Rewriting History

This book is intended as an illustration of the fruitfulness of interpreting the Second Vatican Council as an instance of “renewal within tradition.” That phrase is used in contrast to the “hermeneutics of rupture or discontinuity,” which then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger criticized in a December 2002* speech to the Roman curia (the text of which is provided as a kind of preface to the volume). The editors describe the hermeneutics of rupture as overemphasizing what was new at the council, to the extent that the deeper elements of continuity with the church’s tradition are overlooked or dismissed as compromises needed to win votes for conciliar texts and foreign to “the spirit of the council”—that is, its “impulses towards the new.”

The volume is placed in service of Pope Benedict XVI’s views on how to interpret the council, yet neither its editors nor its authors offer a close reading of his remarks on the subject. The editors make little effort to explain the “hermeneutics of reform” espoused by the pope, even though the majority of his talk was devoted to the subject. For Benedict, “the very nature of true reform consists” in a “combination of continuity and discontinuity at different levels.” To illustrate his point, the pope showed why the church had to come up with new definitions of the relationship between faith and modern science, between the church and the modern state, and between Christianity and the world religions, particularly Judaism. According to Benedict, Vatican II’s Declaration on Religious Freedom recognized “an essential principle of the modern state,” expressed a “fundamental ‘yes’ to the modern era”—a decision that was in full harmony with the teaching of Jesus and with “the church of the martyrs of all time.” In all three of those areas, Pope Benedict said, the council “reviewed or even corrected certain historical decisions, but in this apparent discontinuity it has actually preserved and deepened [the church’s] inmost nature and true identity.”

Instead of learning from the pope’s lecture, the editors offer a superficial and repetitive description of two millennia of Christian tradition: the first thousand years were supposedly characterized by wisdom and holiness, which gave way to the Enlightenment in the second millennium, destroying the grand Christian vision of the whole. The book contains nothing that suggests there was anything of value in the modern era, anything the church might have had to learn, any new relationships it might have had to forge, anything it might have had to correct. No effort is made to explain what made the council and its aftermath such a dramatic moment in modern Catholic history. This was the sort of thing Karl Rahner meant when he spoke of the council as signaling the emergence of a “global church,” or that Bernard Lonergan was getting at when he said that the conciliar and postconciliar drama represented less a crisis of faith that a crisis of culture—the transition from classicism to historical consciousness.

In one of the best essays in the book, Methodist theologian Geoffrey Wainwright notes that a council can be studied in two equally important, and inseparable, ways. It can be approached “as an event located within a preparatory history, where it then occurs in its own way and finally has effects in the ecclesial body. Alternatively, it may be more narrowly examined for its own deliverances, which are authoritatively promulgated in textual form.” This volume has taken the narrower path. It largely emphasizes the final conciliar texts; just a few authors show interest in the documents’ redactional history. Most of the essays ignore the three sets of official acta. None of the essays refers to From Trent to Vatican II (Oxford, 2006), which examines continuities and discontinuities in the two great reform councils. A footnote by the editors seems to reflect a belief that the five-volume History of Vatican II, of which the late Giuseppe Alberigo was chief editor (I was editor of the English edition), falls under the strictures of Pope Benedict’s address. It is not surprising, then, that the essays make very little use of the History, even though it would have confirmed many of their conclusions.

Denis Farkasfalvy’s discussion of what Dei verbum said about biblical inspiration and interpretation proves helpful—apart from some errors in detail in his brief history of the text (and some unworthy remarks about Raymond Brown). Farkasfalvy calls for restoring a patristic approach to biblical interpretation, identifies inadequacies in the conciliar treatment and contemporary challenges, and suggests paths that need to be explored in the future.

On Sacrosanctum concilium, the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, Pamela Jackson offers a good paraphrase of the document’s theological introduction, but does not explore the theology underlying the principles the council adopted for the reform of the liturgy. She correctly points out that liturgical reform had already been initiated under Pope Pius XII and that many of the reforms proposed by the council had precedents—particularly in the early centuries of the church. While she notes that the council’s “‘new’ norms and reforms in fact point to the example of earlier precedents,” she shows little interest in the question of why liturgical reform required restoration of abandoned or forgotten practices.

