Sunday, February 13, 2011

Is Vatican II in Danger?-- III a closer look behind the scenes

Yesterday we spoke of how the ecumenical and inter-faith agenda of Vatican II has fared in the years since the Council. It might be important to clarify our terms. “Ecumenical” refers to relationships among Christian groups. “Inter-faith” refers to relationships among religious groups that do not share faith in Christ, or relationships between Christians and non-Christian religions. Thus Catholic-Presbyterian dialogues over worship, for example, would be Ecumenical. Catholic-Buddhist or Catholic-Jewish (or Muslim , Hindu etc.) dialogues or collaborative charities, or other efforts would be “Inter-faith.” We obviously have much more in common with other groups that profess faith in Jesus Christ as Son of God and Savior than we do with groups that may recognize him as a Prophet (Islam) or a Holy Man (Hinduism) or who see him as simply a historical or mythological figure. There is therefore a sort of hierarchy of relationships. We have more in common with Jews, for example, than other non-Christian religions as we see that we share with them the Revelation of the Law and the Prophets given to the People of Israel. We share with Jews—and Muslims—the Abrahamic faith in the One God which gives us a closer tie with Islam than with the non-Abrahamic faiths. But while we do not share the faith in the One God revealed to Abraham with Buddhists or Hindus or others there is much truth in the wide spectrum of Asian religions—and indeed many of the indigenous religions of the world and at Vatican II the Catholic Church explicitly acknowledges this truth and affirms that we Catholics do not reject any element of this truth. The Council Fathers declared
The Catholic Church rejects nothing that is true and holy in these religions. She regards with sincere reverence those ways of conduct and of life, those precepts and teachings which, though differing in many aspects from the ones she holds and sets forth, nonetheless often reflect a ray of that Truth which enlightens all men. (NA para2)
This statement is a bone of contention for many who reject—in whole or in part—the Second Vatican Council. In fact there are three decrees of the Council which are extremely contentious—and I am not counting the decree on the Liturgy among them. That is an entirely separate issue and not nearly as divisive—though it has been divisive enough—as the three I will mention. They are the Decree on Ecumenism (Unitatis Reintegratio), the Decree on Non-Christian Religions (Nostra Aetate), and the Decree on Religious Liberty (Dignitatis Humanae). Opponents of the Council claim that these decrees represent a total reversal of the Church’s doctrine from before Council. And they are correct. The second Vatican Council did a 180 degree about-face on what the Catholic Church had taught on Ecumenism, Non-Christian Religions, and Religious Liberty. Some of the opponents of the Council have gone so far as to claim that this reversal, as a rejection of previously defined magisterial teaching, is heresy and therefore the “popes” who have supported it (John XXIII, Paul VI, John Paul I, John Paul II, and now Benedict XVI) are—as heretics—barred from the papal office and that the Chair of Peter is and has been since the Council began—empty. They are called “sede-vacantists” which comes from the Latin for “empty chair” (sede vacante). They reject all and everything about the Second Vatican Council.
A slightly less extremist position are the followers of the late Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre. While they are known mostly for their rejection of the new Liturgy, the Archbishop’s major complaint about the Council was the same complaint of the sede-vacantists, namely that the those three conciliar documents represent a repudiation of doctrines taught by the Popes and Councils and held by the faithful before the Second Vatican Council. Particularly troubling to Archbishop Lefebvre was the Document on Religious Liberty. Lefebvre came from a family whose political (and religious) ties were to a faction in French politics that are dedicated to restoring the Monarchy and reversing the French Revolution. Ever since the nineteenth century there has been a small but dedicated ultra-Catholic faction in France that seeks to establish the ancien regime with its alliance of Throne and Altar. Americans are generally not aware of this but the Catholic Church taught—up until the Second Vatican Council—that the Union of (the Catholic) Church and State was the political ideal and that Catholics had a duty towards political action that would establish the Catholic Church as the official State Religion—with restrictions on and even prohibition of other religious groups—in whatever nation they lived. This doctrine was generally overlooked in the United States as it was on conflict with our Constitution but there are some extreme right-wing Catholics—mostly in the Sede Vacantist