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Theological Notebook: Vatican II Historiographies in Conflict-Part Two

Part Two of the Vatican II Historiography post.

VATICAN II: DID ANYTHING HAPPEN?

Delivered by John W. O’Malley, S.J., Distinguished Professor of Church History,
Weston Jesuit School of Theology, Cambridge, MA


Roland Bainton Lecture
September 26, 2005
Yale Divinity School
New Haven, CT

Gathering Points Lecture Series: "Tracking the Spirit in Troubled Times"
September 28, 2005
Marquette University Weasler Auditorium
Milwaukee, WI

On June 17 of this year in the Pietro da Cortona room of the Capitoline Museums in
Rome, Cardinal Camillo Ruini, the pope’s vicar for the diocese of Rome and president of the
Italian Bishops’ Conference, made a public presentation of a new book written by Archbishop
Agostino Marchetto and published by the Vatican Press. The title: Il Concilio Ecumenico
Vaticano II: Contrappunto per la sua storia
(The Ecumenical Council Vatican II: A Counterpoint
for its History
). Such “presentations” for new publications are not unusual in Italy, but this one
was special because of the official and, indeed, eminent status of the presenter, because of the
elegant, public, and civic venue of the presentation, because of its attack on other scholars, and
because of the coverage the presentation therefore received even in the secular press.

Ruini welcomed the new book because according to him it acts as a counterpoint, indeed
as the polar opposite of the interpretation of Vatican II that until now has monopolized the
historiography of the council. He sees Marchetto as moving us along the road to a “correct”
understanding of the council. But Ruini, in line with Marchetto, did not let the matter rest there.
He singled out “the school of Bologna,” whose capo is Professor Giuseppe Alberigo, as the
principal and most influential creator of the incorrect understanding.

More specifically he attacked the magnum opus of the Bologna-based Institute for
Religious Sciences: the recently completed, multi-authored five-volume history of the council
edited by Alberigo and published almost simultaneously in six languages–Italian, French,
German, Spanish, Portuguese, and English. (The fifth volume of the English edition, under the
able editorship of Joseph Komochak of The Catholic University of America, is about to appear,
Orbis) Ruini, like Marchetto, compared the Alberigo volumes to the history of the Council of
Trent written by Paolo Sarpi, which was published in London in 1619 and immediately placed on
the Index of Forbidden Books. Sarpi’s thesis, baldly put: Trent was a papal conspiracy to
prevent the reform of the church. A more damning comparison could hardly be imagined.

Marchetto’s book is for the most part a collection of previously published articles on the
council, many of which are protracted book reviews especially of publications from Bologna, but
also from other academic centers like Louvain/Leuven that share Alberigo’s approach. What’s
wrong with that approach? Many things, principal among which are: an anti-curial bias,
comparisons of Pope Paul VI unfavorably with John XXIII, emphasis on the so-called novelty of
the council and its differences from previous councils, an underlying “reformist” ideology, and,
finally, diminishing the importance of the official final documents of the council in favor of the
council as “event.”

These criticisms are all interrelated, but the sticking point is the last, for by describing
the council as “event” Alberigo has borrowed a term and idea from secular social scientists that
means a rupture, a change from received norms and ways, a “before” and an “after.” The
documents of the council do nothing, according to Ruini and Marchetto, but insist on their
continuity with the Catholic tradition. Alberigo presents the council as a “new beginning” in the
history of the church, which Ruini dismisses as “theologically inadmissible.” Ruini goes on to
say: “The interpretation of the council as a rupture and a new beginning is coming to an end.
This interpretation is very feeble today and has no real foothold in the body of the church. It is
time for historiography to produce a new reconstruction of Vatican II that will also be, finally, a
true story.” What is needed, according to Ruini and Marchetto, is a new hermeneutic that will
reveal the true nature of the council.

The Ruini-Marchetto incident is not an isolated phenomenon in Rome. For at least the
past decade publications following the same general line have been forthcoming especially from
the Vatican Press and the Lateran University. They frequently quote a passage from an address
Pope John Paul II gave on the occasion of the conference held in the Vatican in 2000 on “The
Implementation of Vatican II.” The Pope’s words were: “The church has always known the
rules for a correct interpretation of the contents of dogma. These rules are woven into the fabric
of faith and not outside it. To read the council supposing that it marked a break with the past,
while in fact it placed itself in the line of the faith of all times, is decidedly unacceptable.”
[Marchetto, 380].

Thus with Ruini, Marchetto, and others an interpretation of the council has emerged that
is based on one fundamental assumption: the council was in all important regards continuous
with the Catholic past. In fact, that assumption seems to be already well along the road to
achieving official and prescriptive status. In 1985, for instance, the Synod of Bishops meeting in
the Vatican on the occasion of the twentieth anniversary of the closing of the council laid down
six norm for its interpretation. When I examine the norms from the perspective of a professional
historian, I have to say that they strike me as resoundingly sound. Number five is particularly
pertinent for this evening’s discussion: “The council must be interpreted in continuity with the
great tradition of the church, including other councils.”

Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger in the very year of the synod, in which he played a major role,
gave a long interview published in English under the title of The Ratzinger Report. In it he
said: “This schematization of a before and after in the history of the church, wholly
unjustified by the documents of Vatican II, which do nothing but affirm the continuity of Catholicism,
must be decidedly opposed. There is no “pre-“ or “post-“ conciliar church.... There are no leaps in this
history, no fractures, and there is no break in continuity. In no wise did the council intend to
introduce a temporal dichotomy in the church.” [p.35] A rumor is currently circulating that this
December, the fortieth anniversary of the closing of the council, Pope Benedict XVI will issue
his first encyclical, which will deal with the council and its interpretation. The rumor may or
may not be true, but it has a certain plausibility.

