April 2002 Print

Considerations on Cardinal Ratzinger

Considerations On Cardinal Ratzinger’s Fontgombault Conference

Fr. Patrick De La Rocque

Translated from Nouvelles de Chrétienté, No. 71, Jan. 2002

Recently, the monks of Fontgombault (France) published the Acts of the liturgical congress that was held in their abbey last July 22-24, 2001. Among the conferences given, the one that retains our attention was Cardinal Ratzinger's on the theology of the liturgy, for we discover in it an initial essay at doctrinal discussion following on the little work that we remitted to the Holy Father last February (2001) titled, The Problem of the Liturgical Reform. While the work is specifically cited only once by Cardinal Ratzinger, the subject of the conference and the additions that it joins to his latest book on the liturgy1 manifest that by this means the Cardinal intends to respond to the serious inquiry that we have submitted to the Holy See.


It is encouraging to see that on many points our respective analyses agree:

• In agreement with the Problem of the Liturgical Reform (§§53-55) Cardinal Ratzinger recognizes that the loss of a sense of sin and the incomprehension of the work of redemption accomplished by our Lord that results from it is one of the principal sources of the liturgical crisis. He commented at the Fontgombault congress:

Contemporary thought can no longer imagine that human fault can wound God, and still less that it would require an expiation equal to that which constitutes the cross of Christ. The same holds true for vicarious substitution: we can scarcely imagine anything like that; our image of man has become too individualistic for that. That is why the crisis of the liturgy is rooted in central notions about man.2

• Just as is in The Problem of the Liturgical Reform (§109), Cardinal Ratzinger affirms that one cannot strip away from the Jewish Pasch–and hence the Christian Pasch–its sacrificial dimension. He explains that "the theology of the Pasch is a theology of redemption, a liturgy of expiatory sacrifice." The Problem of the Liturgical Reform affirms nothing else. It has simply added a question: in fact, is the liturgy of 1969 a liturgy of expiatory sacrifice or not? The analytical sections 38-45 prevent any positive answer to this question.

On a more practical level, we share a common analysis of the exasperation which the survival of the 1962 missal has engendered, an exasperation the effects of which we have endured for 30 years. This hatred is rooted in a de facto invalidation of the Council of Trent. Cardinal Ratzinger spoke:

It is only by grasping that it results from the practical disqualification of Trent, that one can understand the exasperation that accompanies the fight against the possibility of still celebrating Mass according to the 1962 Missal.

The opposition to the Mass codified by St. Pius V shows just how much this Mass constitutes a definitive barrier to the serious doctrinal deviations decried by Cardinal Ratzinger, while those who invalidate the teaching of Trent know how to recognize themselves in Paul VI's missal. That is why, for our part, it has seemed indispensable to remain unshakably faithful to St. Pius V's missal in order to keep and transmit the Eucharistic faith of the Church. With all due respect to Cardinal Ratzinger, this is not a matter of sensibility or culture, but indeed of preserving and transmitting the Faith.


Misunderstandings and Clarifications

Certain misunderstandings which could prevent or warp subsequent doctrinal clarifications need to be dispelled. When in the course of his talk Cardinal Ratzinger cites The Problem of the Liturgical Reform (which we sent to the Sovereign Pontiff), he attributes to it theses it does not contain. He stated:

I mention this strange opposition between the Pasch and sacrifice [represented by Orth] because it represents the architectonic principle of a book recently published by the Society of Saint Pius X which claims that there is a dogmatic rupture between Paul VI's new liturgy and previous Catholic liturgical tradition.

It seems to me to be important to respect the weight of the terms which we employed.

The Problem of the Liturgical Reform (§3) first affirms the existence of a liturgical, not doctrinal, rupture between the new missal and the traditional missal. And Cardinal Ratzinger cannot reproach us for this affirmation because many times he has made it his own. He has written, for example,

The liturgical reform, in its concrete realization, has distanced itself even more from its origin. The result has not been a reanimation, but devastation. In place of the liturgy, fruit of a continual development, they have placed a fabricated liturgy. They have deserted a vital process of growth and becoming in order to substitute a fabrication. They did not want to continue the development, the organic maturing of something living through the centuries, and they replaced it, in the manner of technical production, by a fabrication, a banal product of the moment.3

The Problem of the Liturgical Reform goes further than Cardinal Ratzinger's analysis when it searches for the causes of the liturgical rupture. By explaining the "theology of the Paschal mystery" as it is understood by those to whom the drafting of the new missal was confided, we manifest the "opposition" (§§93; 97; 99; 101), and the "incompatibility" (§§98; 101) existing between classical theology and that which inspired the drafting of Paul VI's missal. It is only then that we introduce the notion of a dogmatic rupture (§102) in order to express, not the opposition between the two liturgies, but the opposition that exists between a previously condemned theology and the Church's infallible teaching. The nuance is not unimportant, and ought to be taken into consideration.


