The Hermeneutics of Kenosis. Part Two: Quo Vadis? Error and Truth in the Church
“Important to remember is that the term ‘church teaching’ is analogical rather than univocal. Ecclesial teaching is proposed with varying levels of authority and certitude. Karl Rahner, for example, affirms that the Catholic church may very well proclaim a dogma, a teaching that is irreformable … ‘But it … can also teach in such a way that a theological doctrine is put forward as “authentic” … and yet not ultimately as binding, and thus the question remains open … as to whether this teaching may not turn out later to be in need of completion or even to be erroneous.”
(Thomas Guarino, “The Disputed Teachings of Vatican II”, 41. Quote from Rahner is in: ”Theological Investigations,” Vol. 18, 56-57.)
Part One: The problem: The perniciousness of the myth of the unerring Church.
After my last blog post on the hermeneutics of kenosis I received criticism from some readers who were “uncomfortable” with the fact that I stated that the Church, in the past, has occasionally authoritatively taught things that were in error. I was told by some that this was a dangerous thing to say since it undermined the authority of the magisterium and would erode confidence in its teaching function for ordinary believers. I was told that this would open the door to a dangerous relativism where “anything goes” and would embolden folks who want the Church to change its teachings on such things as homosexuality, contraception, and women’s ordination. Better to say, I was told, that certain Church teachings were “imperfect” or “lacking in nuance” or “in need of slight modification,” rather than to say, bluntly, that they were in error. Many other readers who are converts to Catholicism emailed me privately to say that my words had undermined their faith since they had left Protestantism (or secular relativism) precisely because they saw in the Church a “rock” of unerring, unchanging, infallible truth. And yet here I was, a putatively “orthodox” theologian, telling them that the Church can be in error on some things. They see the Church as an oasis of certitude in a culture awash in indifferentism, relativism, and nihilism, and my words, apparently, have now triggered some of them into an existential crisis. Finally, as several readers told me, a blog post such as my last one was just the kind of drivel that was driving folks like them into traditionalism since they can no longer accept the “Vatican II Church,” I defend, and so on.
In what follows I will attempt to answer these criticisms and in so doing further unpack what I mean by the hermeneutics of kenosis. The first criticism - - that I should not say that the Church has taught error since it can undermine confidence in the magisterium - - certainly has a point with regard to the psychology of religious doubt, and I certainly do not want to undermine confidence in the magisterium. However, honesty demands that the truth be told no matter how it might affect the faith of some in the authority of the Church, because a faith that is built on illusions, on an ignorance of history, and on false ecclesial ideologies of a Church that can never err, is going to fail eventually since it will not be able to bear the weight of the truth as it presses in upon them with ever greater existential insistence. And the truth is, as I will show in more detail in part two, the Church has authoritatively taught things in the past which the Church herself now says were erroneous.
But this is why so many have run off to the kooky-town of the sedevacantist fantasy land, since they think that it is the modern Church - - “the Vatican II Church” - - that has erred and since it has erred, it cannot be the true Church, and is a false Church, with a false anti-pope - - a situation predicted by many as the time of the “Great Apostasy.” Their claim is that the Church’s pre-conciliar magisterium has never erred in any matter of significance, and is the “true magisterium,” whereas the modern “magisterium,” having taught error, is not really any longer the magisterium. Our hermeneutical problem is thus solved. QED.
