In Defense of Vatican II
Blog Master’s note: what follows is a guest blog from Apolonio Latar III. His biographical information can be found at the end of the post. This is a long blog but well worth the read as he takes up the much needed defense of Vatican II. Please feel free to make comments.
Frankly, I find the whole debate on Vatican II a bit boring. A lot of the arguments that one finds on YouTube or websites or even from some within the clergy are pretty much the same old arguments presented by the SSPX or authors like Michael Davies. Most people who repeat these arguments seem to have never read the early Church Fathers, are ignorant of history, or have misinterpreted Aquinas. I was just never impressed with them. Reading their arguments is like reading Jesus mythicists. Almost every claim needs to be refuted and if one were to thoroughly refute the book, one would have to write more than a thousand pages to do so. And if one refuses to write that many pages, the response would be, “You have not refuted the 700-page argument that I have made.” He somehow thinks that a non-response to absurdity is somehow a win for absurdity. This is very similar to rad-trad claims. They will choose a controlling narrative, say, the modernist or freemason infiltration of Vatican II, and read every word of the documents within that light and then claim that the problems that one finds in the Church today come from the Council. Just like any conspiracy theory, they try to link ideas or events to each other in such a way that it makes you frustrated and you don’t know where to begin. It is not that one cannot respond to such arguments. It is that human reasoning sometimes just should not tolerate foolish imagination. It is one thing to say that there may be some freemasons or even modernists in the Council. It is another thing that the modernist takeover is the controlling narrative of how one should read this event. That is simply insane.
What I would rather like to do is give a little better understanding of Vatican II in light of what the Church is facing today, following the path and ideas that Larry Chapp has been providing. This is difficult because a Christian sees history not simply as events that happened in the past, but is required to see history within eyes of faith. This means that everything that happens in history is within the mysterious and loving will of God. The covenant between God and Israel and the Incarnation reveals that God acts within history. God does not illuminate the human mind of His covenantal plan through some kind of a priori abstract reasoning, but by acting gloriously in the world. Contemplation is perceiving the depth of God’s creation and His glorious action in history.
It is important, then, that when one thinks about the Church, one does not think about her as simply an institution just like any other political institution in the world. True, the very definition of the Church is that it is where the divine dwells within the human, which includes all the mess and rottenness that one can identify with humanity. Yet, the indwelling of the divine in humanity is what gives a Christian the understanding that one cannot reduce the Church to her messiness. And this experience of the divine in the Church, the experience of God’s tenderness to humanity (even in its rottenness), is what allows a Christian to see the divine in everything in the world. The experience of being in the Church, living life with God, provides the Christian to reaffirm the goodness of creation and history. This is not thoughtless optimism, but the joyful hope that one has when one has received a great love. A Christian has the freedom of not being enslaved by a reductionist analysis of history because he sees that the logic of God is not the logic of the world.
So what is the Church facing today? One can of course point to the secularization of the world, the gratuitous acceptance of immoral practices, the lack of reverence in the Liturgy, the failure of catechesis and evangelization, the sinful members in the hierarchy, and the relativism that infects so many minds. There are questions, however, that all of us in the Church must face and they should not be taken so lightly. They are these: do we still have something to say to the world? In light of the evil apparent in the Church and the scientific and technological progress in the world, what do we still have to say? What is it that the Church can still propose to a world that simply does not find anything attractive and relevant about the Church? Why isn’t Christianity convincing anymore? In order to answer these questions, we cannot presume the answer but ask the question that Hans Urs von Balthasar asked: What is Christian about Christianity? We are before the dramatic question: what is Christianity? Looking for answers in policies, change of structures, tools of evangelization, and so on, presuppose that one has sufficiently answered these questions. What is needed is to look at the whole. This, I submit, is the best way to also understand what Vatican II was grappling with. Vatican II was concerned with answering the questions: what is Christianity? What is it that we are proposing to the world?
Of course the Church always had her eyes on the question of the whole. Every declaration she has made had her eyes fixed on the essence of Christianity. Vatican II, however, had a different way of conceiving the problem from other councils. I think we can summarize, and maybe oversimplify a little, the problems that the Church had to face in three phases throughout history.
