Council agitated minds of the faithful

February 11, 2013

In his memoirs, Joseph Ratzinger, a young theologian advising Cardinal Josef Frings at the Second Vatican Council and who is today Pope Benedict XVI, recalled the atmosphere in Germany when he returned home after each of the four sessions of the council:

“Every time I returned from Rome, I found in the Church and among theologians a state of mind that was more and more agitated. More and more the impression grew that nothing in the Church remained stable any longer, that everything could be changed.

“More and more the council came to resemble a great ecclesial parliament that could change everything and could even revolutionize everything in accordance with whatever it decided.

“The growth in resentment of Rome and the Roman Curia was increasingly evident; they appeared to be the enemies of everything that was new and progressive. Discussions concerning the council were presented according to the partisan divisions typical of modern parliamentarianism” (Milestones: Memoirs, 1927-1977, p. 98).

In fact, one would not have to leave the precincts of the Vatican itself to find the attitudes Ratzinger described. There clearly was an “us versus them” mentality among the council fathers themselves – on both sides, both that of the so-called progressive majority and that of the so-called conservative minority.

Pope Benedict exchanges greetings with members of the Roman Curia following his 2005 speech in which he analyzed different ways of understanding the Second Vatican Council.


Pope Benedict exchanges greetings with members of the Roman Curia following his 2005 speech in which he analyzed different ways of understanding the Second Vatican Council.

Throughout Vatican II, there were efforts similar to what one finds in “modern parliaments” of advancing one’s own point of view and attempting to undermine the views of those with whom one disagreed.

Was this a sordid reality? To some extent, it may have been. However, it is difficult for outsiders to make that sort of judgment. Vatican II did involve a clash of different theologies, theologies that were sincerely and passionately held by good men. Conflict was inevitable.

In that light, it was crucial not only that there was a requirement for a two-thirds majority to approve any document, but also that the pope had a role to play. Pope Paul VI intervened several times, no doubt mainly at the behest of the minority group, in order to ensure basic truths did not get lost.


Ratzinger’s observations, nevertheless, were perceptive. The events of the council did stir up an atmosphere that tended to foster the belief that everything was up for grabs. And, if the victory was not won at Vatican II, then surely it would be at some later council.

That belief nurtured the confused and uncertain spirit that followed the council and that is still alive today. The knowledge that a debate is occurring over the teaching of the Church is bound to foster another belief – that Church teaching is malleable and contingent on who holds the reins of “power” in the Church.

If that is your perspective, the next step is to push for a broadening of who holds that power so that Church decision-making more closely resembles that of a modern democracy. Indeed, Vatican II’s teaching on the People of God has, not infrequently, been distorted in order to present it as a theology that would justify making the Church a democracy.


Many years later, in a 2005 address to the Roman Curia, Ratzinger, now the pope, spoke of two ways of interpreting Vatican II. The first is “a hermeneutic of discontinuity and rupture” – that is, understanding the council as representing in effect a revolution that threw out much of the Church’s past and turned it in a radically different direction.

The alternative interpretation is that of “a hermeneutic of reform” – the belief that the reforms of the council were in continuity with the Church’s past. The Church is both dynamic and developing on one hand and stable and essentially unchanging on the other.

Pope Paul VI intervened several times before approving decisions of Vatican II.


Pope Paul VI intervened several times before approving decisions of Vatican II.

The hermeneutic of rupture would focus on that which was new at Vatican II and more on the alleged spirit of the council than on its actual teachings. The hermeneutic of reform would tend to downplay the actual events of the council and focus almost exclusively on the documents that the council fathers approved.

There are, in fact, many more versions of what happened, or didn’t happen, at Vatican II than the pope was able to discuss in his 2005 speech, some of which I will mention in next week’s article.


My own analysis is that Vatican II was a council of reform, not revolution. The problem with that hermeneutic, however, is that it can tend to collapse into a belief that little of any real consequence occurred at Vatican II. The council, in that telling, was little more than the unpacking of the logical consequences that follow from the papal documents of the previous 70 years.

That view nothing of consequence happened at Vatican II – as should be obvious from earlier articles in this series – was not the view of Joseph Ratzinger.

Important things did occur at Vatican II. Some of them followed a logical trajectory from earlier magisterial statements; others came out of various movements of ressourcement, movements that retrieved aspects of Church life and teaching from its early centuries that had been forgotten.


Still other events were the result of the council trying to read the signs of the times in the light of the Gospel. The council’s Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World (Gaudium et Spes), for example, is an ambitious document without precedent in the history of the Church.

To tell what happened at Vatican II, one surely needs to focus on the 16 documents that were approved. Moreover, one must also tell the story of the council itself – its human drama and the conflicts and tensions that wove their way through its four sessions from 1962 through 1965.

A failure to tell that history would risk obscuring the real changes and reform that did occur at the council. To be faithful to Vatican II, we need to reflect not only on what it taught but also on the events that gave rise to it teaching in the manner that it did.