Vatican II, we need more Vatican II! But the reforming elixir has long since grown stale…RORATE CÆLI: Ecclesial Center-Right and Center-Left Strategies Have Been Tried and Found Wanting — Article by Abbé Claude Barthe
Reforming what, by the way? Francis’s grand design, symbolized by Prædicate Evangelium, the constitution that reforms the Curia, is as much a reform of the Church according to the spirit of Vatican II as it is a reform of the Curia. There is certainly an ambiguity about the object — the Curia, the Church — which is prolonged and increased by the media, but the links between the two reforms are no less intrinsic: the reorganization of the Roman government necessarily has consequences for that of the whole Church.
This was clearly seen in the discussions that took place during the consistory at the end of August, when a sort of second and more solemn promulgation of the Constitution Prædicate Evangelium of March 19, 2022 was staged. It was presented to the College of Cardinals, which was given the floor — duly framed — to express its approval.
There were, however, some critics who underlined the ecclesial stakes of any reform of the central administration. Some cardinals raised the difficulty of appointing simple lay heads of dicasteries. Their request, invoking Lumen gentium and the sacramentality of the episcopate, was rather vague. To summarize the real problem: a number of the prefects of the Curia have real powers of jurisdiction, especially to judge bishops and clerics, as well as to issue texts, responses, and sentences of doctrinal significance. They do receive this jurisdiction by delegation from the Pope, but they must have an intrinsic capacity to be granted it for these types of acts (judging, teaching), which derives from their quality as clerics. The abuse of the term “synodality” was also noted, as a kind of slogan that seeks to express an extension, to the entire “People of God,” of the episcopal collegiality so dear to Vatican II. However, historically, as an Eastern cardinal pointed out, the word “synodality” is almost the equivalent of episcopal collegiality, because it refers precisely to a certain collegial exercise of episcopal power in the Eastern Churches. It is therefore not a suitable term for signifying a kind of democratization, which should rather be called “communiality”.
Successive reforms in the line of Vatican II on an exhausted and divided Church
One must keep in mind that Vatican II, in four years, from 1962 to 1965, had overturned an edifice that was not only Tridentine, as is often said, but even Gregorian (from the Gregorian Reform in the 11th century). In spite of all the crises, the Great Schism, the Protestant Reformation, the Revolution, and in a pathetic way in recent times, the Church has continued to claim fully, as she did with great force during the “Gregorian moment,” the principle of her freedom: Spouse of Christ, she has always been conscious of being the supernatural totality of his Mystical Body on earth.
However, Vatican II broke down this total plenitude that the Church claimed to be: by issuing a certain number of “intuitions” (religious freedom, ecumenism, principles of interreligious dialogue), this Council recognized the existence outside the Church of supernatural entities, admittedly incomplete; of salvific means, albeit deficient; of a communion with Christ, albeit imperfect.
As a result, magisterial texts in the vein of the encyclical Quas Primas on the institutional kingship of Christ have become obsolete. This “opening to the modern world” of ecclesiastical society, very concretely to liberal democracy, has been realized at the same time as a surge in the secularization of this world (unless indeed the ecclesiological reversal itself strongly contributed to an increase in this secularization), a phenomenon before which the men of the Church have been caught short. They had advanced a hundred steps, while the world had covered ten thousand. And the renewal appeared to have been a suicide: of all the political, spiritual, and disciplinary consequences that resulted, the most striking was the exhaustion of mission, the raison d’être of the Church of Christ, which could be seen in the rarefaction of the principal workers in the harvest, clerics and religious, and in the number of converts and practicing members.
Worse still, the body was not only crumbling, but was breaking up. It soon became clear that the Council had not succeeded in uniting all around its project: the opposition of the conciliar minority, which had become the traditionalist opposition, energized by its liturgical dimension, proved impossible to eliminate, an opposition whose ranks have swelled especially under the present pontificate — a whole reformist or “restorationist” world which, in the end and whatever it may say, has never fully agreed with Vatican II. The unity of what remained of Catholicism has been shattered.
It is therefore in this context of a Church in the process of exhaustion and even more divided that the reform of its central government was attempted in connection with a global conception of what the reform of the whole Church should be, or, in other words, in connection with an understanding of Vatican II.
The first time, in order to respond to the Council’s wishes, Paul VI, with the constitution Regimini Ecclesiae Universae, had profoundly reshaped the face of the Roman Curia, creating, among other things, new organisms (Councils for the Laity, for Christian Unity, etc.). The most emblematic change he made was the transformation of the Supreme Congregation of the Holy Office, which was responsible for the papal regulation of Catholic doctrine and which had no Prefect (the Pope reserving the right to direct it directly) into a Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.
John Paul II’s Constitution Pastor Bonus of June 28, 1988, which mainly brought the functioning of the Curia into line with the new Code of Canon Law, did not make any fundamental changes. The real novelty of this curial reform was not in structures but in the replenishment of the governing personnel, which came — as was the case for the personnel connected with liturgical reform — from the conciliar majority. As appointments were made, Congregations and Councils became more or less progressive or became more or less conservative again.
