Here is the third part of a Vatican translation of the reflection Benedict XVI gave last Thursday, Feb. 14, when he met with the clergy of Rome. The Holy Father delivered the reflection extemporaneously, recounting some of his memories of the Second Vatican Council.
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And now the second topic: the Church. We know that the First Vatican Council was interrupted because of the Franco-Prussian War, and so it remained somewhat one-sided, incomplete, because the doctrine on the primacy – defined, thanks be to God, in that historical moment for the Church, and very necessary for the period that followed – was just a single element in a broader ecclesiology, already envisaged and prepared. So we were left with a fragment. And one might say: as long as it remains a fragment, we tend towards a one-sided vision where the Church would be just the primacy. So all along, the intention was to complete the ecclesiology of Vatican I, at a date to be determined, for the sake of a complete ecclesiology. Here too the time seemed ripe because, after the First World War, the sense of the Church was reborn in a new way. As Romano Guardini said: “The Church is starting to reawaken in people’s souls”, and a Protestant bishop spoke of the “era of the Church”. Above all, there was a rediscovery of the concept that Vatican I had also envisaged, namely that of the Mystical Body of Christ. People were beginning to realize that the Church is not simply an organization, something structured, juridical, institutional – it is that too – but rather an organism, a living reality that penetrates my soul, in such a way that I myself, with my own believing soul, am a building block of the Church as such. In this sense, Pius XII wrote the Encyclical Mystici Corporis Christi as a step towards completing the ecclesiology of Vatican I.
I would say that theological discussion in the 1930’s and 1940’s, even in the 1920’s, was entirely conducted under the heading Mystici Corporis. It was a discovery that brought so much joy at that time, and within this context emerged the formula: We are the Church, the Church is not a structure; we Christians, all together, we are all the living body of the Church. And naturally, this obtains in the sense that we, the true “we” of believers, together with the “I” of Christ, are the Church; every single one of us, not a particular “we”, a single group that calls itself Church. No: this “we are Church” requires me to take my place within the great “we” of believers of all times and places. Therefore, the primary idea was to complete ecclesiology in a theological way, but also in a structural way, that is to say: besides the succession of Peter, and his unique function, to define more clearly also the function of the bishops, the corpus of bishops. And in order to do this, the word “collegiality” was adopted, a word that has been much discussed, sometimes acrimoniously, I would say, and also in somewhat exaggerated terms. But this word – maybe another could have been found, but this one worked – expressed the fact that the bishops collectively are the continuation of the Twelve, of the corpus of Apostles. We said: only one bishop, the Bishop of Rome, is the successor of a particular Apostle, namely Peter. All the others become successors of the Apostles by entering into the corpus that continues the corpus of the Apostles. Hence it is the corpus of bishops, the college, that is the continuation of the corpus of the Twelve, and thus it has its intrinsic necessity, its function, its rights and duties. To many this seemed like a power struggle, and maybe some were thinking of their power, but substantially it was not about power, but about the complementarity of the different elements and about the completeness of the corpus of the Church with the bishops, the successors of the Apostles, as structural elements; and each of them is a structural element of the Church within this great corpus.
These, let us say, were the two basic elements – and in the meantime, in the quest for a complete theological vision of ecclesiology, a certain amount of criticism arose after the 1940’s, in the 1950’s, concerning the concept of the Body of Christ: the word “mystical” was thought to be too spiritual, too exclusive; the concept “People of God” then began to come into play. The Council rightly accepted this element, which in the Fathers is regarded as an expression of the continuity between the Old and the New Testaments. In the text of the New Testament, the phrase Laos tou Theou, corresponding to the Old Testament texts, means – with only two exceptions, I believe – the ancient People of God, the Jews, who among the world’s peoples, goim, are “the” People of God. The others, we pagans, are not per se God’s People: we become sons of Abraham and thus the People of God by entering into communion with Christ, the one seed of Abraham. By entering into communion with him, by being one with him, we too become God’s People. In a word: the concept of “the People of God” implies the continuity of the Testaments, continuity in God’s history with the world, with mankind, but it also implies the Christological element. Only through Christology do we become the People of God, and thus the two concepts are combined. The Council chose to elaborate a Trinitarian ecclesiology: People of God the Father, Body of Christ, Temple of the Holy Spirit.
