"You will be a better mom because you are a theologian, and a better theologian because you are a mom."

Is it true? In this blog, I explore the interplay and intersection of motherhood and theologianhood.

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?

3 comments:

Clara said...

I haven't had a chance to do nearly as much reading on Vatican II as I'd like. It's one of those projects that I'd really like to take up someday if I have some time. (In particular, I'd like to do a thorough study of Dignitatis Humanae, which is to me one of the most troubling aspects of that Council... and is also, I might add, the bone that seems to stick most painfully in the craw of the SSPX.)

But I guess I don't know quite what you'd qualify as a "happening." In the most basic sense, something clearly happened -- a bunch of bishops got together and drew up some documents. Equally clearly, this event precipitated changes in the life of the Church. Pretty dramatic changes, actually. And it also seems apparent that something happened in the life of the liturgy. I mean, we did get the Novus Ordo Mass out of it. Pope Benedict does seem to have indicated in many of his writings that a significant amount of liturgical discontinuity did arise out of Vatican II. Too much, he sometimes seems to think.

At the same time, there's also a level on which traditionalists seem to join with your Catholic neo-cons (though I'm not totally clear on who this groups is) in thinking that "nothing happened" at Vatican II. I can't speak for groups like the SSPX, who seem to be in a state of conflict on several levels. But the tradition-happy Catholics I know like to emphasize that Vatican II was "not a teaching council." Now, to be sure, they tend to view the second Vatican Council with rather an unfriendly eye, mainly because the changes it precipitated were, in their view, overwhelmingly bad. But still, they like to hold to the idea that it was "not a teaching council", by which they mean, I gather, that nothing important came of it doctrinally speaking. (You can see why this claim would fit with their larger goals. If Vatican II didn't teach anything, there's no reason why we can't go on living our Catholic life just as if it never happened.) I don't know exactly where that term came from -- I don't suppose anyone stood up at the beginning and announced, "now we're not a teaching council, chaps, so just bear that in mind." But it does seem plausible to me given such reading as I've done of the Council documents.

Much like the CCC, the language used in the Council documents is often somewhat... vague. Carefully crafted, but in a lawyerly way that seems as much designed to conceal as to reveal. It makes little feints in the direction of something -- and then maddeningly veers away from the questions philosophers would really like to get answered. It's quite amusing just noting the differences in tone between the documents of Trent and Vatican II. The former are feisty even to the point of seeming overwrought -- the latter soothing and conciliatory to the point of, at times, seeming to say nothing at all. Presumably this is partly why there can be a debate about whether anything happened. If the Second Vatican Council taught us anything authoritatively... what was it?

Even the aforementioned Dignitatis Humanae, (which so burns the SSPX and which is often flung in the face of traditional Catholics as evidence of how very *ecumenical* the Church now is) doesn't yield much by way of solid authoritative claims. I said I find it "troubling", and I do, largely on the basis of the very suspicious blending of different sorts of philosophical language, some of which seem to have clear affinities with philosophical movements that are antithetical to the Catholic faith. But even if I were of a schismatic disposition, Dignitatis wouldn't push me over the edge, because at the end of the day, what does it say? You could pull out collections of quotes that would make it *sound* like it had very strong implications of one kind or another, but taken all together, it doesn't say anything very concrete. Really, it seems to be the product of a group of people who really hadn't worked out the implications of pluralism in the modern state, and who therefore decided just to put out some nice suggestive thoughts without really trying to resolve anything. I mean, for goodness sake, they even touch on the question of the rights of religious minorities *within a confessional state!* This is supposed to be the battering ram of the secularists, and it even acknowledges the possibility of having a state religion! The penumbras may be poisonous, but the letter of the document is actually fairly mild.

Like I say, I'd like to study all this more. But my general feeling is that Vatican II was yet another episode in the Church's attempts to deal with the enormous (and now enormously pervasive) errors of the modern era. And what you have to say at the end of the day is: she's still working at it. On the ground Vatican II caused a lot of chaos, but philosophically, it was just another pass (perhaps not one of the more effective ones, but of course that could be debated) in a fencing match that's still very much continuing.

Theologian Mom said...

Yes, O'Malley makes much out of the "epideictic" or panegyric genre of Vatican II. This is what he calls the "spirit of the council," namely, that it was meant to inspire, to hold up an ideal, to persuade, and to motivate.

But I have to say that after reading the O'Malley book, I'm impressed that they ever accomplished anything (i.e. produced any documents). It sounds like it was an extremely disorganized and really LARGE meeting. If/when the next council comes around, in particular they'll need to work out the relationship of the pope to the council (i.e. how the pope communicates his input). It sounds like that was one of the major challenges. It's no wonder that the docs read like committee pieces, despite what O'Malley identifies as a coherence in genre and language.

That's really interesting about the "not a teaching council" thing. V2 definitely didn't set out to condemn anyone for doctrinal reasons and so I can see why some traditionalists would want to make that claim. I'm not sure I'd agree that the CCC's language is quite as vague, however. Depending on the issue it can be clear and to the point in a way that the V2 docs aren't. But then, you're the one who will be able to read the V2 docs in Latin. It's too tough for me!

