Defending Vatican II: Has the Hermeneutic of Continuity Failed?

November 29, 2020
Defense of Vatican II

Before the advent of the papacy of Pope Francis it was possible to view the Church’s reception of the Second Vatican Council as one of creative continuity with the Tradition, derailed for a time in the post conciliar silly season, but now set right by two holy and brilliant popes.  Indeed, while still prefect of the CDF under Pope John Paul, Joseph Ratzinger appealed to just this idea and made a distinction between the “first phase” of the conciliar reception – – a phase characterized by media driven distortions of the Council, and a faithless secularizing among even the clergy themselves – – and the “second phase” of conciliar reception which had been initiated by John Paul – – a phase characterized by faithfulness to both the Tradition and the particular conciliar project of renewal.  And then, as Pope Benedict XVI, he continued this retrieval of the Council in its second phase, doubling down on what John Paul had accomplished while also adding his own unique theological voice to the retrieval.  For a time, therefore, the so-called “hermeneutic of continuity” had apparently prevailed over the “hermeneutic of rupture” that had dominated the theological landscape in the first phase of the conciliar reception.  Rahner was out. Balthasar was in.  The Council had been saved from the pottery chalice and denim vestments crowd of Catholic, Zen Master, Reiki massage therapist, innovators. Or so it seemed…

But something has changed with the arrival of the papacy of Pope Francis.  Some now argue that what we are witnessing is a third phase of conciliar reception, wherein many aspects of the Council which were downplayed or ignored by the two previous popes are now being retrieved for the first time.  A new narrative is emerging that views the papacies of John Paul and Benedict as actually being reactionary betrayals of the Council’s true spirit, betrayals which we must now reject as post-conciliar hiccups or blips on the ecclesiastical radar.  They were just the last gurgling, gasps of the moribund conservative Church, we are told, and now that we have a truly progressive Pope we can finally begin the process of implementing the Council.  We now have a “true pastor” at the Church’s helm who understands the need to accommodate our moral theology to the diaphanous subjectivity of the individual conscience as well as the need to focus on mercy rather than fixate on the arcane and alienating debates over “true doctrine”.  The hermeneutics of rupture has returned, if it indeed ever really went away (more on that in a bit), and the path is now clear to implement the Free Church Catholicism of white, suburban, bourgeois, comfort.  Fatima is out.  Our Lady of the cul de sac is in. The Church of the pharisees is dead!  The Church of the people is finally here! Bring out the fatted liturgical dancers and let’s “do” liturgy ….

Strangely, this emerging narrative finds an ally in the growing termite mound of Catholic traditionalists who agree with the hermeneutics of rupture and who maintain, along with their heroic champion Archbishop Vigano, that Vatican II was a monumental mistake that needs to be either radically corrected or entirely suppressed.  They too view the papacies of John Paul and Benedict as, collectively, a desperate and failed attempt to put lipstick on the conciliar pig.  They too view the Council, in both its spirit and in its letter, as a rupture with the great Tradition. In this regard they are even more radical than the progressives who see in the “letter” of the Council nothing but compromise with the very reactionary forces that the Council wanted to overcome. Hence their constant appeals to the “spirit” of the Council as an “event” that transcended the actual documents themselves, which can now be safely ignored.  The Traditionalists go even further and view the “spirit” of the Council as a conspiratorial plot by modernists and Freemasons to deliberately plant ambiguities and outright theological errors in the actual documents of the Council for later exploitation.  Furthermore, they direct their bilious rhetoric at the very heart of the conciliar project, with four main areas of irritation in particular:  Liturgy, religious freedom, ecumenism, and interreligious dialogue.  And of course, what I am describing are views shared by those traditionalists who are still in some kind of “communion” with Rome, however attenuated it might be, owing to their visceral rejection of Pope Francis.  But one must also keep in mind that this rejection of the Conciliar project in those four areas is also the longstanding view of the SSPX, as well as the far-Right, fringe, sedevacante Covens.  In other words, traditionalist worlds are colliding, and the full extent of the fallout has yet to make itself clear.

