Benedict XVI and the End of the “Virtual Council”

Up to the final days of his pontificate, Benedict XVI emphasized the importance of interpreting the Council in continuity with what came before it.

In one of the last acts of his pontificate, Benedict XVI gave an address to the clergy of the Diocese of Rome on the Second Vatican Council.  In the address he drew a distinction between what he termed the Virtual Council, or Council of the Media, and the Real Council or Council of those who actually produced the documents.  He observed that since the Council of the Media was accessible to everyone (not just to students of theology who studied the documents), it became the dominant interpretation of what happened at Vatican II, and this created “many disasters” and “much suffering.”  Specifically, he mentioned the closure of seminaries and convents, the promotion of banal liturgy, and the application of notions of popular sovereignty to issues of Church governance.  He concluded, however, that some 50 years after the Council, “this Virtual Council is broken, is lost.”

From what comes across my desk in theological literature there is still a lot of life in the Virtual Council, though it is true that it holds no enchantment for young seminarians or members of new ecclesial movements. Thus, the Church of the future, as a matter of demography, will be more closely oriented to the documents of the Real Council.  

The end of the “Virtual Council”

When Blessed John Paul II lay dying he said to the youth who had travelled to Rome to offer their prayerful support: “I have searched for you, and now you have come to me, and I thank you.”  Less irenically he might have said, “I have tried to get through to you, notwithstanding layers and layers of deaf and dumb bureaucrats, and now that I am dying, the fact that you are here means that at least some of you understood, and this is my consolation.” Similarly, Benedict seemed to be saying to the clergy of Rome, notwithstanding all the banality, all the pathetic liturgies, all the congregationalist ecclesiology, the Virtual Council of the Media has lost its dynamism.  It is no longer potent.  It no longer sets the course of human lives; it no longer inspires rebellion.  It too has become boring and sterile. 

In this particular address Benedict divided the documents of the Council into two broad categories: first, there were the documents inspired by what he called the “Rhineland alliance”—the network of young theologians from France, Germany, Belgium, Holland, and Austria. These were the documents on the liturgy (Sacrosanctum Concilium), on the Church (Lumen Gentium), on Scripture, Tradition and Revelation (Dei Verbum) and on ecumenism (Unitatis Redintegratio).  In some ways these documents were mopping up the unfinished business of the First Vatican Council, which was brought to an untimely end by the Franco-Prussian war.  Certainly, the theology which underpinned these documents had been developing in the decades between the two world wars and did not suddenly crop up at the Council.

While the members of the Rhineland alliance were interested in ecclesiology and liturgical theology, ecumenism and scriptural exegesis, the Americans wanted a declaration on religious liberty to deal with their politico-theological problems, the French were similarly concerned with the whole complex phenomenon of modernity, and yet others, deeply horrified by what had happened to the Jewish people in ostensibly Christian countries, saw the need for some statement about the covenant of the Old Testament and Judaism in general.  As a consequence, the documents Dignitatis Humanae, Nostra Aetate, and Guadium et Spes became a second “very important trilogy.”

Revelation and ecclesiology

Of all these documents the two closest to the heart of Ratzinger/Benedict were Dei Verbum, the Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation, and Lumen Gentium, the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church.  As a young conciliar peritus (expert theological advisor), Professor Ratzinger was involved in the drafting of Dei Verbum, and his patron Cardinal Frings also intervened extensively in the debate on this document.  Ratzinger’s reflections on these interventions were published in an article in the Communio journal in 1988.  In this article he recalled Cardinal Frings’ argument that when one speaks of the two sources of revelation as Scripture and tradition one is right at the level of epistemology; we do experience what revelation is from Scripture and from tradition.  Nonetheless Frings also argued that the “Scripture and tradition two sources formula” was false if looked at from a metaphysical perspective, since both Scripture and tradition flow from revelation as their common source.  The problem with the epistemological focus is that “if one does not hold that revelation precedes its objectification in Scripture and tradition, remaining always greater than they, then the concept of revelation is reduced to the dimensions of the historical and simply human.”

In Dei Verbum the Fathers of the Council overcame various theological problems by holding that Christ himself is the revelation of God the Father to humanity and that both Scripture and tradition flow from this revelation.  Dei Verbum is thus a classic example of how the Council reformed an area of theology which had given rise to a rather large number of problems from at least as far back as the 16th century. 

In particular, in an article published in 1969 in Herbert Vorgrimler’s Commentaries on the Documents of the Council, Ratzinger stated that in the drafting of Dei Verbum the Council Fathers were “concerned with overcoming neo-scholastic intellectualism, for which revelation chiefly meant a store of mysterious supernatural teachings, which automatically reduces faith very much to an acceptance of these supernatural insights.”  This was the archetypically SuÁrezian account of revelation which contemporary historical scholarship (see for example, the work of John Montag), now regards as a reversal of the position of classical Thomism.  For SuÁrez, revelation did not disclose God himself, but rather pieces of information about God.  When Ratzinger was a student the SuÁrezian account was dominant, to such a degree that when he criticised it in his habilitation thesis, preferring the position of St. Bonaventure, he was forced to withdraw the criticism or suffer the penalty of not passing the thesis.  At Vatican II, however, the Council Fathers were persuaded of the merits of the approach advanced by Cardinal Frings, which had no doubt been influenced by the ideas of the young Professor Ratzinger.