At the moment, in any case, the “Bologna school” and especially Alberigo are being
singled out as the great propagators of a history of the council that badly distorts it and that must
be opposed. I have studied four of the five Alberigo volumes, and I’ve been working my way
through the proofs of the fifth. In reading Marchetto, for instance, I sometimes wonder if he and
I are dealing with the same Alberigo. For my part, I have the highest esteem for the Alberigo
history and in print have compared it not to Sarpi but to the authoritative history of Trent
published in the last century by Hubert Jedin.

This is of course not to say that the work is perfect. It has, for instance, all the merits
and demerits of a collaborative history in which subjects have been parceled out to different
authors. Underneath the impressive scholarship, I detect a tendency to diagnose the ills of the
church and to prescribe remedies, thus giving grounds to the critics who say it’s not “objective.”
At rare moments I have felt that I was reading an updated, more sophisticated, and more solidly
based version of Xavier Rynne’s “Letters from Rome” that appeared in The New Yorker while
the council was in session and that practically everybody of my generation accepted as telling it
the way it was, good guys against bad guys—with the good guys finally winning. It is written,
that is to say, with a certain perspective. Nonetheless, I was generally impressed that the authors
were doing their best to be fair to the so-called conservatives or minority and especially to be fair
to Pope Paul VI.

Most important, however; I do not see Alberigo and others who have used “event” as an
instrument to interpret the council give it the radical, radical meaning that their critics attribute to
them. In my opinion the quotation from John Paul II cannot be applied to the “Bologna school”–
nor for that matter to any other responsible scholarship I have seen on the council. Nowhere in
the Alberigo volumes is there the slightest suggestion that the “new beginning” meant in any
way a rupture in the faith of the church or a dismissal of any dogma. “New beginning” in any
case seems like a weak description compared with “new Pentecost,” which is how on December
8, 1962, Pope John XXIII described what he hoped for from the council.

Whatever the merits and demerits of the two sides, this controversy puts before us in a
new, clear and dramatic way a problem that has dogged Vatican II all along, its interpretation.
That is certainly not a problem peculiar to the council, but for various reasons it is particularly
acute for it. For one thing, Ruini, Marchetto, and Ratzinger are absolutely correct when they
insist that the documents of the council do nothing but insist on the continuity of the council with
the tradition of the church. There is hardly a hint in them that any change was being made in
procedures, discipline, teaching, or ecclesiastical style.

Yet, in the years immediately following the council, we often heard that the council was
‘the end of the Counter Reformation” or even “the end of the Constantinian” era or, indeed, a
“new Pentecost.” We heard and read a great deal about “the spirit of the council,” which seemed
to imply a reality that to some extent transcended the letter of its documents and carried with it
an implication of, well, a “new beginning” in lots of areas. The inadequacy of the term “spirit of
the council” gradually emerged as it became clear that your “spirit of the council” was not my
“spirit of the council,” but many of us still cannot shake the feeling that the expression got hold
of something that was both real and important.

What is missing in the norms provided by the Synod of 1985 is one that would read
somewhat as follows: “While always keeping in mind the fundamental continuity in the great
tradition of the church, interpreters must also take due account of how the council is
discontinuous with previous practices, teachings, and traditions, indeed, discontinuous with
previous councils” Without such a norm, the emphasis is exclusively on continuity. To thus
insist is to blind oneself to change. And if there is no change, nothing happened.

In other words, such continuity takes the church out of history and puts it out of touch
with reality as we know it. In Catholicism this emphasis is not new. It found its first resounding
expression in the decrees of the Council of Trent, which insisted it was teaching and prescribing
nothing that was not in continuity with the apostolic tradition. Later in the sixteenth century it
took off with Cesare Baronio’s Ecclesiastical Annales, written to counter the Lutheran
Magdeburg Centuries, and, as the present controversy makes clear, it has never quite lost its
hold. A distinguished German Protestant historian, Gottfried Maron, just a few decades ago
went so far as to criticize Hubert Jedin’s treatment of the era of Trent for employing what Maron
called “this typical Catholic ploy.” Yet, historians of Trent and of the so-called Counter
Reformation have done little else but tell us how Catholicism changed in the sixteenth century, to
a great extent as a result of the council. Something happened. Why else would we speak of the
Tridentine era?

Well, did anything happen at Vatican II? Or, better, did anything happen of any profound
significance for Catholicism? Or, better still, did the council as an historical happening and even
in the internal logic of its documents try to actualize anything of significance for Catholicism?
That is what is at stake here. Where do I stand? You will not be surprised to learn that I give an
affirmative answer especially to the last formulation of the question, and this evening I will try in
the relatively brief time at my disposal to tell you why. I will do so by indicating some of the
extraordinary ways the council was discontinuous with the twenty councils that preceded it that
the Roman Catholic church recognizes as “ecumenical.”

But I must begin with a big qualification. As a practicing historian I have come to realize
that in any social entity the continuities run deeper and tend to be stronger than the
discontinuities. The Annales school has taught us well the overriding important of “la longue
durée.” After the American Revolution the citizens of the new nation continued to eat the same
kind of food, read the same kind of books, think pretty much the same kind of thoughts, found
their nation on principles largely derived from their English experience, and even continue to
speak the same language–English, of all things! Much the same can be said analogously of the
French after the bloody trauma of the French Revolution.