Nevertheless, the overall dynamics of what is happening here is really rather transparent.  A large segment of the conservative Catholic movement, disgruntled by the Francis papacy, has peeled off of the mainstream and veered into a practical alliance with the SSPX.  And the internet, clickbait purveyors of this movement have seized upon this conservative disaffection with Francis in order to gin-up a never-ending apocalyptic boil of conspiracies and scandals.  From allegations of repressed Fatima secrets to lurid details of the sexual habits of the Roman curia, we are inundated daily with “The Late Great Catholic Church” narrative of The Great Apostasy.  And in all of this they also constantly sneer at those “conservative” Catholics (such as Bishop Robert Barron, their bete noire) who continue to wallow in the mud of “continuity”. The traditionalists pride themselves on having showered off the muck of Vatican II with the pristine holy water of the grand Tradition from Trent to Pascendi.  Their writings and podcasts are a festering stew of unsubstantiated insinuations and the illogic of guilt by association. Their flat-earth theology is a self-contradicting appeal to the authority of previous popes and Councils in order to denigrate modern popes and Councils. Pope John Paul is out.  Archbishop Lefebvre is in.  So grab your Vigano bobbleheads fellas, and your “I hate Pachamama” emoji buttons, and let’s meet at the Tiber with our Freemason detector kits, stowed neatly under our MAGA hats.

Thus, the battle lines are drawn between the progressive champions of rupture, the traditionalist affirmation of the same (but from different motives), and those ressourcement thinkers who continue to insist that the Council has been misinterpreted and needs to be retrieved properly in continuity with the great Tradition even as doctrine is organically developed to meet modern challenges.  However, far from being a “third phase” of conciliar reception what we are instead witnessing is a return to the exact same contours of the debate that framed the first phase.  What is new here that we have not already seen going all the way back to the 1970’s?  In a word, nothing.  These are the same tiresome debates and the same protagonists that we saw in phase one, which is why the proponents of rupture have to discredit the papacies that supposedly put those debates to rest, rather than organically developing something new building on the achievements of John Paul and Benedict. What we are dealing with today are unreconstructed post Vatican II liberals and traditionalists who have returned with a renewed vengeance.  At age 62 I spent my formative years in the immediate aftermath of the Council.  And as a seminarian from 1978-1985 I experienced the full and fierce range of the internal ecclesiastical debates that were then raging between progressives, Lefevbre supporters, neo-scholastic restorationists, and the ressourcement proponents of continuity.  Based on that experience, and now armed with the insights gained from a career spent in the theological guild, I can only say that to me this is just deja vu all over again.

What we are currently enduring therefore is not a natural and organic development of a true “third phase”, but rather, the reemergence and re-empowering of movements that never really went away.  In many ways the papacies of John Paul and Benedict were indeed “failures” insofar as the fractious divisions were never really healed, but merely glossed over with the thin patina of Roman teaching authority.  As a young theologian attending theological conferences at such venues as the annual meetings of the College Theology Society and the Catholic Theological Society of America I was dismayed to see that the guild was still dominated by the progressive wing of this divide. And this domination was not exercised charitably with a “big tent” view of the theological craft, but in a suffocating way that attempted to block the careers of anyone who dared challenge the reigning liberal orthodoxies.  When I expressed this dismay to many of my older peers who shared my concerns, I was told to bite my tongue and wait for the inevitable change that was on the horizon.  I was told that there was a new wave of “John Paul generation” lay Catholics and theologians who would soon displace the old guard of rigid and doctrinaire liberals.  Theological liberalism, I was told, was not self-replicating and would soon die out under the weight of its own hermeneutic of suspicion that undermined any reason for believing in the Church in the first place.

I didn’t believe them.  Yes, there were indeed a few younger theologians who could be described as John Paul Catholics.  But I trusted my own eyes and realized that their numbers were too few to engage in the renewal that I was promised was coming.  And as a professor who taught mostly undergraduates I saw little evidence that my students were on the cusp of a renewed vigor in the faith or that they were seeking a robust revival of Catholic living.  I believed then, as I believe now, to paraphrase Andrew Breitbart, that religion is downstream of culture and that the same cultural forces that created the post Vatican II divisions were not only not gone, but had intensified into a raging anti-Catholic storm.  I knew that the old divisions were still there, that the theological guild was still dominated by progressives, and that the average Catholic was no more prepared to buck the culture than they were in 1965. In short, the papacies of John Paul and Benedict did not sufficiently move the ecclesiastical needle in the right direction, leading me to conclude that we were only one progressive Pope away from the return of the old gods.

