Many years ago I started looking for a copy of Joseph Ratzinger’s Theological Highlights of Vatican II, then long out of print. Copies were as rare and as prized as gold dust, but eventually I found one in Chicago, among the office bookshelves of a university professor who was kind enough to photocopy the pages for me. Now Paulist Press has done us all a favor by reprinting Highlights in an attractive and compact format ($16.95, 265 pp.). Every page of this short book repays a reader’s close attention.

Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict XVI, was just thirty-five years old in 1962 when the Second Vatican Council began. Already known as a brilliant theologian, he attended all four sessions as peritus, or expert, to Cardinal Joseph Frings, archbishop of Cologne. Following each session, Ratzinger wrote an account and analysis of the theological debates among the bishops, giving his verdict on what had been achieved. These four pamphlets make up the book, and they still have the freshness about them of that springtime of the church. Almost every page breathes “the spirit of Vatican II”—the spirit that Ratzinger, as cardinal prefect of the Vatican Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) from 1982 to 2005, would later denigrate. In a useful and workmanlike introduction, Fr. Thomas Rausch maintains that the author’s views, “with a couple of exceptions, have remained remarkably consistent over the years.” That assessment appears to be the triumph of an ideological opinion over the evidence of the text, which for the most part proves the exact opposite.

As far as the young Joseph Ratzinger was concerned, episcopal collegiality, papal authority, the liturgy, the question of religious freedom, ecumenism, and the church’s approach both to other religions and to secular culture were all in urgent need of reforming scrutiny by the council fathers. At the time, the future Pope Benedict was counted as one of the most influential “progressives” (to use a term Pope Paul VI himself used). Coming together from various theological starting points, these thinkers forged an informal coalition dedicated to Pope John XXIII’s call for change in the church’s approach to the larger world. Indeed, Highlights features a masterly exposition of the doctrine of episcopal collegiality, the key structural reform affirmed by the council (and so far its greatest unfulfilled legacy). This doctrine was overwhelmingly approved in a straw poll of the bishops on October 30, 1963. No one had expected them to embrace so wholeheartedly the notion that the church is governed not by pope and Roman curia, but by all the bishops in union with the pope. Yet the council came to understand collegiality to be in line with Jesus’ commission to the community of the twelve apostles, with and under Peter.

Collegiality, writes Ratzinger in Highlights, is the council’s answer to the “most important” question confronting the third session—papal centralism. “Even the person indifferent to religion,” he declares, “sees the papal primacy as an obstacle to the union of Christendom.” The doctrine of collegiality is the corrective to a one-sided emphasis on the functions of the papal office. The church is governed by the college of bishops, who hold their authority by divine right, not by papal delegation. Though one of them, as the successor of Peter, is responsible for guaranteeing and safeguarding their unity, his task “is not monarchic rule” but coordination of the diversity “which belongs to the church’s essence.” Three times on one page alone, Ratzinger defines the church as “a fabric of worshiping congregations”—each drawing its life from the Eucharist and linked with all the others through the local bishops, who therefore share with the pope the care of the whole. Years later, as prefect of the CDF, Cardinal Ratzinger—in a famous exchange with Cardinal Walter Kasper—would take the opposite view, arguing that the universal church pre-exists the local churches as a mystical reality that encloses them.

In Highlights, however, Ratzinger consistently contrasts the centralizing tendency of the papacy with the diversifying tendency of the episcopate, noting that in the council documents there is “a constant tension between full papal power and full collegial power” and asserting that the church flourishes most fully when a balance exists between the two. He deals with the attachment of a “Preliminary Note” on this subject to the text of the council’s Constitution on the Church—a note, he writes, that “injected something of bitterness” into the closing days of the third session. Ratzinger stresses that this addition “was not even incorporated into the council text itself or voted on by the council; consequently, it was signed neither by the pope nor the council fathers but only by General Secretary [Pericle] Felici.” Undoubtedly, he continues, “the scales were here further tipped in favor of papal primacy as opposed to collegiality.” Nevertheless, the text reflects both sides of these “conflicting tendencies,” and so leaves open the possibility of interpretations “in both directions.” And that was precisely the problem. The note helped progressives and conservatives agree about the doctrine of collegiality, but only because collegiality meant different things to each side. And at the end of the council the main body of the bishops would go home, leaving representatives of the conservative minority in place.

