Vatican II: 40 Years Later
Could the Architects Be Deconstructing?

By John L. Allen Jr.
National Catholic Reporter
Downloaded June 29, 2003

Few debates in contemporary Catholicism are more explosive than whether the present pontificate has "turned back the clock" on the Second Vatican Council. Liberals say yes almost as an article of faith, while conservatives assert an equally convinced no.

Stated as such, both responses are more ideological than analytical. Vatican II was a complex event that gave rise to differing, sometimes conflicting impulses, and evaluating the 23-year reign of John Paul II through its optic would require careful issue-by-issue study.

Yet as a matter of historical record, it is worth noting that some of the architects of this papacy have indeed pursued policies upon arrival in Rome that differ from those they advocated as theologians at Vatican II. Whether these reversals result from a more mature understanding of the council, changed historical circumstances, the tug of careerism, or some other force is not within the scope of this essay. But we can at least document a few instances of what has taken place.

To do so, I'll take as an example Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, the prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. His public record both during the council and as a curial official make comparisons especially clear.

Ratzinger came to Vatican II as the theological expert (peritus) of Cardinal Josef Frings of Cologne, Germany. The two were part of the broad progressive majority. In the years afterward, Ratzinger became concerned with excesses he believed resulted from the council's reformist spirit.

One can identify at least five issues on which there are discontinuities between the conciliar and the curial Ratzinger.


At the time of the council, Ratzinger believed the church was overly centralized. In a 1963 commentary on the first session, he described the emergence of "horizontal Catholicity" as one of its most important achievements, in which "the curia found a force to reckon with and a real partner in discussion." He offered as the leading example control over liturgy by bishops' conferences, "not by delegation of the Holy See, but by virtue of their own independent authority."

In a 1990 series of lectures on ecclesiology to the bishops of Brazil, however, Ratzinger placed a strong accent on the "vertical Catholicity" he had earlier sought to correct. His exchanges with Cardinal Walter Kasper on the relationship between the universal and local churches reflect the same thinking. In practice, Ratzinger has not been an ally of "horizontal Catholicity." He was a driving force, for example, in rejecting the lectionary, or collection of scripture readings for the Mass, approved by the U.S. bishops in 1991. He has generally been supportive of the crackdown on the International Commission on English in the Liturgy, a joint project of English-speaking episcopal conferences.

Bishops' conferences

In the first volume of Concilium, a progressive theological journal founded after Vatican II, Ratzinger wrote: "Bishops' conferences . seem to offer themselves today as the best means of concrete plurality in unity. They are also a legitimate form of the collegiate structure of the church.

"One not infrequently hears the opinion that the bishops' conferences lack all theological basis and could not therefore act in a way that could be binding on an individual bishop," Ratzinger writes, rejecting this argument. "Here again we have a case where a one-sided and unhistorical systematization breaks down."

Yet as prefect, Ratzinger has advanced just this argument. The lack of theological standing was a cardinal point of the August 1998 document Apostolos Suos, which held that conferences cannot issue statements on doctrine or morality without either unanimity among its members or the prior approval of the Holy See. Ratzinger had been making this argument since 1983, when he brought a delegation of American bishops to Rome to discuss the second draft of the U.S. bishops' letter on peace.

The synod of bishops

Paul VI launched the synod in 1967 to ensure regular participation by bishops in governance of the universal church. In 1965, Ratzinger saw the synod as a means of continuing the council: "If we may say that the synod is a permanent council in miniature -- its composition as well as its name justify this -- then its institution under these circumstances guarantees that the council will continue after its official end; it will from now on be part of the everyday life of the church."

In his 1987 work Church, Ecumenism and Politics, however, Ratzinger struck a contradictory note: "It [the synod] advises the pope; it is not a small-scale council, and it is not a collegial organ of leadership for the universal church." He argued that according to Lumen Gentium 22, the college of bishops can act with legal force only in an ecumenical council or by all bishops of the world acting in unity. The college cannot delegate authority, hence the synod cannot function as a "council in miniature."

The Holy Office

Frings, the cardinal Ratzinger assisted, delivered one of the most famous speeches of Vatican II, penned in part by Ratzinger, on the role of the doctrinal agency, in those days called the Holy Office. Frings said its "methods and behaviors do not conform at all to the modern era, and are a cause of scandal to the world." In 1968, Ratzinger signed a petition proposing reforms. They included: 1) a theologian should be able to have counsel of his or her own choice from the beginning of any investigation; 2) all relevant documents should be provided upon request; 3) the theologian under review should not be bound by secrecy; 4) any dispute should be referred to two professional theologians, one chosen by the person under review; 5) the International Theological Commission should represent the diversity of theological views in the church.

As prefect of the doctrinal congregation, Ratzinger has by and large not implemented these reforms. Investigations still unfold in the early stages without the defendant being informed or given the opportunity for counsel. Theologians are refused their case files. Secrecy is often imposed. The International Theological Commission, though encompassing diversity within a certain range, is not seen by many theologians as representative of the "schools" that exist today.


In a 1972 essay reflecting on the council, Ratzinger argued for allowing divorced and civilly remarried Catholics under some circumstances to receive the Eucharist. He cited St. Basil: "There it is stated that after a longer penance, Communion can be given to a digamus [someone living in a second marriage], without the suspension of the second marriage; this in confidence of God's mercy who does not leave penance without an answer. . It seems that the granting of full communion, after a time of probation, is nothing less than just, and is fully in harmony with our ecclesiastical traditions."

Yet in September 1994, in response to three German bishops who defended granting Communion under these circumstances, Ratzinger's congregation upheld the traditional ban. "Authentic understanding and genuine mercy are never separated from the truth," it held. Civilly remarried persons "find themselves in a situation that objectively contravenes God's law. Consequently, they cannot receive holy Communion as long as this situation persists."

These five inconsistencies do not, by themselves, prove a rollback. Yet they may establish a burden of proof. It seems legitimate to ask Ratzinger, and those in the pontificate who share his views, if there is some deeper coherence underlying the incongruities, if they misunderstood the council, or if on certain points Vatican II and the reforming energies it unleashed were simply wrong. If the last option is the case, the interesting question becomes how to make theological sense of a council that erred in such important ways.

John L. Allen Jr. is NCR Rome correspondent. His e-mail address is His book Cardinal Ratzinger: The Vatican's Enforcer of the Faith was published in 2000 by Continuum.


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