Today, Prædicate Evangelium is meant to be a further implementation of the “spirit of the Council” on Roman government, as well as a model to be followed at all levels to promote a truly “conciliar reform” of the whole Church. One of the key changes is the demotion of the Dicastery of the Doctrine of the Faith to second place, behind that of Evangelization. But here again, the Curia is mainly new because its personnel has been “brought up to Bergoglian standards.” As for the project of making a decisive qualitative conciliar leap for both the Curia and the Church as a whole, the anemia of the ecclesiastical body and the ever-increasing tensions that run through it make that seem like wishful thinking.
Attempts to restore lost unity: a double failure
When the Church approached the shores of the twenty-first century, the fundamental failure of Vatican II could be measured from the point of view that is primary for her, that of mission. Not only did she no longer convert, but the number of her faithful, her religious, and her priests was reduced to such an extent that she seemed to be on the verge of extinction, at least in the West. Vatican II, whose whole ambition had been to adapt the message to the sensibility of the men of this time and to attract them to a rejuvenated, transformed, modernized Church, did not even manage to interest them.
And above all, the passage of time has shown that a split, one might say a latent schism, occurred after Vatican II, dividing the Church between two currents, both composite but clearly identifiable: the first, for whom the Council had to be revisited or at least contained in its boundaries; the other, for whom it was merely a starting point for extrapolation. The project of re-establishing unity around this Council, which did not claim to be exercising an infallible magisterium — in other words, which was not a principle of faith in the strict sense — was the cross that had to be borne by the post-Vatican II popes. They failed to do so. The two popes of “restoration,” John Paul II and Benedict XVI, and Francis, the pope of “progress,” were unable to maintain even the fiction of re-established unity.
2005, Ratzinger’s attempt: to frame the Council
Shortly after his election, in his well-known address to the Curia on December 22, 2005, Benedict XVI distinguished between two interpretations of the conciliar reform, “the hermeneutic of discontinuity and rupture,” which he considered harmful, and “the hermeneutic of reform or renewal in continuity,” which he endorsed — intended, he said, to prevent “a rupture between the pre-conciliar Church and the post-conciliar Church.” In short, the Pope defined what in a liberal democracy, to whose ways of thinking the Church is increasingly permeable, would be called a “center-right,” which he legitimized, and a “center-left,” which he disqualified.
There was by no means any question of his joining the traditionalist front which, in varying degrees, rejected the Council and/or its liturgy. Yet, because of his interest in the preconciliar liturgy, Benedict XVI could have gone further than the hermeneutic of “renewal in continuity.” His own version of “restorationism” could have become the beginning of a process of transition, like that which took place with John XXIII but in the opposite direction.
However, as we know, the process remained in the middle of the road, even with regard to “renewal in continuity”: not only did it not lead to a rejection of the Council, but the path of restorationism, the containment (as it were) of the Council, was perceived as a failure, an attempt without decisive result. The Church in the West continued to disappear from the social space; the ecclesiastical personnel, priests, religious, seminarians, continued to diminish; the Roman center gave the impression that it no longer had a helmsman. Having become the target of continuous attacks by proponents of the “hermeneutics of discontinuity,” Benedict XVI isolated himself in his private theological practice, morally anticipating the resignation he finally decided to make in 2013.
2013, the Bergoglio attempt: maximizing the Council
As if naturally (in fact, after an intense electoral preparation), the conclave of 2013 tried the other option, the center-left one, the opposite “hermeneutic” of Vatican II, to which Jorge Bergoglio had rallied. The new pope, who in a speech to the Jesuit reviews in 2022 said he was fighting against a “restorationism” that wants to “gag” the Council, and against a “traditionalism” that wants to evacuate it, has therefore set out to “break down the walls,” according to the expression he likes:
• that of Humanæ vitæ and of the set of texts which, in its wake, had preserved conjugal morality from the liberalization that Vatican II had brought to bear on ecclesiology. Amoris Laetitia declared in 2016 that people living in public adultery can remain in it without committing grave sin (AL 301).
• that of Summorum Pontificum, which recognized the right of the ancient liturgy, with its catechesis and clerical personnel, to serve as a “conservatory” of the Church. Traditionis custodes, in 2021, and Desiderio desideravi, in 2022, invalidated this attempted “return” and declared that the new liturgical books are the sole expression of the lex orandi of the Roman rite (TC, art. 1).
But the Bergoglio option is failing as the Ratzinger option had previously failed: the ecclesial institution has continued to collapse and the mission to die out. And if under Benedict XVI, disillusionment had crystallized over the lack of governance, now it is over the excess of muddled and dictatorial government — despite the watchword of synodality and despite Prædicate Evangelium — that critics are increasingly emerging under Francis. Moreover, just as Benedict XVI never took the risk of falling below the Council, Francis has been careful not to go beyond it at the risk of exploding an institutional structure. For example, despite all his declarations against clericalism, he has never really questioned priestly celibacy or opened the priesthood to women.
