The Roman Catholic Church makes some astounding claims for its own authority. And if anyone could, in our day, be said to put forth the best argument for that authority, it would be hard to find a better person than Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith – the official watchdog of Catholic doctrine – now Pope Benedict XVI.
But that is not the case. In fact, as the title of this post suggests, Ratzinger’s foundational argument in favor of a Roman Catholic view of “the Church” is weak and even dishonest.
In Chapter 1 of his 1990 work “Called to Communion,” Ratzinger lays out the “criteria for discernment,” the rule or method by which he will approach Scripture. And given the way he defines his terms, it seems clear that seeks to place himself within an exegetical realm.
But there is a point at which he clearly can be accused of “bait-and-switch”; that is, he discusses “exegesis,” and things that can go wrong with “exegesis.” But then he puts forth a rule that effectively places “compatibility with the base memory of the Church” as judge over Scripture – effectively taking himself – and the Roman Catholic “Church” – out of the realm of exegesis.
He begins by noting that there is a “tangled thicket of exegetical hypotheses” blocking our way of understanding of the origin of the church, the purpose of its existence, and Christ’s will for the church.
Seeking to provide a way “through the primeval forest of exegetical hypotheses,” Ratzinger begins by discussing at some length “the exegetical methods over the last century,” a discussion he calls “a kind of aerial photograph” of exegetical methods over the last 100 years. He outlines three methods, which include “liberal exegesis,” a “cultic exegesis, which, in strict anthithesis to liberal thought, no longer saw Jesus as a critic of critic of cultic worship but rather understood this worship as the intimate, vital atmosphere of the Bible,” and “a Marxist-oriented interpretation of the Bible.”
He comments that each of these “exegetical models” “borrows from the thought pattern of the respective period.” He does not find any of these three satisfactory, and he draws a new rule from this, which “[extracts] from individual theories [of exegesis] their element of contemporary ideology,” and
“gain[s] new confidence in the internal continuity of the Church’s memory. In both her sacramental life and in her proclamation of the Word, the Church constitutes a distinctive subject whose memory preserves the seemingly past word and action of Jesus as a present reality.” (19)
“We can now lay down the converse: compatibility with the base memory of the Church is the standard for judging what is to be considered historically and objectively accurate, as opposed to what does not come from the text of the Bible but has its source in some private way of thinking.” (20)
In the face of the fringe nature of these “exegetical models” that he discusses, he does not talk at all about what genuine exegesis might be.
The genuine process of exegesis, first espoused by the early Protestants, and still used today by conservative Protestants, “begins with a patient and humble listening to the text, with the willingness to hear an alien word,” according to Thomas Schreiner.
“We are all prone to read our own conceptions into the text. Thus our first task is simply to see what the text actually says. Those who interpreted the text before us are an immense help in this endeavor, although we must also strive to hear the text afresh so that the Word of God will speak to our generation as it did to those who journeyed before us.” (Thomas Schreiner, “Romans,” from the Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament” series, pg. 2)
The point here, in the words of Daniel Wallace, who teaches exegesis, is that “Before we can know what a particular text means we must know what it says.”
This simple notion does not even seem to occur to Ratzinger. Rather, his solution fits directly into the mold of those to which he objects: He articulates yet another principle in which the final arbiter exists outside of the text – and he judges by “the internal continuity of the Church’s memory.” But he makes no argument as for why that particular “thought pattern” (a) is a “thought pattern” to begin with, and why it is superior in any way to the thought patterns he dismissed.
“The Church” in his way of thinking, is a single subject – a person – with a memory. And yet his appeal to the “memory of the Church” personifies the church, as if the church were an individual mind. He ignores the difficulties of how “the Church” might be “a distinctive subject whose memory preserves” anything – how an institution like “the Church” – which could also be more aptly characterized as an ongoing bureaucracy, left over from the Roman empire, might “remember” something – anything at all.
He just simply assumes that there is a memory there, and that this assumed memory is the judge not only of the “seemingly past word and action of Jesus” as well as what is “historically and objectively accurate.”
Given that the controlling hermeneutic is based not on an argument, but on an assumption – and given that Rome bases the whole of its authority on this assumption – it would seem as if the burden of proof lies with the party making such an assumption.
Yet there is no argument. Ratzinger, reportedly a great theologian, only makes three assumptions:
- “The Church” has an individual mind with a memory
- This memory is the judge of the “seemingly past” (implied present) word and action of Christ
- This memory is the judge of “what is historically and objectively accurate
That’s an incredible amount of authority just merely to assume for oneself. And again, summarizing, it appears as if the shape of Ratzinger’s controlling hermeutic by which he arives at this assumption was determined by:
- Knocking down the straw men of liberal and Marxist hermeneutics
- Ignoring genuine exegesis
- Assuming and asserting that “the memory” of the Roman Catholic Church is the judge of both “the seemingly past word and action of Jesus” as well as “what is historically and objectively accurate.”
Ratzinger has deceived the reader in two ways here. He has posited a very tight little circle, in which the Roman Catholic Church’s “authority” is based not on argument, not on proof, but on assumptions. And his “bait and switch” upon the word exegesis – beginning to “examine” exegesis and then substituting his own, non-exegetical “controlling function” is fundamentally and extremely dishonest.
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