Wednesday, 3 October 2012

Vatican II and the poverty of the 'from/to' narrative

In the lead up to the fiftieth anniversary of Vatican II, there are a lot of pieces around at the moment on what Vatican I was really about, mostly of the 'from/to' variety.

There are basically two equal and opposite narratives: if you're a liberal, from the awfulness that was the world before Vatican II to the wonderful new church not yet fully realised; if you are a traditionalist, the story mostly goes in reverse, a story of collapse into confusion, heterodoxy and heteropraxis.

I want to suggest that both storylines need to be rejected: the actual experience of the last fifty years in terms of the collapse in vocations, church attendance and much more certainly doesn't support any storyline about the positive effects of Vatican II on the Church; but that doesn't mean there is nothing at all helpful to be found in its documents.

The challenge before us for the upcoming Year of Faith, I'd like to suggest, is to identify and integrate those positive insights offered by the Council into the longer tradition of the Church, so that we can finally start moving forward again after the confusion and obfuscation that has prevailed for so long.

From clarity to confusion

Fr Frank Brennan SJ, for example recently repeated John O'Malley SJ's  liberal 'litany' of Vatican II, last week over at Eureka Street:

'from commands to invitations, from laws to ideals, from threats to persuasion, from coercion to conscience, from monologue to conversation, from ruling to serving, from withdrawn to integrated, from vertical and top-down to horizontal, from exclusion to inclusion, from hostility to friendship, from static to changing, from passive acceptance to active engagement, from prescriptive to principled, from defiant to open-ended, from behaviour modification to conversion of heart, from the dictates of law to the dictates of conscience, from external conformity to the joyful pursuit of holiness.'

Riiight.  Because that is so consistent with Our Lord's statement that he came not to abolish the law, but to fulfill it...

Meanwhile over at Homiletic and Pastoral Review, in an article by Paul Kokoski picked up Rorate Caeli and others, you can find an article that flags some of the items that would be in the hardline traddie equivalent litany. 

Its basic theme is the state of 'diabolical disorientation' in the Church today, caused, the author claims, by the inherent contradictions in Vatican II documents.  The net result, he argues is that:

"the Church has lost her ability to speak to the modern world about God with any clarity or conviction."

I don't think the author has fairly represented the teachings of Pope Benedict XVI, or made even the faintest attempt to read the documents in the light of the hermeneutic of continuity.  Still, his views probably do pretty much represent those of the SSPX/hard end of the traditionalist movement

Indeed, from reading it, and the comments in places like Rorate on it, one could readily construct the traditionalist version of a litany of Vatican II.  Here is my crack at it:

From mission to indifferentism
From conversion to Protestantism
From orthopraxis to syncretism
From truth to relativism
From certain to uncertain
From positive to problematic
From proclamation to conversation
From conviction to shame
From clarity to contradiction.

What both litanies have in common, in my view, is a rejection of the idea of the continuity of the tradition in the Church today. 

Neither makes any attempt to reconcile Council teachings with what came before; both posit a revolution.  Fr Brennan wants us to embrace the revolution, Mr Kokoski to reject it.

Yet both extremes, I think, must ultimately fail.

Councils and history: teaching

To understand how we should truly approach Vatican II, I think we have to look at how Councils have traditionally been understood in the Church.

First, Councils have generally been held to clarify or attempt to resolve disputed theological debates.  They don't always succeed in one go: Nicaea needed Constantinople to settle the Creed;  Ephesus needed Chalcedon to settle all of the issues it threw up.

Vatican II was not, it is true, primarily a dogmatic Council.  All the same it did teach. 

Some of the things the Council emphasized are, I think, perfectly straightforward, and all traditionalists would accept them as restatements of the Church's longstanding teaching.

Others are not problematic in themselves, but have become distorted in the context of the 'from/to' rhetoric that  have grown up around them.  The universal call to holiness is a classic example - instead of being presented as a restatement of what has always been the Church's teaching, it is too often given a patently false 'it was all awful before the Council' storyline' (due in no small part to the distorted history concocted by Yves Congar and followers).   And in a bizarre overreaction in the opposite direction, it has too often been used to justify the denigration of religious life and the priesthood in the cause of building up the role of the laity.

