George Weigel

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Re-Viewing Vatican II

George Lindbeck, the distinguished Lutheran theologian, served from 1962 through 1965 as one of sixty “Delegated Observers” from other Christian communions at the Second Vatican Council. As Lindbeck has noted on previous occasions, the ecumenical observers from the worlds of Orthodoxy and Protestantism were a “privileged lot.” They had special access to the Council aula, sat just to the left of the high altar of St. Peter’s, were served by a corps of ecumenically minded Catholic translators (all Council business was conducted in Latin), and were frequently consulted, formally and informally, about the drafts of conciliar texts. More than one bishop was heard to complain, and perhaps not without reason, that the observatores had gotten a much better deal than the bishops who, after all, were supposed to be the Council.

It has now been twenty-nine years since Vatican II finished its business, and the ranks of those with living memories of the Council is, in the natural course of things, growing ever thinner. Concurrently, debates over the Council’s intention, its accomplishment, and its “spirit” have intensified, within and beyond the formal boundaries of Roman Catholicism. It was with an eye to clarifying some of the terms of the contemporary debate, by reference to one keen observer’s experience of the actual proceedings, that I recently spoke at length with George Lindbeck about his memories of Vatican II.

Weigel: How did you happen to spend the better part of three years working at and on the Second Vatican Council?

Lindbeck: Before the Council started, Pope John XXIII invited each of the world confessional organizations to delegate three official observers who would attend the Council. The Lutheran World Federation was one of those organizations; the United States was, in those days, the major source of funding for the LWF; so the LWF authorities in Geneva decided that they had to name an American as one of the three delegated observers. The American would have to know Latin, German, and French, would have to have had some experience of Roman Catholic theology, and, perhaps hardest of all, would have to get a leave of absence from his regular job. They scraped and scraped the barrel, and at the bottom there was an untenured Yale teacher whose dean and department were not bound by the draconian faculty employment rules now in effect.

So I was named the junior member of the Lutheran delegation, and as it happened, I was the only one assigned full-time to Council business between the sessions of the Council which, as you remember, took place in the fall months of the years 1962-1965. I actually lived in Rome with my family from 1962 to 1964, but my responsibilities were such that I had to go to Helsinki to brief the LWF Assembly, to Montreal for a meeting of Faith and Order, to Scandinavia, Germany, France, and all the countries of Latin America where there was a Lutheran presence.

As things worked out, I ended up doing even more liaison work than had been anticipated. I became the Protestant observers’ link to Latin American bishops at the Council who spoke French but had neither German nor English. Then there were the Hispanic Protestants and the Italian Waldensians, who evidently found non-Catholic observers a less neuralgic means of communicating with the Catholic bishops of their own countries. It also worked the other way; I remember that the French Dominicans in Oslo helped me bridge the communication gap between local Lutheran groups who were shunning each other.

It was, as you can imagine, a very heady experience. It made a great difference to have my wife, Violette, and our small daughter with me during the two years I lived in Rome. Kristen, my daughter, was regularly entertained by various ecclesiastical notables, and my wife had an entree to that vast world of nuns that was in fact much more influential than many observers realized. We did a fair amount of entertaining, even though LWF emoluments were not, shall we say, excessive. Indeed, one of my favorite Council memories is of Cardinal Willebrands (who was then Bishop Willebrands and second-in-command to Cardinal Bea at the Secretariat for Christian Unity) and my wife smoking Willebrands’ excellent Dutch cigars together after dinner.

Weigel: Let’s talk a bit about the theological dynamics within Roman Catholicism just before the Council. In his book on Henri de Lubac, the distinguished French scholar, the late great Swiss Catholic theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar cites de Lubac’s striking reflection on the intention and the fate of the postwar French phenomenon, la nouvelle theologie. According to de Lubac, he, Yves Congar, and a group of others intended to produce a comprehensive theological work “that would have been less systematic than the manuals but more saturated with tradition, integrating the valid elements in the results of modern exegesis, of patristics, liturgy, history, philosophical reflection. . . .” But before the work could really get going in earnest, “the lightning bolt of Humani Generis (1950) killed the project.” To what extent did the confrontation between la nouvelle theologie, on the one hand, and the forces that produced Humani Generis on the other, set the theological (and in some sense “political”) background to the Council? And how did that confrontation shape the standard “liberal/conservative” hermeneutic of the Council?

