As he turned 93 on April 16, Joseph Ratzinger remained one of the most misunderstood and misrepresented men of consequence in recent Catholic history. I doubt the Pope Emeritus minds; he’s probably impervious to calumny, having had it visited upon him for over a half-century. This kindly man may feel a measure of compassion for the small minds that continually tell untruths about him and his theology. But he has better things to do than fret about his detractors: dwarves ineffectually tossing pebbles at a serene giant.
His friends and admirers find it hard to take a benign view of the situation, however, because the ongoing trashing of Joseph Ratzinger is agenda-driven and aimed at shoring up the crumbling foundations of the Catholic Lite project. That salvage operation requires his detractors to claim that Ratzinger/Benedict XVI betrayed Vatican II, or never understood Vatican II, or was (and is) deeply opposed to Vatican II. Or all of the above. This is nonsense. And while often perpetrated by those who claim competence as scholars of contemporary Catholic affairs, such misrepresentations of Ratzinger’s thinking betray a sorry indifference to what actually happened in Rome during the last two years of the Second Vatican Council.
As I wrote in The Irony of Modern Catholic History, a fissure in the ranks of the reformist theologians at Vatican II began to open up during the Council’s third session, held in the fall of 1964. A new theological journal, Concilium, was being planned by some of the Council’s influential theological advisers (many of whom had been heavily censored in the pre-Vatican II years). A towering figure among them, the French Jesuit Henri de Lubac, began to worry that Concilium would take the reformist project in a deconstructive direction: one that would do serious damage to what John XXIII, in his opening address to the Council, called “the sacred deposit of Christian doctrine,” which Pope John urged “be more effectively defended and presented.”
The first several issues of the new journal intensified de Lubac’s concerns. So in May 1965 the most venerable member of its editorial committee quietly withdrew from the Concilium project while continuing his work at the Council itself. As Vatican II drew to a close, others would join him in expressing serious reservations about the tack being taken by their onetime theological allies. And those concerns did not lessen over time.
The result was what I call in my book “The War of the Conciliar Succession”: the war to define what Vatican II was and what Vatican II intended for the Catholic future. This war was not a struggle between “traditionalists” and “progressives.” It was a bitterly fought contest within the camp of Vatican II theological reformers. It continues to this day. And the question that so concerned Henri de Lubac remains entirely pertinent, 56 years later: Would an interpretation of the Council that effectively set the Catholic Church against “the sacred deposit of Christian doctrine” end up betraying the gospel and emptying it of its power?
Joseph Ratzinger joined de Lubac and other dissident conciliar reformers in launching another theological journal, Communio, which he and his colleagues hoped would advance an interpretation of Vatican II that was in continuity with the Church’s settled doctrine even as it developed the Church’s understanding of that doctrine. Communio, now published in 14 language editions, has been a creative force in Catholic intellectual life for decades. Like Ratzinger, Communio is not against Vatican II; it has challenged what its authors contend is a wrongheaded interpretation of Vatican II.
As recent events in the Church have illustrated, the bottom line in the War of the Conciliar Succession is the reality of divine revelation: Does God’s revelation in Scripture and Tradition include truths that are binding over the centuries, irrespective of cultural circumstances? Or do history and culture judge revelation, which the Church is then authorized to improve, so to speak, in light of “the signs of the times”? Those who stand with the reality of revelation (which was robustly affirmed by Vatican II) are by no means “fundamentalists,” despite what their opponents charge. They are creative theologians who believe in the development of doctrine, but who also understand, with Chesterton, that “an open mind, like an open mouth, should close on something.”
In the War of the Conciliar Succession, there are true reformers, and then there are the forces of deconstruction. Joseph Ratzinger is emphatically a true Catholic reformer. To argue otherwise suggests ignorance, malice, or both.
George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of Washington, D.C.’s Ethics and Public Policy Center, where he holds the William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies.