Rorate Caeli

RORATE EXCLUSIVE—New biography describes great influence of Fr. Joseph Ratzinger in Vatican II

Rorate is pleased to publish the following article by Dr. Maike Hickson, in which she summarizes the information on (then Father and peritus) Joseph Ratzinger’s involvement in the Council as detailed in Seewald’s magisterial biography, the first volume of which will be released in English on December 15. While some of these facts are already well-known, they have never been presented with as much detail and coherence as Seewald offers. Hickson worked from both the original German edition and the forthcoming English translation. In publishing this critique, we acknowledge at the same time how indebted we are to Ratzinger/Benedict XVI for taking crucial and countercultural steps on behalf of the restoration of the authentic Roman liturgy.

The Great Influence of Joseph Ratzinger in the Revolutionary Upheaval of the Second Vatican Council

Dr. Maike Hickson

Peter Seewald’s authoritative biography, Benedict XVI: A Life—already published in German in its entirety, and due to be published in English in two volumes, with the first volume released on December 15 from Bloomsbury—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 Church’s presentation of the concept of the sources of Revelation, he helped suppress an independent schema on Our Lady, he opposed an “anti-Modernist spirit,” and he was in favor of 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 “was always a progressive theologian.”

The German journalist Peter Seewald, who returned to the Catholic Faith as an adult, has published several books together with Joseph Ratzinger and repeatedly interviewed Pope emeritus Benedict for this richly-detailed biography. Since it is also the result of many interviews with Benedict himself, this biography can be regarded as an authoritative account of Ratzinger’s life. Seewald, though obviously a close collaborator of the retired Pope, has applied much honesty in his research about the life of Joseph Ratzinger and does not shy away from noting some critical remarks made about Ratzinger’s immense role during the Second Vatican Council.


Prof. Dr. Michael Schmaus

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 during the Council and afterwards. “It is definitively so that his impulses contributed at the time to the advance of Modernism in the Catholic Church,” he explained, adding that Ratzinger “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 being understood differently than today: as a modernization of the house, not as its destruction.”


That Ratzinger was a Modernist was also claimed by one of the two professors tasked in 1956 with reading and checking his post-doctoral thesis. And this professor – Professor Michael Schmaus, the head of the University of Munich – rejected Ratzinger’s thesis. As Seewald writes, his Ratzinger manuscript had all kinds of critical annotations. Schmaus “made it clear,” writes Seewald, “that he considers this young theologian to be a Modernist. ‘Schmaus nearly considered him to be dangerous,’ recalled Eugen Biser, the successor of Karl Rahner at the Romano-Guardini-Chair, ‘Ratzinger was seen as a progressivist who shakes up strong bastions.’” Another contemporary colleague at the university, Alfred Läpple, remembered that Schmaus told Ratzinger that he avoids “precise definitions,” and he himself agreed with that, saying that Ratzinger’s theology was a “theology of feeling.” “Schmaus was right,” this scholar continued, “that he [Ratzinger] was too emotional. That he always comes up with new words and enjoys passing from one formulation to another.”


Other colleagues at the university commission that decided to give Ratzinger a chance to rewrite his manuscript also spoke of, according to Seewald, “Ratzinger’s dangerous Modernism which leads to a subjectivization of the notion of Revelation.” Thanks to the mercy of the university, Ratzinger received a second chance, took that part of his manuscript that was the least criticized by Professor Schmaus, made it an independent manuscript and re-submitted his post-doctoral thesis. He passed this time, though even at his oral presentation, Professor Schmaus was very indignant about his words.


Progressivist views before the Council


As Peter Seewald is able to show, Ratzinger had a very crucial role before the Second Vatican Council in setting a tone and an atmosphere that was open to change and to reform. Here are some of the progressivist views for which Ratzinger stood at that time, before the beginning of the Council:


He worked in his post-doctoral thesis on the notion of the “People of God”; this notion was then to play an important role at the Council.


