My dialogue with Adam Lucas on Vatican II

March 13, 2023
Defense of Vatican II
A respectful dialogue about Vatican II

Recently I wrote an essay in Catholic World Report that was critical of an essay written by Adam Lucas on Vatican II that appeared in the online version of Crisis magazine. Since that time he and I have engaged in a series of friendly email exchanges that were very fruitful. I agreed to post his response below. It is followed by my response to his response which is not so much a disagreement with him as it is an opportunity for me to elaborate further on why I think Vatican II is still of vital importance.

Here is his response:

Adam Lucas

What does it mean to “Move on” from Vatican II?

In a recent Crisis article, I claimed it was time to move on from Vatican II. In what for me was a surprising turn of events, Dr. Larry Chapp penned a reply in The Catholic World Report challenging me on the specifics of this claim.

Even reading a low-caliber writer like myself seems beneath the profile of Dr. Chapp; but I later learned I had unwittingly entered an exchange between Eric Sammons, the Editor-in-Chief of Crisis, and Dr. Chapp on this very topic a few months prior. (Stay up to date on the literature, kids!)

But if Dr. Chapp can stand to hear my blithering once more, I shall oblige—for it is a very fair challenge. My demand to “move on” from Vatican II is obviously quite similar to Mr. Sammons’ to “retire” the Council, but perhaps in both cases this language has more apparent rhetorical than theological content.

Dr. Chapp rejects the idea that Vatican II was merely a pastoral council that is now completely out of date. I think he is right. But, with Mr. Sammons, I also agree that Vatican II was a pastoral council whose guidelines were largely for an age now past.

How can both be true? Vatican II by its own definitions was a pastoral council, but not merely a pastoral council. It was, rather, a twofold project: primarily with pastoral horizon, but containing a significant doctrinal and theological component.

Doctrinally, the Council concerned itself especially (as Dr. Chapp notes) with the ressourcement theology of the day. Much of this previously contested theology was confirmed by the action of an Ecumenical Council; and, like Augustine and Aquinas before, ressourcement theology ever after maintains the relevancy of truth. We shouldn’t ignore the new theology; at most we can question its emphasis. Ressourcement asked us to read the writings of the Evangelists and the Fathers of the Church. Some academies have us read only the writings of the new theologians and the Fathers of the Council; and I’d wager the new theologians themselves would have us “move on” from this illiberalism.

But moving on from Vatican II primarily concerns the pastoral dimension. This is the aspect of the Council most fought over today, and yet is the most irrelevant. The true controversies of Vatican II—the particular liturgical forms, the ecclesial structure of bishops’ conferences, the shakeup of seminaries and monasteries—these are fundamentally pastoralactions of the Council. They were concrete implementations for a particular time and culture that, by the very fact of their implementation, the Council acknowledged can change with further cultural developments.

The culture has changed; and now these dimensions of Vatican II have lost their relevancy, even if they were perfectly cromulent for their original context. Of course, the same pastoral particulars of Vatican II might still be the most expedient in our new cultural context, but that must be determined by evaluating them on today’s terms, not by simply referencing them as called for by Vatican II.

This is the foundational claim of the desire to move on from Vatican II. The world has seen a momentous shift since the 1960s that makes the concrete decisions of that decade no more relevant today than the computer that put a man on the moon. In the secular world, this is obvious—and thus why no modern-day Democrat runs on LBJ’s platform. But in the Catholic Church, any discussion of further reform or new pastoral action is shackled to Vatican II, especially by Rome. We have got to stop clinging to the reforms of the Second Vatican Council as if they ought to be perpetually helpful and look at current problems with fresh eyes.

