Vatican II at 60 and the New Evangelization

Vatican II by Lothar Wolleh, CC BY-SA 3.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0>, via Wikimedia Commons
October 29, 2022

Image of Vatican Council II in session by Lothar Wolleh, CC BY-SA 3.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0>, via Wikimedia Commons

The fall weather has begun to arrive in South Texas. Fall can be a time full of joyful nostalgia for some of us older folk, with its crisp sweater weather, falling leaves and distinctive smell, apple cider, and football games. This fall is a distinctively nostalgic one for Catholics who came of age in the 1960s and 1970s as we celebrate the anniversary of the opening of the Second Vatican Council sixty years ago this October. In the popular Catholic media, new and retreaded articles about the Council abound. Like every council before it, Vatican II authoritatively addressed the matter(s) set before it with a mixture of positive acceptance, acrimonious rebellion, and mistaken understanding. The manifold contemporary treatments of Vatican II continue this ambivalent attitude toward the Council.

   As with a number of preceding councils, the Second Vatican Council was likewise influenced by its own unique complex of societal, philosophical, and theological developments that have made interpreting the council in the immediate aftermath a challenge. To begin with, historians have identified several theological movements of renewal within the Catholic Church (though not all were exclusively Catholic) which had significant influence on the Council in that many of the experts upon whom the Council Fathers relied were leaders in these various movements. 

  Among these include a reassessment of the Catholic approach to scriptural interpretation and use as a source for doing theology often called the biblical movement. Associated with this movement, the Council began amidst a patristic Ressourcement, a return to the Early Church Fathers as another source for doing theology, as well as a renewed appropriation of their theological/philosophical methods. Theological renewal was also ongoing among Catholic liturgical scholars. Movements that began outside Catholic circles, but which had begun to be engaged with by Catholic scholars included an ecumenical movement which was initially aimed at Christian unity, and interreligious dialogue which was seen as necessary reproachment for renewed mission in the modern world.

   Many of these movements arose in the 19th century, but in the wake of the two world wars there was an increasing desire to overcome Reformation polemics and for reproachment among Christians and among other believers. This led to a softening of the predominant defensive posture within Catholic faculties of theology. We see in the Catholic Tubingen school, Fr. Johann Adam Möhler and Fr. Johann Sebastian Drey seemed to provide the first movement toward the return to patristics as a way of doing theology, which would begin to threaten a sense of security in a set, stable manualist methodology that had arisen among Catholic theologians in defense of reason against Protestant fideism, and as a defense of faith in its response to Enlightenment rationalism. Added to this is Fr. Matthias Joseph Scheeben, teaching at the diocesan seminary in Cologne, who began the contemporary renewal of the patristic theology of the nuptial mystery upon which St. John Paul II would develop into his colloquially entitled, theology of the body.

   In the 20th century the Tubingen initiative would be picked up first among French Dominicans, beginning with Fr. Marie-Dominique Chenu and eventually bringing in such figures as Fr. Yves Congar, and Fr. Edward Schillebeeckx. This would eventually be called Ressourcement, returning to the sources. However, to a predominantly neo-scholastic mindset this movement seemed to espouse many of the same errors promoted by modernists. Led by Fr. Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange, Chenu’s teacher, the Dominican leadership would eventually suppress this movement to some degree. Nevertheless, Ressourcement had also interested a number of French Jesuits like Fr. Henri Bouillard, Fr. Jean Daniélou, and Fr. Henri de Lubac who would then take the lead in promoting this new approach until they themselves were curtailed by Jesuity leaders amid fears associated with the apparent abandonment of a secure Thomist metaphysical system. Other theologians to influence the Council were young theologians such as Fr. Joseph Ratzinger, Fr. Hans Urs von Balthasar, Fr. Karl Rahner, and Fr. Hans Küng. Many of these up and coming theologians were also dissatisfied by what they saw as a suffocating, static Thomism and viewed with excitement the promises of the Ressourcement approach.

