Friday, 28 October 2011

Spirit of Vatican IIism reigneth: when 'continuity' means adherence to the Magisterium of Rahner!

I have to admit I get a certain perverse enjoyment from reading articles that show the convulsions liberal Catholics go through to arrive at their 'interesting' ideas. 

In that vein, David Timbs' piece on Cath News blog today attacking Pope Benedict XVI for insisting on the value of the Petrine Office, and claiming that he is walking away from the notion of the 'people of God', is a classic of the genre.

On papal authority and the unity of the Church

I have to admit that while I've (been forced to) read writers like Rahner, de Balthasar and Congar in the course of my studies, I found them mostly turgid, boring and wrong, so have avoided as much as possible the works of their contemporary disciples. As a result I find myself continuously bemused as to where the distorted ideas reflected in comments on cath news and elsewhere are coming from.

Consider for example the outrage expressed by some at the idea set out in the recent statement of the Australian bishops that it is the Pope who decides what is necessary for communio.  Umm, isn't that what having a supreme pastor in the Pope means (CCC880-896)?  Indeed, Lumen Gentium (23) actually says that the Pope:

"is the perpetual and visible source and foundation of the unity both of the bishops and of the whole company of the faithful".

Hermeneutic of continuity!

Mr Timbs concludes his blog post by claiming that selective amnesia, rather than continuity has become the guiding principle of the Pope's theology.

Yet it seems from reading Mr Timbs that the the key to correctly understanding Vatican II is to disregard all statements in the documents that insist on the authority of the Pope, the hierarchical constitution of the Church and other pesky bits of orthodoxy. 

Instead, he appears to argue, we should read  - well 'read' is too strong a word really, decide what the documents might mean without reference to the actual text would be more accurate -  the documents in the light of the ideas his favourite twentieth century theologians, such as Rahner and Congar.  Selective amnesia indeed!

So let's take a look at Mr Timbs' piece...

The Petrine vs Pauline charisms

Mr Timbs starts with a paean to St Paul:

"The Apostle Paul did not labour alone in the Gospel. In his letters he goes to extraordinary lengths to acknowledge and affirm those many women and men from all walks of life who were indispensable to his Mission in the service of Jesus Christ.

These were his co-workers.

Paul deeply valued those who joined him in the Gospel mission and, above all, he loved them for the generous self-investment they made in building up the Community. The ties that bound him and his co-workers were their common Baptism and a passionate commitment to Christ and his message."

So far so good.  Pope Benedict XVI for example, has repeatedly emphasized that Christianity is essentially communal in character: a faith something handed down to us, not something we invent for ourselves (say in the mid to late twentieth century!) and not something that can be realized in isolation.

What Paul could not abide or tolerate were fellow Christians who dissembled, played the game of rivalry, who scandalised the communities he served and thereby obstructed the Gospel. Among these were the ‘Dogs’ – the mutilators of the flesh and ‘false brothers’, the ‘Super Apostles’ and the legalistic Judaisers of the James Party. Last and certainly not least was Cephas. His weak backsliding nearly destroyed the Galatian community. For that Paul withstood him to his face...

Gah!  It is hardly fair exegesis to put St Paul's attacks on those seeking to pervert the faith and promote immoral behaviour with his comments on St James and his disciples and St Peter.  Moreover, in the case of the famous incident at Antioch it is worth noting that St Barnabas, normally a Paul supporter, actually sided with St Peter, so the issues were not clear cut.  Nor was St Paul himself as pure on these issues as Mr Timbs would like to suggest - after all he personally circumcised St Timothy!

More fundamentally, it is important to remember that though Our Lord laid the foundations in his teaching for a universal mission beyond the Jews themselves, and for a new approach to the law, he and his disciples followed the Jewish law (correcting its interpretation as necessary), modelling for us the idea of obedience to legitimate authority.  In fact it was St Peter's dream-vision (Acts 10), and not anything St Paul did or said, that laid the foundations for the decision of the early Church to discard Jewish dietary and other laws.

The Pope's theological 'journey'(!)

Mr Timbs then attempts to portrays the Pope's own theological development as a case of Petrine backsliding away from the truth - represented by his disavowal of the ideas of Messrs Rahner et al.  Others can argue about whether the 'radical young theologian of Vatican II who later became orthodox' paradigm best explains the Pope's views, or whether, as others argue, there is a high degree of continuity in his thinking. 

Either way, to compare the Pope's maturing of theological views with the debate on pastoral and theological approaches to Jewish law in the early Church really strikes me as particularly outrageous.  Because who anointed Rahner et al as the standard of orthodoxy!?  Is no one allowed to change their views after reflection on them?

