Worth Repeating: The Forgotten Promises of Vatican II

by   Gregory BAUM

The historical experience of the Catholic Church after Vatican Council
II raises two questions that historians will have to answer one day. The first
question is why Catholics have become so deeply divided after the Council,
and the second question is why so many Catholics, especially in Western
Europe, have left the Catholic Church after the Council. There are, no doubt,
a number of factors that account for this historical development. In this paper,
I wish to study two of them in particular.

Pope Benedict’s Christmas Address of 2005
Benedict XVI tries to reply to these two questions in his Christmas
address to the Roman Curia on 22 December 2005.1

The Pope first analyses the conflict that has unsettled life in the Catholic Church
after the Vatican Council. To remind his audience of the quarrels that followed
the Council of Nicaea in 325, he quotes a sentence from St. Basil,
The raucous shouting of those who disagree with one another has produced an
incomprehensible chatter so that a confused din of uninterrupted clamouring
now fills almost the entire Church, falsifying through excess or failure the
right doctrine of the faith.
What is taking place in the Catholic Church today, Pope Benedict adds,
is not quite as bad. Still, he continues, one must ask the question why the
implementation of the Vatican Council has been so difficult in large parts
of the Church.
Benedict XVI’s answer to this question has become famous, albeit in a
distorted form. Many Catholics, including theologians, the Pope explains,
are reading the counciliar documents wrongly. They adopt ‘a hermeneutic
of discontinuity and rupture’ that makes a radical distinction between the
pre-conciliar and the post-conciliar Church. These Catholics claim that
because of compromises that had to be made, the conciliar documents do
not consistently express the spirit of the Council and that therefore, to be
faithful to this spirit, one has to move beyond the letter of the Council.
Against this false reading, the Pope proposes an alterative one, ‘the
hermeneutics of reform,’ that acknowledges both the newness introduced
by the Council and the Council’s fidelity to the Catholic tradition. The
hermeneutics of reform is sensitive to innovation as well as continuity. In
the subsequent debate in the Catholic Church, Benedict’s “hermeneutics
of reform” has been translated by some as a “hermeneutics of continuity,”
which falsified his thought, omitting as it does the reference to innovation.
At the end of his Christmas address, Benedict briefly replies to the
second question. He argues that the principal reason for the defection of so
many Catholics is the relativism that dominates contemporary culture. People
are increasingly persuaded that there is no truth; there are only opinions.
The two historical causes mentioned by the Pope, i) the hermeneutic
of discontinuity and ii) the culture of relativism, deserve careful attention
and an extended commentary. Yet these two factors are not the only ones
to be taken into account. Historians will also have to look at the Catholic
populations that have remained unconvinced by the Church’s teaching on
sexual ethics and women.
In the present paper I wish to deal with two other factors that must be
taken into account. One of them is the decision of Rome to renege on the
promises of Vatican II and the other is an unresolved theological conflict
raised by the teaching of Vatican II.
To embark upon this topic, I will continue listening to Pope Benedict’s
Christmas address of 2005. In it he explains to the Roman Curia what he
regards as the three major concerns of Vatican Council II. First, he said, “the
relationship between faith and modern science had to be redefined.” He here
refers to the importance and the limits of the historical-critical method applied
in the interpretation of Scripture. Secondly, he said, “it was necessary to
give a new definition to the relationship between the Church and the modern
State.” The reference is here to the recognition of the pluralism of modern
society and the support for human rights, including religious liberty. Thirdly,
he said, related to the preceding concern was “the problem of religious
tolerance—a question that required a new definition of the relationship
between the Christian faith and the world religions.” Benedict added
that after the Shoah and “a long and difficult history, it was necessary to
define in a new way the relationship between the Church and the faith of

Highlights of Vatican II
The major concerns of the Vatican Council are described rather
differently by Joseph Ratzinger in the articles he wrote in German after
each session of the Council. These articles were later published in English
translation as a small book entitled Highlights of Vatican II.2

The main attention of the author throughout this book is given to the teachings of the
Council that promote the collegiality of the bishops, in view of correcting
the monarchical understanding of the papacy developed in the Middle Ages
in response to the concrete challenges at the time.3

The young Ratzinger admits that Vatican Council II was unable to produce a
juridical definition of episcopal collegiality that acknowledged at the same
time the primacy of the pope as defined by Vatican Council I, yet he
demonstrates in his book that Vatican Council II laid the foundation for
episcopal collegiality by recognising a) that bishops receive their authority
not from the pope, but from their sacramental ordination, b) that the Catholic
Church is a communion of local Churches, each of them an embodiment of
the Church of Christ, and c) that the regional episcopal conferences have the
authority to incarnate the Church in the culture of their region. Collegiality, the
author shows at some length, has beneficial pastoral and ecumenical
consequences. He admits that this collegiality, while biblically founded and
practised in the early Church, appears new at present and is therefore resisted
by many, yet he is convinced that it will emerge in the future.

