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VATICANII-BENEDICT Oct-12-2005 (1,900 words) Backgrounder. With photo posted Oct. 11. xxxi

Pope Benedict, influenced by Vatican II, can shape its implementation

By John Thavis
Catholic News Service

VATICAN CITY (CNS) -- Pope Benedict XVI, a man deeply influenced by the deliberations of the Second Vatican Council, now stands in a position to shape the way the church implements its teachings.

Years ago, he warned that the church had experienced a "progressive process of decadence" in the name of a presumed "spirit of the council." He was particularly critical of liturgical reforms launched by Vatican II.

Yet, in his first sermon as pope in April, he said there should be no doubt that the council and its authoritative rereading of the Gospel would remain the "compass" for his papacy.

"As the years have passed, the conciliar documents have lost none of their timeliness; indeed, their teachings are proving particularly relevant to the new situation of the church and the current globalized society," he said.

In many ways, Pope Benedict embodies the full spectrum of the Vatican II experience in the church:

-- As a theological adviser to German Cardinal Joseph Frings of Cologne, then-Father Joseph Ratzinger attended all four sessions of the 1962-65 council, enthusiastically embracing its early work and its bold approach to renewal.

-- He began to have misgivings in later sessions and worried that the council could leave the impression that the church worked like a parliament and that "the faith could be changed."

-- After the council's conclusion, he cautioned against wrong turns in implementation and eventually helped found a theological journal to counterbalance what he called the "ecclesial politics" approach to theology.

-- As the Vatican's top doctrinal official for nearly 24 years, he worked to curb abuses and clarify the council's teaching in areas that included theological experimentation, liturgical texts, biblical scholarship, lay ministries, the role of bishops' conferences, and interreligious and ecumenical dialogue.

U.S. author and scholar George Weigel said that as a young theological expert Father Ratzinger understood a crucial truth about Vatican II: that "aggiornamento," or church updating, must be based on "ressourcement," a return to the sources of Christian wisdom and a deepening of the church's understanding of itself.

"Ratzinger ... understood that the two have to go together -- that 'updating' without 'deepening' turns the church into simply another voluntary organization dedicated to good works," Weigel said.

Weigel, who addresses the subject of Pope Benedict and Vatican II in his new book, "God's Choice: Pope Benedict XVI and the Future of the Catholic Church," said the new pope has already had a huge impact on the council's implementation under the pontificate of Pope John Paul II.

Today, Weigel said, "the greatest test of Pope Benedict as an 'implementer' of Vatican II will be his success in finding bishops who embody the council's vision of the bishop-as-apostle."

Italian church historian Alberto Melloni said Pope Benedict brought great theological depth to Vatican II and remains a "son of the council" in many ways.

But with his election as pontiff, Melloni said, the implementation of Vatican II has become for Pope Benedict a question of governance and not just of intellectual or theological argumentation.

"What he did and thought at the council was important. But what counts much more now is what he will do as pope, especially in the critical areas of collegiality and ecumenism," he said.

In the years before his election, Cardinal Ratzinger's comments about the legacy of Vatican II drew keen attention, especially when he spoke about the liturgy. In 1997, he said the drastic manner in which Pope Paul VI reformed the Mass had caused "enormous harm" to the church. It was not that changes were not needed, Cardinal Ratzinger said; in fact, he said, in many respects the new Roman Missal was an improvement.

The problem in his view was that the old missal was suppressed. Instead of continuity, he said, the old liturgy was demolished and the new Mass constructed from its pieces.

"I am convinced that the crisis in the church that we are experiencing today is to a large extent due to the disintegration of the liturgy," he said.

Cardinal Ratzinger called for a "new liturgical movement that will call to life the real heritage of the Second Vatican Council." In 1999 he wrote a book on the topic, saying modern liturgy needs to give greater space to silence, traditional Christian gestures, appropriate music and other elements that promote a reverential attitude.

Cardinal Ratzinger had already stirred debate in the 1990s when he said he agreed with theological arguments for returning the altar to its pre-Second Vatican Council position, in which the priest celebrated Mass facing East and with his back to the congregation. But he said it was probably too late to reverse the change without leaving Catholics more confused than ever.

Likewise, he said a general return to celebration of the Mass in Latin was impossible today, and perhaps not desirable.

Because of his past statements, many Catholics expect Pope Benedict to make sweeping changes in papal liturgies, cutting back on the multicultural elements that featured so prominently under Pope John Paul. So far, that has not happened. At World Youth Day in Germany, for example, the papal Mass was enlivened by African drums, a sitar and South American panpipes, and an evening prayer service featured a juggler.

Even more than liturgical details, Pope Benedict has always been interested in the theological and ecclesial thinking behind the liturgy. When the council began its dramatic debate on the sources of revelation in 1962, the young Father Ratzinger became a key player.

