Vatican II has only ever been a change of direction overestimated by Catholics

Vatican II has only ever been a change of direction overestimated by Catholics

Benedict XVI’s welcome to fundamentalists reveals his true vision of the Church

[From Le Monde]

By Kurt Flasch – Philosopher and German Mediaeval Historian

In German-speaking countries and beyond, the anger is everywhere. Particularly in Germany, there are many who deplore the fact that it was indeed a German Pope who opened the doors of his Church for the return of a notorious revisionist. It did not fail, immediately, to raise the suspicion of possible anti-Semitism in the Pope himself. But this is the wrong question, and one which conceals others which are, besides, more significant.

It is crystal clear that the Pope has no truck with racism, nor anti-Semitism. He has stated as much himself, and this certitude has been accepted for quite some time. It can be deduced from his philosophical, as well as political, convictions. To table this question is at once stupid and counter-productive.

At the same time, that does not mean to say nothing has happened. There has most certainly been a scandal. Grassroots Christians are in revolt, departures from the Church are increasing; the sounds of discontent have even awoken some normally docile German prelates. The anger is all the more vivid after his unfortunate Ratisbonne Discourse. Then, the Pope, convinced of the rational nature of his faith, sought to make an offer of dialogue to Islam and all who were willing. But, like a teacher with a single point of reference in mind, who seeks to replace it at any cost, he was quick to forget his theme in order to spread his own overview, which is a glowing testimony to the sterile reason of the ‘Greek’ style – which incidentally never existed – and runs against most Christian thinkers who, since Duns Scot (1268 -1308), have made a clear distinction between philosophy and theology.

Muslims felt offended by a quotation that was discourteous towards them, expressed in 1400 by a Byzantine emperor! Wary Protestants thought themselves excluded from true Christianity; modernists united in their contempt. Concern was widespread. Even those who granted the Holy Father the benefit of good intentions could see the damage done.

With the fundamentalists too, the Pope’s intentions were the best. He and his defenders state that, in withdrawing the excommunication of four Bishops of the St Pius X Brotherhood, his only aim was to restore unity to the Church. Yet there again, this re-evaluation leaves Church unity in a more piteous state than beforehand. The Pope drew enough comfort from his good intentions and theological competence; he has but an unclear view of the world he addresses, and nobody to correct him. He is surrounded by an enormous administration, but one which offers him nothing.

To no greater extent than he allows his Curia to approach him, do his experts manage to protect their master from throwing himself to the wolves. The last time, at Ratisbonne, he did not think about the sense, nor the effect, of his accusations about Mohammed. This time, he did not even take a minute to learn about the four fundamentalists whose decree of excommunication he withdrew. The results have been disastrous.

Friends and loyal servants of the Pope reject all blame, placing it on Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, Secretary of State of the Roman Curia, or to an even greater extent, Cardinal Dario Castrillon Hoyos, responsible for relations with the fundamentalists. They should have warned the Pope. But did he so much as ask their opinion? It was long known that Richard Williamson is a holocaust-denier. And has been for years. It was made common knowledge by the press on the 22nd January; it was on the 24th January that the Papal decision was made public. There was thus plenty of time, every chance, to weigh up the thoughts of Richard Williamson. It would, though, have remained in the shadows, had the Pope not had the idea of testing his reconciliation skills on just this person! The protagonist of the piece’s name is certainly Ratzinger, not Williamson, and still less the Curia.

Both the defense and the illustration of the Church’s unity are certainly part of the responsibilities of a Pontificate. But what conception of unity drives this current? Therein lies the problem. It is a traditionally ecclesiastical, Romano-centric conception. The Pope is rather less concerned with unity with African Christians, with disciples of the theology of the Liberation or the German resistance, than unity with the fundamentalists. To that end, he hopes to rely on the solid foundations that even Vatican II was not able to destroy: the relentlessly-emphasised condemnation of relativism – what is that, if not another way of saying there is no salvation outside his Church. This explains why his offers of dialogue are destined to fail.

Yes, Ratzinger distances himself from anti-Semitism, as from the traditional anti-Judaism of the Church. But he has always emphasised his claim of exclusivity, in the same way as the St Pius X Brotherhood and those which preceded it. He thus aligns himself with a long anti-liberal tradition in Roman Catholicism – which they call anti-relativism – and to a conception of sin, of baptism and of the singularity of the genuine Church. Hence the proximity to the fundamentalists. Hence his interest in a rapprochement.

Benedict XVI, together with his predecessors, states that Papal infallibility is not restricted to the extraordinary circumstances of decisions regarding points of doctrine, in other words the official and sumptuous context of proclamation of dogma, but extends to ordinary teachings.

What does this mean? From Catholics, obedience in matters of faith is universally required, “which, by virtue of the general and usual doctrine, belief, as in a dogma revealed by God, is required.” Catholics owe the Bishop of Rome “obedience of will and of reason,” including when he is not speaking ex cathedra. The theological distancing of Judaism and of Islam and the secular liturgy of the Latin Mass follow from this as much as belief in the devil’s reign over Earth, the Augustinian conception of original sin and much more.

The theologian in Ratzinger knows that, on all these points of doctrine, he is much closer to the fundamentalists than to those who retrospectively attribute all virtue to the II Vatican Council. Vatican II certainly broke new ground in terms of religious freedom and biblical exegesis, but without changing whatsoever the primacy of the Bishop of Rome, nor the primacy of the jurisdiction of the Pope.

For the Episcopal school, the Council made the changes in direction slight, theologically cosmetic on the whole, but without real effect on Canon law. Huge propaganda, accompanied by spectacular stage-management, made Vatican II appear more revolutionary than it really was, and the Roman centre has been struggling for decades against this perception which is founded, perhaps, on self-persuasion.

This is the precise context in which the very unilateral reconciliation with the fundamentalists comes into play. Even without Bishop Williamson, the Brotherhood’s return to the bosom of the Church would have irritated, even provoked rebellion. If the Pope was unaware of Williamson’s revisionism, he must, on the other hand, have realised that he was going to collide with many Catholics in their, often confused, overestimation of the last Council. That, he deliberately took into account.

The Pope also wished to affirm the unity of his Church, but by the measure of a unity forged from his own traditionalist conception. The world’s amazed disbelief, the irritation of reformist Catholics, the anger of Jews and the words and views of Mr Williamson were for him negligible. That is why he treated all of them disdain. It is not only, then, a slight problem caused by negligence in the Roman administration. The Bishop of Rome was quite faithful to his message.

(Translated from German by Nicolas Weill.)


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