Ratzinger 1966 – An Unexpected Prophet

It is pretty much a commonplace today that at the time of the Council Fr Josef Ratzinger was to be counted among the conciliar young turks, channeling the Rhine into the Tiber, a progressive, if not so radical as his colleague Küng. In the wake of the student unrest and riots of 1968, the narrative continues, Ratzinger changed, seeing the dangers of radical progressivism and turned back to safer waters. His growing conservatism combined with his conciliar pedigree and obvious theological gifts led him first to be elected Archbishop of Munich and then appointed to head the Holy Office, God’s rottweiler as he was labeled by his detractors.

There is little doubt that 1968 seems to have been something of a watershed year for Ratzinger. So it was something of a surprise to come across the text of a lecture Ratzinger gave at Bamberg’s Katholikentag in 1966. Here is a conflicted Ratzinger. The Council is barely a year over, and the student unrest of 1968 is still to come. Yet Ratzinger already senses danger, and senses too that the implementation of the Council’s decrees is more and more losing touch with the Council itself.

Though it was printed in English in The Furrow of January 1967 as “Catholicism After the Council”, the German focus of Ratzinger’s paper may have caused anglophone students to put it to one side as being of more local-historical interest. Yet anyone who reads it would be struck by its prophetic nature, and the challenges he poses both to traditionalists and progressives alike. Maybe this too has made it inconvenient for most.

Fr Josef Ratzinger in 1966
Fr Josef Ratzinger in 1966

Since I am unsure of its copyright status, the paper will not be reproduced or made available in full here. Still it is such a remarkable piece of Ratzinger, accessible to non-theologians, and with abiding relevance as we come to 50 years since the Council, that it seems reasonable to examine it to some degree. His talk will be dealt with in three parts. Herewith, the first.

INTRODUCTION

Ratzinger begins by defining his terms, focusing on the term ‘Catholicism’. He notes that at this period Catholicism had been reduced by many to yet another -ism, an ideology that blends “the ideal and the real in the life and society of our time… [while also] blurring the boundaries between them” (p.3). In this reorientation of the concept of Catholicism he finds that the Church “has yielded to the insistence of our age on arranging everything according to ideologies” (ibid.). As a result Catholicism has become no less constrained and constricted by worldliness than it was in the mediæval period, and is in fact “a continuation in a slightly altered form of the fusion, much criticised nowadays, between Church and society in the imperium Christianum of the Middle Ages”.

That Ratzinger starts his paper in this way suggests not only that he has discerned in the contemporary Church a turn to the world that is at the same time becoming an accommodation to it. In light of what will follow, he seems to be warning the post-conciliar Church that its new engagement with the world risks not so much its influencing the world but the world influencing it.

Even so soon after the Council, this new trajectory in the life of the Church was having unintended effects.

Let me start off by admitting quite frankly that there prevails amongst us today a certain air of dissatisfaction, an atmosphere of depression and even of disappointment, such as often follows on festive moments of great joy and exaltation… The world seemed to stop in its tracks to give the Council a joyful welcome and to listen to it with an astonished and respectful attention but now it seems to have simply gone off about its own affairs again, and after all the clamour and the shouting the Church remains the Church and the faith has become, if anything, more burthensome (sic) than ever because more exposed and defenceless. (p.4)

But a year after the Council closed Ratzinger discerns that the Council might not have been concluded in the same spirit it was begun, and that the motives of many of its more vigorous proponents might not be without subtle self-interest:

It could be that the applause of 1962 reflected a secret longing for that something higher and eternal… now about to become nearer and more easily grasped…; or it could be that many people were hoping that the Church was about to come to terms with the world and thereby give them carte blanche to continue in their own worldly ways. (ibid.)

To simplify things rather crudely, and to read between the lines, it is as if Ratzinger identified with the former tendency, a spirit in which the Council was convoked, and has found that the latter tendency has replaced it by the end of the Council. He intuits that the implementation of the conciliar decrees will be far more important than the Council itself.