And that brings me to Pope Francis and the question that animates this essay.  In the light of the current papacy has the hermeneutic of continuity failed?  The answer to that question is a maddening “yes and no” type of response.  First, there is the issue of Pope Francis himself whose words, despite his sometimes loose, off the cuff comments, speak to an endorsement of a hermeneutic of continuity.  He has said that he is a “loyal son of the Church” and there is no reason to doubt this when one looks at the long list of progressive wishes he has not granted:  the discipline of mandatory celibacy for priests stands, the ordination of women to Holy Orders has not happened, he has not rolled-back or even “modified” the teaching against artificial contraception, he has not granted in an official way intercommunion with non-Catholic Christians, he has not rolled back Benedict’s permission for any priest to be able to celebrate the Traditional Latin Mass, and he has not changed the Church’s teaching on homosexuality or changed, as he did with the death penalty, the language of the Catechism which refers to homosexual acts as “intrinsically disordered.”  It would seem, therefore, that he is not on board with the agenda of the progressives even if he has gone slightly beyond John Paul on the issue of the death penalty and he has softened the Church’s pastoral response to those who are divorced and remarried.  This latter point is instructive since he could have merely changed the Eucharistic discipline of the Church in this matter but chose instead to simply “tweak” it a bit.  And you can quibble with my use of the word “tweak” if you like, but the main point I am making here is that he fell far short of what the progressive wing of the Church wanted in that matter.

However, he is a truly confusing Pope and very hard to pigeon-hole in any definitive way.  And even if he has not delivered to the progressives their full laundry list of desired changes he has re-empowered and emboldened them with his constant pitting of truth against mercy, doctrine against pastoral sensitivity, and “institutional rules” against love. Furthermore, he has appointed to high ecclesiastical office men who have just this mentality and who seem to have an animus against those Catholics who are actively and publicly engaged in what has come to be known as the “culture wars.”  He has refused to meet with the dubia Cardinals, or Cardinal Zen when he visited Rome, but had plenty of time to meet with NBA players to discuss the issue of systemic racism.  And, of course, the entire Synod on the Amazon was simply a coming out party for old, white, liberal, Germans who proceeded to cynically use the troubles of the Amazonian region, which they really don’t give a damn about, to blather on about enculturation and celibacy as if Brazil was Belgium in 1968. His post apostolic exhortation on the Synod was a tepid and empty endorsement of absolutely nothing beyond superficial bromides about economic injustice.  Conservatives cheered and sneered after the release of the exhortation since it seemed, in its silence, to be a papal slap-down to the progressives who manipulated the Synod into a group-hug for paganism, but in reality it was a vacuous document that makes one wonder what in the heck he thought would happen after he had stacked the synodal deck with a gaggle of Germanic Gnostics.  

In short, Pope Francis seems to sympathize with the progressive wing of the Church but does not have, in my view, a deep enough understanding of what their project really entails. He seems to have the mistaken view that Catholic liberals in 2020 are the same as liberals in 1958, and seems genuinely disappointed when they behave more like secular critical theory provocateurs rather than Yves Congar.  His whole thought-world seems to be that of a man who thinks the Church is still this insulated, neo-scholastic “fortress” whose walls need to be battered down, even as he stands astride their rubble.  He is fighting yesterday’s battles which underscores my point that we are most definitely not in a “third phase” of conciliar reception, but have instead been teleported by this papacy back to 1965 forcing those of us in the ressourcement camp to relitigate a case that was decided, with magisterial authority, by the previous two popes.  Perhaps this has been his end game all along.  Perhaps he is not as naïve as I think.  Perhaps he wants to reopen that case precisely because he wants it adjudicated differently but does not want to be the presiding judge, allowing “drift” to accomplish what papal fiat cannot. He is, after all, a Jesuit.

