By JOHN L. ALLEN JR.
In a new interview, Pope Benedict XVI says that he was “too timid” in the period immediately after the Second Vatican Council (1962-65) in challenging avant-garde theological positions, in a time that he described as “extremely confused and restless.”
The comments came in an interview conducted last November, and published in a new book dedicated to the works of the late Cardinal Leo Scheffczyk, a personal friend of the pope’s who died in December 2005.
Among other things, Benedict’s admission may shed light on what has long been a much-debated biographical point about the pope: Did Joseph Ratzinger, the man who would become Benedict XVI, abandon what was seen as a relatively liberal position at Vatican II for a more conservative stance later in his career?
Ratzinger has always denied there was any such reversal, telling Time magazine in 1993, “I see no change in my theological positions over the years.” The new interview, however, suggests that if there was no change in the substance of Ratzinger’s theological positions, there was at least a shift in the candor and force with which he was willing to articulate them.
An extract from that interview was published today in Corriere della Sera, Italy’s leading daily newspaper.
As a young German priest and theologian, Joseph Ratzinger served as a theological expert at Vatican II, where he was seen as part of the broad conciliar majority in favor of a reform position. In the post-conciliar period, however, Ratzinger became increasingly alarmed at what he saw as steadily more progressive theological positions that, in his view, could not be reconciled with the church’s traditional faith.
In the interview about Scheffczyk, the pope described the two men’s budding friendship when both served as advisors to the doctrinal commission of the German bishops’ conference right after the council.
“At that time, the situation was extremely confused and restless, and the doctrinal position of the church was not always clear,” the pope said. “In fact, claims were circulated that seemed to have become suddenly possible, even though in reality they were not consistent with dogma. In that context, the discussions within the doctrinal commission were full of strong positions, and extremely difficult.”
“I myself, in that context, was almost too timid with respect to what I should have dared to do in order to get directly to the point,” the pope said.
Benedict said that Scheffczyk was the figure inside the commission who served as the real “ice breaker” in these discussions.
Scheffczyk, born in Poland but a fixture in German-language theology, was long seen as a staunch defender of traditional Catholic positions. In June 1995, for example, Scheffczyk published an article in which he expressed regret that Pope John Paul II had failed to pronounce the ban on women’s ordination as an infallible dogma in formal, ex cathedra fashion.
The friendship between Ratzinger and Scheffczyk flowered over the years. Both men served as friends and patrons of the Gustav Siewerth Haus, a Catholic school in Germany’s Black Forest devoted to traditional Catholic thought.
In the new interview, Benedict reveals that while he was still the prefect of the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, John Paul II asked him to recommend a German theologian over the age of 80 who might be honored as a cardinal. Ratzinger pointed to Scheffczyk.
Pope Benedict says that he honor gave Scheffczyk’s theology more visibility in the church, especially in Germany.
"It was very important that Leo Scheffczyk became a ‘public figure of the church,’ because in that way he was able to take part, with a notable influence, in the great disputes of the present, and could not be ignored or set aside as just another professor," Benedict said.
The interview was Benedict XVI was conducted by Fr. Johannes Nebel, a member of a new religious order called The Spiritual Family ‘The Work,’ to which Scheffczyk was especially close.