A Year of Crisis, Revisited | Hubert Jedin's 1968 Memorandum to the West German Episcopal Conference | Ignatius Insight
A translation of pp. 266-272 of Hubert Jedin's Lebensbericht (Mainz: Matthias-Grünewald-Verlag, 1984). Translation by Rev. Joseph W. Koterski, S.J. Introduction and notes by Rev. Brian Van Hove, S.J.
Many people have wondered in our day if the Catholic Church was becoming "Protestantized", but sometimes this has been only a vague feeling of unease or disgust after a Mass at their local parish on Sunday.
The following document is an astounding one because as early as 1968 one of the greatest Catholic Church historians sounded the alarm in no uncertain terms. Monsignor Hubert Jedin was the author of many books on church history, most notably his definitive History of the Council of Trent in four volumes. He knew both Trent and the Reformation well from a lifetime of research and writing on the topic. Mgsr. Jedin also published a general ten-volume History of the Church which was translated into English the year after his death in 1981.
The following version/translation of Jedin's Memorandum may strike Americans as more relevant than the day it was written and presented to the West German bishops. The deep insight of Jedin into the contemporary situation of the Church confirms what many of us have suspected but have been unable to express as well as he did.
Perhaps the most outstanding Church historian of the Catholic world died July 16, 1980, in Bonn, then West Germany. He was born June 17, 1900, in Breslau , Silesia, and ordained a priest on March 2, 1924. Since his mother was a Jewish Catholic convert, the Gestapo arrested Father Jedin in 1938, but he later managed to get released. He spent the next ten years, 1939-1949, in Rome researching history of the Council of Trent upon which he became the acknowledged expert. This exhaustive and original study of the primary source documents resulted in the publication of four large volumes of The History of the Council of Trent, only the first two of which have yet appeared in English. Many smaller studies were also published such as his 1947 Papal Legate at the Council of Trent: Cardinal Seripando. He was a lifelong specialist on councils and on Trent in particular.
After the announcement by Pope John XXIII that an ecumenical council would be held, Jedin published in 1959 his Ecumenical Councils of the Catholic Church: An Historical Outline (English tr. 1960). Then somewhat later as Vatican II was in session, in 1964, he published Crisis and Closure of the Council of Trent (English tr. 1967). These were prepared for seminarians and other interested students of ecclesiastical history who were looking for some perspective on just what an ecumenical council was supposed to be in the Catholic Church. But Jedin was also a generalist. He launched the massive ten-volume series History of the Church under his own editorship. The series has been called "the Fliche-Martin of our time" , and is considered a standard reference. The tenth volume was at last translated into English in 1981, one year after his death. Another of the projects which he supervised was the cartographic church history, Atlas zur Kirchengeschichte. Die christlichen Kirchen in Geschichte und Gegenwart, published in German in 1970.
Jedin had to suspend his research for four years, 1962-1965, in order to serve as peritus at the Second Vatican Council. Very few historians of councils actually get to participate in one as he did! This also explains the lengthy interval of time between the publication of his first two volumes on Trent (1949, 1957) and the second two (1970, 1975). From 1949 to 1965 he was a professor in Bonn; before and after those years he received many honorary doctorates and other international awards and invitations. In 1970 Pope Paul VI had offered him the position of Prefect of the Vatican Library, though Jedin declined on the grounds of advancing age. Poor health during the 1970s prevented him from making the kind of progress he wished, but in the end none of his projected works were left incomplete.
The autobiographical book, Lebensbericht, appeared posthumously in 1984. This work outlines his professional career and productivity rather than primarily providing us with any "journal of a soul". Nonetheless it received negative reviews in the United States from those who said Jedin had become too alarmed and saddened toward the end of his life because of his conviction that Vatican II had been either tragically misunderstood or, even worse, betrayed. He communicated his frank opinion on the matter in 1968 to the West German bishops, and he drew upon his knowledge of Trent and the Reformation process to illustrate for them a similar process underway in the twentieth century. The translation of this Memorandum is presented here for the first time, perhaps belatedly, to benefit an American readership.
Memorandum to the German Bishops' Conference
Bonn, September 16, 1968
(In the covering letter to Cardinal Döpfner as chairman of the Bishops' Conference we read:
"I take the liberty to offer you enclosed a few thoughts and opinions on the present situation in the Catholic Church, with the request to present them to the members of the German Bishops' Conference.
My thoughts have grown out of long years of scholarly concern with the history of the Church and were dictated by grave concern over her present development. I am aware that many invited and uninvited advisors are said to gain the ear of the bishops. Mindful of the admonition of the Second Vatican Council about the co-responsibility of priests and laity, I feel obligated in conscience to offer my knowledge and understanding, so that evaluative categories will not be lacking to the venerable episcopate; for what life-experience is to individuals, the history of the Church is for the ecclesial community.")