Some of the things Vatican II taught probably do need either another Council or perhaps a magisterial Syllabus of Errors to clarify, the teaching on religious freedom (one of the key subjects of Mr Kokoski's piece) being one of them.  There are now several quite good expositions around that fit Dignitatis Humanae into a traditional framework.  What is needed though is some Magisterial teaching to endorse their approach.

History and pastoral decisions

The main focus of Vatican II though was clearly pastoral.

And pastoral decisions of Councils ultimately have to be assessed in terms of whether or not they work. 

On the face of it, many of Vatican II's pastoral decisions have clearly failed that test, failed to bear good fruit.

In some areas, perhaps all that is needed is some judicious rebalancing.

When it comes to ecumenism for example, personally, I'm kind of glad catholic and protestant kids no longer feel the need to throw rocks at each other on the way home from school purely because of their religion.  And I've been glad I was able to attend the funerals of relatives and friends held in protestant churches (even if I did find the lack of prayers for the repose of their souls disconcerting to say the least).  We should keep those positives - while at the same time rejecting that false ecumenism that seems to suggest that protestants don't need to be converted to the fullness of truth that is the Church.

Similarly the focus on social justice and reforming this world in the light of Christ surely just needs to regain an eschatological orientation, and a broader concept of the essentials of justice based above all on the sacredness of the gift of life, to put it in a proper perspective.

The problem of the liturgy

Far more problematic, and less easy to fix, I think is the liturgy.

A good case can certainly be made that many of the most problematic features of the Novus Ordo Mass (and for that matter, the Liturgy of Hours) have no obvious authorization in Vatican II's Sacrosanctum Concilium.  There is nothing in that document, for example, on celebration facing the people, ditching the Latin altogether, abandoning the chant in favour of folk music or guitar twanging, the 'reintroduction' of archaic elements such as the intercessory prayers, or the use of alternative Eucharistic Prayers.

But the real problem with the Novus Ordo Mass is the constant tension it sets up aimed at breaking the sense of liturgy as ritual: things like the use of lay readers and the sign of peace deliberately disrupt the sense of the sacred whenever it might be set up. 

It is of course possible to make the Ordinary Form seem likely genuinely liturgical worship.

But it is not easy. 

Even more problematically, whole generations have been brainwashed into believing that ritual and rubrics and mystery are a bad thing.

That will not be easy to turn around. Particularly since even traditionalists have, in my view, all too often been infected with variants of the same disease, deciding, in the case of priests, that they too can pick and choose which particular older set of practices they like and incorporate them into the Mass; or in the case of the laity, insisting on reading every word in the Missal instead of focusing on and joining spiritually with what is actually happening in the liturgy.

Beyond 'from/to'

For most of us today, the time before the Council is not part of our personal memories (I was not even two when it started!), and conducting endless history wars over what the world was like then, and whether the Church needed to be opened up to the world is not, in my view, likely to be particularly productive.

Instead we have to step back and take a hard look at the actual documents of Vatican II, their implementation and above all their effects, and make some hard assessments of where the Church is now.

Above all, after fifty years of confusion, we need to integrate the Council into the two thousand year perspective of God's providential guidance of his Church.

And that should be the challenge we take on as we move into the Year of Faith proclaimed by Pope Benedict on October 11.

Accordingly, we should be thinking about what we can do to mark the Year of Faith, and I'll say more on that over the next week or two.


Maureen said...

Maybe it would be a good idea to plan for Vatican 3!! - encourage the pendulum to swing back a little.
I remember Life before Vatican 2, and was probably too old to accept the drastic changes when they came.It's what sent me right back into the arms of Judaism, and my mother's beliefs. I could not comprehend a Church which suddenly announced that everything my father and grandmother had believed and practised was now made me extremely angry at the time.
I'm not sure what you mean by orthopraxis to syncretism - going to look it up now!

Kate Edwards said...

Hmm yes I'll tease out the elements of that litany over coming weeks, but orthopraxis = right practice while syncretism means the incorporation of various other (typically non-Christian) practices.

I should say that I'm not actually advocating holding another Council anytime soon - the experience of extreme disruption and confusion in the aftermath, at least in the short term, that we've experienced in recent decades is a pretty standard pattern unfortunately!