Oh, and in regard to the state religion thing, that was a major issue that bishops fought about. Some came from countries where they had concordats and had been appointed by heads of state. Some came from places where communists were trying to stamp out all religion. Some were afraid that they'd be in more trouble back home because of V2's church-state comments, and others thought V2 could really help them out.

Clara said...

Ah, that's interesting, and makes sense. See, that's the kind of stuff that I'm going to read more about someday.

I fear, though, that you overestimate my skills as a Latinist. Reading through all the V2 documents in Latin would, unfortunately, be quite an arduous task for me as well. I do refer to the Latin documents, but I still very often need the English as a crutch.

As for the CCC, I should maybe modify my statements a bit... it all depends on what question you want answered. Certainly, it would be absurd to read all the way through the CCC and say, "huh, well, didn't find any substantive or controversial claims in there!" It doesn't have quite the same "committee" feel that the V2 docs often have, and on some issues (like, for example, the sanctity of life issues) I think the CCC is admirably clear. But there are definitely other places where I've been frustrated at what seems to be almost calculated vagueness.

As an example: in Mathew's and my pre-Cana weekend (a truly scandalous affair, done in the diocese of Rochester because that was the only one we could both get to before the wedding) we were explicitly taught that we should consider all Church teachings "in the light of our own conscience", and, in the event that "conscience" was inclined against Catholic teaching, we should follow our own inclination. This, we were told, was part of the Church's new understanding of the laity as being "spiritual adults", capable of making "adult" decisions for themselves.

Well, of course we objected to this, pointing out that, while conscience is important, it must be properly formed in accordance with the teachings of the Magisterium. You can't just use "conscience" as an excuse for dismissing Catholic doctrine. And to our surprise, our pre-Cana instructors cited in their defense... the CCC!

Well, of course we knew that there must have been some kind of misunderstanding, because obviously the CCC couldn't teach anything like what they were proposing. But nobody had a copy on hand and we're frankly not chapter-and-verse familiar with the CCC. (Which, incidentally, isn't an uncommon thing for Catholics who mainly interact with more traditional communities. Though obviously any non-schismatic and non-heretical Catholic has to acknowledge the authority of the CCC, you couldn't exactly say that traditional Catholics have a warm affection for that document. In terms of clarity and tone they often complain of finding it unsatisfying or even demoralizing. It will very occasionally be referenced to satisfy a black-and-white doctrinal question, but when it comes to choosing material for edification or loving meditation, the CCC goes pretty far down on the list.) So at least the textual aspect of the dispute had to be put off until the second day of the session. We went home and looked up the relevant passage, and were not surprised to find that the pre-Cana instructors had unquestionably misunderstood it. But even so, we could see where the confusion arose; there were several statements that, for one who wasn't reading carefully, or who was already inclined to their way of thinking, might well have seemed to justify their error. I've more than once encountered problems like this with the CCC. It's not that I've ever had great difficulty reconciling myself to the letter of what it says. But I couldn't necessarily say that the authors had always made good prudential judgments about the best and clearest way to respond to certain pervasive errors of our time.

And you know, I said it was good on "sanctity of life" issues, but maybe I should modify even that. It is very clear about some such issues; the condemnation of abortion, for example, leaves no room at all for confusion or ambiguity. But some of the stuff about contraception and the purpose of marriage has often been abused. By specifying that the marital act has two purposes (unitive and procreative, as I'm sure you know), it suggests to people's minds the possibility that, so long as at least ONE of the purposes is fulfilled, sex must surely be a good thing. Of course the CCC does explicitly state that the two "cannot be separated without altering the couple's spiritual life and compromising the goods of marriage and the future of the family." But that's pretty vague and gently worded, and doesn't offer much to alarm the couple who REALLY thinks they have a good reason for contracepting, at least for awhile (or, worse, the person who wants to justify a homosexual relationship.) And, worse, it offers no real explanation of why this is the case. I have many times heard something like the following as a justification for contraception/homosexuality: well, maybe it's less than ideal, but at least the couple is still doing something good! By referring to fecundity as AN end of marriage, the CCC further suggests to these people that, hey, there might be other ends, so they can direct their union towards fulfilling those.

Again, there's no question that the CCC is entirely technically correct in its treatment of this and other issues. If the reader is carefully attentive, AND reads it with a good will and the desire to think in conformity with the Church, the CCC will not lead him astray. I read it straight through when I was thinking about becoming Catholic, as a means of determining just what one did and did not have to believe to be a faithful member, and I think it served that purpose pretty well. But when it comes to providing clear, powerful statements to combat the more pernicious errors of our day, it's often pretty disappointing. Of course, it would be unreasonable to ask the writers of a catechism to anticipate every possible error that might arise concerning Church teachings and to provide, as it were, extra ammunition against all of them. But this catechism is only a couple of decades old! That's nothing in the life of the Church. If it doesn't offer clear and cogent responses to the errors of its own day, that does seem like a deficiency. Perhaps it makes up for this with other strengths, but I never feel like I can recommend it to people as much more than a reference book.