   In addition to these movements, we cannot forget the rise in interest of studying the human person that was coming to the fore in the years leading up to the Council. This was a broad, amorphas movement called personalism, having a unity only in that they had as their central notion studying the meaning of human personhood. After centuries of preparation it would seem, the time had come to ask new questions about the meaning of human personhood and then discover what the various schools of philosophy and theology might reveal about these questions. This subject would intensely interest Bishop (and then Archbishop) Karol Wojtyła and Fr. Joseph Ratzinger, especially from the perspective of trinitarian personalism and they would bring this interest to their work in the Council. It is also undoubtedly the case that a concern for personalism infused the entire Council’s proceedings as Pope St. Paul VI was tremendously influenced by the personalism of the French Thomist personalist, Jacques Maritain. Archbishop Wojtyła, according to George Weigel in Witness to Hope, himself argued that an insider’s view of the Council would see it as eminently a personalist Council (see pg. 171).

   Within the Council, a theological battle was brewing between neo-scholastic theologians and the Ressourcement school. A good number of the latter theologians rejected what they saw as the predominant, stale, manualist repetition of a certain interpretation of St. Thomas Aquinas’ summary of theology. They were able to engineer the rejection of the initial working documents for each session drafted according to neo-scholastic standards. Despite their various differences, the Ressourcement theologians were in agreement that the neo-Thomist hegemony was not the only possible interpretation of Thomas nor perhaps even a correct one. Whether it was Chenu’s accusation that Wolffian metaphysics had corrupted Cardinal Cajetan’s interpretation of St. Thomas, or Balthasar’s claim that Neo-Scholasticism was not the product of St. Thomas Aquinas but the corrupt, Baroque-Scholasticism of the Enlightenment era Spanish Jesuit Francisco Suárez, most agreed there was a need to reread St. Thomas in light of the Fathers and of Thomas' medieval scholastic milieu. They certainly agreed that the manualist method was not the only method for doing Catholic theology. Indeed, they were unanimous in arguing that it was not up to the task of proclaiming Jesus Christ effectively to an increasingly technological and secularized, post-Christian world.  

   For their part the neo-scholastic school, which had the ear of the vast majority of the Roman curia, saw amidst this nouvelle théologie as they derisively called it, an historicizing tendency which they equated with the heresy of modernism. Neo-Scholasticism, basing itself in Thomist metaphysics, focused especially on the unchanging truths necessary for faith which can be apprehended through reason alone, the praeambula fidei. Only then did it move to matters of faith which followed, it appeared to them, necessarily from the praeambula. Neo-Scholasticism seemed to consider all important questions asked and answered by the time of St. Thomas, and neatly summarized by him. Therefore, theology was simply a matter of inquiring into what the Angelic Doctor said, as passed on through his commentators in manuals dedicated to such questions. With its one-sided focus on the unchangeable foundations of truth, it seemed to provide a bulwark against the errors of modernism/post-modernism which tried to make religion and religious experience purely matters unique to the subject and therefore completely rooted in the history and culture of the experiencing subjects. However, as those drawn to the Ressourcement saw it, Neo-Scholasticism reflected a defensive, closed mindset that had in part, permitted Christendom to collapse upon itself from such pressures because it could not engage with a form of rationalism which had left it behind. For them, Neo-Scholasticism was part of the problem that gave rise to the widespread secularism in which former Christian societies now found themselves and certainly not the solution.

   In addition to this, one cannot neglect the influence of the correlationist movement on many theologians influencing the Council from the Ressourcement school, especially the Jesuits. The Jesuit Paleontologist, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, tried to correlate Darwinian evolution to the patristic theology of cosmic redemption in Christ through his theory of the “omega point.” The “cosmic-Christ” (as a sort of replacement for the Hegelian World Spirit) through “christogenesis” (the Incarnation) had “christified” creation through which the world itself now brings about its own fulfillment in a mechanistic process (evolution) replacing the tradition of divine Providence. He saw technological progress as a manifestation of this natural process of cosmic fulfillment. Teilhardianism provided a sort of theo-metaphysical justification for a naïve, utopian confidence in progress as all good and inevitably leading the cosmos toward its own fulfillment as well as toward ultimate human fulfillment. Ratzinger published a summary of each of the sessions of the Council shortly after each finished. In his summary of the final session, Ratzinger discusses some difficulties with the first draft of Gaudium et spes (the Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World). Among these was its failure to dissociate itself adequately from Teilhardianism in its discussion of faith in a world of technology. Over several iterations, Ratzinger finds the suggestions of a naïve optimism about technological progress were attenuated and a more accurate articulation of the relationship of the Church and the Christian to the technological world would emerge in the final version, which providentially would be largely accomplished by what would become the Communio school (including Wojtyła, Congar, de Lubac, and Danielou).

