Considering Vatican II — William Doino Jr. & Fr. Robert Barron & Francis Cardinal George

September 4, 2012

Second Vatican Council by Lothar Wolleh

Three contributions here. The first is a wonderful little blog posting from William Doino Jr. that I found very comforting to read. I hate to see my Church squabbling and a lot of post Vatican II “dialogues” seem to have been just that. Next Fr. Barron offers some perspective in a YouTube video. Finally a reading selection from Francis Cardinal George’s keynote address at the conference, “Keeping the World Awake to God': The Challenge of Vatican II,” at the Pontifical John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and Family at The Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C., 12-14 January 2012. Taken all together, an excellent look back at Vatican II as it nears  its 50th anniversary.

And a special invitation to any reader of PayingAttentiontotheSky who lives in the Boston area. I belong to a Communio Reading Group that will be taking up Cardinal George’s keynote address. If you would like to read the piece, I would be happy to email it off to you along with directions to St. Clement’s Shrine where we meet on September 23rd.  Join us and share some Catholic Fellowship as we discuss.


It has now been almost fifty years since the Catholic Church created waves by opening the Second Vatican Council. And for many, the tumult continues. Vatican II has become nothing less than a battle over the mission of the contemporary Church.

The progressive left sees the Council as an open-ended innovation whose revolutionary promise has yet to be fulfilled. The traditionalist right views it with deep suspicion and is sometimes heard to say (if not openly, at least sotto voce) that the Church would have been better off had it never occurred. But the vital center of Catholicism — if it can be called that — has always defended the Council as a necessary and faithful extension of the Church’s evangelical mission to the modern world. The historian Edward Norman gave voice to this perspective when he wrote:

The remarkable thing about the Council was that it was able to produce more or less exactly what it set out to do: a statement of the Catholic faith in modules of understanding intelligible to modern culture yet completely conformable to past tradition — an achievement the more remarkable in view of the incoherence of western culture in the 1960s.

Norman’s perspective is better appreciated today. John Paul II’s Extraordinary Synod of Bishops in 1985, and Benedict XVI’s insistence on a “hermeneutic of continuity” rather than rupture have both helped to recover a “deeper reception of the Council” as the Synod’s final report requested. The wonderfully clarifying universal Catechism was one of the Council’s greatest fruits. But even as Vatican II, properly understood, remains an achievement of the first order, its immediate consequences were anything but.

No sooner had the final session of the Council ended than dialogue gave way to worldly adaptation: Priests started abandoning their collars and nuns their habits, if not their orders. Large portions of the Catholic laity, flushed with a sense of unbounded freedom, stopped going to confession and Sunday Mass. Consciences once formed in the light of Catholic teaching began to morph into self-interest. The Church’s teaching against contraception, for example, was effectively thrown out the window by the laity. These events were not authorized by the Council, and somehow secularism and relativism had penetrated the Church.

Leading Catholics whose writings had done so much to influence the Council — men like Yves Congar and Henri de Lubac, Louis Bouyer and Hans Urs von Balthasar, Jacques Maritain and Dietrich von Hildebrand — sounded the alarm. By 1967, Congar was asking: “Where do we go from here? Where shall we be in twenty years? I, too, feel almost every day a temptation to anxiety in the face of all that has changed or is being called into question.”

But none of these men turned their back on the Council or the Holy See. As von Hildebrand stressed:

When one reads the luminous encyclical Ecclesiam Suam of Pope Paul VI or the magnificent ‘Dogmatic Constitution on the Church’ [Lumen Gentium] of the Fathers of the Council, one cannot but realize the greatness of the Second Vatican Council. But when one turns to so many contemporary writings…one can only be deeply saddened and even filled with grave apprehension. For it would be difficult to conceive a greater contrast than that between the official documents of Vatican II and the superficial, insipid pronouncements of various theologians and laymen that have broken out everywhere like an infectious disease.

Among those who share von Hildebrand’s concerns is Father Paulo Molinari, S.J., who was a contributor to Lumen Gentium. Several years ago, I had the privilege to speak to him in Rome. In our lively discussion, three things stood out.

First, Vatican II was not a bolt out of the blue from Pope John XXIII. It was preceded by twenty ecumenical Councils, and Congar writes that “the Church has always tried to reform itself.” Pius XI and Pius XII had seriously considered holding a new Council themselves. Next, John XXIII’s famously jovial personality has led many to believe he was an unabashed progressive, and this has colored many accounts of the Council. But Molinari, a close friend of the pope, told me that this popular image of “Good Pope John” as easygoing and tolerant of almost any proposal, is “absolute nonsense.” Finally, statistics about the Church in the pre-Conciliar years are misleading, because there were many trends afoot — in theology, morality, politics, science, and exegesis — that were already having an unsettling impact on the internal life of Catholics.

At the end of our discussion, I still had one question: “All that being said Father, and granting the necessity, beauty, and orthodoxy of the Council’s teachings — how did their implementation go so disastrously wrong in the immediate years that followed?”