Nevertheless, and whatever the case might be with regard to Pope Francis, the fractious fault lines of the Church are the same today as they were 60 years ago.  Therefore, those of us who are defenders of Vatican II as being in continuity with the past need to tighten our belts, stand up straight, take a deep breath, and say “Ok. Where were we? Let’s start again then shall we?” It is frustrating in a way similar to when one of my students would ask “Dr. Chapp, could you please explain again how Nicaea taught that Jesus was just a man and not really God?”  At that point you have a choice: either give up in defeated resignation, or begin again to rearticulate what seems to many of us to be obvious, but is not, apparently, to a host of others. The analogy limps, of course, because my students were genuinely ignorant of the facts, but in the current debate we are dealing with people who actually know the facts but deliberately choose to either ignore or distort them.  That adds to the level of frustration – even anger – – but, as the tired cliché goes – – “it is what it is” and we have to deal with it.  It is the primary reason I started this blog since I refuse to acquiesce or to cede the high ground to the forces of mendaciousness.

One can, therefore, have a measure of sympathy for those modern traditionalists who have moved further and further toward the position of Lefebvre out of an anguished reaction against the ambiguities of the current papacy.  But sympathy with these groups should only extend so far since they are unwittingly playing into the hands of the progressives insofar as they agree with their hermeneutics of rupture.  Sadly, they labor in a world of illusions where they indulge fantasies of a grand restoration of a past that never was.  The Council was absolutely necessary as the Church needed to address the question, so long delayed, of the Church’s relationship with modernity.  One could characterize the first millennium of the Church as a struggle to define who Christ is, and the second millenium as a struggle to define what, and who, the Church is. But the time had come for the Church to further address the issue of who Christ and His Church are for the non-Catholic world at large.  Traditionalists provide no answers to that question beyond a kind of watered-down Feeneyism, and are often uncharitable and mendacious in their own right, as they viciously attack the teaching authority, and those who defend that authority, of the very Church they claim to be defending.  Their approach is highly destructive, today just as it was in 1965, and their acid-fueled hallucinations of a restored Tridentine Catholicism are one bad trip.  Quite simply, they are annoying.

So has the hermeneutic of continuity failed?  The answer is yes, if one defines “success” in this matter as a definitive closure to the debate at hand, wherein most of the pertinent parties agree that the Council was not a rupture with the Tradition, in both letter and spirit, and further agree that the road forward must begin with a robust retrieval of just what it was that the Council actually said.  It is a failure unless all parties agree, as Joseph Ratzinger puts it, that:  “The spirit of the Council is its letter.”  However, at the end of the day, the answer to the above question is a resounding “no!” since the Council itself, in its actual documents (which I doubt most of its critics have read with any serious scrutiny) makes it manifestly clear that it is not in rupture with the past.  To be sure, like all Councils it introduces something new, like Nicaea’s thunder bomb use of the term “homoousios”, but does so quite explicitly in continuity with the past.  For example, Dignitatis Humanaedoes introduce a deepening of the Church’s thinking on the issue of religious freedom, defining it, as the Church had not done before, as a fundamental human right rooted in our common dignity as persons. But it did so not in the categories of political Liberalism, which it pointedly rejects, but rather in Christological categories drawn from the Church’s own treasure house of Revelation. The development is new, but organic, and flows naturally from the awareness that Truth is merely an abstraction if it is divorced from its appropriation in an uncoerced freedom, viewed as its only proper medium of reception.

Therefore, the hermeneutic of continuity has not failed, even if it has not completely succeeded in putting to bed all of its critics and misinterpreters.  But Church history is instructive here as well as we see clearly that all of the truly great Councils – – “great” because they were deciding matters of fundamental importance to the faith – – generated division, and not a little chaos, in their wake.  Just ask Athanasius if he thought the aftermath to Nicaea was a smooth go.  Therefore, as with Nicaea, so here too we must remain as steadfast as Athanasius in seeing that the hermeneutic of continuity is our only true and theologically appropriate path forward.  It alone remains rooted in the historic faith of the Church.  Neither progressive nor traditionalist ideologies will suffice since they are both animated, not by a proper ecclesially oriented theology, but by agendas alien to the faith.  I will be blunt and polemical here. Scratch the surface of a progressive and one uncovers a latently atheistic and nihilistic ethos. Scratch the surface of a traditionalist and one uncovers a latently fascistic romanticism.  Scratch the surface of the Second Vatican Council, and one finds Christ at its center.  Gaudium et Spes 22 contra mundum.  

