After the German publisher Droemer Verlag first released it on 9 September 2016, much has already been deeply discussed and variously reported about Benedict XVI’s new interview-book, Benedikt XVI. Letzte Gespräche (Benedict XVI – Last Conversations) which so far has only been published in the German language. It has been shown, for example, how the former pope supports whole-heartedly Pope Francis’ papacy and how he still defends his decision to leave his Petrine office, not calling it a flight, but, rather, a calm, fearless move on his part. It has now also been reported that the former pope insists that the Church was in a good state when he himself decided to leave his office.
Another part of the book, however, will also be of much interest to the Catholic world, inasmuch as Joseph Ratzinger discusses in that section his own role at the Second Vatican Council and even the often destructive consequences of this Church event. Only recently, in March of 2016, he had already made some critical remarks about the Council which soon attracted world-wide attention. For, Ratzinger had described a “two-sided deep crisis,” especially with regard to the Church’s own missionary work following the Second Vatican Council. Now in his new book, he seems to admit that he has qualms of conscience with regard to his own involvement as a peritus at the Council, even if he still insists that the Council itself was necessary. In the following, I shall present some larger portions of the new book’s chapter on the Second Vatican Council, inasmuch as this Council still haunts the Catholic Church and still repeatedly stirs much debate. This chapter is entitled: “Konzil: Traum und Trauma” (“Council: Dream and Trauma”) and can be found on pages 142-167 of the book. I will make intermittent references to some of the pages.
In the text, Benedict XVI admits to have been a “Progressive” at the time of the Second Vatican Council. As the journalist Peter Seewald shows with the help of his somewhat leading questions, Ratzinger also had a leading role in the preparatory work of the Council. He had gotten to know Cardinal Josef Frings of Cologne, Germany, who himself was member of the Preparatory Commission of the Council. Frings at some point invited Ratzinger to write down his own comments and criticisms on each of the schemata (drafts) that he himself had first received from the Commission. As Seewald points out, Frings even used Ratzinger’s own texts which he later presented during those sessions of the Council at which Ratzinger himself was not present.
Again, through Seewald’s searching questions, we learn that it was Fring’s speech on 19 November 1961 in Genoa, Italy – almost a year before the official start of the Council in October of 1962 – that thus “gave a new orientation to the Council.” (p. 143) As Seewald says: “He [Frings] gave the speech, but it was your text.” Pope John XXIII, as Seewald recounts it, invited Cardinal Frings for a conversation in which he told the cardinal: “Your Eminence, I have to thank you. This night, I have read your speech [of 19 November 1961]. What a happy concordance in the way we think.” Ratzinger confirms that he heard of this meeting with John XXIII from Cardinal Frings personally. Ratzinger himself was not to meet the pope personally, because “then he [John XXIII] was already seriously ill.” (p. 145)
The former pope also recalls how he was always present at the meetings at the Villa Mater Dei which were organized by Bishop Hermann Volk. Ratzinger says: “That is also where I then met Lubac….” When asked, how this first personal meeting was with de Lubac, Ratzinger answers: “It was dazzling for me to finally see him in person. He was very simple, very humble, and very gracious. It was immediately as if we were old friends.” Ratzinger adds that “he was always very heartfelt and truly brotherly. Daniélou also was a blithe and convival man (Jean Daniélou, a French cardinal).” In the former pope’s eyes, de Lubac was a very industrious man – just like the French Cardinal Yves Congar who “always continued to work without break at the Theological Commission.”
When asked whom of all the theologians he cherishes most, Ratzinger answers: “I would say Lubac and Balthasar.” He adds that it was “utmost exciting” to meet and speak “with such great figures” as Lubac, Daniélou and Congar. He himself then participated at the sessions at St. Peter’s “from the moment when I became an official Council Theologian [appointed by the pope directly; Ratzinger was to become an official Council Theologian beginning at the Second Council Session (Sep.-Dec 1963) and remaining thereafter].” When coming first to Rome in these years, Ratzinger admits to having had
a sort of an anti-Roman sentiment. Not in the sense that we denied the primacy – the obedience toward the pope – but, rather, that one had, after all, a certain inner reserve with regard to the theology made in Rome. In this sense, there was a certain distancing. I myself, however, never went so far as my fellow student who said: “If at all, then I rather travel to Jerusalem than to Rome!”
However, Ratzinger admits to not having had “a special urge to go to Rome.” When finally arriving in Rome on Easter of 1962 for the first time in his life, he stressed how much he was impressed with seeing the sites of “early Rome,” the catacombs, the Necropolis under St. Peter’s, the early churches – because “there was the origin palpable.” Again, he stresses his attentiveness to the “continuity stemming from its origin.” This attitude will be found also in Ratzinger’s own work during the Council, namely: to return to the origins and to bypass the Thomistic theology. But, we shall come to that later.