The People of God

Mr Timbs' main difficulty though appears to be (unsurprisingly) with the insistence that the Church is hierarchically constituted.  He says:

"Ratzinger’s unease with some theologies embedded in Conciliar documents can be traced to his unhappiness with the ecclesial notion of the People of God. It had too much of a democratic populist ring about it. For him, it threatened to relativise and jeopardise the absolute authority of the Petrine office. This key element adopted by Vatican II, however, would be quietly diluted by ‘authentic catechesis’ and even publicly dismissed a few years ago by one of our own Bishops as ‘old hat.’ It was not always so.

Well yes indeed.  In fact the Catechism of the Catholic Church has quite an extended treatment of the concept of the People of God, relying on the actual documents of Vatican II without any editorializing that I can see.  But it is easy to see why the Pope is concerned about the distortion of this concept from what follows in Mr Timbs' dissertation:

At the Council Yves Congar OP was astounded at the progressive young theologians Rahner and Ratzinger for daring to propose a model of Conciliarist ecclesiology which would more clearly define papal authority in terms of the College of Bishops acting together with the Pope and the whole Church in the exercise of the Magisterium. In other words, the College of Bishops would never again be a mere Papal rubber stamp but a fellowship of co-workers....

Really?  In fact Lumen Gentium and other documents of the Council do no such thing.  Try reading the actual documents Mr Timbs, and providing citations (and explaining why we should ignore what the documents actually do say) to back up your claims. 

The problem of ultramontanism

Mr Timbs goes on to describe what he views as the terms of the Pope's 'regression'.

He also argues that the last two pontificates have seen a resurgence of 'Papalisation of theology and church'.  I actually do think there is something to this: ultramontanism rather took hold amongst conservative Catholics, particularly in the US.  And exactly parallel to this is the fundamentalist attitude towards spirit of Vatican IIism that Mr Timbs and his confreres have adopted.

In both cases I think the problem dates back to Vatican II itself, and has been fed by the absence of much stress on the importance of continuity with tradition.  All too many papal and conciliar documents of the last fifty years are full of pronouncements written without explicit reference to what came before, as if they were bolts from the blue, when in reality they drew on two thousand years of tradition.

Pope Benedict has actually made a real effort to correct this, and set out what can't be changed because it belongs to the core truths of the faith, and what can be debated (including amongst the documents of Vatican II itself).  A key part of his legacy, I think, will be to have laid the foundations that permit real theological progress rather than endless 'dialogue' and dissent masquerading as theology!

Meanwhile at Assisi

And in that light, the Pope (picture above, Getty Images) has used the revamped Assisi meeting (no interfaith prayers; agnostic philosophers as well as other religions invited) to call on other religions to denounce violence carried out in the name of their faith (who could be be talking about?!).  Interestingly, it was the Hindu representative who  mused on why twenty-five years of 'interfaith dialogue' had born so little fruit...

No doubt Mr Timbs sees all of this as further evidence of papal backsliding however, of 'dialogue to monologue'!   In that view, he can perhaps find some common ground with his fellow hardliners, albeit those at the opposite end of the spectrum to him.  Unfortunately, in my experience, the liberal concept of dialogue means talking only to those who happen to vaguely agree with them, and rejecting outreach to those such as the SSPX who challenge their comfortable assumptions...


A Canberra Observer said...

CathNews ...

and in the 'weekend' edition the canonisation of former Catholic nun Anita Caspary, who left the church, and if the story is to be believed for who feminism became the cause of her life.

And all trumped up as the fruits of Vatican II.

Robert said...

There's an old joke (I wish I could find a definitive printed source for it; perhaps no such source exists) to the effect that Rahner's gibberish had to be translated from German into German.

A recent and much praised English-language book on the post-conciliar papacy includes the following prose: "What interested the young Heidegger was precisely what he called the hermeneutics of facticity in concrete life, or being as it is in time, which became known as an 'existential analytic'."

Forget the book's Rahner-, Balthasar-, and Congar-saturated text, I can't understand even its index half the time. Entries there include "Orthopraxis", "Hellenization", "Phenomenology", "Philosophical anthropology", and "Pastoral pragmatism". Oh yes, and "Dionysiac orgies". I duly looked up the page where "Dionysiac orgies" appears, thinking that it might be interestingly orgiastic; no such luck. Somehow I don't think I'll be enrolling in Australian universities' theology courses at any time soon.

Nick S said...

An interesting fact to note is that David Timbs is a laicised Redemptorist priest.

Like many failed priests (Paul Collins comes to mind) it seems he has an axe to grind with poor old Mother Church.