Tuesday, 4 September 2012

Vatican II: An Event of Grace?

I received an email ad for yet another of those Broken Bay Institute e-conferences, this one apparently to mark the 'Year of Grace', and entitled 'Vatican II An Event of Grace'.

But was Vatican II truly an 'event of grace'?

Both at a theoretical, theological level and on the 'by their fruits' principle, that's surely open to debate!

The Holy Spirit and Councils of the Church

Let's look at the theory first.

Some seem to think that by definition a Council of the Church must be a grace-filled event. 

But that just ain't necessarily so!

Consider, for example, the Council of Florence (1431-1445), held to try and reconcile the Eastern Churches. 

It must have seemed like a grace-filled moment indeed at the time, when all but one of the Eastern bishops signed up to end, finally, the state of schism that had existed since 1054 (and in reality long before that). 

But the Patriarch of Constantinople died two days later.  And then the remaining Orthodox bishops who went home were all swiftly deposed by mobs of monks and laypeople who wanted no truck with Rome...

Going through the motions?

Aside from decisions like those of Florence that were simply never implemented, Councils, like Popes, can make pastoral decisions that while binding on the Church, have in fact proven to be bad decisions.

Vatican II was primarily a pastoral council. On the face of it, far from making the Church better placed to cope with the revolution of the 1960s, the Council led to the emptying of convents and pews. 

Was it justified by the claim that people were really just 'going through the motions' in the 1950s, as some continue to claim

I wasn't born then, so I really can't say, but all the anecdotal evidence that has come down to me from my own family members who lived in that era, as well as the more general evidence, seems to be directly at odds with that proposition.  Quite the contrary, the prayers books, catechetical materials, prayer cards, evidence of devotions and more that I've inherited suggests quite a deep level of committed and thoughtful piety.

Moreover, surely even those who spend most of their lives 'going through the motions' are far more likely to make it to heaven in the end than those who no longer attend mass at all!  Those 1950s churchgoers regularly encountered occasions of grace when they went to Mass, went to confession, and received the Eucharist.  If they weren't fervent all the time, then they were at least cultivating virtues that they could draw on when it really counted.

Theology, magisterial teaching and levels of authority

It is important to note, too, that there is nothing magical about Councils that makes them automatically immune from error when it comes to doctrine.  The reality is that even formal, infallible dogmatic definitions arrived at by a Council are only binding on the Church if the Pope (who does have the charism of infallibility) approves them.

There have been plenty of Councils of bishops down the ages (think robber Council of Ephesus for a starter), both regional and claiming to be 'Ecumenical', whose doctrinal propositions have not in fact been accepted subsequently.

In the case of Vatican II, of course, one of the key topics that continues to be debated is just what level of doctrinal authority the various documents and statements in them really have. 

I personally always find it somewhat bizarre that liberals who de facto reject Vatican I, and refuse to accept infallible definitions by recent Popes on subjects such as the ordination of women, and similarly resist all adherence to the Ordinary Magisterial teaching of the Pope, yet want to treat the teaching of Vatican II as if it were all infallible teaching. 

The bottom line is that 'collegiality', whatever its alleged virtues, does not equate to infallibility or undefectibility.  A Council consisting entirely of the Orthodox bishops for example, unless they suddenly acknowledge the authority of the Pope, from a catholic perspective, would have no binding effect on anyone.

Accordingly, the documents of Vatican II certainly contain a lot of magisterial teaching, and attempt to set out a contemporary theology.  Some are of a higher level of authority than others (viz the dogmatic constitutions).  On the face of it, Catholics are required to accept the teaching therein (properly understood of course, in a hermeneutic of continuity!). 

All the same, if the Council had wanted to make any infallible definitions, that is propositions that can never be changed, it would have needed to make it clear just what those dogmas were and that they were in fact intended to be irreformable.  Since the Council didn't do that, prima facie, there are no new dogmas in this category.

Grace, the smoke of the devil and discernment

In the end, whether or not a Council - or any other event in the history of the Church - proves to have been a moment of grace or not is something that only history can judge.

On the one had, we have the promise that Christ will be with the Church always.  Accordingly, anyone who argues that the history of the Western Church has basically been a thousand year plus inevitable slide into towards heterodoxy and heteropraxis, as Geoffrey Hull does in his book 'The Banished Heart' (yes, I am still reading it!), is in my view rejecting the view that the God has a providential plan and intervenes in history to ensure it is realised.

On the other hand, though, grace requires our co-operation.  It requires that we act as God wants, not in the pursuit of power or for other less noble motivations. 

The bishops and Vatican II

And on that front, I recently came across a very entertaining narration on Vatican II by Fr Bede Rowe.

Fr Rowe notes that one of the main changes the came out of the Council is in fact to give bishops an implicitly far more elevated position in relation to both priests, the laity and the Pope than they had before Vatican II, and he sees this as the root cause of the dissent that has arisen.   

