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The End of the Council and the Remains of the Day

The long 20th century slowly comes to an end.

(Catholic Press Photo/Wikimedia Commons)

The first pictures of Pope Benedict XVI’s corpse, published by the Vatican on New Year’s Day, were more depressing even than expected. The body of the late pope emeritus, adorned in unexceptional episcopal raiment, lay in a small room at Mater Ecclesiae monastery, guarded by what one friend described as a “Charlie Brown Christmas tree”—a sparse-looking evergreen with oversized multicolored baubles. 

News of the funeral preparations were similarly dismal. The Mass booklet for the funeral, to be held today, shows that Francis, the reigning pope, intends to use Eucharistic Prayer III—an invention of the past 60 years—at the requiem Mass rather than Eucharastic Prayer I, the reformed version of the ancient Roman Canon. This seems to stand as a rebuke to the man whose life work insisted that the renewal of the Church could be a continuous development from ancient uses.


These preparations, however, perhaps fit the late pope, who was selling something few wanted to buy: the organic, conservative reading of the Second Vatican Council. As The American Conservative’s Rod Dreher has pointed out, that blueprint for the postconciliar era was not, perhaps, the dominant one, or the Council Fathers’ intended one.

Ratzinger the man in some way captured the story of the last century in his own person—a deserter from the Hitler-Jugend who became one of the leading theologians of the liberal European alliance at the Council. He acted as Karl Rahner’s right-hand man, and expert advisor to the architect of the liberal German alliance, Cardinal Frings; later he became, in the eyes of his critics, “God’s Rottweiler,” for insisting on traditional points of Catholic teaching. 

While the death of Pope Benedict XVI may not quite mark the end of the long 20th century—authorities are still hunting down nonagenarian Nazi collaborators, after all—it certainly marks the end of the Second Vatican Council. While some Council Fathers still remain among the quick, Benedict, ne Josef Ratzinger, was the last prominent agonist of the Church’s great “renewal,” the liberal who had second thoughts.

Ratzinger recoiled from the horrors of the Second World War and then, in turn, from the revolutionary liberalism that followed in its wake. Following the student protests of 1968, and the accompanying radicalization of the Church’s liberal faction, he came to regard the Council’s agiornamento with mixed feelings. Non-theologians will remember what Ratzinger synthesized in response as his characteristic theory, the hermeneutic of continuity: The true interpretation of the Council is that, rather than breaking with what came before, it developed earlier iterations of Catholic doctrine, and the Council’s documents can be read only by the light of orthodoxy.

Benedict thus gave a framework and a name to the conservative middle path of the papacy of St. John Paul II, as well as of his own tenure. Together, their rule spanned 45 years. For his part, Benedict attempted to emphasize organic and harmonious development; under John Paul, those who preferred the traditional Mass were not handled over-kindly, as the use of the old liturgy was left largely to the regulation of bishops, most of whom were not encouraging at best. Benedict made an effort to move the synthesis—broadly, a conservative moral theology with a modern, welcoming face—to accommodate the traditionalist criticisms of the post-conciliar era.


His reasoning in restoring a wider use of the old Mass was an elegant study in the hermeneutic of continuity. He sidestepped the traditionalist argument that St. Paul VI had no right to ban the traditional Mass under the St. Pius V’s apostolic constitution Quo primum by arguing that, in fact, Paul had never legally abrogated it. Allowing the older use would inform the newer use; the logic of ressourcement came to the defense of the traditionalists.

If one believes both in the legitimacy of the Council and that the Church’s teaching is infallible and unchanging, the hermeneutic of continuity is the only way to understand the Council’s dogmatic statements. With Benedict’s death, only post hoc interpreters of the Council are left to govern the Church. For better or worse, neither the liberal elements nor traditionalists find this moderate account of the Council satisfactory; both groups regard it through a hermeneutic of rupture.

Francis’s papacy has been defined by reopening the wounds of the Council. The Amazon synod of 2019 attempted to revive the liberal line, pushed by Ratzinger’s erstwhile allies nearly six decades prior, regarding “inculturation” and clerical discipline. The widespread use of the old Mass has been curtailed—in part because Benedict’s gentle reasoning fell short of hard legislative protection of it, which would have implied that an effort at rupture had in fact been made. Traditionalist critics have in turn been happy to return to their hostility to the Council.

Meanwhile, preparations for October’s absurdly named Synod on Synodality promise the relitigation of one of the Council’s most hotly contested topics: episcopal collegiality. The German bishops have made it clear they aim to revive the form of collegiality cogently opposed by the Brazilian Archbishop Geraldo de Proença Sigaud at the Council’s second session: “some kind of permanent national or regional council, in which a number of bishops of one nation or region would make juridical or doctrinal decisions,” which would compromise the power of both the pope as supreme legislator in the Church and the bishops as plenipotent rulers of their own dioceses.

Ratzinger calls to mind no literary character so much as Stevens, the butler who narrates Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day. Stevens spends his later years insisting on the admirable points of his Nazi-sympathizing employer, unable to shake free from his old personal loyalties. Ratzinger was a man who insisted on the good points of the Council and its theologians, even as those who listened to him, both conservative and liberal, hardened in the opinion that the Council either went too far, or not far enough. Perhaps no compromise can last forever.


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