group—who do still teach it today. Solange Hertz would be one; Atila Sinke Guimarães is another. This school not only represents a renunciation of the Second Vatican Council, but of Western culture since the Enlightenment with its positive values (I for one do not think all the values of the Enlightenment are positive) of equality of persons under law, freedom of conscience, republican government and other elements that provided the founders of our nation with the foundational principles of the American Revolution and Constitution. We will touch on this topic in future blogs when we treat some of the reasons for Anti-Catholicism in American history. Those voices who, especially in the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century, claimed that Catholics could not be good Americans actually knew Church teaching better than most American Catholics who did not see a conflict between their Church and their loyalty to the United States—but all that is for the future.
While the Holy See does not take the Sede-Vacantists seriously—and for the most part they, like Mrs. Hertz and her friends—are people who have constructed a bit of psychotic bubble, a universe of alternative realities, both Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI have made serious overtures to the Lefebvrist camp. Indeed Pope Benedict has lifted the excommunication and received them back into the Church without clearing up the Lefebvrist dissent from the Council. This is problematic for a variety of reasons. First it legitimizes dissent from official Church teaching. Secondly it may require revisiting the Council and its decrees to try to find ways to accommodate the Lefebvrists. This may explain one of the reasons for a reinterpretation—usually claimed to be an “authentic interpretation” of the Conciliar Documents. If this is so it will open yet more issues for while the Lefebvrists are willing to tolerate the existence of the “new liturgy” as long as they don’t have to use it, they are quite firm on rejecting the doctrinal changes that have permitted Ecumenical and Inter-faith relationships to develop on any official level.
When one recalls the heady enthusiasm of the Coinciliar years, Ecumenism has been for the most part hugely disappointing. I don’t think that any of us expected that Inter-religious dialogue would progress beyond the point of mutual respect and collaboration in projects that better the lives of people both locally and around the globe. It still has the promise to do that and in the process we have learned about some common ground that has been mutually beneficial. This has not been without controversy, however, particularly in the area of the influence of Buddhist and Hindu meditation techniques. But we had great hopes for Ecumenism during and after the Council. Forty years ago many of us thought that by this time we would have come to the point of, if not corporate reunion, at least sacramental sharing. There are reasons why this has not happened and not all the blame goes on the Catholic side. As I had written previously, the decision by most Protestant and Anglican Churches in the favor of the ordination of women has been a huge stumbling block . Underneath the surface is also a very different theology of human sexuality, manifest not only in divergent views of homosexuality but in the role of sex in marriage. There is also a different anthropology that gives a different level of urgency to the abortion issue as well as questions of embryonic stem-cells, in-vitro fertilization, genetic engineering and other topics very pertinent to today’s world. But our mistake, I believe, in not making greater progress while there was still much consensus on these other issues, was that we did not talk frankly and openly about our different ecclesiologies and theologies of the Sacrament of Orders. We avoided the tough questions where feelings are sensitive. Now we have several more tough and sensitive questions and it will be all the more difficult to resolve them. Far from backing off from Ecumenical dialogues we need to sit down, indeed chain ourselves to the table, and examine all the neuralgic points in full detail, ready on both sides (or all sides) to listen and open to being convinced (note, I said open, not predetermined). We still need the polite gestures and cordial ceremonial gatherings but we also need “to talk turkey.” Reconciliation will never come about without honest, truthful, frank, conversation, indeed argument. Somewhere here I have passed from history-in-the-making to theological turf where I have sworn not to go, so better to end this here. Next installment of Vatican II—in Danger? will be on the liturgy but probably not for a few days. I want to cover the issues of the nuns on the battlefields of the Civil War first.

The image today is a Buddhist monk with some Catholic Sisters at the beatification of Mother Teresa of Calcutta in 2003

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