Benedict XVI and the ‘True Time’ of Vatican II

“It is not what we would like the Council to have said that must determine our course, but what the Council really said.”

—Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger

History will judge 2005 an extraordinary year in the life of the Catholic Church: It marks both the start of a new papacy and the 40th anniversary of the conclusion to the Second Vatican Council. For Catholics confused, concerned, impatient, or otherwise disgruntled by the effects of Vatican II upon the life of the Church, the elevation of Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger to Pope Benedict XVI may prove especially providential.

Critics of the Church and the pope alike, of course, immediately claimed Benedict’s ascendancy as the final suffocation of the so-called spirit of Vatican II. In treatments from secular organs like the New York Times and the New Yorker, the former head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith has been represented as even more of a hard-line authoritarian than his papal predecessor. It logically follows upon this characterization that “Pope Benedict XVI wants to dismantle Vatican II and go back to 1397,” as the Times’s Maureen Dowd wildly opined shortly after the white smoke had cleared.

Dowd is only the silliest and shrillest of the new pope’s critics, whose respective contentions betray similar misperceptions of both the former Cardinal Ratzinger and Vatican II: The first is widely regarded as a dictatorial, anti-modern reactionary; and the second is generally heralded as an amorphously free-spirited happening. Fortunately, both views are coarsely wrong.

Such myopia, however, is not limited to antagonists of the Church, particularly in regard to understandings of Vatican II. Four decades after the Second Vatican Council, many Catholics lack a substanced understanding of its purposes, let alone its major documents. “Vatican II” tends too frequently to be a convenient and superficial label used to invoke private wishes for—or complaints about—the nature of the Church’s identity and its progress through the modern age.

This phenomenon cuts both ways along the vulgar liberal/conservative alignment that characterizes modern Catholicism, an alignment that owes its currency to misinterpretation of Vatican II itself. In the years following the council, as then—Cardinal Ratzinger had repeatedly noted, sustained engagements of Vatican ll’s theological stores and embraces of its pastoral character were consistently sidelined by much ideological axe-grinding and imaginative re-creations of what Vatican II meant and what measures could be used to justify it, with few parties actually consulting the council’s documents. Endless, misinformed debates over Vatican II have had clearly corrosive effects and sapped much of the energy that should have gone into the council’s primary imperatives: internal renewal and external engagement, both housed within the living tradition of the Church and developing in fidelity to Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

How might the papacy of Benedict XVI improve the council’s impaired situation? And what responsibilities and challenges do 21st-century Catholics face in living out the Church’s life in the wake of Vatican II? Tracing Joseph Ratzinger’s involvement in the council as a young theologian through his subsequent work as a cardinal and now as pope reveals a sensibility altogether informed by Vatican II, which is notable in its Christological theology, its first principles ecclesiology, and, not surprisingly, its Benedictine understanding of the means for achieving an authentic flourishing of God’s presence in the world.

Each of these elements rests upon Benedict’s long-standing commitment to regard the Second Vatican Council as the integration of its words and its spirit and his stress upon the council’s felt continuity with its predecessors. These principles are in abundant need at the present moment, in light of the Church’s post—Vatican II fissures and the world’s allergic reaction to Christianity’s proposals. And yet, in espousing these principles, Ratzinger seemed like Vatican II’s lonely man these last few decades. His CDF responsibilities, in response most notably to Marcel Lefebvre’s extremist traditionalism, Leonardo Boff’s theological Marxism, and Hans Kung’s ecclesiological collectivism, led critics to paint him as a once-progressive-but-now-rigidly-retrograde theologian intent upon setting the Vatican hard against the most dynamic proponents of post-conciliar aggiornamento. These controversies, however, were related in each instance to polemical misinterpretations of Vatican II that struck the cardinal as dramatic symptoms of the council’s generally flawed reception. As he lamented 20 years after the council’s conclusion in December 1965, “The true time of Vatican II has not yet come, that [is], its authentic reception has not yet begun…. [T]he Catholic who clearly and, consequently, painfully perceives the damage that has been wrought in his Church by the misinterpretations of Vatican II must find the possibility of revival in Vatican II itself.”

