Father Joseph Ratzinger, right, talks with an unidentified prelate in this photo taken in 1962 during the Second Vatican Council. (CNS photo)
“The Council Fathers neither could nor wished to create a new or different Church. They had neither the authority nor the mandate to do so. It was only in their capacity as bishops that they were now Council Fathers with a vote and decision-making power, that is to say, on the basis of the Sacrament and in the Church of the Sacrament. For this reason they neither could nor wished to create a different faith or a new Church, but rather to understand these more deeply and hence truly to ‘renew them.’ This is why a hermeneutic of rupture is absurd and is contrary to the spirit and the will of the Council Fathers.” — Pope Benedict XVI, Reflections at 50th Anniversary of Opening of Vatican II, October 11, 2012.
When the Church does something, it first remembers. Pope Benedict XVI went to Loreto fifty years after Vatican II because Blessed John XXIII went to Loreto at the beginning of Vatican II. Benedict himself tells us that October 11, 1962 was a “splendid day.” He recalls the solemn procession of the two thousand Council Fathers into St. Peter’s.
Then he remembers that Pius XI, in 1931, had dedicated the day to the Divine Motherhood of Mary. And why was this? To recall that 1500 years before this date, in 431, the Council of Ephesus acknowledged Mary as Mother of God; it affirmed “God’s indissoluble union with man in Christ.” John XXIII obviously chose this day, with all its overtones in full memory “to anchor the Council’s work firmly in the mystery of Jesus Christ.” Benedict, who was there as a young theologian, saw this procession as witness to the “image of the Church of Jesus Christ which embraces the whole world.”
Whether fifty years is sufficient to evaluate fully the work of Vatican II is doubtful. Benedict is frank. At the time the Church appeared to be losing influence in society. “Christianity, which had built and formed the Western world, seemed more and more to be losing its power to shape society. It appeared weary and it looked as if its [the West’s] future would be determined by other spiritual forces.” But the call of the Council seemed to be an innovation of great moment. “Great things were about to happen,” as Benedict recalled the mood at the time. The Italian word aggiornamento—to bring up-to-date—was on everyone’s lips.
Unlike most previous councils of the Church, Vatican II, as we well know now, was not called to solve some specific problem or issue in the Church. Many of the different groups of bishops who participated in the Council had differing ideas of what needed to be done. The German, French, and Belgian bishops seemed most organized. “A fundamental theme was ecclesiology that needed to be studied in greater depth from a Trinitarian and sacramental viewpoint and in connection with salvation history.”
Moreover, Vatican I had not settled the full nature of the papal office with its relation to the episcopal offices in the Church. Pius XII had made moves for liturgical reform. In the meantime, World War II taught the German Church the need for closer relations with the Protestant church in their common experience under the Nazi regime. In fact, many things needed attention—Revelation, Scripture, Tradition, Magisterium.
The French were concerned with the condition of the Church before the modern world. This issue was discussed by the “Schema XIII” that eventually became Gaudium et Spes, the decree on the “Church in the Modern World.” Of this famous document, Benedict makes a rather startling observation, one that is probably best echoed by Tracey Rowland in her book, Culture and the Thomist Tradition after Vatican II. Benedict writes: “Although the Pastoral Constitution expressed many important elements of an understanding of the ‘world’ and made significant contribution to the question of Christian ethics, it failed to offer substantial clarification on this point.” This failure may be one of the reasons why Benedict in this document has to be so specific that the Council did not change the Church and could not do so. Not a few had the impression that such a radical change was in fact the purpose of the Council.
Benedict says, however, that the two most significant documents of the Council in retrospect were rather minor ones at the time. They were the decrees on religious liberty, which the American Church was most concerned about, and the statements on the Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, and Hindu religions.
The understanding of the modern state had to be worked out on some principle other than “tolerance.” In the light of more recent events in which there is really little, if any, freedom of religion in the Muslim, Chinese, Hindu, and Buddhist worlds, it is interesting to read Benedict’s words: “At stake was the freedom to choose and practice religion and the freedom to change it, as fundamental human rights and freedoms.”