Lindbeck: I think you have to go back further than la nouvelle theologie. From my point of view-which was that of a non-Catholic, interested in medieval thought and Thomas Aquinas-the Catholic anti-Modernist campaign of the early twentieth century had created a situation in which a very rigid and biased interpretation of Thomas, stemming in part from the seventeenth and in part from the nineteenth centuries, had become virtually a binding commitment on Catholic theology and philosophy departments throughout the world, and was very influential as well in the Roman congregations. So the real issue was the confrontation with Modernism. And anyone who wasn’t a “neo-scholastic,” in the sense in which the anti-Modernists had defined neo-scholasticism, was looked on with suspicion. Congar, de Lubac, von Balthasar, and Karl Rahner-the currently most influential Roman Catholic theologian-were different people, working on different projects; but what they had in common was that they were saying things in a different form from that of the official neo-scholasticism, and that brought them under suspicion. Jacques Maritain and Etienne Gilson were breaking new ground, too, but they were laymen, and in any case Gilson was an historian, not a philosopher, so he didn’t quite “count.”

Humani Generis was intended to say “No” to the sorts of approaches represented by la nouvelle theologie, but it was modified, according to de Lubac, who had a letter from John XXIII on this, stating that Pius XII had himself altered elements in Humani Generis that were directly critical of the kind of work de Lubac was doing. So in fact the encyclical did not directly chastise de Lubac or von Balthasar, although Rahner’s failure to reaffirm monogenesis would have come under the encyclical’s list of proscribed opinions. As a general rule, then, the real problem with Humani Generis was the way it reinforced the position of the regnant powers in the congregations and the academy, who used the encyclical to make the nouvelle theologie people personae non gratae. Which meant that the encyclical reinforced the anti-Modernist style of dealing with exploratory theology.

Weigel: Speaking of Rahner, do you know the wonderful story about one of his encounters in the 1950s with Cardinal Ottaviani [the prefect of the Holy Office]? According to an autobiographical interview Rahner gave toward the end of his life, Ottaviani once took Rahner aside during the Council and told him, “Well, we have absolutely nothing against you. You see, this extraordinary Roman censor [who had been imposed on Rahner by the Holy Office] is a special privilege by which we wish to protect you from the misunderstandings of dumb friends.” To which Rahner remembered saying, “Your Eminence, I renounce privileges.”

In any case, would you make the linkage between the nouvelle theologie project and its strategy of ressourcement (“back to the sources”), and the aggiornamento (“updating”) thrust of the Council?

Lindbeck: The ressourcement and aggiornamento people at the Council thought of themselves as collaborators. Ressourcement and aggiornamento were understood to be two dimensions of the same reality. But the dimension labelled “aggiornamento” could be used in a program of accommodation to the modern world, rather than one of an opening to the modern world; and when that happened, aggiornamento fell into opposition to ressourcement. But in my memory of the Council, there was absolutely no tension between the two, with the exception of the debate over what became the Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World.

And here it was the non-Catholics-especially the Lutherans, and not least Edmund Schlink, the observer from the German Evangelical Church- who had some serious reservations about the positive way in which the document talked about the world. But he was speaking from a specifically Reformation perspective, and was not at all in sympathy with the political rightists’ critique of the document. About the ressourcement dimension of the Council, though, Schlink was enthusiastic.

Weigel: Speaking of politics, how much of the venomous character of the controversy between the nouvelle theologie people and their critics in France had to do with the fact that the former had a rather more positive view of the Fourth Republic, indeed of democracy, than the latter?

Lindbeck: There is some fascinating history waiting to be written here. You’d be sitting around drinking wine with the French, and just as you pierced the surface, they’d start talking about Action Francaise and all that. The French allies of the curial party, the French integralists, were more likely to have been in sympathy with Action Francaise, which the nouvelle theologie people never were. By and large, most of the integralists had not been sympathetic to the Resistance during the war, as de Lubac and others in his group had been.

