Comment Opinion & Features

The post-Vatican II civil war

Joseph Ratzinger pictured in 1962, while serving as a theological adviser at Vatican II

In his new book, The Irony of Modern Catholic History (Basic Books £25 / $30), George Weigel traces the root of debates at the recent Amazon synod to a fracture within reformist theologians at the Second Vatican Council.

Although the drama of Catholicism and modernity is often described in terms of a battle between traditionalists and modernisers, it is more accurate to think of it as a three-way contest between those committed to resisting modernity in all its forms, those seeking an accommodation with modernity because they believe it has made classic Christian truth claims and practices implausible if not false, and those seeking to convert modernity by placing its noblest aspirations on a firmer, Christ-centred foundation.”

The fault lines among these positions were evident throughout Vatican II and led to one of the most significant ruptures of the post-conciliar years. That split, which was not without its rhetorical sharp edges, was not between the pro-reform conciliar theologians and the rejectionist camp of Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre and his traditionalist followers, but within the group of theologians who had set the intellectual table for the Council and who had the greatest influence on Vatican II’s work. It was not, in other words, a war between diametrically opposed theological camps, of the sort that had resulted in Humani Generis. It was a civil war within the reformist camp.

The occasion for difference to become division, and then chasm, involved the establishment of a new theological journal. Its very name, Concilium, telegraphed its intent: it was to be a journal of and by the reformist conciliar theologians who had come under Holy Office scrutiny in the 1950s but were being vindicated as periti (theological advisers) at Vatican II.

The first co-editors of the new journal were two of the most prominent theological reformists of the era: the German Jesuit Karl Rahner and the Flemish Dominican Edward Schillebeeckx. Rahner and Schillebeeckx were eager to engage their fellow reformist periti in the Concilium project, and among those they recruited was the French Jesuit Henri de Lubac, the most venerable of the reformers and a man who had suffered considerably during the theological chill of the late Pius XII years. So in November 1963, towards the end of the Council’s second period, de Lubac accepted Rahner’s invitation to participate in Concilium. Less than a year later, in October 1964, de Lubac wrote to Rahner expressing concerns about the direction the new journal might take.

Like other ecclesiastical meetings, Vatican II had an important “Off Broadway” dimension. Lectures, seminars and discussions among bishops, theologians and other interested parties were held outside the Council aula in St Peter’s Basilica, and what happened Off Broadway could make a significant impact within the Council debates themselves. One of the most important venues for these extramural discussions was the Dutch Documentation Centre, where Fr Schillebeeckx gave a lecture floating the idea that the world had always been “Christian” in some sense and that divine revelation had made that tacit Christianity explicit.

As he recorded in his Council journal, de Lubac thought any such notion was “a betrayal of the Gospel” and told Rahner that, if this were to be the line Concilium would follow, he could not be identified with the new journal. Rahner (who would later pen an influential and highly controversial essay on “Anonymous Christians”) assured his Jesuit confrere that Schillebeeckx was speaking for himself only, and that his was only one view among the many that Concilium would entertain.

De Lubac was temporarily reassured. But seven months later, on May 24, 1965 (ie during the period between Vatican II’s third and fourth sessions), he wrote to Rahner again, stating that the first five issues of the new journal had not relieved his concerns, that he believed Concilium had become a “propaganda tool in the service of an extremist school” pretending it was “in line with the Council”, and that he was, therefore, resigning quietly from the journal’s editorial committee. It was the first skirmish in what would become a theological “War of the Conciliar Succession” in the post-Vatican II years.

De Lubac was not the only Council theologian who believed that other theologians, during and after Vatican II, were going so far in their embrace of intellectual modernity that they were emptying Catholicism of its doctrinal content and betraying John XXIII’s evangelical intention for the Council. Their opponents, of course, denied this charge and claimed they were the true heirs of the “spirit” of Vatican II, which they often defined by reference to a selective set of quotations from Gaudet Mater Ecclesia [John XXIII’s opening address to the Council].

In 1969, de Lubac, the French Oratorian Louis Bouyer, the Chilean Jorge Medina Estévez, and the German Joseph Ratzinger agreed to meet during the first session in Rome of the International Theological Commission, an advisory body to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, as Paul VI had renamed the old Holy Office. At a meeting arranged and led by the Swiss theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar, they dis- cussed the possibility of a new theological journal that would challenge the intellectual hegemony enjoyed by Concilium and the theologians associated with it. They chose the name Communio, Ratzinger later recalled, because the Latin word for “communion” connoted a “harmonious coexistence of unity and difference” that stood in contrast to the ideologically straitened perspective of Concilium.

The name Communio would also challenge the appropriation of the term “communion” by Catholic progressives who were using it to de-emphasise the vertical or transcendent dimension of the Church in favour of a horizontal, populist Church that functioned more like a political party than a community of disciples in mission.

The “communion” of the Church, these new theological dissidents insisted, had to be understood in reference to the Holy Trinity, a dynamic communion of self-giving love and receptivity. Absent that tether, the communio of the Church would be understood in merely mundane or sociological terms, and the Church would become a voluntary organisation with religious interests.

That Trinitarian communion – God’s own life – was made known to humanity through Jesus Christ, so the authentic renewal of theology in and for the Church, and for the conversion of the world, had to be Christocentric as well as Trinitarian. That meant, in turn, that the Bible had a privileged place

in Catholic theological reflection and in the renewal of Catholic pastoral practice. For in the scriptural Word of God the Church continued to ponder the full mystery of the incarnate Word of God, Jesus Christ. And to be “engrossed in God’s speech”, Ratzinger later noted, was to be missionary: reaching out to an increasingly pagan developed world that nonetheless manifested a thirst for the divine, even if it tried to quench that thirst by drinking from the wells of many false gods.

Perhaps above all, the Communio theologians would “read” Vatican II through the prism of the entire Catholic tradition – including Vatican I – and would thereby challenge the sometimes tacit and sometimes explicit notion among the Concilium theologians that Vatican II marked a rupture with the past. To undertake that kind of reading of Vatican II meant engaging in an open conversation, not one based on certain ideological admission tickets.

The conversation had to be international, so that cultures mutually enriched each other. And the conversation had to be a creative enterprise, not one that simply repeated formulas from the past as if Catholic tradition had been frozen for all time in a syllabus of propositions.

Over the post-conciliar years, the polemics between the Concilium and Communio theologians sometimes displayed the nasty odium theologicum that had marred intra-theological debates in the past since at least the First Council of Nicaea in 325 (during which St Nicholas of Myra, who would eventually become “Old St Nick”, or Santa Claus, was said to have thrown a punch at the theologian Arius, whom he deemed a heretic). This ferocity was not altogether surprising: the Concilium-oriented thinkers had achieved a great deal of power over Catholic intellectual life, enjoyed exercising it, and resented a challenge from those who had once been allies, while the Communio theologians chafed at the hegemony of their former compatriots.

By the 21st century, however, Communio was being published in 15 languages, and perhaps even some of the Concilium theologians recognised how much the journal they resented had contributed to the diversification of methods and perspectives within Catholic theology – precisely what all reformist theologians had demanded when they were under Roman scrutiny in the 1950s.

Moreover, and more importantly for this drama, the Communio challenge helped bring about the next two acts in the drama of Catholicism and modernity by embodying the possibility of a third option for the Church’s third millennium: neither a Catholic surrender to modernity nor a flat-out rejection of modernity, but the conversion of modernity, beginning with a critique from within modern intellectual premises.