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New biography describes great influence of Joseph Ratzinger in the revolutionary upheaval of Vatican II

Ratzinger's influence helped to bring about a revolutionary change of the Council's direction, tone, and topics.
Fri Dec 11, 2020 - 5:29 pm EST
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December 11, 2020 (LifeSiteNews) – A new authoritative biography of Pope Benedict XVI written by Peter Seewald describes in detail the important role then-Professor Joseph Ratzinger played before and during the Second Vatican Council. His influence helped to bring about a revolutionary change of the Council's direction, tone, and topics. For example, he was able to change the presentation of the Church's own concept of the sources of Revelation, he helped suppress a separate Council text on Our Lady, he opposed an “anti-Modernist spirit,” and he was in favor of more widely using the vernacular languages during Holy Mass. As Seewald himself stated in a recent interview: Ratzinger helped the “advance of Modernism in the Church,” and he “was always a progressive theologian.”

The German journalist Peter Seewald, who as an adult had returned to his Catholic faith, has published several books together with Joseph Ratzinger and repeatedly interviewed Pope Emeritus Benedict for his new biography, entitled Benedict XVI: A Life. The biography has been already published in German in its entirety, it will be published in English in two volumes, with the first volume being published on December 15, by Bloomsbury.

Ratzinger the progressivist

Speaking in May of this year to the German newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung about his new biography, Seewald described the role of Ratzinger before and during the Council, and afterwards, as well. “It is definitively so that his impulses contributed at the time to the advance of Modernism in the Catholic Church,” Seewald explained, adding that Ratzinger himself “was also one of the first who warned against the abuse of the Council.”

Seewald then also discussed the claim that Ratzinger had made a “conservative turn” after the Council. He explained that “part of the narrative” was “Ratzinger's reversal,” the talk about “the former progressivist's treason who became a reactionary.” But, objected Seewald, “such a reversal has never taken place.” “Ratzinger was always a progressivist theologian,” the journalist continued, “only the notion progressivist was [then] being understood differently than today: as a modernization of the house, not as its destruction.”

As this new biography shows, Ratzinger's views in the 1950s were so progressive that his own post-doctoral thesis was originally even rejected by the head of the University of Munich, Professor Michael Schmaus who “made it clear,” writes Seewald, “that he considers this young theologian to be a Modernist.” Some contemporary professors accused him of an emotional theology and of a “dangerous Modernism which leads to a subjectivization of the notion of Revelation.”

Seewald describes how Ratzinger, as professor of theology, showed already then an openness toward other religions; for example, when teaching a class on Hinduism in the 1950s, Ratzinger claimed that “also in Hinduism, one sees the action of God's spirit,” according to Seewald who adds that these thoughts “anticipated in essential points statements of Nostra Aetate, the Council's Declacation on the world religions.” 

Ratzinger was also in favor of the use of the vernacular language at Mass and for an increased participation of the faithful; he once criticized that bishops were “condemned to be silent observers” at the opening Mass of the Council, regretting that the “active participation of those present was not requested.” This theme was also discussed at the Council. Ratzinger also had, prior to the Council, a  high regard for the dialogue with the Jews and looked up to them as “Fathers” of Christians.

In 1958, Ratzinger wrote a controversial article. “For the Christian of today,” Ratzinger wrote in 1958 in his Das Hochland article, “it has become unthinkable that Christianity, or more specifically the Catholic Church, is to be the only path of salvation.”

“With it,” he continued, “the absoluteness of the Church, yes and of all her demands, has become obsolete from within.” How could we still tell Mohammedans today, Ratzinger explained, that they “will definitely go to hell, since they do not belong to the only saving Church”? Continued the professor: “Our humanity simply hinders us to hold on to such ideas. We cannot believe that our neighbor who is a great, charitable, and benevolent man will go to hell because he is not a practicing Catholic.”

Ratzinger and the Council itself

With these leanings, Ratzinger was prepared to play an important role at the upheaval that took place at the Second Vatican Council from 1962 to 1965. Here are some key elements of his crucial role:

