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Letter to Father Edward Schillebeeckx*

(June 13, 1984)


Reverend Father,

The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith has noted with the greatest attention the two letters which you sent it under the dates of Nov. 26, 1982, and July 30, 1983 (henceforth respectively cited as PR or provisional reply, and R-II or second reply), in response to the reservations which it had expressed in regard to your book Kerkelijk Ambt (1980, first and second eds.), translated into French under the title Le Ministere dans l’Église (1981, referred to here as ME).

The Congregation thanks you for the details you have provided it. It considers your thought quite clear now and therefore that the stage of dialogue with the author may be regarded as closed. Thus it ought to convey to you the conclusions it has reached.

1. The Congregation first of all takes note of your declarations regarding your intentions. It particularly notes the care which you have taken to habitually recall that access to the ministry and capacity to preside at the Eucharist are established by ordination through the laying on of hands within the framework of the apostolic succession, at least in normal circumstances.

2. However, the purpose of your book was evidently not to recall or lend support to this point of general doctrine, but to determine what is called for by circumstances which are outside the ordinary and to maintain in this regard a quite new thesis in respect to the Church’s teaching regarding the ministry, including celebration of the Eucharist.

You have in effect sought to prove – partly through the history of the first millennium of the Church’s life, partly by means of ecclesiological considerations – that “exceptions are possible” to what you call the “ordinary” way, in the sense that it would not be dogmatically impossible in certain circumstances to accede to the ministry and to receive the capacity to consecrate the Eucharist in some other way than by ordination with laying on of hands in the apostolic succession (PR 15, L8-10; 16, 1.13-17; 18, last line; 19, 1.4-5 arid 15-17).

You affirm that the local particular community has in itself the necessary resources to remedy the lack of ordinary ministers and that it can “make use (for that) of the services of those among its members who are the persons most suited for this service,” this last being, according to you, simply “an accentuation and specification” of baptism (R-II 5, 1.29-34; cf. ibid., 3, 1.18-21; 7, 1.32-33).

These “extraordinary ministers” receive, you say, by the simple fact of their call by the community and their “institution in and for the community” (KA 2, 85; ME, 112 m), a real “competence,” which enables them to do “in sum, according to the circumstances, all that is necessary to the community life of an ecclesia Dei,” which competence is not mere “permission” (of a canonical order), but is “sacramental power” (RP 8, 1.12-17; R-II 6.1, 30-31). They receive “the sacramentum ordinis,” which is thus transmitted to them “in an extraordinary manner” (R-II 8, 1.19-20; 6, 1.30-32), without insertion into the apostolic succession in the technical sense of this expression (R-II 6, 1.6-8). By virtue of which “nothing else happens in an ‘extraordinary’ sacramental celebration than what occurs in a celebration by an ordinary minister; in both cases, it is the church herself which, in the faith, in celebrating accomplishes her salvation” (R-II 3, 1.26-29).

3. At the moment when you wrote that, you considered that the Magisterium’s earlier declarations did not in any way apply to extraordinary situations, consequently the question was open (cf. R-II 2, 1.12-20). Now, in what concerns the interpretation of documents of the Magisterium, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith pronounced in an authorized manner in its letter Sacerdotium Ministeriale (Aug. 6, 1983). It did so by virtue of its mission, which is to protect the church’s doctrine (cf. Regimini Ecclesiae Universae, No. 29), and it declared that the internal logic of those documents excluded the extraordinary way which you think yourself able to propose. It follows that we are not here faced with an “open question,” and the “last word” has been said (cf. R-II 8, 1.21-29).

That letter is a reminder, in effect, that the apostolicity of the Church is not realized solely in “the doctrinal identity of her teaching with that of the apostles,” but through “continuation of the work of the apostles by means of the structure of succession in virtue of which the apostolic mission is to endure until the end of time” (III, 2-3).

That letter likewise emphasizes that “even though all the baptized enjoy the same dignity before God, in the Christian community, which was deliberately structured hierarchically by its divine Founder, there have existed from its earliest days specific apostolic powers deriving from the sacrament of holy orders” (III, 3, 3). It follows that “no community has...power to confer apostolic ministry, which is essentially bestowed by the Lord” (III, 2, 2).

“Included among these powers which Christ entrusted exclusively to the apostles and their successors is the power of confecting the Eucharist. To the bishops alone, and to the priests they have made sharers in their ministry which they themselves have received, is reserved the power of renewing in the mystery of the Eucharist what Christ did at the Last Supper” (III, 4, 1). Consequently, “the Church holds that the eucharistic mystery cannot be celebrated in any community except by an ordained priest, as expressly taught by the Fourth Lateran Council” (III, 4, 2).

The mere act of envisaging exceptions to these doctrines (therefore) “undermines the entire apostolic structure of the Church and distorts the sacramental economy of salvation” (III, 1).

4. It does not appear to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith that you have modified your position since then. So it considers that the moment has come to notify you officially that in what regards the extraordinary ministry of the Eucharist, “the last word” has been said, and that the “pastoral teaching of the Church” has been pronounced (cf. R-II 6, 1.25). On the other hand, given the prestige which you have acquired in the theological field and the fact that your work has been translated into various languages, it has become indispensable for you yourself to publicly recognize the Church’s teaching and the necessity to have recourse to ways other than those which you envisage for solving the problems which oriented you in that direction: The faithful, as well as any other eventual reader, are entitled to this clarification.

In consequence, the Congregation must ask you to let it know within the ordinary time (that is, 30 full days after receiving this letter) that you adhere to the teaching of the letter Sacerdotium Ministeriale, thus acknowledging that ultimate responsibility devolves upon the Magisterium in matters of faith and sacramental practice. Finally, the Congregation intends to publish the present letter, accompanied, if it so please God, by your act of adherence.

Please accept, Reverend Father, the expression of my sentiments of respectful devotion in the Lord.

Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger

Archbishop Alberto Bovone

* AAS 77 (1985), 994-997.