While Bryan Cross and others shrug their shoulders about Vatican 2’s significance, practically everywhere you go in other Roman Catholic venues you find acknowledgement that something changed in the church and it was disruptive. Bryan likens this line of attack to an accusation of bait and switch — such that when he blogs about the virtues of Rome he doesn’t mention the elephant in the room that Vatican 2 became for conservatives and traditionalists (but of course, according to Bryan, conservatives don’t exist — you’re either Roman Catholic or you’re not). Well, try as I might, I am having trouble finding other Roman Catholic apologists or scholars who are as reluctant at JATC (Jason and the Callers) are to talk turkey about Vatican 2.
So in the spirit of the season, here are a few servings:
It is hard, from these standpoints, not to stress the discontinuity, the experience of an event, of a break with routine. This is the common langauge used by participants and by observers at the time — the young Joseph Ratzinger’s reflections after each session, published in English as Theological Highlights of Vatican II, are a good example. It is from this perspective that James Hitchcock calls Vatican II “the most important event within the Church in the past four hundred years,” and the French historian-sociologist Emile Poulat points out that the Catholic Church changed more in the ten years after Vatican II than it did in the previous hundred years. Similar positions are held by people along the whole length of the ideological spectrum. Whether they regard what happened as good or bad, they all agree that something happened. (Joseph A Komonchak, “Benedict XVI and the Interpretation of Vatican II,” 108)
I do find it odd that the very institution that is supposed to govern interpretations within the church — the papacy, the office that protects Rome against Protestantism’s opinions — can’t even control the interpretation of such a central feature in church life.
Then comes this from Eamon Duffy:
On every front, then, the Council redrew the boundaries of what had seemed to 1959 a fixed and immutable system. For some Catholics, these changes were the long-awaited harvest of the New Theology, the reward of years of patient endurance during the winter of Pius XII. For others, they were apostasy, the capitulation of the Church to the corrupt and worldly values of the Enlightenment and the Revolution, which the popes from Piux IX to Pius XII had rightly denounced. And for others, perhaps the majority, they were a bewildering stream of directives from above, to be obeyed as best they could. Many of the older clergy of the Catholic Church found themselves sleep-walking through the Conciliar and post-Conciliar years, loyal to an authority which called them to embrace attitudes which the same authority had once denounced as heresy. Pope John’s successor would have to do with all this. (Saints and Sinners, 274-75)
Bryan is wont to shrug at such quotations from historical works, but I’m not sure how he doesn’t feel the weight of the change of authority — the very authority that he uses to show Protestantism’s inferiority — that Duffy notes. He can hide behind the claim that no dogma changed at Vatican 2. Yet, the line between sin and heresy and dogma and discipline was never so clear that the priests Duffy mentions knew how to sort it out and instruct the faithful on what was no longer required and why it wasn’t even though it had been sinful before not to perform certain acts of obedience.
Even for those hopeful of a restoration of Rome’s conservative posture — hard to believe given stories about conservatives’ perceptions of Pope Francis — Vatican 2 was a ecclesiastical bowl of confusion:
Of course, the fact remains that none of the documents of Vatican II are taught ex cathedra. Therefore, none of the teachings of Vatican II are formally pronounced as dogmas by the Second Vatican Council itself. So, very strictly speaking, a person can dissent from Vatican II itself without being a formal heretic. However, to dissent from an ecumenical council is no small matter. To put it informally, one may avoid being a heretic, but still may be a “bad” Catholic.
How did this confusion take root? It can best be explained as rising from the concept of conciliar self-verification. In other words, the Second Vatican Council teaches that the fathers at an “ecumenical council” are teachers of faith and morals, and their “definitions must be adhered to with the submission of faith.” The problem is, the ecumenical council making this statement is itself an ecumenical council—and, therefore, is making statements about itself and not making it with the highest authority, i.e., ex cathedra.
In other words, one might say this is the conciliar version of chasing one’s own theological tail. The fallout has been that, for several generations of Catholics, from academics and Church leaders to the laity in the pews, the lasting impression is, “Vatican II said it was okay to disagree with the Pope.”
Thus began the era of “taking sides.” It was as if the Catholic faith became no more than a grand game—Pope and established Church teachings versus the dissenters—and individual Catholics could simply pick which team to root for. Some called themselves liberals (the “left”) while others called themselves conservatives (the “right”). Each group dissented from Vatican II, but for different reasons.
Many liberal nuns in the U.S., for example, continue to sympathize with anti-life groups that claim they are helping the poor by promoting the poor’s right to funds for abortion and contraception. They claim to be supporting social justice by defending, or, at least, sympathizing with, the gay agenda. They are especially vocal in demanding that the Church ordain women to the priesthood—even after John Paul II informed them that the Church teaching on an all male priesthood is infallible and, therefore, cannot be changed.
On the other hand, the Society of St. Pius X, founded by Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre, continues to err on the side of utter conservative rigidity. They reject the Second Vatican Council as a movement of the Holy Spirit, and cling to the minutiae of 500-year-old rituals as necessary, for their own sake. The change of the liturgy from Latin to English, or the vernacular of each particular country, is their most well-known objection.
Therefore, today, 50 years after the opening of Vatican II, the misinterpretation of one of its most salient documents, Lumen Gentium, continues to drive a number of Catholics in the United States into one of two camps, the “right” or the “left.”
So the next time Bryan wants to call conservative Presbyterians to communion, he might want to go through the fine print with those he’s calling.