While Dei Verbum addressed the topics of Scripture, tradition and revelation, Lumen Gentium focused on ecclesiology.  The “reform” engendered here was one of moving away from a primarily juridical account of the Church focused on the distinction between clerical and lay members to an understanding based on multidimensional relationships. 

With reference to the notion of sacramental relations, Henri de Lubac emphasised that the sacramental form of relationality is one that ties together the Church as the mystical body of Christ with the Church as the historical people of God.  Moreover, the Church not only links the visible with the invisible, time with eternity, but also the universal and the particular, the Old and New Covenants. This link between the invisible and visible elements of ecclesial communion constitutes the Church as the sacrament of salvation.  Thus, in chapter 1 of Lumen Gentium one finds the following declaration:

Christ, the one mediator, set up his holy Church here on earth as a visible structure, a community of faith, hope and love; and he sustains it unceasingly and through it he pours out grace and truth on everyone.  This society, however, equipped with hierarchical structures, and the mystical body of Christ, a visible assembly and a spiritual community, an earthly church and a church enriched with heavenly gifts, must not be considered as two things, but as forming a complex reality comprising a human and divine element.  It is therefore by no mean analogy that it is likened to the mystery of the Incarnate Word. 

Concomitant with this move away from a focus on a juridical notion of the Church, with its primary distinction between priestly and other religious members on the one side, and lay members on the other, was the Council’s endorsement of a universal call to holiness. 

Notwithstanding this affirmation of a variety of spiritual missions in the life of the Church, some lay and some clerical, Lumen Gentium nonetheless affirmed the authority of the Petrine Office and the sacerdotal priesthood.  There was nothing in this document that could in any way justify the subsequent attacks on the papacy and the priesthood which were some of the more infamous products of the Virtual Council in the decade of the 1970s and beyond.

“Theological Star Wars”

In 1972, Joseph Ratzinger, along with Hans Urs von Balthasar and Henri de Lubac, founded the theology journal which they named Communio.  It would be too simplistic to describe it as a response to the Virtual Council because in addition to the Virtual Council there was also the Council of other Conciliar periti who, as the 1970s wore on, closely associated themselves with the rival journal Concilium.  The English historian Philip Trower has described the intellectual battle between the two different interpretations of the Council as presented in the pages of Communio and Concilium as “a theological star wars” played out over the heads of the faithful.  In other words, what people in parishes received as the “teaching of the Council” was often the residue of ideas floated by the former periti in one or other of these journals.  Since the Concilium interpretations were often a lot closer to the interpretations of the Virtual Council, during the final years of the pontificate of Paul VI they tended to dominate.

However, in 1985 Blessed John Paul II called a synod to reflect on the various interpretations of the Council, and following this synod the Communio ecclesiology began to receive strong magisterial endorsement.  Pope Benedict obliquely referred to this in his address to the clergy of Rome.  Speaking of the concept of communion, he remarked that although, philologically speaking, it was not fully developed at the Council, it was nonetheless as a result of the Council that “the concept of communion came more and more to be the expression of the Church’s essence, communion in its different dimensions: communion with the Trinitarian God—who is himself communion between Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—sacramental communion, and concrete communion in the episcopate and in the life of the Church.”  In this address he added that the application of the Communio ecclesiology to the life of the Church is “not yet complete” and that “more needs to be done.”

Interpreting Gaudium et Spes

The Conciliar document which was least acceptable to Ratzinger/Benedict was Gaudium et Spes.  Along with Cardinal Walter Kasper and others he argued that a major problem with this document is that it was poorly drafted.  In particular the first sections were not well integrated with the later sections.  The anthropology of the first section has been described as “merely theistically coloured,” whereas the anthropology of later sections is explicitly Trinitarian.  It is well known that Blessed John Paul II was deeply influenced by paragraph 22 of this document and that this particular paragraph looks as though it was lifted almost word for word from an earlier work of Henri de Lubac’s.  Paragraph 22 is explicitly Christocentric. Ratzinger/Benedict also strongly approved of Paragraph 22 and described the document as a whole as offering a “daring new” theological anthropology which he endorsed, although he thought it had not been well articulated.

As a consequence of the drafting issues and of the under-developed theology in some areas, Gaudium et Spes tended to give rise to two different interpretations of the relationship of the Church to the world and two different pastoral strategies.  In short-hand terms they could be described as the Christocentric Trinitarianism of John Paul II and Benedict, and the correlationism of theologians such as Edward Schillebeeckx.  Both care about the “world” and regard it as the theatre of salvation.  Neither favours a retreat to the ghetto.  However, one looks for points of convergence between the faith and contemporary fashionable philosophies, the other is much more sacramental in its orientation and seeks to transform the world, to “restore all things in Christ.”