Not only in fact but in theory this principle of continuity has to obtain in the church and
obtain in an even more profound way. The mission is to preach the word that was received from
the mouth of Christ and the Apostles. If that continuity is not maintained, forget it! I cannot
imagine any theologian, any historian, any believer disagreeing with that principle. All that
having been said, change happens, even in the church. I certainly do not need to labor the point.

In what ways and to what degree was the council discontinuous with its predecessors and
what is the import of that discontinuity? Those are our questions. At the outset we need to
remind ourselves that the principal, almost the only, feature common to all the councils from
Nicea to Vatican II is that they have been assemblies principally of bishops that have made
authoritative decisions binding on the whole church. Other than that they differ considerably
among themselves. They fall into two clearly distinct groups. The first eight were all held in the
East, had Greek as their official language, were convoked by the emperor or empress, no pope
attended any of them. The remaining thirteen were all held in Italy, France, or Switzerland,
conducted in Latin, and were, in one way or another, convoked by the pope. Except for the
Council of Florence, no really significant participation in them by members of the Greekspeaking
church. Although bishops have for the most part been the determining influence, others
have at time played roles equally or more important, as with King Philip IV of France at Vienne
or even Emperor Charles V at Trent—to say nothing of Constantine at Nicea. Although some
four hundred bishops attended Lateran Council IV in 1215, they were greatly outnumbered by
the 800 abbots who attended.

I could go on, but I hope I have made the point that there is no reason to be surprised if
Vatican II has distinctive features. What I will try to show, however, is how profoundly
significant those features are when taken in the aggregate–so significant, in fact, as to require, as
Ruini has postulated, a new hermeneutic. But it is a hermeneutic that takes serious account of
the discontinuity, thus putting the council’s continuity in perspective.

The most obvious of these special characteristics is of course its massive proportions and
its remarkable international breadth. I describe it as the biggest meeting in the history of the
world, not in the sense that it attracted the hundreds of thousands that events like the
international Olympics do. It was biggest only if we take into account all the factors that are
integral to it, which begin with its length that must include the two years of intense preparation
as well as the four years it was in session. This may not seem long compared with Trent, which
stretched over seventeen years. But for Trent the numbers are badly deceptive because of the
long intervals between the three periods in which the council was actually in session.

Trent, like most councils, met without previous preparation, yet Vatican II was prepared
for on such a massive scale that the two and half years that elapsed between the announcement
and the opening must be counted as part of it. The consultation with bishops and others before
the council filled eleven folio volumes, well over seven thousand pages. When this material was
reworked by the preparatory commissions it amounted to another seven volumes and another
five thousand pages. These figures are dwarfed by the thirty-five volumes of the acta of the
council itself, which brings the grand total to fifty-three volumes. The acta of Trent, the largest
for any other council, consists of seventeen volumes. Vatican II issued sixteen final documents.
In terms of sheer pagination these sixteen are almost twice the length of the decrees of Trent,
and Trent and Vatican II together equal in volume the decrees of all the other nineteen councils
taken together. Doesn’t that strike you as a long-winded way of saying, “No news, boss.”

The sheer quantity of the official documentation reflects the immense dimensions of
almost every other aspect of the council. On July 15, 1962, the Vatican Secretariate of State
send out 2,856 invitations to persons with a right to participate fully in the deliberations of the
council. All but a few hundred, impeded by ill health or the refusal of their governments to let
them attend, showed up for the council. In contrast, about 750 bishops were present for Vatican
I. The council of Trent, the least well attended of all the councils, opened with just twenty-nine
bishops or prelates and five superiors general of religious orders. Even later, at its best-attended
sessions, the number of voting members at Trent barely exceeded 200.

The bishops who actually attended Vatican II came from 116 different countries, whereas
forty percent of the bishops at Vatican I were from Italy. Many brought with them a secretary or
a theologian–or both. This added up to about 7,500 persons present in Rome as direct or indirect
participants. To this number must be added others who came to Rome because of official or
semi-official business related to the council, which of course included about a hundred
“observers” from other churches, as well as representatives of the media. By the day the council
opened on October 11, 1962, the Vatican had distributed about a thousand press cards to
journalists Probably close to 10,000 people were present in Rome at any given time during the
council because they had some kind of business relating to it.

The meetings were held in the central nave of St. Peter’s basilica. Despite the huge
proportions of that space (2,500 square meters) it was barely sufficient to hold all those with
credential to enter. The nave was outfitted to provide 2,905 spaces, which included 200 for
theological experts (the famous periti), and 130 for observers. In order to assure that everyone
present with a right to speak could do so handily and audibly, thirty-seven microphones were
installed in the basilica according to a plan that placed them so that no speaker would have to
walk more than twenty yards to find one. Douglas Horton, one of the Protestant observers, noted
in his diary for October 23, 1962, “For the council the great pile of St Peter’s is skillfully wired
for sound so that with microphones in strategic places even a whispered note can be heard in the
remotest part.” Every effort was made, therefore, to guarantee full participation.

