Like his predecessor John Paul II, Benedict XVI was present at all four sessions of the Second Vatican Council from 1962 to 1965. Whereas Karol Wojtyla took part as a bishop, the young Joseph Ratzinger did so as a theological expert. During and after the council he taught successively at the universities of Bonn (1959-1963), Münster (1963-1966), Tübingen (1966-1969), and Regensburg, until he was appointed Archbishop of Munich in 1977. In 1981 he became prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, a post he held until the death of John Paul II in April 2005.
In his many publications Ratzinger continued to debate questions that arose during the council and in some cases expressed dissatisfaction with the council’s documents. In this respect he differs from Pope John Paul, who consistently praised the council and never (to my knowledge) criticized it. The material conveniently divides into three stages: his participation at the council, his early commentaries on the council’s documents, and his later reflections on the reception of the council. And then there are his changing reactions to the four great constitutions: on the liturgy ( Sacrosanctum Concilium ), on revelation ( Dei Verbum ), on the Church ( Lumen Gentium ), and on the Church in the modern world ( Gaudium et Spes ).
At the council, Ratzinger was much sought after as a rising theological star. He worked closely with senior Jesuits, including Karl Rahner, Alois Grillmeier, and Otto Semmelroth, all of whom kept in steady communication with the German bishops. The German Cardinals Josef Frings of Cologne and Julius Döpfner of Munich and Freising, strongly supported by theologian-bishops such as the future Cardinal Hermann Volk, exercised a powerful influence, generally opposing the schemas drawn up by the preparatory commission under the guidance of Cardinal Alfredo Ottaviani and Father Sebastian Tromp, S.J.
Late in the first session Ratzinger was named a theological adviser to Cardinal Frings, a position he held until the end of the council. Many of his biographers suspect that he drafted Frings’ speech of November 8, 1963, vehemently attacking the procedures of the Holy Office. In combination with other events, this speech undoubtedly influenced Paul VI to restructure the Holy Office and give it a new name, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.
During the first session, several official schemas were distributed by the preparatory commission with the expectation that the council fathers would accept them, at least in revised form. The German contingent were generally content with the proposed document on the liturgy, but reacted adversely to those on revelation and the Church and sought to replace them.
With regard to revelation, Ratzinger agreed that the preliminary schema was unacceptable and should be withdrawn. At the request of Cardinal Frings, he wrote an alternative text, which was then reworked with the help of Rahner. To the annoyance of Ottaviani, three thousand copies of this text were privately circulated among the council fathers and experts. Yves Congar, though generally sympathetic, called the Rahner-Ratzinger paper far too personal to have any chance of being adopted and criticized it for taking too little account of the good work in the preparatory schemas. Gerald Fogarty calls it a barely mitigated synthesis of Rahner’s systematic theology.
Notwithstanding the rejection of their schema, Rahner and Ratzinger had some input into the new text prepared by the mixed commission named by Pope John XXIII. Both were appointed as consulters to the subcommission revising the new text. Rahner strongly advocated his personal position on the relation between scripture and tradition. Ratzinger helped in responding to proposed amendments to the chapter dealing with tradition; he also had an opportunity to introduce modifications in the chapter dealing with the authority and interpretation of scripture.
On the Church, Ratzinger joined with the German bishops and his fellow experts in getting the idea of the Church as sacrament deeply inscribed into the constitution ” a concern to which Frings spoke on the council floor. Both Ratzinger and Rahner served on the subcommission that revised the formulations on collegiality in articles 22 and 23. Ratzinger was also appointed to a team for redrafting the schema on the Church’s missionary activity for the last session of the council. He worked closely with Congar in defining the theological foundation of missions, a theme on which the two easily found agreement. Congar in his diary characterizes Ratzinger as “reasonable, modest, disinterested, and very helpful.” He credits Ratzinger with coming up with the definition of missionary activity that was accepted and also with proposing the inclusion of a section on ecumenism in the document. Others credit him with devising a footnote that allowed Latin America to be included as a missionary region even though its people had been previously evangelized. At discussions of Gaudium et Spes in September 1965, Ratzinger voiced many of the criticisms that would later appear in his books and articles: The schema was too naturalistic and unhistorical, took insufficient notice of sin and its consequences, and was too optimistic about human progress.
