Most Excellent and Reverend Chancellor,
I would like first of all to express to you, Reverend Chancellor, and to the school of theology, my profound gratitude for the great honor conferred on me by my investiture as doctor honoris causa. And I would especially like to thank my esteemed colleague, Professor Rodriguez, for the careful and balanced evaluation you have made of my theological work, although you have greatly exaggerated my merits.
Professor Rodriguez, by his discovery and critical edition of the original manuscript of the Catechism of the Council of Trent, has done a service to theology that transcends any specific historical circumstances, and that was also of great importance for my work during the preparation of the Catechism of the Catholic Church. He is part of a faculty that in the relatively brief period of its existence has attained a notable position in the world’s theological dialogue. It is therefore an honor and a great joy for me to be accepted into the fellowship of this faculty, with which I have been joined for many years by bonds of personal friendship and scientific dialogue.
The Church’s magisterium and science
In an event such as today’s, the question inevitably arises: "Just what is a doctor in theology?" And in my case a very personal question: "Do I have the right to consider myself as such? Do I fulfill the criteria that this title signifies?" Regarding my current position, an objection could be raised that many people would endorse: "Isn’t the position of Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith¾ which many today like to call (and criticize) by the title ‘Inquisitor’¾ perhaps in opposition to the science, and therefore to the nature, of theology?" "Aren’t science and authority mutually exclusive? Can a science recognize another authority outside its own principles, that is, its own way of reasoning? Isn’t a magisterium that tries to put limits to thought in scientific matters a self-contradiction?"
Questions such as these, which touch on the essence of Catholic theology, undoubtedly call for a continual examination of conscience, both on the part of theologians and those in positions of authority within the Church, who must also be theologians in order to carry out their task adequately. These questions bring us to the fundamental question: Just what is theology? Is it sufficient to describe it as a systematic reflection about questions of religion, about the relationship between man and God? My reply would be no, for we would have attained only some form of "science of religion." The philosophy of religion and, in general, the science of religion are undoubtedly disciplines of great importance. But their limitations are obvious when we try to go beyond the academic milieu, for they are not really capable of offering a true guide. They either deal with things of the past, or they try to describe things of the present on the basis of an existential confrontation, or they end up being, in the end, an exploration of the ultimate questions about man, an attempt that finally ends up as a mere question, because it is impossible to pierce the darkness surrounding man when one asks about his origin or end, that is, when one asks about man himself.
Theology transcends human thought
If theology wishes and should be something other than the science of religion, something more than confronting unresolved questions about what transcends and at the same time constitutes us, then it has to be based solely on the fact that it comes from a response that we ourselves did not invent. But for this answer to be truly an answer, we have to try to understand it, and not let it be diluted.
The special nature of theology is that it concerns something that we have not imagined and that can ground our life precisely because it precedes us and sustains us, that is to say, because it is greater than our own thought. The path of theology is well expressed in the formula Credo ut intelligam: I accept a proposition previously given in order to find, from it and in it, access to true life, to a true understanding of myself. This means in turn that theology presupposes, by its very nature, an auctoritas. It only exists because I know that the sphere of my own thought has been transcended, because I know, so to say, that a hand has been extended to help human thought, a hand that pulls one upward, beyond one’s own powers. Without this presupposition, which always surpasses the capacity of one’s own thought, and which is never diluted into something purely personal, there would be no theology.
The Word of God precedes human thought
But then we must confront a new question. What is this presupposition, this answer that completely guides our thought and shows us the way? This authority, we can say as a first approximation, is a Word. Seen from the perspective of our subject matter, such an affirmation is completely logical: the word precedes the understanding and seeks to help it to understand. The presupposition that has been given to the human spirit asking about itself is, perfectly reasonably, a Word. In the process of science thought precedes the word. But here, where our thinking fails, a Word is sent from the eternal Thought, containing a fragment of its splendor, as much as we are capable of assimilating, as much as we need, as much as human words can formulate. To understand the meaning of the Word, to understand this Word is the deepest meaning of theology, a meaning that must also never be lacking in the path of faith of the simple faithful.
The Word of God surpasses Scripture
The presupposition that has been given to us is a Word, Scripture. But then we must ask ourselves: besides this essential authority for theology, is there perhaps another one? It seems, at first glance, that the answer should be no. This is the critical point of controversy between Reformation and Catholic theology. But today a great number of evangelical theologians realize, in one way or another, that sola scriptura, that is to say, the reduction of the Word to a book, is unsustainable.
The Word, by its internal structure, always surpasses what can be contained in a book. The relativization of the "scriptural principle," into which Catholic theology also has to enter deeply, and in which both parties can arrive at a new ground for encounter, is to a certain extent the fruit of ecumenical dialogue. But it has also resulted from progress in the historical-critical interpretation of the Bible, which in turn has learned to recognize its own limits.
In the process of critical exegesis about the nature of the biblical Word, two things have become apparent. In the first place, it has been clarified that the biblical Word, in the moment of its written determination, had already undergone a longer or shorter period of oral configuration. By being set down in writing, the Word was not solidified but rather entered into a new process of interpretation¾ rereading¾ which later developed its hidden potentialities. The full meaning of the Word cannot be reduced to the thought of a single author at a determined moment of history.
God transcends the human author of Scripture
Even more, the Word is not that of a single author, but it lives in a history that progresses, and therefore extends toward the past and toward the future, transcending all human calculation. Only from this perspective can one begin to understand what is meant by Inspiration. God enters mysteriously into man’s world, and transcends the merely human author. But this also means that Scripture is not a meteorite fallen from heaven, counterpoised to every human word with the rigorous "otherness" of a heavenly mineral not from this world.