The Holy Sacrifice of the Mass

If now we take up the subject of the sacrificial dimension of the Mass following Cardinal Ratzinger's outline, the opposition highlighted in The Problem of the Liturgical Reform is not at all the one mentioned by Stephen Orth between Pasch and sacrifice, as if we assimilated the "theologians of the Paschal mystery" to those who, with Luther, deemed it an "accursed impiety" to speak of the "sacrifice of the Mass."

• With Cardinal Ratzinger, on the contrary, we are aware that most of the liturgists "desire in one way or another to rediscover the concept of sacrifice." But knowing that, in the words of the Cardinal, "the notion of the sacrifice of the Mass greatly lends itself to misunderstandings," we have patiently analyzed the place that the "theology of the Paschal mystery" gives to the notion of sacrifice (§§95-97). And we are obliged to recognize that indeed there is a misunderstanding: the "theology of the Paschal mystery" misunderstands the notion of sacrifice, and consequently has proven to be incapable of assuming the teaching of Trent (§§106-113).

Fontgombault: An Altar of Denatured Sacrifice?

It is, unfortunately, this deficient notion of sacrifice advanced by the "theologians of the Paschal mystery" that Cardinal Ratzinger is going to adopt in the second part of his conference: retaining the word sacrifice, he redefines the "essential understanding." He refuses to consider sacrifice as an immolation ("a destruction does not honor God") in order to make it a simple "transformatio in melius" a transfiguration of man: "In what does sacrifice consist? Not in the destruction, but in the transformation of man." Consequently, it is both the Passion and the Resurrection, and, perhaps, the Resurrection even more, which constitute, according to him, Christ's sacrifice. "In the term 'Paschal mystery,' these episodes are viewed synthetically as a unique event, unitary, as 'the work of Christ.'" We cannot follow the Cardinal in this new reading of the notion of sacrifice for several reasons.

• Firstly, it should be noted that such a conception of sacrifice cannot account for Christ's work of expiation. While this is mentioned at the beginning of Cardinal Ratzinger's conference, subsequently his definition of sacrifice only allows for a new concept, "the abolition of the difference." "Abolition of the difference" does not mean the destruction of the obstacle posed by sin ("The difference is not abolished, but becomes the modality of a superior unity [that operated by love]"). "Abolition of the difference" does not mean the voluntary expiation that Christ accomplished by taking our place. It only signifies the transforming love of God for us: "The fact of being loved [by God] is a process of purification and transformation." The shift from "expiation" to "abolition of the difference" could only occur because in the second part of the conference, as moreover in his book1 sin is only considered as it concerns man himself and not his relation to God: reparation no longer means satisfaction of divine justice, but only man's conversion, understood as his "transformation." Yes, this notion of sacrifice has been influenced by a modern way of thinking, in the words of Cardinal Ratzinger at the beginning of his conference, "that can no longer imagine that human fault can wound God, and still less that it would require an expiation equal to that which constitutes the cross of Christ." We have no choice but to reject this redefinition of sacrifice, because it voids the vicarious satisfaction of Christ, which is part of the deposit of Revelation.4

Consequently, we cannot follow Cardinal Ratzinger when he excludes immolation from the definition of sacrifice. For there is a destruction which is infinitely pleasing to God, that which destroys the obstacle constituted by sin. This destruction, indispensable to divine union, must be effectively achieved, and then outwardly signified in the sacramental rite which effects this divine union. That is why, because of sin, the sacrifice–the heart of which is, obviously, love–can only take the form of immolation. As Cardinal Ratzinger reminds us, moreover, at the beginning of his conference, the sacrifice of Christ was thus prefigured in the Old Testament. It is equally thus that St. Paul presents the sacrifice of Christ (I Cor. 5:7); it is thus that, from the Apostolic Age, the first Fathers (Ignatius of Antioch, Polycarp) considered both the Passion of Christ and the Eucharist; it is thus that the most eminent Fathers, for example St. John Chrysostom and St. Augustine, explained these mysteries; it is thus that the most ancient prayers in the earliest sacramentaries have taught us to consider the Mass; it is thus, finally, that the Council of Trent speaks:

For, after He had celebrated the ancient feast of the Passover, which the multitude of the children of Israel sacrificed [immolabat (Ex. 12:1 ff.)] in memory of their exodus from Egypt, He instituted a new Passover, Himself to be immolated (immolandum) under visible signs by the Church through the priests, in memory of His own passage from this world to the Father....5


The "Paschal Mystery" and Its Consequences

Diverging as we do over the notion of sacrifice, we can only oppose each other in our understanding of the "Paschal mystery."