– He argued for a new understanding of the concept of Revelation; while the traditional concept said that Revelation is based on two sources – Holy Scripture and Sacred Tradition – he argued that there is really only one source of Revelation: the Word of God (Dei Verbum was then also the new Council text, after Ratzinger successfully worked at rejecting the original schema on the topic; this vaguer concept of a single source of Revelation could be understood in the sense that God keeps on speaking to us even today and that therefore Revelation has not ended with the death of the last Apostle. Such a concept can be open to a dynamic understanding of Revelation). Here, Professor Schmaus had told him in front of an audience at his oral presentation for his post-doctoral thesis that he had a “subjectivist way of interpreting Revelation,” which “was not really Catholic.” Ratzinger had studied St. Bonaventure’s views on this matter.


– He 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 later glad that he studied Hinduism so early and that he also dealt with the “cultic and mystical” aspect of that religion, because, “when the interreligious dialogue emerged, I was already somewhat prepared.”


– He had a “sense for the mystical, which he rather tried to hide,” something that he found in Hans Urs von Balthasar, according to Seewald.


– He was 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.”


– He had a high regard for the dialogue with the Jews and looked up to them as “Fathers” of Christians.


– Ratzinger, like others, admits of having had a “slight anti-Roman sentiment, especially with regard to the theology made in Rome,” and before going to Rome to assist the Second Vatican Council he had only once visited the Eternal City, and that was in the same year of 1962, in anticipation of his participation at the Council. Accordingly, Ratzinger did not speak any Italian.


– Already in October of 1958, he wrote an article in the liberal journal Das Hochland, which can be seen, according to Seewald, as a precursor of that “eruption” that was to take place at the Council, whose “overture” Ratzinger was to write with his Genoa speech in 1961.


Cardinal Josef Frings

– The Genoa speech, written by Ratzinger, was delivered by Cardinal Josef Frings in Genoa on 20 November 1961 and had as its topic “On the Theology of the Council.” Many thoughts and expressions of his speech can be found in Pope John XXIII’s opening speech at the Council, as Seewald shows. For example, Ratzinger had stated in his speech that “as a ‘Council for Renewal’, the Council’s task must be less the formulation of doctrines.” He also proposed to enter into “dialogue” with a secular world, presenting Christianity as an alternative. “In an age of a truly global Catholicism,” Ratzinger then added, “which has therefore become truly Catholic, the Church must increasingly adapt. For not all rules can be equally applicable to every country. Above all, the liturgy as a mirror of unity must also be an appropriate expression of particular cultural characteristics.” The professor also stated: “In many ways religion will receive a different shape. It will become leaner in form and content, but perhaps also deeper. People of today can rightly expect the Church to help them in this process of change. Perhaps the Church should drop many old forms, which are not longer suitable [ … ], be willing to strip off the faith’s timebound clothing.” John XXIII was so excited about that speech that he had called Frings into his office; when Frings told him who wrote the speech, the Pope acknowledged that he knew that. This papal support gave Frings the courage to make the more liberal-leaning Ratzinger his peritus at the Council.


– From 1961 on, he published books, often together with Karl Rahner, which anticipated or influenced the conciliar debates; for example: Episcopacy and Primacy  (1961) (indicating the topic of collegiality) and Revelation and Tradition (indicating a new notion of Revelation).


– He was of the opinion that it was important not to alienate the people of today with too much doctrinal speech in the conciliar documents; as a matter of fact, it sometimes seems that he was more attentive to outsiders than to those inside the Church and their need to be confirmed in their Faith.


– Already before the Council, he made comments that the Church “had put out too many norms,” so that “some norms contributed rather to consign the century to unbelief, instead of saving it from it.”


– He insisted in 1961 that the lay people do not merely have the “passive role of implementing and obeying,” but, rather, they “take part in the infallibility” of the Church. Pope and bishops are together, but “do not simply form an aristocracy.”


– The theology professor also had his own view on the dogma “Outside the Church there is no salvation.” “For the Christian of today,” Ratzinger wrote in 1958 in his 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 from holding 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.”