But perhaps the Council’s pastoral actions came out of its theological developments, and so should share a similar perpetuity. Indeed, the pastoral actions came from the Council’s theology, and (as said) that theology should be securely defended. The principles of Sacrosanctum Concilium, for instance, should be taken as something perpetually informative, and the designers of the new rites were trying to model these principles in their rubrics. But though the nature of the Church’s authority means that the particular, concrete ways those principles found expression in the 1970 reform must be really compatible with the principles, they are not their unique possible expression. The principle of active participation, for example, found different expression among the Latin and Eastern Rites; and has found different expression within the Latin Rite’s own progress from the Tridentine to the current liturgy. The pastoral particulars are abstracted from the theological axioms, but do not share the same permanence.

To move on from Vatican II, then, is to open the windows on our pastoral practices. It’s being willing to examine the signs of the times and adapt the perpetual truth, goodness, and beauty of the Church to meet the current needs. It’s a cry to allow, ironically, the same principles that created Vatican II in the first-place their operation in the generations the have now inherited the Council. It’s not to champion the much-abused “spirit of Vatican II” against the Church, but to awaken to the authentic “spirit of Vatican II”—who upon closer examination must be the Holy Spirit, bringing up from the storeroom both the old and the new.  

And here is my response:

Larry Chapp

I want to begin my response by first thanking Mr. Lucas for a series of friendly email exchanges after I posted my critical essay in Catholic World Report which was critical of his essay on Vatican II in Crisis. It would have been easy for him to react to my post defensively and negatively, but instead he chose the path of positive engagement and for that I am deeply grateful.  I would also like to thank my friend Mike Aquilina who had read my CWR essay and sent me an email lauding Mr. Lucas and encouraged me to reach out to him.  Since that time we have come to realize that we agree on far more than we disagree and therefore I was happy to post his response to my essay here on my blog. I agree with most of what he says and only have a few quibbles which I note below in my response to his response. Most of my comments below are not directed at Mr. Lucas, but are instead more general reflections on the topic at hand.

One of the things that came out of our email exchange was that Mr. Lucas never intended his essay in Crisis to be taken as some kind of deep theological analysis of the council.  He intended for it to be a bit cheeky and humorous – hence the “Boomer” reference in the title – and was making more of a sociological point rather than a theological one.  I can relate to this and sympathize since in my own writing I attempt quite often to be humorous as well, and sometimes that can lead to misunderstandings.  Indeed, the title of my essay in CWR which was given to it by my editor (but to which I agreed at the time 100%) was an attempt at being equally humorous by counteracting his use of the word “Boomer” with my use of “Millennial”.  

This led many to think we were engaged in a “generational” argument which in reality we were not.  Humor can often backfire and I think in both of our essay titles it did.  Because it caused people to ignore the substance of what each of us was claiming which was not really generational but was rather a discussion of just how “time-bound” Vatican II really is.  I think here is where we differ just a bit, although as you will see, not by much.  I agree with about 95% of what he says in his response but I do want to take this opportunity to discuss the issue further in the interests of clarity and charitable conversation.  

One of the persistent errors associated with analysis of the council is the often repeated claim that the council was, by its own definition, a “pastoral” one.  And usually when people cite this what they tend to mean is that it was “merely” a pastoral council and therefore it is okay to dissent from it or to ignore it since pastoral needs are prudential and time bound. To his credit, Mr. Lucas does not fall into this latter tendency and rightly affirms, in my view, that one of the pastoral aims of the council was precisely the theological development of various ecclesial doctrines.  And the preferred theology of the council for doing this was what has come to be known as “ressourcement” theology.