The council’s revaluation of local churches goes in tandem with its revaluation of bishops’ conferences. In the council’s first session the conferences were entrusted with putting liturgical reforms into practice in their own regions (see “Lost in Translation: The Bishops, the Vatican & the English Liturgy,” Commonweal, December 2, 2005). The bishops’ role in reforming the liturgy existed “not by delegation from the Holy See, but by virtue of their own independent authority,” Ratzinger writes. Enthusiastically he describes this “decentralization of decision-making” as “a fundamental innovation.” Where the conferences previously had only advisory powers, now they had “in their own right a definite legislative function,” and had emerged as “a new element in the church structure” between individual bishops and the pope—reminiscent of the regional synods of the early church, which met regularly and had deliberative powers.

Meanwhile, a Synod of Bishops was to be established in Rome as an organ of the world episcopate. It was supposed to be “a counterpart” to the curia, not “part of the papal bureaucracy.” Here Ratzinger acknowledges that the Synod of Bishops that was eventually established by Pope Paul VI was substantially different from what many bishops had hoped for. As it turned out, this new body was directly subordinated to the authority of the pope, who alone had the right to convoke it and decide the venue. Many bishops felt that a collegial organ had been turned into an instrument of the primate. Ratzinger tried to look at the bright side, hoping the synod would still be “something like a council extended into the church’s everyday life.”

It was not to be. Over the coming decades, John Paul II, one of the most dominant popes of all time, brought about a renewed absorption of episcopacy by primacy. In his first encyclical, Redemptor hominis, the new pope made it clear that the bishops were there to help him with his government. A bishop was collegial if he agreed with the pope. And at John Paul’s side in establishing this view was that formerly reforming German theologian, the same man who had once so vigorously welcomed a decentralization of papal power.

In Rome as head of the CDF, Joseph Ratzinger developed a very different view of bishops’ conferences from the one put forward in Highlights. That view was reflected in John Paul II’s 1998 apostolic letter Apostolos suos, which instructed the conferences that they had only the most circumscribed authority to pronounce on church matters. They should be seen not as bodies exercising an intermediate collegiality in their own right—as Ratzinger had once thought—but as mere associations of individuals. A deliberative opinion could only be offered by a conference if every single one of its members agreed with it. That spelled the end of pastoral letters such as those issued by the U.S. bishops on nuclear deterrence in 1983 and on economic justice in 1986. In canon law the standing of the conferences has been defined in terms very close to those applying to the congregations of the Roman curia. The curia, however, is of wholly human origin, while the authority of bishops is rooted in revelation. The new canonical definition allows each episcopal conference to legislate as a body, but not to teach without unanimity.

What happened? In the case of both future popes, Karol Wojtyla and Joseph Ratzinger, 1968 looms as perhaps the key date. That was the year Wojtyla, then the archbishop of Poland’s second most important see, Krakow, watched as bishops’ conferences around the world responded to Pope Paul VI’s encyclical Humanae vitae, which reiterated the traditional ban on artificial contraception. Many Catholics, including bishops, had hoped for, and expected, a change in church teaching. As a result, a number of bishops’ conferences emphasized the rights of individual conscience when it came to the reception of Humanae vitae. Yet Paul VI’s encyclical was authentic papal teaching. There would be no filtering of it for the Catholics of Krakow—and the city’s archbishop and future pope doubtless drew his own negative conclusions about the attempts of others to do so.

In that same year, 1968, student unrest burst out in Western Europe. At the time, Ratzinger was a professor at the University of Tübingen, the flagship of German theology. His backer for the post had been the Swiss theologian Hans Küng. The two were cordial colleagues at this time, meeting together regularly—Ratzinger, a cycling enthusiast, would accept a lift in Küng’s Alfa Romeo if hills were in prospect. Faced with student disruption in the lecture hall, even Küng’s pugnacious self-confidence was tested to the limit. Ratzinger has said he never had difficulties with students, but an eyewitness, Hermann Häring, later Küng’s assistant and eventually professor at Nijmegen University, has recorded how “the gentle and somewhat shy professor” would be interrupted by whistles from his audience. These catcalls, wrote Häring, “must have seemed to him to be arrows piercing his body and mind.”

In his two autobiographical memoirs, Salt of the Earth (an interview with Peter Seewald, 1996) and Milestones (1998), Ratzinger has recalled one particularly traumatic incident. When students of the Protestant theological faculty distributed leaflets asking, “What is Jesus’ Cross but the expression of a sadomasochistic glorification of pain?”—the reference is to the theology of the Cross developed by his Protestant colleagues Jürgen Moltmann and Ernst Käsemann—Ratzinger joined a Protestant professor in remonstrating with them. But the students did not desist, and the Catholic theological faculty, far from opposing them, leaned in the same direction. “So I knew what was at stake,” Ratzinger told Seewald some three decades later. “Anyone who wanted to remain a progressive in this context had to give up his integrity.”