– Further expounding on this matter of salvation, Ratzinger then presented his own personal view, namely that, while there is only one path of salvation, that is “by way of Christ,” that path is dependent upon the interplay between two opposing forces. These two forces are the saved ones and the lost ones, and they together form “one scale, so that, taken alone, each of the scales would be worthless.” God, in his view, was able to “elect” people “in two ways,” either directly or “by way of their seeming rejection.” This way, God is using the few chosen people as an “Archimedean point” from which “he takes off its hinges the many,” using the few as a “lever, with which He draws them to Himself. Both have their function on the path of salvation.” In this sense, Ratzinger does not think that the many “are simply being thrown into the pit,” while the few “are being saved.” To say the least, these words on the important matter of the salvation of souls are confusing and certainly not a clarion call to missionary activity, even though Ratzinger then added that there still will be “this group that will be rejected.” This Hochland article strengthened Ratzinger’s reputation as being a “highly modern theologian,” and a contemporary church historian, Professor Georg May, stated in 1957 that “Ratzinger was known as the brilliant left-wing Catholic.” This Hochland article even led to some indignation in the Munich Diocese, where there was talk of “heresy.” There was talk of sending Ratzinger away from the university to some lower educational institution of the diocese.


Ratzinger with Cardinal Frings

Ratzinger as a sharp critic of the Council’s preparatory documents


Then came the Council itself, with its preparatory documents. Having been called to be Cardinal Frings’ advisor, Ratzinger soon wrote commentaries on the first preparatory documents that were sent to the cardinal. Ratzinger wrote scathing critiques, saying about the schema on the Church that “the vocabulary of this section sounds really antiquated.” “We should seek for wording that is more easily understood by modern people” he then explained. Ratzinger found the schema On the True Preservation of the Deposit of Faith “so inadequate, that it cannot be laid before the Council”; therefore he saw it as “better to drop this schema altogether.” Ratzinger’s views were of importance, inasmuch as Frings was a member of the Central Preparatory Committee of the Council.


One can see here how this professor in his early thirties did not seem to have much awe or respect toward those documents prepared by special commissions that had been put together by the Vatican. He was against “conservative” tones in the documents, as Seewald shows us when quoting Ratzinger: “As the sessions began, it soon became clear to us that the schemata before us had been drawn up in a very conservative spirit.” Ratzinger “clashed with the conservative group.”


Cardinal Frings

In line with his advisor, Cardinal Frings’ criticism was sharp, as well. He compared Cardinal Alfredo Ottaviani’s schema On the True Preservation of the Deposit of Faith with “the work of an inquisitor who sits in his den like a lion and looks about seeking whom he may devour.” He objected that this document was “more negative than positive” and contained “words that could wound the opponent.”


To return to Ratzinger. In October of 1962, he criticized one schema and proposed “to delete an exaggerated concept of infallibility, which has also become questionable in light of the historical research today and which is incompatible with Scripture, and to replace it with a more correct concept of infallibility.”


Pope Benedict, in one of the interviews with Seewald, explained that he saw that much needed to be mended in the documents and that “there should be more emphasis on Scripture and the [church] fathers and [that] the current magisterium should be less dominant.”


While certain schematas could be mended, in Ratzinger’s view, one specific one – and, in Seewald’s view, the crucial one – needed a complete overhaul. States Seewald: “The decree on Revelation was the Council’s Achilles’ heel – and Ratzinger’s special subject. It was the fork in the road where the direction of the Catholic Church would be decided.” Ratzinger, while acknowledging that the traditional concept of Revelation identified its two sources as Holy Scripture and Sacred Tradition, rejected this, insisting that there is only one source, that is, God speaking to us, revealing Himself to us. From this one source, according to Ratzinger, Scripture and Tradition flow forth. He therefore proposed to rename the schema from De fontibus revelationis into De verbo Dei, which then was implemented with the words Dei Verbum.


Rahner and Ratzinger

“The Spindoctor” (1962)


In October of 1962, Ratzinger flew with Frings to Rome, and he planned immediately to give a speech for a large group of participants at the Council on the Two Sources of Revelation.