It seems that as early as 1966 the implementation of the Council was already proving problematic from Ratzinger’s perspective. “However that may be, the Council has left yet another trail of disagreement and divided opinions in its wake to add to the many other differences of opinion among the faithful” (pp.4-5). So among the faithful there was already a conflict of opinion on many issues, and far from reconciling them the Council has caused the situation to worsen. Ratzinger then goes on to sketch in broad strokes the outlines of the two major camps at loggerheads:

For some the Council has done much too little, it got bogged down at the very start and bequeathed to us nothing but a series of clever compromises… For others again the Council was a scandal, a delivering up of the Church to the evil spirit of our time, which has turned its back on God with its mad preoccupation with the world and with material things. They are aghast to see the undermining of all that they held most sacred and turn away from a reform which seems only to offer a cheapened watered-down Christianity where they expected stiffer demands in regard to faith, hope and love. (p.5)

This summary sketch of the two opposing poles of post-conciliar opinion serves as well today as it did for Ratzinger in 1966. It is the latter opinion that Ratzinger seems more interested in, and to some degree more sympathetic towards. Those who view with alarm the post-conciliar reforms, as enacted, “compare this reform… with the reforms of past times, as for instance with that reform which is linked with the name of the great St Teresa.” (ibid.) Ratzinger is applying here what he later, as Pope Benedict XVI, would call the hermeneutic of continuity, which is the interpretation of developments in Church teaching and practice in the light of previous teaching and practice, since they should all share one organic and discernible unity.

St Teresa of Avila
St Teresa of Avila

As a reference point in this hermeneutic he choose the 16th century reforms of St Teresa of Avila. He describes things in forthright terms, unsettling for monks and religious:

Before her conversion the convent in which she lived was a perfectly modern place in which the old-fashioned idea of the enclosure with its petty annoying restrictions had given way to more generous ‘modern’ ideas… the gloomy asceticism of the old rule had been replaced by a more ‘reasonable’ manner of life more suited to the tastes of people of the new era which was just then beginning… [and offering] an open-minded attitude to the world. (ibid.)

Dare it be said, but this could be a description of many monasteries of today, declining as they are, forces for reform though they were. Ratzinger is casting doubt upon the validity of two predominant yardsticks of reform in his day as well as our own: modernity and the ‘world’, following the example of St Teresa.

But one day she was touched to the quick by the Presence of Christ and her soul came face to face with the inexorable truth of the Gospel message, untrammeled by all the petty phrases of excuse and extenuation which had been used to obscure it, and then she realised that all that had gone before had been an unpardonable flight from the great mission to which she had been called and a shirking of the conversion of heart which was being asked of her, whereupon she rose up and was ‘converted’. And what that meant was that she rejected the aggiornamento and created a reform which had nothing of concession in it but was a challenge to all… (ibid.)

Even allowing that he might be using some rhetorical flourish in his description of St Teresa’s situation, it is remarkable that he uses the totemic conciliar word, aggiornamento. Until recently, in anglophone Catholicism especially, it has been a de facto dogma that aggiornamento, or updating, was both necessary and wonderful. It is effectively the conciliar motto for the progressive element. That Ratzinger, a progressive himself, so early is casting a shadow of doubt on the principle gives one pause for thought. For him, as for St Teresa, the demands and challenges of the Gospel cannot be updated, only diluted and discarded. Any ecclesial reform that weakens the Gospel call in such a way is no reform, but deformation.

Shifting our gaze back to the present day, we see how right and how prescient was his concern. That within the Church, among her pastors and teachers, can be found those who explicitly contradict magisterial and biblical teaching on sexuality and marriage, the sacredness of human life, the priestly office, et al., can be traced precisely to the influence of the two sources for the call to change that Ratzinger warns against, namely modernity and the world. These people seek “carte blanche to continue in their worldly ways”. They seek, indeed, for the Church to accommodate and to validate their pursuit of self as their highest good, and their consequent avoidance of the Cross. In place of Christian freedom, they want liberty without responsibility. In place of the demands of love, they want only the approbation of lust and the avoidance of its consequences.

So, back to Raztinger. He acknowledges the question as to whether “the Council has not, in fact, taken the opposite direction to Saint Teresa, going away from true conversion of heart and moving in the direction of a conversion to worldliness on the part of the Church.” (p.6) It is a question that some would see answered clearly enough in the reaction to Dominican Sister Jane Dominic Laurel, who was recently condemned by parents of a Catholic school for explaining the Church’s teaching on sexuality in clear and measured terms, and the meagre support offered her by the local diocese.

This is a disenchanted Ratzinger we are reading, a man grappling to comprehend that his conciliar hopes not matching post-conciliar reality. It is 1966, just four years after the Council opened, and barely a year after it closed, and he sees it increasingly becoming a tool for secularisation, reducing Catholicism to one -ism among many. In engaging with the world, it risks being swamped by the world.

His next focus is liturgical reform, examined in the next post.