The sway of Marxism, rampant among the university students at that time, terrified him. And the Catholic theological faculty at Tübingen was far from immune. Ratzinger had looked to them, and to the Protestant theological students, to form a bulwark against a fascism of the Left, but felt they had failed him. “The Marxist idea has conquered the world,” he had written hyperbolically in Highlights. In 1969 Ratzinger left Tübingen for the relative academic backwater of Regensburg—and, for reasons that will always to an extent remain mysterious, he left behind the Ratzinger we meet in this book.

Though not a specialist in the subject, Ratzinger over the years has made a particular study of the liturgy, which he loves. Here also, in view of his later record, Highlights is a startling read. The book leaves no doubt that its author wholeheartedly welcomed the liturgical reforms of Vatican II. Indeed, his judgment on past liturgical practice is severe, his critique thoroughgoing. “In the late Middle Ages,” he writes, “awareness of the real essence of Christian worship increasingly vanished.” When Martin Luther attacked, the Catholic Church registered its reaction at the Council of Trent—a reaction Ratzinger deems inadequate. Trent, he writes, centralized all liturgical authority in the “purely bureaucratic” Congregation of Rites. Lacking “historical perspective,” the congregation “viewed the liturgy solely in terms of ceremonial rubrics.” A sort of “court etiquette for sacred matters” prevailed, reducing the liturgy to “a rigid, fixed, and firmly encrusted system.” No wonder Ratzinger thinks that none of the saints of the Counter-Reformation—Ignatius, Teresa of Ávila, John of the Cross—drew their spirituality from the liturgy.

In the Baroque era, High Mass “became a kind of sacred opera,” during which the people in church would be busy with their own devotions, reciting the rosary. “They were united with the priest only by being in the same church with him.” In endeavouring “to preserve old forms,” the Vatican Congregation of Rites had brought about “the total impoverishment of the liturgy.” Yet Ratzinger insists that “for the church, divine worship is a matter of life and death.” Thus, if the liturgy’s proper function was to be recovered, “the wall of Latinity had to be breached.” But even more than that was necessary. “It was now clear, for example, that the selection of biblical texts had frozen at a certain point.” So “a new theology of divine worship” had to be worked out.

Years later, on his way to becoming Pope Benedict, Ratzinger would explain why he came to think differently. “I was not able to foresee,” he would reflect in Milestones in 1998, “that the negative sides of the liturgical movement would afterward re-emerge with redoubled strength, almost to the point of pushing the liturgy toward its own self-destruction.” The same liturgical reforms of the council were one of the main bones of contention for Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre, the former superior general of the Holy Ghost Fathers (Spiritans), who was prominent among the leaders of the minority at the council and who subsequently went into schism. His followers continue to reject root and branch the council that Ratzinger was so enthusiastic about at the time. Lefebvre saw in it a capitulation to the principles of the French Revolution, ideas the church had always previously rejected—liberty (religious freedom), equality (collegiality), and fraternity (ecumenism). The council’s embrace of these modern values was “an adulterous union,” declared Lefebvre in 1976, and the newly arrived “bastard” rite of the Mass was the outcome.

In view of his later support for negotiations aimed at reconciling the Lefebvrists, it is notable how strong was Ratzinger’s support for the positions they repudiate, including the declaration on religious liberty, which the schismatics loathe most of all. That declaration was passed during the fourth session of the council, after great contention, to Ratzinger’s happy approval: “Here,” he writes, “was the end of the Middle Ages, the end even of the Constantinian age.” He feels relief, calling Catholicism’s centuries of opportunistic entanglement with the state “one of the most serious liabilities of the church.”

Ratzinger employs equally strong language in Highlights discussing the declaration on the church and the Jews, also passed after much contention at the end of the council’s fourth session. Here, he sums up, the bishops’ task was to lay to rest “a dark historical background so full of tears and blood.” The original intention had been to produce a text specifically on the Jews; and when, at the urging of the Middle Eastern churches, the decision was made to fold this statement into the declaration on non-Christian religions, Ratzinger doubts that this was “the best thing to do.” The Jews, he writes, have “a special place in salvation history and theology” that “must not be clouded over.” Welcoming the council’s new approach to Judaism, Ratzinger writes that the bishops had “to make amends for many centuries of disastrous mistakes in proclaiming the Christian message.” Though the Christian view of the Jews was not “the actual root and cause of modern anti-Semitism,” it nevertheless carries with it an “oppressively heavy” burden of guilt. The “sweeping purification” begun by Pope John XXIII remains, in his view, a “positive Christian obligation.”

