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Theological Notebook: Vatican II Historiographies in Conflict-Part One

A debate has been brewing of late on how to interpret the Second Vatican Council of 1962-1965. Well, I say "of late," but perhaps it would be more accurate to say that a long-simmering debate has recently come to a head. A major history of Vatican II, lead by scholars in Bologna and Washington, D.C., has been held up to vocal criticism by members of the Vatican Curia, particularly by Cardinal Ruini.. Their criticism has now just been echoed, it seems, by Pope Benedict XVI. This lends wait to the criticism of the Ruini circle, who argue that those who speak of the discontinuity of the Council with what came before, and who appeal to a nebulous "spirit" of the Council, are in fact distorting what the Council's real message was.

Benedict XVI gave a papal stamp of approval to those who speak of the Council as one of "reform," and not as a "rupture" with the past of the Church. The odd thing is, I know of no one who really casts the history and significance of the Council in the terms of the total break with the past that the Pope corrects. In fact, it seems to me that "the Bologna School" being criticised by Ruini and his circle are much more in line with historical vision of "reform" that Benedict laid out, even with their appeals to the "spirit" of the Council. This "spirit" is typically appealed to over and against those who, while invoking the words of the documents of the Council, seem to want to limit the very reforms the Council enacted. Yet such obstructionists or obfuscators do not appear on the interpretive "map" that Benedict laid out of two clashing visions of the history of the Council.

Because the historiography of the Council--our approach to setting out and understanding its history and meaning--is so critical, I reproduced here a column written a few weeks ago by Italy's Sandro Magister, who is clearly sympathetic to the Ruini criticisms. In his column, he explains the clash of interpretation and then reproduces the critical bulk of Benedict's statement the other week that is being read as supportive of Ruini's position.

I then reproduce what I thought was the absolutely elegant response to the Ruini position made by Professor John W. O'Malley, SJ of the Weston School of Theology in Cambridge Massachusetts. In the lecture he presented here at Marquette in September, which I had the great fortune of attending, "Vatican II: Did Anything Happen?" Father O'Malley gives a modest, evidence-rich response to the Ruini position that I think really helps clarify and settle the debate. Vatican II is the modern starting-point for the work of Theology in the Church. Any distortion of the Council's actions, intent and significance, of course, then threatens to misdirect the work of theology right from the beginning. As with any science, if you begin with problems at the theoretical level, your results will be significantly skewed, like an archer whose aim is off by an inch and whose arrow then comes down a hundred yards from its target.

The temptation, as always in our day and place, is to reduce such disputes to America's simple-minded "'liberal' versus 'conservative'" paradigm. As I frequently complain, such labels tend to do little more than to allow the user to abdicate from any further thought, and for the good of the Republic ought to be made fun of whenever they're used. The intent here is simply accuracy, and I think the eminent Early Modern historian O'Malley makes a far better case for his position, and does so with clarity and charity. His success comes, sensibly enough, from his attention to historical detail. By restraining from trying to decide the matter with an eye toward the concerns of theological and ecclesiastical politics, he sets such politics on much firmer ground, which is of course a great service to the Church.

WARNING: These texts are large. If I'm not just talking to myself, and anyone else out there is going to find my reading journal of interest here, I just want to let you know that you'll need to set some reading time aside for this set. It will, however, reward attentive reading, both historically and spiritually.

As I suspected, the two texts were too long for a single post. Since the more recent post comes "first" on LiveJournal, I set these up so that this first part with my introduction will be posted at the top of our pages.

Pope Ratzinger Certifies the Council – The Real One

In his pre-Christmas address to the Roman curia, Benedict XVI demolishes the myth of Vatican II as a rupture and new beginning. He gives another name “reform,” to the proper interpretation of the Council. And he explains why.

by Sandro Magister

ROMA, December 23, 2005 – Benedict XVI has on two occasions satisfied the great curiosity about his comments on Vatican Council II, at the fortieth anniversary of its conclusion.

The first was on Thursday, December 8, the feast of the Immaculate Conception.

