Vatican II today: Two schools of thought.

Catholic Voices

Imagine a television commercial for Vatican II: Hundreds of bishops are gathered in a local beer joint. One prelate lifts his frothy stein in a toast. “Vatican II,” he intones solemnly. The episcopal assemblage is divided into two groups, one on the right and the other on the left. But instead of responding with shouts of “Less filling!” from one side and “Tastes great!” from the other, they raise their glasses to cries of “Aggiornamento!” and “Ressourcement!”

Just as Miller Lite had two drinking experiences to recommend it, the spirit of Vatican II came in two flavors.

Aggiornamento, an Italian word that means “updating or modernizing,” describes the energy of those who took the lead in expressing Vatican II’s drift. Championed by such notables as Swiss theologian Hans Küng, French ecclesiologist Yves Congar, and German theologian Karl Rahner, and with Gaudium et Spes as their manifesto, they sought to humanize Catholicism and formulate new theology that expressed what they perceived to be an evolution of Christianity. The house organ of aggiornamento was the international theological journal Concilium, founded in 1965.

Concerned with what sometimes appeared to be revisionist theology and the dreaded “modernism” condemned a century earlier, a second camp emerged from the smoke of Vatican II. The French word ressourcement, meaning “a return to the sources” or getting back to basics, best describes the impulse that compelled the movement. Swiss theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar and French theologian Henri de Lubac led the starting line-up for that team; Lumen Gentium was their mandate and Communio their journal. To the ressourcement people, the reforms of the council needed a tighter rein grounded in the earlier stages of the tradition and the patristic writings.

“Grassroots” might best describe the aggiornamento church while “authoritarian” could express the ressourcement model.


The most interesting player was German prelate Joseph Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict XVI. Ratzinger appeared early in the game joining Congar and Belgian theologian Edward Schillebeeckx in the very first issue of Concilium, writing some very aggiornamento-ish stuff. But by 1974 he was batting for the ressourcement team and would be published in Communio some 35 times thereafter.

A synthesis of the two camps would be nice, kind of like two, two, two mints in one. But that’s another commercial. Perhaps in the Vatican II commercial Benedict XVI will be a kind of papal John Madden stepping from the brawling barroom crowd in white cassock and zucchetto. Extolling the virtues of the council, he will explain how you don’t have to sacrifice ressourcement to get aggiornamento, how Vatican II can be less filling and still taste great. Paul Boudreau