In Defense of Vatican II. Part One: The Cross of Christ and the Politics of Power

November 3, 2020
Defense of Vatican II

In what follows I am laying the groundwork for a series of blog posts devoted to defending Vatican II against the so-called Traditionalists. I began this blog about a month ago now by first examining a few representatives from this amalgam of theological dissenters from the far Catholic Right. I did so in order to give the reader a sense of the tone and content of that movement. Most troubling to me is their open rejection of vast swaths of the teachings of Vatican II, and even, as with Vigano, the claim that the Council, in its entirety, should just be suppressed.

I offer today a revised and amended version of an essay I wrote for my previous blog. It centers on the significance of the cross of Christ for properly understanding the true nature of power. I offer this meditation first, even before I begin a defense of specific documents of the Council, in order to establish the theological matrix in which all of my subsequent reflections will be embedded.

When I was still a university professor, I often asked my students to play an intellectual “what if” game.  I asked them to imagine what our world would be like if Christ had never existed and, therefore, Christianity had never come into being.  I did this to subvert the hostility of so many of them toward the “institutional Church” owing to its centuries of misconduct and deep sinfulness.  The honest, non-ideological students, had to admit that a world in which the values of the barbarians who overran the Roman Empire reigned supreme would have been far, far worse than the civilization formed by the Christian Church.  You can disagree with that assessment, of course, but you would be wrong to do so.  I have noticed too on this topic that those who indulge the puerile intellectual habits of folks like Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens never bother to notice that much of the force of their facile critique of Christianity is a moral one, centering on the many, many ways they claim that the Christian Church has been morally bestial without offering any justification for this moral vision from within the ideological logistics of their atheism.  In many ways I think their moral instincts are sound, and their criticisms of the Church, though exaggerated and often ignorant of the real historical record, are at least loosely grounded in the sad reality of the sins of Christians.  Nevertheless, what they fail to notice is that the very moral verities they are invoking, which they imagine to be nothing more than the “common sense” morality provided by secular reason, are in reality Christian in inspiration and origin.

And if what I write above is true, and it most certainly is, then what remains is the task of identifying what the specific Christian contribution was.  In other words, what was the revolution that Jesus of Nazareth created, why was it so shattering to the dominant power structures of the world, and how did it change our view of who God is?  That Jesus preached the advent of a new “Kingdom of grace” cannot be reasonably doubted.  But what are the rules of citizenship he established for admittance into this Kingdom and how does living in this Kingdom put us at odds with the “ruler of this world”?  These are hard questions to answer because the Gospel authors themselves seem reluctant to domesticate the image of Jesus inside the box of a ready-made “theological system”, realizing, I suspect, that as soon as one cages a Tiger you really no longer have a Tiger.  The temptation has always been to domesticate Jesus, whether it be through a thousand syllogisms or ten thousand Deepak Chopras.  I think our culture today is more prone to the latter than the former, as the coffee shop Christ allows us to both call ourselves “Christians” and to … well… hmmm…. kill people, whether that be in our Imperial wars or in our various “clinics”.  And the Christ of the clinics and the Christ of the drone wars is a result of the domestication of Jesus through a cultural and political reduction.  Thus does the Jesus who was crucified in an act of a self-emptying descent into the depth of the human condition, become, through the alchemy of a Latte and NPR, the Jesus of “death from above” and “dilation and suction.”

Thus, in order to resist this reduction of Jesus to either a politics (in the narrow sense of that word) or a cultural prop, the Gospels do not obsess over conceptual clarity in the sense of creating a neat system of ideas that read like a Power Point bullet list during a TED talk.  And thank God they don’t since there is nothing so boring and ridiculously pompous as a TED talk. [Side note: I was once asked to give a TED talk but did not know what it was.  I thought, “Who the hell is Ted, and why the hell should I talk to him?”] Nor do the Gospels give us ecclesiological, organizational, flow charts, (which are inherently and irreducibly demonic by the way, the Wormwood bitterness that makes everything German), and what they give us instead are suggestive references to a “Rock” and some kind of “keys” which are to be used in the name of a God renamed in a mysterious tripartite formula lacking in even the most rudimentary theological explanation.  And, while we’re at it, who was that half-naked kid in Mark’s Gospel that ran away when Jesus was arrested?  Who is Theophilus, the person Luke addresses his Gospel to?  And so on.  So many hanging chads…

This is not, however, an argument against the later formulation of doctrines and offices in the Church, since Jesus was most certainly not an antinomian or an anti-institutional preacher of an esoteric Gnosticism, no matter what today’s sophisticated anti-Semites say.  The latent anti-Semitism that lurks beneath this view of Jesus as a kind of anti-Jewish Jew, and as a purveyor of cracker-barrel spiritualism, is as old as Marcion and as fresh as “The View”.  To be sure, as I say above, Jesus cannot be reductively domesticated in neat theological systems.  But that isn’t because he was opposed to theology.  It was because HE WAS the theology.  Jesus doesn’t iconoclastically “burst categories”.  He WAS THE category.  And so no, he wasn’t a first century Oprah Winfrey and he never combined empty, boutique-shop sophistry with free donkey-cart giveaways.  The currently fashionable world of “spirituality”, with its dream catchers and its drug store, fauxBuddhist therapeutics, knows nothing of the real Jesus.  Indeed, these currently fashionable parlor room curiosities are merely the Ivy League version of the prosperity Gospel, complete with promises of body detoxification through the drinking of grotesque green liquids of unknown provenance.  Jesus+Essential oils = A brownstone in Park Slope.

