Two cardinals in the Roman Curia, both of them German theologians, are engaged in a "friendly" argument, the result of which may shape the future of the Catholic Church. The disputants are Josef Ratzinger, head of the Congregation for the Defense of the Faith (who has been terrorizing theologians for many years) and Walter Kasper, the new head of the Council for Promoting Christian Unity.

Anyone who knows German theologians will understand that the argument, while not as furious as the battle of Krusk, is not exactly what we Americans would call friendly. Moreover, while they may be useful at times, it would be better to be governed by the first 500 names in the Chicago phone book than by a gaggle of German theologians. However, the argument between the two cardinals may impinge on the next papal conclave and on the direction of the Catholic Church in this new century.

The issue is the relationship between the universal church and the local churches. At the risk of oversimplifying the issue (and thus avoiding a column that is several volumes long), Cardinal Ratzinger insists that the local churches subsist in the universal church while Cardinal Kasper contends that the universal church subsists in the local churches.

An American might protest that this is a kind of silly argument and that both propositions ought to be and perhaps are true. Probably the American would be right, but he would miss the point. German theologians fashion such theoretical arguments as a pretext to support policy decisions that they have already made.

Cardinal Ratzinger believes in a strongly centralized Catholic Church run from Rome by people like him. Cardinal Kasper believes in a more "collegial" or decentralized church in which the local bishops have more power to make their own decisions to meet the problems of their own time and place. To a considerable extent, the theological argument masks this profound difference between two styles of ecclesiastical government.

Kasper is sympathetic to the call of his buddy Cardinal Karl Lehmann of Mainz (who had been passed over for the red hat several times and made it only as the last man on the pope's recent second list) for another council to strengthen "collegiality" in the church. One must imagine that Cardinal Ratzinger would welcome such an event as much as his predecessor Alfredo Ottaviani welcomed Vatican II--which he fought every inch of the way. In the long run, Ottaviani seems to have won a partial victory. In some respects, there is more centralization in the Catholic Church today than there was in 1960.

Who's right? The pope has apparently decided to let the argument continue: He made Kasper a cardinal and head of the Council for Promoting Christian Unity after the grand debate had begun (in obscure German journals the names of which you don't want to know). Surely for most of human history, the governance of the Catholic Church was perforce decentralized. Only with the development of the railroad and the telegraph did centralization become a possibility.

My guess (that of an American Empiricist as opposed to German Idealists) is that the response finally depends on the gut instincts of the people who make the policy, the extent to which they are willing to trust the intelligence, wisdom, integrity, and loyalty of those who are out on the grassroots. Should the Vatican trust the local bishops? Should the bishop trust his priests, should the priests trust their parishioners? I know parishioners who are idiots, priests who are slugs, and bishops who can barely read and write. For all of that, however, I am a Catholic and I subscribe to the Catholic principle of "subsidiarity": No decision should be made by a higher and larger group that cannot be made equally well by a lower and smaller group.

This principle is central, I believe, to the Catholic worldview. Quite apart from that fact, it makes sound social common sense. While the local people in any corporate body--at whatever level--can foul up, they are less likely to really mess up the whole organization than when central authority makes decisions without taking into account local conditions.

Cardinal Kasper, who in his career has always been able to divine which way the winds are blowing, may have sensed a change in the winds. So I raise two (at the most) modest cheers for him.

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