All in all, we may say that Ratzinger belonged to the inner circle of theologians whose thinking prevailed at Vatican II. Still in his thirties, he as yet lacked the public standing of Congar, Rahner, and Gérard Philips. In the early sessions he collaborated very closely with Rahner and the German Jesuits in opposition to the Roman School, though he spoke with moderation. As the council progressed, Ratzinger became more independent. He made an original and important contribution to the document on missions and mounted a highly personal critique of the pastoral constitution on the Church in the modern world, reflecting his preference for Augustine over Aquinas and his sensitivity to Lutheran concerns.
During the council and the first few years after its conclusion, Ratzinger wrote a number of commentaries on the conciliar documents. While making certain criticisms, they express his agreement with the general directions of Vatican II and his acceptance of the three objectives named by John XXIII: renewal of the Church, unity among Christians, and dialogue with the world of today. He welcomed the rejection of some of the preparatory schemas, chiefly because they were phrased in abstract scholastic terms and failed to speak pastorally to the modern world. He appreciated the council’s freedom from Roman domination and the openness and candor of its discussions.
As a member of the progressive wing at the council, Ratzinger taught at Tübingen with Hans Küng and joined the editorial board of the progressive review Concilium , edited from Holland. In 1969, after the academic uprisings at Tübingen, he moved to the more traditional faculty of Regensburg. Then in 1972 he became one of the founding editors of the review Communio , a more conservative counterpart of Concilium. His theological orientation seemed to be shifting.
In 1975 Ratzinger wrote an article, on the tenth anniversary of the close of Vatican II, in which he differed from the progressives who wanted to go beyond the council and from the conservatives who wanted to retreat behind the council. The only viable course, he contended, was to interpret Vatican II in strictest continuity with previous councils such as Trent and Vatican I, since all three councils are upheld by the same authority: that of the pope and the college of bishops in communion with him.
Two years later Ratzinger became an archbishop and a cardinal, and then in 1981 cardinal prefect of the Congregation of the Faith. In an interview published in 1985 he denied that Vatican II was responsible for causing the confusion of the post-conciliar period. The damage, he said, was due to the unleashing of polemical and centrifugal forces within the Church and the prevalence, outside the Church, of a liberal-radical ideology that was individualistic, rationalistic, and hedonistic. He renewed his call for fidelity to the actual teaching of the council without reservations that would truncate its teaching or elaborations that would deform it.
The misinterpretations, according to Ratzinger, must be overcome before an authentic reception can begin. Traditionalists and progressives, he said, fell into the same error: They failed to see that Vatican II stood in fundamental continuity with the past. In rejecting some of the early drafts, the council fathers were not repudiating their doctrine, which was solidly traditional, but only their style, which they found too scholastic and insufficiently pastoral. Particularly harmful was the tendency of progressives to contrast the letter of the council’s texts with the spirit. The spirit is to be found in the letter itself.
Some consider that the pastoral constitution on the Church in the modern world, composed in the final phase, should be seen as the climax of the council, for which the other constitutions are preparatory. Ratzinger takes the opposite view. The pastoral constitution is subordinate to the two dogmatic constitutions ” those on revelation and the Church ” which orient the interpreter toward the source and center of the Christian life. The constitution on the liturgy, though not strictly dogmatic, was the most successful of the four constitutions; the pastoral constitution Gaudium et Spes was a tentative effort to apply Catholic doctrine to the current relation of the Church to the world.
The first document debated in the session of 1962 was on liturgy. In his early commentaries Ratzinger praises it highly. He applauds its efforts to overcome the isolation of the priest celebrant and to foster active participation by the congregation. He agrees with the constitution on the need to attach greater importance to the word of God in Scripture and in proclamation. He is pleased by the constitution’s provision for Holy Communion to be distributed under both species and its encouragement of regional adaptations regulated by episcopal conferences, including the use of the vernacular. “The wall of Latinity,” he wrote, “had to be breached if the liturgy were again to function either as proclamation or as invitation to prayer.” He also approved of the council’s call to recover the simplicity of the early liturgies and remove superfluous medieval accretions.