Two essays are devoted to each of the constitutions issued by Vatican II and one each to the other twelve documents. Cardinal Avery Dulles argues that the first three chapters of Lumen gentium, the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, propose no revolution in ecclesiology. Concerned to avoid the risk of “concentrating all ecclesiology in the study of ministers,” Benoît-Dominique de La Soujeole devotes the larger part of his essay on chapters 5 through 8 to the theme of the church’s holiness realized in a special way in the Blessed Virgin Mary. The fourth chapter, on the laity, has fallen through the cracks.

J. Brian Benestad discusses the first four chapters of Gaudium et spes, the Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World (although very little is said about chapter 3). For his presentation of its main doctrinal perspectives, he relies almost exclusively on Joseph Ratzinger. Both during the redaction of Gaudium et spes and after its promulgation, Ratzinger had grave reservations about the document’s methodology and even some of its teachings. Nothing is said about the theological issues at stake in the often sharp disagreements between bishops in the final stages of the redaction of Gaudium et spes. Matthew Levering takes up the second part of the pastoral constitution, which treats five more particular areas (marriage and family, culture, economics, politics, and war and peace). On all those issues, he concludes that Gaudium et spes stands in continuity with earlier Catholic social teaching. Footnotes criticize forty-year-old commentaries written by men who were part of the text’s redaction and who saw varying degrees of discontinuity in several of its chapters.

Of the other essays the best are those on the ministry and life of priests and on priestly formation, which put the council’s documents in context and explore the elements that represent development and renewal. As for the rest: The chapter on the lay apostolate gives insufficient attention to the council’s main emphasis—the role of laypeople in the world—and too much attention to lay associations. The chapter on ecumenism has some good moments, but needs to be supplemented by Wainwright’s later essay; the essay on the declaration on religious freedom is overly preoccupied with the question of church and state and with distinguishing conciliar teaching from views widespread in the United States. The authors of the chapter on the renewal of religious life were content to compare the text with earlier ecclesiastical legislation, which they review with no attention to historical context or to the development of forms of religious life. The decree on the communications media might be said to receive what it deserves: a perfunctory essay. The chapter on the text on Christian education pays more attention to the views of Joseph Ratzinger than it does to the document. From the chapter on the church’s relation to non-Christian religions, one would never guess that the document’s section on the Jews was one of those most controverted at the council, or that it was greeted by Jews and Catholics alike as representing a sea change in their relationship.

Something was going on at the council, and its texts are not only the product of that something but the embodiment of its drama. This volume does not offer a satisfactory explanation, or even description, of that something or of the mark it left on the documents of Vatican II. Many of the authors are so determined to combat the notion of the council as breaking with tradition that they end up being controlled by the positions they’re opposing. The editors and authors spend little time explaining why renewal was thought necessary by the majority of bishops at the council; why a minority vigorously opposed it; why traditions needed to be recovered or retrieved; why updating was proposed by Pope John XXIII, ratified by Pope Paul VI, and endorsed by the bishops. Much of the council’s drama was fueled by the conflict between the view that tradition was already adequately represented in modern Roman Catholicism and the idea that by “returning to the sources”—the Bible, the liturgy, the fathers of the church—the church could find its rich tradition. Unfortunately Vatican II barely explores those dramatic differences—strange for a book whose subtitle is Renewal and Tradition.


* The print version of this article mistakenly identified the date of this address. It was 2002, not 2005.



Related: Bernard P. Prusak reviews John O'Malley's What Happened at Vatican II
Ratzinger at Vatican II
, by John Wilkins
Between Reform & Rupture, by Richard A. Gaillardetz

Published in the 2009-01-30 issue: 

Rev. Joseph A. Komonchak, professor emeritus of the School of Theology and Religious Studies at the Catholic University of America, is a retired priest of the Archdiocese of New York.

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