Seewald, further pointing to Ratzinger’s crucial role at the Council, even called chapter 30 of his biography “The Spindoctor.” He claims that before the Council, the professor “met in a conspiring manner Karl Rahner, himself the advisor of the Viennese Cardinal Franz König.” Rahner, Seewald adds, “wanted to keep the circle for the strategic meetings ‘as small as possible’” and preserve its secrecy. The meetings were aimed at preparing some alternative proposals to the documents coming from Rome. Asking for the “highest discretion,” Rahner then informed, in April of 1962, his collaborator Professor Otto Semmelroth that the plan is to prepare such a draft together. From 15 to 25 October this group of four men, which included also Bishop Hermann Volk, worked on their plan. At the time, Ratzinger had already prepared one schema, written in Latin, which was pleasing to the group. Rahner himself had shown his thorough displeasure with the texts coming from Rome, saying that they remind him of “a tired, gray, Roman school theology” that barely can be “understood by a man of today.”


This collaboration with Karl Rahner was at the time something delicate, as Seewald explains, since Rahner was seen as a “progressivist” theologian, whose Mariology had already “fallen victim to the censorship of his [Jesuit] order and was not permitted to be published.” With Ottaviani in the background, Rahner had been told only months before the Council that his writings were to be vetted before publication. This planned censorship provoked the indignation of some of his protectors, such as Cardinals Döpfner, Frings, and König, who intervened before Pope John XXIII. The pope then effectively distanced himself from Ottaviani.


Ratzinger, who was part of Rahner’s group, was chosen by Frings to speak at the meeting of all German-speaking Council Fathers that was to take place on the eve of the opening ceremony of the Council, October 10. Frings had already then become a key man during the Council preparations, having participated in 47 meetings in Rome from November 1961 until June 1962. As Seewald points out, “nearly all of his presentations contained arguments and formulations which had been prepared by his counselor.” For Seewald, the theological basic approach of Ratzinger became clear in his analyses, and this approach was never to change in the course of Ratzinger’s life. Without keeping in mind “his sustaining contributions to the Council,” Seewald expounds, “a picture of the later Pope is not only incomplete, but also false.”


Rahner and Ratzinger

Against scholasticism and a separate schema on Our Lady


Ratzinger was clearly opposed to the old scholastic theology. Seewald quotes him: “‘[I was] of the opinion that scholastic theology, as it had been firmly settled, 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. 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 doctrinal 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 German influence and money


With this attitude, Ratzinger found common ground with other German-speaking clergymen who met regularly during the Council sessions at the Collegio Teutonico di Santa Maria dell’Anima, the German seminary, in Rome. As mentioned, their first meeting started even before the first session. As Seewald, in his sense of proportion and of justice, says: “In fact, Santa Maria dell’Anima was at the heart of a development that led to bitter quarrels, up to an ‘October crisis’, a ‘November crisis’ and the famous ‘Black Thursday’, when the whole Council stood on the brink. There was even talk of a ‘blitz.’” 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.”


Interestingly, Seewald points out that part of the German confidence during the Council stemmed from “the new strength of the German church as the biggest net contributor to the Vatican.”


So, on 10 October 1962, the first meeting of the German participants at the Council right before the opening of the Council had only one speaker, and that was Joseph Ratzinger. At the time, he was not yet even named an official peritus.


Ratzinger and Congar

Nouvelle th


When Seewald speaks of other periti, Ratzinger’s “cherished French Patres” and later cardinals – among them Yves-Marie-Joseph Congar, Henri de Lubac, as well as the German Karl Rahner – he says that all “had recently still been under the suspicion of heresy.” In order to avoid suspicion, Congar – one of the periti at the Council – counseled that their meetings should not create the impression that they were “hatching a plot.”


In spite of these attempts at avoiding suspicion, there were enough Council Fathers who were concerned. Those sympathetic with Tradition saw the dangers of the “Nouvelle Théologie” and of the ecumenical movement, and Seewald points out that these were “exactly those movements for which Ratzinger had sympathy.” For conservatives like Cardinal Ernesto Ruffini, the errors of Modernism were returning. When quoting Professor Roberto de Mattei on the prominent role of Ratzinger within the German group of theologians, Seewald says that Ratzinger afterwards “consciously played down his own significance.” “However,” explains the author, “the truth was that hardly anyone had come to Rome so well prepared as the 35-year-old professor from Bonn.” When speaking to his audience on October 10, Ratzinger made clear that many of the already prepared documents were defective, and he reflected aloud about the possibilities of replacing them with alternate texts. Should this be possible, Ratzinger wondered aloud, “could not an unacceptable document like the schema on God’s Revelation act like a torpedo that broke through the armour of the Council planning so far and made a new beginning possible?”