  • He wrote, in November of 1961, a speech that was delivered in Genoa, Italy by Cardinal Josef Frings (Cologne) on the theology of the Council which was highly cherished by Pope John XXIII and even incorporated in the papal opening speech of the Council in October of 1962. Ratzinger then said that, “as a ‘Council for Renewal’, the Council’s task must be less to formulate doctrines.” He also proposed to enter into a “dialogue” with a secular world, presenting Christianity as an alternative. “Perhaps the Church should drop many old forms, which are not longer suitable […] be willing to strip off the faith’s timebound clothing,” Ratzinger then wrote.
  • After being appointed the advisor of Cardinal Frings in 1961, Ratzinger sharply criticized the prepared documents of the Council that had been written by different commissions. He regretted the “antiquated” language of some of the texts, and he thought some of these so-called schematas were better to be “dropped altogether.” He regretted that these texts were written “in a very conservative spirit.” The schema on Revelation was so bad in his eyes – and its traditional understanding of the subject not acceptable – that he wanted to rename the schema and rewrite it (it was indeed renamed into Verbum Dei).
  • One day before the official opening of the Council, Ratzinger gave a key speech to influential Council Fathers, criticizing the preparatory document on Revelation. He was a member of a small group with Father Karl Rahner who wrote up not only an alternative draft for that schema, but also for other documents. Seewald calls Ratzinger therefore “the Spindoctor.”
  • Ratzinger was clearly opposed to the old scholastic theology. Seewald quotes him as follows: “‘[I was] of the opinion that scholastic theology, as it had been set, is no longer a means fit to bring the faith into the language of the time.' The faith must ‘get out of this armour, adopt a new language, and be more open to the present situation. So there must also be greater freedom in the Church.’” Moreover, the 34-year-old professor was very concerned at the time not to alienate other Christians with the Council, that is to say, he kept before his eyes “the feelings and thoughts of the separated brethren.”
  • Very importantly, Ratzinger was opposed to the idea of having a separate schema dedicated to Our Lady, and indeed, that schema was then rejected. In mid-1962, he had written to Cardinal Frings the following comment, which we quote here at length: “I believe this Marian schema should be abandoned, for the sake of the Council’s goal. If the Council as a whole is supposed to be a suave incitamentum to the separated brethren and ad quaerendum unitatem, then it must take a certain amount of pastoral care […] No new wealth will be given to the Catholics which they did not already have. But a new obstacle will be set up for outsiders (especially the Orthodox). By the adoption of such a schema the Council would endanger its whole effect. I would advise total renunciation of this doktrinelles caput (the Romans must simply make that sacrifice) and instead just put a simple prayer for unity to God’s mother at the end of the Ecclesiology schema. This should be without [resorting to] undogmatized terms such as mediatrix etc.”
  • The group of German theologians who regularly met at the German seminary Santa Maria dell'Anima was at the heart of a development that led to bitter quarrels at the Council, up to an “October crisis,” a “November crisis” and the famous “Black Thursday,” when the whole Council stood on the brink. And at the center of it all stood Ratzinger, and this from the beginning. As Hubert Luthe, one of these collaborators of Ratzinger, was to say: “The Germans strongly influenced the Council. There was one towering figure in particular: Ratzinger.”
  • Several of his French collaborators of the Nouvelle Théologie, as Seewald points out, had been under the suspicion of heresy before the Council. Among them were Yves-Marie-Joseph Congar, Henri de Lubac, as well as the German Karl Rahner. In order to avoid suspicion, Congar – one of the periti at the Council – counseled that their meetings should not inspire the impression that they were “hatching a plot.”
  • Seewald even says that Ratzinger was “playing with fire” when he, on the day before the Council, set the tone against the prepared schematas, even hoping to be able to rewrite some of them. He proposed to rewrite a schema, the one on Revelation, that had already been approved by the Pope himself. Ratzinger had regretted that this schema on Revelation is “wholly determined by the anti-Modernist spirit, which had developed around the turn of the century,” adding that it was this “anti-spirit of negation which would be sure to have a cold, even shocking effect.”
  • Frings and Ratzinger, together with some colleagues, were already considering at the eve of the Council how to change to rules for the election of the Council commissions, so as to be able to influence the redaction of the documents.
  • “Seven Days That Changed the Catholic Church For Ever,” is the title of the Seewald chapter that describes how the progressivist group (the French, German, Belgian, and Dutch bishops and their advisors) – and Ratzinger prominently among them – took over the leadership at the Council. Cardinal Archille Liénart, was to violate the council rules by grabbing the microphone on the first working day of the Council, October 13, and requesting a time for debate in order to get to know the potential members of the commissions before electing them, as had been planned. Frings did the same right afterwards, asking for more time for discussion before the election of the commission members. They succeeded: the election of the commission members was delayed and they had the time to prepare a list of candidates that they then efficiently promoted among the Council Fathers, thereby getting key positions in the commissions occupied by their collaborators. Cardinal Leo Joseph Suenens called this act a “happy coup” and a “daring violation of the rules.” Out of 109 candidates of their list, 79 were then elected by the Council, covering 49% of all the seats available.
  • An important piece of information is that Frings was able to gain many supporters from the mission countries of South America and elsewhere, according to Seewald, since he, as the founder of the German bishops' relief agencies Misereor and Adveniat, had their “trust,” surely also due to his generous donations. Seewald also points out that the German bishops were the largest net contributors to the Vatican at the time.
