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On some of the publications of
Professor, Doctor REINHARD MESSNER


As is seen from the following “Notification,” the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, in conformity with the Regulations for Doctrinal Examinations, has examined some works of the Professor Dr. Reinhard Messner (Innsbruck/Austria), that treat the fundamental aspects of the faith and of the sacramental life of the Church. The procedure for this examination is concluded officially with the publication of this “Notification,” that was first presented to Professor Messner and accepted by him. By signing this text, the author is required in the future to be attentive to the clarifications contained in the “Notification.” These clarifications will serve as the binding standard for both his theological activity and his future theological publications.


In his publications, and above all in his dissertation “The reform of the Mass of Martin Luther and the Eucharist of the Early Church: A contribution to a systematic Liturgical Study” (Innsbruck-Wien 1989), the Professor Dr. Reinhard Messner tackles the difficult problems of fundamental theology, including the relationships between Scriptural interpretation and the historical-critical method, between Scripture and Tradition, between the Magisterium and its object, between liturgy and dogma. The contradictory answers given to these themes were among the fundamental causes of ecclesial division during the time of the Reformation. For this reason, these same problems must today be reconsidered in light of the new and important developments in both theological method and content, not the least of which must include the insights available to us from the Second Vatican Council. This theological discussion has the possibility of bringing about a better understanding between the different religions, but it also runs the risk of creating new misunderstandings. This discussion which is well underway can only be encouraged by the Magisterium of the Catholic Church. Many questions have already been opened and therefore require further attentive examination in order to arrive at the necessary clarifications. Regarding these questions, the above mentioned writings of Messner offer many valid insights that must be considered as a positive contribution to the current discussion.

Since the explanations of the author touch on the foundations of the faith and of the sacramental life of the Church, the question must be raised whether the essential elements of these foundations are truly safeguarded, since they precede and sustain the theological developments that follow. Since the author presents his reflections – in a completely self-justified manner – using terminology developed in modern historical thought, it is difficult to compare this to the teachings of the Church expressed in the classical language of Tradition. But, even keeping in mind these linguistic problems and the need for development in theological thought, it nevertheless remains clear that, in reality, the teachings regarding the faith of the Church are being obscured. The choices that were made appear to be derived only from historic opinions, but in reality they are founded on presuppositions that are problematic and consequently deviate from the Catholic faith.

First of all these essential foundations regard the relationship between Scripture, Tradition, the magisterial interpretation of the faith and historical-critical exegesis. The author is well aware of the problematic nature of “Scripture alone,” as formulated during the time of the Reformation. He recognizes that “Tradition is older than Scripture and that Scripture is a part of Tradition” (p. 13). But he is convinced at the same time that each authentic apostolic tradition is found in Scripture and that Scripture therefore becomes an “indisputable norm… the critical arbiter of every further Tradition” (p. 14). “Tradition is thus the realization expressed ever anew of the Kerygma, which is found in a valid form only one time in all of Scripture” (p. 16). On the presupposition of the pivotal nature of this reduction of Tradition to the kerygmatic representation of Scripture “in the cultural presuppositions and in the conditions of life at that time” (p. 14), he states that the affirmation that “the principle of ‘Scripture alone,’ as a constitutive element inalienable from that which characterized the Reformation, seems to me guaranteed in this concept as described” (p. 14). He concludes that this seems factually guaranteed, even if it doesn’t “seem” guaranteed by the doctrine of the Council of Trent and Vatican II (Dei Verbum) on Scripture and Tradition. Messner himself is aware of the danger that the faith can be exposed “to the circumstances of the theological science of the moment” (p. 15) and that this should be avoided. In reality, however, his concept leads inevitably to this very result, because the interpretation of Scripture does not rest on an arbiter other than scientific exegesis. In this regard, he himself affirmed that “in cases of conflict, it is undoubtedly always Tradition, or rather theology, that must be corrected based on Scripture; not Scripture that must be interpreted in the light of a successive tradition (or of a magisterial decision). That would lead to a dangerous dogmatism” (p. 16). It is striking here that by means of the connecting phrase, “or rather,” Tradition and theology become equated or at least placed on the same level. Tradition is always mentioned only as “prior tradition” which is placed on the same level as “magisterial decisions” by the word, “or,” such that obedience to these, just as listening to Tradition itself, would lead, in his view, to a dangerous dogmatism. One does not see how, in this understanding of Tradition and the Magisterium, Scripture can be the critical arbiter in any way other than through scientific exegesis, which therefore becomes the ultimate authority – contrary to the declared intention of the author. The same problem appears in reference to the liturgy, when Messner posits this fundamental methodological principle: “The dogmatic Tradition (which concerns the liturgy) must be interpreted in the light of liturgical tradition and not vice versa” (p. 12). The motive of this affirmation appears in the preceding phrase, in which the dogmatic Tradition is designated as “secondary dogmatic tradition.” Liturgy and faith appear here as two worlds completely autonomous without any intersection. He argues that liturgical Tradition and dogmatic Tradition are like two traditions independent from one another. Beyond this “secondary tradition,” there is no tradition supporting the common faith, since Tradition exists only in “traditions,” that are as such essentially secondary.