The first millennium more or less had to face the question: Who is Christ? Or what is the relationship between God and Christ? The event of the death and resurrection of Jesus gave faith to the early Christians, allowing them to confess, “Jesus is Lord.” This ontological statement coincided with affirmation of the event that God raised Jesus from the dead: “If your lips confess that Jesus is Lord and if you believe in your heart hat God has raised him from the dead, then you will be saved” (Rom. 10:9-10). This confession should only be understood within the context of the practice of the worship of Jesus. The practice of devotion to Jesus and the acclamation that he is Lord necessarily entailed that they had to grapple with monotheistic Judaism.
How does the Lordship of Jesus fit into the doctrine that that there is only one God? It wasn’t easy to answer this question and it took almost a millennium to fully answer it. One reason is that the New Testament usually uses the word “God” with a definite article, ho theos, to refer to the Father and rarely refers to Jesus as ho theos (Thomas’ confession in the Gospel of John is one of those rare examples, “Ho kyrios mou kai ho theos mou”). The word “God” is usually reserved for the Father while “Lord” is usually reserved for Jesus: “For there is one God…and one Lord, Jesus Christ” (1 Cor. 8:6). This is why Arius found it reasonable to say that Jesus was simply a creature, a lesser god, while the Father is the only one true God. What the early Christians had to confront was whether we can speak of Jesus as ho theos. Is Jesus, God’s Messiah that He raised, a lesser god or is he one substance with the Father? Of course some responded to this question in such a way that affirming the Son as identical with the Father made them diminish His humanity. Some, because they wanted to affirm Christ’s humanity, had trouble affirming his divinity.
But what allowed the Church to respond properly to these difficult questions was not just some theoretical and linguistic game that she can use to affirm both the divinity and humanity of Jesus, but the faithfulness to her liturgical practices, such as the worship of Jesus and baptism, and her concern for the salvation of the world from sin and death. That is to say, can we really say that we are no longer in our sins? If Jesus is God and not man, then we are still in our sins. And if Jesus is man and not God, then we are still in our sins. It is only when the Church can affirm the full divinity (one substance with the Father) and the full humanity of Jesus that we can truly say that we are no longer enslaved to sin.
In the second millennium (again, oversimplifying), the Church had to face the questions: what is the relationship between Christ and the Church? How does the Incarnation continue in the world? Obviously, having a political order that is Christian helped the Church become more present in the lives of people. Christendom, with all of its glories and failures, gave the Western world a culture permeated with the logic of the Christian faith. Everything that was done was done for Christ and his kingdom, even if some of those behaviors were wrong. The creation of universities was done for Christ, and so were the Crusades and the Inquisitions. To belong to Christ was to belong to the Church and to make the world become more like the Church.
Two unfortunate events, the great schism between the Catholic Church and the Eastern Orthodox and the Protestant Reformation, allowed the Church to develop a sacramental theology and ecclesiology, focused on the necessity of the Church for the salvation of the human person. The question of how we can know and experience Christ was always answered with: “in the Church.” The Councils, especially the Council of Trent, wanted to show the objective presence of Christ in the world through His Church. It was right and just that the Church did this. Showing the objectivity of the presence of Christ was a necessary step for giving the faithful a better certainty that God is truly faithful. How do we know Christ is present? Because the Pope and the bishops are all signs of His presence, giving us a link all the way back to the Apostles, inheriting a Tradition that can give us a proper understanding of Scripture. Because by our baptism and participation in the Eucharist, we are a new creation. Because in the Liturgy, we can hear the Gospel anew. And so on.
The doctrine of the Papacy, justification, Scripture and Tradition, the sacraments, etc., were all a way for the Church to say: yes, Christ is truly present in the Church and that is why you need the Church. By focusing on the objectivity of the presence of Christ, independent of what one feels or thinks, the Church gave the faithful the certainty of a home they can always return to in order to find Christ. Outside this Church, there is no certainty that Christ is present, which is to say, there is no salvation. The doctrines and theology developed in the second millennium gave the faithful the certainty that Christ is truly visible in the world. Hence, the Church is the continuation of the Incarnation.
The third millennium, of which we are a part, has to face the dramatic question: what is the relationship between the Church and the modern world? This was the question that Vatican II wanted to confront. It is not as if Vatican II was the only time the Church had to face this question, but it seems that it was the appropriate time to give answers when the world was reaching the full flowering of secularization. One can read the works of Del Noce, MacIntyre, Brague, Taylor, etc if one wants to see how the Cartesian turn to the subject, the Baconian revolution of science, the French and the Industrial Revoution, etc. have made the Western world into a place where a human person is filled with the delusion that power and efficiency are the primary values with which to judge everything, and that at the end of everything, life and the world are ultimately meaningless.
