Online Edition: May 2010
Vol. XVI, No. 3
What Vatican II Really Said about Renewal
Book Review by Helen Hull Hitchcock
Vatican II: Renewal within Tradition
Edited by Matthew L. Lamb and Matthew Levering. Oxford University Press, 2008 (462 pages).
The Second Vatican Council intended a radical break with the Church’s past. The Council’s decisions were the result of a dramatic confrontation between progressive and conservative bishops — and the conservatives lost. The Council documents were only the first step in a process of innovation and transformation. Aggiornamento (translated as “updating”) meant discarding historic Catholic beliefs and practices and replacing them as quickly as possible with an entirely new vision of what the Catholic Church is and teaches, in accordance with the “spirit of the times”. Transforming the liturgy to conform to contemporary views and attitudes is essential to transforming the Church: Lex orandi, lex credendi (“the rule of prayer determines the rule of belief”.)
This is the characterization of Vatican II that prevailed in news reports during the Council, notably by Xavier Rynne (pseudonym of Father Francis X. Murphy) in his New Yorker series “Letters from Vatican City” — and it has persisted for four decades.
The idea that the Council was a revolutionary event that initiated and intended the complete transformation of Catholicism has been vigorously promoted throughout the post-conciliar years by two opposite factions: radical liberals (aka progressivists) and ultra-traditionalists — including, but not limited to, followers of Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre. These two groups have little else in common — except that both are equally convinced that theirs is the only correct view of the Council and all others are culpably wrong.
The Lefebvrists, convinced that Church authorities had gone wrong at the highest levels, paradoxically, alienated themselves from the Church by schismatic acts. Other traditionalists who generally shared the Lefebvrist view of the Council, and especially of the changes to the liturgy, remained within the Church.
Recently, encouraged by the lifting of excommunications of Lefebvrist bishops and by the 2007 papal document Summorum pontificum, which removed restrictions on celebration of the “Old Mass”, many in the traditionalist group believe their opinion of the Council as a revolution has now been vindicated.
The progressives, who interpret the Council as a transformational, structure-changing event, a radical break with the tradition of the Church since the Council of Trent, retained extraordinary influence within the Church for decades — notably among professional theologians and liturgists. Those who hold such views now feel threatened by a pope and curia they consider reactionary and rigidly authoritarian. They are convinced the “spirit” of the Council-event launched a radical reform of the Catholic Church, and that this reform that they have so assiduously promoted is now in jeopardy. Evidence for this, they believe, is most visible in what they term “Vatican interference” in scriptural and liturgical translation — thus their vigorous opposition and resistance to the new English translation of the Missal. Ironically, the former “agents of change” now find themselves resisting change.
Pope Benedict, in his address to the Roman curia on December 11, 2005, reflected on the proper interpretation of the Council. He described two contrasting ways of interpreting the Council.
On the one hand, there is an interpretation that I would call a “hermeneutic of discontinuity and rupture”; it has frequently availed itself of the sympathies of the mass media, and also one trend of modern theology. On the other, there is the “hermeneutic of reform”, of renewal in the continuity of the one subject, the Church that the Lord has given us. She is a subject that increases in time and develops, yet always remaining the same, the one subject of the journeying People of God.
The hermeneutic of discontinuity risks ending in a split between the preconciliar Church and the postconciliar Church. It asserts that the texts of the Council as such do not yet express the true spirit of the Council. It claims that they are the result of compromises in which, to reach unanimity, it was found necessary to keep and reconfirm many old things that are now pointless. However, the true spirit of the Council is not to be found in these compromises but instead in the impulses toward the new that are contained in the texts.
These innovations alone were supposed to represent the true spirit of the Council, and starting from and in conformity with them, it would be possible to move ahead. Precisely because the texts would only imperfectly reflect the true spirit of the Council and its newness, it would be necessary to go courageously beyond the texts and make room for the newness in which the Council’s deepest intention would be expressed, even if it were still vague.
In a word: it would be necessary not to follow the texts of the Council but its spirit. In this way, obviously, a vast margin was left open for the question on how this spirit should subsequently be defined and room was consequently made for every whim.
The nature of a Council as such is therefore basically misunderstood.… [But] the essential constitution of the Church comes from the Lord and was given to us so that we might attain eternal life and, starting from this perspective, be able to illuminate life in time and time itself.
