Vatican II: Five views sixty years on – Catholic World Report

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There is a way forward that is both diagnostic and prescriptive, and it offers a true opportunity at a rapprochement between schools of thought that should be natural allies against the common enemy of a corrosively acidic progressivism rather than enemies.

Vatican II: Five views sixty years on – Catholic World Report
pope john xxiii leads the opening session of the second vatican council in st. peter's basilica at the vatican oct. 11
Pope John XXIII leads the opening session of the Second Vatican Council in St. Peter’s Basilica at the Vatican Oct. 11, 1962. (CNS photo/Giancarlo Giuliani, Catholic Press Photo)

Everybody I know seems to be writing something on Vatican II these days and I began feeling a bit left out of the fun. So, I thought I would jump into the mosh pit of pundits to offer my take.

The many recent commentaries, if I’m allowed the chutzpah to summarize them, fall into five basic categories.

First, there is the view that Vatican II was a wonderful Council in full continuity with the tradition. But it was implemented poorly and hijacked by progressives, who made liberal use of the mass media to spread the view that the Council was about liberalizing the Church in a culturally accommodationist direction. This is the approach taken by a great many “conservative” theologians whose primary aim, it seems to me, is to establish that the Council was not in any way a rupture with the past and that the vast ecclesial ruptures that ensued were solely the product of extra-conciliar forces that could not have been anticipated. This view, however, is marred by the fact it is too convenient and tidy. It is a revisionist and romanticized reading of a conciliar event that was far more contentious than such a narrative of deep and smooth continuity implies.

Second, there is the traditionalist view, growing in popularity, that the Council, though not in explicit doctrinal error, was nevertheless riddled with ambiguities. These ambiguities were caused by the need for compromise between the warring conciliar factions which allowed enough loopholes to exist for the aforementioned progressive takeover of the post-conciliar interpretive spin to succeed. Furthermore, since the Council was by its own self-definition meant to be a pastoral Council, the disaster that followed can only mean that the conciliar project was, by definition, a failure. Therefore, the Council is best ignored until such time a future pope can correct those ambiguities and/or simply exercise a kind of line-item veto power to eliminate the troublesome bits entirely. This approach, like the first, has the benefit of a clean simplicity. But the idea that we can suppress an entire ecumenical council just because it generated controversy and confusion in its wake flies in the face of how councils have historically played out.

Third, and somewhat related to the second view, there are those who point out that the Council is now simply out of date insofar as the culture it sought to engage and evangelize no longer exists. This seems to be the view of Eric Sammons at Crisis magazine, who argues that it is now time to “retire” the Council as an enterprise for an era whose moment has passed. This view tends to ignore the particular theological achievements of the Council and fixates instead on the Council’s general pastoral aims, which it deems to be outmoded. This is a clever act of legerdemain, despite the partial truthfulness of its central claim, since it reductively associates the Council with purely pragmatic and proximate concerns, allowing the restorationist wing of the Church to summarily dismiss the Council without for all that appearing to be hostile to it.

Fourth, there is the view that in allowing the ressourcement theologians (e.g. Joseph RatzingerHenri de Lubac, et. al.) to set the agenda and to scuttle the already prepared schemata, the Council imprudently marginalized the standard Thomistic ecclesial theology up to that point. This destroyed the Church’s theological unity and inner coherence, and replaced it with nothing more than a loose aggregate of various scholars whose overall body of work did not provide the Church with the tools it needed for a proper post-conciliar implementation of the Council’s main pastoral aims. In other words, the Council privileged innovative and speculative theologies over the development of a standard theology, resulting in the loss of a common theological frame of reference.

This approach, articulated brilliantly in 2007 by Rusty Reno at First Things, acknowledges the great value and contribution of the ressourcement school of theologians. But it views their theology as a kind of one-off “heroic generation” kind of thing that cannot be reduplicated now because those theologians only made sense within the context of the standard Thomistic theology that they so bitterly rejected. Their theology was bold, exploratory, and breathtaking in its synthetic alacrity with all manner of ideas, but all of it emerged out of the thought world and vocabulary of the standard theology – a theology we no longer possess. Therefore, as Reno notes, the great paradox is that modern students of theology can no longer appreciate the contributions of the heroic generation because they have no frame of reference for the debates that those theologians were engaged in. Ressourcement killed the neo-scholastic dragon, but in so doing laid waste to the only possible context for understanding its own constructions. And the Council, insofar as it eschewed neo-scholasticism in favor of ressourcement thinkers, likewise scuttled its own project.

This brings us to the final approach, which builds on the view espoused by Reno and others and now seeks to recover elements of that old Thomistic synthesis and to thereby recover as well the full contextual significance of the ressourcement thinkers. Well aware that the Council was indeed a ressourcement affair, this approach understands that the Council itself therefore needs to be historically contextualized as the fruit of a set of theological debates that began in the nineteenth century and picked up full steam in the twentieth century. And that those debates were often acrimonious, leading the neo-scholastics to demonize the ressourcement thinkers as dangerous modernist saboteurs obsessed with subjectivity and historicity, and the ressourcement thinkers to return the favor by counter-punching the neo-scholastic “bullies” with accusations of intellectual stupor and superficiality.

