(We return to the series of posts on the theology of Pope Benedict XVI)
The Second Vatican Council was contentious from its inception. When Pope John XXIII announced to some of his Cardinals in January, 1959 that he intended to call an Ecumenical Council, he was met with stunned silence.
Conservative Vatican insiders immediately set about to try to control the preparations for the Council in favor of a Neo-Scholastic agenda. They set up preparatory committees dominated by the members of the Curia (the Vatican bureaucracy), which drafted proposals for the Council to consider (and for which they hoped for a quick up-or-down vote). They sincerely hoped for the Council to be over within a short time frame.
They did not count on the bishops rebelling against this agenda, and they certainly didn’t count on the widespread influence of the periti.
The periti, or theological advisers, were theologians that accompanied the bishops to the Council. And Cardinal Josef Frings, Archbishop of Cologne, Germany, happened to ask a young Fr. Joseph Ratzinger to be his peritus.
The Conservatives’ plan was to draw up a list of candidates for the official Council commissions (which would do the majority of the Council’s work). They would have the assembled bishops take a rubber stamp vote during the first meeting, and the Neo-Scholastic agenda would have complete control from there. But during the first session, Cardinal Achille Lienart, a bishop from France, stood up and objected: how could he vote for commission members that he didn’t even know? He proposed that the Council adjourn to give the bishops time to get to know one another, and draw up their own list of candidates.
The motion was seconded by none other than Cardinal Frings. The first session adjourned after just 15 minutes, and the battle for the Second Vatican Council had begun.
From there, it was often the periti–many of them controversial German or French academics– that took center stage.
This was the 1960s, when Time magazine had cover stories about such topics as the ideas of German Reformed theologian Karl Barth. Debating theology was a big deal, and the great theologians of the day–both young and old– began to give public lectures, prepare speeches and proposals for the bishops, etc. Thinkers such as Karl Rahner, Yves Congar, Henri de Lubac, and the young Joseph Ratzinger were “rock stars” in Rome.
In particular, Ratzinger stood out. It was his first great public theological battle. Many of the others had already established reputations for their brilliance, but Fr. Ratzinger was only in his thirties and a very new professor. His lectures were very well-attended, and he was noticed and admired by many high ranking bishops, including Pope Paul VI…
Over the years that the Council took place, it became clear that the Nouvelle Theologie of the periti was defeating the conservative Neo-Scholasticism. This was reflected in many of the ground-breaking documents that the Council produced, such as “Lumen Gentium” and “Gaudium et Spes.”
At the time, Nouvelle was all still one movement, and was all seen as the “progressive” vanguard of Catholic theology. Thus, we see during that period that thinkers who would later become mortal enemies–such as Ratzinger and Hans Kung– were working closely together as allies. All of that would quickly change as the Council drew to a close, and the time came to implement its decisions in the life of the Catholic Church…
To Be Continued