Vatican II: Renewal within Tradition presents this “reform in continuity” perspective of the Council. The book opens, appropriately, with an extensive excerpt from Pope Benedict’s address quoted above, titled “A Proper Hermeneutic for the Second Vatican Council”. This foreword sets the tone for the collection of essays on all the documents of the Council by an impressive list of authors, including contributions by the editors, Father Matthew L. Lamb and Dr. Matthew Levering.
The list of contributors includes two cardinals: the late Avery Cardinal Dulles, SJ, whose essay on the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, Lumen Gentium, “Nature, Mission, and Structure of the Church”, begins Part I; and Francis Cardinal George, OMI, who writes on the Decree on the Mission Activity of the Church, Ad Gentes. The late Father Richard Neuhaus, founder and editor of First Things, fittingly contributes the chapter on Inter Mirifica, the Decree on the Media of Social Communications. The concluding chapter by Father Lamb offers reflections on “The Challenges of Reform and Renewal within Catholic Tradition”.
The authors systematically examine the Council documents, with references to earlier Church documents, citations of encyclicals of previous popes, etc., which reveal the Council’s continuity with the Church’s history and tradition. This gives context to the renewal within tradition — the ressourcement (return to the sources) — that informed the Council’s documents. Authentic development (“organic growth”) reveals perennial truths of the faith with new clarity; it never obscures or uproots them.
This is what really happened at Vatican II. Though without question there has been much confusion in the years following the Council, the confusion (and dissent) was not post hoc ergo propter hoc (“after this, therefore because of this”), as both progressivists and traditionalists are wont to argue. Such a narrow view ignores the historical context of the Council within a cultural revolution beginning in the mid-1960s that had profound consequences for nearly every social institution in the West — from universities and national governments to religious groups and families. This limited interpretation also ignores the theological context of the Church concerning ecumenical Councils — and the divinely revealed truth that has been handed down through the centuries, along with the continuous deepening of the understanding of this truth that has been faithfully developed through time. In other words, the “hermeneutic of continuity”.
The Council’s first document was the Constitution on the Liturgy, Sacrosanctum Concilium. Two essays explore this document in detail: “Theology of the Liturgy”, by Pamela Jackson, who teaches at the University of Notre Dame, and “The Sacraments of the Church” by Father Romanus Cessario, OP, professor of theology at Saint John’s Seminary in Boston.
Dr. Jackson’s essay examines the document systematically, showing how its presentation of the theology of the liturgy is rooted in earlier documents, such as Pope Pius XII’s 1947 encyclical Mediator Dei, and the writings of early Church fathers and Thomas Aquinas.
Thus, presenting the celebration of the liturgy as a continuation of salvation history and locus within which God communicates and reveals Himself through sacred signs, and emphasis on the centrality of the Paschal mystery are distinguishing marks of Sacrosanctum Concilium’s theology; but they are not innovations. Rather, adopting the patristic perspective of the economy of salvations enables the Constitution to restore to prominence insights into the nature of the liturgy that had not been receiving the attention they deserved.
Sacrosanctum Concilium’s reappropriation of the patristic vision of the theological nature of the liturgy cannot, however, be construed as a repudiation of the teaching of the Council of Trent in regard to the liturgy; Trent approached liturgical matters from a different angle because its purpose was different. The Protestant Reformation presented specific challenges to traditional Catholic doctrine and practice concerning the sacraments.… Those who drafted Sacrosanctum Concilium saw themselves as building on the teaching of Trent and deepening it; in presenting the articles on the Eucharist to the Council fathers, the relator [reporter on progress] explained that there was no need to repeat everything that the Council of Trent had already stated so well. (pp. 112, 113)
Jesuit liturgist Father Josef Jungmann’s 1967 commentary “Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy” (in Commentary on the Documents of Vatican II) is cited in a footnote to this passage. Father Jungmann had written the definitive two-volume history of the Roman Mass, The Mass of the Roman Rite: Its Origins and Development (New York, 1951 & 1955). Dr. Jackson also frequently quotes commentaries on the Constitution on the Liturgy by Benedictine Father Cipriano Vagaggini. Both Fathers Jungmann and Vagaggini served as periti (experts) at the Council, and both were members of the Consilium, a group appointed by Pope Paul VI to implement the Council’s Sacrosanctum Concilium.
