VATICAN CITY (CNS) – On Feb. 14, in one of the last public appearances of his pontificate, Pope Benedict XVI spoke to the clergy of Rome about his experiences at the Second Vatican Council, which he had attended as an expert consultant half a century before.
The pope praised some of the council’s achievements, including its teachings on the interpretation of Scripture, religious freedom and relations with non-Christian religions. But he also lamented what he described as widespread distortions of the council’s teachings. The news media, he said, had presented the council to most of the world as a political struggle for “popular sovereignty” in the church.
This “council of the media” was responsible for “many calamities, so many problems, so much misery,” the pope said. “Seminaries closed, convents closed, liturgy trivialized.”
With that speech, Pope Benedict returned to one of the major themes of his pontificate. During his first year as pope, he had explained in a landmark speech that Vatican II could be properly understood only in continuity with the church’s millennial traditions, not as a radical break with the past. He went on to devote much of his papacy to promoting this understanding of the council’s teachings.
Under Pope Benedict, the Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith, which as Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger he had headed for almost 24 years, continued to censure or criticize theologians whose writings, often invoking the spirit if not the letter of Vatican II documents, deviated from orthodoxy in areas that included sexual morality, the mystery of the incarnation and the possibility of salvation without Christ.
The congregation also issued documents asserting that the Catholic Church is the one true “church of Christ” and that missionaries have a duty preach the Gospel as well as provide charitable assistance to the needy. Both documents, the Vatican said, were necessary to correct misunderstandings of the teachings of Vatican II.
Pope Benedict presided over two major Vatican investigations of women religious in the United States, responding to diminishing numbers and reported deviations from doctrine and discipline in the decades since the council. One of the investigations led to an order of reform of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, intended to ensure the group’s commitment to Catholic teaching in areas including abortion, euthanasia, women’s ordination and homosexuality.
The pope also tried to correct what he considered overly expansive notions of interreligious dialogue that had blossomed after Vatican II, which he feared could lead to relativism or syncretism. In October 2011, at the 25th-anniversary commemoration of the World Day of Prayer for Peace in Assisi, Italy, there was no public multireligious prayer of the kind that had distinguished the original event, which then-Cardinal Ratzinger had criticized at the time. Pope Benedict also added agnostic “seekers of the truth” to the guest list, further diluting the interreligious character of the event.
A lifelong teacher, Pope Benedict naturally made Vatican II’s continuity with tradition a recurrent theme in his homilies, catechetical talks, papal documents and even in his personal writings, addressing the topic in the first of his best-selling “Jesus of Nazareth” books.
This pedagogical project culminated in the current Year of Faith, which opened Oct. 11, the 50th anniversary of the council.
“The council did not formulate anything new in matters of faith, nor did it wish to replace what was ancient,” the pope told the congregation at Mass that day in St. Peter’s Square. “Rather, it concerned itself with seeing that the same faith might continue to be lived in the present day, that it might remain a living faith in a world of change.”
For most Catholics, the pope conveyed this lesson most clearly through worship. Following the exuberant and colorful celebrations that had marked the papacy of Blessed John Paul, especially at World Youth Days and on other international trips, papal Masses under his successor became more solemn. Pope Benedict encouraged the use of Gregorian chant and the practice of eucharistic adoration, one of the traditional devotions that had fallen largely out of use in the wake of Vatican II.
Most dramatically, Pope Benedict lifted most restrictions on the Tridentine Mass, which had practically disappeared in the post-conciliar reform of the liturgy. He explicitly intended the move to promote reconciliation with the disaffected traditionalists of the Society of St. Pius X, whom he later offered the status of a personal prelature if they would return to full communion with Rome, an effort that did not bear fruit in his pontificate. Yet Pope Benedict also expressed the hope that celebration of the Tridentine Mass would encourage a more reverent celebration of the new Mass, helping to bring out the latter’s “sacrality,” “spiritual richness” and “theological depth.”
If Pope Benedict’s service to the liturgical tradition should emerge as one of his major legacies as pope, he would no doubt be content. As he told the priests of Rome three days after announcing his resignation: “I find now, looking back, that it was a very good idea (for Vatican II) to begin with the liturgy, because in this way the primacy of God could appear, the primacy of adoration.”