Joseph Ratzinger, theological reformer

George Weigel

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 wrong-headed 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.

Featured image by Thomas Serafin/CNA

COMING UP: The “historic” Amazonian Synod, revisited

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Given that he was one of the principal planners and prominent leaders of last October’s special Synod on Amazonia, Cardinal Claudio Hummes, OFM, is understandably enthusiastic about the results of that exercise. Indeed, the enthusiasm of the emeritus archbishop of São Paulo and prefect emeritus of the Vatican’s Congregation for the Clergy   seems virtually boundless: Cardinal Hummes recently claimed that “The Synod for the Amazon was historic; no previous synod was as synodal and reform-oriented as this one.” High praise indeed.

But is such fulsome applause really warranted? How does the cardinal’s claim measure up against the historical record? Not very well, I fear. Which suggests the possibility that Cardinal Hummes is reimagining the recent Catholic past in order to make certain points about the Catholic present and the Catholic future.

The 1974 Synod on evangelization was a donnybrook, reflecting the turbulence in the Church a decade after the Second Vatican Council. The synod fathers couldn’t agree on a final report, so they handed the synod’s materials to Pope Paul VI with the request that he do something. Pope Paul responded with the great apostolic exhortation Evangelii Nuntiandi (Announcing the Gospel). It was Paul VI’s last pastoral testament to the Church and the first summons to what John Paul II would call the “New Evangelization:” the grand strategy that animates the living parts of the world Church today.

Was the Amazonian Synod more “historic” than that?

The 1990 Synod debated priestly formation and seminary reform. The propositions adopted by the synod fathers helped shape John Paul II’s 1992 apostolic exhortation, Pastores Dabo Vobis (I Shall Give you Shepherds). Where it was taken seriously (as in the United States), that exhortation helped apply the brakes to the silly season in seminaries and laid the foundation for the reformed seminaries of today.

Was the Amazonian Synod more “reform-oriented” than that?

The 1994 Synod explored the renewal of consecrated religious life in light of Vatican II’s teaching on the subject. Its reflections helped John Paul II write the 1996 apostolic exhortation, Vita Consecrata (The Consecrated Life). Throughout the world Church today, religious communities of men and women that embraced Vita Consecrata are vibrant and making real contributions to the New Evangelization; those that ignored Vita Consecrata are moribund or dying.

Was the Amazonian Synod more “historic” than that?

And then there was the special Synod of 1985, which met on the 20th anniversary of Vatican II’s fourth and final session to explore what had gone right, and what had gone not-so right, in implementing the Council. Its final report’s description of the Church as a communion of disciples in mission provided the thread that wove the 16 documents of Vatican II into a coherent, compelling tapestry of Catholic faith. Like Evangelii Nuntiandi, the special Synod of 1985 was a crucial moment in the journey from Vatican II – the council Pope John XXIII called to give the Church new missionary energy – to the New Evangelization.

Was the Amazonian Synod more “historic” and “reform-oriented” than that?

As for the Amazonian Synod itself, others who were in Rome last October may remember the proceedings somewhat differently than Cardinal Hummes evidently does.

Some will remember that the roster of synod participants reflected a narrow bandwidth of Catholic opinion. Some will remember the rather stifling atmosphere within the Synod Hall, which reinforced the impression created by the synod’s managers that (to vary Orwell) some viewpoints were more equal than other viewpoints. Some will remember the extraordinary things that were said in the synod assembly and in the synod’s press conferences – including the boast by a venerable missionary bishop that he hadn’t baptized an indigenous person in 35 years. Still others will remember that Rome in October 2019 was awash in German money and full of German-financed non-governmental organization, which functioned more like political lobbies (or theatrical companies) than ecclesial communities.

Time will tell whether the special Synod for Amazonia made a significant contribution to the proclamation of Jesus Christ and the Gospel in a largely unevangelized region, or whether that synod was a stalking horse for a host of other agendas, ecclesiastical, ecological, and political. One thing only seems clear now: Querida Amazonia [Beloved Amazonia], Pope Francis’s apostolic exhortation completing the synod’s work, gravely disappointed those who imagined the Amazonian Synod as the decisive pivot to the Catholic revolution they had long sought.

So one must wonder, again, just what Cardinal Hummes had in mind by describing the Amazonian Synod as “historic.”