The discussion on revelation had to do with how Scripture and tradition relate to each other, and how they both relate to the magisterium, the church's teaching authority. It was a debate for specialists, but with deep repercussions on the way the church understands itself.

In the view of Father Ratzinger, there was a dangerous trend in biblical interpretation that saw Scripture as the entire deposit of the faith -- an approach that gave great authority to the interpreters of Scripture and little or none to the magisterium and to church tradition. The biblical interpreters often disagreed, he said, and that made the faith more vulnerable to changing hypotheses and opinions.

As the council deliberated the question, Father Ratzinger prepared a historical paper to show, as he later wrote, that "revelation ... is greater even than the words of Scripture," and that the church and tradition are both intrinsically involved in revelation.

Many of those arguments ultimately prevailed at the council. Pope Benedict later called the modified Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation one of the outstanding texts of the council -- and one that has yet to be fully understood by the church.

In a more general sense, what troubled the future pope in the aftermath of the council was the impression that everything in the church was open to revision and that the secular world's political approach could be transferred to church decision-making.

He warned against the rise of anti-Roman resentment and the idea of an ecclesial "sovereignty of the people" or "church from below" in which the people determine the definition of "church." He also worried that the new confidence Vatican II had instilled in theologians was making theologians feel as if they were no longer subordinate to bishops.

These concerns were reflected in several documents issued during Cardinal Ratzinger's tenure at the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. Most notably, in 1984 the congregation cautioned against the use of Marxist concepts in liberation theology; in 1990 it called on theologians who disagree with church teaching not to use the mass media to publish their views or pressure for change; and in 1992 it said theologians must not overemphasize the autonomy of local churches and reduce ecclesial communion to a sociological reality.

Vatican II opened the door to ecumenical and interreligious dialogue, and Cardinal Ratzinger's doctrinal congregation had important qualifications to make in both areas. In 2000, the doctrinal congregation issued "Dominus Iesus" on salvation through Christ alone, and a second document on "sister churches." Both drew criticism from the church's dialogue partners.

By stating that Jesus Christ and the church are necessary for salvation, "Dominus Iesus" impressed some readers as an exclusionary text -- despite Vatican assurances that it was simply an expression of Catholic faith. The document on "sister churches" said the term should only be used to describe churches that have preserved a valid episcopate and Eucharist, like the Orthodox churches; it was strongly criticized by Anglican and Protestant leaders.

Both documents relied heavily on the teachings of Vatican II to bolster their arguments. "Dominus Iesus" more than 50 times cited the council's texts, including their assertion of the "unique mediation" of Christ in salvation. In unveiling the document, Cardinal Ratzinger said the idea that the church must never insist on the truth of its message was "radically different" from what Vatican II intended.

In his 1987 book, "Church, Ecumenism and Politics," Cardinal Ratzinger said that to understand the council's teaching on dialogue one must understand its "core teaching" on the church as communion. He urged a closer look at the language of Vatican II texts to counter the idea that a group can simply "come together, read the New Testament, and say: 'We are now the church.'"

He also argued that the council developed collegiality among bishops as a theological reality, but that it had been misunderstood as a form of power-sharing.

In particular, he questioned the teaching authority of bishops' conferences, declaring in 1985 that they had "no theological basis." In 1998, a papal document that Cardinal Ratzinger helped prepare underlined the limits of the authority of bishops' conferences, saying that doctrinal questions can never be decided by a majority vote.

The mushrooming number and variety of lay tasks and ministries in the church also came under the careful scrutiny of Cardinal Ratzinger. The doctrinal congregation helped guide the preparation of a document in 1997 that, drawing heavily on Vatican II texts, praised lay involvement in the church but warned against confusing the roles of laity and ordained ministers. On many occasions, Cardinal Ratzinger insisted that the primary lay task envisioned by Vatican II was to evangelize and sanctify the world.

In the hundreds of times he has spoken or written about the Second Vatican Council, Pope Benedict has always supported the authority of its teachings. But he has said these same teachings require careful study, an eye for nuance and, above all, a proper understanding of the church and its mission.

On the whole, the pope has seen the council's breakthrough in terms of the church influencing the world, not the world influencing the church.

That vision was clearly reflected in the doctrinal congregation's 2003 document on Catholics and politics, which said Catholic voters and lawmakers must bring their faith to bear on political questions. The text drew heavily from the Second Vatican Council's Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World.

More than Vatican II's internal church reforms, Pope Benedict has emphasized the council's wider goal: to bring the faith out of the private sphere and renew it as the driving force of history.

To understand Vatican II correctly, he said, one must begin with the first sentence of the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church: "Christ is the light of all nations." The point, he said, is that the church begins by talking about Christ, not about itself.


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