Wednesday, August 1, 2012

The Question of Vatican II

My venerable predecessor saw this Year as a “consequence and a necessity of the postconciliar period”, fully conscious of the grave difficulties of the time, especially with regard to the profession of the true faith and its correct interpretation… the texts bequeathed by the Council Fathers, in the words of Blessed John Paul II, “have lost nothing of their value or brilliance. They need to be read correctly, to be widely known and taken to heart as important and normative texts of the Magisterium, within the Church's Tradition ... I feel more than ever in duty bound to point to the Council as the great grace bestowed on the Church in the twentieth century: there we find a sure compass by which to take our bearings in the century now beginning.”
I would also like to emphasize strongly what I had occasion to say concerning the Council a few months after my election as Successor of Peter: “if we interpret and implement it guided by a right hermeneutic, it can be and can become increasingly powerful for the ever necessary renewal of the Church.”
Porta Fidei 5

Reflection – Ah, the question of Vatican II! This year of faith begins October 14 on the 50th Anniversary of the opening of the Second Vatican Council. So much ink-and-pixels have been spilt over the meaning, value, prophetic character, problems, misinterpretations, or apocalypticomigodhorror of the Council and its aftermath. I’m not really sure what I have to offer on a subject about which so many have said so much before me.

This in spite of my having been born more or less when the Council was ending and thus having lived my entire life as a Catholic in its shadow.The pre-conciliar church is not a memory for me; it is something I’ve heard of only. In terms of direct lived experience, the church of Vatican II is the only one I’ve known, and so it is difficult for me to assess it. To what shall I compare it?

Growing up when I did, I’ve had a bit of a reaction to the dominant attitude, which tended to present Vatican II as the Greatest Event in Church History™ after the Resurrection (perhaps), besides which the previous 1962 years serve as a dark prologue at best. A steady diet of that through childhood and adolescence, while church attendance plummeted and the remaining average parishioner could no longer name the ten commandments, four evangelists, or three persons of the Trinity, is enough to make Pollyanna a cynic.

Meanwhile, of course, there was the much smaller crowd of people for whom Vatican II was a dark freemasonic plot forged in the bowels of hell to destroy the church from within. The church was doing just fine (fine, I tell you, fine!) until Pope John XXIII bizarrely decided to call a council, and it all went to hell from there…

So having spent much of my life hearing those two positions endlessly reiterated (along with, I grant, several more moderate versions), I like reading what our last two popes have said about Vatican II (btw, sorry to have lost the hyperlinks for the quotes somewhere along the way).

Namely, Vatican II is of great value and import in 20th century Catholicism, and needs to be interpreted properly and within the continuous line of tradition. The post-conciliar era has brought great problems to the Church in terms of knowledge of the faith, but the actual texts of Vatican II (as opposed to the tricksy and ever-changing ‘Spirit of Vatican II™), carefully read and understood in light of our 2000 years of consistent doctrine, themselves provide insight into how to address these problems.

What a nice balanced attitude. Trust the Popes! Gotta hand it to them! So this is the spirit in which we should look upon Vatican II as we approach this year of faith. It might be a good idea this year to dust off the documents and read them again (surely you have a copy of them in your home, right… right?). You know - what do they actually say, as opposed to what everyone thinks they say?

What did Lumen Gentium actually say about the hierarchical structure of the Church? (Hint: not a democracy). What did Sacrosanctum Consilium actually say about the liturgy? (Hint: almost nothing about the use of the vernacular). What did Nostra Aetate say about other religions? (Hint: we are not relativists). It might be good to read these old documents. Just, you know, to know what the Church actually said in them. Just a thought…


  1. The principal gain of this prophetic Council was the hint of a New Spring for the Church, the tiny experience of open windows and fresh air, and the inspired definition of the Church as all of God’s holy people, ruled by the bishops with the pope at their head. We lived in hope with the beautiful picture of this ideal to work towards.
    Almost half a century later the dream has faded. Collegiality remains a dead letter, with Church governance almost a dictatorship. In practice, bishops are appointed by the pope and function throughout the world as his regional deputies. Episcopal synods are merely consultative bodies with no genuine contribution to the health of the church.
    In the early centuries the Church’s acceptance of the vernacular Latin for its liturgy contributed to the spread of the Christian faith, but its continued use of Latin long after it became a dead language blighted the health of the Church until Vatican II when the use of vernacular languages brought new life to our liturgy. Recent decisions by the Vatican are a major set-back for the health of the Church in this area.
    All during the Council meetings the intransigent stance of the Roman Curia was a serious obstacle to progress. Curia reform was promised, but never became a reality. Many bishops feel powerless in their dealings with the Vatican civil service.
    The central weakness of the Church during the post-Conciliar years is the so-called principle that the Second Vatican Council must be interpreted in continuity with the earlier councils of the Church. How is this determined and measured as a hermeneutical principle? Gregory XVI and Pius IX taught that freedom of conscience was sheer madness, whereas Vatican II teaches that it is a basic human right. For centuries the Church taught that it was a mortal sin for women to enter a church or receive the Eucharist during their periods.
    When one goes beyond the so-called ‘deposit of faith’ to the gospel itself, it is helpful to remember that God’s word is a living word that becomes incarnate in every culture and is alive and new each day. It is not only gift, but challenge. It is alive in itself, but Christians are called to make it come alive in their own culture. This means that while the same Christian faith can be found in all areas of the world, there is room and need for a variety of theologies to express and explain it. All of these theologies will be culturally and historically conditioned. The Church is enriched by the presence of Indian, Asian and African theologies, black theology, feminist theology and liberation theology. The movement from classical to historical consciousness means recognising that our personal identity is conditioned by our culture and history, and learning to read the ‘signs of the times’ and discover seeds of the gospel in that culture. The gospel is not a frozen package handed down from the past, but a living word that comes alive in each new culture, and a saving word that takes flesh in the complexity and messiness of everyday human life. Our statements of faith and our discernment in morals must reflect this reality, and that will be the measure of their truth. There is no need to criticise the past in the light of recent developments. Former teaching may have been appropriate in its time and place, but uncritical repetition of it is a disservice to the gospel.

    1. So... you seem to be saying that, in fact, the 'spirit of Vatican II' is actually more authoritative than the actual documents. Who defines the spirit? Why is the history of the council discussions more important than the drafted and voted-on texts? Who got to decide that one 'party' of the discussion were the ones listening to the Spirit, and the others obstructing it? You? On what authority?
      The development of doctrine is a well-established principle in Christian theology - Newman is the place to start if you are unfamiliar with it, and the hermeneutics of continuity is the only coherent way to understand that development, unless God is actually changing his mind or has so thoroughly hidden his truth from us (to what end?) that we can well contradict ourselves from century to century.
      That being said, as I said in a recent com-box dispute, I realize I have not studied the history of the rleigous freedom question, and so cannot discuss it intellgently. It's on my (very long) to-do list!
      Peace to you.


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