But who decides when and where the modern magisterium has taught error and thus has forfeited its status as the magisterium? Apparently, there are some on the internet who serve that function. Taylor Marshall, for example, though not “officially” a sedevacantist, has built an entire alternate CDF in his basement, with Archbishop Vigano as its prefect. You can even, for a fee of course, get all of Marshall’s “Team Vigano” merchandise, just like the vendors outside of Saint Peter’s hawking bobble-head popes. Many traditionalists like Marshall say that they are not sedevacantists, but then go on to accuse Pope Francis of being a material and formal heretic (does this not make him an antipope?); to reject Vatican II root and branch since it was merely a “pastoral” Council anyway (Dwight Schrute moment: “False. It had dogmatic constitutions.”); to reject the Novus Ordo as an ersatz Freemason concoction specifically designed to destroy the faith (which one is not obliged to attend even on Sundays); and to denigrate the canonizations of the post-conciliar popes as non-infallible exercises in quasi-idolatry. Patrick Coffin now offers the via media of “Benny-vacantism” which is the view that Francis is a false Pope because Benedict’s resignation was invalid and he is still the real pope. But of course, as soon as Pope Benedict dies Coffin will be a sedevacantist because an invalid conclave will remain so. However, I have to say in their defense that the only rad trads I respect are the sedevacantist or “Benny-vacantist” zealots because at least their insanity is fueled by the inner logic of their premises. In fact, they have been driven mad by the monomaniacal logic of their adherence to the myth of the unerring Church. At least they, in their weird underground lair of magma-fueled ecclesial conspiracy theories, can point to a linear and consistent line of thinking. Seen in this light, most of the putatively more “moderate” rad trads are just sedevacantists without the latter’s cojones to follow the logic of their yellow brick road all the way to Oz.
All of these folks are the victims of a mythology that says if the Church can be shown to have erred in some things, then perhaps it has erred in many things, or even in all things. Or, that if it has erred, then it must by definition then be a false Church. This is a pernicious falsehood in itself and this falsehood has been perpetuated, unfortunately, by centuries of Catholic apologetics right up until the present moment. However, as I view the situation, it is precisely the grand mythology of “fortress Catholicism” as this rock of completely unerring teachings in all things that is the true danger to the faith since once this view is adopted one is painted into a theologically untenable corner. It reminds me of my teenage years as a biblical literalist arguing with my skeptical friends who pointed out to me that in the Old Testament God commanded the Israelites to commit genocide, which I promptly applauded as altogether proper since God can command whatever he wants, whereupon it becomes by definition, “right.” It would seem that proving that the Bible contained no problematical elements was more important to me than turning God into a Genghis Khan in the sky . And the rad trads do the same as they defend things like the Church having once taught that it is okay to burn heretics at the stake, on the grounds that the Church cannot err so there must be truth in such practices. Therefore, it is more important to them to defend the inerrancy of the Church than the fact that they have just approved of ecclesial murder rackets run by the bishops.
But this is also precisely the corner that many “conservative” Catholics are in as well as they seek to avoid the extremes of progressivism and radical traditionalism by carving out a safe middle path that says that the Church, if it has erred, has done so only in matters of prudential judgement where errors of fact and analysis may have taken place. For example, they will say, that the Church did indeed once teach that it was not only allowable, but sometimes necessary, to burn heretics at the stake. But that was only because it erroneously thought that such things were necessary for the preservation of Christian civilization. Or, that the Church did indeed once teach that there was no such thing as a basic human right, grounded in human dignity, for religious conscience freedoms, but that this was not really an attack on religious freedom but was merely a political statement about the evils of Liberalism. The list goes on and on but I would be remiss if I did not also mention the Church’s ambiguous stance toward slavery, her massa damnata views on the numbers of the “saved” (pretty much just Catholics), her scorched-earth and harshly dialectical rejection of all non-Catholic religions as simply “false” and mostly idolatrous. In all of these cases the conservative apologist seeks to show how the Church never taught serious error in faith and morals, but only made mistakes in judgment and with some facts, and that the contemporary magisterium is now “developing” these doctrines in full material continuity with the past. Our hermeneutical problem is solved. QED.
I started this blog to be blunt and to speak my mind and I will continue to do so. And in that spirit I can do no other than to point out that the cold hard fact is this: The Church, in some infrequent occasions, has indeed taught things that were in error in matters of faith and morals, and it does nobody any good to pretend that it is otherwise. Because our Church and our world are in a deep spiritual crisis and the only evangelization that will pass muster is one that is profoundly, even brutally, existentially honest and authentic. And the only truly authentic thing that the Church possesses is Christ and everything she does and everything she teaches is only as authentic as that measuring stick. Therefore, our evangelization will fail if we continue to cling to a kind of conservative apologetics that seeks to cover the Church with the patina of a magisterial consistency which does not exist in the smooth and completely organic way that they portray it. The world sees such apologetical strategies as a “royal court theology” of inauthentic propaganda and its only value is that it does serve as a life ring for some as they bob around in the waters of modernity. But its effects do not last and those who initially found it refreshing soon find it empty as it equips them with no deep theological roots and no intellectual nuance to help them negotiate a modus vivendi between their faith in the Church’s indefectibility and her manifest failures, and in some cases, her errors.