The council document containing the declaration is known by its opening Latin words, Nostra aetate. Again, the Lefebvrists rejected it. Their opposition was based in a refusal to accept that the bishops gathered in this huge assembly had the authority to amend or supersede previous noninfallible statements of popes. Paul VI himself had had strong reservations about both texts, Ratzinger records, “in view of the break with tradition they entailed.” Ratzinger is critical of attempts to deny that such transformations were happening, and considers the declaration on religious liberty to have erred when it tried to discern continuity in the statements of the official church on this issue. Far better to omit or adapt “these compromising formulas,” Ratzinger asserts, since in reality the text offers “something new.” Similarly, the declaration on the relation of the church to non-Christian religions “really was a new page in the book of Catholic-Jewish relations”—a page whose message Ratzinger clearly approves.

Highlights shows Ratzinger to be equally positive about ecumenism, paying tribute to the influence of the non-Catholic observers who made their presence at the council felt in many different ways, participating in countless discussions and critiques. Initially many of these observers had felt that the council was treating them not as members of legitimate Christian faith communities, but only as individuals ripe for absorption into the Catholic Church. This complaint was attended to, and “heretics and schismatics” became “brothers and sisters in Christ.” The revised text on ecumenism, Ratzinger writes, recognized that “multiple internal ties” exist among Christians—from baptism and common recognition of other sacraments to common faith in Christ, common possession of Scripture, and a hidden unity in the Spirit. Thus the council, he states, “conceded to non-Catholic Christian communities the honorable name of ‘church.’ Though they are not ‘the Church,’ they are really ‘churches.’” It was “an important new doctrinal step,” he asserts, to describe the Eastern churches and the ecclesial communities issuing from the Reformation officially in this way—though, he notes, the Orthodox, for their part, had long been acknowledged as such.

With the passage of time, Ratzinger’s enthusiasm for “this important new doctrinal step” was to cool. In 2000 a declaration by the CDF titled Dominus Iesus described Protestant communities that lack the episcopate and valid Eucharists as “not proper churches” (though the Latin proprius could be translated in a more acceptable way as “not churches in the full sense”). At the same time, a parallel notification cut the Orthodox down to size by warning that they should not be loosely or ambiguously described as “sister churches.”

In the last section of Highlights, covering the council’s fourth session, one picks up a discernible change of tone. Clouds begin to appear, cautions are given, and the ambivalence Ratzinger would later adopt toward the reform begins to show itself. Do not paint the proceedings too much in black and white, he warns. Yes, the church needs renewal—“very much indeed,” he says. “Yet it must not be forgotten that the church has always remained the church, and that at any time in history the way of the gospel could be found and was found in it.”

As has long been known, Ratzinger’s major reservation concerns Gaudium et spes, the Constitution on the Church in the Modern World, generally regarded as a jewel in the council’s crown. Ratzinger never liked this text. Nor did Cardinal Frings, who—no doubt in consultation with his peritus—criticized it on the council floor. Nor was Karl Rahner happy with it. To an extent, as Ratzinger acknowledges, there was a clash here between French and German theologians; the latter could never escape the force of their fellow countryman Luther’s analysis of the bondage of the will to sin—a bondage they understood all too well through their experience of the demonic evil of the Third Reich. As an Augustinian, Ratzinger looked askance at the Thomist foundations of Gaudium et spes, which celebrated the revelatory mystery of Being. Earlier, he had depicted theology as “oscillating between two extremes; on the one hand, an affirmation of the world; on the other, a radical theology of the Cross.” He took the second preference, and in 1967, in another commentary on the work of the council, lamented that Gaudium et spes was set in a framework that “is not at all prepared to make sin the center of the theological edifice.” For him, as for Rahner, a pessimism that Christians should profess toward the world was missing.

Yet the council passed Gaudium et spes with a massive majority. In doing so, the bishops were reaffirming the Christian optimism of Pope John XXIII. It was an optimism that sprang from his serene trust in the Holy Spirit at work in all cultures and in every person. Pope John’s opening address to the council, condemning the “prophets of doom,” had set the tone for all four sessions. The pope died seven months later, and while, as Ratzinger wryly observes, there normally is no one so dead as a dead pope, in this council there was no one so alive as John XXIII. Animated by his attitude, Gaudium et spes marks the end of the “disapproving church”—a “perfect society,” set above the flux of history; a fortress from which Christians should sally out to convert the pagans. Rather, now the church saw itself as a pilgrim alongside all humanity. “The joys and the hopes, the griefs and the anxieties of the people of this age, especially those who are poor or in any way afflicted, these too are the joys and the hopes, the griefs and anxieties of the followers of Christ,” announces Gaudium et spes. “Indeed, nothing genuinely human fails to raise an echo in their hearts.”