I think that the biggest problem today, the problem which the difficult moral questions (such as gender ideology, end of life issues, bioethics, etc.) are based upon, is the problem of boredom. Boredom is the perception that reality is dull, that the world is not inherently meaningful, and that one must create the meaning of one’s life and the world. The main problems today are ontological, not moral. But they are ontological because of historical events in the past that carried a worldview that is against how the Church sees the world. The question of the relationship between the Church and the modern word, therefore, must understand the two words “modern” and “world” in an appropriate way. She must understand once again what it means to say that the world was created. And she must not forget the historical factors that led her to the present day and the ontology that modern people carry.
Here we get back to the question that we started in the beginning. Do we still have something to say to the world? There are two things that a Catholic needs to balance. The first is the affirmation that the Logos is in every human person as the Logos spermatikos, especially in his or her use of reason. Every person who follows the truth already follows God in some way. No matter how corrupt the world may be, it cannot be so corrupt that there is no hope for the human person. That is to say, not only do we have hope in God that He can attract and persuade each and every person to Himself, but that there is something in the human person that will allow himself to welcome the love of God in his heart.
The second factor to consider is the affirmation that the world is corrupt and sin has weakened our reason and faith. This means that there is no room for false optimism in the world. Not only is the Church facing a world that comes from a totally different worldview, but she is also facing a world that would like to manipulate and destroy the truth and the Church. The Church’s pastoral activity must balance these while she is proclaiming Christ. The modern person is corrupted by the ontology of technology, the perception that reality is boring, while, at the same time, he will always know and love God implicitly in whatever he knows and loves, as Aquinas said. To put it in a different way, the person is a mess and the Church, like her Savior, must work through that mess while obeying the Father.
The imbalance between these two ideas can be seen by the factions that exist in the Church. There is the liberal view that has compassion on the modern world, trying to affirm the person as he is. They see a lot of greatness in the success of modern science and modern values of equality and social justice without seeing that the modern world simply does not want to need Christ in anything. They become so enamored with the world and frustrated with their fellow conservative Catholics that their fate will be like that of King Solomon. The radtrads, on the other hand, see the world so corrupt that they think that forming a bubble, a spiritual ghetto filled with devotions to Marian apparitions and eschatological warnings, and a formalistic way of worshipping God will show the world that they are the true remnant of God. So much for mission.
Both fail in proposing Christ to the world. Why should the modern world accept Christ the way liberal Catholics do when there are so many similarities between them that one would be better off to simply reject Christ? One can help the poor, be compassionate, help the sick, and any other works of corporal works mercy even without faith in Christ. In other words, why does one need Christ anyway? What does he bring to the daily life of a person that makes it much more beautiful?
The rad-trad view is little better, if at all. They simply view the whole world going to hell, so the response is to hold fast to an individualistic understanding of Christianity, saving himself because he somehow knows within the deepest depths of his heart that most people go to hell anyway. That or they presume that the best way to evangelize is to tell others that they are going to hell if they don’t fully belong to the Church. They have a scrupulous attention (and we all know there are people who suffer scrupulosity especially from this group) to the rules and doctrines of the Church that does not reveal a love for Christ, and is a reminder that legalism really takes away any joy in being a Christian. They are the remnant while everyone else is the enemy. Every bishop or priest that does not conform to their way of thinking is infected with modernism. It is as if they think that fixing the Liturgy will automatically make you a better father, mother, friend, or worker. How does Christ affect the rest of the day? Doesn’t Christ’s goodness permeate in everything that is given to him? Especially people? The fact that the SSPX has a pre-Vatican II understanding of life and the world and yet have their problems and abuses show that a simple rejection of Vatican II does not solve the big problems the Church is facing today.
We are living in a moment in history where we have separated God from Christ, Christ from the Church, and the Church from the world. In other words, if God exists, He doesn’t matter. A lot of young people simply do not find being part of the Church as a fascinating way of living. They don’t care about ecclesiastical politics the way Catholic social media users do and they simply don’t think about theology the way that people who watch EWTN do. They are upset about the world and feel hypocrisy and betrayed. They think that digital presence is actually how common life is lived and being angry is at something is the way they can feel something, even feel a bit alive.
