Tuesday, March 10, 2009
Did Anything Happen at Vatican II?
I've recently been reading different accounts of the Second Vatican Council, with an eye to the reception of Vatican II in the U.S. It's been really fun, which shows what a theologianerd I am. As John O'Malley and others state, there are three interpretations of the Council. The first two categories of people think that something definitely happened at Vatican II. For progressives (or "liberals," if you prefer), this was a good thing. For traditionalists (with the SSPX group illustrating the extreme), this was a bad thing.
But O'Malley and others are more concerned with the third group, namely, those who seem to think that nothing happened at Vatican II. In other words, they so stress continuity in the tradition, that they view Vatican II as a non-event. These are the new conservatives. Their origin can be traced to the progressive majority of bishops at Vatican II. The argument is that after the Council, the progressive majority split into liberal and conservative. In other words, some of this majority recognized the Council as representing a major change in Catholicism whereas some of the majority emphasized the Council's continuity with the past.
Pope Paul VI can be seen as promoting this new conservative/continuity view. When he promulgated Lumen Gentium, the constitution on the Church, he stated the following: "The most important word to be said about the promulgation is that through it no change is made in traditional teaching" (O'Malley, What Happened at Vatican II, 245). Indeed, in an essay by Avery Cardinal Dulles published in the 2008 book Vatican II: Renewal Within Tradition (ed. Matthew Lamb and Matthew Levering), Dulles argues that Lumen Gentium represents a re-framing of the Church, and that the language of "sacrament" for the Church makes possible different emphases on the reality of the Church without changing traditional definitions of what the Church is. Additionally, both recent popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI have confirmed what the latter calls a "hermeneutic of reform" for interpreting the Council.
O'Malley's book is a page-turner, but some of his comments are revealing as to his interpretation of Vatican II. For example, he describes ressourcement, as a decision to go back to the sources of the Christian tradition and take a different path, as in, take the other fork in the road. "New conservatives," meanwhile, might describe it instead as a re-enrichment of practices based on these other resources in the tradition. Practically speaking, RCIA would represent for O'Malley the acknowledgment that the way of receiving people into the Church at the time of Vatican II was problematic and needed to be completely replaced with an early-Church model. "New conservatives," on the other hand, would see RCIA as an opportunity for re-enrichment and standardization of conversion to Catholicism by drawing upon more sources throughout Christian tradition. (Of course, this says nothing about how RCIA has actually been carried out in the U.S. One can imagine that some new conservatives would take issue with how RCIA is often done in the U.S. In other words, they might say it has not served the purpose of re-enriching the conversion process for those entering the Church. Perhaps they might say that the implementation of certain practices has exceeded what the Council meant to do. Some new conservatives might blame this on "liberals" getting carried away with the supposed "spirit of the Council.")
In another telling passage, O'Malley states that "Development is a soft word for change. It presumes continuity. It also presumes discontinuity" (in Vatican II: Did Anything Happen? ed. David Schultenover, 58). Those in the "new conservative" group might say that this is a misunderstanding of Newman's concept of development: yes, it is change, but that is not necessarily discontinuous. A tree is surely different from an acorn, but we wouldn't say that the tree is discontinuous. They'd probably even challenge O'Malley's own example, which is himself: he is the same person as he was 50 years ago, but also remarkably different. Yes, but is his current self "discontinuous" with the previous self?
Again, O'Malley's concern is that an emphasis on continuity can be problematic: "To thus insist is to blind oneself to discontinuities, which is to blind oneself to change of any kind. And if there is no change, nothing happened. Vatican II was a celebration of the perennial faith of the Catholic Church. Such continuity, I venture, takes the Church out of history and puts it out of touch with reality as we know it" (in Schultenover, 56). Perhaps O'Malley is particularly concerned with the generation who did not live through Vatican II and hence fails to appreciate the importance of the Council and its changes to the everyday practices of Catholics. Or perhaps O'Malley fears that these new conservatives will become the old conservatives-the ones, like Ottaviani, who at the Council regarded the Church as simply eternal and unchanging (as though it had dropped down from the heavens with uniform practices and procedures worldwide), and who, in O'Malley's opinion, were ahistorical in a way that made them unable to confront the realities of the modern world.
(I have to note that, ironically, it was these "ahistorical" conservatives at Vatican II who wanted documents that were more in keeping with council statements from previous councils in the Church's history.)
O'Malley suggests that this emphasis on continuity began at the Council of Trent, where Catholics were at pains to demonstrate to Protestants that they were not teaching anything that was not in continuity with the apostolic tradition. The Church was not and had not changed the faith of the early Church, but was true to its origins. Yet, as O'Malley notes, historians of this time period do nothing but assert the great changes ushered in by Trent.
So who, exactly does O'Malley have in mind when he says they think "nothing happened" at Vatican II? And is this a fair representation of their position?
Does a "hermeneutic of reform" imply change or not? Is it fair to say that those emphasizing continuity, Benedict XVI, for example, really think that "nothing happened" at Vatican II?