Getting the Council Right

Published January 11, 2006

Every year, just before or after Christmas, the pope meets with senior members of the Roman Curia for a review of the year just past and a preview of the year ahead. In 1987, John Paul II used the occasion to promote his distinctive Marian theology of the Church, telling the assembled prelates (most of whom quite naturally think of themselves as working at the epicenter of Catholic life) that Mary’s discipleship is a “more…fundamental” reality in the Church than Peter’s authority – although both are essential. One can imagine that some of those present were surprised.

This past December 22, Pope Benedict XVI used the annual papal meeting with the Curia to give his collaborators, and indeed the entire Church, a clear idea of how he understood the past four decades of Catholic life – which has vast implications for how he intends to lead the Church into the future. Why, the Pope asked, had Vatican II (which concluded just forty years ago) had such a difficult reception? Why had a Council intended to give the Church a new birth of evangelical energy on the threshold of a new millennium given rise, instead, to decades of energy-sapping quarrels and power-struggles?

According to the conventional story-line, Vatican II was a battle between (good) “progressives” and (wicked) “conservatives” in which the former won the battle of the Council itself but the latter made a comeback during the (engaging but reactionary) pontificate of John Paul II. Which is, of course, utter nonsense. The radically anti-modern forces at and after Vatican II, identified with the French archbishop Marcel Lefebvre, were and are something of a sideshow. The real struggle at the Council, and ever since, has been between two groups of reformers.

One group of reformers saw the Council as a sharp break with the Catholic past, and particularly with the wholesale rejection of modernity found in the 19th century pontificates of Gregory XVI and Pius IX. A second group of reformers, committed to a renewal of Catholic life that reached back to the sources of Christian self-understanding in the Bible and the first millennium “Fathers”of the Church in order to engage modernity in a distinctively Catholic way, saw Vatican II as the fulfillment of reformist tendencies in the Church that had been underway for decades, rather than as a thorough rupture with the past. The first group of reformers was enthusiastic, even fulsome, in its embrace of contemporary culture; the second group of reformers wanted the Church’s dialogue with the modern world to be a two-way street. The first group seemed largely unconcerned with the self-destructive tendencies in Western culture in the late 1960s; the second group saw this eruption of nihilism and relativism as a cautionary tale, for both the Church and for modernity.

In his December 22 address to the Curia, Pope Benedict underscored his membership in this second group of reformers and his conviction that this school’s interpretation of Vatican II best reflects the intentions of John XXIII in summoning the Council and Paul VI in seeing it through to a successful conclusion. An interpretation of Vatican II according to a model of “discontinuity and rupture,” the Pope said, was an inauthentic, indeed false, reading of Vatican II. The Second Vatican Council, he insisted, was a Council of “reform” in continuity with “the teachings of Jesus [and] the Church of the early martyrs.”

Those who know Joseph Ratzinger – as distinct from the cartoon Ratzinger created by his critics and broadcast through the media – would have expected precisely this thoughtful and careful correction of the conventional storyline. Yet to have him say these things, as pope and at one of the key agenda-defining moments of the Roman Church’s year, was important.

Now, almost nine months into the pontificate, comes the hard part: how will Pope Benedict XVI “translate” his convictions about the intentions and meaning of Vatican II into a reform of the Curia and a reform in the process by which bishops are chosen, so that the Church’s leadership, in Rome and around the world, is committed to authentic reform, not “rupture” and not clerical business-as-usual?

George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of Washington’s Ethics and Public Policy Center, where he holds the William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies.

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