It is no wonder why extremists, like rad-trads, are attractive to them and this is why the separation of God from Christ, Christ from the Church, and the Church from the world are so dangerous. It provides a way for individuals to become more fragmented and live in their own made up world, in their own bubble, and in loneliness. What the Church must propose today is a life of communion grounded in the Person of Christ. Communion literally means living together in the truth, not just some digital presence where one can click on a Catholic article one likes and hate what one does not like and then go to a good Mass. It is knowing a person in the flesh, with the person’s beauty, goodness, limits, and weaknesses. God became flesh: this means that it is through the flesh that we can come to know Him. And not just to know as in memorizing a bunch of doctrines and scriptural passages that support those doctrines (which is a good thing, by the way), but to know Him in the biblical sense, that is to say, to have an intimacy with Him, to be one with Him. To be one with Him, though, means being one with the Church, with concrete people, concrete faces, and therefore one with Christ. And when one is with Christ, one is with God.
This, in short, is why Vatican II was so prophetic. It insisted on proposing Christianity to a world that was forgetting God while diagnosing the problems of the modern world. It is best to see Vatican II, then, as a deepening and enriching of the faith. Pre-Vatican II magisterial teachings against Modernism were necessary, but it was insufficient to combat against it. It was necessary to condemn the reduction of faith to religious experience or dogmas to simply cultural expressions of particular historical circumstances or reading Scripture with methods that run contrary to the Catholic faith. Even if one reads Pius’ Pascendi and says “Amen” to every single statement there (after, of course, reading it carefully since with it is filled with ambiguous language, and anyone who says that it condemns Blondel simply doesn’t know what he is talking about), what exactly was the proposal? In condemning (rightly) false conceptions of experience, history, revelation, development of dogma, interpretation of Scripture, etc., it nowhere provides a true understanding how experience relates to faith, how dogma rightly develops, and how one can understand history.
Should we really think that experience plays no role in faith or knowledge of God? Should we really think that everyone who applies historical methods of interpreting Scripture separates faith and history? Should we really think that understanding the particular historical and cultural expressions of dogma would necessarily reduce it to a contingent truth? The answers are implicitly in the questions. No matter how much one can affirm Pascendi, one is left with wondering how its remedy, neo-scholastic philosophy, is sufficient to give a good understanding of the themes that were important to Modernists, such as the importance of human experience, exegesis, and history. Of course there is some good in neo-scholastic theologians and philosophers, but their (though not all) tendency to write manuals and their neglect of the primacy of Scripture and the centrality of Christ, the inability to effectively deal with secularism, atheism, technology, and interact with the Eastern Orthodox and Protestants made it difficult to make an impact upon the faithful. Thankfully, something new and beautiful, faithful to the Tradition of the Church, was being born in other places in the Church.
A group of theologians in France saw that a return to the Fathers was one of the best ways to respond to the lack of unity between thought and life. Theology had to return to the unity between dogma, exegesis, history, and the spiritual life in order to respond to the modern concerns of the human person. It is not that conceptualization is not necessary in theology, but a theology that does not address human experiences would be a cold rationalism that would make dogmas irrelevant to human life. What these theologians found in the Early Church Fathers was a theology relevant to the existential questions of the human person.
It is not a coincidence, then, that theologians like Jean Danielou and Hans Urs von Balthasar saw an ally in St. Gregory of Nyssa. The first volume of Sources Chretiennes that was published was Gregory’s The Life of Moses and both of these great theologians themselves also wrote books on this great Church Father. But why would they choose Gregory of Nyssa as one of the figures to learn from? Because, along with Augustine, what one can find in this great Cappadocian Father is a theological anthropology that can respond adequately to the “modern turn to the subject”. In Gregory, one finds how human experience of God and theology meet, how the spiritual life is rooted in dogma, and where there is an intermingling of history and ontology. Speculative theology and mystical theology were not different from each other. It simply does not make sense, for the early Church Fathers, especially Gregory of Nyssa, to have dogmatic theology detached from mystical or spiritual theology. And since Scripture is the soul of theology, biblical exegesis and the spiritual life were not separated either; the literal meaning of Scripture is the radiation of its spiritual sense. The experiential side of faith (fides qua) is intrinsically linked to the mysteries of faith (fides quae). Here we see why the style of theology of the Fathers is relevant: there is simply no separation between dogmatic and pastoral theology. Pastoral theology is simply communicating the mysteries of the faith so that the person can contemplate and act within the glorious communion of the Holy Trinity, the God that Jesus Christ revealed to the cosmos.