The American Catholic bishops are masters of this conservative narrative of total material continuity. But it is a distorting falsehood that is destroying the Church and her authenticity because it smacks of an infantilized Peter Pan desire to “play” at “being Church,” the insouciance of which toward truth smacks of cosplaying some kind of religious dress up game for superficially pious consumerist suburbanites. They simply cannot have a Church that once taught some errors here and there since this might lead people to start doing naughty things with their naughty bits in defiance of Church teaching. We are closing parishes in droves. We are hemorrhaging Catholics, especially the young, at an alarming rate. We have very few vocations to the priesthood. Every day is a new headline about father so-and-so and his wayward zipper around little kids and the bishops who were their child rape enablers. But by all means let us never admit that for some reason the Church seems to lack authenticity in the eyes of the world - - heck in the eyes of Catholics too. And that is because the Church is viewed as fundamentally dishonest with a dishonest message of airbrushed pieties that are viewed as just a kind of “Jesus propaganda” from a moribund group of middle management bureaucrats, who want you to know how much they care. But real, brutal, raw, self-honesty about the Church’s past errors, combined with an equally prophetic and powerful resolve to dissolve those errors in an act of acidic Christological contrition and repentance? Not. Because that would also dissolve the narrative of total material continuity in all things, which, once so dissolved, might actually require of us to stop the cosplaying of Whig Thomist story hour. Who knows? Maybe one day we can get the bishops to deny communion to any Catholic politician who continues to vote to maintain our nuclear arsenal (hint: that would be all of them.)
Part Two: Unmasking the myth
Let us look at a few examples of Church teachings which are now viewed as having erred, at least in part. First, in his strongly worded condemnation of the errors of Martin Luther in the papal bull Exsurge Domine(1520), Pope Leo X listed among the condemnable errors the notion that the Church should not burn obstinate heretics at the stake. And by the way, in so doing he was merely following previous conciliar precedent, such as from the Council of Constance which, in its condemnation of John Hus, advised that he be turned over to the civil authorities in order to be punished, which in his case involved being burnt at the stake. And lest one think that Pope Leo X was just tossing out private ideas of his own, Exsurge Domine makes the following statement regarding the authority it was claiming:
“With the advice and consent of these our venerable brothers, with mature deliberation on each and every one of the above theses, and by the authority of almighty God, the blessed Apostles Peter and Paul, and our own authority, we condemn, reprobate, and reject completely each of these theses or errors as either heretical, scandalous, false, offensive to pious ears or seductive of simple minds, and against Catholic truth. By listing them, we decree and declare that all the faithful of both sexes must regard them as condemned, reprobated, and rejected . . . We restrain all in the virtue of holy obedience and under the penalty of an automatic major excommunication....”
There is no other way to twist Leo’s condemnation of these theses into something they are not. They constituted an official and authoritative act of the papal magisterium. And despite the fact that the papal bull is almost completely correct in what it condemns, the fact remains that among the things condemned as “contrary to Catholic truth” was the affirmation by Luther that it is wrong to burn heretics at the stake. And unless one wants to take up the bestial notion that it is indeed okay to burn heretics at the stake, then there can be no other conclusion than that the Church taught error in this matter in both papal and conciliar statements. And if you do want to say that it is okay to burn heretics at the stake, I really have nothing more to say to you other than to say that you are wrong. You are as wrong now as the Church was wrong then.
