THOSE OF US OF A CERTAIN AGE will be well used to the phrase “the spirit of Vatican II.” Invariably it was used to legitimate, or even disguise, significant departures from the letter of the Council’s decrees.A Funny Thing Happened on the Way from the Council | One Foot in the Cloister
THOSE OF US OF A CERTAIN AGE will be well used to the phrase “the spirit of Vatican II.” Invariably it was used to legitimate, or even disguise, significant departures from the letter of the Council’s decrees. It facilitated an often disingenuous distinction between letter and spirit, between what was agreed at the Council and what was proposed by way of implementation after the Council. For the first time ever a council was to be viewed not as a discreet event that endured and had effect only through its decrees, but as an ongoing and open-ended phenomenon, enduring not in the painstakingly-debated clarity of its decrees but it the nebulous, indeterminate and manipulable spirit that is said both to animate the original decrees and to legitimate, nay mandate, future radical departures from the same decrees.
Disturbingly, the “spirit of Vatican II” is often identified with the Holy Spirit. This dubious trend has enabled a situation today in which any radical departure from Church teaching and practice is identified with the movement of the Holy Spirit, to the point that we are forced to accept the reality—clumsily and ineffectually explained away as it might be—that the Holy Spirit can change his mind about such basic matters as Holy Scripture and the dogmatic teachings of Christianity. Attempting to clothe in the raiment of the Holy Spirit what is basically a secular spirit of subjectivity and self-interest has brought into question the fundamental basis of Catholic teaching. The “spirit of Vatican II” has developed into a momentum to make doctrine and Scripture contingent on another amorphous, malleable, and manipulable phenomenon, the “signs of the times.”
One of the most striking ironies is that the Council, intended by John XXIII and understood by itself to be a pastoral council rather than a dogmatic one, has become the touchstone of ecclesiastical acceptability in the modern Church. Anything proposed must be clothed in the spirit of Vatican II; and conveniently, anything ascribed to the spirit of Vatican II is de facto acceptable, and indeed preferable. But given that the Council’s spirit is so indeterminate and subjective, we might reasonably ask: according to whose interpretation of the spirit of Vatican II or the signs of the times? The simple answer is that the prevailing interpretation will be, unsurprisingly, that of the ecclesiastical establishment. Which presents us with another irony: the avowedly free spirit of Vatican II is made to serve the agenda of an institutional establishment.
Perhaps there is a growing realisation of this in more theologically literate quarters of the establishment. There seems to be emerging a decline in reference to the spirit of Vatican II, and in its place we find a new, and equally amorphous and self-serving term: “the legacy of Vatican II.”
All this is offered by way of preparation for my paltry attempt to understand the modern novelty, synodality. Greater minds than mine do and will address the inherent problems with the very concept of synodality, let alone its implementation.
If you are wondering what exactly synodality is, the website of the synod on synodality (yes, you read that right) explains it thus:
Synodality denotes the particular style that qualifies the life and mission of the Church, expressing her nature as the People of God journeying together and gathering in assembly, summoned by the Lord Jesus in the power of the Holy Spirit to proclaim the Gospel. Synodality ought to be expressed in the Church’s ordinary way of living and working.
Synodality, in this perspective, is much more than the celebration of ecclesial meetings and Bishops’ assemblies, or a matter of simple internal administration within the Church; it is the specific modus vivendi et operandi of the Church, the People of God, which reveals and gives substance to her being as communion when all her members journey together, gather in assembly and take an active part in her evangelizing mission.
That’s all self-explanatory, surely? What is of particular note is the universal scope of the concept of synodality. It effectively defines the Church in her life and her work. Two things stand out: the absolute novelty of the concept in Catholic terms, and the absence of Jesus Christ from the synod’s own self-definition. Given the latter, one might have doubts about synodality’s “evangelizing mission” given that the current pope has devalued and disowned what he terms proselytism. If synodality is the doctrine of the current Vatican establishment, then it seems converting the world to Christ is not part of that evangelizing mission. Indeed, given the experience of synodal processes in Liverpool and Australia, and above all in Germany, it seems the direction of synodality is to convert the Church to the world.
The Church already has a well-established self-understanding and a doctrinally coherent sense of her life and mission, expressed in the apostolic ministry of bishops and clergy who serve the Church, and the laity who serve the Church’s evengelizing mission by their sanctification of the world by their work and their witness to the truth of the gospel in the public square. Both clergy and laity share a responsibility to answer the universal call to holiness that was explicitly articulated by Vatican II and which has clear and ample roots in the gospel. What do we hear of holiness in the synodal output?
Synodality is, judging by its own rhetoric, an attempt to institutionalize the spirit/legacy of Vatican II. This legacy has little contact with the decrees of Vatican II, except in isolated and often decontextualized quotations of them in the service of one or other divergent claim. The legacy of Vatican II can be seen as what endures of Vatican II, not of the letter of its decrees but of their implementation after the Council closed, an implementation increasingly shaped in the decades since the Council by a preferencing of the Council’s malleable and subjective spirit over its fixed and objective letter. Needless to say, one struggles to find this concept of synodality in the decrees of the Council. There is, however, a conciliar fruit in the Synod of Bishops announced by Paul VI at the start of the final session of the Council in 1965, an advisory body that assists the pope in the governance of the Church. The synodality proposed in our day, which mirrors the constitutions of protestant and reformed denominations, has no basis in the history or doctrinal self-understanding of the Church.