At present the Catholic Church is passing through a difficult crisis. Germany, too, at least the region of the Federal Republic, is gripped by it. This crisis became broadly visible during the "Catholic Day" at Essen during which the encyclical Humanae vitae was regarded not as the starting-point but as an object of anxiety and as the flash-point.
To us as historians especially concerned with the history of the Reformation this crisis suggests parallels to those events which led in the 16th century to the schism of the Church in the West. It compels us to draw inferences from historical experience for the evaluation of the present moment in the Church.
Through the research of recent decades it is evident that Martin Luther did not intend to split the Church when in the year 1517 he presented his theses on indulgences to the appropriate bishops and later published them. He renounced the authority of the Church in stages; in Leipzig (1519) he even rejected the binding force of decisions by valid ecumenical councils. And given the resulting resonance in the public sphere he himself did not expect, he was finally tempted to refuse obedience to the condemnation--far too long delayed in any case--of his 41 theses in the bull Exsurge Domine (1520). In some German dioceses this papal decision was publicized inadequately, and in others not at all. The bishops considered the "Luther-conflict" as a quarrel among theologians and overlooked the fact that the foundations of the Catholic concept of the Church were not only being shaken but destroyed. Apart from a few theologians, the faithful saw in Luther the re-discoverer of the true faith and the restorer of the Church, the liberator from the yoke which the Church had allegedly imposed upon them until then.
The most passionate and most powerful champions of the Lutheran movement were the "intellectuals" of that time, the humanists, in whose eyes the current theology, scholasticism, was a hindrance to progress. Also included were numerous priests and clerics who, fascinated by the slogan "evangelical freedom", cast off the vows they had taken upon themselves. Finally there were some from the classes threatened by social decline, such as the imperial knighthood and the well-to-do farmers, throughout a great part of Germany. The almost complete success of the Lutheran movement in the years 1517-1525 was made possible by the control of that age's only means of mass communication, the press, whose significance for the Church was insufficiently understood. People used to snatch the writings of Luther and the countless pamphlets stamped with his ideas right out of the hands of the book-sellers. They spoke the language of the people and were read, even devoured. The few who issued warnings were, to be sure, more clear-sighted as theologians, but weaker as propagandists. They remained unread and were regarded as "reactionaries". Those responsible for the church's magisterium, the pope and the bishops, were silent; the repeatedly requested and longed-for council never materialized. Uncertainty in regard to the faith persisted.
Without wishing in the least to explain away the mistakes and oversights committed by the Roman curia at that time and subsequently, the passivity of the German episcopate must be admitted. They were not sufficiently trained theologically, and with few exceptions the prince took precedence over the bishop in leading the people. This state of affairs facilitated the nearly unchecked progress of the Lutheran movement, and in fact this is what made it possible in the first place. The German bishops thus missed their chance. Once the majority of imperial cities and the princes had made Luther's cause their own (after 1526), it was too late. By-passing the bishop, Lutheran rural churches were erected and the urban clergy numerically increased. As the Lutheran movement became organized and consolidated, it conducted itself as a creed and bound itself together by a politico-military league. The schism in the Church was a fact.
We know today that the inner process of schism, the formation of a "Confession" (denomination), lasted not years but decades. Melanchthon and Calvin claimed to be "Catholic" until the end of their lives while the adherents of the old faith were calumniated as "Papists". The faithful long clung to the Mass and to their saints, and the church regulations introduced by the Lutheran magistrates took over many Catholic customs--even processions and pilgrimages. The bulk of the simple faithful never understood that the "Reformation" was not a reform of the Church but the construction of a new church set up on a different basis. In retrospect one must therefore maintain: the schism of the Church succeeded by nothing so much as by the illusion that it did not exist. It was widespread in Rome and in the German episcopate, among many theologians, among the majority of clergymen and among the people.
The parallels between then and now are obvious. But one essential difference exists: the schism in the Church in the 16th century, since the end of the 1520s, was increasingly an affair of "governments", and therefore of states. Today the state is indifferent toward ecclesiastical events except in Communist regimes which put the Church under heavy pressure. In those cases the signs of crisis discussed below are either not present at all or found just minimally. They can only be found in the Free World of the West where they profit from rebellion against the so-called "establishment".
