Sunday, July 21, 2013

Closing the Door (Finally) on Vatican II

With the canonization of Sts. John XXIII and John Paul II, many are interpreting these actions as the triumph of the Second Vatican Council, and how now the council will continue to dominate Catholic discourse for the next several generations.  For many of my traditionalist brethren (even those who have no problem accepting it as a valid ecumenical council without error), this gives us distress.  For some of our friends across the way, this gives them another chance to concern-troll the crap out of us.   I would like to offer an alternative idea.

When Pope Francis announced he would canonize both men, this will lead to the door being closed on the Second Vatican Council.  If nothing else, generational inertia will accomplish this.  Due to the pontificate of Benedict XVI, we do not read the Second Vatican Council as a rupture with history, but rather we do our best to read the documents in light of the grand tradition of the Church.  With the canonizations, the debate will be over:  Vatican II occurred, and it isn't going away.

To members of my generation, this is a strange debate.  Even when you lie on the more traditionalist side of things, my generation tends to accept the Second Vatican Council with few or any hangups. Another thing most members of my generation do is that we emphasize the council less than the previous two generations.  We accept it didn't promulgate error, but we also recognize that its relevance can at times be limited due to its pastoral nature.  It isn't that the decree on social communications is heretical, rather that its relevance is limited to the fact the document was written in an age where paper communication was still the most frequent means of communication.

Many of the decrees of the Council were written when Christianity still had a spot at the table in the world.  Europe's great demographic collapse had not occurred:  it is not likely the council fathers would have believed that within a generation, every European nation (with the exception of a few Eastern European countries) would abandon not just Catholicism, but natural law within a generation.  The American model which many at the council looked upon with favor was not the American nation which passed the HHS mandate or upheld abortion on demand as one of its most sacred tenets.  When concerned with the plight of Christians in the world, the Council wasn't anticipating the rise of Militant Islam.  One can garner certain passages of wisdom from these documents, just like one does from Trent or Nicaea.  Yet to view them as having a unique answer that previous generations of history did not have?  Not so much.  The debate over subsitit is kinda pointless when most of those Christian communities the documents had in mind can no longer even be called Christian, much less Protestant!

This isn't to dog on the Second Vatican Council.  Far from it.  Now that its immediate relevance is fading, we can finally take a real assessment of the Church in its aftermath.  It is tough to blame the affairs of today on a Council that is over a generation old.  By now, any screwups are solely on us and what we did or didn't do with the texts.  At the same time, you aren't declaring a council heretical when you point out that a problem which existed before the Council still exists today, and that the efforts the Council made to fight it were ineffective at best.  Some problems took centuries to solve, and they took several councils to solve.  We needed at least four ecumenical councils and three centuries to get the doctrines of Christ right.  We might need longer before we can find something a bishops conference does which is actually productive, even if we accept they have a role to play in the governance of the Church.

In the end, ecumenical councils are a big deal, but we tend to remember precious few of them.  For those of you who are theological wonks, stop reading.......

Okay, now for everyone else, can you tell me how the Second Lateran and First Council of Lyons revolutionized Church life?  Is there anything we remember concretely from the Fitfh Lateran Council?  (And you thought Two Vatican Councils were enough, are you ready for the Sixth Vatican Council to be held in the year 2300?)  On the other hand, the Second Council of Orange was not ecumenical, yet any reading of Church history that ignores its supreme importance in the early and later church is a history worth junking.  (Hint, it made sure Augustine would go on to be the legend in Western thought he is today, and most of what Christianity understands about salvation was crystallized in its documents and canons.)  300 years from now, the odds are that Vatican II will not be treated as the revolutionary event people of all persuasions treat it as today.  It will be something rather old and boring, a council that emphasized a vernacular liturgy, told Christians to take their vocations seriously, gave a little more authority to bishops conferences.... and really, that's about all they will talk about.  And since the Church will have moved on, it will be a lot better off because of it.

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