I could go on. But perhaps I’ve said enough to indicate that it would be a terrible shame,
and surprising, if this unprecedented expenditure of time, effort, money (which I have not even
mentioned) eventuated in nothing. If it eventuated in “business as usual.” Yet there are still two
more features about the participants in Vatican II that deserve mention. The first is not only the
presence but the highly influential role of some Roman Catholic theologians who even as the
council opened were under a ban of silence imposed on them by the Vatican’s Holy Office and
whose views had in one way or another been condemned. As the council got under way, these
theologians not only had the ban on them implicitly lifted but went on to be among the principal
architects of the council’s decrees. I am speaking of course of theologians like Yves Congar,
Henri de Lubac, Karl Rahner, and the American John Courtney Murray. This feature of the
council, too, was not only unprecedented but surely suggests that something was happening at
the council that was–or wanted to be--a change in the status quo.

The second is the presence of the observers, that is, the presence as honored guests of
persons who did not share many of the basic principles out of which the Catholic Church
operated and were invited to make their differences known, which we know happened outside
the formal sessions of the council. Unprecedented. The presence of the observers stimulated a
more searching scrutiny of the deliberations and decisions of the council, but it was also
important for nudging the council to consider issues of concern to others besides Roman
Catholics–or, maybe better, besides Roman Catholic prelates.

The interest in the council of the communications media was aggressive. This, too,
helped the nudging process. Until the council of Trent the deliberations of the council were
almost the private concern of those who participated in them. How many people knew–or cared–
what happened for instance at Lateran III? True, the Council of Constance that resolved the
Great Western Schism directly affected some segments of the population, but it was the
invention of the printing press later in the century that ushered in a new situation. Trent and
especially Vatican I had to contend with a more general and rapid dissemination of information
and propaganda, much of it unfavorable, but that dissemination of information and the interest in
the deliberations were still confined to a small percentage of the population even in the West.

By the time of Vatican II, however, radio and television could transmit news around the
world at the very moment any newsworthy event happened. The mere spectacle of Vatican II
made it newsworthy, apart from anything else. The extraordinary popularity of Pope John
XXIII among both Catholics and non-Catholics excited interest in “Pope John’s council.” Once
the council got under way what particularly captivated the attention of the media and the public
they served was the ill-kept secret of the sometimes acrid debates and confrontations in the
council and the emerging possibility of changes in posture and practice that just a short while
before had seemed set in stone. The Catholic Church had presented itself internally and to the
world at large as the church that did not change. It took great care to show a united front on all
issues and to deal swiftly with any phenomena within the church that might seem to suggest
otherwise. Yet the debates and disagreements in the council, despite efforts to hide or disguise
them, were manifest and entered the public forum. They shocked some, gave delight to others,
and rendered patent to all that Catholicism was not the monolith they thought they knew.

The actions of the council thus came to be discussed and debated in the media, and
newspapers The New York Times, the Washington Post, and their correlates in
other countries gave them consistent and generally sympathetic coverage. There is no doubt that the
attempt to satisfy some of the expectations, objections, and problems raised by the media affected the
direction of the council, and it did so for the most part in favor of those what came to be known
as the progressive wing. Even before the council opened Hans Küng, a young Swiss theologian,
published The Council, Reform and Reunion, original German edition 1960, English 1961.
The book was the most influential among the publications on the eve of the council that tried to move
people’s imagination into larger issues the council might address and open possibilities beyond a
mere tinkering with the status-quo, which the suggestions the bishops submitted for the agenda
betray is all the vast, vast majority of them had in mind.

The new ease of communication meant that after the council was over its decisions could
be implemented with a speed and directness no previous council could come close to mustering,
even if it had wanted to. In fact, with only a very few exceptions the decisions of previous
councils had no immediate relevance for the life of the faithful or at least did not entail a
wrenching change in received patterns. As it turned out, some decisions of Vatican II made a
dramatic impact on the life of ordinary believers. When such believers entered their churches
for mass a year or so after the council, for instance, they experienced something so different from
what they had experienced all their lives up to that Sunday that they would have had to be deaf,
dumb, and blind not to notice it.

The decisions of previous councils were directed almost exclusively to the clergy. The
opposite was true for Vatican II, which addressed Catholics of every status and in the final
document on “The Church in the Modern World” addressed “all humanity,” all persons of good
will–Christians and non-Christians, believers and non-believers. Vatican II thus took greater
account of the world around it than any previous council and assumed as one of its principal
tasks dialogue or conversation with that world. This is a breathtaking change in scope from that
of every previous council.

Whence the impulse that allowed that such change was legitimate and good? The
mentality with which many of the most influential bishops and theologians approached their task
was more historical than in any previous council. This mentality, the result of the great impetus
to historical studies that began in the nineteenth century and never abated, had in certain Catholic
circles deeply affected the study of every aspect of Church life and doctrine. The leading voices
at the council were thus much aware of the changes that had taken place in the long history of the
church and willing to draw consequences from them. This keener sense of history permitted
greater freedom in judging that some practices, traditions, or doctrinal formulations might simply
be anachronistic or currently inappropriate or even harmful and therefore should be modified or
eliminated.

This persuasion found expression in two words that capture the justification or motivation
that lay behind the council’s actions—the Italian aggiornamento and the French
ressourcement. Although they express almost diametrically opposed impulses—the first
looking forward the second backward--, they both are geared to change. Aggiornamento
means updating or, more boldly, modernizing. It was first applied to the council by John XXIII
and was soon taken up by the progressive wing. Changes needed to be made in the church to make
it more viable in the “new era” the council assumed was dawning. On one level this was nothing
new. The Fourth Lateran Council legitimated changes if they were done out of urgens
necessitas vel evidens utilitas
.