And things were made even more heated owing to the often censorious and oppressive role played by the Holy Office as it moved against ressourcement thinkers such as de Lubac whose own Jesuit order silenced him. This was not an atmosphere of irenic and collegial debate and this historical acrimony spilled over into the Council itself, with the ressourcement school emerging as victors and the neo-scholastics, sadly, in full retreat.

Therefore, this view correctly seeks to interpret the Council, despite its self-definition as a pastoral Council, as primarily a theological event dominated by the debates between the Thomistic old guard and the young ressourcement Turks. The theologian Matthew Levering is a brilliant expositor of this approach and he interprets the Council positively as a profound theological event that deepened the interconnectivity between ecclesiology and Christology – a deepening that had across-the-board implications for a large number of theological issues. Therefore, Levering has an astute appreciation for the innovative genius of the ressourcement theologians as well as a deep awareness of the Council’s true legacy as a theological event of great and enduring significance. We have barely scratched the surface of those implications and therefore the Council’s enduring legacy is, ironically, the unfinished nature of the theological renewal it generated. But that renewal was short-circuited by the wholesale rejection of the pre-conciliar standard theology which gave it its context. As Reno notes, even great ressourcement theologians like Balthasar and de Lubac, after the post-conciliar mayhem took root, began to lament in highly polemical terms the loss of a standard ecclesial culture as the progressive innovators took advantage of the loss of the old Thomistic synthesis.

To his credit, Levering, along with careful and historically conscious scholars like Matthew Minerd, are attempting a rejuvenation of that renewal via a retrieval of the lost treasures of pre-conciliar Thomism and the fusing together of those treasures with the ressourcement theologians. Their project is a bold one since they are attempting to restructure the entire debate surrounding the Council within the totality of its theological/historical context and to thereby point us beyond a mere hermeneutics of the Council and toward a genuine retrieval of its project by actually developing that project further. Therefore, it is both diagnostic and prescriptive, and it offers a true opportunity at a rapprochement between schools of thought that should be natural allies against the common enemy of a corrosively acidic progressivism rather than enemies.

The legitimacy of this approach’s insights can be readily seen when we look at how Thomistic many of the ressourcement thinkers actually were. De Lubac was a great retriever of the Fathers to be sure, but it was often done with an eye toward a more fulsome understanding of Aquinas and his theology of nature and grace in particular. And much of de Lubac’s career was spent in debates over Thomas’s views on that topic. Balthasar quoted Aquinas more than any other author and structured his trilogy around the classical scholastic formulation of the transcendental properties of Being (One, True, Good, Beautiful). He also held that the greatest breakthrough in the history of philosophy was Aquinas’s metaphysical insight about the real distinction between essence and existence. Rahner was deeply indebted to scholastic categories even as he moved beyond them in his Catholic Kantianism, for better or for worse. Lonergan, a neglected genius, was deeply informed by Thomistic categories of thought. I could go on, but you get the point.

Finally, I think it is important to emphasize the deeply theological nature of the Council as its chief legacy since the tired trope has emerged, and now seems to dominate the conversation, that the Council was purely pastoral and did not really advance any new theological construal of standard dogmas. But there were indeed dogmatic constitutions in the conciliar documents and those constitutions did introduce important developments in the theology of divine revelation and ecclesiology in particular. There were also important non-dogmatic theological developments of doctrine with regard to religious freedom, salvation for those outside of the Church, liturgy, ecumenism, and the status of non-Christian religions. Furthermore, the Council fathers put forward these theological developments precisely in order to act as a catalytic source for pastoral renewal. Therefore, the efforts of theologians such as Levering and Minerd have tremendous pastoral implications.

The pastoral aim of the Council has failed in the short term, which has given ammunition and a respectable cover to those who seek to marginalize the Council precisely because they do not agree with its theological developments. But many of the greatest councils in the Church’s history have had to endure a similar tsunami of negative reaction and great controversies, some of which lasted for a century or more. Just ask St. Athanasius if he thought the post-Nicene atmosphere was irenic and open to dialogue. But just as the theology developed by Nicaea eventually won the day owing to the efforts of Athanasius and others, so too today will the legacy of the theological developments of Vatican II eventually take root. And if they do, it will be because of the efforts of theologians like Levering and Minerd. May their tribe increase.

The importance of this retrieval cannot be overstated. Ross Douthat wrote recently in the New York Times that, like it or not, we are “trapped” by Vatican II. You cannot undo it or its influence, but there is also no consensus on what it means and it seems largely dead in the water. And so there it sits on our porch, like a giant sofa too large to get in your front door but which was purchased with a no return policy. Douthat is, I think, onto something important. Namely, that right now we are stuck in neutral and unable to move forward in a positive direction or backward in a restorationist retreat.

But we cannot remain in this state forever. The Council is here to stay, and rightly so, and therefore we better set about the business of its proper theological retrieval with or without Rome’s help.

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