Subsequent to this observation, Ratzinger emphasized the centrality of Vatican II to John Paul II’s papacy and the Church’s in medias res implementation of the council’s constitutions. But despite the best of John Paul II’s efforts—particularly in ecumenical matters—Vatican II remains less than fully enmeshed with the life of the Church as a whole. In short, all three elements of Benedict’s 1985 lamentation remain relevant.

The Real Vatican II

A basic difficulty Catholics face in comprehending Vatican II and enacting its mission rests in discerning what the council explicitly aimed to achieve, as opposed to what its proponents and antagonists have claimed on its behalf. Different in purpose from past councils like Trent or Vatican I, which were exclusively concerned with doctrinal matters, the council that John XXIII called forth in 1959 was pastoral in character. Theologian Douglas Bushman explains that the council was not less than doctrinal but more than doctrinal, going beyond the simple declaration of what the Catholic faith holds, to considering its implications for the inner life of the Church and for the Church’s relationship with the world.”

Some critics and sympathizers of Vatican II mistakenly regard its pastoral character as signaling the Church’s decision to update itself by opening up to the currents of 20th-century civilization. And because the general tendency is to focus on the “spirit” of Vatican II to the exclusion of its words, this notion has become invidiously entrenched despite the fact that it plainly contradicts one of the council’s key statements. In Lumen Gentium, the Constitution on the Church, the Fathers invoke St. Paul so as to issue a stern warning about the dangers of Catholics achieving too much of a worldly accommodation: “Let them not come to terms with this world, for this world, as we see it, is passing away.” Falling prey to this tendency, some heterodox interpretations of aggiornamento also tend to focus on only half of the term’s full applicability. Properly understood, Vatican II, in its full pastoral character, initiated the Church’s mission to the modern world; it sought to renew an age bereft of belief by reaching into its spiritual resources to open that age anew to God.

As then—Cardinal Ratzinger observed in a 1996 conversation with journalist Peter Seewald, “The [council] Fathers wanted to update the faith—but this was precisely in order to present it with its full impact.” This capacious understanding of aggiornamento suggests that the council sought to enliven perceptions of God both among the faithful and the world at large, instead of merely letting the world into the Church to remake it in its image. In a 2000 article on Lumen Gentium, Ratzinger further stressed that Vatican II intended to create a threefold interplay among God, the Church, and the world: “The Second Vatican Council… first and foremost, spoke of God, and this is not only within Christianity, but to the world, of the God who is the God of all, who saves all and is accessible to all.” The pope’s convictions about Vatican II are supported by his personal experience of the council. He was, in George Weigel’s description, “one of the intellectual fathers of Lumen Gentium,” having participated in the council as theological adviser to Joseph Cardinal Frings of Cologne. As we shall see, placing that particular document alongside Ratzinger’s theological statements uncovers a profound harmony between the constitution’s imperatives and the pope’s own, particularly with regard to the vital interrelation of Christ and the Church.

Lumen Gentium repeatedly emphasizes Christ as the mediator between God and man: “Because the Church is in Christ… as a sign and instrument both of a very closely knit union with God and of the unity of the whole human race,” the Church itself naturally bears a symmetrical responsibility in its mission to be a mediator between God and the world. Cognate ideas are at work in Ratzinger’s hallmark Introduction to Christianity, which was based on university lectures he delivered at Bonn between 1959 and 1963—in direct parallel to John XXIII’s announcement of the council and its early years. Papal biographer Marco Bardazzi’s concise summary of the book’s main concern makes clear its consonance with the council’s mission and with Lumen Gentium’s substance in particular: “A consistent theme of the book is the relevance of the Christian message [‘that God had revealed himself through Jesus Christ’] for modern man in the framework of the Church.”

The audacity of Catholicism in the present age, as formulated by theologians like Ratzinger and by council documents like Lumen Gentium, rests in its refusal to abandon its theological particularities in the face of widespread unbelief, slothful indifference, scientific rationality, and vague spirituality. In fact, this resilience patterns Vatican II’s documents with a density of meaning rightly correlative to that which exists in the relationship between God, Church, and the world, with Christ as the irreplaceable, irreducible mediator. This much is clear in Lumen Gentium’s account of the Church’s identity; through the Church, according to the Fathers, Christ “communicates truth and grace to all,” but care must be taken to perceive rightly the nature of the Church itself:

[T]he society structured with hierarchical organs and the Mystical Body of Christ are not to be considered as two realities… rather they form one complex reality which coalesces from a divine and a human element. For this reason, by no weak analogy, [the Church] is compared to the mystery of the incarnate Word.