Father Cessario, in his essay “The Sacraments of the Church”, takes up the continuity discussion, and notes that part of the contemporary misunderstanding about the sacraments and the liturgy arises from a false assumption that the Council document meant to initiate a completely new account of Catholic teaching on the Sacraments. He notes that “in the Catechism of the Catholic Church we find the intended complementarity at work in the authoritative text that John Paul II describes as ‘a statement of the Church’s faith and of Catholic doctrine, attested to or illumined by Sacred Scripture, the Apostolic Tradition, and the Church’s Magisterium’” (from Pope John Paul’s Apostolic Constitution that introduced the Catechism, October 11, 1992). Instead, Father Cessario observes, Sacrosanctum Concilium should be read “as a corrective to liturgical irregularities that, since the late modern period, had become associated with the execution of Catholic liturgy.…
What matters is that one read the conciliar text as a corrective to liturgical discipline and practice, not as an invitation to construct a new theology of worship and sacraments. To put it differently, the Second Vatican Council presumes and presupposes what the Council of Trent had to say about the nature, number and several effects of the sacraments, while Sacrosanctum Concilium is concerned principally with showing how to live the sacraments, especially how to guide the members of the Church to enter prayerfully into the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. (p. 130)
The practical unanimity with which the Council fathers accepted the liturgical schema [plan] may be interpreted to suggest that they found the contents familiar and so judged the essential emphases and directives framed by the Constitution as exhibiting continuity with what they had come to understand both to constitute the teaching of the Catholic faith and to govern the sound practice of the Catholic religion. (p. 131)
The pre-conciliar Liturgical Movement had been developing throughout the twentieth century, and the momentum of liturgical renewal that had been building during these years doubtless influenced the Council fathers’ almost unanimous acceptance of the liturgical constitution when it was presented for vote (2,162 in favor, 46 opposed, with seven invalid votes).
Father Cessario comments on this effect, and mentions the work of Oratorian Father Louis Bouyer, Liturgical Piety (1955), which “explores a rich and interesting period in the life of the Church” between two world wars. Father Bouyer, like others involved with the Liturgical Movement (chiefly active in Europe), critiqued the liturgical developments of the Baroque and Romantic periods — from the seventeenth to the nineteenth centuries. “Today we would describe the temper of this opinion as overly influenced by a preferential option for the primitive”, Father Cessario quips.
Among the most significant liturgical changes before the Council was Pope Pius XII’s reform of Holy Week and restoration of the Easter Vigil. But the building interest in “liturgical renewal” was evident also in the international congresses held during the 1950s — events, as Father Cessario says, that “galvanized the interest of both clergy and laity in realizing aesthetically heightened celebrations of the Mass and other sacraments”. (p. 135)
Considering all that has gone wrong with the liturgy in the decades following the Council, and the need to repair the damage this has caused the Church, what is needed now, Father Cessario believes, is a “new ressourcement” — one that is broader than the pre-conciliar liturgical movement’s focus on the “early Church” . He suggests some resources for students who “with the help of Saint Thomas Aquinas, take a fresh look at sacramental theology”.
The sacraments of the new law create communion on earth. The various implications of the … axiom which Aquinas adapts from the writings of Saint Augustine, will best be discovered by a careful return to the sources of theology (the new ressourcement) that these two great Western doctors have put at the disposal of the whole Church. Only true religion creates communion. The renewal of sacramental theology should proceed on the assumption that the Holy Spirit guided what the fathers of the Second Vatican Council had to say about the sacraments of the Church. This conciliar voice is clear enough to enable readers of Sacrosanctum Concilium to resist the proposals of those sacramental theologians who today legitimate their own real ruptures with the Catholic sacramental tradition by appeal to the first document issued by the Second Vatican Council. (p. 142)
One unexpected commentator on the Council included in this book is Geoffrey Wainwright, an ordained Methodist minister from Britain and theology professor at the Duke University Divinity School in Durham, North Carolina, who has served since 1986 as co-chairman of the Joint Commission between the World Methodist Council and the Catholic Church. Among his many books is The Oxford History of Christian Worship. His essay, “Anamnesis, Epiclesis, Prolepsis: Categories for Reading the Second Vatican Council as ‘Renewal within Tradition’”, focuses on what he calls “the two convergent ‘movements’ in the history of the twentieth century that aimed at the recovery of full unity among Christians … and the renewal of their intentionally common worship: the ecumenical movement and the liturgical movement”, which, he believes “found their sources in apostolic and patristic Christianity” before the divisions that followed.