The Church's present crisis in Germany is in its innermost essence, as in the 16th century, a matter of uncertainty and disorientation in the faith. Protestant biblical criticism has broken into Catholic theology on a broad front. The problem is not so much those who hold chairs of exegesis with their rather nuanced statements as with their students and auditors who are often insufficiently prepared theologically and philosophically and who accept uncritically the views of radical Protestant theologians, e.g. Rudolph Bultmann. They extend and coarsen the concepts to the point of polarization, simplify them in their institutes and propagate them in conferences and courses as well as in preaching. Under the cloak of hermeneutics the binding nature of dogmatic definitions by ecumenical councils is called into question (e.g. transubstantiation). The bond of theology to the magisterium is loosened, if not altogether denied, and the magisterium itself depreciated and even ridiculed. Today's hostility and contempt for authority which is so widespread among the younger generation and is supported by many parents and educators, abets this dissolution of the Catholic concept of the Church, and consequently the idea of religious obedience.
The question, "Is there anything still Catholic?" is not just something asked only by older and so-called "traditional" Catholics, but comes from the very core of sincere and genuine believers. This too was brought about not just by the constant change of liturgical forms and the ever more encompassing capriciousness in liturgy, but is the result of real uncertainty and the need for knowledge. Today's modern communications media are incomparably more powerful than those of the 16th century. Almost without exception they have become dominated by intellectuals who frequently, especially if they are Catholic, want the "new" for its own sake, as the supposedly "progressive" thing to do. They promote and propagate it regardless of the truth-content. In their speech and style of expression they cater to the inclination of the younger generation for slogans ("democratizing the Church"), and they judge this agitation to be harmless to their religious formation, or they explain it away, and in general they comment upon Church events in a distorted way. They make (or better, they manipulate) "public opinion" against which only a few among the many millions of television watchers are capable of validly forming their own opinion. The constant saturation of the faithful by a communications media controlled by the ecclesiastical "Left" has the effect of altering their relation to the Church and has indeed already changed it. This disorientation makes progress month by month. The longer it lasts, the greater will be the danger of a schism in the Church, as in the 16th century. Or, what could be even worse, a complete estrangement from the Church, just as individual raindrops disappear in the dry sand.
I do not believe that the founding and support of conservative, traditionalist groups and movements ("Una Voce", "Nunc et Semper" and the like) is the right way to prevent the schism or revolt threatening the Church. To leave the fight against the abuses of the ecclesiastical "Left" to an ecclesiastical "Right" would be a fundamental abdication by the authorities. In contrast to the Protestant church-communities, the Catholic Church possesses authority since her structure is based on divine law. The bishops must speak out clearly and act decisively, rising above public opinion. If they act, and act quickly, it will become evident that they still have the great mass of the Catholic faithful behind them.
Had the German bishops in the first years of the 16th century's schism from the faith joined together for common action before the Reformation became political, the schism in the Church, even if it were not totally prevented, could quite possibly have been reduced to a mere splintering. The episcopate of today is no longer burdened and obstructed by defective theological education or by its social place and the resulting entanglements in politics. The constitution Lumen gentium has conferred on them thorough-going rights and opportunities, but also a higher responsibility for the integrity of the faith than ever before. They cannot wait for the intervention of higher authorities, but must act themselves. Where the public communications media construct walls of silence or permit one to observe daily events only through distorted lenses, a word of clarification and corresponding action is doubly indispensable. To every Catholic and non-Catholic it must be made clear that the bishops consider the unabridged truth and care for the good of the faithful their first and highest duty.
Some concrete examples may illustrate how one might imagine this "action".
1. The canonical mission of professors of higher education and teachers of religion, who plainly teach errors of faith, should be withdrawn. Conflicts arising from this with state officials and with the pressure-groups of the "Left" must be accepted.
Priests and chaplains who come into open opposition to Church discipline in their teaching or through their conduct (e.g. in regard to the Holy Eucharist) are to be suspended, even if there results from this a temporarily severe shortage in pastoral care.
One should not be afraid of making "martyrs" of them. It is necessary to set an example--but in so doing it will be important to take care that the transition to a secular occupation be facilitated by providing suitable help for those affected.
2. No candidate for priestly office should be ordained unless he explicitly and unconditionally acknowledges the duties of the priesthood and undertakes canonical obedience. Above all, the authors of declarations against celibacy, against papal and episcopal teaching on doctrine, the instigators of revolts and those who try to coerce unacceptable changes in monasteries and seminaries, are to be excluded from ordination.
It is better to have many fewer priests and to look after vacant parishes in a temporary and improvised fashion through ordination of older, married men as deacons, than for rebellious or demagogic priests to lead parishes astray.
3. The education of "lay-theologians" must be supervised with much greater vigilance, and the canonical mission must be bestowed more carefully. A portion of this group is inspiring the ecclesiastical "Left" and---knowingly or unknowingly---is promoting uncertainty and confusion about the faith.