Playing with fire


Seewald himself wonders whether Ratzinger knew the effect his words would have. “It cannot be verified,” he writes “whether Ratzinger was aware of the implications of his intervention, which in the end derailed the Council. But he must have known he was playing with fire.” And then he quotes Ratzinger as admitting, in 2005, that “the responsibility for pointing the way the German bishops should go lay heavily on my shoulders.” In speaking to the German-speaking audience, Ratzinger also questioned directly one of the council documents – De fontibus revelationis – that had already been approved by Pope John XXIII and Cardinal Ottaviani himself. For the German professor, this schema’s title “is not without danger. It contains an extraordinary narrowing of the concept of Revelation.” Here, he rejects a well-established understanding of what the sources of Revelation were, namely, Holy Scripture and Sacred Tradition, which for him “are not the sources of Revelation;” rather, God’s own speaking and self-disclosure were the source, from which the two streams, Scripture and Tradition, flowed out. He even went so far as to say that it is “dangerous and one-sided” to use a formulation “that does not describe the order of reality but only that of our access to reality.”


Based on this thesis, he even went so far as to say that “Revelation in itself is always more than its fixed expression in Scripture; it is the living Word, which Scripture encompasses and unfolds.” As Seewald states, nearly all of Ratzinger’s points of criticism were later taken into account. Ratzinger stated on that day 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’ preparatory work


Continuing the story of Ratzinger’s prominent role at the Council, the book author points out that “the coup that took shape after Ratzinger’s presentation was perhaps not planned at the general staff level. However, it was far from being an impulse of the moment, as Frings wanted it to be interpreted afterwards.” It was Frings himself who had had consultations with a church historian already in May of 1962 as to how one best can influence the outcome of a council, and the first goal then was to “get a blocking minority” in the decisive commissions, in the words of Frings’ personal secretary Hubert Luthe. Therefore, on that evening of October 10, the German-speaking group was reflecting upon how one could change the list of members of the commissions that had essentially already been set, and with it, change the documents themselves.


Cardinal Ottaviani

“Seven days that changed the Catholic Church forever”


Seewald who has grasped the revolutionary character of the German-led interventions at the Council, entitles one of his chapters: “Seven Days That Changed the Catholic Church Forever.” The group best prepared for the Council – having closely studied the preparatory documents and having prepared proposals for emendations – was the Rhine Alliance: the French, German, Belgian, and Dutch bishops and their advisors.


One of their leaders, Cardinal Achille 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. Both interventions of Liénart and Frings had been prepared by their teams the day before, and their prepared plan succeeded: the election of the commission members was delayed.


However, Cardinal Ratzinger was later to insist that “it was not a revolutionary act, but an act of conscience, of responsibility, on the part of the Council Fathers.” But for another comrade in this battle, Cardinal Leo Joseph Suenens, it was clear that what took place was a “happy coup” and a “daring violation of the rules,” as he was later to comment. “The fate of the Council was decided to a large extent at that moment. John XXIII was glad about it,” Suenens added. Also Ratzinger himself was glad, when he stated that here, the Council “was determined to act independently and not to be downgraded to becoming merely the executive body for the preparatory committees.” Painfully, Cardinal Ottaviani was to be ridiculed on that same fateful day. Cardinal Alfrink simply turned off his microphone after he had spoken longer than the permitted time, and in the audience, there was loud applause.


Pope John XXIII and Cardinal Frings

Getting progressivists into the Council commissions


Having gained time, the leading bishops – Frings, Suenens, Alfrink, Liénart, König, and Döpfner – met on the same afternoon of that fateful October 13, in order to start working on alliances with other bishops in the world. They planned to put together their own list of candidates for the commissions, so as to influence the outcome of each of their work. They worked, for example, in order to avoid the development of a strong united front among the Italian bishops. For that, they contacted a very collaborative Cardinal Giovanni Montini, the later Pope Paul VI. In the night of October 15, Frings’ secretary was able to put together a list of candidates, 2,000 copies of which were printed and given to the Council Fathers. This effort had success, or in the words of Seewald “in the end the coup succeeded”: out of 109 candidates of their list, 79 were 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.