The consequences of this way of seeing Scripture, Tradition and the Magisterium become manifested in the fundamental questions of faith in the Eucharistic. In Messner’s proposal, it is clear that Tradition cannot guarantee anything regarding content and that we are therefore left to the historical hypotheses of the moment. Nowhere is this more visible than in his affirmations about the origin of the Eucharist: “That which is handed down reflects ultimately the catechetical practice of the community. It is not therefore possible to deduce a theology of the Eucharist grounded in the absolute institutive will of Jesus, that therefore governs every liturgical tradition” (p. 17). According to this reconstruction, we do not know what Jesus himself truly wants, and we cannot make reference to the institution of the Eucharist on the part of Jesus. Messner then refers back to the early days of the Church, even if with some slight modifications, according to the noted thesis of H. Lietzmann (Mass and the Lord’s Supper, 1926). From this period, he claims to be able to identify two different types of “Eucharist”: On one side he identifies “meals predominately oriented toward an eschatological vision” (like in Didache 9 and 10) and, on the other side, “a liturgical celebration, that reconnects essentially to the last supper of Jesus” (p. 27). He says explicitly that no direct connection can be made “from the ‘breaking of the bread’ of primitive Christianity to our Eucharistic celebration” (p. 32). Nevertheless, he sees two links between the “Supper of the Lord” of primitive Christianity and the Eucharist of the Catholic Church: “the eschatological orientation... and the communion (koinonia)...” (p. 33). He holds that only these two factors could be considered as an essential nucleus of the “Eucharist” dating from primitive times.

From these presuppositions—today widely diffused—it seems clear that this new formulation of the principle of “Scripture alone” has not guaranteed a sense of the objectivity of Scripture, even though it speaks explicitly of the Institution in the four accounts handed down, that the Lord in fact, on the night in which he was betrayed, handed over to his very own body and blood, in the form of bread and wine, and that in these gifts he established the new covenant. The hypotheses of the origin of the texts parallel the biblical word as such. Conversely, it appears evident that Tradition, as defined by the Church, does not imply the manipulation of Scripture through teachings and other uses, but on the contrary it represents a guarantee because the word of Scripture can maintain its significance.

Messner then identifies a “profound break” in the second century, the “passage from a Christianity that was fundamentally charismatic, prophetic, and determined substantially by the imminent eschatological expectation to the ‘Church of impending Catholicism’” (p. 17). Messner indicates that during this period there was a “change of paradigm from the ‘Supper of the Lord’ paradigm of primitive Christianity to the ‘Mass’ paradigm of mature Christianity” (p. 42). With the waning of the imminent eschatological expectation, something new was born in the middle of the second century—as Messner explains—namely the Church of impending Catholicism, whose essential contents are described as follows: “The canon of the New Testament is slowly formed, ecclesial ministry emerges that, in this form, was not characteristic of primitive Christianity, in its preservation of apostolic tradition, and in its change in the understanding of the liturgy” (p. 42). These texts are not new, even if the concept of the “change of liturgical paradigm” is differentiated from the classic description of the constitutive elements of “Early Catholicism” by Harnack, which placed together the rule of the faith, the canon and the episcopacy. What is new, however, is that this classic vision of the Protestant way of recounting the history of dogma is here presented as Catholic theology and is connected to a profound break in the sacramental heart of the Church, that is not only the so-called transformation of the Supper of the Lord into Mass, but—flowing from this—the formation of the priestly (episcopal) office as a fundamental element of this new form of “Eucharist.” Even though Messner begins with the presupposition of a historical rupture between the development of faith and of liturgy, still he does not intend to regard the new as a betrayal of the biblical testimony (p. 43ff), but recognizes—just as it appears for the first time in Hyppolitus—a certain authority according to which he evaluates the propositions of the Medieval era, the Council of Trent and the Theology of Luther. It is no surprise that in this context he can pass judgment on the Medieval era and the Council of Trent as substantially confused and corrupt. Far more profound is his theory that there have been two significant breaks in the history of the faith, the first above all between Jesus and the early charismatic Church, and subsequently between the early Church and the Church of impending Catholicism.