   Not all correlationism is directly derived from Teilhardianism. It can range from staying within Catholic orthodoxy, to its most radical form. Correlationism within Catholic orthodoxy would see God’s Provident hand in the world moving all things toward His plan of a renewed cosmos in the eschaton, but we must discern between the authentic good/progress in the world from the bad.  We should identify common causes we can take as starting points for mission but we must also identify those sinful structures and behaviors in the world that must be reformed and purified. Correlationism’s extreme form Ratzinger would call a crude Teilhardianism (the early Ratzinger was not convinced that such Teilhardianism did justice to Teilhard’s actual thought). Such a correlationist would say that sin and redemption are subsumed into the natural process of evolutionary progress by the Incarnation and so everything that happens in the world is the work of the Holy Spirit. Therefore, the Church and Christians need not bother themselves with mission/evangelization, but rather we simply need to affirm people and the world as good and point to progress as the evidence of our Christological hope in cosmic and personal fulfillment. 

   Perhaps the most prominent correlationist active at the Council was Schillebeeckx, a Jesuit peritus at the Council whose project it was to “correlate” the Catholic faith to the prevailing socio-cultural trends of the time. For a number of the Council periti holding the correlationist ideology, this system justified adopting progressive theological positions and the conviction that a new era was now sweeping away the culturally/temporally bound limitations imposed upon the Gospel by the pre-technological Church. A progressive/correlationist influenced interpretation of the Second Vatican Council initially dominated in the battle for the Council’s interpretation and is perhaps best known as the “spirit of the Council” hermeneutic. St. John Paul II’s pontificate gave the advantage to the hermeneutic of continuity interpretation. However, Pope Francis’ style of permitting almost any question to be posed by anyone and then trusting in the purifying process of the Holy Spirit working through His Church, has recently given new life to the “spirit of Vatican II” crowd. It should be noted, that the theological dispute among the faithful Catholic theological schools (i.e., neo-scholastic v. Ressourcement) facilitated in many ways, the credibility of such a correlationist interpretation. Though it is also important to note that not all Ressourcement theologians would adopt this correlationist ideology. Nevertheless, it shows the importance of reproachment between what remains of Neo-Scholastic minded theologians and those orthodox Catholic theologians who have been raised in the age of John Paul II’s and Benedict XVI’s influence on the academy.

   Unique to this Council is that a battle for its interpretation arose already in the midst of the Council. The progressive interpreters who wanted to depict the Council as a rupture from the past had the great advantage that they were able to enlist the assistance of the major organs of popular media in the West in promoting their interpretation to the public. For example, a Redemptorist, Fr. Francis Xavier Murphy, during the three years of the Council published a series of articles under an assumed name in a popular American news magazine, The New Yorker. In these articles he presented the Council as a battle between the good progressives who were trying to carry out the reforms desired by the good Pope John XIII and the evil old guard who were trying to thwart him. Progressives were the heroes battling against evil men stuck in the past, in order to change Church teaching to conform with a new vision of the Catholic Church which would adapt its teachings and practices to the sensibilities of modern man. The various sources of popular media saw a double advantage to assisting the progressives. The fight among Catholics made for a good story, not to mention the scintillating prospect of a Catholic Church that was finally coming around to a modern way of thinking. This story of the Church breaking from its past at Vatican II would carry on among the Concilium school of theologians and historians to the present day (most notably organized by the Bologna school, whose notable figures include Giuseppe Dossetti, Alberto Melloni and Giuseppe Alberigo, and their American translator, Fr. Joseph Komonchak). Unfortunately, this confusion was abetted by a number of traditionalist movements who agreed with the assessment of rupture and so wanted to reject the Council.