But two things were special about the aggiornamento of Vatican. First, the changes done
in the name of aggiornamento were sometimes obvious reversals of what had broadly been
considered normative. Second, no previous council ever took the equivalent of aggiornamento
a leit-motif, with its implication that the church should change in certain regards to meet the times
rather than the times change to meet the church. Let me repeat: the bishops at the council had no
intention of rupturing the fundamental continuity of the Catholic tradition—nor, in my opinion,
did they. Nonetheless, they in strikingly broad fashion applied the aggiornameno canon to
what they were doing. In the opening oration at the Fifth Lateran Council, 1512, Egidio da Viterbo
expressed the mind-set that prevailed in councils up to Vatican II: we are to be changed by
religion, he insisted, not religion by us. All the bishops at Vatican II would subscribe to that
principle, but they would interpret it in an unprecedentedly broad way.

Ressourcement means return to the sources. It means return to the sources with a view to
making changes to conform to a more authentic or more appropriate past. It has avant la lettre
a truly venerable history that has found explicit and important articulation in the history of the
Western church beginning with the Gregorian Reform of the eleventh century when a series of
reforming popes launched a vigorous campaign of change in the name of restoring a more
ancient canonical tradition. As the dust began to settle after bitter and bloody battles that
campaign sparked, the principle undergirded much of the important legislation of Lateran
councils I and II regarding especially the appointment of bishops and clerical celibacy.

It was in its Latin form the motto of the great humanist movement of the Renaissance—
ad fontes. “Ad fontes”—a call for return to the good literature of antiquity. This
included not only Demosthenes and Cicero but the Bible and the Fathers of the Church as well.
It was what drove Petrarch and Erasmus. Recourse to the sources is also what drove the Protestant
Reformers, as they sought to restore the authentic Gospel obscured and perverted by the papal
church. On the even of Vatican II it drove much of the theological ferment in France and
elsewhere that caused grave concern in Rome and elicited silencings and condemnations.

Ad fontes and ressourcement—those catchwords are about discontinuity. They say that
we must leap over something in the present to something better or more authentic in the past.
That idea undergirds a great deal of what happened at Vatican II, as for instance the reform of
the liturgy and the drive to restore the Bible to the center of Catholic piety and preaching, but
most especially and most profoundly in the literary form in which the decrees of the council were
framed.

What did Vatican II change, or how was it discontinuous? That question is usually
answered by describing the before and after of the key decrees. The decree on ecumenism was
discontinuous not only with the polemics of the Counter Reformation but more pointedly with
the encyclical “Mortalium animos” of Pius XI, 1930, condemning the ecumenical movement. It
was discontinuous with the mind-set that forbade a nun in a Catholic hospital to summon a
Protestant minister for a dying person. The decree on the Word of God was discontinuous with
the tradition that since the sixteenth century had made the Bible practically a forbidden book for
Catholics. The decree on the church was strikingly discontinuous with the description of the
church as essentially a monarchy, a description that on the eve of Vatican II was insisted upon in
every Catholic textbook----yet the word never once occurs in the documents of .the council. The
decree on religious liberty was discontinuous not only with the long “Constantinian” era but
particularly with the frequent condemnations of separation of church and state by the popes of
the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. It was similarly discontinuous with their condemnations
of freedom of the press and freedom of speech.. If those popes repeatedly denounced all that
liberty, equality, and fraternity implied, Vatican II embraced it.

I could go on. But you are familiar with these and similar changes. In my opinion they
are more than important. They tell us something about the “spirit of Vatican II.”. But this
afternoon I want to dwell on another way Vatican II is a council of discontinuity. It is a way
intimately related to ressourcement, and it is a way, moreover, that, despite my unflagging
efforts, continues to receive little attention from historians and theologians. Yet I consider it the
most profoundly significant aspect of the council—a key to getting at that elusive “spirit of the
council” and a key to an appropriate hermeneutic. It entails shifting our focus—may I say our
obsession—with content and directing it to form, from what the council said to how it said it. It
entails taking into account the most obvious feature of the sixteen final documents of the council
and drawing conclusions from it.

What is that feature? Their length. Why are they so long? Because, as was insisted upon
in the council, they are “pastoral.” That is all well and good, but it does not get us very far. The
fact is that this so-called pastoral form is an expression of a literary genre new for councils. For
this audience, I trust, I do not have to insist that fact has to be crucially important in
understanding what’s going on in the council. Form and content–verba et res--cannot be
separated. There is no understanding of a poem without taking into account that it is a poem. In
our case the form or genre results in a council different from every one that preceded it. The
council adopted a new style of discourse and in so doing redefined what a council is and
proposed a striking model of how the church was to behave.

Through the centuries councils have made use of a range of literary genres. Beginning
with Nicea, however, practically all those genres evince characteristics derived from the
legislative-judicial traditions of discourse developed in the Roman Empire. These genres in
large measure were or closely resembled laws or judicial sentences. It is not far off the mark to
postulate that the implicit model for the early synods and councils of the church was the Roman
Senate. Although that body had lost much of its authority by the time Constantine assumed a
leadership role in the church, it continued to legislate both in Rome and in its counterpart in
Constantinople, where Constantine presided over it.

When Constantine convoked the Council of Nicea, he held it there in his palace. He
acted as a kind of honorary president of the assembly and intervened from time to time, it seems,
in the deliberations. A pattern was set. While assuring correct belief in the church and
appropriate behavior especially of the clergy were of course the fundamental concerns of the
councils, these aims were not and could not be separated from the securing of proper order in
society at large. Law and order.