The second was on Thursday, December 22, during the traditional meeting between the pope and the Vatican curia for the exchange of Christmas greetings.

The homily on the feast of the Immaculate Conception was the overture.

The address to the curia was the main act.

In his homily on December 8, pope Joseph Ratzinger focused his attention on “the inner structure” of Vatican Council II. And he pointed to Mary Immaculate as “the orientation of its entire process” and “the key to understanding it:”

“[Mary] illuminates the inner structure of the Church's teaching, which was developed at the Council. The Second Vatican Council had to pronounce on the institutional components of the Church: on the bishops and on the pontiff, on the priests, lay people and religious, in their communion and in their relations; it had to describe the Church journeying on, ‘clasping sinners to her bosom, at once holy and always in need of purification’ (Lumen Gentium, n. 8). This ‘Petrine’ aspect of the Church, however, is included in that ‘Marian’ aspect. In Mary, the Immaculate, we find the essence of the Church without distortion.”

But in his address to the curia on December 22, Benedict XVI went to the heart of the most controversial question. He asked:

“Why has the reception of the Council been so difficult for such a great portion of the Church up until now?”

And he replied:

“The problems have arisen from a struggle between two conflicting forms of interpretation. One of these has caused confusion; the other, in a silent but increasingly visible way, has brought results, and continues to bring them.”

He called the first form of interpretation “the hermeneutics of discontinuity and rupture.” The second he called “the hermeneutics of reform.”

He criticized the first of these at its roots, while illustrating the reasons for and validity of the second.

In particular, he brought light to the authentic meaning of the “steps that the Council took toward the modern age, which in a rather imprecise manner has been presented as an ‘opening up to the world’ [and] belongs decisively among the perennial problems of the relationship between faith and reason.”

Today, this relationship “must be developed with great openmindedness, but also with that clarity in the discernment of spirits that the world rightly expects from us.”

Here follows (in an English translation edited by “Asia News”) the part of the December 22 address to the curia that Benedict XVI dedicated to Vatican Council II.

It is a major document for the interpretation, not only of the Council, but also of the current pontificate:

”Two forms of interpretation have struggled with each other...”

by Benedict XVI

[...] The last event of the year that I would like to cover on this occasion is the celebration of the conclusion of the Vatican II Council 40 years ago. This memory brings to mind a question: What has been the Council's result? Has it been received properly? What, in how the Council has been received, has been good, what has been insuffiicient or wrong? What is there still to be done?

No one can deny that in large sections of the Church, the Council's reception has been carried out in a rather different manner, without even wanting to apply to what has happened the description that the great doctor of the Church, saint Basil, gave of the Church's situation after the Council of Nicaea: he compared it to a naval battle in the darkness of a storm, saying among other things: “Harsh rises the cry of the combatants encountering one another in dispute; already all the Church is almost full of the inarticulate screams, the unintelligible noises, rising from the ceaseless agitations that divert the right rule of the doctrine of true religion” (De Spiritu Sancto, XXX). It is not a dramatic description such as this that we would want to apply to the post-Council situation, but some of what has happened does reflect itself in it. The question arises: Why has the reception of the Council been so difficult for such a great portion of the Church up until now?

Well, all depends on the correct interpretation of the Council or – as we would say today – on its correct hermeneutic, on the right key to interpretation and application.

The problems of reception have arisen from a struggle between two conflicting forms of interpretation. One of these has caused confusion; the other, in a silent but increasingly visible way, has brought results, and continues to bring them.

On one hand, there is an interpretation that I would like to call “hermeneutics of discontinuity and rupture”. It was frequently able to find favour among mass media, and also a certain sector of modern theology.

On the other hand, there is the “hermeneutics of reform”, of the renewal of the continuity of the single Church-subject, which the Lord has given us. It is a subject that grows in time and develops, remaining however always the same, the one subject of the People of God on their way.