This, then, is what the Second Vatican Council explicitly affirms about the nature of the Church: It is a Christ-centered and Christ-imitating body in which the divine and the human intersect.

Here, by comparison, is a typical misrepresentation of what Vatican II meant for the Church:

Vatican II was actually a model, about how theologians and bishops should collaborate for the common good of the Church. It was a test case of how bishops and theologians could and should cooperate to produce some of the most important documents ever produced in the history of the Catholic Church.

This statement, taken from a May 2005 New Yorker article arguing that Benedict XVI and John Paul II effectively hijacked Vatican II and realigned it according to their conservative predilections, comes from the secular media’s favorite Catholic pundit, Rev. Richard McBrien. He tellingly refers to the importance of Vatican II’s statements only in passing while instead emphasizing the importance of Vatican II’s gestures. This overly procedural understanding of the Church is more sociological than theological. In this version, Vatican II did not testify to the striking symmetry between the divinely ordained, humanly fallible Church and the Word made flesh, but to how the members of the Church should communicate and work together for the greater good. Vatican II ecclesiology of this type—better suited to boardrooms and summer camps—arguably frustrates Benedict XVI more than any other deformation of the council, because it undervalues the sacred architecture of both the Church and the Faith.

The pope’s understanding of this architecture has long been informed by an Augustinian conception of what man can know about God, himself, and his world. St. Augustine proposed that every distinct body of human knowledge is, by its constitution, secondary to the first principles of theology and depends, for its full elaboration, upon a vertical integration with divine truth. Applied in ecclesiology, this system has led Benedict to criticize both territorial understandings of the Church—wherein the secondary principles of national or regional identity supersede the first principle of God’s founding the Church as both bride and mystical body of Christ—and intellectual understandings of the Church that, in their underpinnings, are too much of this world. Both views, he has contended,

are only possible if one does not want to see, or no longer succeeds in seeing, the great Church conceived by God—perhaps out of desperation at her earthly inadequacy…. But this means that the Church as a theological subject has been obliterated. If from now on the Church can only be recognized in her human organization, then, in fact, all that is left is desolation. But then one has not only abandoned the ecclesiology of the Fathers, but also that of the New Testament and the conception of Israel in the Old Testament.

Ratzinger here laments the de-emphasizing of theological first principles for manmade and man-focused secondary instruments of knowledge, understanding, and organization, whether through a deadening emphasis on bureaucratic matters over theological imperatives or a debilitating imposition of secular criteria onto ecclesiological structures. Moreover, to his distress, not only have some Catholics subverted the very council they purport to follow through these programs, but in the vigor with which they focused on Vatican II as a singular event in the Church’s life, they have threatened a rupture between the present-day Church and her past, which, properly understood, reaches back through the centuries to biblical Israel.

Indeed, Catholics across the spectrum fixate on pre– and post–Vatican II distinctions that, in the pope’s view, are especially harmful to the living tradition of the Church. The council Fathers sought to prevent such demarcations (arguably inevitable in the short-term) through careful qualifications in Vatican II’s constitutions; Lumen Gentium declares that it is “following closely in the footsteps of the First Vatican Council,” while Dei Verbum likewise identifies itself as “following in the footsteps of the Council of Trent and of the First Vatican Ecumenical Council.”

Ratzinger has repeatedly sounded the same note, as in a 1975 article analyzing Vatican II’s reception to that point: “[I]t must be stated that Vatican II is upheld by the same authority as Vatican I and the Council of Trent.” Therefore, his argument continues, the council cannot be removed from this lineage according to the designs of either calcified traditionalists or cafeteria reformists. That Ratzinger had to make such distinctions—and that as cardinal he displayed a marked discomfort for the term “post-conciliar” because of the connotations of division it carries—suggests that the council’s efforts to maintain continuity within the Church across the centuries were less than successful.