The difference between Pope Benedict’s brief summary of the
achievements of Vatican II in 2005 and the account of these achievements
by the theologian Joseph Ratzinger right after the Council is astounding. The
young Ratzinger was certainly not a radical. The interpretation he offered
in Highlights was widely held among the bishops and theologians whom I
met at the Vatican Council. It was the position fostered by Cardinal Bea’s
Secretariat for the Promotion of Christian Unity, at which I had the honour
of being a peritus.
I met Joseph Ratzinger at that time. Despite his young age, he was
already a greatly respected theologian. I had read his important books on
Augustine and Bonaventura. Critical of the medieval scholastic tradition with
its reliance on Aristotle, he recommended the return to the church fathers in
dialogue with Plato. He thought that the creativity of the early Church was
due, in part, to the relative autonomy of the regional Churches, united by a
common loyalty to the bishop of Rome. In his brilliant Einführung in das
Christentum, published in 1970, he still praised the synodal structure of the
ancient Church, regretting that it had been lost in the Middle Ages when
the Church came to represent only Western Christianity.
It is not surprising that Catholics taught by Joseph Ratzinger’s Highlights
or by other theological accounts of Vatican II are saddened and troubled by
the reluctance of the papacy after the Council to acknowledge and practise
the principle of collegiality. The search for a historical explanation of why
Catholics are presently engaged in quarrels and why so many of them have
walked away must study the post-conciliar policy of Rome to renege on
the promises of Vatican II. I wish to do this in the subsequent section of
this paper.

Collegiality at the Council
Let me begin with the conciliar teaching on collegiality laid down in
two conciliar documents, Lumen gentium (LG) on the Church and Christus
Dominus (CD) on the Bishops.
i) The episcopal college
The Council reaffirmed the ancient teaching, long forgotten, that bishops
receive their ecclesiastical power through the sacramental ordination.
“Sharing in solicitude for all the Churches, bishops exercise their episcopal
office received through episcopal ordination in communion with and under
the authority of the pope.” (CD, # 3) Vatican II insisted that “the bishops
are not to be regarded as vicars of the pope, for they exercise an authority
that is proper to them.” (LG, # 27) The sacrament of episcopal ordination
forbids interpreting the ecclesiastical hierarchy as a monarchy. Through
their ordination, bishops become members of the episcopal college, which
includes the pope as member and head, and which exercises the highest
authority in the Church. The bishops are here seen as the successors of
the Twelve, with and under the successor of Peter. The episcopal college
described by Vatican II fully respects the primacy of the pope as defined by
Vatican I. What is new is that Vatican II sees the pope as member and head
of the episcopal college: he may exercise the Church’s supreme authority
together with his brother bishops in an ecclesiastical council or he may act
alone; yet even when acting alone, he acts as head of the episcopal college
and thus represents its member bishops. The pope’s supreme authority has
a dialogical relation to the bishops. Vatican II describes this dialogical
interaction between the bishops and the pope, yet was unable to formulate
it in juridical terms.
ii) The relative autonomy of the local Church
Thanks to his ordination, the bishop is the authoritative head of his
Church, the local Church, which, according to Vatican II, is not a province of
the universal Catholic Church, but the full expression of the Catholic Church
in this locality. In the local Church, we read, “the Church of Christ is truly
present and operative,”(CD, # 11) that is why “the particular Churches retain
their own traditions without in any way lessening the primacy of the Chair
of Peter.”(LG, # 13) “In and through the local Churches comes into being
the one and only Catholic Church. […] Each individual bishop represents
his own Church, but all of them together in union with the pope represent
the entire Church joined in the bond of peace, love and unity.”(LG, # 23)
In these passages the Catholic Church appears as a community of Churches,
the unity of which is assured and protected by the Petrine ministry.
iii) Collegial co-responsibility
By his ordination, the bishop has authority over his Church and at the
same time, as a member of the episcopal college “he is obliged by Christ’s
decree and command to be solicitous for the whole Church.” (LG, # 23).
Even though bishops have no jurisdiction outside their diocese, their calling
includes promoting the mission of the entire Church. Bishops are teachers of
Christian truth, they contribute to a more profound understanding of divine
revelation. “By divine providence, various Churches founded in different
places by the apostles and their successors, have in the course of time
coalesced into several groups, organically united, which, preserving the unity
of faith […], enjoy their own discipline, their own liturgical usage and their
own theological and spiritual heritage.” (LG, # 23). “In the like manner,”
the text continues, “the episcopal conferences of today are in a position to
render a manifold and fruitful assistance so that the collegial sense may be
put into practical application.”
Other phrases in the conciliar documents also imply that national or
regional episcopal conferences are expressions of episcopal collegiality.
“The exercise of the bishop’s office is to take care of the particular Church
committed to him, yet on occasion some of them jointly provide certain
common needs of their various dioceses.” (CD, # 3) Several conciliar
documents, especially the one on the liturgy, assign important responsibilities
to the regional bishops’ conferences: they are to adapt the general regulations
of the Council to the particular conditions of their region. “Episcopal
conference, especially national ones,” we are told, “should pay full attention
to the more pressing problems confronting [the marginalised people in their
society]. Through common agreement and united efforts, these conferences
should look to and promote the spiritual care of these people by means of
suitable methods and institutions.”(CD, # 18) “An episcopal conference,”
we also read, “is a kind of council in which the bishops of a given nation
or territory jointly exercise their pastoral office by way of promoting that
greater good which the Church offers humanity, especially through forms

