A Genie Out of the Bottle

What Jason and the Callers don’t understand about history, historical consciousness, or what happened at Vatican 2, they could well learn from Mark Massa, a Jesuit and Dean of the School of Ministry and Theology at Boston College. Particularly instructive is this excerpt from the conclusion to his book, The American Catholic Revolution:

. . . there are at least three lessons to be learned from the Catholic sixties in the United States. . . . First, it seems highly unlikely that historical consciousness — the awareness that everything, including the Church, changes as history unfolds — can ever be effectively explained away again. True, some whom the secular press term traditionalists have been attempting that very thing since shortly after the Second Vatican Council closed. Those on the extreme end of these efforts view Vatican II as an anticouncil; that is, they see that even of 1962-65 as not being a real council of the Church at all, but rather an event abetted by the Forces of Darkness against the Fortress Church of Pius IX and Pius X. This group has always constituted an interesting but numerically insignificant group of Catholics.

More numerous — and more influential, at least in Europe — are those Catholics who even in the 1960s and certainly in the contemporary Church wish to claim Vatican II for the side of continuity and ahistorical Catholic truth: no “Rupture” did — or could — emerge from the implementation of the reforms of the council because the Church cannot change. But more to the point, they argue, is the fat that the council fathers implementing the reformed intended no such rupture with previous councils or Church practice. The efforts of this group — some in key hierarchical positions of authority — to ignore the genie let out of the bottle, or at least to act as though that genie offered nothing new and important, have found powerful spokespersons in the highest levels of Church government. But their arguments ignore the perspicacious law of unintended consequences, a law provable to the extent that it provides intellectual clarity on what in fact happened in the Catholic sixties. Mainstream Catholics in the United States, after the sixties, have come to understand their own revered brand of Christianity as having undergone historical development and change. The law of unintended consequences goes a long way in explaining why that perception has triumphed so broadly in the American Catholic community. Whatever the strengths of the arguments offered by the group attempt to claim Vatican II for the side of continuity, their failure to take into account the clear results of that law undercuts the important aspects of their position. Whatever the intentions of the bishop passing the conciliar decrees, the resulting documents sponsored a revolution that took on a life of its own, just as all events in history have a tendency to do. . . .

Second, the widespread acceptance of the seemingly self-evident truth that things change will make it increasingly difficult to propound or defend Church teaching and practice by appealing to timeless, static categories of propositional truth. This applies most particularly to the intellectual tradition of scholastic natural law, which the Catholic tradition has relied on for presenting its most important teachings since the thirteenth century. The fractious nonrecption of Paul VI’s encyclical on birth control, if nothing else, illustrates this with startling clarity. Whatever the truth of Paul VI’s teaching, the massive noncompliance accorded his encyclical shows that the great majority of American Catholics did not form their consciences along the lines of such moral reasoning, and have not since. There are of course many possible reasons for this lack of compliance on the part of the vast majority of practicing Catholics on an issue that the hierarchical Church has termed “serious matter.” Some of those reasons may indeed involve personal ignorance, sinful willfulness, or just plain selfishness. But an important reason for that noncompliance, what I would label as the main reason, is that the classical unchanging world it presupposes no longer makes sense to the vast majority of the faithful in the United States. What Bernard Lonergan so elegantly called the “transition from a classicist world view to historical mindedness” in fact describes the intellectual revolution that mainstream Catholics underwent during the sixties.

Whatever the strengths of that older classicist worldview — and it served the Catholic Church extraordinarily well for centuries — it can no longer provide plausible explanations for Church teaching . . . . The older intellectual categories of scholastic natural law, first enunciated so brilliantly by St. Thomas Aquinas in the thirteenth century, appear unable to accomplish that now. Perhaps the intellectual justification offered in its place to explain Catholic teaching will represent the most important long-term fruit of the intellectual revolution sponsored by historical consciousness in Catholic Christianity. Time will tell.

The third lesson that Massa draws is that the labels conservative and liberal no longer make sense of Roman Catholicism:

What the historical consciousness allows us to see is that none of these figures [Bernard Lonergan, Avery Dulles, the Catonsville Nine] can be appropriately understood by the application of political labels. What they had in common as central players in the socioreligious drama I’ve termed the Catholic sixties was a deep appreciation of how the religious tradition to which they all belonged had undergone historical evolution and change. That appreciation was as Catholic as it was modern, in the sense that Pius X so feared. At its core was the radical recognition that what faithful Christians did and believed in the mid-twentieth century was not always a faithful replication of what the early Christian and the medieval builders of the great cathedrals had done and believed. Sometimes this recognition was good news; sometimes it was a cause for reform. . . But at its root was an appreciation of disruption, discontinuity, and evolution as part of the very fiber of the Catholic tradition. Change was not foreign to the Catholic tradition: it defined it.

This is why the bumper sticker line, “This is the church Jesus founded,” can no longer be uttered with a straight face. (And for those who want to claim with a straight face that Rome is the church Christ founded, they need to consider that Massa’s book came out five years after Benedict XVI outlined the hermeneutic of continuity by which the magisterium was going to read the history of Vatican II. Apparently, Massa, an official at a prominent Roman Catholic university, did not get that memorandum.)

Papal Obsession: What's in A Name?