   An authentic understanding of the Second Vatican Council requires engagement with all of these and a host of other complexities. It requires familiarity with the subsequent battle between the Concilium school (made up of those such as Chenu, Rahner, Schillebeeckx, and Küng) and those of the Communio school (including Ratzinger, de Lubac, Congar, Fr. Louis Boyer, Wojtyła, and von Balthasar). It requires understanding that even among those theologians who go astray in their conclusions, very often their starting point and much of what they have to say can be valid and fruitful. This must be teased apart from their excesses and errors. In fact, most of the Communio school began within the Concilium school because the extreme and unorthodox views did not become so gravely apparent until after the Council. It also requires that we adopt a fundamentally Catholic principle of interpretation which begins with faith that the Holy Spirit guides the Church through its Magisterium and so we must interpret what is said in continuity with that teaching which went before. While it is undoubtedly true that at the Council not everything could be discussed, it is also the case that whenever there was a question as to how a particular claim could be said to conform to what the Church has always taught, effort was always made to explain the continuity or correct the text when necessary. This was especially true in the document on religious liberty. The Council Fathers as a whole (even if some did not) voted on meanings of the approved text that conformed to the traditional teaching of the Church even if they were breaking new ground in extending and clarifying the traditional meaning. An authentic interpretation also means setting aside suspicion about the documents and the nefarious motivations which may or may not be behind an ambiguous text. As with the Council Fathers, in faith and charity, every text then must be interpreted in light of authentic Church teaching and this can be done, pace the hermeneutic of rupture propagandists’ or the radical traditionalists’ claims to the contrary.

   Matthew Levering is perhaps the leading contemporary scholar, though he certainly is not alone, who is engaged in proposing an authentic interpretation of the Council from this perspective. Levering sees from the Council that it did not see itself as an event that ended with its closing. This much Ratzinger made clear in his summary of the background on the development of Gaudium et spes. He said the view of the Council Fathers was that the document was not the last word on the topic of the Church’s engagement with the modern world. Rather, it was the initial step in a new manner of bringing Jesus Christ to the contemporary world. Wojtyła took this view of the Council as an ongoing event and so he wrote a book on the meaning and application of each of the documents of the Council, called Sources of Renewal. He then began what was to be an eight-year pastoral Synod in the Archdiocese of Kraków in order to look at every aspect of Church life in the Archdiocese from the lens of and experience of Vatican II (though some of the groups continued to meet almost to the turn of the second millennium). The Second Vatican Council was understood to be the beginning of a renewal in the Church, a renewed call to transform ourselves in Christ through knowing Him more deeply, loving Him more intensely, and sharing Him more zealously with the world. Yet, Levering says that it is the texts of the Council which must govern this ongoing event and so their authentic interpretation is paramount. This is exactly what Wojtyła did with his Archdiocese in 1972 when he began his Synod. This understanding of the Second Vatican Council fundamentally guides the mission and methods of Mother of the Americas Institute. It also helps to explain why the Council was necessary and it provides the marching orders for the new evangelization.

   Levering recognizes that while the Neo-Scholastics’ one-sided focus on the question of unchanging substance as a ground for knowing truth was worthy of much of the Ressourcement criticism, Thomist metaphysics (rightly conceived) cannot be abandoned. The patristic and medieval approaches which synthesized all effective tools of rational inquiry into methodologies of theological inquiry availing itself of all available sources of theology must be maintained. And this means that, as St. John Paul II made clear in Fides et ratio, that theological inquiry requires that it be grounded in an adequate metaphysics. He finds the metaphysics of St. Thomas to be the most suitable system to the task. R.R. Reno showed in a First Things article from 2007 that the Ressourcement theologians who remained within Catholic orthodoxy intuitively relied upon their Neo-Scholastic formation to do so. This project has indeed continued in the wake of Vatican II. The integration of Thomist metaphysics with the new philosophical tool of phenomenology from the perspective of the will was Wojtyła’s project in his magnum opus, Person and Act, something he had taken up from Edith Stein. The same integration has also been carried out from the perspective of the intellect by Msgr. Robert Sokolowski at the Catholic University of America in his magnum opus, Phenomenology of the Human Person (which we might subtitle Person and Knowing). These insights also guide the approach of MAI scholars.

   Earlier this month, a few days before the anniversary of the opening of the Second Vatican Council Pope emeritus Benedict XVI sent a letter to the President of the Franciscan University of Steubenville explicating his view of the Council. He said the Council was not simply meaningful, but necessary for the Church in her contemporary situation. He implied Levering’s view of the Council as an ongoing event, saying that it provided the needed clarity of the nature and mission of the Church which was necessary for the Church to engage with the contemporary world. It is a clarity that is only gradually becoming apparent for those willing to have eyes to see, and so likewise the power of the Second Vatican Council is slowly emerging. MAI is dedicated to appropriating these insights and cooperating with this power in order to apply it all to the various needs of the Church today. As the weather gets cooler, we are taking this opportunity to recall the lessons of this Council of the new evangelization and to rededicate ourselves to cooperating in applying its fruit in order to make more effective the Church’s proclamation of joy in Jesus Christ to the nations.

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