and programs of the apostolate that are fittingly adapted to the circumstances

of the age.”(CD, # 38)

On the bases of these and some other texts, the young Ratzinger
concludes in his Highlights that the national or territorial episcopal
conferences are an expression of episcopal collegiality.4
The conciliar decree on the bishops (CD) also laid the foundation for
a World Synod of Bishops “to render especially helpful assistance to the
supreme pastor of the Church.” The text continues, “Since it will be acting
in the name of the entire Catholic episcopate, it will demonstrate that all
the bishops in hierarchical communion share in the responsibility for the
universal Church.”(CD, # 5) The author of Highlights regrets that the decree
presents the World Synod of Bishops as a papal initiative, regulated by the
pope, and not as an institution initiated by the episcopal college. The World
Synod of Bishops was formally instituted by Paul VI in the apostolic letter
Apostolica sollicitudo of 15 September 1965 and was subsequently defined
in the new code of canon law of 1983.
There have been many complaints that the Synod has been increasingly
controlled by the pope.5
It is he who chooses the date of its meeting, the
topic for discussion and the amount of time allotted to each speaker. Soon
the Synod lost the authority to publish its own conclusions: they were to
be summarised and published by the pope himself. Still, in a speech on the
theological foundation of the World Synod of Bishops, John Paul II continued
to affirm that “the Synod is a particularly fruitful expression and valuable
instrument of episcopal collegiality.”6
The shrinking of collegiality
I have presented the teaching of the Council on collegiality in such
detail to explain my surprise at the statement made by Cardinal Ratzinger
in 1985. He said,
Episcopal conferences have no theological basis, they do not belong to the
structure of the Church, as willed by Christ, that cannot be eliminated; they
have only a practical, concrete function […]. No episcopal conference, as such,
has a teaching mission: its documents have no weight of their own, save that
of the consent given to them by the individual bishops.7