Thus, neither the attempt to soften the Council nor the attempt to maximize it has stopped the hemorrhage, which continues. It even increases, insofar as the pole of conservation (Ratzingerian and traditionalist, to sum up roughly) has become stronger. This is true, first of all, because this pole actually grows over time, at least through the arrival of new generations welcomed in families, whereas the progressive pole knows little transmission of this sort. And also, because it has become a little more homogeneous, the alliance has been tightened between the Ratzingerians, supporters of a “hermeneutics of reform in continuity” and the “front of refusal”, traditionalism. The latter is more present than ever, as is shown by the repeated blows that are dealt to it as if it were the enemy par excellence.
For a true reform
The adage Ecclesia semper reformanda, “the Church must always reform itself,” dates back to the beginning of the 15th century, at the time of the Great Schism, when the need for a “reform in the head and in the members,” in the papacy and in the whole ecclesial body, became evident to all. But it was not until more than a century later that this great desire of the Catholic world really came to fruition, beyond the reformation in the form of Protestantism’s revolt, with the Council of Trent.
In fact, the theme of the reform of a Church, holy in itself but composed of sinners, dates from the eleventh century, from what historians have called the Gregorian reform — today they prefer to speak of the “Gregorian moment.” Its ferment was religious life, that of Cluniac monasticism especially. It is in the objective order of things that the evangelical perfection of religious life will be the model of the necessary renovations of the Church. These are accompanied and stimulated by reforms of religious orders (among many others, we may cite that of Carmel in the 16th century), with a return to the demands of the Beatitudes, a spiritual and disciplinary renewal, a withdrawal from the corruption of the sinful world in order to convert oneself and to convert it (Jn 17, 16, 18).
However, ever since the Christianity of the Enlightenment period, in the Germanic countries, in France and in Italy, the term “reform” began to be applied also to a quite different project: that of adapting ecclesiastical institutions to the surrounding world, which was beginning to escape from Christianity.
Two types of reform, from then on, would often find themselves in conflict: the traditional one of a reform that revitalizes the identity of the Church, and the type of reform that tries to adjust the Church to the new society in which it lives. It is essentially the traditional idea of reform that was found in such movements as the rebirth of religious orders, especially Benedictine, in the nineteenth century after the revolutionary turmoil, the Thomistic restoration beginning with Leo XIII, the liturgical and disciplinary reforms of St. Pius X at the beginning of the twentieth century, and the attempts at a doctrinal and liturgical containment of the great ebullition of the 1950s by Pius XII. On the contrary, the adaptive idea of reform, with its programmatic book Vraie et fausse réforme dans l’Église [True and False Reform in the Church] by Yves Congar (Cerf, 1950), can be read in the “new theology” of the post-war years, in the ecumenical movement and, to some extent, in (at least the later) the Liturgical Movement; it triumphed with Vatican II.
An ecclesiological reversal
A reform of the Gregorian type, with a rediscovered liturgy, a rigorous discipline, a demanding formation of the candidates for the priesthood, a holy and strong stature of the pastors, a re-evangelization through a re-catechization, goes hand-in-hand with an ecclesiological reversal.
But is it not pure fantasy to wish for a return to a Church of the “Gregorian moment” type, when the state of our Mother, half a century after Vatican II (and to a large extent because of this Council) is in a state of maximum dereliction, without any capacity to assert the “triumphalist” claims that are attributed to the papacy of the eleventh century?
Certainly not, if we consider that God’s strength is first deployed in weakness. The weakness here is extreme — that of a Catholicism more and more anomalous for the surrounding culture. And very weak is also what, in spite of everything, continues to flourish in it and which it is difficult to imagine as the crucible of a spiritual, catechetical, missionary, vocational renewal, but which can nonetheless participate in it. In its present state, what is called the “new Catholicism,” made up of priests who look and act like priests, young faithful, seriously practicing families, new communities, traditionalisms of all sensibilities: this represents in the West all that will remain alive in a few years. Its numerical importance is very small and it has, moreover, the greatest difficulty in resisting the weight of modernity, the impregnation of a devastating individualism, and the “bourgeois” temptation which is exercised on it.
What kind of reform tomorrow? “When I am weak, then I am strong” (2 Cor 12:10). And to return to Rome and its Curia, is it necessary, or even possible, for the Successor of Peter to continue to appear as a kind of universal leader? In a great “infirmity,” to speak as St. Paul did, what constitutes the essence of the Roman and universal episcopate — namely, the fact of speaking the Faith in the name of Christ without the possibility of deviating — could appear as the pure gold that remains at the bottom of the sieve of the crisis.
Father Claude Barthe
October 1, 2022