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Nearly fifty years have past, but the legacy of the Second Vatican Council (it ended in November 1965) still remains a matter of debate. Not surprisingly, studies of the history often become advocacy.

The American Catholic Revolution: How the Sixties Changed the Church Forever , by Mark S. Massa, S. J., is no exception. Dean of the School of Theology and Ministry at Boston College, Fr. Massa hangs his history on the old caricatures that have dominated liberal interpretations of modern Catholic history for decades.

The thesis is simplistic in the extreme. On one side are those who believe in timeless truths, on the other side those who embrace “historical consciousness.” By this reading, the history of Catholicism in the decade of and after the Council is best understood as the clash between a-historical martinets who wanted to keep the Church frozen in the past and historically sensitive intellectuals who were comfortable with pluralism, change, and the “messiness of history.”

Massa’s superficial reading of the documents of the Second Vatican Council offers an illustration. He points out that in one of the key Vatican II texts, the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, Lumen Gentium , the bishops adopted a range of biblical terms rather than a single, settled scholastic definition of the Church.

This variety led, he suggests, to a deeper understanding of the Church, one that brought to the fore images of the church suppressed by rigid forms of modern Catholic scholasticism. For example, the central biblical notion of “People of God” became a rallying cry for those who wanted to make the church less hierarchical and more egalitarian.

That’s accurate as a description of the way progressives saw things in the aftermath of Vatican II. But the facts of the matter cut against Massa’s thesis, for those crusading for an egalitarian church were the a-historical theologians, not those who resisted them.

When the New Testament refers to the church as the “People of God,” it is drawing on the Old Testament notion of Israel as a nation in covenant with the Lord. And, of course, the Old Testament account of Israel is profoundly hierarchical, with a hereditary priesthood and a divinely ordained monarchy. The reality of history, however, was beside the point for the “historically conscious” progressives storming the bastions. They were living in the Now, and the “People of God” came to be fused with 1960’s sentiments such as “Power to the People.”

Massa’s account of the transformation of the Immaculate Heart of Mary sisters, a women’s religious order in Los Angeles, in the 1960s provides another illustration of the inadequacy of his thesis. Reading Massa, one can see that the dramatic changes in the rules governing the order were based on a dreamy, a-historical idealism that drank deeply from the wells of an emergent feminism, not genuine historical knowledge of its founder. Result: three quarters of the women were laicized by the end of the 1960s. So much for renewal.

Throughout The American Catholic Revolution the simple-minded dichotomy between an old-fashioned belief in timeless truths and a new, fluid historical consciousness exerts too much control over Massa’s mind. He writes that historical consciousness has “won the day in so many parts of culture”in science, technology, historical and social scientific scholarship.” How can he assert something so obviously false?

Historical consciousness certainly plays an important role in modern intellectual life, giving us a vivid sense of the contingency of our own way of life. Yet it has by no means “won the day.” After all, contemporary brain science and socio-biology cut against historical consciousness, arguing that our behavior and beliefs are functions of timeless scientific laws, not historical circumstances. The trend away from history also characterizes game theory in political science and economic theory. Both claim to provide timeless models for social behavior, not historically conditioned ones.

Moreover, historical consciousness hasn’t won the day for Massa himself. He devotes a chapter to the Berrigan brothers, anti-war protesters who, in 1968, along with others dubbed the Catonsville Nine, burned draft cards. Massa fails to notice that Daniel Berrigan was a moral fundamentalist: War is evil; Christ calls us to resist evil; Therefore, Christians must burn draft cards. Q.E.D. That’s good ‘ol scholastic reasoning at work, not historical consciousness.

The incoherence of Fr. Massa’s approach to modern Catholic history is all too typical. It reflects that basic strategy of progressive rhetoric, which defines the good guys and the bad guys with concepts that transcend theology and morality “ thus exempting the progressive view from theological and moral debate. For Massa, “historical consciousness” and what he calls the “messiness of history” simply means having a liberal sensibility, not real knowledge of history.

In the end “history” is just a slogan, along with “pluralism,” and “change.” These buzzwords have been used by two generations of post-Vatican II teachers to catechize their students. If one doesn’t agree with the agenda of liberal Catholicism”relaxed sexual morality, the ordination of women, and so forth”then one is dismissed as “denying history” or “afraid of change.” So we have been told again and again.

Today we need genuine historical work rather than the agenda of liberal Catholicism dressed up in academic gowns. By my reckoning, the most fascinating and remarkable aspect of recent American Catholic history was both the sudden and powerful emergence of a progressive Catholic vision after Vatican II, and its equally sudden (and largely unexpected) collapse only a decade or two later. Who, for example, reads David Tracy anymore? Or even Karl Rahner?

A serious account of the emergence”the topic of Massa’s book”must take into the account the collapse, something Massa seems unable to contemplate.

R.R. Reno is a senior editor of First Things .

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