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Benedict XVI reflects on Vatican II in new letter

AC WimmerShannon Mullen By AC WimmerShannon Mullen for CNA

Pope emeritus Benedict XVI. / Mazur/

Washington, D.C. Newsroom, Oct 21, 2022 / 07:05 am (CNA).

In a new letter, Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI characterizes the Second Vatican Council as “not only meaningful, but necessary.”

Released Thursday, the letter is addressed to Father Dave Pivonka, TOR, president of Franciscan University of Steubenville in Steubenville, Ohio, which concludes a two-day conference Friday centered on the theology of Benedict XVI/Joseph Ratzinger.

Nearly three and a half typewritten pages long, the letter provides fresh observations about Vatican II from one of the few remaining theologians in the Catholic Church to have personally participated in the historic council, which opened 60 years ago this month. You can read the full letter at the bottom of this story.

“When I began to study theology in January 1946, no one thought of an Ecumenical Council,” the 95-year-old retired pope recalls in the letter.

“When Pope John XXIII announced it, to everyone’s surprise, there were many doubts as to whether it would be meaningful, indeed whether it would be possible at all, to organize the insights and questions into the whole of a conciliar statement and thus to give the Church a direction for its further journey,” Benedict observes.

“In reality, a new council proved to be not only meaningful, but necessary. For the first time, the question of a theology of religions had shown itself in its radicality,” he continues.

“The same is true for the relationship between faith and the world of mere reason. Both topics had not been foreseen in this way before. This explains why Vatican II at first threatened to unsettle and shake the Church more than to give her a new clarity for her mission,” Benedict writes.

“In the meantime, the need to reformulate the question of the nature and mission of the Church has gradually become apparent,” he adds. “In this way, the positive power of the Council is also slowly emerging.”

Ecclesiology — the theological study of the nature and structure of the Church — had evolved after World War I, Benedict writes. ”If ecclesiology had hitherto been treated essentially in institutional terms,” he says, ”the wider spiritual dimension of the concept of the Church was now joyfully perceived.”

At the same time, he writes, the concept of the Church as the mystical body of Christ was being critically reconsidered.

It was in this situation, he says, that he wrote his doctoral dissertation on the topic of ”People and House of God in Augustine’s Doctrine of the Church.”

He writes that ”the complete spiritualization of the concept of the Church, for its part, misses the realism of faith and its institutions in the world,” adding that ”in Vatican II, the question of the Church in the world finally became the real central problem.”

The retired pope, who resigned in 2013, concludes the letter by summing up his purpose for writing.

”With these considerations I only wanted to indicate the direction in which my work has led me,” he writes. ”I sincerely hope that the International Symposium at Franciscan University of Steubenville will be helpful in the struggle for a right understanding of the Church and the world in our time.”

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  1. Benedict’s letter will not leave all of his followers enthralled, because the reevaluation of the total “spiritualization” of the Church perceived as the mystical body now required a “theology of religions”. This would add coherence to Lumen Gentium, often challenged notion of religions other than Catholicism worshiping the same God. As such it would [appear to consequently] reference facing the people rather than ad orientum. Engagement with global projects among them the UN.
    Emphasis then is on a more outward than inward ecclesial posture. Some might attribute this letter to the variables of old age. Although, it has to be taken seriously on its merits. For one the Church, whether rightly or wrongly, that is, not in terms of focus rather in feasibility and doctrinal coherence already had begun this process [for example Abu Dhabi].
    Theoretically, the Church must appeal to the world in all its entirety, the mission given at the Ascension. In order to do so it cannot remain an attractive medieval artifact highly satisfying to a select body. It must if it is to reach the four global corners acquire a universal posture and messaging consistent with Christ’s revelation. That can be done. Similarly, that does not necessarily sanction the broad based Synodality concept of listening. Instead, it would putatively provide the new missionary able to interface with, engage the world. A realistic faith reflected in its overreaching institutions.
    If we don’t write this letter off as the reverie of old age, rather as the reflection of a great churchman and theologian we might consider the words of Cardinal Parolin to Ewtn, that we hold true to the faith but couch it with modesty, respectful of the people of our time. Rather than challenge the pope and his Magisterium. That nevertheless requires reciprocity of the latter holding to the true faith.

  2. Insofar as ad orientem, I’m confidant Benedict, to the contrary of what may be presumed in reading his letter is not repudiating his previous recommendation when pontiff to continue the traditional Latin rite, both for spiritual continuity, and liturgical continuity as a model for enriching the Novus Ordo. Neither does my comment endorse the pontiff’s initial Abu Dhabi remarks.