In subsequent writings as a cardinal, Ratzinger seeks to dispel current misinterpretations. The council fathers, he insists, had no intention of initiating a liturgical revolution. They intended to introduce a moderate use of the vernacular alongside of the Latin, but had no thought of eliminating Latin, which remains the official language of the Roman rite. In calling for active participation, the council did not mean incessant commotion of speaking, singing, reading, and shaking hands; prayerful silence could be an especially deep manner of personal participation. He particularly regrets the disappearance of traditional sacred music, contrary to the intention of the council. Nor did the council wish to initiate a period of feverish liturgical experimentation and creativity. It strictly forbade both priests and laity to change the rubrics on their own authority.
Ratzinger in several places laments the abruptness with which the Missal of Paul VI was imposed after the council, with its summary suppression of the so-called Tridentine Mass. This action contributed to the impression, all too widespread, that the council was a breach rather than a new stage in a continuous process of development. For his part, Ratzinger seems to have nothing against the celebration of Mass according to the missal that was in use before the council.
In his earliest comments on the constitution on divine revelation, the young Ratzinger spoke positively. The first sentence appealed to him because it placed the Church in a posture of reverently listening to the Word of God. He also welcomed the council’s effort to overcome the neurotic anti-Modernism of the neoscholastics and to adopt the language of scripture and contemporary usage. He was pleased with the council’s recognition of the process by which scripture grows out of the religious history of God’s people.
In his chapters on Dei Verbum for the “Vorgrimler Commentary,” Ratzinger again praises the preface as opening the Church upward to the Word of God and for emphasizing the value of proclamation. While continuing to note the success of the first chapter in emphasizing revelation through history, he faults its survey of Old Testament history for excessive optimism and for overlooking the prevalence of sin. Some attention to the Lutheran theme of law and gospel, he remarks, would have enriched the text. The theology of faith in the constitution, in his estimation, is consonant with, yet richer than, that of Vatican I. Ratzinger’s discussion of tradition in chapter 2 shows a keen appreciation of the difficulties raised by Protestant commentators. He interprets this chapter as giving a certain priority to scripture over tradition and praises it for subordinating the Church’s teaching office to the Word of God. But he faults it for failing to recognize scripture as a norm for identifying unauthentic traditions that distort the gospel.
The elder Ratzinger speaks from a different perspective, more confessionally Catholic. While still regarding the constitution on divine revelation as one of the outstanding texts of the council, he holds that it has yet to be truly received. In the prevalent interpretations he finds two principal defects. In the first place, it is misread as though it taught that all revelation is contained in scripture. Ratzinger now makes the point that revelation, as a living reality, is incapable of being enclosed in a text. Tradition is “that part of revelation that goes above and beyond scripture and cannot be comprehended within a code of formulas.”
The neglect of living tradition, according to the cardinal prefect, was one of the most serious errors of post-conciliar exegesis. The other was the reduction of exegesis to the historical-critical method. In an article about contemporary biblical interpretation, he comments on the seeming impasse between exegetes and dogmatic theologians. Offering a way out of the dilemma, the council teaches that historical-critical method is only the first stage of exegesis. It helps to illuminate the text on the human and historical level, but to find the word of God the exegete must go further, drawing on the Bible as a whole, on tradition, and on the whole system of Catholic dogma. “I am personally persuaded,” he writes, “that a careful reading of the whole text of Dei Verbum can provide the essential elements of a synthesis between historical method and theological hermeneutics.” But unfortunately the post-conciliar reception has practically discarded the theological part of the council’s statement as a concession to the past, thus allowing Catholic exegesis to become almost undistinguishable from Protestant.
In combination with the virtual monopoly of historical-critical exegesis, the neglect of tradition leads many Christians to think that nothing can be taught in the Church that does not pass the scrutiny of historical-critical method. In practice this meant that the shifting hypotheses of exegetes became the highest doctrinal authority in the Church.