One positive consequence of recent interactions with Roman Catholics like Brad Gregory, Christian Smith, the indefatigable Bryan Cross, and the stellar work of Francis Oakley is an awareness of just how complicated and fascinating the history of the papacy is. Eamon Duffy puts it this way in his new book on the papacy:

Thomas Hobbes famously remarked that the papacy was “not other than the ghost of the deceased Roman Empire, sitting crowned on the grave thereof.” The comment was certainly not intended as a compliment, but it encapsulated an important historical reality nonetheless. Through no particular initiative of their own, the Popes inherited the mantle of Empire in the West; the papacy became the conduit of Roman imperial values and symbolism into the European Middle Ages. In a time of profound historical instability at the end of antiquity and in the early Middle Ages, the see of Peter was a link to all that seemed most desirable in the ancient world, custodian of both its secular and its sacred values. The papacy embodied immemorial continuity and offered divine sanction for law and legitimacy. So popes crowned kings and emperors and, on occasion, attempted to depose them. Even in the eighth and ninth centuries papal authority stood high, although the papacy was the prisoner of local Roman politics and many of the popes themselves were the often unlearned sons of feuding local dynasties. (17-18)

Anyone with a historical awareness, with visions of Christianity having access to and reach within corridors of power, and with a desire for a church that has roots deeper than some denomination that emerged in the 1780s, would likely be drawn to membership with a church such as Rome presents. At the same time, a concern for the spiritual depths of Christianity has not always been at the forefront of the papacy’s ministry, unless maintaining supremacy in European politics and mediating the Roman Empire were crucial pieces of that spiritual service.

The historical and cultural depth of the Vatican gives almost every aspect of the papacy significance beyond surface impressions and as a result should stimulate the imagination of anyone who studies the past. The case of Gregory XVI, who became pope in 1831 and who is the subject of Owen Chadwick’s first chapter (A History of the Popes, 1830-1914), illustrates the point.

The most famous pope of the Middle Ages to assert papal power against emperors and kings was Pope Gregory VII, Hildebrand. Ever since the high Middle Ages popes were conscious that in Gregory VII they made an emperor to kneel in the snow at Canossa, that in Innocent III they acted as the international authority of Europe, that in Bonfiace VIII they asserted the ultimate secular power of the pope as well as his ultimate spiritual authority. They were also aware that these tremendous claims were not often recognized and sometimes were repudiated with contempt or with force. Gregory VII died in exile, Boniface sickened and died after being kidnapped and rescued. In the Counter-Reformation, when Spanish and afterwards French power became strong in Italy, they grew hesitant of using such names lest they remind Europe of the contrast between the past glories of the Holy See and the weakness of its present occupant. No one had chosen the name Boniface since 1389, when the see was divided by the Great Schism. Gregory XIII was a famous name of the Counter-Reformation and shortly afterwards there were two more Gregorys; one ruled for less than a year, the other for two years, yet they were important. Towards the end of the seventeenth century and early in the eighteen century there were three weighty popes who took the name Innocent. But in the eighteenth century they preferred to take gentler-sounding names, such as Clement (four of those), Pius, or Benedict. The coronation of Pius VI in 1775 stared the age of the Piuses — during the next 183 years there were only fifty-four years in which the pope was not named Pius. And when they were not called Pius they avoided high-and-mighty sounding names — with one exception. . . .

The name Gregory was a claim. This was a cardinal who reacted against the French Revolution and all that it stood for. He seems to have had Gregory VII in his mind; but also, while a cardinal, he did a lot for the Congregation de Propaganda Fide, and the last Gregory had founded the Congregation. When the French Revolution kidnapped the Pope, he published a cry of resistance to the revolution The Triumph of the Holy See and the Church against the Attacks of Innovators (1799).

Just when the papacy looked moribund, and many said that Pius VI was the last pope in the history of Europe, and no one could see how the institution could survive even in Italy, he published this book, which rejoiced in the coming victory of the Church over its enemies. . . .

In not liking the way the modern world was going Gregory XVI was characteristic of the popes, with one possible exception, for the next 127 years. (1-3_

This messiness of Europe and the papacy’s place in it is what defenders of the popes and their infallibility generally leave out. Does history undermine spiritual authority? Critical biblical scholarship has long raised the issue of the humanity of the Bible in ways the complicate assertions of Scripture’s divine origin. Conceiving of and maintaining the papacy’s spiritual rights and gifts while paying attention to its tawdry political successes, setbacks, and ambitions is perhaps just as plausible as conservative Protestant defenses of the Bible’s inerrancy. But the problem for folks like the Callers is that we actually can see how they make the sausage. The papacy is an institution that left behind records, and combated other institutions that also left a paper trail. The authors of Scripture left no such traces. We don’t know how many drafts, for instance, Paul may have written before getting it just right to send a letter to the Christians at Rome. When the Callers don’t acknowledge the actual guts of the making of the papacy and insist only on the spiritual truths of the papacy, they appear to be in denial. They may simply be ignorant. But their claims for the papacy’s power, antiquity, and charism are decidedly partial.

But for the rest of us, the papacy is breathtaking in its preservation of an ancient order, despite all the changes between Rome in 70 and Paris in 2010, even if that order is now confined to 109 square acres.