  • In the following month, on November 14, the progressivist group successfully also intervened against the already prepared schemata. They wanted to rewrite them. On that day, Cardinal Frings delivered a speech written by then-Professor Ratzinger; he claimed that the prepared schema on Revelation did not have “the voice of a mother,” but, rather, the “voice of a schoolmaster.” Rather, Frings/Ratzinger argued, it would be important to implement the “pastoral style” as wished by Pope John XXIII. The only source of Revelation, Frings stated in the Council hall, was “the word of God,” (not, as it was traditionally stated, Holy Scripture and Sacred Tradition). In light of this strong resistance on the part of the progressivist wing at the Council, the Pope then suddenly decided, on November 21, to withdraw the prepared schema on Revelation himself, thereby giving more influence to this group of churchmen. And he did this, even though he had already approved of the schema. Establishing a new commission for a new draft of this schema, the Pope decided that not only Cardinal Augustin Bea, but also Frings and Liénart were to be in it. This decision was crucial: the schematas were open to change.
  • Looking back at these moments, Pope Benedict XVI told Seewald: “I am surprised how boldly I spoke out then, but it is true that because a proposed text was rejected, there was a real change, and a completely new start to the discussion became possible.” He was also to write that the “bishops were not anymore the same as they had been before the Council opened,” adding that “instead of the old negative ‘anti’, a new positive hope emerged to abandon the defensive and to think and act in a positively Christian way. The spark had been lit.”
  • Giuseppe Ruggieri, professor of fundamental theology in Bologna, later commented that this week from 14 to 21 November 1962, which was devoted to the debate on the schema De fontibus revelationis, “was the moment when a decisive change took place for the future of the Council and therefore for the Catholic Church itself: from the Pacelli Church, which was essentially hostile to modernity […] to the Church which is a friend to all humanity, even when they are children of modern society, its culture and history.” Ratzinger, too, saw that this week showed a rejection of “the continuation of the anti-Modernist spirituality” and an approval of “a new way of positive thinking and speaking.” And he was crucial in this change of the Council's attitude. That is why he then also was accused of being a “Modernist” and of having written a “typically Freemasonic text” with his alternative draft of the schema on Revelation.
  • Be it as it may, Seewald's own commentary on this moment of the Council is: “Frings and his advisor [Ratzinger] had turned the Council around. The minority of those wanting reform had become a majority.” As it seems, a well-organized minority was able to implement its views.
  • Throughout the Council sessions, Ratzinger worked closely with Frings for whom he wrote 11 speeches. In one of these speeches, Ratzinger wrote that “we have to be ready to learn” from the “ecumenical movement,” which he saw to be “from the Holy Ghost.” His arguments influenced many Council documents, among them Verbum Dei, Nostrae Aetate, and the decree on religious liberty.
  • In 1963, the Frings/Ratzinger team launched another initiative at the Council. On 8 November of that year, Frings delivered a speech written by Ratzinger, in which he criticized the Holy Office “whose procedures still often do not accord with our time, and cause damage to the Church and scandal for man.” It was time for tolerance. Frings rebuked the Holy Office for its procedures that did not give sufficient a hearing to the accused one and that did not confront the accused one with the arguments. Frings also claimed that the accused one is not even given the chance to correct his own writings. He received much applause in the hall, yet Seewald also states that “no one had ever dared before to criticize Cardinal Ottaviani’s machinery so fiercely.” That same evening, the Pope asked Frings to make recommendations for a reform of the Holy Office.
  • The “November crisis” of 1964 brought some change of the Pope's attitude – it was then already Paull VI, after John XXIII had died in June of 1963 – after too radical reform plans had come to light. Ratzinger was disappointed, yet saw that much change had been done with the help of the many “modi” submitted to the Council texts. It was in this time period that Pope Paul VI also decided, after all, to give after all some prominence to Our Lady. Against a vote from the Council, he announced, on 18 November, that he was to declare her the Mater Ecclesiae, the Mother of the Church, three days later. (According to one eye witness, Father Robert I. Bradley, S.J., there was an “audible hiss” at St. Peter's when the Pope made this announcement.) Here another painful note: It was again Frings, together with Cardinal Döpfner, who tried to intervene, at least attempting to modify Our Lady's title, but it was to no avail. After Paul VI declared Mary Mother of the Church, Cardinal Ruffini is said to have called out: “The Madonna won!”
  • Ratzinger felt a little more re-assured when, during the fourth and last session of the Council in 1965, Paul VI announced that there would be an episcopal council that was to accompany the work of the Pope. He stated that this piece of news helped to “revive the optimism that was almost lost.” And, in continuation with the work of the previous sessions, religious liberty was then approved, Nostrae Aetate and Verbum Dei as well, the latter of which was heavily influenced by Ratzinger, whose very concept of Revelation had been adapted. Gaudium et Spes encouraged dialogue with society, working for peace. That is to say: many aspects of the reform were implemented, only some more alarming ones were halted. On 8 December 1965, there took place the last ceremony of the Council in the Vatican. One of the observers of the Council, Fr. Ralph M. Wiltgen, was to note that nobody had been “as influential” as Cardinal Frings, after the Pope. And, as we now know better, with Frings, it was Ratzinger who had been a great influence. Seewald calls him the “youthful spiritus rector of the greatest and most important Church assembly of all times.”

