in one’s free time, or as religious entertainment. Predication is meant to tell man who he is and what he has to do to be himself. It is meant to show him the truth about himself and what he can live and die for. One does not die for a myth that can be substituted by another myth; if a myth, for any reason, causes difficulty, it can be replaced and another one can be chosen.

Furthermore, we cannot live for a hypothesis either; because life is not a hypothesis; it is an unrepeatable reality, which is linked to an eternal destiny. How, though, could the Church teach in a binding way if subsequently this teaching should not be necessarily binding for theologians? The essence of the magisterium is exactly in this, that the proclamation of the Faith be the valid criteria also for theology; rather, the object of theological reflection is nothing other than this same proclamation. 

The faith of the little ones, therefore, is not a theology reduced for the use of the lay masses; it is not a sort of “Platonism for the people.” The situation is rather the reverse: the proclamation is the measure of the theology, and not the theology the measure of the proclamation. This primacy in the faith of the little ones corresponds perfectly, anyway, to a fundamental anthropological order; the things that are truly important for man, are understood by simple perception, in line with a principle accessible to anyone, but never totally the same as the reflection. We could say, to use an informal expression, that the Creator acted in a very democratic way. Certainly [the work] of cultivating theological science it is not given to all men; nonetheless, access to great and fundamental knowledge is open to all. In this sense, the magisterium has a democratic character; it defends in fact the common faith, in which there is no difference of status between the academic and the unlearned.

Regarding the problem of the hierarchy of goods in the Christian community, we have the inexorable words of the Lord that the Church cannot but take in all of their gravity: “and whosoever shall scandalize even one of these little ones that believe in me, it would be better for him that a millstone were hanged around his neck and he were cast into the sea” (Mark 9, 42). 

The “little ones” here in this verse, are not children; with this term, in Jesus’ language, He is indicating His disciples, the future Christians. Moreover the “scandal” that seduces them is not a sexual seduction, but the stumbling stone that brings them to a loss of the Faith.

“To give scandal,” according to the results of present exegesis, means, “to disturb the faith” and, thus, “ to deprive of eternal salvation.” The primary good for which the Church is responsible is the faith of ordinary people. Attention for the faith of simple people must also be the intimate criteria of every theological doctrine. The one who is not merely doing private research, but is teaching on behalf of the Church, must be aware of this. To take on a task of this type and to speak not in the name of the common subject which is the Church implies the taking on of responsibilities for which the individual imposes some limits on himself.

Indeed, he is thus given an authority that as a private teacher and without men’s trust in the word of the Church he would not have. With authority, he is given power, which is responsibility, as it is not about a power which has its origins in him; [this power] has its foundation in the mandate from the Church in whose name he is given to speak. 

Those who speak about abuse of power regarding the way teaching in the Church is disciplined, today are thinking only of the usual abuse of power from those in the Church that have this duty. However, forgotten, instead, is that there is also an abuse of power given by means of the mandate to teach; this is the abuse of those who take advantage, for a purely private word, of that readiness to listen and of that trust which is given, even today, to the word of the Church. 

Church authority becomes an accomplice in this abuse of power if it tolerates that this is done without qualms, and so places its authority there where it is not allowed. For her [the Church], concern for the faith of the little ones must be more important than fearing the opposition of the powerful.

[Excerpt. Translation, by Contributor Francesca Romana, from original Italian version of the text delivered in Brescia (Lecture on "Theology and the Church") on March 22, 1986. Original posting time: 12 a.m. GMT]