The Council, at the time, was addressing the liberal Western world in order to explain the basic grounds of human freedom. “The State could neither decide on the truth nor prescribe any kind of worship. The Christian faith demanded freedom of religious belief and freedom of religious practice in worship, without thereby violating the law of the State in its internal freedom of religious practice in worship…” When we read these words today in the United States, it is precisely our government that is now the one seeking to limit religious worship and to impose the narrowest limits of subjective belief.
“The interpretation of religious freedom in the context of modern thought was not easy since it could seem as if the modern version of religious freedom presupposed the inaccessibility of the truth to man and so, perforce, shifted religion into the sphere of the subjective.” Benedict saw that Blessed John Paul II, with his experience of Marxist suppression, understood the working out of this view. We need an objective view of freedom of religion as a visible factor. Yet, our current experience of the state that demands religion to submit to its laws even when those laws violate the natural law and conscience shows us that the whole lesson of Vatican II is being lost even in the land that sought to promote it.
A similar problem arises with the second document, Nostra Aetate, which is on non-Christian religions. The Church has been in the forefront of providing fora wherein religious truths and differences could be discussed in a reasonable way. Of course, this possibility itself presupposed the existence and acceptance of philosophic reason, theLogos, to which revelation was directed. It is only by the widest stretch of the imagination that we can hold that behind the other great religions we find the Logos as an accepted basis of discourse. It is true that we must seek some general basis that in a way prescinds from the religions themselves. But it is doubtful if such a distinction has much force outside of Christianity
In any case, Benedict comes to terms with this issue by seeking to distinguish between the positive things of other religions and the “sick and distorted forms.” He puts it this way: the Council documents reveal that a “weakness” in the great text has “gradually emerged.” What is this weakness? “It [the document] speaks of religion solely in a positive way and it disregards the sick and distorted forms of religion, which from the historical and theological viewpoints are of far reaching importance.” If I read this passage correctly, it means that often it is precisely the distorted forms of religion that are the most vigorous and the ones with which we have to deal. We cannot deal with them in the same way as we can the forms that have a relation to reason. The fact is that the religion the Church and Christians most often have to deal with is one which is distorted and totally contrary to any notion of freedom of religion.
In conclusion, the Pope returns to the so-called “spirit” of Vatican II, which seemed to want to change the Church itself. “The Council Fathers neither could nor wished to create a new or different Church. They had neither the authority nor the mandate to do so.” The Pope takes care to drive this point home: “It was only in their capacity as bishops that they were now Council Fathers with the vote and decision-making power, that is to say, on the basis of the Sacrament and in the Church of the Sacrament. For this reason they neither could nor wished to recreate a different faith or a new Church….”
Benedict ends his reflections by again remembering his own presence at the Council as a young theologian attached to Cardinal Frings. Indeed, Benedict amusingly points out that he was in fact the “youngest professor of the Catholic theological faculty at the University of Bonn.” He notes finally, under the direction of Archbishop Gerhard Ludwig Müller, a new book published by the Pope Benedict XVI Institute of his own writings on the Council.
What is striking about this short reflection of Benedict is its reaffirmation that the Council did not inaugurate a “new” Church, that its documents were not always complete, and that fifty years after Vatican II, most of the presuppositions of the Council about current affairs have radically changed in the very lands that instigated the reflections that animated the thought of the Council. The religions that today dominate in practice are the “sick” ones, to use the Pope’s term. These are the ones we have to deal with, not the ideal ones. Religious liberty is most under pressure in the very land that wanted the right to religious liberty to be proclaimed. “No new or different Church” emerged from Vatican II. This is the Church that is most under pressure and persecution in much of the world.
About the Author
James V. Schall, S.J.
James V. Schall, S.J. is professor of political philosophy at Georgetown University.