“I Did Not Change; They Did!“
Joseph Ratzinger, Karl Rahner and
the Second Vatican Council
by Oliver Putz
ABSTRACT With their participation in the Second Vatican Council, two Germantheologians have been instrumental in shaping modern Catholicism like few others,namely Karl Rahner and Joseph Ratzinger. Both were collaborators on a wide array ofissues in theology and ecclesiology, but their ways were to part aer the Council, andaccording to many observers, one of them, Ratzinger, was to undergo a signicantand absolute change of heart. This change of direction does not cease to puzzleCatholics today, which makes it worthwhile to take a closer look at it. If indeed,Ratzinger not so much abandoned as developed further his already existing views,it would be of considerable importance for how we can think of the reception of theCouncil and its nal documents. If, however, Ratzinger did change completely, thequestion could be what caused this change and how does the conversion aect theChurch. By comparing the development of both theologians before, during, and aerthe Council, the present study wants to hypothesize that Ratzinger did not changeas much as became more rigid in his already existing neo-Augustinian ideas, whileRahner probably underwent a far greater change following the Council.
“Si un hombre nunca se contradice, será porque nunca dice nada.“
Miguel de Unamuno
Ever since in the early days of the rst session of the Second Ecumenical VaticanCouncil the participating bishops refused to discuss the schemata presented by thelargely curial preparatory commission, it has been the commonperception that at the Council two monolithic blocs faced oin a clash over the future of the Church. According to lore,the aempts of ultramontanist traditionalists to maintain thestatus quo failed due to the overwhelming conformity among progressive reformers.
“I Did Not Change, They Did”
The notion that the reformersagreed on virtually all issues is
certainly an oversimplication.
While there is truth in this, the notion that the reformers agreed on virtually all issuesis certainly an oversimplication. The documents of the Council remain notoriouslyambiguous, and the fact that the very same decrees have been used to argue oendiametrically opposed positions suggests that general agreement on broad issues atthe Council did not translate into general accord on every detail. Unanimous votes oneither side of the divide easily betray the great diversity of opinions that was presentamong the 2,500 bishops at Vatican II.The persistent notion of a homogenous front of bishops and theologians tryingto lead Catholicism into the (not quite so) new era of modernity against obstinatetraditionalists makes it dicult to evaluate postconciliar controversies among formerallies at the Council. How is it, one might ask, that previous reformers suddenlyreversed course and advocated views worthy of a Cardinal Oaviani? It is, of course,a truism that the only thing in life that does not change is change itself, but to betray one’s earlier convictions in favor of former adversarieshas the bier aertaste of selling out. Few have been accused of suchan extreme volte-face as oen and as bierly as Joseph Ratzinger, thecurrent Pope Benedict XVI, who participated in the Council as
,and has shaped the Catholic Church for the past forty years like fewothers.
For Benedict, Vatican II certainly marked a turning point inhis already stellar career. By the time the Council began, he was 35years old and had held professorships at two German universities, but it was with the Council that the young theologian aained aninternational reputation. He quickly became an outspoken supporterof the
movement and collaborated with those whose names weresynonymous with the
One name stands out in particular. KarlRahner, 23-years Benedict’s senior, had already been widely known in Catholic circleswhen he came to the Council as a
. His new approach to theology had beengenerally well received, but among the predominantly conservative curia it hadgained him sucient animosity to endanger his participation at the Council, if nothis entire career. Over the four years of the Council, both theologians emerged as
See for example J.L. Allen, Jr.,
Pope Benedict XVI: A Biography of Joseph Ratzinger
(New York:Continuum, 2005).
Some do not see Ratzinger as a proponent of the
. In fact, he himself today israther critical of the movement. However, see Francis Schüssler Fiorenza (“From Theologian to Pope: Apersonal view back, past the public portrayals,”
Harvard Divinity Bulletin
, 33, No. 2 ), who argues thesame point I am making here. On the other hand, according to Herman Häring, Ratzinger adopted someof the important aspects of the
introduced by Congar, Rahner, Schillebeeckx, or Küng,without ever fully embracing its methods (Cf. Hermann Häring,
Theologie und Ideologie bei Joseph Ratzinger
[Düsseldorf: Patmos-Verlag, 2001], 30.)
inuential voices, which le their mark on some of the major conciliar documents.They continued their fruitful cooperation that had begun before the Council andtogether published a series of milestone articles and books on pressing theologicaland ecclesiological issues. And yet, while their personal involvement was intricatelyassociated with the
theology of Vatican II, their paths in the postconciliarperiod could not have been more divergent.To Rahner, the primary objective of all theology aer Vatican II was to seekways of conveying Christianity as meaningful to those who grew up in a worlddominated by empirical knowledge. Forever the pastoral theologian and teacher, hepursued his goal in the dialogue with those outside the Church and by reformulatingChristian doctrine in his theological writings. Ratzinger, on the other hand, grewincreasingly uneasy about what he perceived as a misinterpretation of the Council’sintentions. Concerned that the Church would go too far in accommodating the modernworld and thereby jeopardize its true Christian identity, he sought to maintain itsoriginal character. He eventually became bishop of Munich, received his cardinal’shat, and soon aer followed Pope John Paul II’s call to the Vatican as the head of theCongregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF). In this position, which Ratzingerwas to hold for over 20 years, he made many unpopular and rather hard-line decisionsthat surprised the world and those who knew him at Vatican II. The two conspiratorsfor a new Catholicism had dried apart, and it seemed as if some major change hadcome over the younger Ratzinger.Many blame the 1968 student revolts in Germany for this change of heart, aseemingly convincing argument, given the intense anger with which protest eruptedthen.
And yet, it seems surprising that only a few months of upheaval could haveposed such a threat to the religious convictions of a man ofRatzinger’s caliber.
Hans Küng, who in 1966 vigorouslysupported and secured Ratzinger’s appointment to theprestigious theology department in Tübingen, saw inRatzinger’s growing conservatism signs of a lust for power.Both explanations oer convenient solutions to the enigma that is Joseph Ratzinger, but it is unlikely they altogether do justice to this complex thinker. It is true; Ratzingerrose quickly through the ranks and assumed a powerful position as one of the closestadvisors to Pope John Paul II. But can it really be that the historical context and
Even Hans Küng was shocked by the intensity and violence of the student protests. Cf.
(München: Piper, 2004, ), particularly 38 .
To be fair, the student demonstrations in Germany did not begin and end in 1968, but like elsewhere inEurope and the United States were the culmination of a process that began in the early 1960s. I will return to thislater, but let it suce to say here that it may very well have taken Ratzinger longer than the summer of 1968 toreach a point of frustration and disenchantment that manifested itself in his increasing rigidity.
Benedict, when asked whether his
participation in the journal
was a sin, replied: “Absolutely not. I didnot change; they changed.”
“I Did Not Change, They Did’