Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Memories Are Made of This--Refashioning Vatican II

October 11th this year marks the 50th anniversary of the opening of the Second Vatican Council and one of the behind-the-scenes struggles for the direction of the Catholic Church concerns just what that Council taught in its various decrees, declarations, and constitutions.  One would think that the Council’s teachings would be quite clear.  I mean, it is all there in black and white (though in Latin) in the official documents, but one thing historians know and the rest of the world must learn is that a document is not enough—the real “trick” is in the interpretation of the document.  I don’t mean the translation—though that too is a matter of interpretation as despite the best efforts of Liturgiam Authenticam to fool you to the contrary, there is no such thing as a literal interpretation, at least a faithful literal interpretation—but I mean the interpretation of what the documents mean.  We all know what a document says (or actually reads as documents don’t talk) but what does it mean?  We have the same issue in the United States when it comes to interpreting our Constitution.  There are strict constructionists like Mr. Justice Scalia for whom it is a static set of words and ideas and who insist it be interpreted in a narrow historical context for the exact meaning of its author(s), and you have the broad constructionists, generally liberals, who treat it like a living organism whose meaning has evolved over the years as it is applied to situations never foreseen by its 18th century proponents.  So too the Documents of Vatican II:   must they be understood as to the intentions of the authors and the Council Fathers who approved them or are they able to be mined for new meanings that develop as the Church grows and develops.  Certainly this much is true: the Church of 2012 would be beyond the wildest imaginations of the Pope (John XXIII) and Bishops who marched into Saint Peter’s Basilica 50 years ago.  Where are the legions of veiled nuns?  What are lay people doing bringing Holy Communion to the sick?  What language is this we are hearing at Mass?  Why are these Africans dancing around the altar?  Look at all these black and brown and yellow bishops!  Lots of changes—some good, some not so good.   The once dormant Church of Latin America is alive and thriving—raised from the dead!   The Church of Europe is sinking fast. Who’da thunk it?
So how do we interpret the Council decrees?  When it comes to the US Constitution, the conservatives want a “strict construction.”  When it comes to the Decrees of Vatican II, it is the liberals who are arguing to stay with the original intent of the Council Fathers.  It is the liberals in the Church who believe that the Council has been stolen from them by an attempt to reinterpret the decrees in a way very different from how they were originally understood.  Before the current school year opened, Cardinal Wuerl wrote a letter to the seminarians of his Archdiocese  calling on them to study hard and, as the 50th anniversary of the Council approached, to study the Conciliar documents closely so as to defend them against those who would interpret them with a “hermeneutic of discontinuity.”   This, in a nutshell,  is the argument over the Council—are the Conciliar decrees “continuous” with the teaching of the pre-conciliar Church or do they represent a sharp break in our Catholic heritage?
It is the conservatives—led by people in Rome, including Pope Benedict—who want to alter the history of the Council by reshaping the teaching of the Council according to a “hermeneutic of continuity.”  A great part of this is from the Holy Father’s ardent desire to reconcile the Traditionalist movement begun by the late Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre.  Most Catholics think that the fight with the traditionalists is over the “New Mass” but the liturgical reforms of Paul VI are only the tip of the iceberg.  I have long felt that the only people who really understand the Second Vatican Council are those who reject it.   I am not endorsing a rejection of the Council—far from it.  I think the Council has saved the Church for the future.  But the Council saved the Church by taking radical means.  There was at Vatican II, for example, a complete reversal of Catholic teaching regarding ecumenism.  Catholics had been forbidden to engage in any ecumenical activity prior to the Council—discussion groups, collaborative projects, mission work—and never, never, never were we to pray with Protestants (who were heretics) or even the Orthodox (who were only schismatics, but separated none the less from the “True Church”).  Ecumenism had been explicitly condemned by Pius XI in his 1928 encyclical Mortalium Animos.   
Another discontinuity is that the Council itself was a bit of backtracking on the infallibility of the Pope.  Vatican I with its decree Pastor Aeternus declaring Papal Infallibility had made the idea of a Council superfluous.  All authority resided in the Pope.  There would never again be a need to gather the bishops to share the teaching office of Peter.  To not only gather them in a Council but to permit them to openly discuss Catholic doctrine and discipline was nothing less than a reconsideration of Papal authority as defined at Vatican I. 
Dignitatis Humanae, the Decree on Religious Liberty totally reversed Catholic Doctrine that taught that freedom of worship should be limited to the Catholic Church and that ‘error has no rights’ meaning that non-Catholic worship should be proscribed by civil law.  Dei Verbum, the Constitution on Divine Revelation not only permitted but encouraged the very sort of biblical studies that Pius X had condemned in his battle against modernism.   
Recently the Vatican announced that The Pontifical Committee for Historical Sciences is interested in collecting the journals, diaries, and private notes of the Council Fathers (participants) at Vatican II for the archives so that future scholars could better study the Council.  Hopefully this project will be a failure and the various dioceses and religious orders will preserve the relevant documents.  There would be no more effective way of advancing the lie of the “hermeneutic of continuity” than to isolate from scholars, historians, and theologians the relevant documents that show what the bishops were thinking at the time of the Council.  To reinterpret the Council in the “hermeneutic of continuity” is to rob the Council of charismatic character with which the Holy Spirit endowed it and to reduce it to a tool of those who want to turn back the clock and undo the work of Grace.

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