First, Ratzinger describes how he was impressed with Pope John XXIII when talking about his first trip to Rome and about the Council itself:
There was already inherent in it the enthusiasm which John XXIII had awakened. He fascinated me from the beginning with his complete lack of conventionality. I liked that he was so direct, so simple, so human.
When asked whether he was a follower of John XXIII, the former pope answers: “Yes, that I was.” And he insisted on that when he was further asked whether he was a “real fan”: “A real fan, one can say that.” Ratzinger recounts how it was “a moving moment” when the Council was announced, and it caused “great hopes.” He himself participated in all four sessions, from beginning to the end. Ratzinger admits to not having been too well-versed in Latin at the time of the Council. (Later, a priest friend assured us, Ratzinger was to become even an excellent speaker of Latin.) “I never studied theology in Latin,” says the German theologian, “we made everything in German.” (p. 153)
The former pope also tells Seewald that, during the Council, he himself was part of the “Progressives,” even though “then ‘progressive’ did not yet mean that one breaks out of the Faith, but, rather, that one learns to understand it better and lives it more correctly, out of the origins.” Ratzinger continues:
At that time, I was of the opinion that that is what we all want. Famous Progressivists like Lubac, Daniélou et cetera thought alike. The change was palpable already during the second Conciliar year , but it became clearer only in the course of the following years.
It is worthwhile at this point to quote another question by Seewald since it is, in itself, very informative. The German journalist says:
New research shows that your contribution at the side of Cardinal Frings has been much greater than you yourself have shown it. We already mentioned the Speech of Genoa. Additionally, before the opening of the Council, there was a first speech for the the German-speaking bishops at the Anima [the Collegio Teutonico di Santa Maria dell’Anima, the historic Pontifical College for German Priests], as a kind of briefing. Then follows the instruction for Frings to torpedo the election of the [members of the] ten Conciliar Commissions which was planned for 13 October ; and which would have favored the candidates chosen by the Roman Curia.
Ratzinger responds with some reserve to this question, saying that this “instruction for Frings” was “fully his [Frings’] own initiative.” He continues:
I did not enmesh myself in these bureaucratic, technical, or political things. That was truly his idea that the Council first should get to know each other in order to elect the members of the Commissions out of its own midst.
The former pope also describes how people were surprised by Frings’ effectively “revolutionary” initiatives and leadership, saying that this cardinal was then certainly “known to be very conservative and strict.” Frings himself explained once to Ratzinger that he considered that there is a difference between ruling one’s own diocese in obedience to the pope and being invited by the pope to “co-govern” the Church at the Council and thus “to take up one’s own responsibility.” Ratzinger thinks that Frings did not have a clear plan of reform when arriving at the Council, but that he had shared all the schemata with Ratzinger ahead of time. The former pope comments on the schemata which he himself
did not judge so negatively as they have later been assessed to be. I then had sent him [Frings] many corrections, but the structure as a whole – except for the decree on Revelation – I did not touch. We [Frings and Ratzinger] agreed that the fundamental orientation was there, but that there was still much to improve. That is to say, that the current Magisterium had to be less dominant and that the [Holy] Scripture and the [Church] Fathers were to have more weight.
Here again, Seewald’s own searching question is worth mentioning. He says that Ratzinger is said to have had “a decisive role at the ‘insurrectionary assembly’ [Putschversammlung] at the German Priest’s College Anima on 15 October 1962.” At that meeting, according to the German journalist, a text was produced as an alternative to the Roman Draft which then was 3000 times copied and distributed among the Council Fathers. Ratzinger demurs somewhat in his response: “To call it an ‘ insurrectionary assemby’ is too much. But we were of the opinion that, especially with regard to the topic of Revelation, one had to speak differently from how it was then transpiring there.” He continues, further showing his own intellectual distance from Thomistic Scholasticism: “The [original] draft had been written in the neo-scholastic style and it did not take sufficient account of our own insights.” Since Revelation was his specialty, Ratzinger admits to having played an active role in that debate, “but all of it was at the invitation of, and under the eyes of, His Eminence [Cardinal Frings].” When he was later accused of having “duped” Frings, he rejected it. “We were both convinced that we had to serve here the cause of the Faith and of the Church,” explains Ratzinger. He then adds:
Also, in order to clarify the true relationship between Scripture, Tradition, and the Magisterium – both with new notions and in a new way to approach the matter so that it can truly be more understood and justified. And that way was then also later adopted [by the Council].
For the former pope, he – together with his progressive colleagues (mostly cardinals) – was merely developing new ideas. “I do not know how this then spread into the whole Council,” he admits. “Of course we were then to be showered with polemics. That this [innovation] was a typically freemasonic text and such things.” (p. 156) When asked whether this is true, Ratzinger confirms it even with some laughter, saying: “Yes, yes. Even though I really should not be under suspicion of being a freemason.”
