VATICAN CITY — Each Wednesday morning, Cardinal Joseph A. Ratzinger and 18 of his fellow cardinals gather in a formal conference room with red silk-covered walls on the third floor of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the Vatican agency for guarding Roman Catholic orthodoxy.
Here, in executive session, they discuss and vote on Catholic writings from around the world. Usually, a case is opened when someone from outside the congregation writes a letter of complaint.
The congregation's work is strictly confidential until a verdict is rendered. Then, it only becomes public if the person under investigation makes it known, or if the congregation's pronouncement is of a general nature intended to inform--and usually warn--the entire flock of St. Peter.
"The issues are so sensitive that no one of us is a spokesman for the congregation," said Father Thomas Herron, a former Philadelphia priest who is a staff member of the congregation's critical doctrinal section, which investigates Catholic teaching.
Congregation officials declined to say specifically how many cases are opened annually, but one estimated that between 200 and 300 have been started so far this year.
The archives on the first two floors of the congregation's palazzo opposite St. Peter's Square are crammed from floor to ceiling with tens of thousands of dossiers. They date back to 1542, when Pope Paul III formed the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith's predecessor office, the Roman and Universal Inquisition. It was the first congregation of the Roman Curia, the administative body of the Vatican, to be established.
Now, there are eight other Vatican congregations, but the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith retains its preeminence regarding internal affairs of the church.
"When the CDF (the congregation) was known as the Holy Office (until 1965) it was said to be the supreme congregation," noted veteran Vatican correspondent Peter Hebblethwaite. "It still is."
The original congregation was founded "to defend the church against heretics and heresies." One of its early tasks was to prepare for the Council of Trent (1545-1563), which countered the Protestant Reformation of Martin Luther. The office was reorganized several times through the centuries.
On the final day of the Second Vatican Council in December, 1965, Pope Paul VI gave the congregation its present name and commissioned it to promote "good doctrine" as well as defend the faith from error.
Since then, the congregation staff has been internationalized, there are more levels for reviewing cases, and the ways of obtaining information about a person under review are more sophisticated and objective. In addition to Ratzinger, the congregation has 33 staff members, including four women.
Can Call on Experts
In addition to his staff and the cardinals who take final votes on cases, Ratzinger has a 27-member board of consultors--theologians and high Vatican officials who present detailed written evaluations on major issues. Ratzinger can also call on another worldwide network of advisers for specialized expertise.
Each Monday, according to those familiar with the group's routines, the official consultors meet in the congregation conference room to discuss, in Italian, written opinions they have prepared in advance. Only one case is discussed on a given day. Once a consensus is reached--then or at a subsequent meeting--it is reported to Ratzinger.
Thus the institution--not its leader acting alone, according to a popular misconception--carries on much of the work. But Vatican officials concede that the congregation bears the strong stamp of Ratzinger's thinking, and that he in turn reflects the firm doctrinal orthodoxy of Pope John Paul II.
Has Veto Power
Ratzinger has veto power. And since all theological matters fall within his jurisdiction, he also has the right to veto doctrinal decisions and texts produced by all other congregations, a staff worker acknowledged.
But, he said, Ratzinger "respects the opinions of his co-workers," and in turn, is subject to the Pope, who must finally approve all congregation actions.
As well as judging the writings of individuals, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith deals with theological "tendencies" or issues, such as homosexuality, bioethics and liberation theology.