Without this resistance against the election of commission members on the first day of the Council, there would have been a normal and consistent development of the Council based on the prepared documents and on the work of the preparatory commissions. However, the Frings/Liénart intervention changed everything. The elections of the commission members that followed a preparatory time “crucially influenced the further course of the Council,” in the words of Frings, who had learned that it was crucial to have influence in the commissions responsible for the documents. He confirmed that he later heard that Pope John XXIII himself was not unhappy that the original list of candidates for the commissions had been changed. This is obvious, since without the support of the Pope, such a change could never have been implemented. In any event, this first October 10 success encouraged the progressivist wing at the Council that they might even have success in changing the schemata themselves. They met every Monday afternoon at the Anima, comprising some 100 prelates and theologians.


Ratzinger with unidentified Council Father

An alternative draft for the schema on Revelation


Already on 15 October, Ratzinger then presented to his colleagues a draft for an alternative document on Revelation which was then further modified by Karl Rahner, Hermann Volk, and Otto Semmelroth. Four days later, a group of 25 bishops and theologians – among them Ratzinger, Congar, Chenu, de Lubac, Küng, Rahner, and Schillebeeckx – met in order to “discuss and agree upon a tactic against the theological schemata,” in Congar’s words. On October 25, Frings invited several prominent bishops, trying to win them over for the new draft of the schema on Revelation as written by Ratzinger and Rahner. Ratzinger presented the draft to the audience, among them Suenens, Alfrink, and Liénart.


The group did not stop there. Döpfner and Hubert Jedin had met the day before so that they could consider whether there was any “leverage” with which to undercut the Council’s rules. On November 6, this discussion was continued, with Ratzinger, Frings, Congar, and Rahner present. They came up with  the request to the secretary of state that each assembly may either call for the amendment of a schema, or reject it altogether.


Cardinal Frings

November 14 and the overhaul of the prepared documents


On November 14, still of that fateful year 1962, Cardinal Ottaviani opened up the session on the schema on Revelation, defending the prepared text and insisting that the Council’s duty is the defense and promotion of Catholic doctrine. But subsequently, several members of the progressivist wing – among them König, Alfrink, Suenens, and Bea – stated that they reject the schema altogether. Frings also spoke. He delivered a talk written by Ratzinger. He claimed that the prepared schema 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.” 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 on it.


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.”


On November 24, Pope John XXIII received the German bishops in a private audience, stressing that the Council had to be a “signum caritatis,” a sign of love. But he did reject the proposal of Suenens and Döpfner, that the Mass at the beginning of each session was to be abandoned!


Rahner and Ratzinger

The Rejection of “the Anti-Modernist Spirituality”


Giuseppe Ruggieri, professor of fundamental theology in Bologna, later commented that this week from November 14 to 21, 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.” Ottaviani himself, having been sidelined, spoke the following heavy words in the Council hall: “Those who are long accustomed to saying ‘Take it away and replace it’ are already equipped for battle. And I’ll tell you something else: even before this schema was distributed, an alternative schema had been prepared. So all that remains is for me to be silent. For as the Scripture says: when no one is listening it is pointless to speak.”


From that moment on, according to Seewald, Ratzinger fell more under suspicion among the more conservative prelates. He was accused of deceiving Cardinal Ottaviani, and he and Rahner were called by French integralists “heretics who deny hell and who were worse than Teilhard and the Modernists.” The Ratzinger/Rahner draft was also described as a “typically Freemasonic text.”


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.”


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 adapt everything to the Protestants, the Orthodox, etc.” “Divine Tradition is being destroyed,” Siri concluded.


That Ratzinger played a crucial role in this revolution was also detected by the German major magazine Der Spiegel, who noticed the unusual “attack against the dictatorship of the authoritarian top guardians of the faith” on the part of Frings and explained that behind him stood, as his “most important advisor,” the then 36-year old German professor Ratzinger. Der Spiegel quoted from Frings’ Genoa speech (written, as we have seen, by Ratzinger), where he spoke “of old-fashioned ecclesial forms such as the Index” which might remind some of our contemporaries of “totalitarian practices.” He also stressed the “idea of tolerance” and of “respect toward the intellectual freedom of other people.”