In Dr. Wainwright’s view, the Constitution on the Liturgy “saw liturgical renewal as serving causes that were widely shared in the ecumenical movement”. Among these “common causes”, he says, were more frequent Communion and more Scripture readings — and the “Christological concentration” of the liturgy. He quotes from Sacrosanctum Concilium to illustrate his use of the academic terms anamnesis (remembrance — of the past), epiclesis (invocation — in the present), and prolepsis (anticipation — of the future).
Analyzing the effects of liturgical changes, he specifically comments on language in the liturgy from his perspective:
[Sacrosanctum Concilium] gave guarded permission or prudent encouragement to the use of the vernacular. This was quickly taken up, especially in the linguistic areas of the West. However, one may wonder whether the circumstances were favorable to such rapid work of translation as was undertaken for the provision of new service books. The Catholic Church, for its own part, had in recent centuries only limited experience of liturgical worship in the vernacular and hence a rather weak “linguistic sense” in that connection. In the culture at large, social and ideological secularization made contemporary language a somewhat weak vehicle to carry the transcendent dimensions of the faith. These factors also affected the otherwise welcome enterprise of establishing ecumenically agreed versions of items commonly used in the liturgies of the churches. Concerns over these matters were increasingly felt in Rome in the last decade of the twentieth century, and corrective steps taken in the first decade of the twenty-first. (p. 416)
(In a footnote the author suggests, “On the more recent twists and turns [on liturgical translation] see Helen Hull Hitchcock, ‘A New Era of Liturgical Renewal: Foundations and Future’, [Antiphon: Journal for Liturgical Renewal, 10, 2006].” And he offers this anecdote: “On CNN television on June 14, 2006, during ‘In the Situation Room with Wolf Blitzer’, it was announced by ‘our correspondent on faith and values’ that the US Catholic bishops had decided to replace the ‘traditional’ [sic] response ‘and also with you’ by ‘and with your spirit’. So quickly had the memory of ‘et cum spiritu tuo’ faded?”)
Dr. Wainwright concludes his commentary on the ecumenical aspects of the Council by observing, “From the texts of Vatican II it is clear that ‘renewal within tradition’ was a coherent notion for the Council and that the Council intended to serve that purpose”. He says “an ecumenically engaged Protestant (Methodist) theologian has much reason for gratitude to the Second Vatican Council for its service to the twin causes of the recovery of full unity among Christians of institutionally divided traditions and the renewal of their intentionally common worship”. (p. 432)
A summary essay by Father Lamb, “The Challenges of Reform and Renewal within Catholic Tradition”, concludes the book. He observes that although some theologians’ “mistaken emphasis upon the new as the ‘spirit’ or ‘style’ of the Council” led to errors, the popes “especially Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI, and the synods of bishops always situated the teachings of Vatican II within a long magisterial tradition”. He continues,
Those who failed to understand the Council within the whole living tradition of the Church at times criticized this as thwarting the spirit of Vatican II. Those whose works tend toward a hermeneutics of rupture charge that papal teachings seek “a restoration so that … it is difficult to find cohesion between magisterial documents and the spirit of the Second Vatican Council”. [Quoted from a 2007 interview with Italian historian Giuseppe Alberigo.]
The challenge of providing an adequate understanding of Catholic teachings and tradition is that both faith and reason are needed.…
It has become commonplace to criticize the Council for not having stated this or that element or aspect of Catholic teaching. More perceptive writers have noted that the fault lies not with the Council and its documents but with inadequate and misleading efforts to implement the renewal the Council called for.…
A common characteristic of all the great reform councils in the Church has been the generations of saintly popes, bishops, priests, religious, laity, and scholars whose lives after the council embodied much fidelity and devotion. Media and management techniques are no substitute for fidelity to the great Catholic tradition and devoted scholarship to address the new situations confronting the Church, with her God-gifted wisdom — ever ancient and ever new in its beauty, in the words of Saint Augustine. (p. 440-441)
Will the Second Vatican Council be known in the future as a reform council? Or will history judge its vision a failure? This will depend, as Father Lamb says, on us — “the generations of Catholics to whom the Council repeated the invitation of the Lord Jesus Christ to faithful worship, holiness, and service”.