Burning heretics at the stake is about as far from the cruciform and kenotic example of our Lord as you can get, and it is precisely this moral and spiritual incongruity with the Gospel - - an incongruity rooted in a praxis of coercive and bloody violence - - that led to modernity’s rejection of the Church as a viable source for the spiritual glue needed to hold society together peacefully. The Church came to be viewed as the enemy of conscience, the enemy of freedom, and the enemy, tragically, of charity itself. In seeking to root-out heresy via burnings, the Church ended up torching herself, and rightly so, since such practices constituted a deep repudiation of her own christological identity. And I do not care if such practices have been greatly exaggerated by the Church’s enemies and inflated into a grand narrative of the evils of Catholicism for propagandistic purposes. Because the fact remains that she did indeed sanction such practices and she did indeed carry them out, no matter how “infrequent” they were. If you beat your wife only “occasionally” and only when “she deserved it,” it does not change the fact that you are indeed a wife beater. And when you are finally exposed as such it is a stigma you will bear forever, just as the Church continues to this day to bear the stigma of being the Church of the “Inquisition” complete with satirical spoofs from Monty Python. And it also does no good to say, as some do, “well, those were just the times back then” since in theory the reason why we have a magisterium is precisely so the Church does not succumb to “the times.”
The second example is far less egregious than the first, but does nevertheless give us another example of the Church teaching something that she herself later reverses. I am speaking of the issue of religious freedom, which I have blogged on before. With the rise of modern democracy and the political order known as “Liberalism” many nineteenth and early twentieth century popes condemned the concept of religious freedom found in such political arrangements. And they were right to do so since the concept of freedom contained within Liberalism is indeed contrary to both faith and reason. However, in so doing they engaged in a denigration of the rights of religious conscience to the point of denying such rights altogether. For example, Gregory XVI in Mirari vos (1832) states: “This shameful font of indifferentism gives rise to the absurd and erroneous proposition which claims that liberty of conscience must be maintained for everyone. It spreads ruin in sacred and civil affairs, though some repeat over and over again with the greatest impudence that some advantage accrues to religion from it.” Pius IX, Leo XIII, and Pius X all said similar things and made similar claims. They all held that the specter of religious indifferentism is reason enough to reject religious freedom as a right of conscience that accrues to all.
The issue here is only partly related to the legitimacy of confessional states and to the dangers posed by religious indifferentism if the importance of confessional states is diminished. Those are both realities that even Dignitatis Humanae acknowledges are legitimate concerns which is why the text specifically states that the traditional teaching on the value of confessional states remains intact, even if it clearly relegates them to a very low rung on the hierarchy of doctrinal truths. My concern here is with the fact that not only are the popes rightly worried about indifferentism and relativism, but they are also, sadly, at pains to condemn the very notion of the rights of religious conscience as the source of the problem. Pope Gregory refers to the concept of the universal rights of religious conscience as “absurd” in itself and “erroneous.” Yes, he explicitly identifies these so-called “rights” as pernicious because they lead to indifferentism, but if they are rights in the proper sense as something that accrues to all human beings in virtue of their dignity as creatures made in God’s image, then the proper response would be to affirm those rights and the dignity that undergirds them even as religious indifferentism is condemned. The Church would never, for example, deny the unborn the right to life, as even many “Catholics” today do, on the grounds that to affirm such rights is to create unfavorable social conditions for women. In other words, one does not deny someone a fundamental right simply because the affirmation of such rights might lead to other difficulties. The government has the legitimate concern, for example, of bringing criminals to justice for the sake of the common good, but they are not free to pursue that goal by trampling on the basic rights of its citizens through the development of repressive police state tactics.
Likewise, papal denials of the rights of religious conscience on the grounds that granting such rights might lead to negative social consequences is itself an error on two fronts. First, it is in error to deny such rights simply out of a concern for other problems that might arise, and second, in so doing, the popes are in error in not acknowledging that such rights even exist. In other words, I am not buying the typical argument made by the defenders of the “Church never errs” school of thought that such papal condemnations are not really a denial of the rights of religious conscience, but are instead merely teachings against Liberalism. The two issues are indeed tied closely together by the popes in question, but this does not change the fact that they explicitly deny that such rights exist in the first place and claim that such rights are absurd and erroneous, which is precisely why they think Liberalism is also wrong. The popes are not saying that religious freedom is wrong because it can be misused by Liberalism. Rather, they are saying Liberalism is wrong to see religious freedom as a basic right in the first place, which is why it goes off the rails into religious indifferentism.