In light of this important role that Ratzinger played, Seewald’s commentary might be of help: “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.”


Pope Paul VI and Cardinal Frings

Frings, popemaker of Paul VI? (1963)


An interesting side note is that, according to the historian Andrea Riccardi, it was Frings who, after the death of John XXIII in June of 1963, became the first of the “great Council leaders, the pope-makers.” Giulio Andreotti, a friend of Cardinal Montini, observed in those days that in Grottaferrata, a small town near Rome, quite a few cardinals gathered, and it was “by invitation of Frings, the archbishop of Cologne.” One participant at the time said, half in earnest and half as a joke, that “the canonical majority for electing a pope is here.” Paul VI was elected on 21 June 1963, and he was determined to accelerate the Council’s negotiations. He established a group of four cardinals – among them the German Döpfner – as moderators. The second session of the Council started on 29 September of that year.


When considering the new draft of the schema on the Church, Ratzinger noticed that some of his proposed changes had been included. He happily noted that it was not the magisterial texts from the 19th and 20th centuries that stood in the center as references, but “now patristics dominate. The Middle Ages and the modern period are present to a reasonable extent.” With regard to the schema on the liturgy, Ratzinger was of the opinion that the use of the vernacular language was desirable. All in all, the German team had again prepared itself very well, with a conference in Munich (February 1963) and another meeting in Fulda (August 1963). The latter was attended by four cardinals and 70 bishops from ten countries, and it caused suspicions in Italy, whose newspapers spoke of the danger of an “attack” and a “conspiracy.” Ratzinger worked closely with Frings, for whom he wrote the speeches during the Council sessions. 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.” In accordance with Ratzinger’s views, Frings also argued against having a separate schema on the Blessed Mother. This topic should be placed into the schema on the Church, the team argued, so as not to alienate the Protestants.


Concerned Council Fathers


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 sense, Our Lady was asked to leave the Marriage Feast of Cana. One was embarrassed about her presence and thus tried to hide her.


Cardinal Ottaviani

Frings’ and Ratzinger’s attack on the Holy Office (1963)


But then came yet another dark day during the Council, when the Frings/Ratzinger team attacked the Holy Office and with it Cardinal Ottaviani. On 8 November 1963, Frings 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 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.”


Looking back, this attack on the Holy Office led to so great a weakening of this congregation that even when Ratzinger himself headed it later on, it tolerated and allowed numerous heretical teachings in the world to go unstopped. Let us just consider how much heterodoxy comes today from the mouths of German theologians, all of whom have the teaching license from the Church.


The author Freddy Derwahl saw this danger, too. He commented on these Frings/Ratzinger interventions – of which everybody knew Ratzinger was the author – that in a sense, Ratzinger “was playing a dangerous game, possibly an even more dangerous game than Küng.” Ratzinger “operated at the very heart of the Church,” he added.


Frings was heartily greeted by many Council Fathers after his November 8 speech against Ottaviani and the Holy Office, but it became a public scandal in Italy, and Ottaviani stood humiliated, even though he was to give Frings a hug the next day, assuring him charitably that both really had the same goal. And, importantly, Frings received support from the Pope, who asked him on the same evening to make suggestions for the reform of the Holy Office—a reform which was implemented in 1965, when the Holy Office was renamed the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.


1964: The genie was out of the bottle


The next Council session, in 1964, continued with proposals for change, such as, for example, that “the number of bishops and priests in the Roman Curia is to be reduced and laymen are to be admitted.” But at the same time, says Seewald, Ratzinger did realize that the atmosphere among theologians was agitated and that the impression grew that “everything was up for revision. Increasingly, the Council seemed like a great Church parliament, which could change everything and reform everything to its liking.” These were the words of Ratzinger. As Seewald comments: “The genie was out of the bottle, and almost no one was more alarmed about it than its driving force from Bavaria.”


