Ratzinger on the true nature of the Petrine office

Ratzinger’s essay on the conscience, despite making some valuable observations, is not a little disappointing. (It’s also hard to see how Amazon US sellers can in all good conscience charge $66+ for an 82 page book! … especially when you can pick it up direct from the publisher for $14.95 or from Amazon UK for £3.95). That said, it includes some interesting reflections on how Ratzinger understands the authority of the papacy, something that most Protestants dinna hae a scooby about:

‘The pope cannot impose commandments on faithful Catholics because he wants to or finds it expedient. Such a modern, voluntaristic concept of authority can only distort the true theological meaning of the papacy. The true nature of the Petrine office has become so incomprehensible in the modern age no doubt because we think of authority only on terms that do not allow for bridges between subject and object, Accordingly, everything that does not come from the subject is thought to be externally imposed’. – Joseph Ratzinger, On Conscience: Two Essays (Philadelphia/San Francisco: The National Catholic Bioethics Center/Ignatius Press, 2007 [1984]), 34.

‘One can comprehend the primacy of the pope and its correlation to Christian conscience only in this connection. The true sense of the teaching authority of the pope consists in his being the advocate of Christian memory. The pope does not impose from without. Rather, he elucidates the Christian memory and defends it. For this reason the toast to conscience indeed must precede the toast to the pope, because without conscience there would not be a papacy. All power that the papacy has is power of conscience. It is service to the double memory on which the faith is based – and which again and again must be purified, expanded, and defended against the destruction of memory that is threatened by a subjectivity forgetful of its own foundation, as well as by the pressures of social and cultural conformity’. (p. 36)

If nothing else, these words ought to encourage Protestants (and not least pastors, many of whom secretly aspire to be popes) to do the same work that Ratzinger is attempting to do: to think (and to keep thinking) about the nature and source of authority, and about the relationship between the Gospel and the offices of the church.

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