“What about Vatican II?” I asked my Catholic friend, in response to his assertion that Catholic doctrine is stable while the Church’s understanding thereof develops. We were in college together, young bucks full of vim and vigor, passionate about our common Christian faith, even while we stood on opposite confessional sides of the Reformation divide.
A small cohort of us went through college together as majors in Religion-Philosophy, and, as our college was small, we had most every class together, whether New Testament, Classical Philosophy, Reformation, or Intellectual History. At nights we would gather at Perkins—a family restaurant open late—and down copious cups of coffee while discussing and debating the fundamental issues and finer points of Christian faith and life. As iron sharpens iron, we sharpened each other as we challenged each other, the core of our little group comprising a couple Lutherans, a Baptist, my friend the Catholic, and a Presbyterian. (We all united, however, to challenge our Anglican history professor.)
I knew little about Catholicism then. Although baptized Catholic, I was raised Lutheran from the time I was a young boy. And so I had many misconceptions about Catholic faith. (Given the spirit of the age and the crisis in catechesis, I probably would have maintained them as a Catholic.) My Catholic friend patiently endured my questions and challenges. I developed an informed and sympathetic understanding of Catholicism, even while I remained committed to the magisterial Reformation, and in time after college, I felt what Chesterton described: “It is impossible to be just to the Catholic Church. The moment a man ceases to pull against it he feels a tug towards it. The moment he ceases to shout it down he begins to listen to it with pleasure. The moment he tries to be fair to it he begins to be fond of it.”
Potential converts are attracted to the Catholic faith because in a world gone mad they perceive there authority, nobility, gravity, and unity, goodness, beauty, and truth. But the Church one finds in apologists’ books is often not what one finds on the ground in local parishes, as both Catholics and non-Catholics know. We’re generally past the dark days of butterfly chasubles and pizza-n-Pepsi masses, laus Deo, but grave problems remain regarding the liturgy, fidelity to Church teaching, the vitality of Christian experience, simple mass attendance, and mission. And many blame the Second Vatican Council.
The Second Vatican Council itself is not to blame for post-conciliar malaise. But for many converts the Council is an issue, given its aftermath, and here irony abounds. The Council was called to initiate a great age of Christological engagement ad extra with an increasingly decadent world weary of itself, but what resulted was an era of ad intra confusion within the Church itself. Did not the Council precipitate a rupture, a break from prior tradition, occluding much of the Faith’s vigor and beauty? What about Vatican II?
As I was on my journey to Rome, I had to reckon with Vatican II. And that meant three things: First, getting up to speed on Catholic history prior to the Council. Second, reading the documents the Council produced. And third, finding an adequate hermeneutic for the Council.
For those who did not experience the pre-Conciliar Church (and for many who did) there exists a temptation to nostalgia, a romantic, sentimental longing for the past that enervates discipleship and devotion in the present, the only time in which we can live. Nostalgia is thus the deadly sin of sloth. But nostalgia is not Tradition. I think criticism of the pre-Conciliar Church is often overblown, but there were real problems in need of fixing and real opportunities in need of seizing.
And so when one reads the actual documents that the Council produced, especially the four Constitutions on liturgy, revelation, the Church, and the Church in the modern world, which Pope Benedict recently called “the four cardinal points of our guiding compass,” one finds all sorts of beauty, goodness, and truth, authority, nobility, gravity, and unity. The documents are Christocentric to the core, and meant to empower the Church for mission.
But a funny thing happened on the way to the eschaton. It got realized prematurely as certain theologians and churchmen and -women engaged anew in the perennial heresy of separating letter and spirit. The nebulous “Spirit of Vatican II” thus arose as a warrant for whatever whims one wished, while the writings were received and appropriated piecemeal in instances of progressive prooftexting. And so on Sunday in his homily, Pope Benedict called for a return to the letter:
I have often insisted on the need to return, as it were, to the “letter” of the Council—that is to its texts—also to draw from them its authentic spirit, and why I have repeated that the true legacy of Vatican II is to be found in them. Reference to the documents saves us from extremes of anachronistic nostalgia and running too far ahead, and allows what is new to be welcomed in a context of continuity. The Council did not formulate anything new in matters of faith, nor did it wish to replace what was ancient. Rather, it concerned itself with seeing that the same faith might continue to be lived in the present day, that it might remain a living faith in a world of change.
The legacy of the Council remains undecided. As my Catholic friend, now Fr. James P. Shea, president of the University of Mary, said last Thursday in his keynote address at our diocesan symposium on the Council, “Centuries from now, will the Second Vatican Council be remembered as a reform Council that failed, or as a reform council that succeeded? . . . The question is unanswered, but I believe it lies with subsequent generations.” This is now our task: to receive the Council by drawing upon the Spirit of the texts to find power for Christian mission in the present, in continuity with Sacred Tradition.
Leroy Huizenga is Director of the Christian Leadership Center at the University of Mary in Bismarck, North Dakota. His personal website is LeroyHuizenga.com. His previous “On the Square” articles can be found here.
Homily of Pope Benedict XVI, Mass for the 50th Anniversary of the Second Vatican Ecumenical Council and the Opening of the Year of Faith
Fr. James P. Shea, “The Enduring Legacy of Vatican II”
Leroy Huizenga, “Tradition Is Not Nostalgia”
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