Between Regensburg and Vatican II: Historical Light and Theological Development

A Review of On the Road to Vatican II: German Catholic Enlightenment and Reform of the Church

by Eric J. Demeuse

The 1541 Diet of Regensburg—the namesake of this forum—proved a significant dialogue between Catholics and Protestants. Essential agreement was reached on a number of still contentious issues, though lamentably these agreements came to naught. Four years later, the Council of Trent began but failed to persuade a Lutheran delegation to attend. This was not the case 400 years later at Vatican II, where Protestant theologians were invited, participated, and sat “just to the left of the high altar of St. Peter’s.” The ecclesiological import of these three events—Regensburg, Trent, Vatican II—must be carefully discerned and differentiated. But they cannot be properly understood without filling in the narrative—without understanding and judging both the origins and the fruits of such events. Seeds sown at Regensburg and at Trent in the hope of ecclesial unity and reform were cultivated—and also battered by storms—during the ensuing centuries, all on the road to Vatican II.

This is a central thesis of Ulrich Lehner’s On the Road to Vatican II: German Catholic Enlightenment and Reform of the Church (Fortress, 2016). Hitting the presses shortly after his The Catholic Enlightenment (Oxford, 2016), Lehner’s latest installment on the history of this neglected period hones in on German theological developments in the eighteenth century. He focuses particularly on ecumenism, reform in the Church, and biblical exegesis, all the while looking backward with one eye toward the “spirit of Trent” motivating such developments, and looking forward with the other eye toward the ways in which Enlightenment thought would eventually be adopted in the decrees of the Second Vatican Council.

Lehner begins this volume by invoking Jared Wicks’ important and relatively recent article “Tridentine Motivations of Pope John XXIII before and during Vatican II” (Theological Studies, 2014). Given the purpose and goals of The Regensburg Forum, this article is worth tarrying over for a moment. In it, Wicks notes the ways in which Cardinal Roncalli, the future Pope John XXIII and convener of Vatican II, was deeply and directly influenced by the Council of Trent and its aftermath. Roncalli writes, “The Council of Trent offered the spectacle of a vigorous renewal of Catholic life [in] a period of mysterious and fruitful rejuvenation… [It was] a time of potent reawakening of energies that has no equal in any other period of church history.” (Wicks, 852; Lehner, 2). Roncalli witnessed this “renewal” especially in the Church historian Cesare Baronio (1538-1607), the reformer and cardinal St. Charles Borromeo (1538-1584), and the Venetian patrician and bishop of Bergamo and Padua St. Gregorio Barbarigo (1625-1697). The last of these John XXIII canonized just ten days before establishing preparatory commissions for Vatican II, the council where aggiornamento would become not only a slogan but a governing principle. The “spirit of Trent,” which Roncalli explicitly invokes in his diary, drove the pontiff to call a council for renewal and rejuvenation akin to that which he saw in his study of early modernity. And that same spirit of Trent, argues Lehner, animated the Catholic enlightenment.

Ecumenism. After an informative few chapters delineating the contours of “Catholic Enlightenment” and the self-understanding of its adherents and opponents, Lehner delves into the ecumenism of the period. The Peace of Westphalia and its “vision of ecclesial unity,” Lehner argues, proved both a linchpin and an obstacle for ecumenical experimentation, haunting such efforts in the ensuing decades (63). Lehner highlights two schools of thought when it came to ecumenism: the Neuwied Academy and the Fulda Academy. The former, founded by Reformed theologian Johann Heinrich Oest (1727-77), sought to provide a nonsectarian and “enlightened” platform wherein to discern the truths from all religions and “confute doubts about God’s existence and revelation” (69), thereby seeking a universalist, lowest common denominator unity among all religions. The academy encouraged freedom of opinion and opposed censorship. Yet it also suffered accusations of syncretism, leading its civil protectors to withdraw their support and prompt its dissolution in 1758. The academy at Fulda offered a slightly different vision of ecumenism. Inspired by the work of Protestant Jakob Heinrich Gerstenberg and Catholic Carl Theodor von Dalberg, the Fulda academy was founded by five Benedictines led by Reformed theologian Johann Rudolph Piderit. The academy was even supported to an extent by the Archbishop of Mainz. Members subscribed to tolerance without indifferentism (“Error will remain error… it will be always free for a member to call… what one perceives as error an error… but without slander”), encouraged mutual understanding between confessions, and held to “the uncertainty of the outcome of the project” despite their pursuit of unity (77). Unfortunately, this ecumenical effort dissipated due to lack of cooperation and not, like Neuwied, to civil or ecclesiastical interference. Other notable figures of the period—like Beda Mayr and Benedict Stattler—also pursued paths toward ecclesial unity. Alongside efforts to identify points of agreement and divergence, they also argued for concessions that the Catholic Church could make to Protestant confessions. Such concessions often and understandably went beyond those suggested by Cardinal Cajetan in the nascence of confessionalization over 200 years earlier.[1] But they sometimes went too far—as in the case of Beda Mayr (120). Nevertheless, despite a variety of methods and conclusions, the bulk of Catholic Enlighteners avoided vicious polemic as they pursued a rational and “enlightened” path toward ecclesial unity.