The fundamental assumption governing councils from their very inception, therefore, was
that they were legislative bodies that issued ordinances regarding doctrinal formulation and
public behavior–fides et mores. To these ordinances were often attached penalties for those who
failed to obey them. The very first canon of Nicea imposed suspension on any cleric who
castrated himself. The first canon of the next council, First Constantinople, anathematized all
heresies (a long list of them followed!)

Among the literary forms councils used through the centuries were confessions of faith,
historical narratives, bulls and letters, judicial sentences against ecclesiastical criminals,
constitutions, various kinds of “decrees.” The principal form employed by Nicea and by many
subsequent councils, however, was the canon, usually a relatively short ordinance that entailed
punishment for failure to comply. It is a form that clearly manifests the assumption that a
council is a legislative-judicial body. The Council of Trent issued no less than 130 canons for
its doctrinal decrees alone, and equivalently did almost the same for its disciplinary decrees,
which make up about half of the Tridentine corpus. All the canons employ the same formula: “If
anyone should............., let him be anathema.”

We need to note that even dogmatic canons do not strike directly at what a person might
believe or think or feel, but at what they “say” or “deny,” thus at some observable behavior. As
such they are not concerned with interiority. Like any good law, canons and their equivalents
were formulated to be as unambiguous as possible. They draw clear lines. They speak a
language that tries unmistakable to distinguish “who’s in” and “who’s out,” which often entails
not only meting out punishment for the latter but even considering them enemies.

The language of the councils, of which the canon was emblematic, was sometimes
vehement in its depiction of those who presumably were subverting the good of the church,
whether by bad belief or bad behavior. The language is agonistic, of battle against a foe. Pope
Julius II’s decree in the Fifth Lateran council, 1512, against the cardinals who had attempted to
depose him minced no words: “We condemn, reject and detest, with the approval of this same
council, each and every thing done by those sons of perdition.”

Allowances must of course be made for many differences, but the point I am trying to
make is that the councils from Nicea to Vatican I had a style of discourse. The style was
composed of two basic elements. The first was a literary genre—the canon or its equivalent.
The second element was the vocabulary typical of the genre and appropriate to it. This
vocabulary consisted for the most part in words of threat and intimidation, words implying a
superior speaking to inferiors, or, just as often to an enemy.

All this sounds grim. It might sound devoid of even the slightest concern for the spirit, a
good case of the letter killing. I think we might need to employ here some hermeneutic of
compassion and realize, for instance, that sometimes surveillance and punishment is the only
way to go if we want to change behavior....and that changing behavior can sometimes result in a
change of heart. These enactments deal with the exterior, but, in so far, as they are inspired by
Christian principles, they must be presumed not to be entirely devoid of relationship to inner
conversion.

Be that as it may, this style of discourse expressed and promoted procedures in accord
with a certain style of being. That meant it expressed and promoted a certain style of how the
church itself behaves. The decrees of Trent illustrate the point. Despite the achievements of
the council, inconceivable without the “language-game” the council adopted, in the long run the
decrees reinforced “social disciplining” as an ecclesiastical style and promoted an image of the
church as a stern, exigent, and suspicious parent. The language projected the image, and the
image promoted the reality and helped it self-fulfill. “Believe thus......or else.” “Behave
thus.....or else.”

In the nineteenth century that reality expressed itself with increased insistence and
prominence at the highest level in the style of papal pronouncements, such as Gregory XVI’s
“Mirari vos,” 1832, Pius IX’s “Syllabus of Errors,” 1864, and in the early twentieth century Pius
X’s “Lamentabili” and “Pascendi,” 1907. The language of these documents is the language of
adversarial relationships. “We would have drowned<“ said Gregory in “Mirari vos,” “as a result
of the terrible conspiracy of impious men, ...so that we had to restrain their great obstinacy with
the rod.” “Depravity exults, science is impudent, liberty dissolute. The holiness of the sacred is
despised....and errors of all kinds spread boldly.” The errors Gregory especially meant were
freedom of the press, liberty of conscience, separation of church and state, and, not least,
rebellion against monarchs.

When Vatican II opened that style was still normative, at least for certain kinds of
ecclesiastical statements. As is well known, the first serious clash at the council between the
progressives and conservatives in mid-November, 1962, over the document on Scripture, which
included criticism of the document’s style. Besides other traits of the legislative-judicial style,
the document contained expressions like “Let no one dare say....” And “The church utterly
condemns....” At that very early point in the council, Cardinal Ottaviani, head of the Holy Office
of the Inquisition and chief architect of the document, felt compelled to defend its style. He
insisted that that style was “the style that has been sanctioned by the practice of the ages.”

During the first period of the council the progressives continued to insist on a “pastoral”
style and the conservatives just a vehemently to oppose it. This was, therefore, an explicit and
important issue in the council, and the new style did not slip into it unnoticed. By the second
period, 1963, the conservatives had been forced to throw in the towel on this issue, but not
without still nagging criticism. I suspect that neither side saw the full implications of the change.

The dominant literary genre of the documents of Vatican II is the panegyric, that is, the
painting of an idealized portrait in order to excite admiration and appropriation. This is an old
genre in religious discourse, used extensively by the Fathers of the Church in their homilies and
other writings. It came not from the legal tradition of classical antiquity but from the humanistic
or literary.