So there was this deep personal estrangement between the nouvelle theologie people and their critics, who believed that they had betrayed true French Catholicism, understood in monarchist terms. De Lubac illustrated the intensity of it when he quoted a critic of his to the effect that John XXIII had chosen Congar and de Lubac for the conciliar preparatory commissions because the Pope was wise enough to remember what had happened after Vatican I (1870), when the “old Catholic” schism occurred, and wanted to make sure that dissidents didn’t leave the Church this time around.

Weigel: So in that specific French sense, the pre- conciliar conflict goes back even further than the Modernist crisis, and reflects the fault line that runs through French society from 1789 on?

Lindbeck: I always found it desirable at any dinner party to find out where people stood on the Revolution before getting into any other discussion.

Weigel: Given that the ressourcement and aggiornamento people saw themselves at the Council as two dimensions of one enterprise, how are we to assess the image of the council as a grand struggle between “liberals” and “conservatives?” What did that imagery capture, and what did it miss?

Lindbeck: The crucial question was how people reacted to the pre-conciliar drafts of the proposed Council documents, which had been drawn up entirely by the curial party. People like Congar and de Lubac warned the preparatory commissions that these drafts-especially on the Church and on revelation-simply wouldn’t work. And rumors began to circulate among the bishops that John XXIII didn’t like the tone of the drafts, that they were too negative. It wasn’t that he had any disagreements with them doctrinally, but that he wanted a more positive presentation of Catholic truth, not condemnations of errors. The Pope had told the preparatory commissions that he didn’t want any condemnations, and they had simply interpreted this to mean no formal anathemas. And so when the bishops by and large found themselves put off by the rhetoric, they knew they would have the backing of the Pope if they demanded something different.

Weigel: If these documents by the preparatory commissions were distributed before the Council convened, then can we say that there was a countercurrent building even before the Council?

Lindbeck: Yes, including, massively, people who by all the formal theological criteria would be in agreement with the integralists. But they didn’t like the tone; it wasn’t tactful. So even at the beginning there were only a few bishops who were actively in favor of the documents as written by the preparatory commissions-which accounts for the huge and crucial rejection, in an early vote, of the preparatory commissions’ lists for members of the actual conciliar commissions.

Now there was no clear agreement on what the preparatory commissions’ documents should be replaced with. An awful lot of bishops would have been happy with just a change in tone. So then a struggle ensued between the curial bureaucracy and the non-bureaucrats, so to speak, on the revision of the documents. In fact, and although I hadn’t thought of this before, I think “Xavier Rynne” [Francis X. Murphy, C.SS.R.], whose reports in the New Yorker and later in books shaped many perceptions of the Council, didn’t make enough of this aspect of bureaucracy vs. non-bureaucracy.

Weigel: I’ve often wondered about that-whether what was perceived as a massive theological shift wasn’t at least in part simply a very human reaction against the curial bureaucracy that had increasingly muscled the bishops around during the later years of Pius XII.

Lindbeck: That was certainly part of it, but you also have to remember that the campaign against de Lubac and people like him wasn’t simply bureaucratic. The charge was that these were people who were toying with Modernism, and “Modernism” was too often used as a label to dismiss something you didn’t agree with. This made people who didn’t want to be perceived as sympathetic to Modernists very cautious.

Weigel: So the vote on the conciliar commissions really did break a psychological barrier, such that it was possible to talk with people and about people in a way that hadn’t been possible before?

Lindbeck: And “Rynne” did capture that dimension of the Council, especially in his book Letters from Vatican City. But I would also, today, criticize his (and others’) tendency to demonize the opposition. Ottaviani, to go back to your example, was, according to people who knew him, really a very good person who did his job humanely; but this was hard to remember if one disagreed with him on structural and policy issues. Polarization, to be sure, makes for excitement. The critique of the Holy Office by Cardinal Frings, head of the German bishops’ conference, and Cardinal Ottaviani’s impassioned defense of the curia as servants of the Pope, made for one of the Council’s most dramatic moments.