Hermeneutics of discontinuity risk leading to a fracture between the pre-Council and post-Council Church. It asserts that the Council texts as such would still not be the true expression of the spirit of the Council. They would be the result of compromises within which, to reach unanimity, many old and ultimately useless things had to be dragged along and reconfirmed. It is, however, not in these compromises that the true spirit of the Council would be revealed, but instead in the drive toward newness that underpin the texts: only this would represent the true spirit of the Council, and starting from it and in conformity with it, it would be necessary to go forward. Precisely because the texts would reflect only imperfectly the true spirit of the Council and its novelty, it would be necessary to go courageously beyond the texts, making room for the new, in which the more profound, even though still indistinct, intention of the Council would express itself. In short: it would be necessary to follow not the Council texts, but its spirit.

In this way, of course, a huge margin remains for the question of how then to define this spirit and, as a result, room is made for any whimsicality. With this, however, there is a basic misunderstanding of the nature of a Council as such. In this way, it is considered as a sort of a constituent assembly, that eliminates an old consitution and creates a new one. But a constituent assembly needs a mandator and them a confirmation on the part of the mandator, that is the people that the constitution must serve. The Council Fathers did not have such a mandate and no one had ever given one to them; furthermore, no one could have done so, because the Church's essential constitution comes from the Lord and has been given to us so that we can reach eternal life and, starting from this perspective, we are also able to illuminate life in time and time itself. Bishops, through the Sacrament they have received, are trustees of the Lord's gift. They are “stewards of the mysteries of God” (1 Cor 4:1); as such, they must be found “faithful and wise” (cf Luke 12:41-48). This means they much administer the gift of the Lord in the right way, so that it does not remain hidden in some hiding-place, but bears fruit and the Lord, in the end, can say to the administrator: “Since you have been faithful in small matters, I will give you great responsibilities” (cf Mat 24:14-30, Luke 19:11-27). This evangelical parable expresses the dynamism of faithfulness, which is of interest in service to the Lord, and it also makes evident how in a Council dynamism and faithfulness must become one.

In opposition to the hermeneutics of discontinuity is the hermeneutics of reform, as was presented first by pope John XXIII in his speech for the Council's opening, October 11, 1962, and then by Pope Paul VI in the closing speech of December 7, 1965.

I would like to quote pope John XXIII's well known words in which this hermeneutic is unequivocally expressed when he said that the Council “wishes to transmit doctrine pure and whole, without attenuating or falsifying it”, and continues: “Our duty is not only to watch over this precious treasure, as if we were only concerned with antiquity, but to dedicate ourselves with active will and without fear to this work, which our age demands... It is necessary that this sure and immutable doctrine, faithfully respected, must be deepened and presented in a way that answers the needs of our time. One thing is in fact the deposit of faith, that is the truths contained in our venerated doctrine, and another thing is the way they are enounced, maintaining nevertheless their same meaning and scope” (S. Oec. Conc. Vat. II Constitutiones Decreta Declarationes, 1974, pp. 863-865).

It is clear that this commitment to expressing a particular truth in a new way calls for fresh reflection upon it and a new relationship with it; it is also clear that the new word can mature only if it derives from an aware understanding of the truth expressed and that, on the other hand, the reflection on faith also requires that this faith is lived. In this sense, the plan proposed by Pope John XXIII was extremely demanding, just as the synthesis of faithfulness and dynamism is demanding. But wherever this interpretation has been the guideline for the reception of the Council, there new life has grown and new fruits have matured. Forty years after the Council, we can ascertain that the positive aspects are greater and more vibrant than they appeared in the years around 1968. Today we can see that the good seed, even if it develops slowly, nevertheless grows, and our profound gratitude for the work carried out by the Council grows along with it.

Paul VI, in his speech for the Council's closing, then indicated another specific motivation for which the hermeneutics of discontinuity could appear to be convincing. In the great debate concerning the human being that characterizes modern times, the Council had to dedicate itself specifically to the subject of anthropology. It had to raise questions on the relationship between the Church and her faith, on the one hand, and man and the modern world on the other (ibid, pp. 1066 s.). The question becomes still clearer, if in the place of the generic term of "today's world", we choose another more precise one: the Council had to find a new definition of the relationship between the Church and the modern age.

