January 2012 Print

BOOK REVIEW: The Rhine Flows into the Tiber

by Ralph Wiltgen

When it comes to Vatican II, we need not indulge in the mystifying ‘spirit’ of the Council, nor even thumb through Sheed’s Is It the Same Church? To get the record straight there is nothing like the good old Rhine. A professional historian, journalist and eye-witness, Fr. Ralph M. Wiltgen presents the modern reader with a history of that council which is at once factual, authoritative, impartial, thorough, and totally interesting.

The Rhine describes how each of the 16 conciliar documents was painstakingly hammered out. And it brings to light how the Council’s activity was guided constantly by groups rather than by individuals. Yet key individuals were quite pivotal for writing the history of Vatican II. Cardinal Liénart, not five minutes into the first general meeting, asked to give more time to select the candidates for commissions of study, which led to a striking victory of the liberal alliance in re-directing the Council’s course.

Partisan spirit was gaining ground as things went on and it appeared as if St. Peter’s Basilica was turning into an immense pressure cooker. No one knew what stew would result from it except that things would never be the same after. After several altercations and speeches on a given topic, Cardinal Ottaviani rose to speak in the defense of old-time magisterium, but being blind and speaking extempore, he did not realize he had gone overtime, and the Cardinal Moderator lastly silenced his microphone. It took the old man some time before he realized it. The most powerful Cardinal of the Curia had been publicly humiliated under the applause of the greater part of the aula!

Wiltgen’s title suggests the prevailing of the group from the Rhine River countries. Said Yves Congar: “In short, the Rhine was in reality that broad current of vigorous Catholic theology and pastoral science which had got under way in the early 1950s.” What Congar celebrated indeed was what had been condemned only 15 years earlier by Humani Generis of Pius XII as the “new theology,” headed by French and German avant-garde crypto-modernists like Congar.

Those who revel in conspiracy and mystery novels will enjoy reading this 271p. volume which has the breadth of an open landscape and the sharpness of the finest details on persons and events. One feels like entering the maze of in-depth theological themes but having a sense of direction as such doctrines are incarnated in historical and personal lives. One comes across totally extravagant personages, subtle periti and full-fledged groups in battle alignment of conservatives vs. liberals, each vowing to die rather than surrender.

These pages were written by an outsider, simply gleaning information to feed his Council News Service, who could truly say: “What I saw and what I heard, and the facts that I ferreted out, I now pass on to you.” In light of the recent controversy around the papal hermeneutic—interpretation—of continuity between Vatican II and the previous Church magisterium, it is always good to return to a classic to get the right picture.

Father Dominique Bourmaud, SSPX