How did the council come to adopt this form? I do not know, but much of the
ressourcement in France before the council was directed to the Fathers, whose style and
approach were seen as an antidote to the sterile dead-end the scholars of the ressourcement
considered the dominant neo-scholastic tradition to be. The model was at hand, therefore. The
first document to come to the floor of the council that began to use this style was the revised
version of the document on the church, Lumen gentium. It can hardly be a coincidence that the
chapter titles of Henri de Lubac’s Meditation sur l’église, 19xx, correlates rather remarkably
with those into which Lumen gentium was divided. That Meditation was written in a style
strongly reminiscent of the poetical-rhetorical style of the Fathers.

No matter how little or how much de Lubac’s book influenced the development of
Lumen gentium, in that document the council raised up before our eyes the church, Christ, God,
and the dignity of our human nature to excite us to wonder and admiration. It engaged in a
rhetoric of praise and congratulation. It engaged in panegyric, in the ars laudandi, a rhetorical
genre well known and widely practiced in antiquity, whose technical name is epideictic or
demonstrative rhetoric.

The purpose of the genre is to heighten appreciation for a person, an event, an institution,
and to excite to emulation of an ideal. If most Fourth-of-July speeches are secular examples of
the genre at its worst, Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address is an example of it at its best. Lincoln tried
simply to raise appreciation for what was at stake and, at least by implication, to praise it as
noble and worthy of the great cost. He wanted to touch the affect of his audience by holding up
ideals whose attractiveness would motivate them to strive to achieve them. He employed a
rhetoric of invitation.

The documents of Vatican II fit into this mold. That is their “style.” They hold up ideals,
and then often draw conclusions from them and spell out consequences, as with the decree on
bishops in which the bishops’ responsibilities are laid out clearly. The responsibilities are laid
out, however, not as a code of conduct to be enforced but as ideal to be striven for, with the
understanding they are to be adapted to times and circumstances.

The epideictic genre is a form of the art of persuasion, and thus of reconciliation. While
it raises appreciation it creates or fosters among those it addresses a realization that they all share
(or should share) the same ideals and need to work together to achieve them. This genre reminds
people of what they have in common rather than what might divide them, and the reminder
motivates them to cooperate in enterprises more important than what they perceive as differences
among them.

To engage in persuasion is to some extent to put oneself on the same level as those being
persuaded. Persuaders do not command from on high. Otherwise they would not be persuading
but coercion. Persuasion works from the inside out. In order to persuade, persuaders need to
establish an identity between themselves and their audience and to make them understand that
they share the same concerns–the same hopes and fears, joys and sorrows.

Those are some of the traits of the genre, and those are the traits that characterize the
discourse of Vatican II. The council was about persuading and inviting. To attain that end it
used principally the epideictic genre. I am of course not saying that the bishops and theologians
self-consciously adopted a specific genre of classical rhetoric as such, but I am saying that the
documents of the council, for whatever reason, fit that pattern and therefore need to be
interpreted accordingly.

The most concrete manifestation of the character of the genre and therefore an important
key to interpreting its import is the vocabulary it adopts and fosters. Nowhere is that vocabulary
more significant than in Vatican II and nowhere more a contrast than with the councils that
preceded it. Nowhere is the vocabulary more indicative of what the genre stands for and
therefore of the style of church the council promoted by means of it.

We must therefore look at words. First, what kind of words are absent? Notably missing
are words of alienation, exclusion, enmity, words of threat and intimidation, words of
surveillance and punishment. Anathema does not appear a single time. Although the hierarchical
character of the church is repeatedly stressed and the prerogatives of the Supreme Pontiff
reiterated almost obsessively, the church is never described as a monarchy or the members of the
church as subjects. That is a great departure from previous practice.

What kind of words are present? Words new to council vocabulary. None of them can
be considered casual asides or mere window dressing—“mere rhetoric.” They are used far too
insistently and too characteristically for that. They do not occur here and them but are an acrossthe-
board phenomenon, appearing in all or almost all the final documents. If one wishes to get
at “the spirit” of Vatican II, they are the best indicators of what that spirit is. They make it
possible for us to escape from the proof-texting that has beset the documents of Vatican II and
allow us to rise to patterns and overall orientation. They provide us with that much sought-after
“horizon of interpretation.” They provide us with what Cardinal Ruini wants, a new
hermeneutic.

I will divide the words into categories, but the categories are imperfectly distinct from
one another. They overlap, and cris-cross back and forth making the same or related points.
They are all, moreover, consonant with the epideictic genre and with the wider rhetorical
tradition, something that I have described at length in my book Four Cultures of the West. Genre
and vocabulary taken together constitute and manifest a style of discourse, which almost by
definition manifests the style—the HOW—of the person speaking. In this instance the person
speaking is the church.

One category is made up of horizontal words. Words like “brother and sisters” stress and
give color to the wide range of horizontal relationships that characterize the church. They
contrast with the vertical or top-down words typical and former councils and of the nineteenthcentury
papacy. The most widely invoked of such horizontal words after the council and the one
that remains best known, despite its problematic implications, is “people of God.”

Among the horizontal words are the reciprocity words, such as “cooperation,”
“partnership,” and collaboration. Striking in Gaudium et spes, the final document of the council,
are the bald statements that just as the world learns from the church the church learns from the
world—in this case, o wonder, from the modern world. But in this horizontal-reciprocity
category the two most significant words are “dialogue” and “collegiality.” It sometimes seems
that there is hardly a page in the council documents on which dialogue or its equivalent does not
occur. “Dialogue” manifests a radical shift form the prophetic I-say-unto-you style that earlier
prevailed. Collegiality, as we know, did not find its way into the council’s vocabulary without a
fierce battle—a battle that in fact continues in different form today. Implicit in these reciprocitywords,
moreover, is engagement and even initiative In the document on the laity the council, for
instance, tells them that the have the right and sometimes the duty to make their opinions known.
Implicitly the reciprocity words are empowerment words.