Again, Seewald shows the continuation of Ratzinger’s influence on the Council: “They were your arguments and your text which Cardinal Frings thus presented on 14 November 1962” and which then “made everything tumble.” With it, the original draft and plan was “off the table,” the ones that would “have blocked everything”; and now “everything could be discussed freely” – according to Seewald. In his additional response to Seewald’s question, the former pope describes how there was at the vote only a slight majority for the conservative schemata. He adds: “But then Papa Giovanni saw that this majority was too thin to be sustainable, and thus he decided that it shall be redone all over again.” Ratzinger makes clear that he was glad about this decision:
We were then all very interested in seeing what the pope would do [after the vote]. And very glad that he said we will start all over again, even though the pure legal situation would have allowed us to preserve the old state.
Seewald’s own follow-up question shows once more Ratzinger’s own important role at the Council when he points out that only seven days later, on 21 November 1962, the Council Fathers rejected the schema on the “’Sources of Revelation’, which you [Ratzinger] had so heavily criticized.” Seewald says to Ratzinger:
You wrote at the time that the text was “influenced by the anti-modernist way of thinking.” It had a tone which was “frigid, yes, nearly shocking.” You yourself then saw this removal [of the original schema on Revelation] as the real turning point of the Council.
In a laughing tone, the former pope responds, saying that “I am now astonished myself with what boldness I spoke in those days.” He confirms that “this was a true turning point – that is to say, it removed one of the presented texts and there was a complete new start of the discussions.”
When asked about his collaboration with Karl Rahner, Ratzinger reveals that it was easy to work with Rahner – who was twenty-three years older than he – because he was willing to encourage younger theologians. The former pope adds:
When working with him [Rahner] on the text, however, I realized that we were coming from two different worlds of thought. He came fully out of Scholasticism, which was a great advantage for him, because he was thus able much more to enter into the common context of discussion. While I myself, after all, came from the Bible and from the Fathers.
Ratzinger also explains that he mostly worked with Rahner in 1962 and that it was easy to write together their various texts because they had “a common basic idea and basic intention.” (This was left unspecified.)
In another context, Seewald asks Ratzinger about the incident in which he himself strongly contradicted Pope Paul VI when “he not only stopped the Old Missal, but also at the same time forbade it.” (An expression which stands in contradiction to Pope Benedict’s own words in 2007 according to which the Old Mass “never has been abrogated.”) The former pope objects to this question, saying that “’strongly’ is a little bit too much.” He explains that the pope did not punish him for his criticism because “he was certainly convinced that I, all in all, followed fully his own line – which was true.” (What “his own line” was is again left unspecified.)
At the end of this important chapter which shows Cardinal Ratzinger’s own involvement in the Second Vatican Council in detail, Peter Seewald raises the idea that Ratzinger later started having doubts about those innovative developments during, and then right after, the Council; and he asks him whether “it is part of the tragedy of the Council that here started a new split within the Church which, essentially, continues even until today.” The former pope confirms this description, saying:
I would say, yes. The will of the bishops was to renew the Faith, to deepen it. However, there were, more and more, other forces effective – especially journalists – who interpreted the things in a fully new way. At some point, people started to ask: “If the bishops can change everything, why can we not do the same?” The liturgy started to crumble and to slide into randomness. In this regard, one could see that that which had been positively willed was then being pushed into another direction. Since 1965, I felt it to be my mission to clarify what we truly want and what we do not want.
Seewald subsequently asks the former pope an important and piercing question: “As a participant, as a co-responsible person, did one not also have some qualms of conscience?” Ratzinger answers:
One does indeed ask oneself whether one did it the right way. Especially when the whole thing went off the rails, this was certainly a question that one raised. Cardinal Frings later had very strong qualms of conscience. But I always had the consciousness that what we had factually said and implemented was right and that it also needed to happen. In itself, we acted correctly – even if we certainly did not correctly assess the political effects and the factual consequences. One was thinking too much in a theological way and one did not consider what consequences the things would have.
When asked whether it was a mistake to convoke the Council at all, Ratzinger insists:
No, it was certainly right. Well, one of course could have asked whether it was necessary or not. And there were from the beginning people who were against it. In itself, however, there was a moment in the Church where one simply expected something new, a renewal, a renewal coming out of the whole – not only coming from Rome – unto a new encounter for the Universal Church. In this regard, the hour was simply there. (p. 167)
The former pope also confirms that, later, when he was himself pope, he indeed tried to incorporate some special elements of the Council – such as (in Seewald’s words) “a new physiognomy of the primacy which should lead more to a ‘togetherness’ of pope and bishops,” and also the fostering of a “spirit of simplicity.” He then responds to Seewald’s implicitly interrogatory comment (“Is this description correct?”) with only two simple words: “Yes, absolutely.”
Thus the former pope again seems to show that, despite certain reservations, he is still essentially a man of the Council – though some qualms of conscience may yet remain.