Our society’s toxic “culture wars” have colonized too many sectors within the Catholic Church. One thinks, for example, of the “liturgy wars” concerning what constitutes “authentic liturgical reform” or the recent disputes regarding Pope Francis’s pastoral accommodations for the divorced and remarried. At the level of Catholic ecclesiology, the “culture wars” have morphed into the “council wars,” a fight over the authentic interpretation of Vatican II.
The latest entry in these acrimonious debates is The Reception of Vatican II, a sequel to an earlier collection of essays on the Vatican II documents (Vatican II: Renewal within Tradition, 2008). Unfortunately, the ideological agenda of the earlier volume continues to inform this new collection. There are some helpful essays to be sure (Driscoll, Wright, Meconi, and DeVille, to name a few) but, as with the previous collection, the fundamental flaw of this volume ultimately overwhelms its virtues. That flaw lies in the guiding convictions of the editors, Matthew Levering and Matthew Lamb, that the authentic reception of the council has been compromised by theologians who appeal irresponsibly to Vatican II in support of their heterodox views. The editors draw on Pope Benedict XVI’s famous 2005 address to the Roman Curia in which he denounced readings of the council based on a “hermeneutic of discontinuity and rupture,” promoting instead a “hermeneutic of reform.”
This preoccupation with the danger of “rupture” within the tradition has created a theological straw man. As Ormond Rush has argued, for the term to have any use in ecclesiology, we must distinguish between “micro-ruptures” that represent a break with a specific feature within the larger tradition (e.g., the council’s break with Pius IX’s teaching on religious freedom), and a “macro-rupture” that represents a repudiation of the tradition itself. It is hard to argue that the council’s teaching contains no “micro-ruptures” whatsoever. Re-framing these “micro-ruptures” as nothing more than instances of “organic development” can seem like so much pious, theological spin.
On the very first page of the introduction the editors announce their opposition to conciliar interpretations that represent “a rupture with previously defined doctrine.” It is not clear what is meant by “defined doctrine.” Is this referring to the church’s central dogmatic convictions? If so, it is hard to find more than a small minority of scholars who would be guilty of such a “rupture.” Or, as I suspect is the case, do the editors mean all church doctrine? Both editors are accomplished theologians who know well that within the tradition there are clear gradations in the authority and binding character of church teaching. By lumping all normative church teaching into the same category, as they appear to do, they implicitly extend the mantle of infallibility over all church teaching, thereby precluding even the most respectful critique of specific doctrinal formulations. This editorial position taints their project, leading to a collection of essays in which a number of contributors carefully avoided even the appearance of challenging current magisterial teaching.
Consider Jeremy Driscoll’s fine essay on the council’s constitution on the liturgy. He helpfully draws the reader’s attention to three seminal ideas informing the constitution: 1) the centrality of the paschal mystery, 2) the way the work of our redemption is communicated through the liturgy, and, 3) the full, active, and conscious participation of all in the liturgy. Driscoll demonstrates persuasively how these three ideas call forth a profound liturgical theology and spirituality still to be realized in the concrete worship of the church today. At several points, he acknowledges the inadequacies of the preconciliar missal. Yet he cannot bring himself to even mention, let alone criticize, Pope Benedict XVI’s problematic teaching in Summorum pontificum that the Tridentine liturgy and the postconciliar missal of Paul VI represent equally legitimate forms of worship. Nor does he acknowledge the way, under Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI, in which the Vatican’s having seized control of liturgical translations is fundamentally at odds with the teaching of the liturgy constitution.