“The Council called us to find fulfillment in Christ,” he said gently, “but many Catholics confused that with their own self-fulfillment.” Stunned, I finally murmured, “That’s a pretty big mistake.” “Yes,” he replied, with tremendous understatement.

The Second Vatican Council wasn’t about us, but about Christ’s call, lovingly offered, to fulfill our potential on his terms, in and through the moral and spiritual teaching of his Church. It is the transformation that awaits us all — if we are prepared to accept it — promised by Christ two thousands years ago: “He that finds his life shall lose it and he that loses his life for my sake shall find it.”



 The Church In The World

The internal unity of the Church as communion should establish and model the external unity of the human race in solidarity, of nations and cultures and peoples living together in peace. The council therefore was an exercise in ecclesial self-consciousness, as Pope John Paul II explained this from the viewpoint of his own philosophical anthropology. How is the Church to change her self-consciousness in order to be God’s instrument for changing the world? How does the Church situate herself in the world so that she can be, as the first paragraph of Lumen gentium, the decree on the Church, says, “the sacrament or … sign of union with God and of the unity of all mankind.”

With that declared purpose in mind, a few points about the Church’s life demonstrate how there is continuity of principle but in always changing circumstances. In a changing world, principles themselves sometimes take on a different cast as well. Pope Benedict XVI has explained this as the hermeneutic of reform. There is development of doctrine in the Second Vatican Council because of a changed understanding of the Church’s pastoral life and mission. It was a reform council, which means some things changed. What changed was our sense of the Church and her mission today. Nothing was taught that contradicted what Christ had said and done in establishing the Church, but there were new interpretations of teaching in order to establish new efforts to perfect the Church’s mission.

The great ecclesiologist after the Council of Trent and in the aftermath of the Protestant Reformation was St. Robert Bellarmine (1542-1621). He was building on the work of the late medieval jurists who studied ecclesiastical structures of governance in relation to the various civil societies in which the Church lived. The earlier councils of the Church were concerned with responding to errors about the mystery of the Godhead in the Trinity, and in clarifying the person and natures of Christ. In the late middle ages, as the way of life of many Christians, including many in the papal court, was more and more separated from the way of life presented and modeled in the Gospel, the reform councils of the Lateran spoke about the Church in moral terms.

One could easily argue that the Reformation was rooted in the scandal of the Church’s pastors and faithful not living in conformity to what they were professing as they proclaimed the Gospel. But schism in the Church pre-dated the Reformation, and it was answered in juridical terms by the medieval jurists. James of Viterbo, in the early years of the fourteenth century, wrote the first canonical treatise in ecclesiology. St. Robert Bellarmine was working out of that received juridical framework for understanding the Church as a visible society, because the reformers were saying that the structures of the Church are adventitious: it does not matter really what form the governance of the Church takes because the Church is invisible, she is a work of grace.

It is true that invisible grace is the life of the Church, but because the reformers relativized and almost put aside or confided entirely to civil rulers the apostolic structures of the Church, Cardinal Bellarmine’s reaction was to define the Church as a perfect society, like the state. The Church’s members are not morally perfect any more than the state’s citizens are morally perfect; but both are perfect in the legal sense that both have everything needed to do their work to accomplish their mission. The Church has all the gifts necessary to fulfill her mission from Christ, just as the state has everything that it needs in order to fulfill its mission in this world.

St. Robert Bellarmine explained, in a more theological framework, how the Church possesses all that is necessary for her mission. He defined Church authority and its juridical limits and gave these a basis in Scripture and Tradition; he clarified the rights and duties of different classes of Church members. The Church was examined from outside, as if by an observer. The analogy for the Church’s self-understanding was the kingdom of France or the republic of Venice. That controlling metaphor meant that Church governance was still legitimated by jurisdiction, by the legal power to act.

This left the Church in the modern age with the dilemma of competing jurisdictions: how does one separate the domain of the Church and the claims of the new nation-states created by the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648? Both Church and state are perfect societies; both are complete; both have their rights. Yet each makes both religious and secular claims. How does one separate the domains of competence and, more than that, how can Church and state peacefully and respectfully cooperate?

Various theories of the proper subordination of state to Church and of the Church’s liberty of action in the secular sphere have been elaborated. The Church needed an ecclesiology that established her freedom in the world for the sake of her mission that transcends the world. She also needed to explain how civil society is properly autonomous but not totalitarian. Before the Second Vatican Council, Pope Pius XII had already begun to draw on the thought of German theologians who, in the nineteenth century, moved beyond the juridical framework of the perfect society based upon jurisdiction toward a theology based upon the biblical metaphors that describe the Church in the New Testament.

The Church is related to Christ and the Holy Spirit as a mystery of faith and, in 1943, Pope Pius XII wrote on the Church as the Mystical Body of Christ in order to define the Church’s nature from the sources of her life from within rather than from her juridical organization. Pius XII wrote to combat the false notion that there are two different churches, an interior or spiritual church of all who believe in Christ and an external, visibly structured Church which can be analyzed without reference to her nature as a mystery of faith. He overcame ecclesial dualism by identifying the Mystical Body of Christ with the society and structures of the Roman Catholic Church, with no overlap.