Messner’s thesis, the “Celebration of Repentance and Reconciliation” (found in Worship of the Church, Handbook of Liturgical Studies, Published by H. B. Meyer et al., Part 7.2: R. Messner – R. Kaczynski, Sacramental Celebrations I/2 Regensburg 1992, pp. 49-240) does not offer new insights in the discussion of these fundamental problems, though it incorporates the same methodological presuppositions found in his other writings. Nevertheless this work, which doubtlessly offers reflections worthy of consideration regarding the developments in the history of penance, raises its own grave problems when comparing the institution of the sacrament by Christ, the ministry of the sacrament, and the distinctions by analogy of the non-sacramental forms of forgiveness. These grave problems touch the faith of the Church above and beyond the realm of theological discussion.

In January, 1998, because of the seriousness of the problems here presented, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, following its Regulations for Doctrinal Examinations (1997), studied the issues connected with both of the above mentioned works of the author. On September 26, 1998, the Dicastery, in accordance with its custom, presented Professor Messner, through the Bishop of Innsbruck, Dr. Alois Kothgasser, some critical observations on his dissertations. On November 13, 1998, Professor Messner responded to these observations of the Congregation and submitted a series of broad clarifications, that nevertheless did not prove to be sufficient to resolve the problems completely. Therefore on August 12, 1999, the Congregation brought the remaining questions to the attention of Professor Messner who responded again on November 3, 1999. The second response also contained some improvements and clarifications, but did not totally resolve the questions in his book regarding the fundamental option in the light of the teachings of the faith of the Church. The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith does not consider it to be its task to enter into the discussions found in both books that are of a historical nature or regard systematic theology. It does not therefore intend to propose a conclusive interpretation of these works. Leaving aside the questions that are evidently of a strictly theological nature, it nevertheless considers its duty to recall in an unequivocal way the doctrine of the faith, which must be firmly upheld in these discussions, so that a theology may be considered “Catholic.” In consideration of the problems in the writings, these doctrines of faith are here proposed for the acceptance of the author. They constitute the binding criteria for the improvement and the clarification of the individual affirmations in his books as well as for his future publications in this area.


The transmission of the apostolic preaching

1. The totality of the transmission of revelation received by the apostles in the Church can be designated Tradition in the broad sense, or—as the author says—“the one event of tradition.”

2. This transmission appears in two forms, one that is written, Sacred Scripture, the other that is not written, Tradition in a strict sense. In fact the apostolic preaching is expressed in a particular way in Sacred Scripture,[1] but is not exhausted in it. Thus the concept of apostolic Tradition, that with the assistance of the Holy Spirit is transmitted in the Church, is broader than that which was put in writing explicitly in Scripture.[2] Apostolic preaching and the tradition derived from the apostles cannot not be simply equated.

Sacred Scripture and its affirmations

3. Sacred Scripture is the source of knowledge for the Catholic faith, according to the meaning and the salvific intention put into writing in the current text by the Holy Spirit through the human author.[3]

Tradition and traditions

4. Next to Scripture stands Tradition in the strict sense, which allows us to recognize both the inspiration of Scripture as well as its canon. Without Tradition, neither a complete explanation of Scripture, nor its proper application is possible.[4] The Catholic faith is not derived only from the text of Scripture; the Church in fact does not depend only on Scripture to arrive at its certainty regarding all that has been revealed.[5]

5. Tradition is the transmission of the revelation that was entrusted by Christ and by the Holy Spirit to the apostles, in the life and teaching of the Catholic Church throughout the generations up to today.[6] This Tradition alone constitutes the rule of the faith.