Resistance from conservative bishops

That there were some bishops very concerned about these promoters of change can be seen in the reaction of the Brazilian Bishop Giocondo Grotti. He defended the special role of Our Lady and asked: “Does ecumenism mean confessing the truth or hiding it? Should the Council declare Catholic doctrine or the doctrine of our separated brethren?”

And he concluded: “Keep the schemata separate! Let us openly confess our faith! Let us be the teachers we are in the Church by clearly teaching and not hiding what is true.” As Seewald puts it, however, in the end “Frings's speech on the Mother of God, which Ratzinger had written, was so convincing that even those bishops who at first had pleaded for a separate schema on Mary changed their minds.” In a poignant sense, Our Lady was effectively asked to leave the Marriage Feast of Cana. Some were embarrassed about her presence and thus they tried to hide her.

Another example of the reaction of the conservative wing at the Council was the head of the Holy Office, Cardinal Ottaviani. He is quoted by Seewald as saying: “I pray to God that I may die before the end of the Council. That way, I at least can die a Catholic.”

Cardinal Giuseppe Siri was highly alarmed and described the new tendencies at the Council as “hatred of theology,” as inventing “new paradigms,” a stressing of “pastoral care” and of “ecumenism,” warning that there existed attempts at “eliminating Tradition, Ecclesia, etc.” on the part of those “who wish to do adapt everything to the Protestants, the Orthodox, etc.” “Divine Tradition is being destroyed,” Siri concluded.

Bishop Geraldo de Proença Sigaud of Brazil was also indignant. He spoke about the “enemy of the Church” who has “toppled” the entire Catholic order, that is, the “City of God.” By concentrating on “human reason, on sensuality, on greed and on pride,” the enemy wishes to establish society and mankind “without God, without the Church, without Christ, without Revelation.” In order to achieve this goal, the prelate continued, “it is necessary to topple the Church in her foundations, to destroy her, and to push her back.” This enemy wishes to establish the “City of Man,” and “his name is revolution.”

Peter Seewald also shows that the 3,000 letters written by bishops ahead of the Council, concerning their own intentions for this ecclesial event, did not show “either a desire for a radical change, much less for a revolution.”

That desire for a revolution was left to a small group of highly intelligent and well-connected clergymen – among them Joseph Ratzinger.

Did Ratzinger regret his role after the Council?

The question is whether Joseph Ratzinger later changed his views and whether he later regretted his role before and during the Council. Peter Seewald does not detect in Ratzinger a “turn from a progressivist to a conservative theologian” inasmuch as he had “early on found his theological position and followed it consequently.” In light of this important role that Ratzinger played, the commentary from Seewald might also be of interest: “An irony of fate: Ratzinger contributed to a great extent to formulating the Council statements and thus shaping the modern face of the Church. He would fight for 50 years to defend and implement the ‘true Council’  – though for decades he was reproached with having betrayed the Council.” For some progressivists, such as Hans Küng, Ratzinger did not go far enough.

Seewald also asked Ratzinger in a 2017 interview book, Last Testament, whether he has “qualms of conscience” about his involvement at the Council, and Benedict then admitted that “one does indeed ask oneself whether one did it the right way. Especially when the whole thing went off the rails, this was certainly a question that one raised.” But while asking himself that question, he finally did not regret his work, saying that “I always had the consciousness that what we had factually said and implemented was right and that it also needed to happen.”

“In itself, we acted correctly – even if we certainly did not correctly assess the political effects and the factual consequences,” Benedict XVI then added. “One was thinking too much in a theological way and one did not consider what consequences the things would have.”

That is to say, Benedict does not regret any of his theological statements and orientations; he only admits of not having overseen the possible political effects of these changes. He still believes that the Council was needed when he stated that “there was a moment in the Church where one simply expected something new, a renewal, a renewal coming out of the whole – not only coming from Rome – unto a new encounter for the Universal Church.” In this regard,” Benedict concluded, “the hour was simply there.”

This article is a condensed version of a longer study published by Rorate Caeli.


  catholic, peter seewald, pope benedict xvi, pope emeritus, second vatican council, vatican ii

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