This relationship started out difficultly with the Galileo trial. It broke completely, when Kant defined “religion within pure reason” and when, in the radical phase of the French Revolution, an image of the state and of man was spread that practically intended to crowd out the Church and faith. The clash of the Church's faith with a radical liberalism and also with natural sciences that claimed to embrace, with its knowledge, the totality of reality to its outmost borders, stubbornly setting itself to make the “hypothesis of God” superfluous, had provoked in the 19th century under Pius IX, on the part of the Church, a harsh and radical condemnation of this spirit of the modern age. Thus, there were apparently no grounds for an positive and fruitful agreement, and drastic were also the refusals on the part of those who felt they were the representatives of the modern age.

However, in the meantime, the modern age also had its development. It was becoming clear that the American Revolution had offered a model of the modern state that was different from that theorized by the radical tendencies that had emerged from the second phase of the French Revolution. Natural sciences began, in a more and more clear way, to reflect their own limits, imposed by their own method which, though achieving great things, was nevertheless not able to comprehend the totality of reality. Thus, both sides began to progressively open up to each other. In the period between the two world wars and even more after the second world war, Catholic statemen had shown that a modern lay state can exist, which nevertheless is not neutral with respect to values, but lives tapping into the great ethical fonts of Christianity. Catholic social doctrine, as it developed, had become an important model between radical liberalism and the Marxist theory of the state. Natural sciences, which would unreservedly profess to its own method in which God had no access, realized ever more clearly that this method was not comprehensive of the totality of reality and thus opened once again their doors to God, knowing that reality is greater than naturalistic method and what it can embrace.

It could be said that three tiers of questions were formed that now, at the hour of Vatican II, awaited a response.

First and foremost, it was necessary to define in a new way the relationship between faith and modern science; this regarded, however, not only natural sciences, but also historical sciences because, in a certain school, the historical-critical method claimed for itself the final words on the interpretation of the Bible and, demanding full exclusiveness for its understanding of Sacred Scriptures, it opposed, on important points, the interpretation that the faith of the Church had elaborated.

Secondly, it was necessary to define in a new way the relationship between the Church and the modern state, which made room to citizens of various religions and ideologies, acting impartially towards these religions and simply taking on the responsibility for the orderly and tolerant coexistence between citizens and for their freedom to exercise their religion.

To this, thirdly, was connected in a more general way the problem of religious tolerance – a question that called for a new definition of the relationship between Christian faith and religion in the world. In particular, in the face of the recent crimes of the National-Socialist regime and, in general, in a retrospective look on a long and difficult history, it was necessary to evaluate and define in a new way the relationship between the Church and the faith of Israel.

These are all important subjects – these great themes of the second part of the Council – uponwhich we cannot now dwell much here. It is clear that in all these sectors, which together are one problem, some discontinuities would emerge. Although this may not have been fully appreciated at first, the discontinuities that did emerge – notwithstanding distinct concrete historical situations and their needs – did prevent continuity at the level of principles.

The nature of true reform lies in this combination of multi-levelled continuity and discontinuity.

In this process of change through continuity we had to learn how to understand better than before that the Church’s decisions about contingent matters – for example, about actual forms of liberalism or liberal interpretations of the Bible – were necessarily themselves contingent because related to a reality itself changeable.

We had to learn how to recognise that in such decisions only principles express what is lasting, embedded in the background and determining the decision from within. The concrete forms these decisions take are not permanent but depend upon the historical situations. They can therefore change.

Thus, for example, with freedom of religion seen as expressing mankind’s inability to find truth, relativism becomes the canon. From being a social and historical necessity it is incorrectly elevated to a metaphysical level that loses its true meaning. It therefore becomes unacceptable to those who believe that mankind can reach the truth of God and, based on truth’s inner dignity, is related to such knowledge.

This is completely different from viewing freedom of religion as a necessity that human coexistence requires or even seeing it as an inherent consequence of the truth that such freedom cannot be imposed from the outside but must come from a conviction from within.