One aspect of the purported legacy of Vatican II is the elevation of the “signs of the times” to a source of revelation equal to Scripture and Tradition. The German Synodal Way has adopted this approach. Cardinal Kurt Koch, prefect for the Vatican dicastery for promotion Christian unity, recently critiqued this deviation from Catholic doctrinal coherence and integrity, noting that adaptation to the signs of the times in 1930s Germany led to a disastrous accommodation by many Christians to the Nazi ideology that was then in the ascendant. The president of the German bishops, Georg Bätzing, seized on this reference to Nazism and attacked the cardinal’s alleged likening of the Synodal Way to Nazism. Of course, this is not what Koch was intending and his subsequent clarification made this even clearer. What is interesting is that Bätzing did not answer Koch’s major doctrinal criticism but ingenuously seized on his rhetorical infelicity. If you can discredit your opponent on a lesser but exploitable point, then hopefully few will much notice the major point. Bätzing is nothing if not tactically adept.
Koch has rendered the Church a service by exposing the insertion of “the signs of the times” as an equivalent source of divine revelation. In effect, it represents the elevation of the secular agenda as a determining factor in the life, mission, and doctrine of the Church. Given that the secular agenda is wildly and frequently changeable, and serves worldly not divine ends, the emergence of the “signs of the times” as a legacy of the Council is disturbing to say the least. Synodality, as proposed, is the attempt to institutionalize this seriously flawed misunderstanding of the Council and councils, and to relativize Christian truth along pragmatic and vaguely democratic lines.
I say “vaguely” because, despite all the public rhetoric to the contrary, lay participation in the various synodal processes around the world has barely reached double-digit percentages, and usually around 1 or 2% of the total Catholic population. This cannot be termed representative by any measure. Luke Coppen at The Pillar has provided copious evidence of this.
“Signs of the times” is for doctrine and ecclesiology what “active participation” has become for the liturgy—terms so heavily adapted as to bear little relation to their original meaning and context, and put to the service of a post-conciliar agenda that hangs loudly, proudly but heavily and precariously from a minuscule conciliar hook.
The Vatican head of all things synodal, Cardinal Mario Grech, validates the exposition of the synodality outlined above by conflating the synod of bishops with the new pan-synodality. I had largely written the above before seeing today the message from Grech’s general secretariat of the synod marking tomorrow’s 60th anniversary of the Council’s opening. It says that the synod of bishops “represents a fruit of that ecumenical assembly, indeed one of its ‘most precious legacies’”… and
The purpose of the Synod [of bishops] was and remains to prolong, in the life and mission of the Church, the spirit of the Second Vatican Council, as well as to foster in the People of God the living appropriation of its teaching… this task is far from being completed since the reception of the conciliar magisterium is an ongoing process; in some respects it is still in its infancy.
Throughout these decades, the Synod has constantly placed itself at the service of the Council, contributing for its part to renewing the face of the Church, in ever deeper fidelity to Sacred Scripture and living Tradition and in attentive listening to the signs of the times…
The synodal process currently underway, dedicated to ‘Synodality in the Life and Mission of the Church,’ is also within the Council’s wake. The concept of ‘Synodality’ is found throughout the Council, even though this term (only recently coined) is not found expressly in the documents of the ecumenical assembly…
The Church that we are called to dream and build…
That’s enough for here. You can read it yourself in full. Still, in clear view is the new vocabulary, the tendentious and tenuous references to the Council and its alleged legacies, the implication that the Council has its own individual magisterial authority distinct from that of the Church and its other councils in the previous 1900+ years, and the subtle equivalence asserted between the synod of bishops and the new synodal process. Moreover, the Church is no longer, it seems, the Body of Christ found in Scripture and the Church’s doctrine, but something we “dream” and build anew.
Lastly, we have Cardinal Grech’s speech last Wednesday at the Lateran University. In that speech he said that the current synodal process is a “mature fruit of Vatican II” and shows how “a correct reception of the Council’s ecclesiology is activating such fruitful processes to open up scenarios that not even the Council had imagined and in which the action of the Spirit that guides the Church is made manifest.” Notable are the use of the word “correct,” and the obligatory but empty reference to Vatican II, ‘empty’ because Grech himself notes that what is proposed is “beyond what the Council imagined,” and its supposed spirit is identified with “the Spirit.” Further on he makes the interesting claim that “the first act of the Church is listening.” If he is referring to our listening to Christ, then fair enough. But in the context it is clear he means listening to the fruit of the synodal consultations, involving barely 2% of Catholics, which is equated to the voice of the Spirit.
Vatican II is dead, but its spirit—or legacy—lives on. What is that spirit or legacy? Whatever the 2% involved in the synodal process say it is; or rather, those in control of collating and disseminating the results of those synodal consultations. Apparently we are meant to accept that the Spirit now wants a Church that is led not by the apostolic ministry but by small, unrepresentative cliques of vocal activists who seek to change the nature of the Church and the substance of its doctrine so that we can better conform to the “signs of the times.”
Really, if one made this up and put it in a novel even 10 years ago, it would have been dismissed as the most fanciful of fiction.
Meanwhile Ukraine burns, Russia seeks to coerce the world through the leverage of energy, the Church in China is sold down the river to the Communist Party, and corrupt bishops prosper. But synodality is so much more important, I guess.