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.
There were also the public pronouncements that seemed in keeping with his attempts to reverse the trajectory of Vatican II. These included the Regensburg speech of September 2006, in which he quoted a fourteenth-century Byzantine emperor who equated Islam with violence, and the reinstatement of four excommunicated Lefebvrian bishops, one of whom, Richard Williamson, turned out to have a history of making anti-Semitic statements. The institutional constraints of the papacy limited, to some extent, certain practical aspects of Benedict’s drift from John Paul II’s teaching on ecumenism and interreligious dialogue (for example, in 2011 Benedict XVI went, despite his deep skepticism, to Assisi for the twenty-fifth anniversary of the 1986 interreligious meeting for peace). But as emeritus, those institutional constraints no longer apply. The entourage Ratzinger has surrounded himself with has embraced Vatican II revisionism, and his statements are amplified in a way that would have been impossible without the internet. Now, as Benedict nears the end of his life, a deep contrast is evident between the messages on Vatican II he delivers to the church and the world and those of his predecessor. John Paul II, in a testament published after his death, spoke of the council as a “great patrimony to all who are and will be called in the future to put it into practice.” Benedict XVI’s last writings either exhibit a negative view of the effects of Vatican II, or completely ignore the council’s documents and theology. The introduction to the volumes of his writing on Vatican II published in 2012, in the series of the complete works of Joseph Ratzinger, confirm the urge to establish some distance from the council.
It must also be stated that there are some disturbing convergences between Ratzinger’s theological agenda on Vatican II in the last few years and the theological and ecclesial agenda of the anti-Francis network. It is hard to overstate the role of Ratzinger’s theology and Benedict’s pontificate, for example, in the ongoing transition of the culture of U.S. Catholic hierarchical and episcopal leadership from a moderate Vatican II conservatism (seeking continuity with the previous tradition) to an extremist anti-Vatican II traditionalism (seeking a rupture with that moment of the tradition that is Vatican II). In 2020, the definition of a “Ratzingerian” theology of Vatican II is heavily dependent on the particular moment in which this or that theological opinion has been written. A pope’s death usually seals and preserves his magisterial teaching in a way that a pope’s resignation does not. How Benedict and his entourage have interpreted and managed the post-resignation period is a perfect illustration of this. Benedict XVI no longer owns his theological narrative; it’s now at the service of an agenda that he helped create but that increasingly puts him at odds with a healthy sense of the church.
The truly unfortunate thing about all of this is that Ratzinger was one of the most important theologians of Vatican II. Shortly after the council concluded, he wrote a fundamental commentary on the constitution on Revelation, Dei verbum. From this writing there emerges a dynamic, fecund view of theological truth. It’s what makes his repudiation of Vatican II all the more troubling. It’s sad to see the bishop of Rome estrange himself from his own conciliar legacy.