Another moment of real tension occurred on October 29, 1963, and it involved what we might call “Marian maximalism,” an issue that has so completely disappeared in the past decades that it may seem utterly antiquarian to some people today. This was not simply a Protestant concern, of course; years later, in his Theo-Dramatic, von Balthasar wrote critically of the tendency in some pre-conciliar Catholic circles to juxtapose Mary’s “almighty power of mercy . . . over against the Son’s almighty power and wrath,” to the point where Mary was, for some, “divinized . . . ‘supplementing the Trinity.'” In any event, for the kind of Lutheran I am, this was much more troubling than the papacy, and I think the same was true of my fellow-Lutheran observers. Thus from our point of view a crucial ecumenical-theological moment was reached when, in the closest vote of the Council (1,114- 1,074), the Council fathers agreed to place their discussion of the Virgin Mary within the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church (Lumen Gentium), rather than in a separate decree.

It’s strange to think that von Balthasar, not least in view of his critique of Marian maximalism, was once thought of as on the far left instead of on the far right, where some try to locate him now. Ressourcement, it seems, leads to the margins-or to martyrdom. The miracle of the Council is that the conjunction of forces was such that an authentic return to the sources could, for a moment, capture the center.

There was still another personal dynamic at work in the Council that may help account for that “conjunction of forces,” and I can illustrate it by a vignette. At a reception at the American Embassy, which was one of the places where everybody congregated, I got to talking with Archbishop McGucken of San Francisco. He was one of many bishops who admitted to never having talked with a Protestant theologian before, and he was curious about my reactions to the Council. I said that from the point of view of a Lutheran observer, Dei Verbum (the Constitution on Divine Revelation) had been of particular importance, and I asked him what his attitude toward that, and to the related controversies over biblical scholarship, had been. He replied that he had studied under [Cardinal Ernesto] Ruffini, and that he tended to share Ruffini’s dour views of current developments in biblical scholarship. But then he went on to say that he had been to six or eight different seminars led for the bishops by Father Barnabas Ahern, precisely on the new approaches to the Bible. “Marvelously saintly man, isn’t he?” McGucken said. “Do you know if he ever gives retreats for clergy? I think I might ask him to give a retreat to my priests.” And that experience of Ahern was why McGucken said he had voted against Ruffini and for Dei Verbum when that crucial document was on the agenda.

Weigel: Did you have the sense that John XXIII had a well-formulated idea of what the Council should and should not do?

Lindbeck: My contacts with him were limited to a couple of sessions he had with the observers. I can simply report the general feeling that John XXIII genuinely believed in the Holy Spirit’s guidance of the Council. He was open to being surprised.

Weigel: Did you have the impression that John XXIII had been much influenced by the French conflicts we were discussing a moment ago? Did Cardinal Roncalli come to the papacy convinced that this sixty- year struggle with Modernism (which, in one sense, was simply a code- word for “modernity” in the larger sense) had to be overcome?

Lindbeck: To a remarkable degree, it seems that as one gets to know previously unknown things about John XXIII the picture of him really doesn’t change. What he said publicly during his pontificate seems to hold up when one probes beneath the surface. He wanted more ecumenism and he wanted more openness to the modern world and he wanted more ressourcement. He said those things, and he quite evidently meant all three. But about what that meant in precise detail he apparently did not have any clear-cut ideas.

Weigel: And, presumably, he didn’t worry all that much about it. Which was really an act of faith. It wasn’t a sociological judgment about the stability of the Church in the mid-twentieth century, it was an act of faith in the Spirit’s presence to the Church.

Lindbeck: I suppose that, speculatively, you could connect his experiences as nuncio in France with the Council, in that John XXIII wanted a Church that had a good degree of openness, so that there could be frank and free discussion without politically correct terrorists frightening people. But that, you see, is a desire to establish an openness that would make real conversation possible. And while it fits in with the Pope’s character, it’s also hard to make into a program.

Weigel: And then John XXIII was succeeded by a man who worried about all the fine print and how the program was going to work out.

Lindbeck: And who was self-consciously committed to the kind of theology that had been previously designated la nouvelle theologie. As far as I know, nobody suggested that John XXIII had a very clear idea what la nouvelle theologie was.

Weigel: How deep a grasp did Paul VI have of the nouvelle theologie project?

Lindbeck: He said that Congar was his favorite theologian, and while I’m no expert on Montini, I’d be surprised if the documentation didn’t suggest that he had an intimate and deep knowledge of Congar and de Lubac.

