The publication of From the Depths of Our Hearts, Cardinal Robert Sarah’s book on clerical celibacy “co-authored” with Pope Benedict XVI, illustrates once more the problem with the institution of the emeritus papacy as it’s currently functioning. Much has already been said about this aspect of the latest controversy, but less about what Benedict’s contribution to the book signifies in terms of his continued revisionist thinking on Vatican II, where he played a significant role as a theological expert. Italian theologian Andrea Grillo has astutely remarked that “Benedict is one of the fathers of Vatican II, but full of remorse.” Indeed, the defense of clerical celibacy put forth in From the Depths of Our Hearts is built on a view of Scripture, liturgy, and the church that makes no reference whatsoever to the documents of Vatican II.
Of course, it’s hard to know at this point just how direct a hand the “pope emeritus” has had in the writing that has appeared under his name in the past year (including his musings on the genesis of the abuse crisis last April). Nevertheless, it fits within a pattern of theological drift dating back much farther than Francis’s papacy. Some see signs of Ratzinger distancing himself from the council as early as August 1965, while Vatican II was still underway and the pastoral constitution Gaudium et spes was taking shape. Others date it to the student protest movement in Germany in 1968 and 1969, when he was teaching at Tübingen before moving to the quieter University of Regensburg in Bavaria. The German national synod of 1972–1975 seems to have contributed to his disillusionment.
Then came his twenty-four-year tenure as prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith under John Paul II, during which he repeatedly intervened to regain control or even reverse some of the theological developments afforded by Vatican II (especially on the liturgy). And his own pontificate’s relationship with Vatican II can be framed by his December 2005 speech on the “hermeneutics of continuity and reform” and his February 2013 address to the clergy of Rome in which he confessed his disappointments with the council. In between came one of the most consequential pronouncements on the doctrinal policy of Vatican II: the July 2007 motu proprio Summorum pontificum, which liberalized the use of the pre-Vatican II rite.