Over the years Ratzinger has had a great deal to say about the dogmatic constitution on the Church. In his earliest observations he contends that it did well to subordinate the image of Mystical Body to that of People of God. The Mystical Body paradigm, much in favor under Pius XII, makes it all but impossible to give any ecclesial status to non-Catholics and leads to a false identification of the Church with Christ her Lord. The image of People of God, he contends, is more biblical; it gives scope for recognizing the sins of the Church, and it indicates that the Church is still on pilgrimage under the sign of hope. For similar reasons he supports the theme of Church as sacrament. As a sign and instrument, the Church is oriented to a goal that lies beyond herself.
In his early commentaries Ratzinger shows special interest in episcopal collegiality. The apostles, he believes, constituted a stable group under Peter as their head, as do the bishops of later generations under the primacy of Peter’s successor. Collegiality, in his view, favors horizontal communication among bishops. Behind collegiality lies the vision of the Church as made up of relatively autonomous communities under their respective bishops. The rediscovery of the local church makes it clear that multiplicity belongs to the structure of the Church. According to the New Testament, Ratzinger observes, the Church is a communion of local churches, mutually joined together through the Body and the Word of the Lord, especially when gathered at the Eucharist. Bishops, as heads of particular churches, must collaborate with one another in a ministry that is essentially communal. Not all initiative has to rest with the pope alone; he may simply accept what the body of bishops or some portion of it decrees.
Ratzinger was less upset than some of his fellow theologians by the “Prefatory Note of Explanation” appended to the third chapter of Lumen Gentium to clarify the doctrine of collegiality. This note supplied a number of necessary elucidations, even while tipping the scales somewhat in favor of papal primacy. Its importance should not be exaggerated, because it is neither a conciliar document nor one signed by the pope. Although the pope evidently approved of it, it was signed only by the secretary general of the council.
Ratzinger at this stage of his career contended that the synod of bishops established by Paul VI in September 1965 is in some respects collegial. The majority of the members are elected by the bishops, and it is called a synod, a term evoking the structures of the ancient Church. The synod, he said, is “a permanent council in miniature.” He likewise characterizes episcopal conferences as quasi-synodal intermediate agencies between individual bishops and the pope, possessing legislative powers in their own right. Writing for Concilium in 1965, he called the conferences partial realizations of collegiality and asserted that they have a genuinely theological basis.
At Vatican II there was a division of opinion about whether or not to treat Mariology in a separate document. With the general body of German theologians, Ratzinger supported the inclusion of Mary in the constitution on the Church, as finally took place. Unlike Bishop Wojtyla, he was wary of Marian maximalism and apparently averse to new titles such as “Mother of the Church.” Moved partly by ecumenical considerations, he applauded the restraint of the council in its references to Mary as Mediatrix and Co-Redemptrix.
Ratzinger in these early commentaries praised the constitution on the Church for its ecumenical sensitivity. It overcomes the impression that non-Catholic Christians are connected to the Church only by some kind of implicit desire, as Pius XII had seemed to teach. Read in conjunction with the decree on ecumenism, Lumen Gentium gives positive ecclesial status to Protestant and Orthodox communities. For Ratzinger, the Church is Catholic, but it is possible for particular churches or ecclesial communities to exist irregularly outside her borders. Some, such as the Eastern Orthodox communities, deserve to be called churches in the theological sense of the word.
Throughout his later career Ratzinger has continued to write extensively on the issues raised by Vatican II’s constitution on the Church. He frequently returns to the theme of the Church as People of God, which had been a topic in his doctoral dissertation. In calling the Church by that title, he now says, the council was not using the term “people” in a sociological sense. From an empirical point of view, Christians are not a people, as may be shown from any sociological analysis. But the non-people of Christians can become the people of God through inclusion in Christ, by sacramental incorporation into his crucified and risen body. In other words, the Church is the People of God because it is, in Christ, a sacrament. Here, too, we must note a serious failure of reception: Since the council, “the idea of the Church as sacrament has hardly entered people’s awareness.”
