Right the First Time


William McDonough

In recent years Pope Benedict XVI has been overseeing the publication of his opera omnia, or collected works. Assisted by the current prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Cardinal Gerhard Ludwig Müller, Benedict is republishing, under the name Joseph Ratzinger, all his theological writings, nine volumes of which have been issued so far (in German, by Verlag Herder). The most recent volume contains a 1972 essay, on the indissolubility of marriage, whose conclusion Benedict has seen fit to rewrite. The original essay, written when Ratzinger was a forty-five-year-old professor of theology at Regensburg, had proposed that divorced and civilly remarried Catholics be allowed to return to Communion in some circumstances. In an important change, that proposal is conspicuously missing from the newly rewritten conclusion.

The original conclusion acknowledged both that the church is “of the New Covenant” and that it remains “in a world in which there continues to exist unchanged ‘the hardness of heart’ (Matthew 19:8)” of prior times. And so church practice “must begin in the concrete”—taking into account the damage done, even by the church itself, through such “hardness of heart.” Specifically, with regard to Scripture’s clear teaching on the indissolubility of marriage, Ratzinger in 1972 concluded that, in some second marriages, it would be “immoral” to demand separation as a condition for allowing the spouses to return to Communion. “When the second marriage produces moral obligations with regard to the children, the family, and even the wife and there are no analogous obligations stemming from the first marriage,” Ratzinger wrote, “openness to eucharistic Communion, after a trial period, certainly seems to be just and fully in line with the tradition of the church.”

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