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Map for the journey of faith

From the editor’s desk

6 October 2012

It was a fundamentally wise move of Pope Benedict XVI to urge the Church to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the start of the Second Vatican Council by returning to, and studying afresh, the actual texts the council approved. These are the historical baseline for any interpretation or application of the council’s teaching, and a corrective to the claim that any new policy or development is, or is not, in accordance with what the council intended.

All that sounds simple; it is not. Half a century after the opening ceremony in October 1962, the Catholic Church is not the same as it was. The council changed it. The four subsequent papacies changed it further. The conciliar texts cannot therefore be read now as they were read when they were new – sometimes startlingly new. What is certain is that by returning to those momentous texts, the Catholic Church will refresh its understanding of itself and its mission. That will be a great benefit, but it will also revive the controversy surrounding the interpretation of the texts. That may also prove beneficial, if it leads the Church back to its scriptural, patristic and theological roots – the process called ressourcement  – where new riches, by the grace of God, still wait to be discovered. The late Cardinal Martini’s final word to the Church was to urge it to return to the Scriptures. That is the ultimate agenda for reform.

The Pope has repeatedly emphasised that there is more than one way of understanding Vatican II, and not all understandings are equally valid. Some remarks he made in 2005, not long after his election, have been understood as favouring, and maybe even wanting to impose, a highly conservative interpretation of what the council achieved. He appeared to contrast a “hermeneutic of continuity”, of which he approved, with a “hermeneutic of rupture”, which he rejected. But that itself is a conservative interpretation of what he actually said. The words of his Christmas Address to the Roman Curia that year were much more nuanced. He fully acknowledged the tension between continuity and reform that characterised much of the council’s debates, with more continuity in one place, more reform in another. There is no papal mandate for imposing a hermeneutic of continuity on all of it – the view that the council fundamentally changed nothing. Such a serious distortion of the council’s work would amount to a rejection of it.

Continuity and reform
Sometimes the only continuity discernible in the texts is with Scripture, rather than with more recent church history. There is no continuity whatever between the declaration Nostra Aetate, on relations with Jews and other faiths, for instance, and the previous two millennia of Christian anti-Semitism – as promoted, say, by the Fourth Lateran Council of 1215. That is indeed a rupture, for which we may thank God. Again, the council’s Declaration on Religious Liberty flatly contradicts Pope Pius IX’s encyclical known as the “Syllabus of Errors”, which was itself in continuity with what had been understood in traditional Catholic teaching as the doctrine that “error has no rights”. To give credit where it is due, the declaration is more in continuity with the Enlightenment – and none the worse for that.

What the texts are, are snapshots taken from a journey, and a great deal of theological territory was covered in the course of it. The early texts are manifestly immature. In some cases – such as, for example, the embarrassingly poor decree on the mass media – they were proceeded with because other texts were not yet ready for debate. The reason they were not is one of the more sensational aspects of the council’s history, which coloured almost everything the council subsequently did. The Roman Curia had been drawing up preparatory texts, intended to be drafts for final consideration and endorsement. They simply described the Curia’s view of the world and sought the council fathers’ endorsement for it. They were later described as typified by the remark, “As we were saying yesterday …” That indeed was continuity. And the bishops, appalled by what they read, swept almost all of it aside and started again. It would be entirely accurate to call that a rupture, even a coup d’état.

The council’s brief, as given by Pope John XXIII both when he announced it and when he opened it, was to seek an aggiornamento – an “opening to the world”. While the council was still in being, his successor, Paul VI, endorsed it and made it his own motto. “We want to bring it to the notice of the whole Church,” he declared in 1964. “It should prove a stimulus to the Church to increase its ever-growing vitality and its ability to take stock of itself, and give careful consideration to the signs of the times, always and everywhere ‘proving all things and holding fast that which is good’ with the enthusiasm of youth.” What is noticeable is that this was by no means an attempt to freeze the Church at one stage of its development. It suggests that the council was not so much defining a blueprint as proposing a trajectory, still to be worked out.

Flies in the ointment
There is no authority therefore for reading the council texts as legal documents or unalterable Holy Writ, once-for-all and perpetually binding. The council itself modified Martin Luther’s expression, semper reformanda, by adopting for itself the similar phrase semper purificanda. So the post-conciliar Church, the modern People of God, was set in motion on a journey of faith. It became, as Cardinal Hume once described it, not so much a fortress, more a pilgrimage spread out across the desert or a convoy across the sea. The conciliar texts are therefore best treated as recording a point of departure, bearings taken on leaving port. They are a manual for navigation. They do not describe the destination.

There were, of course, two flies in the ointment – or three if one counts the 1968 encyclical, Humanae Vitae, which caused a profound crisis of self-confidence in the post-conciliar Church that has still not been overcome. The two are, first, the fact that implementation of the council’s decrees was left in the hands of the same Roman Curia whose initial drafts had been so comprehensively rejected. The second was the failure to carry out the council’s desire that the spirit of collegiality, which had been so productive, should be continued afterwards, within appropriate institutions. The International Synod of Bishops has proved a disappointment, not least because it has been too easily manipulated. Hence the council’s fundamental vision of the Church’s structure – of it being governed by a college of bishops with the Pope at its head, and the Curia subject to, and at the service of, both – has received only lip service. If a return to the texts leads the Church to rediscover that vision and resolve to make it come alive at last, a new and exciting chapter may be about to be written. The Church will be set in motion again. But the forces of anti-conciliar reaction have not yet been defeated. They did not like the council then and they do not like it now, and they will do everything they can to frustrate it.