Ratzinger is not opposed to the ecclesiology of communion that came to the fore at the 1985 synod on the interpretation of Vatican II. Thanks to the Eucharist, the Church is communion with the whole Body of Christ. But he notes that “communion” has become, in some measure, a buzz word, and it is frequently distorted by a unilateral emphasis on the horizontal dimension to the neglect of the divine. Indeed, it is also misused to promote a kind of egalitarianism within the Church.
The early Ratzinger attached great importance to the council’s retrieval of the theology of the local church. Since 1992, however, he has contended that the universal Church has ontological and historical priority over the particular churches. It was not originally made up of local or regional churches. Those who speak of the priority of the particular church over the universal, he says, misinterpret the council documents. On collegiality, the older Ratzinger points out that according to Vatican II the bishop is first of all a member of the college, which is by nature universal. He is a successor of the apostles, each of whom, with and under Peter, was co-responsible for the universal Church. Bishops who are assigned to dioceses participate in the direction of the universal Church by governing their own churches well, keeping them in communion with the Church Catholic. The synod of bishops, in Ratzinger’s later theology, is no longer seen as a collegial organ or as a council in miniature; it is advisory to the pope as he performs his task. In so doing it makes the voice of the universal Church more clearly audible in the world of our day.
A similar shift is apparent in Ratzinger’s view of episcopal conferences, which he had earlier characterized as collegial organs with a true theological basis. But by 1986 he says: “We must not forget that the episcopal conferences have no theological basis; they do not belong to the structure of the Church as willed by Christ, that cannot be eliminated; they have only a practical, concrete function.” It is difficult to deny that on episcopal conferences, as on the synod of bishops, the cardinal retracted his earlier positions.
One of the most contentious issues in the interpretation of Lumen Gentium is the meaning of the statement that the Church of Christ “subsists in” the Roman Catholic Church. Some have interpreted it as an admission that the Church of Christ is found in many denominational churches, none of which can claim to be the one true Church. Ratzinger asserts the opposite. For him, “subsists” implies integral existence as a complete, self-contained subject. Thus the Catholic Church truly is the Church of Christ. But the term “subsists” is not exclusive; it allows for the possibility of ecclesial entities that are institutionally separate from the one Church. This dividedness, however, is not a desirable mutual complementarity of incomplete realizations but a deficiency that calls for healing.
In the sphere of Mariology, Ratzinger laments what he sees as another misunderstanding of the council. The inclusion of a chapter on Mary as the culmination of the constitution on the Church, he believes, should have given rise to new research rather than to neglect of the mystery of Mary. He himself has overcome certain reservations about Marian titles that he had expressed at the time of the council. It is imperative to turn to Mary, he believes, in order to learn the truth about Jesus Christ that is to be proclaimed.
The pastoral constitution Gaudium et Spes in final form was primarily the work of French theologians. The German group did not control the text. At the time of the council Ratzinger already noted many difficulties, beginning with the problem of language. In opting for the language of modernity the text inevitably places itself outside the world of the Bible, so that as a result the biblical citations come to be little more than ornamental. Because of its stated preference for dialogue, the constitution makes faith appear not as an urgent demand for total commitment but as a conversational search into obscure matters. Christ is mentioned only at the end of each section, almost as an afterthought.
Instead of replacing dogmatic utterances with dialogue, Ratzinger contends, it would have been better to use the language of proclamation, appealing to the intrinsic authority of God’s truth. The constitution, drawing on the thought of Teilhard de Chardin, links Christian hope too closely to the modern idea of progress. Material progress is ambivalent because it can lead to degradation as well as to true humanization. The Cross teaches us that the world is not redeemed by technological advances but by sacrificial love. In the section on unification, Gaudium et Spes approaches the world too much from the viewpoint of function and utility rather than that of contemplation and wonder.
Ratzinger’s commentary on the first chapter of Gaudium et Spes contains still other provocative comments. The treatment of conscience in article 16, in his view, raises many unsolved questions about how conscience can err and about the right to follow an erroneous conscience. The treatment of free will in article 17 is in his judgment “downright Pelagian.” It leaves aside, he complains, the whole complex of problems that Luther handled under the term “ servum arbitrium ,” although Luther’s position does not itself do justice to the New Testament.