By adopting a decree on religious freedom, the Second Vatican Council recognised and made its own an essential principle of the modern state. And in doing so, it reconnected with the wider heritage of the Church.

The Church itself is conscious that it is fully in sync with the teachings of Jesus (cf Mt 22: 21), the Church of the early martyrs, and with all the martyrs. Although the early Church dutifully prayed for emperors and political leaders as a matter of fact (cf 1 Tm 2: 2), it refused to worship them and thus rejected the state religion. In dying for their faith in the one God revealed in Jesus Christ, the martyrs of the early Church also died on behalf of freedom of conscience and the freedom to profess one’s own religion. No state can impose any religion; instead, religion must be freely chosen with the grace of God and in freedom of conscience.

A missionary Church required to proclaim its message to all the nations must commit itself to freedom of religion. It must pass on the gift of truth that exists for all and at the same time reassure nations and governments that it does not want to destroy their identities and cultures. It must show that it brings an answer they intimately expect. This answer is not lost among the many cultures, but instead enhances unity among men and thus peace among nations.

By defining in a new way the relationship between the faith of the Church and some essential elements of modern thinking, the Second Vatican Council revised and even corrected some past decisions. But in an apparent discontinuity it has instead preserved and reinforced its intimate nature and true identity. The Church is One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic both before and after the Council, throughout time. It “presses forward amid the persecutions of the world and the consolations of God,” announcing the cross and death of the Lord until he comes (cf Lumen gentium, 8).

Yet those who expected that with this fundamental “Yes” to the modern age, all tensions would melt away, and that this “opening up to the world” would render everything harmonious, underestimated the inner tensions and contradictions of the modern age; they underestimated the internal tensions and the dangerous fragility of human nature, which have threatened man’s journey throughout all historical periods and configurations. Given man’s new power over himself and over matter, these dangers have not disappeared; instead, they have acquired a new dimension. We can clearly illustrate this by looking at current history.

In our time too, the Church remains a “sign of contradiction” (Lk 2: 34) and for this reason in 1976 pope John Paul II, then a cardinal, gave it as the title to the spiritual exercises he preached to Pope Paul VI and the Roman curia. The Council could not abolish this Gospel contradiction in the face of the dangers and errors of mankind. What it did do was put aside wrong or superfluous contradictions in order to present to our world the requirements of the Gospel in all its greatness and purity.

The steps that the Council took toward the modern age – which in a rather imprecise manner has been presented as an “opening up to the world” – belongs decisively among the perennial problems of the ever changing relationship between faith and reason.

Undoubtedly, the Council faced situations that existed before. In his first Epistle, saint Peter urged Christians to be ready to answer (apo-logia) anyone who asked them the logos, the reason for their faith (cf 3:15). This meant that biblical faith had to interact with and relate to Greek culture, learning how to recognise, by interpreting distinctions as well as through contact and affinity with the latter, the one God-given reason.

When Medieval Christianity, largely schooled in the Platonic tradition, came into contact with Aristotle’s ideas via Jewish and Arab philosophers in the 13th century, faith and reason almost became irreconcilable. But saint Thomas Aquinas was especially able to find a new synthesis between faith and Aristotelian philosophy. Faith could relate in a positive manner with the dominant notions of reason of the time.

The exacting disputes between modern reason and Christian faith, which started off on the wrong foot with Galileo’s trial, went through several phases. But by the time the Second Vatican Council was convened new thinking was possible. The new approach found in the conciliar papers sets out only guidelines but also the essential direction so that the dialogue between faith and reason, very important nowadays, has found its orientation in Vatican II.

This dialogue must now be developed with the openmindedness, but also with that clarity in the discernment of spirits that the world rightly expects from us. We can look back with gratitude to the Second Vatican Council. If we read and accept it guided by a correct interpretation, it can become a great force in the ever necessary renewal of the Church. [...]
Tags: benedict xvi, books, ecclesiology, historical, second vatican council, theological methodology, theological notebook

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