Reform. Alongside debates on the hierarchical relationship between the pope and bishops—and the ecumenical implications therein (see chapter 7)—Lehner also chronicles liturgical reform during the eighteenth century. He notes three trends among those seeking such reform: an emphasis on simplicity of worship, the community of the faithful, and increased intelligibility of rites and devotions (173). Many of these proposed reforms, Lehner suggests, made possible similar reforms advocated for during the Catholic liturgical movement of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. But some Catholic Enlighteners pursued a dangerous line of thought motivated too much, perhaps, by moral utility. As Johannes Theiner wrote: “In religious affairs nothing can remain unintelligible, but everything must give us bright insight since only that leads us to virtue… Everything that is hidden and mysterious is of no value for humans” (178). Of course, in the twentieth century liturgical reforms, there was an effort to “understand [the] mystery with a new vividness,”[2] to steal a phrase from Joseph Ratzinger. Yet this vividness never eviscerated the mysterious, which itself could prove efficacious for the faithful even unbeknownst to them. As Romano Guardini, so influential in that later liturgical movement, reminds, “always both are present: what reveals and what veils.”[3]

Exegesis. The final five chapters of Lehner’s book are devoted to exegetical developments in the eighteenth century. Lehner focuses on a number of crucial figures and themes—J.L. Isenbiehl and his controversial interpretation of Isaiah 7:14, Alphonsus Frey and his futurist exegesis of Revelation, the development of the concept of “Salvation History,” and the comparative study of religions. One purpose for Lehner’s extended investigation into Enlightenment exegesis is his concern over divisions between historical critical and theological interpretations today. “Has Catholic theology really achieved anything over the last decades,” Lehner laments, “when it comes to reconciling historical criticism and theological exegesis?” (12). This question plagues not only Catholic exegesis, but also that of various Protestant confessions, and its resolution demands continued attention and dutiful work. “Looking in particular, at historical figures of the Catholic Enlightenment…” Lehner continues, “would demonstrate that both perspectives could stimulate a renewed attempt to bring historical and theological exegesis into dialogue… it is precisely these early modern exegetes… who offer the best lessons in how both approaches can be mutually inclusive” (12-13). Lehner’s fruitful contribution to assuaging the current exegetical divide is to bring to light figures who wrestled with questions similar to our own. Our ignorance of both the achievements and failures of a previous age, Lehner argues, will only hamper our progress toward a richer and more coherent exegesis.

This historical effort of “bringing to light” is vital for any theological enterprise, and in this regard Lehner’s book offers a substantial contribution to which this review can hardly do justice. Yet with the data and insight he provides a further task befalls us, this one even more theological. This task is not Lehner’s purpose, and so my final point is not a critique of his tome but a “what next” for ecumenically minded readers. The task is this: how do we account for the doctrinal development from the Catholic Enlightenment to Vatican II—from occasional but not insignificant theological advances to official promulgations and decrees for the universal Church? The wording of this very question presumes a concept which emphatically cannot be presumed among Catholics, let alone among the various Protestant congregations: development. How do Catholics understand this concept of “development” in the dogmatic and pragmatic refinements (or corruptions, according to some) which occurred between the Apostolic age and Nicaea, between Nicaea and Trent, and between Trent and Vatican II?

Obviously much has been written on this theme in the last century and a half, so perhaps this task only(!) requires creative retrievals of past masters such as John Henry Newman, Maurice Blondel, Bernard Lonergan, and others, incorporating within these retrievals new historical findings from the Catholic Enlightenment. But if this retrieval hopes to reach across the confessional divide, then it must also take heed of the ways that various Protestant confessions understand the continuity/discontinuity (development/corruption?) between the Scriptures and the early councils, between those councils and the Reformations, and between the Reformations and the modern world. In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, Protestant theologians began to ask this question, even, in some cases, provoking Catholics to think more deeply about the same. As I have suggested elsewhere, Luther was emphatic about the continuity of the Church throughout the ages, even against intra-Lutheran arguments to the contrary. And it was, after all, the attempts of Matthias Flacius and the Magdeburg Centuries to show the gradual corruption of the Roman Church which prompted one of Roncalli’s early-modern teachers, Cesare Baronio, to offer a lengthy riposte arguing for the integrity of the Roman Church from the time of Christ to the present, earning him the hyperbolic title “The Founder of Church History.” Indeed, accounting for the authority of extra-Scriptural sources such as councils in a way that out-maneuvered the polemics of Rome was a key task on the Reformed side as well, evidenced in divines such as John Davenant and Gisbertus Voetius.

Of course, new historical findings (and new interpretations of old findings) have altered the conversation in many ways. Newman’s criticism of the Vincentian canon (quod ubique quod semper quod ab omnibus) has gained wide acceptance among Catholics—even those who disagree with Newman’s alternative. And Protestant theologians have not neglected the difficult question of “development” (see, for example, some recent efforts here and here). Now, with even more historical findings from the Catholic Enlightenment, these questions must continue to be asked with a renewed vigor, especially if Lehner’s volume is going to bear the ecumenical fruit it ought. Nevertheless, on its own, this book, like so much of Lehner’s work, fills in our patchy historical narrative of a forgotten epoch and challenges us to new and creative insights, and for this we are deeply indebted.

[1] See Cajetan’s “Guidelines for Concessions to the Lutherans, 1531,” trans. Jared Wicks, in Cajetan Responds (Eugene OR: Wipf and Stock, 2011), pp. 201-3.

[2] Joseph Ratzinger, The Spirit of the Liturgy, trans. John Saward (San Francisco: Ignatius, 2000), 128.

[3] Romano Guardini, The Lord, trans. Elinor Castendyk Briefs (Washington DC: Regnery Publishing Inc., 1996), 298


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