Where Bishops and Theologians Still Talk

I had the opportunity to deliver one of the keynote lectures at the Vatican II conference at the Katholische Akademie in Munich this month, and to respond to the lecture given by Cardinal Karl Lehmann (Bishop of Mainz and former chairman of the Conference of German Bishops) on the legacy and the future of Vatican II. Most of the roughly two hundred people in attendance were German or German-speaking, though there were scholars from other European countries, as well as from Africa, Latin America, and the United States (including James F. Keenan of Boston College and Brad Hinze of Fordham). Several generations of scholars were represented, many inspired by or having studied under the Tübingen systematician Peter Hünermann, founder in 1989 of the European Society for Catholic Theology (full disclosure: I studied with him in Tübingen between 1999 and 2000). There were also students of his students, along with systematicians, historians, ethicists, and canon lawyers. And it was evident that Vatican II remains at the center of Catholic theology in Germany.

The final document is representative of the sensus concilli. In five pages and twelve bulleted points it makes a case for the renewed role of Vatican II in Catholic theology and the church of today: freedom of religion globally and freedom of theology as Wissenschaft (systematic research); a new relationship between theology and the magisterium; reform of church structures; ecumenism and interreligious dialogue; the church and Judaism; liturgy and inculturation; the church and the public square; and the environment.

But it wasn’t just the final statement that made the conference interesting.

First, it was clear that a Grundkonsens—a fundamental consensus among German theologians (but I would say Germans tout court, Protestants included) around Vatican II—remains. The requests for amendment of the document coming from the floor did not question the fundamental existing consensus on Vatican II as the basis and the center of Catholic theology in Germany today. There are small pockets of dissenting traditionalist voices, but on the radical “left” there has not been any sense of dismissing Vatican II as irrelevant for the future of theology. Interestingly, the pontificate of the German academic theologian Joseph Ratzinger did little to otherwise influence the overwhelming majority of German Catholic theologians (and German Catholics in general) inspired by Karl Rahner’s famous declaration fifty years ago in Munich that Vatican II represented “a new beginning.”

The second interesting thing about the conference was the presence of cardinals, including Reinhard Marx of Munich (president of the German bishops conference, member of Pope Francis’s C9 council of cardinal advisers, and coordinator of the Council for Economic Affairs of the Roman Curia), and his predecessor, Cardinal Friedrich Wetter (archbishop of Munich until 2007). Their presence was a sign of the respectful relationship between the German episcopate and Vatican II theologians in Germany; many German-speaking bishops and cardinals come from academic theology. It also demonstrated the cultural coherence of the German church: theologians, clergy, the episcopate, and the laity (organized in the powerful Zentralkomitee of German Catholics), along with the very active organization of Catholic church historians (Kommission für Zeitgeschichte), make for a Catholicism that is cohesive and consensual rather than fragmented and polarized, as some other churches are.

The third interesting thing was the striking similarity between the conciliar orientation of German Catholic theology and the way Pope Francis reads and applies Vatican II. The final version of the conference statement was read to the assembly at almost the same moment as Pope Francis’s homily for the opening of the Jubilee of Mercy, an explicit and direct text offering Vatican II as a hermeneutical key to understanding his pontificate. These three things say much about the role and effectiveness of the German group at the 2015 synod.

Massimo Faggioli is professor of theology and religious studies at Villanova University. His most recent book is Catholicism and Citizenship: Political Cultures of the Church in the Twenty-First Century (Liturgical Press, 2017). He is a contributing writer for Commonweal. Follow him on Twitter @MassimoFaggioli.

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