After the Council, already many years before 1985, the collegial
character of the Church’s authority to teach and govern was increasingly
overlooked. What took place was the re-centralisation of the ecclesiastical
hierarchy. The decision of Paul VI in 1968 to condemn all so-called artificial
means of contraception, against the advice of the study commission appointed
by him and without consulting the world episcopate, was a non-dialogical
exercise of his supreme authority. It is well remembered that the Canadian
bishops, meeting in Winnipeg in September 1968, still convinced of their
collegial responsibility, published a pastoral statement that expressed respect
for the conscience of Catholics unconvinced by the papal teaching. “The
unity of the Church,” they wrote, “does not consist in a bland conformity
in all ideas, but rather in a union of faith and heart, in submission to God’s
will and a humble but honest and ongoing search for the truth.”8
In 2008
the Canadian bishops changed their mind and gave unqualified support to
the papal teaching.9
The teaching of Vatican II on the responsibility and authority of the
regional Church encouraged the bishops of Quebec in 1968 to set up a study
commission, chaired by sociologist Fernand Dumont, to hold hearings among
the people of Quebec and, in dialogue with them, formulate appropriate
pastoral policies for the Church.10 This was needed, the bishops felt, because
a cultural revolution beginning in the early sixties had set the Province of
Quebec on a new course. Since the Dumont Report, published in 1971,
proposed the setting up of forums in the dioceses that would allow Catholics
to be in dialogue with their pastors, the Report was judged to be ahead of its
time. Few of its recommendations were adopted by the bishops.
The episcopal conferences of Canada and Quebec assumed their collegial
responsibility in the seventies and early eighties in public statements on
the burning issues of social sin and social justice.11 Following the social
doctrine of the popes and the approach of the Latin American Bishops
Conference at Medellin in 1968, the bishops of Canada published bold
statements that criticised the social injustices in Canadian society and offered
ethical arguments for alternative social and economic policies. Since the late
eighties, the bishops have become quiet.
The American bishops’ conference assumed its collegial responsibility
in a creative manner. Well-known are the two pastoral letters, The Challenge
of Peace of 1983 and Economic Justice for All of 1986. They addressed
the entire nation on urgent ethical issues. These letters were prepared in an
innovative fashion. The first draft was sent by the drafting committee to
Catholic parishes, institutions and universities, asking them to reply to its
proposals; then a second draft was made that integrated the good ideas sent
in by the Catholic community, a draft that was then debated and modified
by the bishops’ conference and eventually promulgated as its authoritative
ethical teaching. The American bishops thought that the participation of the
laity in the Church’s teaching was in perfect keeping with Vatican Council II.
Yet the gradual return to ecclesiastical centralisation has led to a
revision of the concept of episcopal collegiality. In 1985, Cardinal Ratzinger,
then the prefect of the Congregation of the Doctrine of Faith, argued that
episcopal conferences have no theological basis whatever: they are not
expressions of episcopal collegiality. I have quoted his words above. He set
forth his interpretation of collegiality in greater detail in an article entitled
“The Structure and the Task of the Synod of Bishops.”12 According to
the Cardinal, the Synod of Bishops is not—as John Paul II believed—a
fruitful expression of episcopal collegiality. The Cardinal explained that the
bishops, members of the episcopal college, can teach with authority only in
two ways, either in an ecumenical Council convoked by the pope or each
bishop in his own diocese offering the common teaching. Even if the pope
decided to grant deliberative power to the Synod, the Cardinal added, the
legal status of the Synod would remain unchanged, because its power would
then be derived from the fullness of the pope’s jurisdiction. According to
the Cardinal, bishops participate in the government of the Church universal,
not by sending representatives to a central organ, but simply by teaching
and ruling in their own diocese. The Cardinal therefore objected to the
practise of national episcopal conferences to discuss beforehand the agenda
of a Synod, arrive at decisions regarding it, and mandate their delegates to
communicate these positions to the Synod. Episcopal conferences are not
teachers in the Church: they are not expressions of episcopal collegiality.
“It is in governing the particular Church that the bishops share in governing
the universal Church and not otherwise.”13 The one exception is the bishop
of the Church of Rome who has, by divine institution, supreme power to
protect the unity of the Church.
The Cardinal does not remember that Vatican Council II had expressed
“an earnest desire that the venerable institution of synods and councils
flourish with new vigour: they will help faith to spread and discipline to
be practised more fittingly and effectively in the various Churches, as the
circumstances of the times require.” (CD, # 36)
Cardinal Ratzinger’s revisionist interpretation of collegiality eventually
became the Church’s official position. On 30 April 1998, John Paul II
published the motu proprio Apostolos tuos that reduced the authority and the
role of the episcopal conferences. He criticised that some of these conferences
appoint special commissions and rely on a permanent secretariat with a staff
of specialists to elaborate the conferences’ pastoral statements. John Paul
II wanted the bishops to be teachers in the Church, a task that must not
be handed over to a commission or to specialists. The motu proprio made
the new ruling that episcopal conferences have binding power only if their
policy proposals obtain the unanimous approval of their members. This
means that a single bishop can stop an episcopal conference from adopting
a joint proposal.
I think it is fair to say that Rome has gone back on the principle of
collegiality taught by Vatican Council II.
The Call of the Laity
I now wish to turn to the teaching of Vatican II on the laity. It was a
significant event when the Doctrinal Commission, following the debate in
the conciliar hall, introduced in the draft document on the Church a new
chapter on the people of God.14 The chapter—chapter 2, to be precise—
preceded the chapter on the ecclesiastical hierarchy. The main message of
chapter 2 was that the Church is not an aristocratic society, nor a pyramid of
unequals; the Church is rather a community of believers, a people united by
a common origin and destiny, a society of friends that includes the members
of the hierarchy. The Church remains a family of brothers and sisters, even
as some of them are ordained priests and bishops. Prior to the Council, in
1960, Joseph Ratzinger had written a very beautiful book on this topic.15
The new chapter 2 set forth that, through faith and baptism, the believers
participate in the threefold office of Jesus Christ as priest, prophet and royal
servant. The chapter acknowledges the biblical idea of “the priesthood of
all believers.” (LG, # 10) While the baptismal priesthood differs from the
ministerial priesthood of the ordained, they are both authentic participations
in the priesthood of Christ. Catholic men and women are truly priests,
having a rightful place in the liturgy and worshipping God by the holiness
of their lives.