• Since, with Tradition, we consider the sacrifice as an immolation, with Tradition we consider the Passion to be the heart of Christ's redemptive work (The Problem of the Liturgical Reform, §§93-94), without refusing to the Resurrection the efficient causality which belongs to it. It is, in fact, in His Passion alone, by the voluntary immolation that He makes of Himself, that Christ, second Adam, satisfies for our sins and merits our salvation.

Because for Cardinal Ratzinger, sacrifice is a simple "transformatio in melius" he only envisages the Passion and the Resurrection as "as a unique event, unitary, as 'the work of Christ'"; it is the Pasch of Christ by which He is to be established "Lord." This is the reason for this reduction of the mystery of the Redemption. This view only considers what the Passion and the Resurrection have in common, namely that Christ is "the Mediator who, in his death and his resurrection, becomes for us the way, draws us all to himself, and thus hears us." The Cardinal only considers the "work of Christ" for humanity in its exemplary aspect ("he is for us the way"), as well as in a vague efficacy of the Risen One ("he draws us to himself"). The expiatory and meritorious dimensions which are specific to the Passion and essential to the mystery of Redemption are passed over in silence. Such a conception, incapable as it is of expressing these elements of the Catholic Faith, is not acceptable. Moreover, considering the Paschal mystery as a "unique work of Christ" is to forget that Christ in His humanity does not operate in the same manner during His Passion as in His Resurrection. On Easter morning, it is the divinity alone that effects the Resurrection, His humanity being, as it were, the beneficiary of the exclusively divine operation; as man, He is the "first born among the dead," receptive, not active. Considering the Passion and the Resurrection as "unique, unitary" is to restrict oneself to describing Christ as the "revealer" of the salvation accomplished by God; it is to exalt the action of God in Christ to the point of neglecting the salvific causality of the properly human actions of Christ, despite all the value that their theandric character imparts to them. Is this not to "make void the cross of Christ" (I Cor. 1:17)?

This dramatic reduction of the notion of sacrifice, this new way of conceiving the work of Redemption, is at the root of the very profound crisis of the priesthood which Cardinal Ratzinger quite justly deplores. If Christ in His humanity is only considered as the "first moved" and no longer as the proper agent of the Redemption, then how can one ascribe to the action of the priest its own efficacy, during the Mass, for example? Ignored henceforth is that which defines the priest and gives him all his excellence, his power over the physical Body of Christ. The priest is no longer considered as acting in persona Christi because Christ the Priest (as man) acts through him and through him only because of his priestly character.

Now it will be said of him that he acts "in the person of Christ the Head," in the sense that, like Christ, he must be the "first" of the community. Mediation gives way to presidency; the priest has been denatured because the sacrifice has been denatured.

By way of conclusion, it is important to emphasize that the liturgical crisis is only a secondary phenomenon resulting from and accompanying a deeper theological crisis. That is why the outline of the liturgical movement being promoted by Cardinal Ratzinger in his book The Spirit of the Liturgy, which the conference he gave at Fontgombault presented and defended, leaves us perplexed. Since the crisis is theological before being liturgical, we remain persuaded that a liturgical reform cannot be based upon the anthropology of worship, but must find a firm foundation in the fundamental principles of Catholic doctrine.

The Problem of the Liturgical Reform and the response made by Cardinal Ratzinger in his conference are nonetheless encouraging signs, manifesting that, even if the divergences are profound, a genuine and continued theological exchange would bring to the fore the points of doctrine that are threatened today. If the question of the nature of sacrifice is now the order of the day, several other theological points related to the question of the liturgy and of far-reaching influence on the ensemble of dogma, would demand to be developed and clarified. I am thinking, for example, of the delicate notion of "sacrament" and of the legitimacy of its application especially in the domain of ecclesiology.

May the Holy Ghost grant to Churchmen strength and light, uprightness and fidelity, so that they can take the salutary remedies which will allow a happy issue from the unprecedented crisis now shaking the Church, and by the very fact will enable her to spread more efficaciously the fruits of the Redemption on the world.


Fr. Patrick de La Rocque, who was ordained a priest of The Society of Saint Pius X in 1992, is currently a professor at the Seminary of St. Cure of Ars, Flavigny, France. These two articles of his were translated by Angelus Press from Nouvelles de Chretiente, No.71, January 2002.

1. Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, Einfuhrung in den Geist der Liturgie [The Spirit of the Liturgy] ad solem 2001.

2. Autour de la question liturgique avec le Cardinal Ratzinger (Our Lady of Fontgombault Abbey, 2001).

3. Revue Theologisches, Vol. 20, Feb. 1990, pp. 103-104.

4. Cf. The Problem of the Liturgical Reform, §§103-105.

5. Denzinger §1741 [English version from The Sources of Catholic Dogma, ed. Roy J. Deferrari, (St. Louis, MO.: B. Herder Book Co., 1957)].