Yet only after the Council did an element come to light – which can also be found, albeit in a hidden way, in the Council itself – namely this: the link between People of God and Body of Christ is precisely communion with Christ in Eucharistic fellowship. This is where we become the Body of Christ: the relationship between People of God and Body of Christ creates a new reality – communion. After the Council it became clear, I would say, that the Council really discovered and pointed to this concept: communion as the central concept. I would say that, philologically, it is not yet fully developed in the Council, yet it is as a result of the Council that the concept of communion came more and more to be the expression of the Church’s essence, communion in its different dimensions: communion with the Trinitarian God – who is himself communion between Father, Son and Holy Spirit – sacramental communion, and concrete communion in the episcopate and in the life of the Church.
Even more hotly debated was the problem of Revelation. At stake here was the relationship between Scripture and Tradition, and it was the exegetes above all who were anxious for greater freedom; they felt themselves somewhat – shall we say – in a position of inferiority with regard to the Protestants, who were making the great discoveries, whereas Catholics felt somewhat “handicapped” by the need to submit to the Magisterium. So a very concrete struggle was in play here: what sort of freedom do exegetes have? How does one properly read Scripture? What is the meaning of Tradition? It was a multifaceted struggle which I cannot go into now, but the important thing, for sure, is that Scripture is the word of God and that the Church is under Scripture, the Church obeys God’s word and does not stand above Scripture. Yet at the same time Scripture is Scripture only because there is the living Church, its living subject; without the living subject of the Church, Scripture is only a book, open to different interpretations and lacking ultimate clarity.
Here the battle – as I said – was difficult, and an intervention of Pope Paul VI proved decisive. This intervention shows all the delicacy of a father, his responsibility for the progress of the Council, but also his great respect for the Council. The idea had arisen that Scripture is complete; everything is found there; consequently there is no need for Tradition, and so the Magisterium has nothing to say. At that point the Pope transmitted to the Council, I believe, fourteen formulae for a phrase to be inserted into the text on Revelation and he gave us, the Council Fathers, the freedom to choose one of the fourteen formulae, but he said that one of them needed to be chosen in order to complete the text. I remember more or less the formula “non omnis certitudo de veritatibus fidei potest sumi ex Sacra Scriptura”, in other words, the Church’s certainty about her faith is not born only of an isolated book, but has need of the Church herself as a subject enlightened and guided by the Holy Spirit. Only then does the Scripture speak with all its authority. This phrase, which we selected in the Doctrinal Commission from the fourteen formulae, is decisive, I would say, for showing the Church’s absolute necessity, and thus understanding the meaning of Tradition, the living body in which this word draws life from the outset and from which it receives its light, in which it is born. The fact of the canon of Scripture is already an ecclesial fact: that these writings are Scripture is the result of an illumination of the Church, who discovered in herself this canon of Scripture; she discovered it, she did not create it; and always and only in this communion of the living Church can one really understand and read the Scripture as the word of God, as a word which guides us in life and in death.
As I have said, this was a rather difficult debate, but thanks to the Pope and thanks, we may say, to the light of the Holy Spirit who was present in the Council, there emerged a document which is one of the finest and most innovative of the entire Council, and still needs to be studied more deeply. Because today too, exegesis tends to read Scripture apart from the Church, apart from faith, only in the so-called spirit of the historical-critical method, a method which is important, but never to the extent of being able to offer solutions with ultimate certitude. Only if we believe that these are not human words, but God’s words, and only if there is that living subject to which God spoke and speaks, can we interpret sacred Scripture properly. And here – as I said in the foreword of my book on Jesus (cf. Part One) – much remains to be done in order to arrive at an interpretation that is truly in the spirit of the Council. Here the application of the Council is not yet complete, more needs to be done.
Finally, ecumenism. I do not want to enter now into these problems, but it was obvious – especially after the “passions” suffered by Christians in the Nazi era – that Christians could find unity, or at least seek unity, yet it was also clear that God alone can bestow unity. And we are still following this path. Now, with these themes, the “Rhine alliance” – so to speak – had completed its work.
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