Ratzinger is not wholly negative in his judgment. He praises the discussion of atheism in articles 19-21 as “balanced and well-founded.” He is satisfied that the document, while “reprobating” atheism in all its forms, makes no specific mention of Marxist communism, as some cold warriors had desired. He is enthusiastic about the centrality of Christ and the Paschal mystery in article 22, and he finds in it a statement on the possibilities of salvation of the unevangelized far superior to the “extremely unsatisfactory” expressions of Lumen Gentium 16, which seemed to suggest that salvation is a human achievement rather than a divine gift.
With regard to this constitution, the later Ratzinger does not seem to have withdrawn his early objections, notwithstanding his exhortations to accept the entire teaching of Vatican II. But he finds that the ambiguities of Gaudium et Spes have been aggravated by secularist interpretations. The council was right, Ratzinger maintains, in its desire for a revision of the relations between the Church and the world. There are values that, having originated outside the Church, can find their place, at least in corrected form, within the Church. But the Church and the world can never meet each other without conflict. Worldly theologies too easily assimilate the gospel to secular movements.
In scattered references here and there in his interviews, Ratzinger mentions at least three specific deviations in the interpretations.
In the first place, Gaudium et Spes did make reference to signs of the times, but it stated that they need to be discerned and judged in the light of the gospel. Contemporary interpreters treat the signs of the times as a new method that finds theological truth in current events and makes them normative for judging the testimony of Scripture and tradition.
Secondly, the pastoral constitution may have erred in the direction of optimism, but it did speak openly of sin and evil. In no less than five places it made explicit mention of Satan. Post-conciliar interpreters, however, are inclined to discount Satan as a primitive myth.
Finally, Gaudium et Spes refers frequently to the Kingdom of God. Enthusiastic readers prefer to speak simply of the kingdom (without reference to any king) or, even more vaguely, to the “values” of the kingdom: peace, justice, and conservation. Can this trio of values, asks Ratzinger, take the place of God? Values, he replies, cannot replace truth, nor can they replace God, for they are only a reflection of him. Without God, the values become distorted by inhuman ideologies, as has been seen in various forms of Marxism.
Undeniably there have been some shifts in Ratzinger’s assessment of Vatican II. Still finding his own theological path, he was in the first years of the council unduly dependent on Karl Rahner as a mentor. Only gradually did he come to see that he and Rahner lived, theologically speaking, on different planets. Whereas Rahner found revelation and salvation primarily in the inward movements of the human spirit, Ratzinger finds them in historical events attested by scripture and the early church fathers.
Ratzinger’s career appears to have affected his theology. As an archbishop and a cardinal he has had to take increasing responsibility for the public life of the Church and has gained a deeper realization of the need for universal sacramental structures to safeguard the unity of the Church and her fidelity to the gospel. He has also had to contend with interpretations of Vatican II that he and the council fathers never foresaw. His early hopes for new mechanisms such as episcopal conferences have been tempered by the course of events.
Notwithstanding the changes, Benedict XVI has shown a fundamental consistency. As a personalist in philosophy and as a theologian in the Augustinian tradition, he expects the Church to maintain a posture of prayer and worship. He is suspicious of technology, of social activism, and of human claims to be building the Kingdom of God. For this reason he most appreciates the council documents on the liturgy and revelation, and has reservations about the constitution on the Church in the modern world, while giving it credit for some solid achievements.
The contrast between Pope Benedict and his predecessor is striking. John Paul II was a social ethicist, anxious to involve the Church in shaping a world order of peace, justice, and fraternal love. Among the documents of Vatican II, John Paul’s favorite was surely the pastoral constitution Gaudium et Spes . Benedict XVI, who looks upon Gaudium et Spes as the weakest of the four constitutions, shows a clear preference for the other three.
Although the Polish philosopher and the German theologian differ in outlook, they agree that the council has been seriously misinterpreted. It needs to be understood in conformity with the constant teaching of the Church. The true spirit of the council is to be found in, and not apart from, the letter.
Avery Cardinal Dulles, S.J. , holds the Laurence J. McGinley Chair in Religion and Society at Fordham University.
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