Catholic men and women are also prophets or teachers in the Church, even
as they recognise the authoritative teaching of the hierarchy. To emphasise
that lay men and women make a contribution to a better understanding of
the Gospel, chapter 2 includes a paragraph on the charismatic gifts, freely
bestowed upon believers by the Spirit. (LG, # 12) While extraordinary gifts
may be rare, the ordinary gifts of insight, understanding and prophecy are
widely distributed. The Spirit of Christ thus teaches the Church through the
hierarchical ministry as well as through charismata granted to the baptised
of whatever rank.
In writing these texts, the bishops may well have thought of the layman
Jacques Maritain who rendered an extraordinary service to the ecclesiastical
magisterium. When, in the thirties, he could no longer agree with the
Church’s official rejection of religious freedom and human rights, he
uncovered theological arguments in the Thomistic tradition that favoured the
civil liberties and published them in his groundbreaking book L’humanisme
intégrale of 1936. Maritain’s new thought eventually influenced the Church’s
official teaching. Before promulgating the Declaration on Religious Liberty
produced by the Council, Paul VI, still hesitating, sought and received
Maritain’s approval.16
As a matter of fact, the entire teaching of Vatican II was produced by
the dialogue of the bishops with (non-episcopal) theologians, the Catholic
community and contemporary society.
Let me give another example of an influential layman. In 1943 an
Austrian peasant, Franz Jägerstätter, refused to be drafted into Hitler’s war
because he regarded it as criminal. Since Catholic teaching did not recognise
the right of conscientious objection, his priest and his bishop urged him
to do his duty as a soldier in the German army. Yet Jägerstätter did not
budge: he was consequently executed by the German army as a traitor.
Two decades later, his name was mentioned by several bishops persuading
Vatican Council II to decree that Catholic conscientious objectors deserve
the support of their pastors. (Gaudium et spes, # 79)
Vatican Council II recognised the contribution that laypeople and
theologians have made to the Church’s official teaching and recommended
that the ecclesiastical magisterium be in dialogue with them. That this
promise of freedom has not been kept after the Council is a long story,
too long to be told in this paper. The Congregation of the Doctrine of the
Faith has increasingly controlled the teaching at Catholic seminaries and
universities; it has summoned for investigation a considerable number of
Catholic theologians. Last year when I was invited by la Société canadienne
de théologie to give a paper on the message of Cardinal Ratzinger/Benedict
XVI addressed to Catholic theologians, I discovered that this learned man, a
great theologian himself, has objected to almost all currents in contemporary
Catholic theology.17 Addressing the American bishops in 1989, the Cardinal
told them not to trust theologians: he said that theologians have no teaching
office and that they, the bishops, must assume their role of teachers in the
On 18 May 1989 Pope John Paul II published the motu proprio Ad
tuendam fidem “to protect the Catholic Church against errors arising from
certain members of the Christian faithful, especially from among those
dedicated to the various disciplines of sacred theology.” To facilitate the
control of Catholic intellectuals he added several articles to the Code of
Canon Law. On June 29 of the same year, the Congregation of the Doctrine
of the Faith, responding to the Pope’s initiative, published a profession of
faith and an oath of fidelity to the papal magisterium, that had to be taken
by all persons exercising an office in the Church. Since even bishops have
to take this oath, there is now no longer any room for dialogue between
them and the supreme bishop.
Less well-known is that the Roman magisterium has revised the conciliar
teaching on the priesthood of all believers and their place in the liturgy
and the pastoral life of the diocese. On 15 August 1997, several Roman
Congregations and the Pontifical Council of the Laity jointly published the
Instruction on the Collaboration of Non-ordained Faithful in the Sacred
Ministry of Priests. The Instruction praises the participation of lay people
in the Church’s liturgical and pastoral ministry, yet it reprimands a series
of practises that are seen as having negative consequences. Avoided must
be gestures and terminology that disguise the essential difference between
the ordained and the baptismal priesthood. It is therefore wrong to say that
lay people exercise a ministry in the Church; they simply perform functions
assigned to them by the priest or bishop. Lay people may not be referred
to as pastors, chaplains, coordinators or moderators: these titles apply only
to the ordained. Lay people may be assigned posts with decision-making
authority in the diocese only under special circumstances, such as a shortage
of ordained priests.
In the same year of 1997 the Congregation of Bishops published an
Instruction on Diocesan Synods that made bishops assume full control of
the synod held in their diocese. The bishops are to chose the participants,
determine the topics to be discussed, correct proposals not in accord with
present church teaching, and themselves produce the report of the synod.
A reaction to these two Instructions is recorded in Le courage de
changer, the autobiographical reflections of Bishop Charles Valois.19
As bishop of St. Jérome in Quebec, he had carefully followed the
recommendation of Vatican II and employed well-trained and reliable lay
men and women to take part in the pastoral ministry of the diocese. To
some of them he had assigned decision-making power. Since his pastoral
policies were deemed inappropriate by Rome, he had been summoned to
appear before the Congregation of Bishops where he was able to defend his
practices by citing the texts of Vatican II. The Instruction of 1997 changed
the situation drastically. Bishops in various parts of the world had to rethink
and reorganise their pastoral practise. In his book, Bishop Valois records that
he disapproves of the clericalism implicit in the Instruction. He also reports
the negative public reaction to the Instruction by the bishops of Switzerland,
Germany and France.20
Bishops Valois also records the impact on the Church in Quebec
produced by the Instruction on Diocesan Synods of 1997. To grant free
speech to the people, the bishops of Quebec had allowed their synods to be
prepared by a committee of priest and lay people, including Catholics who
had taken their distance from the Church. Respecting the prophetic calling of
the laity, the bishops wanted the people of their diocese to express themselves
in freedom. Since the Instruction of 1997 did not allow this, it spelled the end
of diocesan synods in Quebec. Some dioceses, Bishop Valois reports, still
held synods under another name, such as consultation or chantier (building
site). Yet this did not last for long. He writes,
If the laity has been largely deprived of their voice by this Instruction, one
has to say as much unfortunately of the bishops, following the motu proprio
Apostolos suos on episcopal conferences. We remember that according to
the ecclesiology of Vatican II, the episcopal conference in each country was
the institutional image of collegiality. In other words, the Church’s mission
was not the concern of the pope alone, of whom the bishops were simply
local representatives […] Instead the Church’s mission was to be carried out
collegially, involving all bishops united to the bishop of Rome.21
It is fair to say that Rome has reneged on the teaching of Vatican II on
the prophetic ministry of the baptised.

