Thursday, 11 October 2012

Reading the documents of Vatican II: a false compass for the Church today?

Source: Vatican Radio

The fifth of my suggested actions for the Year of Faith is to reread the documents of Vatican II.

As today is the fiftieth anniversary of the start of Vatican II, it is a particularly appropriate day to look at how to approach this task!

Pope Benedict XVI used his General Audience yesterday to talk about his memories of the occasion, and the continuing relevance of Vatican II for the Church today.

This one of those occasions, I think, where I for one will clearly state that I am not an ultramontanist: not every word that drips from the mouth of a Pope must be accepted as Gospel truth!

Vatican II Constitutions as compass points?!

The Pope's comments suggest that the four main constitutions of the Council remain compass points for the Church today:

"Looking in this light at the richness contained in the documents of Vatican II, I would like to mention the four constitutions, almost like the four points of a compass that can guide us. The Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy Sacrosanctum Concilium tells us how to worship in the Church at the beginning is adoration, there is God, there is the centrality of the mystery of Christ's presence. And the Church, the Body of Christ and a pilgrim people in all ages, has the fundamental task to glorify God, as expressed by the Dogmatic Constitution Lumen Gentium. The third document which I would like to mention is the Constitution on Divine Revelation Dei Verbum: the living Word of God calls the Church and vivifies her along the journey through history. And the way in which the Church brings the light she has received from God the whole world so He may be glorified, is the underlying theme of the Pastoral Constitution Gaudium et Spes."

That's a nice gloss.  But does it stand up to a reality test?

Rereading the texts

It is certainly worth rereading these documents today to see what they have to offer fifty years on, and I've suggested this as the fifth of my 'things to do for the Year of Faith' list.

But if one does take a hard look at those documents, I think the consensus judgment on most of them is that they are pretty much all inherently flawed, and have more often served to misdirect the faithful than to direct the Church appropriately.

The hard reality is that Sacrosanctum Concilium, though certainly containing some worthy sentiments and ideas (such as the attempt to revive the popularity of the Divine Office, subverted in the event by the complexity and untraditional nature of the 'Liturgy of the Hours', not to mention the popularity of evening Masses that displace Vespers), is largely based on a flawed anthropology.  It disdains, for example, the use of repetition in the liturgy, not understanding that repetition is the very key to ritual and reinforcement.

Gaudium et Spes is, as the Pope himself pointed out in a  previous life, similarly undermined by its implicit (and even explicit) Pelagianism (the view that we can do it all ourselves, without the need for grace).  And it generated the need for a stream of Magisterial documents, from Pope Paul VI onwards, to insist that it did not in fact justify liberation theology or the abandonment of mission!

Dei Verbum, far from stimulating a new, genuinely Catholic focus on Scripture, has seen the historico-critical method unleashed on the Church with devastating effects, resulting in a de facto protestanization of most Catholics' understanding of the Bible.

And Lumen Gentium has led to an excessive stress on the horizontal unity of the body of the Church ('the People of God') at the expense of the counterbalancing hierarchical and divine (vertical) constitution of the Church ('the body of Christ').

If these are compass points, they are wildly wavering ones!

A Council in search of a purpose

The biggest problem with Vatican II remains its ongoing search for a reason for having been called in the first place.

As Pope Benedict XVI said in his remarks yesterday:

"In the history of the Church, as I think you know, various councils have preceded the Second Vatican Council. Usually these large ecclesial assemblies were convened to define key elements of the faith, especially to correct errors that put her in danger. We think of the Council of Nicaea in 325, to counter the Arian heresy and to emphasize the divinity of Jesus, as the only Son of God the Father, or that of Ephesus in 431, which defined Mary as the Mother of God; the Council of Chalcedon, in 451, which affirmed the one person of Christ in two natures, the divine and the human person. Closer to our time, we have the Council of Trent in the sixteenth century, which clarified the essential points of Catholic doctrine before the Protestant Reformation, or Vatican I, which began to reflect on various issues, but had time to produce only two documents, one on knowledge of God, revelation, faith and relationships with reason and one on the primacy and infallibility of the Pope, because it was interrupted by the occupation of Rome in September 1870.

If we look at the Second Vatican Council, we can see that at that moment in the journey of the Church there were no particular errors of faith to correct or condemn, nor were there specific issues of doctrine or discipline to be clarified..."  

Instead, the task was allegedly to update the Church and renew it.   But the potential for this was largely high jacked by the 60s revolution and that false aggorniamento that saw the destruction of most Catholic institutions of the laity, of the religious orders, and the massive exit of many priests from the ministry.  An 'updating' that saw the rejection and subversion of Catholic morality, even on the part of priests, and opened the way to many evils.  

The way forward  

I'm not suggesting that there is nothing at all positive in the documents of or reforms that followed Vatican II.  A key task for this Year of Faith is, I think, to use the distance of fifty years to take a hard, fresh look at those documents and reforms and decide what does withstand the test of time, which reforms have born good fruit.  

But on the face of it, the actual results of the process of 'updating' and 'renewing' the Church have been disastrous.  Let's not pretend otherwise.   

The Year of Faith must not become an occasion for undue adulation of the Council; rather it must take on the task of integrating its positives into the two thousand year tradition of the Church.


pab said...

Well put Kate! Bp Felly perhaps couldn't have said it better.

See you now at the SSPX :-)


Kate Edwards said...

Sorry Paul but I for one take seriously the obligation to remain in full communion with the Pope, including through the acceptance of the sacraments and ecclesiastical governance of the Church.

There is room for legitimate theological debate, and I think my comments fall well within those limits. There is no room for wholesale rejection of the validity of the Council.

t stanton said...

it might be well to remember that the process of "updating" and "renewing" may have had poor results in the Western World, but has had very encouraaging results in Asia and Africa. Secondly, its not a good idea to define the success or otherwise of a Council based on such a short period of time (literally a blink of the eye in the history of the Church), and for many only because we are living our lives through the wake of it - look back at the Council of Trent - much of it took over a century to take effect.

pab said...

Dear Kate

"There is no room for wholesale rejection of the validity of the Council"

The SSPX position on VII is certainly not "wholesale rejection".