It was only 10 years, but it could well have been another era altogether. 1978, the year of three popes, began with weary anxiety and concluded with a new hope. In fact, 1978-79 marked a turning point in the age of the council. Whereas in June 1978 Pope Paul VI was lamenting that his prayers were going unheard, by June 1979 Pope John Paul II was in Poland, shaking that country’s communist regime to its foundations.
Indeed, the 10 years from 1979 to 1989 were a delayed reaction to the council, almost as if Vatican II had lit a fuse that took a long time to burn.
The most remarkable change was in the Church’s relationship with the communist regimes of the Soviet empire. During the 1970s efforts had been made to reach some kind of working consensus on religious liberty, to no great effect. In the 1980s the Church adopted instead a spiritual assault on the foundations of the whole order. Within 10 years it was gone.
In November 1989, the Berlin Wall fell, and within the month Mikhail Gorbachev, the general secretary of the communist party, made a historic trip to the Vatican. The highest authority of the world’s most brutal atheistic empire had come to see the Pope in Rome.
The Cold War was over, the communists had been decisively defeated, and the Catholic Church was an indispensable element of that victory.
The 1980s brought many days of high drama, not least of which was May 13, 1981, when Pope John Paul II was shot in St. Peter’s Square. The attempted assassination by Mehmet Ali Agca remains officially the act of a lone gunman, but many credible observers believe that he was acting on behalf of elements in the Bulgarian secret police, who in turn would not have acted without approval from Moscow.
Shocking though it was, it was not unheard of to visit violence upon the pope. Napoleon had imprisoned both Pius VI and Pius VII less than 200 years previous, and the Soviet communists were at least as ruthless as the French emperor.
By 1988, it was clear that one seed planted by Vatican II was already yielding a rich harvest. The defense of human rights, especially the right to religious liberty, made by the council fathers had become the foundation of the Church’s activity in international diplomacy.
Not only did it provide a powerful rhetorical weapon against Soviet communism, but it permitted the Church to challenge dictators in various parts of the world, from the Philippines to Chile. Against the 20th century’s totalitarians and autocrats, Vatican II gave the Church new rules of engagement. No longer was it primarily a question of the Church negotiating the terms of a modus vivendi (manner of living) with odious regimes — but rather challenging them in the name of their own citizens’ rights. In the 1980s the Church changed the world in a manner entirely unexpected.
Change, too, was coming in the Church itself.
Much of what Vatican II had tried to accomplish got overwhelmed by the turmoil of the immediate post-conciliar period. In the 1980s, John Paul sought to restore some order, not to frustrate the implementation of the council, but rather to facilitate it. As in many things ecclesial, personnel was the key instrument of policy.
In November 1981, John Paul made the most important curial appointment of the conciliar age, naming the archbishop of Munich, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, as new prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. Ratzinger arrived in Rome to become the chief lieutenant of John Paul’s papacy.
The philosopher and the theologian, the Thomist and the Augustinian, the Pole and the German, the extrovert and the introvert — together they would form one of the most formidable partnerships in papal history. Together, they would shape the 1980s and give the authentic interpretation of Vatican II.
“Why has the implementation of the council, in large parts of the Church, thus far been so difficult?” asked Pope Benedict XVI in an address to the Roman Curia in 2005. “Well, it all depends on the correct interpretation of the council or, as we would say today, on its proper hermeneutics, the correct key to its interpretation and application. ... On the one hand, there is an interpretation that I would call ‘a hermeneutic of discontinuity and rupture’; it has frequently availed itself of the sympathies of the mass media, and also one trend of modern theology.
“On the other, there is the ‘hermeneutic of reform,’ of renewal in the continuity of the one subject-Church which the Lord has given to us. ... Wherever this interpretation guided the implementation of the council, new life developed and new fruit ripened. Forty years after the council, we can show that the positive is far greater and livelier than it appeared to be in the turbulent years around 1968.”
Pope Benedict added, “Today, we see that although the good seed developed slowly, it is nonetheless growing; and our deep gratitude for the work done by the Council is likewise growing.”
Together, John Paul and Ratzinger set about providing that “hermeneutic of reform” rather than rupture. A key event was a special synod of bishops held in 1985 to assess Vatican II 20 years later. The Pope called the synod, and the cardinal set the agenda with the publication of The Ratzinger Report, an interview book that frankly confronted the post-conciliar troubles.
Out of the 1985 synod emerged the idea for a universal catechism, a project which Ratzinger shepherded through to publication only seven years later. The Catechism of the Catholic Church secured the authentic interpretation of the Council.
Despite best efforts, there was a more formal rupture in 1988 — the excommunication of Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre and the bishops he illicitly consecrated despite the express disapproval of John Paul. In an attempt to reconcile with followers of Archbishop Lefebvre who wished to remain in communion with Rome, the Priestly Society of St. Peter was created, and given permission to celebrate the sacraments according to the 1962 Missal.
John Paul had given wider permission for the “old Mass” in 1984, but it would not be until 2007 that the whole question of the liturgical reform would be addressed again.
The 1980s also brought important developments on the ecumenical and interreligious front — the papal visit to the Roman synagogue in 1986 and the prayer meeting at Assisi that same year. The challenge of liberation theology was addressed in Latin America. And a new energetic magisterium was about to provide the richest decade of papal teaching in the history of the Church: 1988 to 1998.
Father Raymond J. de Souza was
the Register’s Rome correspondent from 1999 to 2003.