Dialogue or Proclamation
I shall now turn to a teaching introduced by Vatican Council II that has
raised theological problems that have as yet not been resolved.
Dialogue with people outside the Church has been a theme expressed
in several conciliar documents. The decree on ecumenism calls for dialogue
with non-Catholic Christians, the Declaration Nostra aetate invites Catholics
to engage in dialogue with the followers of non-Christian religions, and
Gaudium et spes fosters the dialogue of the Church with the world, especially
with the culture in which it lives. The question arising immediately is how
this call to dialogue is related to the Church’s mission to proclaim the name
of Jesus so that the world may believe. Can dialogue and proclamation be
reconciled theologically?
The Vatican Council does not give a clear answer to this question. There
is today an extensive theological literature that deals with this issue—an
issue on which Catholics are deeply divided. In the present paper, I simply
wish to show that the ecclesiastical magisterium has wrestled with this issue,
that it has sometimes made contradictory statements, and that it has not yet
arrived at a consistent teaching.
Let me summarise briefly what Vatican II said in Nostra aetate regarding
the world religions. We are told that the Church respects these religions,
that they contain truths and values the Church shares with them, that they
are reached by an echo of God’s Word and that, thanks to that echo, they
mediate salvation to their followers. At the same time, the complete and
definitive manifestation of God’s Word is Jesus Christ, the universal saviour
of humankind. The Jews, we are told, are in a special situation: God’s ancient
covenant made through Moses continues to be valid and constitutes for them
a source of truth and grace.
These are astounding declarations, startlingly different from the teaching
of the fifteenth century Council of Florence, according to which pagans and
Jews go to hell after they die.
The present paper is not the place to set forth the biblical and theological
basis for the new teaching. I will simply summarise this basis in a single
sentence. The prologue to John’s Gospel announces that God’s Word
addresses all human beings (John 1: 9), and the early church fathers of the
East taught that the echo of this Word resounded in the wisdom traditions
of humanity.
How is interreligious dialogue related to the Church’s mission to
proclaim the name of Jesus? To study this and related issues, Paul VI created
the Secretariat for Non-Christian Religions, subsequently reconstituted by
John Paul II as the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue. These two bodies produced insightful documents,22 yet did not pretend to say the last