So enough of such nonsense.  When it comes to the Gospels we see instead a Jesus of immense solidity and when we approach him we run up hard against a wall that at first seems impenetrable to our ersatz spirituality and our desiccated rationality. By contrast, the piercing and lacerating image that the Gospels present is precisely that – – an image – – and its logic (its “truth”) is embedded in the dramatic aesthetic of a humiliated, crucified man who descends into the silent solidarity of the dead. And the Gospels make clear that this descent into the dissolute world of decay, into the moldering stench of Satan’s sting, was the very condition for the glory that follows.  The crucifixion and the descent into death were not “mere preliminaries”, or a forensic theological mandate that just had to be endured, stoically, in order to fulfill some bestial bloodlust on God’s part before he then rewarded Jesus with the Golden Ticket.  Such is the view of entire benighted wings of the Christian household who then go on to preach that we don’t have to endure the Cross because Jesus did it for us.  We now just get to kick back, open a bag of pork rinds, and enjoy the endless Disney World of our resurrection life.  This, despite the fact that Jesus himself explicitly tells us that we too will need to take up our cross in order to follow him.  So much for Sola Scriptura.  It is indeed instructive, is it not, that those who chirp the loudest about Sola Scriptura never seem to have read the Scriptura.  They just wave the Bible around in the air, like a Talisman, which goes along with their magical Hogwarts view of the atonement.  

No, the Cross of Christ is no mere preliminary.  It is no mere juridical act of appeasement followed by judicial exoneration and the lavishing of parting gifts.  It is in truth the Revelation of God’s deepest nature, the expression in human, worldly, time-bound form of the Eternal One.  But what can it possibly mean that God’s very inner life is best exposited in this brutalized way?  

Jesus said “He who sees me sees the Father”.  Well… according to the Gospels to “see” Jesus is to look at the cross.  Not exclusively (since Resurrection is part of this event too), but focally, centrally.  It is to view the Resurrection in and through the crucifixion, which is why the Resurrected Christ is forever the “Lamb who was slain” and whose resurrected body still bears the marks of his grotesque torture.  The Cross reveals to us that God, as love, is nothing more than pure gift.  He is giving as such.  He is descent and self-emptying sacrifice for the sake of the other as such. This is the essence of what the “Trinity” is and is thus also the essence of that divine life within us and of our nature’s truest end.  He doesn’t “possess” these attributes as qualities like you and I possess this or that virtue.  He IS those attributes.  

Christ reveals God.  Christ is God.  And Christ is eternally “marked” by his crucifixion. So too must we be so marked.  This is the criterion for entrance into the Kingdom I mentioned at the start.  This is the essential “difference” of specifically Christian faith as opposed to all others, secular and religious.  We are not, as the Enneagram and Pottery Barn Chalice crowd inform us, “resurrection people.”  If we are to be resurrected it is into THIS Kingdom, the Kingdom of “cross and resurrection”, and not into a Kingdom marked through and through by the sign of bourgeois comfort.  We are not “saved” just because we gave some vague, and nominal assent to a theological proposition, which we then label as “faith”.  If we are to be resurrected at all it will be as crucified and resurrected.  There is no other path.  And it is precisely the counter-mark of the Antichrist to imagine that there is.  Joel Osteen and Paula White have our President’s ear.  But they reject the way of the Cross and embrace the way of Mammon.  They both have perfect teeth.  And they are antichrists.  

This is why I am a Catholic Worker. And it is the only reason for being a Catholic Worker.  To live as closely as we can the Sermon on the Mount, which is, paradoxically, only illuminated by the shadow cast by the Cross.  This was the constant message of Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin.  We must not so spiritualize the Sermon on the Mount that its clear mandate for Christians to abandon the path of Mammon, the path of acquisition, the path of violence, is distanced from us by a series of thorned hedgerows, as we tell ourselves that such “perfection” is for the monks alone.  The rest of us, we are told, have to live in the “real world” where none of this idealistic stuff applies.  But we do console ourselves with the soothing balm of a thousand small “crosses” that are more manageable and can fit into our lifestyle.  I am very guilty of this.  Very. Guilty.  But what that means is that they aren’t really crosses at all, but, as I see in my own life, the appalling opposite:  narcissistic play acting at “religion” in a degraded form of Pascal’s wager where I convince myself that if I can at least imitate “sacrifice” in manageable bits, that means I am sacrificing.  Or, at the least, to convince myself that if I keep play acting at being a “man for others” then maybe I will be someday, despite the voluminous evidence to the contrary.  Like Peter Sellers in “Being There”:  I like to watch.  I approach life as a spectator, which is to say I approach God as a spectator, which is to say, I do not approach God at all.

