Thanks to Arabella for alerting me to a section of the third chapter in Joseph Ratzinger’s Principles of Catholic Theology: Building Stones for a Fundamental Theology.
Entitled “The Community’s Right to the Eucharist? The ‘Community’ and the Catholicity of the Church”, the man who would be Pope wrote this over twenty years ago. Yet it is as if he had just been faxed a copy of “that petition” and decided to write out a little reflection to help the members of the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference know how to respond to it.
There is some of it on the web at Google Books (starting page 285), but you will have to buy, borrow or beg a copy for the whole thing. But I will give you a summary of the basic argument.
The first thing that is obvious it that the Collins/Purcell argument (which lobbies for changes to the priestly office out of a claimed concern about “maintain[ing] our Mass-centred, Eucharistic spirituality”) is not new. Ratzinger begins his chapter with this statement of the issue as it was put in his day:
In recent years, the discussion about the priestly office that has been energetically pursued in the Catholic Church since the end of Vatican Council II has acquired a new label: it is now subsumed in large part under the heading: “the community’s right to the Eucharist.”
This slogan, he says,
has many levels of meaning and contains implications that are not so self-evident as they may at first seem to be. It must be admitted that the formula harbours a variety of perspectives.
Of course, we see some of the more radical of these “perspectives” in the Dutch Dominican’s propositions, which actually use the phrase that Ratzinger was writing about (they charge that “official church authority in principle opts for a protection of the priesthood in its present form over against the right of church communities to the Eucharist“).
Ratzinger’s over all thesis is that:
Where the Eucharist is claimed as the right of the community, there quickly follows the notion that the community can, in fact, confer it on itself, in which case it no longer needs a priesthood that can be bestowed only by ordination in the successio apostolica, that is, from within the “Catholic” context, the Church as a whole and her sacramental power.
In other words, the Eucharist AND the priesthood are both “gifts” to the Church, that can only come from Christ. Hence the reliance on the full catholicity of the universal church, from which both eucharist and priesthood are given as gifts to the local church.
Ratzinger spends some time discussing the notion of “community” (in German: Gemeinde). He shows that “the community” was not a predominate idea in the ecclesiology of Vatican Council II (in which “the episcopal church [the eucharistic assembly with its bishop] is the lowest entity to be given a clear terminological and theological identity”), and tracing its roots to Luther’s anti-institutional ecclesiology and “ideas of base democracy” in “the utopias of modern social criticism”.
With regard to Luther, however, he has some sympathy. Luther’s concept of the Word as that which addresses the Gemeinde from extra nos has concurrance in the Catholic idea of Eucharist as a gift from the universal communion of the Church.
The community cannot bestow [the eucharistic mystery] on itself. the Lord does not arise, as it were, from the midst of the communal assembly. He can come to it only from “without”–as one who bestows himself… To receive him means, therefore, to be united with all others. Where this does not take place, the door is closed to the Lord himself….
We see that the structure of the word and the structure of the Eucharist are identical, the one Catholic structure without which neither the Church nor the community can exist in a theological sense. We understand thus…that a community does not set itself up in opposition to the office (in order then to create offices or to demand that there be such); ecclesia becomes real at every level only when she is sacramental in structure, when she is woven into the context of the apostolic succession.
With regard to the “right to the Eucharist”, he points out that Canon Law speaks of the “right” of individuals to receive the sacraments, not the “right” of communities. He acknowledges what could be seen as an individualising tendancy here, but also points out that there can be “romantic interpretations of community”, whereas saving faith is always a personal matter. A realistic view of the Christian “community” therefore would be to see it as the “homeland of the soul”–a rather nice idea, methinks.
Then he comes to the question that the Petition and the Dutch Dominicans and their ilk are asking when they speak of the “right of the community to the Eucharist” in relation to the shortage of priests:
What must the Church–those who bear office and the laity, each in his own fashion–do to respond to the right every inidividual has to the signs of salvation and to enable every individual actually to experience the universal community of the Church as a supporting community, as the homeland of his soul?
The first answer is about the responsibility of bishops:
The ecclesial office must so form and equip the episcopal communities (ecclesiae particulares) that they are able, in their sphere, to build the life of faith in the Church with the necessary adaptability and openness, to create believing communities and to meet the individual’s right to word and sacrament.
In other words, evangelisation and catechisation, as I said in my open letter. That, after all, is what “builds the life of faith in the Church.”
But wait! There’s more:
But that is only one side of the picture. A solution that comes only from the “top” will not suffice here[isn’t that what I said in the open letter?]–certainly not if, to reach its goal, it requires a lessening of belief in the Eucharist and in the sacramental context of the Church–that is, a diminution or falsification of God’s Word. Spiritual fruitfulness cannot be manufactured. But where the Church is insufficiently able to generate priestly vocations or to inspire individuals to an undivided, even celibate, service of God’s kingdom, there cannot fail to be doubts also about her eucharistic efficacy… Indeed, the celibacy of the priest is the historical way, anchored in the gospel, in which the Church reminds herself of the fact that she cannot manipulate spiritual vocations and binds herself in a way that makes it impossible for her to meet spiritual crises by organisational manipulation.
You might just want to read that again. It is an extremely important point.
So what is the answer? Will petitions to the bishops do the job? Obviously not. No attempts by the Bishops of the particular Churches in Australia to unilaterally “manufacture” or “manipulate” the sacramental gift of the priesthood will answer the crisis that the Church is facing with regard to the priesthood and the availability of the Eucharist. Here is Ratzinger’s closing sentences. The authors and signers of “that petition” need only look here
for their answer and expect no other:
But the way to the joy of the gospel and to its great fruit leads only through the door of conversion. The greatness of the gift is always in proportion to the greatness of the gift of self.