  3. Churchmen ought to sit up and take a look around before questioning the necessity of the Council or its salubrious effects in the Catholic Church.

    Notice how baptisms of children and adults are growing by leaps and bounds. Notice the surge of Catholic marriages, how all who profess the Catholic faith stand up in unison against conteaception and abortion. Notice how Catholic laymen are in the vanguard fighting against the immorality of the culture at large. Witness the long lines for confession. Note, too, the extraordinary missionary efforts of the Church and how ten of thousands of young Catholics devote significant amounts of months and even years proclaiming the Gospel to those who don’t know Christ. Take a look at all the Catholic hospitals being built, the schools that are being founded to serve the poor in countries around the globe and the founding of new religious orders and apostolates to staff these charitable ventures. Look at the vast number of young men entering the priesthood in the USA, in Ireland, France, Spain, and Italy. Look at the number of martyrs for the faith that we have among our bishops. Look at the exemplary lives of our clerics, their holiness, their outspoken witness to the truth in the public forum…such valor, such courage, such faith to dare to proclaim Christ so boldly from the pulpit and in the town square. It’s no wonder that we have vast numbers of people wanting to enter the Catholic Church since the Church is such a model for good in the world. The overwhelming movement of the Holy Spirit among the “people of God” is simply awesome to behold and simply breathtaking.

    Why in God’s name would anyone ever question the fruits of Vatican Council II in the life of the Church?

    • “Why in God’s name would anyone ever question the fruits of Vatican Council ll in the life of the Church.”

      Your question is hilariously laughable. Look around you, and you’ve got your answer.

    • Edward Peitler: This mocking antiphrasis of Vatican II that you strongly hold and present here is an illogical and irrational sweeping generalization. It is erroneous and inaccurate to reason that the dwindling numbers and religious practices of Catholics after Vatican II is directly caused by the Council; it’s like reasoning that since Z follows Y, Y must be the cause of Z. There is simply no direct and singular connection between the two leading you to a conclusion that confirms your preconceived bias that the Council was a disaster furthering your chosen resistance and rejection of the reforms and teachings of the Council manifested especially in your disrespect and disloyalty of Pope Francis who continues to implement Vatican II today. This reasoning is irrational and unfounded. This view is indicative of a narrow-mindedness and misplaced North American and European perspective (the fallacy of misplaced concreteness) which is blind to the wider picture of the Church worldwide that includes the explosive growth of Catholic membership and practice in other continents especially in Africa after the Council. The decrease in religious practices in the West did not only affect the Catholic Church but also other churches and religions as well. This phenomenon is scientifically attributed by sociologists and anthropologists to the overall rise and spread of secularism in the West. You are wrong to imply a direct connection between Vatican II and the decline of the number and religious practices of Catholics. The facts and reality worldwide belie and debunk your fiction and belief flowing from and due to a fallacy of misplaced concreteness and/or preconceived bias.

      • Edward Peitler’s Description of the imaginary Church today I found very funny. Jan Michael, do you not see the real situation in the Church today? All the opposite, which Mr. Peitler points out, is precisely what has been done in the name of Vatican ll. And all that was done in the name of Vatican ll are actually in the Council texts. I’m left to wonder if His Holiness Pope Benedict XVl does not view the Abhu Dhabi signing as legitimate, as the Council does say that we Catholics and Muslims worship the same God. That violates Dogmatic Decrees and common sense that we do not worship the same God. Our God is Trinitarian, the Second Person became Man, he gave us Seven Sacraments, and he suffered and was crucified for our Salvation. Compare this to any other Religion and tell us we worship the same God as Vatican ll states.

    • Deacon. Nice essay!! As the saying goes, “the proof is in the pudding”. I appreciate hearing Mass in English but have no objection to the return of the use of some Latin. Otherwise i am afraid i fail to see what positive impact V2 had. The draining of the church of priests and nuns was especially damaging.

  4. As an obedient son of Pope Benedict XVl this has knocked me to the floor. I certainly will not question His Holiness. But I am left disappointed. I would hope, as Archbishop Vigano, that Vatican ll be declared illegitimate considering how the Council began and how things ended up. God Bless you, Pope Benedict XVl, and may he give you many more years.

  5. I’m getting tired of hearing that, because of the growth of the Church in Africa and Asia, we shouldn’t worry so much about the decline (understatement) in our own cultures (speaking as a Westerner).

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