It is true that the council issued no new dogmas or canons and did not declare any anathemas.  Nevertheless, the precise reason why it did not engage in any of those things was in order to “clear the decks” so to speak in order to focus on various doctrinal developments of varying levels of authority.  And it was this development of doctrine in matters relating to Revelation (Dei verbum), ecclesiology and soteriology (Lumen gentium), liturgy (Sacrosanctum concilium), Ecumenism and inter-religious dialogue (Nostra aetate), religious freedom (Dignitatis humanae), and theological anthropology (Gaudium et spes), that constituted the true “pastoral” work of the council.  Therefore, it is misleading in very superficial ways (and Mr. Lucas is not who I have in mind here) to imply that the council did nothing that was magisterially “binding” on us since it was a merely “pastoral” council.  Because in this case the pastoral intent coincides with the theological development of doctrine.  In many ways Vatican II was a “theologian’s council”, written primarily by theological periti and for the broader theological world.  This is both its strength and its weakness.  As Joseph Ratzinger noted years later, they were too focused on “getting the theology right” and not focused enough on more practical pastoral concerns. Nevertheless, “getting the theology right” was also important since it was precisely a reform of theology that the council fathers viewed as their most immediate “pastoral” project for meeting the challenge of modernity.

I will cite two examples here to make this point.  First, in order for the Church to develop a better relationship with Judaism – especially in light of the holocaust which took place in a putatively “Christian” Germany – the Church needed to develop her theological understanding of the relationship between Judaism and the Church, as well as the relationship between the Old and New Covenants.  And this was achieved not just in Nostra aetate, but also in Dei verbum and Lumen gentium.  The older supersessionist theology, though rightly affirming the absolute centrality of Christ and the Church for salvation, was not sophisticated enough and failed to nuance the unique relationship between the Church and Judaism in a manner that differs from the Church’s relationship with other religions.  Furthermore, the older theology had been misused by lesser minds in often murderous ways in order to justify horrific persecutions of Jews on the local level.  Thus, a development of doctrine on the matter of the relation between the Church and Judaism had direct pastoral applications.  

A second example has to do with the role of bishops and their relative authority vis-à-vis the pope.  There was a pastoral need to make the bishops stronger within their own dioceses but in order to do so the council had to develop the theology of the episcopacy beyond that of a mere “branch office manager” of “papal Inc.”  And this meant a theological development of the three munera (functions) of the bishop to teach, sanctify and govern. Previous to the council only one of those (sanctify) accrued to a bishop by divine right as the fruit of their ordination to the episcopacy.  The other two were viewed as functions that were delegated to the bishop by papal decree. Vatican II changed this and reverted to the older and more traditional teaching that the bishop had all three by divine right and not papal decree.  This then is the famous doctrine of “collegiality” put forward by the council and it is yet another example of a theological development of doctrine that was engaged in for specifically pastoral purposes. And in this case the pastoral purpose was to remedy the hypertrophy of papal power that had developed in the Church since Vatican I.  

I know that Mr. Lucas agrees with all of this but it bears repeating since many continue to spread the false idea that the pastoral nature of the council means that it did nothing binding doctrinally.  But perhaps this is all understandable since the great flaw of the council (at least in my view) is that it did not provide us with the hermeneutical key for deciphering all of this.  In defense of the council fathers they probably never imagined that they needed to provide such a key since they scarcely seemed to have appreciated the quietly latent apostasy of the theological guild, and even to the extent that they did have some inkling of a few residual “modernists”, probably thought that it was a problem easily solved by ecclesial authority.  We simply must remember the context of the times and the thought of a widespread, universal, and almost immediate collapse of Church authority and culture would have seemed the wildest of fantasies to them.

What I am trying to forestall here is the notion that because the council fathers did not provide us with an explicit hermeneutical key for the theology it was proposing that it means that there wasn’t one and the council is just a hodge-podge of theological yackity-yack and gobbledygook with no defining core set of ideas and that it is anyone’s guess as to what it all means.  Because the best scholarship on the council makes it clear, through a thorough and painstaking analysis of the evolution of the various schemata and precisely why they evolved theologically just as they did, and with an analysis of the various papal interventions, as well as the floor speeches by council fathers, and their final votes, that the “winners” at the council were the ressourcement theologians like de Lubac and Ratzinger.  It becomes clear that the documents are the product of a combination of Thomism and its retrieval through the lens of the fathers and scripture.  The “winners” were not the neo-scholastics nor the progressives, that much is clear, and it took the post-conciliar co-optation of the council by the progressives in the theological guild to eclipse and out maneuver the ressourcement theologians.