The famous existet in of Lumen gentium says exactly that, but the council recognized the existence of gifts from Christ outside of visible Catholic communion. There are visible elements of ecclesial reality outside of the visible structure of the Catholic Church, and these relate people to the Church in ways that make salvation available. They are called vestigiae ecclesiae (vestiges of the Church). These elements of the Church outside of her pastoral and visible unity serve to include all Christians, in a certain limited sense, in her membership in such a way that it is possible to dialogue with them as brothers and sisters, to see something in them that is also in us, to see them as friends and as fellow believers, through a common baptism.

This is the conviction found also in the mission document of the council, Adgentes. Semina verbi, the seeds of the Word, are to be discovered in natural religions and in non-Christian religions so that, again, missionaries can dialogue with people of other faiths or of no faith at all, because seeds of the Word are present among them. God created the world, and the world therefore is good even in its own now fallen and wounded nature, the cosmos speaks of God to those who are listening. Our discerning everywhere vestiges of the Church and seeds of the Word enables the Second Vatican Council to say that all are already part of God’s family, even if not everybody realizes it. Catholics should therefore be the ones to initiate dialogue, and this ability presupposes that the Church is free to do so everywhere in the world.

Vatican II finessed the political dimensions of how the Church should be in the world by sidestepping the relationship between Church and state (which is still the unreconstructed way we speak of it in this country) and emphasizing instead the relationship between faith and culture. The most provocative and original section of the constitution on the Church in the world, Gaudium et spes, is the second chapter, on culture. The concept of culture is not too explicitly defined but nonetheless the Church’s parameters shifted from living the tension between two perfect societies to explaining the relationships between two normative systems — faith and culture.

We are who we are because of our culture, far more profoundly than because we are citizens of a particular nation state. Both faith and culture are normative for those who are believers; both are complete in themselves and both tell us what is important, what to think and how to act. If the Church is to be in the world as a leaven, then she must engage cultures. Just as the legalist approach to understanding the Church is inadequate to her full internal reality, so also her external relationship to the world through the institution of the state, while obviously still of great importance, becomes secondary.

The relationship between the Church and the world is defined by dialogue between faith and culture. The council fathers were therefore concerned about the conditions for authentic dialogue. To have an authentic dialogue between the universal faith and a particular culture, in order properly to situate the Church in the world in a new age, the council spoke to the freedom of the Church to fulfill her mission publicly and the personal freedom of conscience that is a natural right.

The council’s document on religious liberty, Dignitatis humanae, depended partially on the prior work of John Courtney Murray, S. J. His groundbreaking articles in Theological Studies in the 1950s, remain, however, an institutional analysis. In countries where the state claims vast jurisdiction over its citizens’ lives, a legally defined relationship between the Church and the state is necessary because the Church could not otherwise be free. But in the case of a state with limited government, and the best example is the restriction placed on the state by the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, the state is contained within its own domain and therefore leaves free every other domain of human activity.

The United States does not have a government ministry of religion nor of culture, as European states often have. Our constitutional guarantees were thought to give the Church greater freedom of action. The document on religious freedom in the modern world, however, starts not from institutional considerations but from anthropology. It decides who we are as free people, men and women made in God’s image and likeness and therefore necessarily exercising our religious duties to God and expressing our religious beliefs publicly in society. The state must respect and permit that freedom. The dignity of the human person is therefore the foundation of Dignitatis humanae, and the document explains how that dignity is given to every human person because of his or her relation to God. Dignitatis humanae also speaks of freedom of conscience, but it talks about freedom of conscience vis-a-vis the state, not vis-a-vis the Church.

Freedom of conscience means a person has the right and obligation to act according to his or her conscience, but conscience is a practical principle in Catholic moral teaching. Freedom of conscience does not mean one has the right to interpret personally or to deny what God has revealed in Christ and still call oneself a Catholic believer. Freedom of conscience is often understood as a function of the sovereign self in an individualistic society. It means that individuals have a right, even by reason of the Church’s own teaching, to deny what is declared by the Church as authentically revealed. Every individual would then be a Church of one.

Rather, freedom of conscience is understood within the community of faith differently from the way that it is understood within the civil community. It must be, as a principle of both belief and action, respected totally in the civil community. Within the community of faith it must be respected as a principle of action but not as a principle of belief. Faith is a response to what has been revealed by God. Its contents are assented to as a whole, or else it is not faith in a God who reveals himself. Thomas Aquinas explained that, if one believes every article of the Creed but one, he or she doesn’t believe any of the articles, because “faith” would be reduced to an “assent” to an individual’s personal value system. In the realm of faith, an individual’s intelligence and will cannot be the criteria of what God has revealed, as if God’s word were not trustworthy without our verification.

The council’s teaching on the relationship between culture and world and on the freedom of religion and conscience builds on what was taught before, but the council shifts the tradition so there is a reinterpretation and a new emphasis rather than a simple reiteration of teaching. There is authentic development; there is reform. Reform means a principle remains but is now worked out in different ways because circumstances have changed and new insights have come to shape the Church’s living tradition.

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