Weigel: Would you say something about the unintended consequences of the Council: within Roman Catholicism, between Catholicism and other Christian communions, and between the Church and the world?

Lindbeck: Among the observers, there was a virtually universal agreement that we disagreed with the conventional notion of the Roman Catholic Church as a monolith, an army that never breaks ranks, with commands being obeyed from the top down, and so forth. And yet, however much we thought we disagreed with that view, we basically still thought that that was what the Roman Catholic Church was! And that affected the degree to which we were optimistic about the changes. As for me, I expected a gradual change guided by directives from Rome, a process in which everything would run relatively smoothly, in what my colleagues and I agreed was a very good direction.

This was, obviously, very naive. It was sociologically naive, psychologically naive, organizationally naive; and above all, what embarrasses me about my optimism is how unhistorical it was, because every major council in the past has been followed by disturbances. In fact, Vatican I, which probably colored our expectations, had fewer than most, and even then there was a period of turmoil that was stopped only by the condemnation of Modernism.

So many of the consequences were unintended, with one notable exception. What happened in the official ecumenical dialogues was very much what we had hoped for. But the context changed so much, and so many other things were happening that were ecumenically counterproductive, that the effect of the major dialogues has not been what we had hoped for. Still, the dialogues themselves followed a pattern that we had foreseen.

Weigel: By the end of the Council, was there an expectation that the ecumenical follow-through to Vatican II could in fact heal the breach of the sixteenth century?

Lindbeck: The official dialogues with which I’ve been most involved are the ones concerned with the present status of what historically have been divisive doctrinal disagreements. On the basis of an enormous amount of scholarship that had already been done, and given the results of the dialogues themselves, it seemed to those of us who had been involved in these dialogues that it ought to be possible on both sides to say that none of these disagreements need necessarily be ecclesially divisive. Now the circumstances that would make reunion possible had to do with much more than the discovery that these doctrines could be understood, without betraying one’s own heritage, in ways that were not church-dividing.

We learned a lot as time went on. And while we were never naive enough to think that that agreement was all that was needed, we did think that a meeting of minds on the sixteenth-century conflicts, in discussions that were sponsored by churches on both sides, would make more difference ecumenically than in fact it has. We thought, in other words, that specifically historical doctrinal issues were more decisive than they proved to be.

The agreements we reached are, of course, one of the conditions for reunion. And so, while I have no idea when this progress will contribute in substantial ways to the reunion of the churches, I find myself feeling a great sense of satisfaction that that job is in large part done.

Weigel: Let’s go back for a moment to the debate over the famous “Schema Thirteen,” which became Gaudium et Spes, the Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World. Did it have too sanguine a reading of late modernity?

Lindbeck: At the time, I tended to agree with Edmund Schlink that the document’s reading of the world was too optimistic. He was a German theologian who had lived through the Hitler period and been deeply involved in the Confessing Church struggle against the pro-Nazi “German Christians,” and he was not at all sure that the rest of the West was immune from crises as severe as Germany had gone through. Moreover, and here we are on a different, although related, track, he formally rejected the legitimacy of what he regarded as Teilhard de Chardin’s “Christianizing” of evolution, both in itself and in its implications of an open-ended human progress.

If I remember my discussions with Schlink correctly, I defended Gaudium et Spes on the grounds that it was a necessary corrective in the Catholic context, and that looking at it from a Reformation perspective was unfair because the whole nature-grace schema in Catholic theology lent itself to these kinds of formulations much better than did Reformation evaluations.

So while Schlink had theological reservations, I had reservations about the document’s opportuneness. I was already pessimistic about the state of the world. The sixties were already upon us; you could see 1968 coming in 1965.

Weigel: Did you have much contact with John Courtney Murray at the Council?

Lindbeck: I had a lot of contact with Murray over the years. I had been his teaching assistant when he was at Yale, so we talked a great deal then. The chances to talk to him at the Council were not leisurely ones, and if I remember correctly, all of our exchanges were on Dignitatis Humanae (the Declaration on Religious Freedom). I recall his being concerned that the French way of arguing from New Testament materials to the neglect of natural law considerations would hinder the Church’s ability to speak to the world at large, and also that it lacked a certain conceptual rigor. He approved in principle of the retrieval of biblical and patristic language in the conciliar documents, but worried that, given the lack of a necessary intellectual rigor, these documents would be too ambiguous and susceptible to many different interpretations.