With this inclusive outreach, the church was bidding to be a partner with modern secular society, a force around which all people of good will could mobilize. Highlights reveals that Joseph Ratzinger’s verdict on this radical change of approach was lukewarm. He accepts that this major document of the council enshrines a new way of speaking to and about the world. But in his view it remains “an open question” whether the form adopted is “adequate.” The most he can say in his account is that “the effort alone must be rated an important accomplishment and a step in the right direction.”

That was far from a ringing endorsement, and over time his attitude was to harden. In 1985, a special meeting of the Synod of Bishops was called in Rome. The ostensible purpose was to celebrate the twentieth anniversary of the council’s end, but in reality the aim was to put the whole of its work under critical examination. A year before the synod met, Ratzinger—by then a cardinal—gave an interview to the Italian writer and journalist Vittorio Messori. Published as Rapporto Sulla Fede (in the English-language edition, The Ratzinger Report), it exuded anxiety and mistrust, and depicted a church threatened on all sides by dangers, errors, and crises. In the “confused” postconciliar period, Cardinal Ratzinger said, “truly every type of heretical aberration seems to be pressing upon the doors of the authentic faith.” But when the synod met a year later, it began with an overwhelming endorsement of Vatican II by the bishops. The management then got to work as usual behind the scenes, and the synod’s final document (drafted by the Belgian Cardinal Godfried Danneels) emphasized the theology of the Cross. At the last moment, however, Danneels added a sentence: “The theology of the Cross in no way excludes the theology of Creation and Incarnation but, as is obvious, presupposes it.” Gaudium et spes was saved for the moment, but on life support.

One of Ratzinger’s principal targets in the Report was “the self-styled spirit of the council,” which he went so far as to call “an antispirit.” Yet two decades earlier, as revealed in Highlights, he had warm praise for that spirit. Indeed, the essence of the council’s four-year enterprise has surely never been better put than in Ratzinger’s approving summary. “The episcopate became more open-minded from year to year,” he wrote at the time.

From somewhat timid and tentative beginnings, in which a few spokesmen had to carry a whole host of astonished listeners along with them, discussion advanced to the point where in 1964 it became extremely frank and did not evade issues any longer. In the common struggle for truth, statements were boldly made which five years ago would have been virtually unthinkable.

The entire world episcopate, he continues, was caught up in a movement,

a unity of purpose that reached from South America to Indonesia and from Europe to Central Africa. This spiritual awakening, which the bishops accomplished in full view of the church, or, rather, accomplished as the church, was the great and irrevocable event of the council. It was more important in many respects than the texts it passed, for these texts could only voice a part of the new life that had been awakened in this encounter of the church with its inner self.

All intellectuals must remain free to change their minds, of course, and to admit that their thinking has been mistaken. The acquisition of knowledge, says St. Thomas, sparks grief over past mistakes—which is why this gift of the Spirit is said to correspond to the beatitude “Blessed are those who mourn.” It is clear that Joseph Ratzinger did change, and change fundamentally. In Salt of the Earth, he points out that his basic and unchanging impulse has always been to liberate the kernel of the faith from encrustations that obscure it. But Highlights shows a confidence in the council’s work that he did not maintain as cardinal prefect of the CDF. Reading his impressions, hot off the press at the time of the council, and comparing the history of the following decades, one sees again just how much difficulty the Catholic Church has had in attempting the change of mindset the council sought. Where is the new Pentecost that Pope John looked for? The challenge of institutional renewal is now redoubled by the clerical sexual-abuse crisis that has become a global scandal.

One particular judgment the young Ratzinger made as the council began may stick in the reader’s mind. He applauds the bishops for rejecting the Roman curia’s nominations for the conciliar commissions. The coup showed that the bishops would act “independently and autonomously,” Ratzinger writes, and that the council had “decisively assumed the function assigned to it by canon law—the exercise of supreme power over the entire church.”

Supreme power over the entire church? As the decades since have amply attested, the full-blown collegiality that most bishops thought they were voting for has not occurred. Will Pope Benedict ever take this book off his shelf and glance back at what he wrote then? And if he does, will it jog his memory—and perhaps his conscience?


Funding for this essay was provided by a grant from the Henry Luce Foundation.

Click here to read more about the mind of Benedict XVI.

Related: Rewriting History, by Joseph A. Komonchak
Between Reform & Rupture, by Richard R. Gaillardetz

John Wilkins was editor of the Tablet of London from 1982 to 2003.

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