word on this issue. In my own writings on this complex issue I have shown

that John Paul II and Cardinal Ratzinger/Benedict XVI have had different
readings of the conciliar teaching on religious pluralism.23
John Paul II emphasised the approach of Nostra aetate, he promoted
interreligious dialogue, and in 1986 and 2002 he invited representatives of
the world religions to Assisi to join him in a prayer service for peace. In line
with Nostra aetate, he declared that Catholics and Muslims believe in the
same God. He made statements suggesting that the rich diversity in the world,
including the plurality of cultures and religions, reveals God’s inexhaustible
generosity. Needless to say, John Paul II believed in Jesus Christ as universal
saviour and in the Church’s mission to preach the Gospel. Yet since he was
deeply troubled by the conflicts, rivalries and wars tearing apart the human
family and producing endless suffering, he wanted the Church, in the name
of Jesus Christ, to become an agent of reconciliation and promote a culture
of dialogue. He produced the famous Ten Commandments of Assisi for
Peace.24 Here is the second commandment.
We commit ourselves to educating people to mutual respect and esteem, in
order to help bring about a peaceful and fraternal coexistence between people
of different ethnic groups, cultures and religions.
The emphasis of Cardinal Ratzinger/ Benedict XVI has been somewhat
different. After the first interreligious assembly at Assisi, the Cardinal
published an article that was critical of this event.25 He argued that since
Catholics may not pray with followers of other religions, what happened
at Assisi was not common prayer, but simply parallel prayers offered by
persons in accordance with their own faith. Since interreligious events of this
kind easily foster relativism among Catholics, they should not be repeated.
Many years later, as Benedict XVI, he did praise the Assisi assemblies as
prophetic events .26

A considerable stir was produced in the Church by the Instruction
Dominus Jesus, published on 6 August 2000 by the Congregation of the
Doctrine of the Faith, signed by Cardinal Ratzinger.27 The first sentence
of paragraph 4 reads: “The Church’s constant missionary proclamation is
endangered today by relativistic theories which seek to justify religious
pluralism, not only de facto but also de iure.” Since the Cardinal does not
reflect on the death-dealing conflicts threatening the world at this time and
does not ask himself, as did John Paul II, what impact Christian preaching
will have in this context, he simply reaffirms the Church’s traditional teaching
that Jesus Christ is the universal saviour and that the Church has the mission
to promote the conversion of the world. While religious pluralism exists
in fact; in principle there is only one religion, the faith preached by the
Catholic Church. Non-Catholic Churches are defective and non-Christian
religions are in error.
The Instruction Dominus Jesus accepts the teaching of Vatican II that
God’s grace is offered to believers in these other religious tradition, yet
because Christ is the universal saviour, the Instruction argues that the grace
to non-Catholics is mediated to them by the Catholic Church.
Dominus Jesus expresses the fear that interreligious dialogue will foster
relativism, i.e. the idea that all religions are true in their own way. Catholics
participating in interreligious dialogue must therefore remember that the
ultimate horizon of their participation is the conversion of their partners
to the Catholic faith. According to Dominus Jesus, interreligious dialogue
is part of the Church’s evangelising mission. Many Catholic theologians
are deeply troubled by this message: they regard as devious and unethical
entering into a trusting dialogue with followers of another religion with the
hidden intention of promoting their conversion.
John Paul II and Cardinal Ratzinger/Benedict XVI share the same
Catholic faith and accept the teaching of Vatican II, yet their reading of the
conciliar texts differs. They wrestle with the unresolved question of how to
reconcile in theological terms interreligious dialogue and the proclamation
of the Gospel.Benedict XVI’s teaching on this issue is not consistent. On 25 April
2005, after his elevation to the papacy, he told the delegation from the world
religions that he fully embraces John Paul II’s commitment to interreligious
dialogue, recommending in particular dialogue with Muslims. Yet on 12
September 2006, in a lecture given at Regensburg, Pope Benedict tried to
demonstrate that Catholics and Muslims do not worship the same God, a
position at odds with the teaching of Vatican II and John Paul II. When
Benedict’s arguments were refuted by Catholic theologians and Muslim
religious thinkers, he seemed to have changed his mind. On his visit to
Turkey in November 2006, addressing the Minister of Religious Affairs, he
said that Muslims and Catholics worship the same God and have a common
mission to give witness to this God in an increasingly secular world. Yet in
2007, a new instruction from the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith
reminded Catholics that interreligious dialogue was part of the Church’s
evangelising mission.28 On 11 May 2009, Pope Benedict, in a speech to an
association of Jews, Muslims and Christians in Jerusalem, made a strong
statement in support of interreligious dialogue and justified it in theological
terms from a Catholic perspective.
It is not perfectly clear as yet if Catholics must look at religious pluralism
as a fault line of history to be righted by the Church’s preaching or as a
wonderful work of God’s providence for which they should be grateful.
I began this paper with Pope Benedict’s ideas that the conflicts in the
Catholic Church after Vatican II and the exit from the Church of so many
Catholics are due to disobedient Catholic innovators and the relativism of
contemporary culture. There are undoubtedly other factors that must be
taken into account. To render an account of the decline of the Church after
Vatican II is the task of church historians. They will have to look at the
various factors, taking into account the different historical contexts of the
local and regional Churches. Even a casual look at the Church in Quebec
and the Church in English-speaking Canada reveals that accounting for their
pastoral problems requires distinct analyses based on their different histories.
My paper makes a modest contribution to a much wider study. I have shown
that to understand the conflicts in the post-conciliar Church, one must also
take into consideration, i) the decision of Rome to renege on the promises
of Vatican II and ii) the as yet unresolved theological problems produced
by the teaching of Vatican II.