Closely related to reciprocity words are friendship words. The most striking is the allinclusive
“human family” to whom Gaudium et spes is addressed. Similarly related are the
humility-words, beginning with the description of the church as pilgrim. Among the
redefinitions the council silently effected is what it did with the triad prophet-priest-king. In
some passages prophet becomes partner in dialogue, priesthood was extended to all believes, and
king defined as servant. The triad was applied to everybody in the church, laity as well as clergy,
and appears in document after document.

Even though the word “change” occurs in the first paragraph of the decree on the liturgy,
the first document approved by the council, the well-known Catholic allergy to it prevails
elsewhere. A remarkable feature of the vocabulary of the council, nonetheless, is its
employment of words that in fact indicate change—words like “development,” “progress,” and
even “evolution.” “Pilgrim” perhaps should be included here. The most familiar change word
associated with Vatican II of course is the innocent sounding aggiornamento. No doubt, it can be
interpreted in a minimal and traditional sense, probably the sense John XXIII intended, but when
framed within the full context of the council it becomes one more indicator of a more historical
and therefore relativized and open-ended approach to issues and problems. It implies the
inevitability of further change in the future and suggests that the council itself must be
interpreted in an open-ended way. The council cannot be interpreted and implemented as if it
said “thus far and no further.”

The final category to which I will call attention is interiority-words. “Joy and hope, grief
and anguish”–these are the famous words opening Gaudium et spes. The document goes on: for
disciples of Christ nothing that is human fails to find echo in their hearts. Yes, in their hearts.
Vatican II was about the inward journey. It was about holiness. Perhaps the most remarkable
aspect of the document on the church is chapter five, “The Call to Holiness.” Holiness is what
the church is all about. An old truth this, of course, but no previous council had ever explicitly
asserted it and certainly never developed it at such length. It is a call to something more than
external conformity to enforceable codes of conduct. It is a call – vocatio –which, though it may
have an external form, it is, as the document describes it, related more immediately to the
outpouring of the Spirit into the hearts of the faithful, to their free and willing acceptance of the
Gospel, and to their commitment to service of others in the world.

In this regard the emphasis of the council on conscience as the ultimate norm in moral
choice is remarkable. I quote: “Deep within their conscience individuals discover a law that they
do not make for themselves but that they are bound to obey, whose voice, ever summoning them
to love and to do what is good and avoid what is evil rings in their hearts.” While Catholics must
take full and serious account of church teachings and guidance, they must ultimately be guided
by the inner law. Preachers, theologians, and saints have always taught this in some form or
other, but no council has ever said it.

I will summarize in a simple litany some of the elements in the change in style of the
church indicated by the council’s vocabulary: from commands to ideals, from threats to
invitations, from monologue to conversation, from ruling to serving, from withdrawn to engaged,
from vertical and top-down to horizontal, from exclusion to inclusion, from hostility to
friendship, from static to changing, from passive acceptance to active engagement, from
prescriptive to principled, from defined to open-ended, from behavior-modification to
conversion of heart, from the dictates of law to the dictates of conscience, from external
conformity to the joyful pursuit of holiness.

When those elements are taken in the aggregate, they seem to me to indicate a modelshift.
Gosh, taken in the aggregate they seem to express something that can be called “the spirit
of the council.” Despite all their literary weaknesses, the documents of Vatican II are literary
documents, and, as such, they evince a literary unity. That’s new in a council. The documents
are not a grab-bag collection of ordinances. This feature makes it possible to get at a “spirit,” for
the medium in its genre and vocabulary conveys a remarkably unified message that transcends
the particularities of the documents.

Every one of these elements in the litany of course needs a thousand qualifications. The
horizontal words of the council must be balanced by the vertical, and so forth. But the litany as a
whole conveys the sweep of the change in the style of the church the Second Vatican Council
held up for contemplation and actualization. Style in this sense is not an ornament, not a
superficial affectation but expression of deepest personality. In this sense it is the ultimate
expression of meaning. Le style, c’est l’homme meme. My style, my “how,” expresses what I
am in my truest and deepest self. This teaching on the style of the church is an implicit but an
insistent call for a change in style—a style that is less autocratic and more collaborative, a style
that is willing to listen to different viewpoints and take them into account, a style that is open and
above board, a style committed to fair play, a style that assumes innocence until guilt is proven, a
style that eschews secret oaths, anonymous denunciations and inquisitorial tactics.

The shift of Vatican II in style of discourse has, therefore, deep ramifications. It, along
with the many other special features I have mentioned, made Vatican II unlike any previous
council. In fact, by adopting the style that it did, the council in effect redefined what a council is.
Vatican II, that is to say, did not take the Roman Senate as its implicit model. I find it difficult to
pinpoint just what its implicit model was, but it seems much closer to guide, partner, and friend
than it does to lawmaker, police officer, inquisitor, or judge.

Is there a “before” and “after” Vatican II? Is there any noteworthy discontinuity between
the council and what preceded it? Did anything happen? Powerful, learned, and well-informed
people are responding in the negative. I’m not sure they are right. Of one thing I am convinced:
the council wanted something to happen. Or am I being dazzled by “mere rhetoric.” What do
you think?
Tags: benedict xvi, books, course articles, curia, ecclesiology, historical, second vatican council, theological methodology, theological notebook
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