6. The “traditions” mentioned in Vatican Council I [7] and also in “Dei Verbum” (n. 8) are particular elements of “Tradition.”[8] Along with these, there have always existed ancient customs in the Catholic Church (“traditions” in the wider sense), that are not binding, but changeable.

The Magisterium

7. In the interpretation of the Word of God, transmitted in Scripture and in Tradition, an important role played by theological science. It is beyond the ability of theology to explain the Word of God in a binding way for the faith and the life of the Church. This duty is entrusted to the living Magisterium of the Church.[9] The Magisterium is not above the Word of God, but serves it. It, however, is above the other explanations of the Word of God, in as much as it judges if a certain explanation corresponds or not to the sense handed down by the Word of God.[10]

The Liturgy

8. In the Liturgy the work of our redemption is accomplished.[11] This is “the summit toward which the activity of the Church is directed; at the same time it is the font from which all her power flows.”[12] It thus renders present the “mystery of the faith” and is at the same time its highest witness. The liturgical rites recognized by the Church are therefore also normative expressions of the faith, in which the apostolic tradition of the Church is manifested.

9. There can therefore be no contradiction between the magisterial expressions of the definition of the faith (i.e. Rules of the faith, Symbols, Dogma) and their application in the liturgy. The defined faith binds each celebration of the liturgy, its interpretation, and new formulations of the liturgy.



The Institution of the Eucharist

10. According to the faith of the Church, Christ instituted the seven sacraments. The concept of institution does not mean that Christ in his earthly life had expressly determined, in particular detail, each single sacrament as is. The Church, in its memory guided by the Holy Spirit, which includes also the possibility of deeper insights over time,[13] recognized which of its symbolic actions are anchored in the will of the Lord and therefore belong to the essence of its mission. It has thus learned to distinguish, in the vast arena of sacrament, the “sacraments” in a strict sense apart from the sacramentals: only the first come from the Lord himself and possess therefore that particular efficacy that comes from their institution.[14]

11. The Church has the certain faith that Christ himself – as the Gospels narrate (Mt 26:26-29; Mk 14:22-25; Lk 22:15-20) just as does St. Paul through apostolic tradition (1 Cor 11:23-25) – during the supper before his passion, he gave to the disciples under the species of bread and wine his body and his blood and thus instituted the Eucharist, that truly is his own gift to the Church for all time.[15]

12. It is not therefore sufficient to suppose that Christ in the upper room—as a continuation of his communion at table—had completed a merely symbolic action corresponding to a simply eschatological perspective. It is the faith of the Church that Christ in the Last Supper offered his body and blood—himself—to his Father and gave himself to his disciples to eat under the signs of bread and wine.[16]

The ministry of the Church

13. In the vocation and mission of the twelve apostles, according to the faith of the Church, Christ has simultaneously established a ministry of apostolic succession, which is realized in its full form in the Bishops who are successors of the apostles. The ordained ministry in its three grades—bishop, priest, deacon—is a legitimate form developed in the Church and therefore binds the Church itself in the evolution of the ministry of apostolic succession.[17] This ministry, founded on the institutive will of the Lord, is transmitted through sacramental consecration.

14. The Second Vatican Council affirms: the ministerial priest “through the sacred power he has received” accomplishes the Eucharistic sacrifice in the person of Christ.[18]

The Eucharist and the faith

15. The Holy Spirit by means of the consecrated priest and the words of Christ that he pronounces render present the Lord and his sacrifice.[19]

It is not through his own power, nor through a responsibility conferred by man, even on the part of a community, but only by the power given by the Lord in the sacrament, that the prayer of the priest can invoke efficaciously the Holy Spirit and his transforming power. The Church defines this prayerful action of the priest as an action “in the person of Christ.”[20]

The Sacrament of Penance and Scripture

16. By faith, the Church knows and therefore teaches in a binding way that Christ, beyond the sacrament of baptism that remits sins, has instituted the sacrament of Penance as a sacrament of forgiveness. This knowledge is founded above all on Jn 20:22ff. Even here the priest can speak “in the person of Christ” and communicate authoritatively the forgiveness only on the basis of the power of the sacrament, with which he is consecrated.[21]

This present Notification, which was decided during the Ordinary Session of this Congregation, was presented by the undersigned Secretary at an Audience granted by the Supreme Pontiff John Paul II on October 27, 2000, who then ordered its publication.