‘Do Not Be Afraid of Christ’

To overcome the Church’s conciliar fragmentation, in the pope’s fashioning, requires a Benedictine approach to the Church’s internal life, accompanied by a willingness on the Church’s part to fulfill its “role of prophetic contradiction” externally. Joseph Ratzinger’s admiration for St. Benedict is clear enough, but a closer inspection of one Benedictine principle in particular suggests how his papacy may go about repairing present fissures and open the universal Church and the world to, in his words, the as yet un-arrived “true time of Vatican II.”

When, as cardinal, the pope spoke of “a reform of the reform” in regard to flawed implementations of Vatican II, this notion struck many critics as a signal of his animosity toward what they regarded as the council’s liberating promise. Understood according to the pope’s Benedictine cast of mind, however, this “reform of the reform” is the natural, necessary precursor to Vatican II’s and the Church’s “authentic reception” in the 21st century. Reflecting as a cardinal on St. Benedict’s recovery and rejuvenation of Western civilization, Ratzinger focused on a key Benedictine motto: “Succisa virescit—pruned, it grows again.” He in turn glossed this phrase via the situation facing St. Benedict when he founded his monastery amid much cultural wreckage in sixth-century Europe: “The breakdown became in a certain sense a new departure.” Along these lines, the pope has regarded Vatican II—beyond its misunderstandings and flawed applications, beyond its cultural wreckage—as creating what he has called “salutary crises” out of which the Church will emerge renewed in its mission. For a distillation of what this mission constitutes, and for the absolute precondition for its success in this chaotic new century, one need look no further than Benedict XVI’s inaugural homily.

Among Lumen Gentium’s strongest emphases is the laity’s call to “make Christ known to others… by the testimony of a life resplendent in faith, hope and charity.” The laity’s means of drawing on these virtues are rooted in the closeness of man’s relationship to God through the person of Christ. The council Fathers understood that the laity were to find courage enough in this bond to accomplish the work set out for them by it: “Let them not, then, hide this hope in the depths of their hearts, but even in the program of their secular life let them express it by a continual conversion and by wrestling ‘against the world-rulers of this darkness, against the spiritual forces of wickedness’ (Eph 6:12).”

This is Vatican II at its boldest and truest: The call for aggiornamento does not mean an accommodation to the world but rather a Christ-centered contradiction of it in the immediacy of daily life. John Paul II counseled as much in the signal phrase of his papacy, “Be not afraid!” expressed first during his opening homily as pontiff. Some 27 years later, Benedict XVI offered a profound restatement of his predecessor’s hallmark sentence in his own opening homily as pontiff: “Do not be afraid of Christ!” It is this fear that, in part, accounts for post-Vatican II Catholicism’s obsessions with what the council may or may not have meant. By focusing on these matters—to the exclusion of the Church’s status as the bride and mystical body of Christ—Catholics have let theology degenerate into sociology, politics, and self-interested name-calling. They have thereby ignored the foremost message of the council, encapsulated in Lumen Gentium’s opening: “Christ is the light of the nations. Because this is so, this sacred synod gathered together in the Holy Spirit eagerly desires, by proclaiming the Gospel to every creature… to bring the light of Christ to all men, a light brightly visible on the countenance of the Church.”

To bear this light in its Christ-centered fullness is the mission of the Church and of every Catholic, and this has been so from Pentecost through the 21st century. The Second Vatican Council, through John Paul II, told Catholics and the world to fear not because of Christ. This was a message needed in a time of regnant, atheist ideologies. The council, through Benedict XVI, tells Catholics and the world to fear not Christ Himself. This is a challenge that both testifies to weakened convictions about Christianity’s particularity in the present age and proposes Christ alone as the only possible point of origin for future renewals of the Church and the world.

Ours is an age of empty, arid plenitude, in which a plastic yellow wristband has become the ultimate expression of the human spirit. “The Church as a whole,” in Benedict XVI’s words, “must set out to lead people out of [this] desert, towards the place of life, towards friendship with the Son of God, towards the One who gives us life, and life in abundance.” This is the promise that Vatican II holds for the world and the mission that it carries for the Church. Confronting the deserts of contemporary life, one hopes that Vatican II’s true time, after 40 years, has finally and fully arrived.


  • Randy Boyagoda

    Randy Boyagoda has written on religion and culture in First Things, Religion and Literature, The American Enterprise, and other publications.

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