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Joseph Ratzinger, theological reformer

As recent events in the Church have illustrated, the bottom line in the War of the Conciliar Succession is the reality of divine revelation.

Paul VI makes Joseph Ratzinger (future Pope Benedict XVI) a cardinal in 1977. [Wikipedia]

As he turned 93 on April 16, Joseph Ratzinger remained one of the most misunderstood and misrepresented men of consequence in recent Catholic history. I doubt the Pope Emeritus minds; he’s probably impervious to calumny, having had it visited upon him for over a half-century. This kindly man may feel a measure of compassion for the small minds that continually tell untruths about him and his theology. But he has better things to do than fret about his detractors: dwarves ineffectually tossing pebbles at a serene giant.

His friends and admirers find it hard to take a benign view of the situation, however, because the ongoing trashing of Joseph Ratzinger is agenda-driven and aimed at shoring up the crumbling foundations of the Catholic Lite project. That salvage operation requires his detractors to claim that Ratzinger/Benedict XVI betrayed Vatican II, or never understood Vatican II, or was (and is) deeply opposed to Vatican II. Or all-of-the-above. This is nonsense. And while often perpetrated by those who claim competence as scholars of contemporary Catholic affairs, such misrepresentations of Ratzinger’s thinking betray a sorry indifference to what actually happened in Rome during the last two years of the Second Vatican Council.

As I wrote in The Irony of Modern Catholic History, a fissure in the ranks of the reformist theologians at Vatican II began to open up during the Council’s third session, held in the fall of 1964. A new theological journal, Concilium, was being planned by some of the Council’s influential theological advisers (many of whom had been heavily censored in the pre-Vatican II years). A towering figure among them, the French Jesuit Henri de Lubac, began to worry that Concilium would take the reformist project in a deconstructive direction: one that would do serious damage to what John XXIII , in his opening address to the Council, called “the sacred deposit of Christian doctrine,” which Pope John urged “be more effectively defended and presented.”

The first several issues of the new journal intensified de Lubac’s concerns. So in May 1965 the most venerable member of its editorial committee quietly withdrew from the Concilium project while continuing his work at the Council itself. As Vatican II drew to a close, others would join him in expressing serious reservations about the tack being taken by their onetime theological allies. And those concerns did not lessen over time.

The result was what I call in my book “The War of the Conciliar Succession:” the war to define what Vatican II was and what Vatican II intended for the Catholic future. This war was not a struggle between “traditionalists” and “progressives.” It was a bitterly fought contest within the camp of Vatican II theological reformers. It continues to this day. And the question that so concerned Henri de Lubac remains entirely pertinent, 56 years later: Would an interpretation of the Council that effectively set the Catholic Church against “the sacred deposit of Christian doctrine” end up betraying the Gospel and emptying it of its power?

Joseph Ratzinger joined de Lubac and other dissident conciliar reformers in launching another theological journal, Communio, which he and his colleagues hoped would advance an interpretation of Vatican II that was in continuity with the Church’s settled doctrine even as it developed the Church’s understanding of that doctrine. Communio, now published in 14 language editions, has been a creative force in Catholic intellectual life for decades. Like Ratzinger, Communio is not against Vatican II; it has challenged what its authors contend is a wrong-headed interpretation of Vatican II.

As recent events in the Church have illustrated, the bottom line in the War of the Conciliar Succession is the reality of divine revelation: Does God’s revelation in Scripture and Tradition include truths that are binding over the centuries, irrespective of cultural circumstances? Or do history and culture judge revelation, which the Church is then authorized to improve, so to speak, in light of “the signs of the times”? Those who stand with the reality of revelation (which was robustly affirmed by Vatican II) are by no means “fundamentalists,” despite what their opponents charge. They are creative theologians who believe in the development of doctrine, but who also understand, with Chesterton, that “an open mind, like an open mouth, should close on something.”

In the War of the Conciliar Succession, there are true reformers, and then there are the forces of deconstruction. Joseph Ratzinger is emphatically a true Catholic reformer. To argue otherwise suggests ignorance, malice, or both.

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About George Weigel 500 Articles
George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of Washington's Ethics and Public Policy Center, where he holds the William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies. He is the author of over twenty books, including Witness to Hope: The Biography of Pope John Paul II (1999), The End and the Beginning: Pope John Paul II—The Victory of Freedom, the Last Years, the Legacy (2010), and The Irony of Modern Catholic History: How the Church Rediscovered Itself and Challenged the Modern World to Reform. His most recent books are The Next Pope: The Office of Peter and a Church in Mission (2020), Not Forgotten: Elegies for, and Reminiscences of, a Diverse Cast of Characters, Most of Them Admirable (Ignatius, 2021), and To Sanctify the World: The Vital Legacy of Vatican II (Basic Books, 2022).