Another way to put this is to say that the correlationist strategy tends to separate “Christian values” from “Christian sacraments” and to find points of agreement between the so-called “Christian values” (distilled from actual belief in Christ and participation in the sacramental life of the Church) and non-Christian values.  The most common example of this is the promotion of Christian philanthropic projects.  The idea is that the “sacramental stuff” is a private matter for private consumption while working for social justice is a public enterprise.  Today it is becoming increasingly common for Catholics who find themselves in debates with atheists to refer to the philanthropic works of the Church as a justification for the Catholic faith.  Atheists typically respond with indignation because it is quite clear to them that it is possible to have philanthropy without being burdened by Christian morality.

Ratzinger took the atheists’ point in an article he published in 1969 on the subject of human dignity in Gaudium et Spes.  He suggested that according to one reading of Gaudium et Spes (one might call it the Virtual Council reading, though he didn’t use that expression in 1969), there is no reason why the average person of good will should suddenly be burdened with the story of Christ.  In other words, some readings of Gaudium et Spes raise the question: does the Incarnation actually make any difference?

If one zeroes in on paragraph 22 and treats it as the hermeneutical lens through which the remainder of the document is studied, then the Incarnation is absolutely central and not something that can be distilled.

In his Trinitarian encyclicals (Redemptor Hominis, Dives in Misericordia, and Dominum et Vivificantem) John Paul II followed through the logic of this paragraph with the development of a theological anthropology which became one of the most significant theological achievements of his pontificate.  Ratzinger/Benedict was completely behind this project.

Lessons in liturgy

In his own pontificate, however, Benedict focused more on the problem of Virtual Council interpretations of Sacrosanctum Concilium than on secularist renderings of Gaudium et Spes (which John Paul II had gone a long way toward resolving, at least at the intellectual level).  In his books A New Song for the Lord, Feast of Faith, and The Spirit of the Liturgy, and in his apostolic exhortation Sacramentum Caritatis, Ratzinger/Benedict offered a remedial liturgical theology.

In his address to the clergy of Rome he also offered the following summary of the Virtual Council’s approach to the liturgy:

There was no interest in liturgy as an act of faith, but as something where comprehensible things are done, a matter of community activity, something profane. And we know that there was a tendency, not without a certain historical basis, to say: sacrality is a pagan thing, perhaps also a thing of the Old Testament. In the New Testament it matters only that Christ died outside: that is, outside the gates, in the profane world. Sacrality must therefore be abolished, and profanity now spreads to worship: worship is no longer worship, but a community act, with communal participation: participation understood as activity. These translations, trivializations of the idea of the Council, were virulent in the process of putting the liturgical reform into practice; they were born from a vision of the Council detached from its proper key, that of faith.

If one combs through the many homilies and articles and books written by Ratzinger/Benedict for comments on the Council the consistent thread running through everything is that the Conciliar documents need to be read with a Christocentric Trinitarian accent.  

The central message of Dei Verbum is that Christ is the revelation of the Father to humanity; the central message of Gaudium et Spes is that the Incarnation explains what it means to be human; the central message of Sacrosanctum Concilium is that worship is about an encounter with God, a participation in the life of the Trinity, not mere duty parade; and the Communio theology implicit in Lumen Gentium is thoroughly Trinitarian.  When it comes to the relationship between the Old Testament and the New, it is Christ who is the bridge.  Even “the sacred mystery of the unity of the Church…finds its highest exemplar and source in the unity of the Persons of the Trinity: the Father and the Son in the Holy Spirit, one God.”

There is nothing at all in this Trinitarian hermeneutic about Vatican II being a romance between the Holy Spirit and the Zeitgeist of the 1960s.  

(Note: The treatment of Dei Verbum in this article is a redaction of a longer article on Joseph Ratzinger’s Hermeneutic of Reform published in Polish in the journal Ethos of the Catholic University of Lublin.)

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About Tracey Rowland 19 Articles
Tracey Rowland holds the St. John Paul II Chair of Theology at the University of Notre Dame (Australia) and is a past Member of the International Theological Commission. She earned her doctorate in philosophy from Cambridge University and her Licentiate in Sacred Theology from the Pontifical Lateran University in Rome. She is the author of several books, including Ratzinger’s Faith: The Theology of Pope Benedict XVI (2008), Benedict XVI: A Guide for the Perplexed (2010), Catholic Theology (2017), The Culture of the Incarnation: Essays in Catholic Theology (2017), Portraits of Spiritual Nobility (Angelico Press, 2019), and Beyond Kant and Nietzsche: The Munich Defence of Christian Humanism (T&T Clark, 2021).