And how did the progressives achieve this “end-run” around the ressourcement thinkers and out flank them in the post-conciliar era? By claiming that the actual documents of Vatican II did not matter as texts with a specific theological context and trajectory.  That the texts were outdated as soon as they were promulgated since the processes of “change” that they initiated transcended the actual texts in the very act of their promulgation.  In other words, it did not matter what the texts really intended. What mattered was the council as a dynamical “event” that set in motion a new “process” for radical change.  This “council as dynamical event” approach led to an open affirmation that the council represented a deep rupture with all that came before and that it had ushered in a radically new era where the Church had a unique opportunity to hit the “reset” button.  This was then wedded to vague notions of the conciliar “people of God” motif now transposed into the sociological language of modern egalitarian democratic impulses and ascribed this action as the very movement of the Holy Spirit who is constantly “surprising” us with “new things”.  Thus, to oppose this dynamical process set in motion by the council is to read the documents like a Catholic fundamentalist and to thus stand in “rigid” pharisaical opposition to the wonderful revolution being ushered in by the Holy Spirit.  

And of course, the reason why the progressives were successful in this project of co-optation and distortion was that they had the cultural revolution of the sixties and seventies on their side and the full weight of the emerging colossus that was television culture and its great universalizing of the values of secular, bourgeois modernity.  The post-conciliar progressives had The Pill and Norman Lear on their side, as well as the vast majority of folks in the theological guild who seemed to have collectively lost their minds and their faith in the greatest dereliction of vocational duty in the history of the Church.  

And please do not tell me that this is just a nice “spin” buy a ressourcement theologian (me) intent on saving the council at all costs and of whitewashing ressourcement thinkers of all responsibility for what came after. Because within a very few short years after the council you see Catholic intellectuals like de Lubac, Ratzinger, Balthasar, von Hildebrand, Bouyer, and Maritain ringing the alarm that what was going on in the post-conciliar chaos was absolutely not what the council had supported. And they had good reasons for saying that. And once again my point is a simple one. Namely, that the post-conciliar debates over the council do not constitute proof that the council was simply too confusing and all over the map.  And that therefore “who is to say?” what it all really meant and so let’s just move on. My claim is that the council was deliberately and maliciously co-opted – I would say even demonically so – and that it is not hard to see that this is true if one will but look.  In other words, the council was really not that confusing as to its project and it now only seems so because of deliberate acts of hermeneutical sabotage.  I think that matters.

In this regard I agree with the Dominican theologian Aidan Nichols in his wonderful little book “Conciliar Octet” where he discusses the need for the faithful remnants in the theological guild to step up to the plate in order to provide the magisterium with a set of workable tools for combatting nonsense.  He says the following:

A task of discrimination is evidently recommended. In this context, Serafino Lanzetta makes a plea for the reintroduction of the vocabulary of ‘theological notes’ which help identify the variable degree of authority claimed by some proposition, and the corresponding ‘censures’ which indicate the equally variable gravity attached to some proposition’s rejection.  It is a work Roman Catholic theologians should be doing now for the sake of the future of their tradition, after the hiatus caused by the pontificate of Pope Francis with its sponsorship of ‘paradigm shifts’, classic expression as this is of a ‘hermeneutic of discontinuity and rupture. … The Second Vatican Council can be defended against the charge that it … represents such a rupture. … But first there must be the will to defend it, and not, rather, to rejoice in ecclesial chaos after the manner of the demons of Hell. (pp. 16-17)