Weigel: Was Dignitatis Humanae ecumenically important in 1965?

Lindbeck: It was absolutely essential from the point of view of relations between churches. But it was not a matter on which the delegated observers had any great input. This was something that the Catholics were obviously going to solve in their own way, but it was also something that all the historic churches had been through, so we didn’t think of religious freedom and the disentangling of the Church from state power as a specifically Catholic problem.

Weigel: And yet, as things turned out, in terms of the reception of the Council within the Catholic Church, Dignitatis Humanae became an enormous point of fissure, as with the Lefebvrists [a later archconservative-and strongly anti-conciliar- movement led by Archbishop Lefebvre]. If what the Church teaches is eternally true, then how, they asked, could it now affirm a liberty it had before denied?

Lindbeck: The larger issue was the development of doctrine: Lefebvre, in effect, denies its possibility and therefore rejects the Council. But that question was engaged in other conciliar documents, and not simply in Dignitatis Humanae. As for Dignitatis Humanae, it may well be that Murray had argued the case so well in his pre-conciliar writings that most Council participants did not need to be convinced. It was just a matter of explaining to people how the issue could be managed.

Weigel: How has the Council had an impact on non- Catholic theological circles?

Lindbeck: My impression is that the deepest impact, de facto and probably also formally, has been via liberation theology. Catholic liberation theology has acquired many Protestant fellow- travellers, and when the liberationist Catholics cite the Council, these citations also get taken up by non-Catholics. Which means that the progressivists’ view of the Council dominates among non-Catholics. Among specialists, there is a fairly widespread awareness of what the Council said, based on a certain amount of actual reading of the texts. But outside specialist circles it has largely been a question of interest groups, as with liberation theology. Both the ecumenists and the anti- ecumentists cite the Council to show how, from their respective points of view, things have changed immensely or really haven’t changed at all. The interest-group or polemical use of the Council is dominant among non-Catholics as well as Catholics, and is found not only on the left but sometimes on the right as well.

Weigel: Let’s talk a bit about John Paul II as an implementor of Vatican II. He said at the very beginning of his pontificate that its main thrust would be the full implementation of the Council, and he constantly refers to conciliar documents in his own work. One of the striking things about the moral encyclical Veritatis Splendor, I thought, was the number of citations in it from Gaudium et Spes.

Lindbeck: I must confess that I’m much more familiar with Cardinal Ratzinger’s implementation of the Council, so perhaps I could talk about that. Ratzinger’s general interpretation of the Council seems to me to have been what a responsible official committed to the Council would do. That is to say, one can’t follow the “spirit” of the documents; one has to follow what they actually say.

However, and in the areas with which I’m most familiar, it does seem to me that the present polarization in the Roman Catholic Church has led Ratzinger to interpret the Council in ways that it need not be interpreted in order to say “No” to what he perceives as abuses within the Roman Catholic Church. I’m thinking in particular here of his interpretation of the Council’s teaching in Lumen Gentium that the Church of Christ “subsists in” the Roman Catholic Church.

According to your namesake, Father Gustave Weigel (who was the American at the Council most deeply appreciated by the observers), the question of the exact boundaries of the Church of Christ was deliberately left less well determined than in the more exclusive boundary-language of Mystici Corporis, by the deliberate choice of the phrase, subsistet in. So the problem with Ratzinger’s interpretation, as I see it, is that it makes one possible interpretation of the Council into a definitive statement of the Council’s commitment. There are some things that the Council deliberately, and wisely, left ambiguous.

Weigel: What do you think is the problem that Cardinal Ratzinger is intending to resolve by his interpretation of subsistet in?

Lindbeck: Well, I suppose it’s a kind of Catholic ecumenism that is indifferent to the historic Roman Catholic claim that the fullness of the Church includes the structures of episcopacy and papacy.

Weigel: And perhaps, more generally, a kind of ecclesiological inso

This article was originally published on First Things


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