1 The ecclesiastical documents cited in this paper are easily found on the website
of the Vatican (www.vatican.va), if one knows i) the author (a Pope, a Congregation or
Vatican Council II), ii) the kind of document (encyclical, motu proprio, speech, instruction,
…) and iii) the date of its publication. Since giving the digital reference in each case is too
cumbersome, I will offer it only occasionally. For Pope Benedict’s Christmas address of
2005, see http://www.vatican.va/holy_father/benedict_xvi/speeches/2005/december/documents/
hf_ben_xvi_spe_20051222_roman-curia_en.html, accessed 19 March 2011.
2 Joseph Ratzinger, Theological Highlights of Vatican II, (New York: Paulist Press,
3 See Highlights, 16, 36-37, 49-52, 57-58, 63, 71-74, 88-92, 109-130.
4 Highlights, 57.
5 Kevin McKenna, “Benedict XVI and the Synod of Bishops,” America (December
10, 2007).
6 John Paul II, Speech to the General Council of the Synod, 30 April 1983.
7 The Ratzinger Report, (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1985), 59.
8 The Winnipeg Statement: http://catholicinsight.com/online/church/humanae/
article_960.shtml, accessed 19 March 2011.
9 Ibid.
10 Gregory Baum, The Church in Quebec, (Ottawa: Novalis, 1991), 49-65.
11 E.F. Sheridan, (ed.), Do Justice: The Social Teaching of the Canadian Bishops,
(Montreal: Éditions Pauline, 1987); Gregory Baum, “Toward a Canadian Catholic Social
Theory,” in Theology and Society, (New York: Paulist Press, 1987), 66-87.
12 Cardinal Ratzinger, Ecumenism and Politics: New Essays in Ecclesiology, (New
York: Crossroad, 1988), 46-62.
13 Ibid., 52.
14 Giuseppe Alberigo, (ed.), History of Vatican II, vol. iii (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis,
2000), 111.
15 Joseph Ratzinger, Die christliche Brüderlichkeit, (Munich: Kösel Verlag, 1960).
16 Paul Valadier, Maritain à contre-temps, (Paris : Desclée de Brouwer, 2007), 116.
17 Gregory Baum, “Un regard sympathique porté sur la théologie conservatrice de
Benoît XVI ” to be published in the proceedings of 2009 meeting of la Société canadienne
de théologie.
18 The Prairie Messenger, 3 April 1989, the editorial.
19 Charles Valois, Le courage de changer, (Montréal: Novalis, 2009).
20 Ibid., 147.
21 Ibid., 223.
22 Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue, “Dialogue and Mission,” 19 June
1984, and “Dialogue and Proclamation,” 10 May 1991.
23 Gregory Baum, Signs of the Times, (Ottawa: Novalis, 2007), 121-144;
“Proclamation or Dialogue?” The Ecumenist, 44 (Winter 2007):1-4; “Benedict’s Jerusalem
Message on Religious Pluralism,” The Ecumenist, 46 (Summer 2009):1-4.
24 The Ten Commandments of Assisi for Peace were composed by John Paul II
after the interreligious prayer meeting at Assisi on 24 January 2002 and, on 4 March
2002, sent by him to all heads of governments across the world. They are published in
Gregory Baum, Amazing Church, (Ottawa: Novalis, 2005), 96-97. They are found on the
website of the Vatican: http://www.vatican.va/holy_father/john_paul_ii/letters/2002/documents/
hf_jp-ii_let_20020304_capi-stato_en.html, accessed 19 March 2011.
25 Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, Glaube-Wahrheit-Toleranz, (Freiburg: Herder, 2002),
26 Benedict XVI, Letter to Bishop Domenico Sorrentino of Assisi, 2 September 2006.
27 http://www.vatican.va/roman_curia/congregations/cfaith/documents/rc_con_cfaith_
doc_20000806_dominus-iesus_fr.html, accessed 19 March 2011.
28 Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith, “Doctrinal Note on Some Aspects of
Evangelisation,” 3 December 2006.

Published on: 15 March 2012
Posted by: amm098