Rome, from the Seat of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, November 30, 2000.

+ Joseph Cardinal RATZINGER

+Tarcisio Bertone, S.D.B.
Archbishop Emeritus of Vercelli


[1] “And so the apostolic preaching, which is expressed in a special way in the inspired books...” (Vatican Council II, Dei Verbum, 8).

[2] “This tradition which comes from the Apostles develop in the Church with the help of the Holy Spirit...” (Vatican Council II, Dei Verbum, 8).

[3] “Therefore, since everything asserted by the inspired authors or sacred writers must be held to be asserted by the Holy Spirit, it follows that the books of Scripture must be acknowledged as teaching solidly, faithfully and without error that truth which God wanted put into sacred writings” (Vatican Council II, Dei Verbum, 11).

[4] “Through the same tradition the Church's full canon of the sacred books is known, and the sacred writings themselves are more profoundly understood and unceasingly made active in her” (Vatican Council II, Dei Verbum, 8).

[5] “... it is not from Sacred Scripture alone that the Church draws her certainty about everything which has been revealed” (Vatican Council II, Dei Verbum, 9).

[6] “...the unwritten traditions that were received by the Apostles from the mouth of Christ Himself, or by the same Apostles through the teaching of the Holy Spirit as though handed on directly, that have come down to us up to today...” (Council of Trent: DS 1501; cfr. Also Vatican Council I: DS 3006).

[7] “This supernatural revelation, moreover,... is contained ‘in the written books and the unwritten traditions…’” (Vatican Council I: DS 3006; the term “traditions” is intended in the same way also in Dei Verbum 8).

The Fathers of the Council of Trent were well aware of the difference between “Apostolic Tradition” and the “traditions” of the Church. They have been clear also, for example in the Decree on the Sacrament of Penance, that in addition to the contents of the revealed faith, drawn from Scripture and Tradition, other convictions and customs were also present that were not derived from revelation. The Fathers of the Council have also distinguished between “Tradition” and actual Roman Catholic customs. Historically, it cannot be sustained that Trent was always and only directed against the presumed false doctrines of the Reformation.

[8] Cfr. Vatican Council II, Dei Verbum, 7-10.

[9] “But the task of authentically interpreting the word of God, whether written or handed on, has been entrusted exclusively to the living teaching office of the Church, whose authority is exercised in the name of Jesus Christ” (Vatican Council II, Dei Verbum, 10).

[10] “This teaching office is not above the word of God, but serves it, teaching only what has been handed on, listening to it devoutly, guarding it scrupulously and explaining it faithfully in accord with a divine commission and with the help of the Holy Spirit, it draws from this one deposit of faith everything which it presents for belief as divinely revealed.” (Vatican Council II, Dei Verbum, 10).

[11] Cfr. Vatican Council II, Sacrosanctum Concilium, 2.

[12] Sacrosanctum Concilium, 10.

[13] Cfr. Vatican Council II, Dei Verbum, 8.

[14] Cfr. Council of Trent: DS 1601; Vatican Council II, Sacrosanctum Concilium, 60.

[15] Cfr. Council of Trent: DS 1638, 1642.

[16] Cfr. Council of Trent: DS 1637-1638, 1640, 1740-1741.

[17] “Christ, whom the Father has sanctified and sent into the world (Jn 10:36), has through His apostles, made their successors, the bishops, partakers of His consecration and His mission. They have legitimately handed on to different individuals in the Church various degrees of participation in this ministry” (Vatican Council II, Lumen Gentium, 28).

[18] “The ministerial priest, by the sacred power he enjoys, ... acting in the person of Christ, he makes present the Eucharistic sacrifice” (Vatican Council II, Lumen Gentium, 10).

[19] “In the institution narrative, the power of the words and the action of Christ, and the power of the Holy Spirit, make sacramentally present under the species of bread and wine Christ's body and blood, his sacrifice offered on the cross once for all” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1353).

[20] Cfr. Vatican Council II, Lumen Gentium, 10.

[21] Cfr. Council of Trent: DS 1601, 1670, 1701.