This is not to say that the Second Vatican Council was perfect or that it is immune from legitimate criticism. No Council ever is.  Even Nicaea generated its share of unresolved Christological ambiguities.  To cite but one example, Vatican II famously called on the Church at large to “read the signs of the times” but then failed to do so properly itself.  Specifically, it grossly overestimated the internal strength and cohesiveness of the Church, and severely underestimated the toxic and anti-Christian nature of modernity.  Centuries of top down censure and clericalistic control had created the false impression that the Church really was this monolithic fortress of fidelity and masked the deep deficiencies in the Church’s internal spiritual life.  For, as I noted above, truth is only such in its fullness when appropriated freely, non-coercively, and with a deep understanding of what is at stake in its reception or rejection. But the combination of ethnic, cultural Catholicism and a dumbing down of the faith through the imposition of a stale orthodoxy that censured all critics, merely created a house of cards that collapsed as soon as Vatican II lifted the lid on the ecclesiastical libido.  Traditionalists never address this issue as they pursue the path of restoring the “glories” of this failed model.

Likewise, the Council simply whiffed on the matter of modernity’s true ethos, emphasizing a vague and ill-defined “openness” to a “world” that is never defined in any specific detail.   And once the windows of the Church were opened, what blew in was not fresh air, but, as Karl Barth famously observed, a hurricane. I disagree, therefore, with Joseph Ratzinger who said that the Council fathers cannot be faulted for not anticipating the great cultural revolution that was upon them.  The signs were indeed there if one could set aside the superficial optimism about the turn to the world that animated many of those at the Council.  Progressive Catholics today go even further and take this conciliar optimism as a green light to completely embrace the de facto secular atheistic ethos of modernity. And insofar as the Council really was overly optimistic about the latent Christian underpinnings of modernity, which the Council seemed to think were just waiting to be unleashed through a renewed “dialogue” with the Church, then it is at least partially to blame for much of the silliness that came later.  

Fortunately, the Council itself provides us with the textual remedies to its own failures to read the signs of the times properly.  And as I said, it is our only fruitful path forward.  The Council’s failures were, in my opinion, largely confined to what it did not say. For example, it did not include a deep enough analysis of the deeply secular philosophical underpinnings of modernity, or that modernity’s origins reside precisely in a fundamental decision to reject the notion of “religion” as something that makes a public claim.  And even where it does deal with that issue, as in its treatment of Marxism, it is overly breezy and superficial.  

Be that as it may, the Council chose to focus on the only answer to the question of modernity that the Church can truly offer as its most treasured possession:  Christ the Lord. In every aspect of the conciliar documents we see a Christological concentration as the Council fathers chose to propose a reform of the Church that is, in reality, a repristination of her fundamentally Christological form.  Like ecclesiastical archeologists they sought to recover the freshness of the Christ of the gospels which had been obscured by the palimpsest of a moribund, neo-scholastic overlay. They developed a deepened Christological theological anthropology that was the basis of a true Christian humanism that alone can combat the false humanisms of modernity.  They developed a renewed ecclesiology deeply rooted in an Incarnational emphasis on the Church as the body of Christ, extended in time.  And they put forward a truly beautiful Marian theology wherein Mary is viewed in her only proper context as the Mother of that same Christologically recentered Church.  The list could go on and on, but the point is made.  Vatican II is a Christological Council and must, therefore, be read in continuity with all previous Christological councils.  

I will conclude with what is to me one of the most overlooked teachings of the Council: the renewed emphasis on the importance of the laity and the universal call to holiness.  Ignoring this aspect of the Council – – or misinterpreting it as a call to eliminate all sacral distinctions between the laity and the clergy – – is a grave oversight since it points to the only true “continuity” that the Church ever needs: sanctity.  What we need are not new “structures” but new saints.  What we need are not new “strategies” or “programs” but new confessional witnesses to the faith by those who live that faith in the intersection between the Church and the world.  In short, and this might seem trite, but it is a profound truth that is too often missed because it is so dadgum obvious:  you cannot have a genuine Catholic renewal without deeply convicted Catholics.  There are no substitutes for holiness as all ecclesial “projects” will crash and burn without it.  

Progressives and Traditionalists place their trust in the chariots of lesser kings.  Vatican II shouts to the world: “Laudetur Iesus Christus!”  Let us all do the same, in saecula saeculorum! Amen.  

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