Wednesday, August 1, 2012

The Question of Vatican II

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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