Look at the Catechsim of Trent on holy orders and you will see that there were seven, he notes - and bishop was not one of the seven!  Instead, priesthood consisted of several degrees 'of dignity and power', namely priest, bishop, archbishop, patriarch and pope.  Now we have but three orders: deacon, priest - and bishop.

His storyline goes like this:

"With increasing centralisation, the Roman Curia had become a little heavy handed in the way it dealt with the Local Church. Translation: head Office did not always remember that the guys on the front line needed their support and not what sometimes seemed like rules that made life more difficult.

When the Council Fathers arrived at the fated Council the preliminary documents had been prepared by the Curia (the Vatican’s Civil Service). The Curia was headed by Cardinal Ottaviani (who became a bit of a bug bear). His name had been on the documents which the Bishops had received in the years before, and as it is easy to blame one man for anything and everything. Then I suspect that when the Bishops came face to face (or mitre to mitre) with him, then the relationship was cool. Translation: the branch managers from Hicksville and Dogsbreath-in-the-Marsh came to head office in the Capital, but instead of being dazzled by the lights and smart suits of the Company’s management Team, rather resented the whole thing...

i believe what happened in the council was this. Certain Bishops realised that actually in this situation they had the power. The Curia could only put forward and propose Documents and the good Cardinal Ottaviani was only one voice among many. And the perfect way to get back at the well oiled, well dressed Vatican machine was to take all its work and rip it up in front of its face. Now if this were a child you would smack its legs and send it back to its room and tell it ‘to think very hard about what it had just done’. But neither Mummy nor Daddy was there, because the Pope was absent from the Council (as was right and just) and there was no one to tell the Bishops to think about their motives. So the Bishops stretched the boundaries further and further. It was their show. These were their toys and no one was going to tell them what to do. They were Bishops for goodness sake....

But what could be put in the place of the Documents which the Bishops had ripped up?

Bless them, they wrote them themselves. But they were not cool tactician civil servants with the eye on 2000 years of theology and the responsibility of the world wide vision of the Universal Church of Almighty God. They were men who had drunk at the well of this nonsense of man’s ability to change the world.

They replaced the proposed Documents with the ones we have now – full, not of sound and fury, but of kittens and flowers, happiness and joy, hope and peace. I know, I know – that is good and worthy, noble and just and the Christian message – I know. And if they had stayed on the shelf then they would have remained as interesting Documents in the Church’s rich tapestry. But we know that they were written in such a loose way that the role of the Church in the past 50 years has been to ‘interpret’ them to keep them Catholic and to try to stop the grass roots from becoming in their theology and practice functionally Protestants."

Do read the whole thing, it is a great read even if you don't agree with all or any of it!

The bottom line

Not every pastoral decision taken at the Council or in its name has been proved bad.  In fact I do think there were several changes that have been for the better, and others that though they have been distorted in their implementation thus far, will ultimatley prove to be positives.

Other changes - such as to the liturgy - have been rather less positive.

God always brings good out of bad.

Yet that does not mean that bad does not destroy countless lives; cost countless souls along the way. 

There have been very dark periods indeed in the Churches history. 

Personally, I think we are in one of them.

And it is just depressing to see the head in the sand syndrome being pushed as part of the 'Year of Grace'.  Perhaps we can hope for more from the Vatican sponsored Year of Faith...


Maureen said...

A priest whom I respect enormously has said that yes, Christ promised that He would be with His church at all times; but perhaps not necessarily in Australia.......

Terry said...

I remember reading somewhere in the past, that one of the reasons Pope John XXIII gave for calling the Second Vatican Council, was to open the windows and let the Holy Spirit into the Church to breathe new life into it. The Holy Spirit has been in the Church since Penecost. To the best of my knowledge, not a single bishop pointed this out to the Pope. Were the Pope and all the bishops ignorant of this piece of basic theology. Are we to thank the Holy Spirit for the difficult to understand and open to many interpretations teachings, such as, "The Church of Christ subsists in the Catholic Church", when the Holy Spirit had previously given us the simple, straightforward teaching, "The Catholic Church is the one true church"?

rmerkel said...

You said Vatican II led to the emtying of pews? That's a little simplistic and unfair - yes pews did empty, but not because of the Council (ie its documents and declarations), but due to those who misappropriated and misapplied them in the years after the Council. You may be interested to know pews emptied in other Christian Churches as well - those that didn't have a "Vatican II' moment or change of liturgy.

Kate Edwards said...

Vatican II and the emptying of the pews - its a shorthand I agree, but in fact most other denominations followed the Catholic reforms to the liturgy and, hence the common lectionary.

In the seventies I attended a Methodist Church in NZ, and vividly remember my mother attempting to explain to me that despite the fact that the words used for the methodist communion service were identical to the catholic ones (that had simply adopted the new mass texts), transubstantiation did not in fact occur!

Pretty much everyone got on the bandwagaon and 'updated'.