Commission on the Doctrine of teh Faith

On 13 June 1984 the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith with the approval of the Holy Father sent Fr. E. Schillebeeckx, OP the following letter about his book "Kerkelijk Ambt" (The Ministry of the Church), 1980.

Reverend Father,

The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith has taken very careful note of the two letters you sent to it on 26 November 1982 and 30 July 1983 (hereafter quoted as RP (Provisional reply) and R II (second reply) in answer to the reservations it had voiced to you concerning your book Kerkelijk Ambt (1980, 1st and 2nd editions) (KA) translated into French under the title Le Ministere dans l'Eglise 1981 (ME).

The Congregation thanks you for the clarifications you have supplied, and considers that your thought now appears fully clear, so that the phase of dialogue with the author may now be regarded as closed.  Thus it should communicate to you the conclusions it has reached. 

1The Congregation takes note first of all of your protestations concerning your intentions.  It notes particularly the care you have taken to recall regularly that access to the ministry and qualification to preside at the Eucharist are established by ordination with the imposition 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 support this general point of doctrine, but to determine what are called circumstances outside the normal, and in that regard to maintain a thesis wholly new in relation to the Church's teaching about ministry, including the celebration of the eucharist.

You have tried to prove indeed, partly from the history of the first thousand years of the Church's life, partly from ecclesiological considerations, that "exceptions as possible" to what you called the "ordinary" way, in the sense that it would not be dogmatically impossible, in certain circumstances, to accede to the ministry and to be enabled to consecrate the Eucharist other than by ordination with the laying on of hands in the apostolic succession (R.P. 15, 1.8-10; 16, 1.13-17; 18, last line; 19, 1.4-5 and 15-17).

You affirm that the particular local community has within itself the resources necessary to remedy the lack of ordinary ministers, and that it can "make use (for that purpose) of those among its members who are the most obvious choice for this diaconia" (service), a service which according to you is in short 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 calling by the community and their "institution in and for the community" (KA 2, 85; ME 112 m) a real "competence" which allows them to do "on the whole, and according to circumstances, everything that is necessary to the community life of an Ecclesia Dei" which competence is not mere "permission" (of a canonical sort) but "sacramental power" R.P. 8, 1.12-17; R II, 6, 1.30-31).  They receive "the sacramentum ordinis" which is 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 that phrase (R. II, 6, 1.6-8).  In virtue of this "nothing happens in 'extraordinary' sacramental celebration other than what happens in a celebration by an ordinary minister; in both case, it is the Church itself which, in faith, realizes its own salvation by celebration" (R. II, 3, 1.26-29).

3 At the time you wrote that, you reckoned that earlier declarations of the Magisterium in no way apply to extraordinary situations and that consequently the question was an open one (cf. R II, 2, 1. 12-20).  Now, on the matter of interpretation of magisterial documents, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith pronounced authoritatively in its letter Sacerdotium Ministeriale (6 August 1983); this it did in virtue of its mission, which is to protect the doctrine of the Church (cf. Regimini Ecclesiae Universae, n. 29), and it declare that the inner logic of these documents ruled out the extraordinary way which you think you are able to propose.  It follows that we are not dealing here with an open question, and that the "last word" has been said (cf. R. II, 8, 1.21-29).

That letter recalls in fact that the apostolicity of the Church does not consist only in the "doctrinal identity of its teaching with that of the Apostles" but in "the continuity of their role thanks to the structure of succession in virtue of which the apostolic mission must endure until the end of time" (R. III, 2-3).

It also underlines that "in the Christian community, which its Divine Founder intended to be hierarchically structured—without prejudiced to the equal dignity of all before God—there exist from the beginning specific apostolic powers (peculiaria apostolica munera) which derive from the sacrament of Order" (III, 3, 2).  It follows that "no community has the power to confer the apostolic ministry, which is fundamentally bestowed by the Lord" (III, 2, 3).

"Among the powers which Christ conferred exclusively on the apostles and their successors is that of celebrating the Eucharist.  Only to bishops and to priests who are made participants in their ministry is reserved the power to renew in the Eucharistic Mystery what Christ did during the Last Supper" (III, 4, 1).  Hence, "the Church professes that the Eucharist cannot be celebrated in any community except by an ordained priest, as the Fourth Lateran Council expressly taught" (III, 4, 3).

Merely to envisage exceptions to these doctrines "prejudices (then) the whole apostolic structure of the Church and deforms the sacramental economy of Salvation" (III, 1).

4 It does not seem to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith that you have since then modified your own position.  Thus it considers 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 the "pastoral Magisterium of the Church" (cf. R. II, 8, 1-25) has declared itself.  On the other hand, given the prestige which you have acquired in the theological domain and the fact that you work has been translated into several languages, it has become indispensable that you should recognize publicly the teaching of the Church and the need to have recourse to other ways than those you advocate for resolving the problems which have inclined you in that direction.  The faithful, and any other eventual reader, have the right to this restatement.

Consequently, the Congregation must ask you to let it know within the usual interval (i.e. 30 days of available time from receiving this letter) that you adhere to the teaching of the Letter Sacerdotium Ministeriale, thus recognizing that final responsibility in matters of faith and sacramental practice belongs to the Magisterium.  Lastly, the Congregation intends to publish the present letter, accompanied, please God by your act of adherence.

Please accept, Reverend Father, my devoted regards in our Lord.

                                                   +Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger
                                                   Alberto Bovone, Secretary

On 24 July following, in the presence of the Most Reverend Father Damian Byrne, Master General of the Dominicans, Fr. Schillebeeckx met Cardinal Ratzinger, Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and gave him an oral reply to the above letter, informing him that a new book, about to be published, should in his view meet the demands of the Congregation.

In a letter to Cardinal Ratzinger dated 5 October 1984, Fr. Schillebeeckx confirmed this oral reply, writing in particular:

"As I have already said, I have taken account in this work of the criticisms made of my first book by historians, by some theologians and particularly by your Congregation.  There is no further talk on an "extraordinary minister" of the Eucharist, and there is nothing to be found there, in my opinion, which contradicts the Congregation's declaration of 6 August 1983 regarding Sacerdotium Ministeriale.  In the hope of avoiding from now on all misunderstanding, the theme of apostolic succession has been analyzed more fully".

Because of its mission towards the faithful of the Church (cf. Regimini Ecclesiae Universae, n. 29) the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith now believes it its duty to make public—having informed Father Schillebeeckx—the letter which it had sent to him a propos of the book "Kerkelijk Ambt", while reserving the right to make known subsequently its assessment of the content of the new work.

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