Thankfully, this style of theology was influential at Vatican II, thanks to theological advisors like de Lubac, Danielou, and Ratzinger. It was this style of theology that Vatican II retrieved, a Trinitarian Christocentric theology that gives light to the truth of the human person and the world. It rejected the original schemas because they were simply reiterations of condemnations of Modernism, which, again, were necessary, but insufficient to correct its errors. A lot of the Council Fathers saw that the Church needed to propose (not presuppose!) Christianity in a way that would meet the existential needs of the modern world. This is what it really means to say that Vatican II was a pastoral council.
If one reads the debates in the Council, what one finds is that they all saw the intrinsic link between doctrine and the pastoral. What one “feeds” to the sheep is doctrine, as a great Filipino Council Father said. The difference was, as John O’Malley said, that of style. This did not make some of the Council Fathers and their theological advisors Modernists. This style was a retrieval of communicating the faith the way the Church Fathers did. Choosing the “medicine of mercy” does not mean that truth is not presented, but truth is presented in a way that reflects its beauty. It is beauty, anyway, that provokes one to delight in the truth. But this already means that one must understand the depth of the truth of God, Christ, and the Church (ecclesia ad intra) before one can communicate it to the faithful and to the world (ecclesia ad extra).
There is simply no justification, then, in thinking that one can reject this Council because it is simply a “pastoral” one or that it never taught anything new (which is not true, anyway, especially since the Council’s new doctrine on the sacramentality of the episcopate must be accepted). For example, one of the influential texts being shared around the Council Fathers was the Danielou/Garrone text which influenced the draft of which was to become Dei Verbum. The text presents the truths Christ gave the world: the triune life of God and the truth of the human person. Primacy is given to God and His gratuitous love for humanity, a gratuitous love definitive in Jesus Christ. God reveals Himself in stages, in the cosmos’ witness to Him, in His covenant with Israel, and finally in His Only Son. Then the text presents the intrinsic connection between the word and action of God in history. This is a better understanding of what revelation is according to Scripture, rather than some post-Tridentine understanding of revelation as some kind bag of propositions that Jesus gave to the Apostles.
In fact, events themselves are called words (debarim) in Scripture. God spoke of light and the creation of light came about. God spoke to Moses and he delivered His people from Egypt. He says that He wants Jeremiah to be a prophet, and no matter how clueless or afraid Jeremiah was, it came to be. What God says happens, and what happens contains a call and a promise. And word and event coincide especially when, in the appointed time, the Word of God became flesh (event) and tabernacled among us (Jn. 1:14). So it is true: “But I the Lord will speak the word which I will speak, and it will be performed” (Ez. 12:25). Finally, Danielou articulated the Holy Spirit’s role in converting the hearts of people to Christ and to deepen their understanding of what has been revealed. What is important in the Danielou/Garrone text is its Trinitarian Christocentrism, grounded in Scripture, and that is faithful to the human person as a historical being. Ontology, Scripture, history, and experience come together in this beautiful text that influenced the Council.
Finally, there is also an issue that was not part of the original schemas. While the original schemas focused on Modernism, there were others, like Congar and Ratzinger, who saw a problem that the Church will face for many years: the problem of technology. No matter how much one can criticize Gaudium et spes for being overly optimistic, one should see that it was very perceptive in seeing many problems of the modern world, one of which was technology. This is something that the Church today still needs to face. We are living in a technological world where we are distracted, where the ontology of technology impedes us from falling in love. We do not know what it means to be in love, to be rooted forever in the beautiful goodness and beautiful truth of things. We are sentimental creatures that lack bonds of affection. The response isn’t just changing behavior, which is what policies and laws are about. Any response that is just about changing structure, changing behavior, although necessary, is insufficient. Simply repeating pre-Vatican II rituals and having neo-scholastic manuals in one’s head simply will not propose to the world that Christ is the meaning of life. It is about proposing a way of thinking, feeling, and living that is grounded in the beauty, goodness, and truth of things. That is the challenging part and that is where we really need to know what makes Christ worth everything we have.
Apolonio Latar III has an M.Ed. from Marymount University in Administration and Supervision. He has degrees in Philosophy (Rutgers University) and Theology (Lateran University). He is currently the Theology Department Chair at a high school in Virginia.