Yet at the same time, Ratzinger kept fighting for his cherished themes. Cardinal Ottaviani argued at the Council against a promotion of religious liberty, since he was troubled about the idea that “any kind of religion should have the freedom to spread,” which would undermine Catholic states. He and Cardinal Ruffini feared that it would become difficult for a state to give any special privileges to one specific religion. But Frings, Ratzinger, and also Karol Wojtyła, argued that religion should neither enforced nor forbidden by the state. Cardinal Richard Cushing of Boston also supported this idea and claimed that the Church should present herself to the whole world “as the champion of freedom, especially in the area of religion.” Their opinion prevailed.


November crisis of 1964; the Pope steps in


However, as it seems, after some more radical ideas had been spreading during the “November crisis” of 1964 and Pope Paul VI was made aware of them – among them the idea that the Church should be governed by the pope in tandem with an episcopal college – he intervened and insisted upon his own authority at the sessions. He added an “explanatory note” to the decree Lumen Gentium, which declared once and for all that the supreme power was with the pope as Peter’s successor and was not to be shared with bishops. On top of this papal intervention, the decision to delay the voting on the schema on religious liberty further incited indignation among the progressive Council Fathers. It was in this time period that Pope Paul VI also decided, after all, to give 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 eyewitness, Father Robert I. Bradley, S.J., there was an “audible hiss” at St. Peter’s when the Pope made this announcement.)


It was again Frings, together with Döpfner, who tried to intervene, at least attempting to modify Our Lady’s title, but to no avail. After Paul VI declared Mary Mother of the Church, Cardinal Ruffini is said to have called out: “The Madonna won!” For some of the progressivists, this was a heavy defeat, together with some of the other papal decisions. While Ratzinger himself was disappointed, too, he reassured himself and others with the fact that there had still been many changes to the Council documents, by way of the so-called “modi.”


Some reassurances in 1965


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 adopted. Gaudium et Spes encouraged dialogue with society, working for peace. That is to say: many aspects of the reform were implemented; only some of the 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 exercised an enormous influence, as we can see from the foregoing: Ratzinger’s 1961 speech that Cardinal Frings presented in Genoa; his detailed critiques of each of the prepared documents; the eleven speeches that Frings offered during the Council sessions; his detailed work on numerous texts of the Council before and during the Council. As Seewald reminds us, he was the author of the speech with the help of which Frings overthrew the procedures of the Council on 14 November 1962, and he was key in the rejection of the schema on the Sources of Revelation on 21 November of that same year. Seewald calls him the “youthful spiritus rector of the greatest and most important Church assembly of all times.”


Ratzinger and Paul VI

The aftermath of the Council


Seewald insists that there did not exist a “breach” in Ratzinger’s theology after the Council, in 1968, as some have claimed, prominently among them Hans Küng. The book author does not detect in Ratzinger a “turn from a progressivist to a conservative theologian” since he had “early on found his theological position and followed it consistently.”


Still later, Ratzinger was to insist on the Council texts themselves. “The true legacy of the Council,” he stated, “lies in its texts. If they are construed carefully and clearly, then extremism in either direction is avoided. Then a way really opens up which still has a lot of future before it.” And, still at the end of his own papacy, he was to declare: “It is always worth going back to the Council itself, to its depth and its vital ideas.”


“I pray to God that I may die before the end of the Council”


But it might also be worth considering that there were some Council Fathers who opposed this spirit of reform that was reigning at the Council under the influence of Ratzinger. The head of the Holy Office, Cardinal Ottaviani, 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.”


Bishop Geraldo de Proença Sigaud of Brazil was also alarmed. 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.” De Proença Sigaud also stated that “many Catholic leaders” would call this warning “a fantasy.”


But even if not all the participants of the Council would agree with words such as these, Peter Seewald shows that the 3,000 letters written by bishops ahead of the Council, concerning their own intentions for this ecclesial event, did not show “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.


Cardinal Ratzinger in his CDF days

Did Ratzinger later regret his role at the Council?


The final question we should address is whether Ratzinger later regretted his role at the Council and whether he changed his views. Here, we can quote him from his 2017 interview book with Peter Seewald, Last Testament. After discussing the Council and its aftermath, Seewald directly asked Benedict 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. 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 not having foreseen the possible political effects of these changes. He still believes that the Council was needed: “In itself, however, 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, the hour was simply there.”