Honoring Pope Benedict’s Legacy, part 6

By Guest Blogger Dr. Chris Baglow

Imagine being a young theologian whose career is only beginning, standing at a podium in Rome the day before the opening of Vatican II.  Before you sits every authority figure in the Church who hails from your homeland and others who speak your native language.  Imagine beyond them a very attentive group of theologians who represent nearly every authority figure in the Vatican short of the Pope himself.  Imagine criticizing the work of the latter group for being too divisive, too petty, for taking the great ecumenical council in the wrong direction before it even begins.

Joseph Ratzinger and Yves Congar at the Council

Now you are in a position to appreciate the courage of the man we call  Benedict XVI.

Avid readers of Joseph Ratzinger/Benedict XVI often note the peacefulness that flows like a wave through his prose.  Hopefully my readers have tasted some of the serenity of the truth in the passages I have quoted over the last week.  But serenity does not equal timidity, and nothing shows the courage of the man better than his career at the Second Vatican Council, which began in the 35th year of his life when he was a mere pup compared to the churchmen who held the positions of authority – bishops and cardinals – entering the Council.  To many of them, the young priest/peritus (expert) was far too daring, even impertinent, in his willingness to assert what this great council ought to be, and ought NOT to be, about.

Take these two excerpts from the diary of Yves Congar (pictured with Ratzinger in this photo), the great French Dominican who believed himself to have been invited to the Council to be mere “window-dressing,” a token chosen by the Curia to project openness to new ideas, all the while planning to sideline him in every way.  The first refers to an actual intervention on the council floor by Cardinal Ottaviani, the head of the Holy Office and President of the Vatican II Doctrinal Commission, the second to a tidbit Congar was informed of two days later:

10/21/63: Cardinal Ottaviani: protested about the fact that three periti (experts) had distributed leaflets urging the episcopates to vote in favor of a married diaconate.  It would be possible to make some married laymen acolytes (in this connection he used the word ‘concession.’)

10/23/63: In the tram I took in order to go to the Vatican for the Theological Commission, I met up with Medina. Medina told me (having heard it from McGrath) that the Congregation for Religious had sent to the Superiors General a list of dangerous experts . . . (in this connection, the three experts nailed by Cardinal Ottaviani the other day were said to be Rahner, Ratzinger and Martelet.)

dangerous expert, upsetting the so-called conservative plans for a celibate permanent diaconate?  I know that’s not the picture the media paints of Joseph Ratzinger.  I know there are some who think he changed from this when he became Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.  But for today’s “BENE DICTUM” quote, I’d like to highlight one way in which he certainly hasn’t changed – his willingness to call a spade a spade even when doing so takes unbelievable courage, when doing so would almost certainly create endless trouble for him.

A few months before the council opened on October 11, 1962, the bishops all received preparatory documents (schemata), proposed drafts from the conciliar Preparatory Commission for each of the things on which John XXIII desired the council fathers to speak.  The most controversial  of these was De Fontibus Revelationis, the draft for the document on Divine Revelation. When it came up in November, 1962, he council fathers were already displeased with it.  It was clear to them that the conclusions drawn represented only one theological point-of-view on the matter, thatit did not have the “Catholic wideness” that ought to characterize conciliar documents.

There was a flurry of interventions criticizing the document; even, in the case of one cardinal, Liénart of France, a call for it to be entirely rewritten.  Cardinal Frings of Germany noted that “it is not the work of Councils to resolve disagreements among Catholic theologians, nor for one school to anathematize another school, but only to condemn heresies.” Those council fathers who criticized the schema came with their criticisms well-prepared.  But in the case of the German-speaking bishops and cardinals, including Frings himself, these concerns were not entirely self-originating. They had received them from a lecture given in Rome (and circulated widely afterwards) on October 10, 1962, the day before the Pope opened the council, by a youngperitus named Joseph Ratzinger.  At the end of his speech he turned his criticism of the preparatory documents into a criticism of an approach to the Council in which authority is abused as force, and privilege is abused as power. We’ve been listening to the lion purr; now let’s listen to him roar:

The Council assembled is God’s army. But one should never forget that the battle for which Christ assembles his forces is not a fight between those and against those who gather, but that they fight together against the powers of darkness.

Consequently, the meaning of the Council does not lie in authoritatively settling internal theological issues, but in giving a common witness of faith against the unbelief of this world.  A number of theschemas make it all too clear that here one theological school wants to finally drive the other school from the arena… [Here he quotes his fellow expert, the much-persecuted Henri de Lubac] — “Miraculously protected against the very sound of the assaults delivered upon our faith in God, they apparently have not suspected for a moment the principal adversary… And yet that adversary is legion.”

The army of Christ has other things to do in this hour than to enter into academic disputes.  The world is not waiting from us further refinements of a system, but it looks to hear the answer of faith in the hour of unbelief.“[1]

Well said!


[1] Jared Wicks, “Six texts by Prof. Joseph Ratzinger as peritus before and during Vatican II,” Gregorianum 89 (2008) : 284-285.

This entry was posted in Pope Musings. Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s