The cross is never easy.  It is repulsive and ugly.  A symbol of the worst kind of torture, injustice, and brutality.  And it is the central symbol of our faith.  It is our only path to the resurrection and the Kingdom.  That gate and that path gets narrower for me every day.  Narrower in the sense that I can’t seem to stay on it, or even on some days, find it.  How hard it is to truly die to self, to divest ourselves of all of our caterwauling idolatries, and to stop our pretentious posturing as we seek to manipulate and bend others to suit our needs.  We are like the old lady in Hell in Dostoevsky’s tale, clinging to that rotten onion and preferring it to the glories of Heaven.  We think that the “old man” in us is like snakeskin that we can shed, “and I will someday, just let me get through this….”. But then we discover that we really do prefer the rotten onion.  

It is hard to die.  But that is why the new Kingdom of Christ’s grace begins with the death of God on the cross.  “One of the Trinity has died” – – so an ancient, anti-Nestorian line has it.  It flirts with heresy, but only trivially so.  In reality, the gravamen of its insight should make us all weep for joy.  

But this is also why I am deeply suspicious of the recent upsurge among some in the so-called “Catholic Traditionalist” movement to repristinate some version of a hard, political, integralism.  Motivated by the true insight that Liberalism is a god that has failed us, they long for a return to Christendom and its coercive confessional States, rejecting along the way Vatican II’s endorsement of religious freedom which they view as a lamentable capitulation to modernity’s religious relativism and indifferentism.  They interpret the social Kingship of Christ in shockingly modernist tones as a mandate for the coercive exercise of political power in religious matters ignoring, apparently, the sad historical fact that whenever and wherever the Church became a regulative political force it quickly became “merely” a regulative force, and ceased to be a transformative force.  And it further ignores the sad historical fact that Liberalism arose precisely because Christendom failed owing to its distorting of the social Kingship of Christ in exactly the same manner as the new integralists do.  History teaches us that such a regulative, non-transformative Church breeds anti clericalism and resentment as the Church comes to be viewed as just one, gigantic, buzz kill.  It is no accident then that those countries which had the strongest version of this Catholic integralism, are also now currently the countries most rapidly de-Christianizing.  

And why is it that these same “Traditionalists” never bother to answer the question of why, if the pre Vatican II Church was so strong, vibrant, and faith-filled, that it collapsed almost overnight as soon as the Church lifted the lid off of the ecclesiastical libido after Vatican II? Could it possibly be because everything had already degenerated into a hollow, forensic legalism which is precisely why the Council fathers knew we needed reform?

In light of what I have written above on the centrality of the crucified Lord as the only proper lens through which we are to read the meaning of Christian existence I can only say that both Liberal integralism and Catholic integralism failed because they both share a false, voluntarist understanding of human freedom. And a freedom thus conceived can only be tamed by worldly mechanisms of power.

Therefore, the only “integralism” I endorse is the regime of the crucified and risen Lord, whose social Kingship is characterized by a civilization of kenotic love, a civilization of service to “the least of these”, and not the Kingship of the coercive bludgeon.  This, and this alone, is the “politics” of the Church – – call it, as William Cavanaugh does, a politics of the Eucharist.  In such an integralism the most “political” thing you can do is to worship the crucified and risen Lord at Mass and to love your neighbor to the point of death and beyond.  This is the only “reform” of the Church that has ever been needed, both in the past, and, most especially, now.  

Christendom is dead, and its misbegotten child, Liberalism, is dying.  What will replace it we do not yet know.  Whether by violent revolution or organic evolution a new order will emerge.  But our response as Catholics must not be – –! – – a nostalgic attempt to bring back the Christendom of the weaponized Christ of coercion.  Our contribution, rather, must be to live and to preach nothing other, as with St. Paul, Christ crucified.  To die to our worldly idolatries of power and pretention, and to put on the baptismal garment of Christ’s descent into the nether regions of darkness in order to retrieve it for the Kingdom.

Finally, I offer here a robust defense of the call of Pope Francis for the Church to go out into the “existential peripheries” in order to shine the light of Christ’s love into the abyss of despair that envelops so much of our world today.  Not without reason did he choose the name Francis – – the most powerful saint in the Church’s history precisely because he was the saint, above all others, who was most radically conformed to the crucified Lord of history.

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