Were there some purely time-bound pastoral teachings of the council that are now out of date? Absolutely.  I think the liturgical reform was needed but what we got was a hot mess. My view is that therefore we need to return to the core theological and doctrinal elements of Sacrosanctum concilium in order to launch a genuine reform of the reform, and to ignore those elements of Sacrosanctum that are primarily concerned with the shoddy pastoral liturgical practices of that time and the shallow formalism of so many eucharistic celebrations of that era.  Those days are long gone, and what we need now is a return to transcendence, mysticism, reverence, and the mystery of the presence of God.  I would also point to the reforms of the religious orders which were definitely needed but which were left so open-ended by the council in order not to micromanage things on the local level that it allowed for the effective destruction of religious life.  This too needs to be ignored in favor of a thorough-going renewal of religious life along more traditional monastic/mendicant lines.

These are not insignificant matters and I do not mean at all to trivialize them. Especially with regard to the liturgy.  But the point is that even here there are still deep reservoirs of conciliar theology that can guide us in the process of updating these pastoral provisions that can help us to avoid the traditionalist temptation of saying “to hell with it, let’s just bring back the TLM and Lagrange”.  Because the vast majority of Catholics do not want the TLM.  I am sorry but they don’t.  And please do not point (and once again I am just riffing now here and not at all implicating Mr. Lucas) at the large numbers of people who fill TLM masses.  It is a “niche market” filling a niche need and thus the few and far between TLM celebrations are indeed well attended.  And I think they should be allowed to continue which is why I oppose Traditionis.  But we need better options than a binary choice between the elimination of the Novus Ordo and returning to the TLM everywhere – which is not wanted by most – and the typical Novus Ordo liturgies which seem designed to bore most people.  I would hold out the Ordinariate liturgy as a model here.  But the point is that even here Vatican II is not only not irrelevant, but profoundly helpful. It simply cannot be the case that our choices are between Father Altman and Father James Martin.

But beyond all of this, and returning to the point being made by Father Aidan Nichols, as well as my earlier analysis of post-conciliar rupture, the fact is that the issues that framed the council are still with us, only now on steroids, and the post-conciliar turmoil caused by the proponents of dynamical rupture have returned with a vengeance through their re-empowerment by Pope Francis.  The supporters of the “synodality” who are now peddling the “listening sessions” as great movements of the Holy Spirit are explicitly invoking once again the image of the council as an “event” that created a new dynamical process that is creatively free to reinvent all of Catholicism in the image and likeness of Western Liberal values.  In this regard it is instructive to see papal sycophants like Austin Ivereigh speak of Vatican II as only now being implemented properly. You have all seen this narrative right? The narrative of the “interrupted” council.  That the council created an event-horizon dynamic that was squashed by the authoritarian papacies of John Paul and Benedict, with their retrograde focus on the actual documents and on doctrines, but which is now (finally!) being implemented as a democratic, grassroots, Spirit-led, process of revolutionary change by Pope Francis.  

Therefore, like it or not, the best way to counteract this apostasy is to double-down on the council as a theological project with texts that mean something specific and which stand in direct contradiction to the trajectory of the current papacy.  Only in so doing can we bust the myth that this pope is finally the pope of the council and that he is finally implementing its deepest wishes.  We might be exhausted by this debate (I know I am), but I am sure Athanasius too was “exhausted” with the topic of Nicaea and yet pressed-on nevertheless because he understood what was at stake.  And if we choose just to ignore the council out of this exhaustion then we are effectively giving the council to the progressives. And to where then would we turn?  Back to the neo-scholastics?  And if you say that we should return to all of the best of the pre-conciliar theology – ressourcement theologians and neo-scholastics together – I am fine with that so long as you realize that in so doing you are essentially embracing the conciliar project. So why not make this a multi-front assault on the progressives? Why not use all of the pre-conciliar theology, and the council documents themselves, and the massive body of teachings left by JPII, to form a new intellectual matrix that is vastly superior to anything in the progressive arsenal? This is not a zero sum game and we have the advantage since our theological resources vastly outstrip those of our adversaries.  Let’s use them.