Scripture is certainly the bearer of God’s thought. This makes it unique and constitutes it as an "authority." But it comes mediated by a human history. It encloses the thought and life of an historic community that we call "the People of God," precisely because it has been maintained in unity by the irruption of the divine Word. And a mutual interchange exists between both.
This community is the essential condition for the origin and growth of the biblical Word; and, conversely, this Word confers on the community its identity and continuity. And thus the analysis of the structure of the biblical Word has made manifest an interpenetration between Church and Bible, between the People of God and the Word of God, which we have theoretically always known in some way, but which has never been so apparent.
These considerations lead to a second conclusion, which has helped to relativize the scriptural principle. Luther was convinced of the "transparency" of Scripture, of its univocal nature, which made any kind of official explanation superfluous. Such univocity constitutes the scriptural principle. For if the Bible as a book were not univocal in itself, neither could it constitute by itself, that is to say, solely as a book, the presupposition that has been given to us and that has to guide us. We would remain then abandoned once more to ourselves. We would find ourselves once again alone with our thoughts, powerless to unravel the meaning of being. But on the basis of the structure of the Word and the specific experience of Biblical exegesis, we have had to renounce this fundamental postulate of univocity.
The objective structure of the Word, by its own dynamic, transcends the written word. It is precisely the most profound meaning of the Word that becomes perceptible only by going beyond the level of the written. But also from the subjective point of view, that postulate is impossible to maintain. The history of exegesis is a history of contradictions. The adventurous proposals of some modern exegetes, who have gone so far as to give a materialist interpretation of the Bible, have shown that the Word is indefensible when it is reduced simply to a book, and finds itself exposed to being manipulated by preconceived intentions and opinions.
Scripture is alive, not a static object in the past
Scripture, the Word which has been given to us as a presupposition, and which is at the center of theology’s efforts, is not by its very nature isolated, nor is it only a book. Its human subject, the People of God, is alive and has maintained its identity throughout the ages. Without its living and imperishable subject, which is the Church, Scripture would not be contemporaneous with us. It would be unable to function both synchronically and diachronically, uniting history and the present, but would be something lost in the past. It would be reduced to a piece of literature that needs to be interpreted, as one interprets any literary work. And then theology would also become simply a history of literature and past events, or a philosophy and science of religion.
The Church's teaching authority is inscribed in Scripture
Perhaps it may be useful to make these reflections more specific by considering the New Testament. Along the entire path of faith from Abraham to the finalizing of the biblical canon, a confession of faith was forming, which has its true center and definitive figure in Christ. But the vital milieu from which the profession of Christian faith stemmed was the Church’s sacramental life. The biblical canon was formed according to this criteria, which is also the reason why the Creed is the first interpretation of the Bible. But the Creed is not a literary piece. For a long time the rule of faith corresponding to the Creed was purposely not written down, precisely because it was the concrete life of a believing community. Thus the teaching authority of the Church, the authority of the apostolic succession, was inscribed, by means of the Creed itself, in Scripture, and cannot be separated from it.
The magisterium of the apostles’ successors does not juxtapose a second authority to Scripture, but rather forms part of its very structure. This "living voice" is not meant to reduce the authority of Scripture, or to limit it or substitute it for something else. On the contrary, its mission is to ensure the unchangeability of Scripture, to guarantee that it will not be manipulated, to conserve intact, in the midst of disputes, its transparency, its univocal status. There is thus a mysterious mutual interaction. Scripture sets the measure and limits to the "living voice"; and the "living voice" guarantees that Scripture will not be manipulated.
The mission of the magisterium
I perfectly understand the concern Protestant theologians have expressed¾ and today also many Catholic theologians, especially exegetes¾ that the magisterium might reduce the freedom and authority of the Bible, and thus also of theology in general.
I remember a passage from the famous exchange of letters between Harnack and Peterson in 1928. Peterson, who was younger and searching for answers, pointed out to Harnack that his study "The Old Testament in St. Paul’s Letters and the Pauline Communities" had come to almost exactly the same conclusion as the Catholic teaching on Scripture, Tradition and the magisterium. Harnack, in effect, had stated that in the New Testament the apostolic teaching authority was joined to the authority of the Bible, organizing and delimiting it, and thus served as a healthy corrective to "biblicism." Harnack replied to his young colleague: "It is a truism that the so-called formal principle of the old Protestantism is a critical impossibility, and that, compared to it, the Catholic principle is formally better. But materially the Catholic principle of Tradition damages history much more... ." What as a principle seemed evident and even undeniable, in reality inspired a certain fear.
One could say much more about Harnack’s diagnosis, and clarify which principle has caused more damage, and more gravely threatened the presupposition the Word has given us. However this is not the place to do so. But it is obvious that neither of the two parties can dispense with trusting in the protection and guidance of the Holy Spirit. An ecclesiastical authority would become arbitrary, if not protected by the Holy Spirit. But an arbitrary exegesis abandoned to its own resources would be no less of a danger, as history has shown. What is more, the miracle needed to maintain unity in the Word with all its strong demands is much more improbable than the miracle needed to maintain within its limits the ministry of the apostles’ successors.
But let us set these speculations aside. The structure of the Word is sufficiently univocal, but the demands it entails for those called to the responsibility of the apostles’ successors are in fact very arduous. The magisterium’s mission is not to oppose thought, but rather to give voice to the authority of the Answer that has been given to us, and thus create space for the Truth. To be the bearer of such a mission is both exciting and risky. It demands the humility of submitting, of listening and obeying. It requires not being tied to one’s own viewpoint, but rather opening oneself and letting the Other speak, without whose Word everything falls into silence. The magisterium, rightly understood, is a humble service that makes possible true theology. Then the answers without which we cannot live uprightly will become clear to us.
Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger