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What Dissenters Mean by ‘the Spirit of Vatican II’

Sometimes context is everything.

Self-described “progressive” Catholics like to quote Bl. John Henry Newman’s famous saying that “to live is to change, and to be perfect is to have changed often” as if it offered support for changing or scrapping doctrines or disciplines that they want to have changed or scrapped.

What these progressives—who are less flatteringly but more accurately called dissenters—fail to recognize is the context in which Newman sang the praises of change. It’s in An Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine, his scholarly, carefully worked out response to the familiar Protestant charge that the Catholic Church had invented dogmas—about the Virgin Mary and the papacy, for instance—as it went along. Newman showed that, far from inventing, the Church over two millennia had maintained an extraordinary continuity in regard to central elements of faith. It was in the context of that continuity that growth in the comprehension of revealed truth—“development”—had taken place.

He put it this way: “The Christianity of the second, fourth, seventh, twelfth, sixteenth, and intermediate centuries is in its substance the very religion which Christ and his apostles taught in the first, whatever may be the modifications for good or evil which lapse of years, or the vicissitudes of human affairs, have impressed upon it.”

Newman wrote his Essay in 1845 at a time when he was still an Anglican. Immediately upon finishing it, he joined the Catholic Church.

Continuity and change. I once wrote: “Continuity is a principle of identity. It’s what keeps a person or a thing the same person or thing in the face of passing time and shifting circumstance. Change is a principle of vitality, required to ensure that the bearer of identity is still dynamic, still alive. . . . What is true of continuity and change in general is eminently true in the Church.”

‘The spirit of Vatican II’

These observations can be helpful in understanding the peculiar phenomenon called “the spirit of Vatican II” and its connection with dissent.

The Second Vatican Council had barely ended in December 1965 before the expression first appeared. It was popularly taken to mean that the vision of a renewed Church held by the council’s liberal majority had been thwarted by the conservative minority, who succeeded in watering down the documents of Vatican II with compromise formulations that greatly weakened them. Moreover, after the council (so it was said) the implementation of its decisions was time and again blocked by Rome.

And now (so the story continues today), it is clear that the last two popes, John Paul II and Benedict XVI, along with the reactionary bishops they’ve put in place, have been busy turning back the clock to the bad old days before Vatican II. All this constitutes what Fr. Hans Küng, the Swiss theologian who’s been at the forefront of dissent for forty years, calls “the betrayal of the council.” Against the background of this tale of woe, progressive dissenters see themselves as keepers of the flame, defenders of the authentic version of renewal as the Council intended it, guardians of the “spirit of Vatican II.”

Behind this “spirit,” though, there’s an underlying dynamic that is far more radical and dangerous than even this may suggest. It’s the idea of ongoing, endless change untethered from continuity and carrying the Church into an uncharted future in which the Christian tradition is consigned to the dustbin of history and very nearly anything goes. Things like women priests and the approval of homosexuality are merely items on the agenda of ongoing change.

In some quarters there’s a tendency to count out the dissenters as a spent force—aging malcontents, voices from the past dwindling in numbers and influence (though still able to get the favorable attention of sympathetic media). By contrast, orthodox Catholicism is growing—the true wave of the future, it now appears.

True enough, perhaps. But progressive Catholicism still has practitioners and followers. It’s entrenched in the tenured theology faculties of many nominally Catholic universities, it controls influential publishing houses and periodicals, and, as noted, it has the support of much of the media, including Catholic media. Plus, its refurbished message of open-ended change that breaks with tradition sounds appealing to some.

Lately, the progressive dissenters—apparently frustrated by the failure of their efforts to get control of the Church—have been increasingly candid about what they have in mind. But before getting into that, we need to understand the historical roots of their project, going back to the early years of the 20th century when the Modernist movement was in bloom.

The family tree of dissent

Modernism is the name for a collection of ideas associated with a loosely linked group of Catholic intellectuals then operating mainly in France, Italy, and England. (There were Catholic Modernists in America, too, but they were less numerous and less prominent than their European cousins.) Among those associated with the movement were historian Louis Duchesne, philosopher Maurice Blondel (who, to do him credit, was appalled at the thought of being in conflict with the Church), and British-German intellectual gadfly Baron Friedrich von Hügel. Its two most prominent figures were the French Scripture scholar Alfred Loisy and the Irish Jesuit George Tyrrell. (Tyrrell was excommunicated in 1907, Loisy in 1908.)

In July 1907, the Vatican’s Holy Office (predecessor of the present Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith) issued a decree called Lamentabili condemning 65 propositions that conflicted with orthodox belief. Pope Pius X followed two months later with the encyclical Pascendi Dominici Gregis (Feeding the Lord’s Flock), which condemned Modernism by name.

The central tenet of its religious evolutionism, he said, was the idea that not God but human need is religion’s source; from this fundamental error flowed the notion that dogma “not only can but ought to be evolved and changed.”

Defenders of Modernism criticize the Holy Office document and the pope’s encyclical for what they say are vagueness and overkill. But historian Marvin R. O’Connell concludes otherwise. In his scholarly history of Modernism, Critics on Trial (Catholic University of America Press, 1994), Msgr. O’Connell wrote that St. Pius X “could hardly have spoken otherwise, unless he was prepared to jettison the whole of Catholic tradition.” It’s clear today that, after the papal condemnation in 1907, Modernism retreated but didn’t disappear. It went underground, returning with a vengeance around the time of Vatican Council II.

While not all proponents of the spirit of Vatican II are themselves neo-Modernists, that “spirit” is the banner under which neo-Modernism has made inroads in the Church in the last half-century. Like a lot else, the spirit of Vatican II was introduced to American Catholicism by Xavier Rynne. (As is well known, Rynne was a pseudonym under which Redemptorist priest-historian Fr. Francis X. Murphy interpreted Vatican II. In a series of insider reports in the New Yorker, he depicted the council as a struggle between good-guy liberals and bad-guy conservatives.)

Writing shortly after the council ended, Rynne/Murphy said that “from a superficial point of view”—that is, from the point of view of what the council documents actually said—Vatican II hadn’t accomplished anything radical. But not to worry: “More important than the documents, the council has consecrated a new spirit, destined in the course of time to remake the face of Catholicism.”

Which fathers know best?

Bl. John XXIII, in his famous speech opening Vatican II, declared that the Church must “never depart from the sacred patrimony of truth received by the Fathers.” Catholics inflamed by the spirit of Vatican II knew better. Fr. Richard McBrien, then a theologian at Boston College and later at Notre Dame, declared in 1973 that the council’s real achievement was supplying the impetus for “endless, unchecked change” as the fundamental principle of ecclesial life (The Remaking of the Church, Harper & Row). Endless? Unchecked? This, McBrien wished us to know, was the real spirit of Vatican II, no matter what Pope John XXIII may have imagined.

Still, the driving force behind the spirit of Vatican II wasn’t a minor player like Rynne/Murphy or McBrien but an Italian historian named Giuseppe Alberigo. He became the central figure of the so-called Bologna School of Vatican II interpreters and chief editor of the five-volume History of Vatican II (published in the U.S. by the left-leaning Catholic publishing house Orbis, with Fr. Joseph Komonchak as editor of the English version).

An impressive achievement in many ways, Alberigo’s history is a serious bid from the progressive wing of the Church to control the way the council is understood for years to come. Its editor makes his intentions clear in his shorter, more autobiographical A Brief History of Vatican II (Orbis, 2006). Here he contemptuously dismisses efforts to implement the Council “based upon understanding of and commentary upon the official documents,” insisting that the Council’s real importance is “the process it initiated”—nothing less, he contends, than a paradigm shift in the Church.

Alberigo’s magnum opus can be found today on countless library shelves in seminaries, colleges, and universities around the world. Unless countered by an effective response from tradition-oriented scholars, there’s a good chance it will be taken as the authoritative word on the Second Vatican Council for a generation or more.

