I am a big fan of Father Robert Barron and his use of the media to bring the Catholic message to popular audiences—not that I think Father Barron is always right (because I don’t) but because he makes a serious attempt to cast Church teaching in a positive—rather than a negative—light. Let me give you an example. I recently received an email alert on Father Barron’s estimation of the legacy which Pope Benedict is bequeathing to the Church. https://www.wordonfire.org/WOF-TV/Commentaries-New/The-Legacy-of-Pope-Benedict-XVI.aspxI would evaluate things somewhat differently than Father Barron. In the first place Father Barron says that in some instances Vatican II was “weirdly or oddly interpreted???” Really? By whom? O sure there was a priest here or a religion teacher there who had some strange ideas they labeled “the spirit of Vatican II” but the serious criticisms of how the first generation post-Vatican II Catholics “interpreted” the Council imply that the initial set of reforms of the liturgy or ecumenism or the role of the laity were not what the Council Fathers intended. But it was the Council Fathers themselves who were responsible for the initial changes. The Pope and the bishops who made the changes were Paul VI and the very bishops who sat at the Council. The 1970 Missal, for example, was prepared by men (yes, men, I know, I know, but it was all men in those days who did this sort of work) who were the Council Fathers. The bishops who turned the altars to face the people and put the liturgy into the language of the people had sat in the Council as voting members. The bishops who appealed for laity to be permitted to bring communion to the sick or help distribute communion at Mass were the very Council Fathers themselves. Men who wore their miters when they approved the Decrees on Ecumenism or non-Christian religions were the very men who went home to their dioceses and initiated interfaith and ecumenical prayer services and inter-religious charitable and relief programs. Bishops who were at the Council came back and appointed laity to head Catholic Relief Services and Catholic Charities and diocesan finance boards. So I am not so sure that the Council was interpreted “weirdly or oddly;” indeed I am somewhat suspicious that certain ecclesiastics—including Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI—haven’t tried to use this red herring to twist the Council to meanings somewhat different than the Council Fathers meant. And when Father Barron denies that the Council was meant to “modernize” the Church I cannot but ask what Pope John XXIII mean by “aggiornamento” which means literally (and remember this Pope likes things to be translated literally) “bringing up to the day.” Excuse me, Father Barron, but the Council was meant precisely to modernize the Church! Duh!
In some respects Vatican II was mean to represent evolutionary (as opposed to revolutionary) change. I would see the Decree on the Apostolate of the Laity or the Decree on Social Communications to be evolutionary documents. I would even argue that the Decree on the Liturgy and the liturgical changes which were implemented by Paul VI to fulfill the mandate of that decree were evolutionary, not revolutionary. The Vatican II Rites were in most regards a return to earlier practice which should be understood to be evolutionary as certainly archaisms were dropped from the Mass or the Sacramental Rites because they no longer served a function. An example would be the “offertory” rites of the Tridentine Mass or the second Confiteor before the communion of the faithful—or the rites that separated the communion of the faithful from the communion of the priest. The “Last Gospel” would be another example. These were accretions added in an earlier period to the Liturgy to serve a purpose that was no longer required. The addition of several more Eucharistic Prayers gave an option for the central prayer of the Mass and Prayer II in particular was the restoration of an ancient Eucharistic Prayer of the Roman Rite. All that being said, however, there were revolutionary elements to the Council. The Decrees on Ecumenism, Non-Christian Religions, and Freedom of Conscience represent a 180 degree turn in Catholic magisterial positions; there was nothing evolutionary about them. Dei Verbum, the Decree on Divine Revelation, and Ad Gentes, the Decree on the Missionary Activity of the Church broke new ground in Catholic thinking. Pope Benedict would like us to swallow the story that Vatican II represents a “hermeneutic of continuity” with the pre-conciliar Church—and in some respects it does—but equally true is that in many regards there is a hermeneutic of discontinuity. That means the Church, at Vatican II, said in regard to some issues—“Sorry, we have been wrong about that.” The Church doesn’t like to admit that it has been wrong but we historians know that often it has been wrong and it is best to admit it.
I am afraid that I have spent far too much time being negative on Father Barron’s assessment when in fact where he is right I think he is right on target and I think he is right in the vast majority of what he says. I would agree that what Benedict saw as evolutionary about Vatican II was “evolution for mission.” I think Pope Benedict, first as Josef Ratzinger the theologian and then as Josef Ratzinger the Prelate—both as Archbishop of Munich and as Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith—and finally as Pope Benedict saw that the Second Vatican Council was an attempt to focus the Church on its Mission to the World.
Furthermore, I believe that Father Barron is correct in saying that Benedict stressed the positive message of the Church. I think that the current negative tone voiced by so many (especially American) bishops is a distortion of what the Holy Father is trying to get across. I think the Pope is genuinely concerned about bringing souls to Christ, not driving them away. There is nothing of the righteous Pharisee of the Pope—I only wish I could say the same about the caped and mitered fools whose high-handed arrogance has all but destroyed the credibility of the institutional Church in the United States.
Related to the positive tone the Pope has tried to convey in his encyclicals and Sunday Messages, I agree with Father Barron that the Pope has stressed an “affirmative orthodoxy” with the central message of Divine Love, but again in pulpit after pulpit we are hearing only the message of judgment and condemnation that is not merely disheartening the faithful but driving them away in droves. I would nominate the clergy of the Diocese of Arlington in particular for the Bad Shepherd Award. Travelling up and down the east coast as I do—with occasional jaunts to the Midwest and California—I must say that there is a particularly toxic atmosphere south of the Potomac where a very selective use of the magisterium matched with a derision for the Council has been used to rob God’s people of hope in parish after parish. I commend the dozen or so faithful parishes of that diocese where the faith is being kept alive by clergy with a shepherd’s heart and their lay collaborators who cherish the Second Vatican Council and are trying to keep it alive.