  1. The fact that a rupture in morality and theology and liturgy emerged after Vatican II is an indication that the documents themselves are freighted with ambiguity, and as “His Eminence” Cardinal Kasper has declared publicly, the documents of V2 were deliberately crafted to allow divergent interpretations.

    Gaudium et Spes 24 outright distorts the Great Commandment, equating love of neighbor as equal to love of God, which is an outright dismissal of revelation. There is, as I recall, a section on scripture that condones Cardinal Kasper’s systematic dismissal of Gospel accounts of Jesus’ supernatural power. I will go back and find it and quote it, later.

    No one can state with a straight face that Sacrosanctum Concilium permitted a “New Order of the Mass,” and the NO Mass and it’s implementation show near-zero respect for tradition. Informed Catholics know that Pope Paul VI Msgr. Bugnini in charge of concocting a New Mass, and we know that Bugnini declared publicly, in writing (if I recall correctly in L’Osservatore Romano) that Catholic theology had to be stripped out of the Mass, and so it was. Obviously, The Roman Canon, the oldest Eucharistic prayer in use in Christianity in 1970, was “secretly” outlawed, which is nothing short of deceitfulness, and displays, as Fr. Louis Boyer asserted of Msgr. Bugnini, a man (and a general attitude) as bereft of Catholic culture as he was (they were and are) of basic honesty.

    I agree that Vatican II can be given an “interpretation of continuity,” to paraphrase Pope Benedict, who I greatly love and admire.

    I do not believe that the documents of Vatican II have an inherent strength regarding clarity or regard for scripture or tradition.

      • Such a trenchant argument! So well-reasoned! So well-supported by examples! So intellectually stimulating! We stand in awe of your brilliance!

        Except that it wasn’t, and we don’t.

      • Jodie –

        Your comment has no facts, so It seems pointless.

        Labels like “trad,” since they are undefined, are devoid of meaning.

        I can only respond by saying that remarks like you made don’t indicate that you are someone who has made any effort whatsoever to understand the topic.

        Mockery is no substitute for thinking or humor.

        • Jodie, in regards to labels, Traditionist, Conservative, Liberal, etc., I once read concerning Catholicism it is either Catholic or Error.

    • We read that “Cardinal Kasper has declared publicly, the documents of V2 were deliberately crafted to allow divergent interpretations.” Ever one for a photo-op, this wannabe-pope Kasper!

      The deceit was noticed, as such, even during the Council itself. This, from Fr. Ralph M. Wiltgen, SVD, in his The Rhine Flows into the Tiber (1967):

      “Then one of the extreme liberals made the mistake of referring in writing [!], to some of these ambiguous [!] passages, and indicating how they would be interpreted [!] after the Council. This paper fell into the hands of the aforesaid group of cardinals and superiors general, whose representative took it to the Pope. Pope Paul, realizing finally that he had been deceived, broke down and wept” (p. 232).

      Pope Paul VI then directed the Theological Commission to draft the clarifying Preliminary Explanatory Note to precede (not to follow, as it now does!) Chapter 3 on “collegiality” in the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church.

      A pattern of this three-page intervention with, for example, nineteen other lesser ones (crucial wording) accepted by the Secretariat for Christian Unity, all from Pope Paul VI, serve to refine or even box-in many of the ambiguities of Vatican II, but clearly not enough. (See also, Dossier: “The Council’s Helmsman,” 30 Days, VII, 1992, 50-60).

      (During the entire Council, Fr. Wiltgen published daily The Council News Service which went out in six different languages to over 3,000 subscribers in 108 countries.)

  2. “But he has better things to do than fret about his detractors: dwarves ineffectually tossing pebbles at a serene giant.”

    Well said, sir – an elegant phrase indeed.

  3. It is so sad how Joseph Ratzinger is criticized for his opinions and beliefs. God Bless Pope Emeritus.

  4. The better Chestertonian quote, Mr. Weigel, with regard to open minds is not to keep such an open mind that your brains fall out. Seems apropos to VII and the aftermath.

  5. Thank you for this article. I really like the comment about the serene intellectual giant. I love pope emeritus Benedict. He is so humble.

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