It is true that the “average Catholic” cares not one wit for any of this.  But I do not care one wit for such meaningless observations.  Because the average Catholic probably did not understand Nicaea or Constantinople or Ephesus or Chalcedon either.  Do you think the average denizens of late Roman antiquity understood what was at stake in the christological and trinitarian debates? Do you think the average Catholic gave two figs for what was going on over twenty years at the Council of Trent? And while we are at it, we must remember that it took almost a century for all of Trent’s reforms to be implemented, and the full reception of the early christological councils took even longer after much turmoil and indeed even violence.  So can we please retire the argument that since today’s Catholics do not give a hoot for Vatican II that it means we should just forget about it? Because like it or not, the council was important, did important things, said important things and actually stood for a theological project that is not hard to discern.  

Once again, none of this is directed at Mr. Lucas.  He initiated the topic and I am just running with it.  But I do want to direct my last words at something he said.  It really is my only major point of disagreement with him, but even here it is a small matter.  

He mentions briefly that we need to move beyond the “illiberalism” of reading only the ressourcement thinkers themselves. After all, did not these thinkers call on us to go back to the sources? So why do we fixate on these theologians and not the sources to which they pointed?  I think this is a straw man argument on many levels.  First, the ressourcement thinkers left us a vast body of theological writings that we are still in the process of retrieving.  And many of their writings have not even yet been properly translated. Therefore, it is a bit hasty and smacks of a certain animosity toward them to say, even before their thought has been fully retrieved and exposited, that it is time to move on from them.  Why?  Why can’t we retrieve their thought AND go back to the sources they point us toward?  Is this a zero sum game?

Second, the fact is there are many young ressourcement theologians out there who are chewing gum and walking at the same time and who are retrieving the ressourcement thinkers even as they go back to the fathers as well.  I am thinking of great theologians like Jordan Daniel Wood whose work on Maximus the Confessor is astoundingly profound.  Or of Jonathan Ciraulo who has scoped out a beautiful sacramental theology grounded in Balthasar and the fathers.  I could go on and on.  There is Jennifer Newsome Martin at Notre Dame who has written a masterful text on Balthasar and his relationship with Russian theologians with deep patristic leanings. Therefore, the claim that those of us in the ressourcement camp do nothing but sit around reading and rereading our heroes (and you could do worse!) is empirically false.  The fact is, the best and the brightest young theologians out there are in the ressourcement/Communio camp. And we would do well to follow their lead.  

Third, perhaps this criticism of ressourcement thinkers for reading only the great leaders of the movement like Balthasar, Bouyer, de Lubac, Danielou and so on, could also be applied to Thomists?  I mean, why do we never here criticism of Thomists for only paying attention to St. Thomas? Did not St. Thomas himself point us to an innovative theological method of bringing together creatively the insights of Aristotle with the fathers, Augustine and so on? Why then this fixation on Thomas rather than on the “return to the sources” he initiated?  I do not want to beat this point to death but it is important.  Critics of ressourcement thinkers never seem to apply those same criticisms to the old fashioned Thomists.  But perhaps, for the sake of consistency, they should.  

The fact is once great theologians enter into the tradition it is thoroughly legitimate to go back over their writings again and again and again.  Because we are not talking about writings that are like recipes in a cookbook which, once memorized, are no longer needed.  Or the blueprints in a technical journal that point to very specific and concrete empirical realities.  The great theologians are writing on topics that require wisdom, contemplation, prayer and an ever-deepening arc of understanding.  This is why the Church has “doctors of the Church”.  We are to go back to them over and over as trustworthy guides.  Therefore, I will continue to read people like Balthasar and Bouyer until the day I breathe my last and will count myself most fortunate to have had the opportunity to spend my adult life doing so.  

I would like to thank Mr. Lucas for this wonderful exchange of views!  I hope they can continue into the future.  He is a wonderful young theologian and I hope that his work prospers.

Dorothy Day, pray for us.

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