Wisdom from Benedict XVI

Pope Benedict XVI confronted the key question of how to interpret Vatican II in his famous “two hermeneutics” speech to the Roman Curia on December 22, 2005. Asking why the Council has been so difficult to implement, he located the heart of the problem in two opposed interpretative approaches to Vatican II. One he described as “a hermeneutic of discontinuity and rupture” (said to appeal to media and to “one trend of modern theology”) and the other as “a hermeneutic of reform,” pointing to “renewal in the continuity of the one subject-Church which the Lord has given us.”

Benedict left no doubt that the hermeneutic of reform is the correct way of viewing the Council. As time passes, it becomes ever more apparent that the hermeneutic of discontinuity and rupture is the approach of progressive dissent.

Consider Fr. Mark S. Massa, S.J., who used to teach theology at Fordham University and now is dean of the school of theology and ministry at Boston College. In his book The American Catholic Revolution (Oxford University Press, 2010), he cites the late Canadian Jesuit Bernard Lonergan’s assertion that behind conflicts in the Church in the 1960s and ’70s was “the transition from a classicist worldview to historical-mindedness.”

In practice, Massa says, this means orthodox Catholics miss the point in arguing for the continuity between Vatican II and what came before it: “No matter what the [essentially conservative] intentions of the person who originally called the council [Pope John XXIII], or of the overwhelming majority of Catholic bishops who approved the reforms of the council . . . the unsettling new historical consciousness unleashed by the council’s reforms could not be stopped by anything so simple as an appeal to the council’s participants, or to some purported ‘law of continuity’ within the tradition.”

To make his point, Massa quotes (rather, he misquotes) the Newman aphorism mentioned at the beginning of this article. But it’s hard to believe the man who wrote the Essay on Development before joining the Church would look kindly on Massa’s sweeping dismissal of continuity and tradition. Nor, one supposes, would it appeal very much to Pope Benedict XVI, who spoke to the Curia of the “dynamic of fidelity” required in the service of Christ.

Repudiating history

Where does open-ended change detached from tradition lead? In the nature of things, there’s no real answer to that. But there’s a representative exposition of this point of view in a paper delivered in September 2010 by a theologian named Paul Lakeland to a group called the Catholic Coalition for Church Reform. Lakeland, a former Jesuit from England, has taught at the Jesuits’ Fairfield University in Connecticut since 1981.

In his talk Lakeland called the Church “a school of love.” Beautiful thought—until he explained what this means: “The role of the institution vis-à-vis baptized Catholics is to let them loose to love, not to bind them with rules about who [sic] or how to love.” “The future health of the Church,” he added, “depends upon recovering that sense of itself.”

Really? In taking this route, the Church would “recover” its sense of itself by severing ties with its past. Does the historical consciousness celebrated by progressive dissenters involve repudiating history itself? After all, the Old and New Testaments and the Christian tradition contain numerous “rules” that command or forbid specific kinds of behavior.

But the utilitarian love ethic of liberal religion makes ample provision for people who claim to act lovingly in aborting Down Syndrome babies or terminating the lives of elderly sick people or entering into heterosexual or homosexual relationships outside of marriage. Love unconstrained by rules—that is to say, by moral principles and norms—can be used to rationalize just about anything. Moral principles and norms, dogmas and doctrines—these do indeed get in the way of full, unconstrained blooming of the “historical consciousness” praised by Massa and his fellow progressives.

The determination to get rid of dogmas and norms isn’t new. It’s traceable back at least as far as Modernists like Alfred Loisy and George Tyrrell. In a volume published shortly before his death in 1909, Tyrrell wrote: “To believe in the living historical Catholic community means to believe that by its corporate life and labor it is slowly realizing the ideas and ends in whose service it was founded.”

Too bad Christianity’s founder didn’t do a better job. But count on progressive Catholic dissenters to fill in the blanks if they get a chance. 

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