Ratzinger, Vatican II, and the Idea of Synodality

In a 1975 essay on the reception of Vatican II, then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger commented on the meaning and limits of councils. His main point is that councils are sometimes a necessity. But he adds, “they always point to an extraordinary situation in the Church and are not to be regarded as a model for her life in general or even as the ideal content of her existence.”

Ratzinger concludes:

In plain language: the council is an organ of consultation and decision. As such, it is not an end in itself but an instrument in the service of the life of the Church. . . .If a council becomes the model of Christianity per se, then the constant discussion of Christian themes comes to be considered the content of Christianity itself; but precisely there lies the failure to recognize the true meaning of Christianity.

If this sounds like a critique of the idea of synodality, clergy and laity walking together (in Greek, syn-hodos, “on the way with”), that’s because it is. This critique directs itself to an interpretation of Vatican II represented by the late Giuseppe Alberigo (1926-2007), the director of the Institute for the Study of Religion, in Bologna, Italy, and the guiding scholar of the five-volume History of Vatican II.

I have written about this interpretation in my book, Revelation, History, and Truth: A Hermeneutics of Dogma (2018). Alberigo’s interpretation focuses on the themes of “event” and “spirit.”

The former refers, in the words of British Catholic theologian Gavin D’Costa, to “extra-Conciliar textual factors that are more important for understanding the Council text, sometimes more reflective of the concerns [aggiornamento and pastoral considerations] of the text, than the final text itself.” Such factors include “unpublished sources (letters, diaries, archival files, memoirs, interviews, private papers, and tape recordings) and many published sources.”

By contrast, the “spirit– the  deep motivating forces of the council that steered and shaped the council – is  associated with the reforming energy and dynamism present at the Council; what was later called the ‘event’, a historicization of the ‘spirit’, which is always greater than the text that only partially represents it.”

Alberigo’s central thesis is that the Council’s texts – all sixteen documents – are not its primary elements. That would be a reductive vision of the Council that fastens on “the letter alone and [is] unable to penetrate to the deeper motivation and universal, historical significance of the Council.” Primacy should be ascribed to the event itself, that is, the event of an emerging “conciliar consciousness.”

According to Alberigo, “The Council as such, as an event of communion, of encounter and exchange, is the fundamental message that constitutes the context and kernel of its reception.”

This is the “event” character of the Council denoting a “rupture,” a “break,” a marked “discontinuity” with the pre-Vatican II Catholic tradition. If I understand Alberigo correctly, this conciliar experience has to be extended to the Church as a whole because the Council – conciliar consciousness – should be taken to be the model of the Christian life as such.

Another theologian sympathetic to Alberigo’s view, Giuseppe Ruggieri writes, “The Council transmitted itself. In this sense, the new ‘doctrine of the church’ is not the fruit of Lumen Gentium and of the other ecclesiological fragments present in the various conciliar documents, but of the conciliar celebration as such. . . .The problem of the reception of Vatican II is primarily that of the collegiality of the whole church.”


Yes, Alberigo adds, the Council’s documents on revelation, the mystery of the Church, the acceptance of Catholic ecumenism, and so forth, moved beyond approaches of the last few centuries and returned to the earliest and most authentic tradition.

Still, the deeper dynamism (“spirit”) at work in Vatican II is the “event” of conciliar consciousness, says Alberigo. In the context of that conciliar consciousness, the Church has a responsibility of being faithful to the substance of faith and effectively communicating it to contemporaries. In other words, there must be “a greater assimilation of essential Christian teaching and a formulation of this teaching more in keeping with pastoral needs.”

“But the most important novelty of Vatican II is not to be found in these various positions but rather in the very fact that it [the council] was convoked and held.” This “conciliar event” is a key moment in the Church’s own life. Indeed, it is of epochal importance.

Hence the claim that Vatican II marked a systematic “rupture” between the prior, pre-conciliar age of the Church and the post-conciliar era that followed. Of course, then, Alberigo’s interpretation of Vatican II, D’Costa rightly states, “threatens to undermine the authority of the Council documents themselves.”

This conclusion brings us back to Ratzinger’s critique of the interpretation of Vatican II that turned the Council into the model of Christianity as such, “a way of being church,” and where there is an ongoing discussion of the content of Christianity itself.

This model’s relevance to the idea of synodality is evident from three things:

First, the prioritizing of the “learning Church” (Ecclesia discens), the “listening Church,” over the “teaching Church” (Ecclesia docens).

Second, the change in ecclesiology, that is, the idea of the synodality, is anti-hierarchical since it is no longer a synod of bishops, but is now inclusive of the laity, of religious. The severance between ordination and magisterium is what many fear is happening in the push for synodality in the Catholic Church, namely, the democratization of authority.

Third, despite a disclaimer that this synod is not about doctrine, several of the high-profile participants, German bishops, indeed, even the synod’s relator general, have expressed a desire for changing the Church’s teaching on human sexuality, making homosexuality a normal variant of human sexuality, sexual ethics, and, by implication, Christian anthropology. (Genesis 1:27; 2:24)

In my judgment, these three signs will contribute to the weakening of the Church, leading to widespread doctrinal confusion. The Church needs to recover Catholic orthodoxy by retrieving the true teachings of Vatican II.


*Image: The Blind Leading the Blind by Domenico Fetti, 1621-22 [Barber Institute of Fine Arts, Birmingham, England]

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+Michael Novak’s The Adventure of Catholic Social Doctrine

David Warren’s and Christopher R. Altieri’s Two on the Crisis

Eduardo J. Echeverria is Professor of Philosophy and Systematic Theology at Sacred Heart Major Seminary, Detroit. His publications include Pope Francis: The Legacy of Vatican II Revised and Expanded Second Edition (Lectio Publishing, Hobe Sound, FL, 2019) and Revelation, History, and Truth: A Hermeneutics of Dogma. (2018). His new book is Are We Together? A Roman Catholic Analyzes Evangelical Protestants.