4. It must be impressed on the entire clergy that liturgy is not a free-style composition by the parish assembly, but a divine service regulated by the Church. The chaotic changes in the liturgy have already gone so far that even the words of consecration are being changed by individual clerics without authorization. The Latin Mass, the bond of unity of the universal Church, should not be allowed to perish now that the world is becoming so much smaller. In every church with several Sunday services, one Latin Mass should regularly remain. It will, as experience shows, be well attended. 
5. In teaching style, slogans like "democratizing the Church" or "critical Catholicism" and the like must be rejected because of the errors intermingled within them. The teaching of the Church from the basis of the constitution Lumen gentium must be inculcated. The traditional principles of "subsidiarity" and "solidarity" fully suffice to guarantee the participation of the laity in the accomplishment of its apostolic mission. One should not be afraid to retain the concept "authority" and "obedience" in the vocabulary of the Church.
6. The movement which is tending not toward a correctly understood "aggiornamento" but (as in the 16th century) toward a Church-revolution, is presumably, at least for the moment, organized less than some might suppose or fear. But we may not dismiss the well-founded impression that this revolutionary movement has a core-organization within Catholicism. In this regard it would be wise to examine without narrow-mindedness but also without illusion what function the Catholic student organizations have. And quite likely it would be wise to intervene immediately: better the abolition of the student organizations and a return to the appointment of individual chaplains for the students, as four decades ago, than the spread of the destruction of church communities.
The same goes for the Union of German Catholic Youth and the choice of diocesan and deanery youth-ministers.
7. Finally, one cannot overlook the fact that the media--the radio and television establishment, including the church media--with very few exceptions, are oriented toward the "Left". Their control cannot be wrested from them overnight. However, it is important to implement a well-conceived plan over the long run and above all not to be satisfied with a one-time politically motivated concession from them. Rather, ongoing contact must be maintained between, on the one hand, the publicists and journalists and, on the other, qualified ecclesiastical officials.
8. The demand for "democratizing" church newspapers raised at the Essen Catholic Day should not be complied with, for thereby the last vestige of a press not controlled by the ecclesiastical "Left" would be lost. The only possibility still remaining for Church authorities to inform the faithful would fall outside the sphere of the Church.
In the parallels pointed out above and the sample proposals derived from them, I have taken into consideration that in present-day church developments there are at work strong religious forces not unlike those in the 16th century movement enkindled by Luther. The saying of St. Augustine applies to both of them: "Nulla porro falsa doctrina est, quae non aliqua vera intermisceat." ("There is no false doctrine without some truth intermingled." Quaest. ev. II 40.) I am convinced that the true and the good which has emerged from the new awakening of the Church at the Council and through the Council up to today can only be fruitful if it is separated from error.
The longer the painful operation is put off, the greater will be the danger that valuable sources of strength are going to be lost because they will be amalgamated with error. Then there will occur among us not only a separation from the Church, but a defection from Christianity itself.
The more clearly the bishops speak and the more decisively they act, the greater the chance to maintain the movement of awakening within the Church and thereby to uphold the Church.
16 September 1968
This article was originally published, in a slightly different form, in Homiletic and Pastoral Review, vol. XCII, no. 2 (November 1991): 22-28. [The article was referred to in the December 1992 Fellowship of Catholic Scholars Newsletter, 19-20.]
 After World War II this became Polish territory and today the city is called Wrocław.
 See Augustin Fliche and Victor Martin, Histoire de l'Église depuis les origines jusqu'à nos jours, Vols. I-XXI (Paris: Bloud & Gay, 1934-1952); English tr. A History of the Catholic Church (London-St. Louis, 2nd ed. 1956). This series was originally planned in twenty-six volumes, but never completed. Martin died in 1945 and Fliche in 1951. Between the appearance of the first volume in 1934 and the year of Fliche's death, only twenty volumes were published, of which Fliche personally edited fifteen. In 1952 Roger Aubert published vol. 21, and some years later an Italian team published a vol. 22 which is not available in French or English. Works of this scope are so ambitious as to be nearly impossible in our age of specialization. Nevertheless, as a general church history, Fliche-Martin is considered a classic.
 On this point see Annibale Bugnini, The Reform of the Liturgy 1948-1975 (Collegeville: The Liturgical Press, 1990) pp. 283-284. The somewhat naive view of the Prefect of the S.C.D.W. may well be contrasted with Jedin's historical sense.
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Father Brian Van Hove, S.J., is the Chaplain to the Religious Sisters of Mercy of Alma, Michigan.
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