Letter of Pope John Paul II to Cardinal Ratzinger

Letter of Pope John Paul II to Cardinal Ratzinger, April 8, 1988

To my Venerable Brother Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger

Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith

In this liturgical period, when we have relived through the Holy Week celebrations the events of Easter, Christ’s words by which He promised the Apostles the coming of the Holy Spirit take on for us a special relevance: “And I will pray the Father, and he will give you another Counselor, to be with you forever, even the Spirit of Truth—whom the Father will send in my name, he will teach you all things, and bring to your remembrance all that I have said to you” (Jn. 14:16; 17:26).

The Church at all times has been guided by faith in these words of her Teacher and Lord, in the certainty that thanks to the help and assistance of the Holy Spirit she will remain forever in the divine Truth, preserving the apostolic succession through the College of Bishops united with their Head, the Successor of Peter.

Reinforcing the teaching of the Church as inherited from Tradition

The Church manifested this conviction of Faith also at the last Council, which met to reconfirm and reinforce the teaching of the Church inherited from Tradition already existing for almost 20 centuries, as a living reality which progresses vis-a-vis the problems and needs of every age and deepens our understanding of what is already contained in the Faith transmitted once and for all (cf. Jude 3). We are profoundly convinced that the Spirit of Truth who speaks to the Church (cf. Apoc. 2:7, 11, 17, et al.) has spoken—in a particularly solemn and authoritative manner—through the Second Vatican Council preparing the Church to enter the third millennium after Christ.

Given that the work of the Council taken as a whole constitutes a reconfirmation of the same truth lived by the Church from the beginning, it is likewise a “renewal” of that truth (an aggiornamento according to the well-known expression of Pope John XXIII), in order to bring closer to the great human family in the modern world both the way of teaching faith and morals and also the whole apostolic and pastoral work of the Church. And it is obvious how diversified and indeed divided this world is.

Through the doctrinal and pastoral service of the whole College of Bishops in union with the pope, the Church took up the tasks connected with the implementation of everything which became the specific heritage of Vatican II. The meetings of the synods of bishops are one of the ways in which this collegial solicitude finds expression. In this context the Extraordinary Assembly of the Synod in 1985, held on the 20th anniversary of the end of the Council, deserves special mention. It emphasized the most important tasks connected with the implementation of Vatican II, and it stated that the teaching of that council remains the path which the Church must take into the future, entrusting her efforts to the Spirit of Truth. In reference to these efforts, particular relevance attaches to the duties of the Holy See on behalf of the universal Church, both through the ministerium petrinum of the Bishop of Rome and also through the departments of the Roman Curia which he makes use of for the carrying out of his universal ministry. Among the latter the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith led by Your Eminence is of particularly special importance.

“Progressivism” breaks with the past

In the period since the Council we are witnessing a great effort on the part of the Church to ensure that this novum [new thing] constituted by Vatican II correctly penetrates the mind and conduct of the individual communities of the People of God. However, side by side with this effort there have appeared tendencies which create a certain difficulty in putting the Council into practice. One of these tendencies is characterized by a desire for changes which are not always in harmony with the teaching and spirit of Vatican II, even though they seek to appeal to the Council. These changes claim to express progress, and so this tendency is given the name “progressivism.” In this case progress consists in an aspiration toward the future which breaks with the past, without taking into account the function of Tradition, which is fundamental to the Church’s mission in order that she may continue in the Truth which was transmitted to her by Christ the Lord and by the Apostles and which is diligently safeguarded by the magisterium.

The opposite tendency, which is usually called “conservatism” or “integralism,” stops at the past itself, without taking into account the correct aspiration towards the future which manifested itself precisely in the work of Vatican II. While the former tendency seems to recognize the correctness of what is new, the latter sees correctness only in what is “old,” considering it synonymous with Tradition. But it is not what is “old” as such, or what is “new” per se, which corresponds to the correct idea of Tradition in the life of the Church. Rather that idea means that the Church’s remaining faithful to the truth received from God throughout the changing circumstances of history. The Church, like that householder in the Gospel, wisely brings “from the storeroom both the new and the old” (Mt. 13:52), while remaining absolutely obedient to the Spirit of Truth whom Christ has given to the Church as her divine Guide. And the Church performs this delicate task of discernment through her authentic magisterium (cf. Lumen Gentium, §25).

The position taken up by individuals, groups or circles connected with one or the other tendency is to a certain extent understandable, especially after an event as important in the history of the Church as the last Council. Although, on the one hand, that event unleashed an aspiration for renewal (this also contains an element of “novelty”), on the other hand certain abuses in the realization of this aspiration, in so far as they forget essential values of Catholic doctrine on faith and morals and in other areas of ecclesial life, for example in that of the Liturgy, can and indeed must cause justified objection. Nevertheless, if by reason of these excesses every healthy kind of “renewal” conforming to the teaching and spirit of the Council is rejected, such an attitude can lead to another deviation which itself is in opposition to the principle of the living Tradition of the Church obedient to the Spirit of Truth.

The duties which in this concrete situation face the Apostolic See require a special perspicacity, prudence and farsightedness. The need to distinguish what authentically “builds up” the Church from what destroys her is becoming in the present period a particular demand of our service to the whole community of believers.

Concern for Church unity

The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith is of key importance in the context of this ministry, as is shown by the documents which your dicastery has published in this matter of faith and morals during the last few years. Among the subjects which the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith has recently had to deal with, the problems connected with the “Society of St. Pius X,” founded and led by Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre, also figure prominently.

Your Eminence knows very well how many efforts have been made by the Apostolic See since the beginning of the Society’s existence, in order to ensure ecclesial unity in relation to its activity. The latest such effort was the canonical visit made by Cardinal Edward Gagnon. Your Eminence is concerned with this case in a special way, as was your predecessor of venerable memory, Cardinal Franjo Seper. Everything done by the Apostolic See, which is in continual contact with the bishops and episcopal conferences concerned, has the same purpose: that in this case too the words of the Lord in His priestly prayer for the unity of all His disciples and followers may be fulfilled. All the bishops of the Catholic Church, inasmuch as by divine command they are solicitous for the unity of the universal Church, are bound to collaborate with the Apostolic See for the welfare of the whole Mystical Body, which is also the body of the Church (cf. Lumen gentium, 23).

For all these reasons I would assure Your Eminence once more of my desire that these efforts should continue. We do not cease to hope that—under the protection of the Mother of the Church—they will bear fruit for the glory of God and the salvation of men.

From the Vatican, on April 8, in the year 1988, the tenth of my pontificate.

In fraternal charity,

Joannes Paulus PP.II