Finally therefore, one cannot escape the fact that Dignitatis Humanae did indeed “reverse” such papal condemnations of the rights of religious conscience and did affirm the opposite. Namely, that human dignity demands such rights be affirmed and therefore that mere “toleration of religious error for the common peace” does not go far enough, and this is precisely why Archbishop Lefebvre and others rejected the teaching of Dignitatis. He and those who were allied with him saw quite clearly that Dignitatis was teaching that the previous papal denials of the rights of religious conscience were in error. Where Lefebvre erred was in viewing such previous papal condemnations of religious freedom as constitutive of the entirety of the tradition and that those condemnations were in some way dogmatic markers of that tradition which could not be reversed. The truth is that in reversing previous papal teaching Dignitatis is not simply making up new doctrines out of whole cloth, which would be a permutatio of doctrine, but is appealing instead to deeper strands of the tradition, indeed more ancient strands, and using those elements of the tradition to critique the more recent distortions of that tradition. It is locating a deeper truth, one much higher up on the hierarchy of doctrinal truths, in order to correct erroneous dislocations of the hierarchy of truth that had crept into the Church’s teaching over time.
Ironically, what the Council is saying to people like Lefebvre is that they are not nearly traditional enough and that what they mistake for “dogmatic, unchanging tradition” is in reality nothing of the sort and is instead the peculiar ossification and subsequent distortion of the tradition in the post Tridentine Church’s defensive posture of scorched-earth opposition to both Protestantism and the Enlightenment, which included the rise of Liberalism. And as is often the case when one adopts a purely defensive and reactionary posture against ideas thought to be nothing but error factories, the reaction begins to take on the coloration and formal outlines of that against which one is reacting. Thus, the neo-scholasticism that is born in this era, and the Church teachings which flowed from it, bore the copyrighted watermark of the very disincarnate and desiccated rationalism and empiricism against which they were reacting. Lefebvre had the post Tridentine form and teaching of the Church on his side. But the Council fathers, in overwhelmingly approving Dignitatis, were sending a clear message of a “reversal of course” and, along with the entirety of Vatican II, was sending the further message that the era of reactionary sledgehammers was over, and the era of fuller and more honest retrieval of tradition had begun.
In the foregoing analysis of religious freedom I have been following the scholarly critique by Thomas Guarino in his marvelous book, “The Disputed Teachings of Vatican II.” I cannot emphasize enough how important I think that text is. And so I will cite two more examples, drawn from his book, of how Vatican II reversed previous teachings of the ordinary magisterium. First, there is the issue of the proper theological source of the three munera of sanctifying, teaching, and governing, that are the proper functions of every bishop. But previous to Vatican II it was the commonplace teaching of the post-Tridentine Church that although the power of sanctifying the faithful comes with episcopal consecration, the functions of teaching and governing do not. Those powers, according to the pre-conciliar teaching, come directly from the Pope who grants them to each bishop upon his consecration. Pius XII makes this explicitly clear in his encyclical Mystici Corporis where he says episcopal jurisdictional authority comes directly from the Pope. But Vatican II in Lumen Gentium, harkening back to a much older tradition and practice in the Church, says the exact opposite. As Guarino notes, quoting Claude Troisfontaines: “On this point, Vatican II ‘abandons the position of Pius XII in order to restore a more traditional position: episcopal consecration confers not simply the power of sanctifying, but also the power of teaching and of governing.’” (Guarino, 65) And of course, this issue also bears directly on the “communion ecclesiology” developed by Vatican II and its inclusion of a far more expansive view of episcopal “collegiality,” which was itself a supplementation and modification of the exaggerated sense of papal authority that had entered into the Church following Vatican I, which was prematurely ended before it could deal with the issue of collegiality itself.
Finally, in the debates over the relationship between scripture and tradition, the Council, in Dei Verbum, rejects the idea that had become very commonplace in the manualistic tradition that tradition and scripture represent distinct and independent sources of Revelation. This too represented a reversal by Vatican II of elements of a more recent tradition in the name of restoring a more authentic and ancient tradition. Christ himself is Revelation as such and it comes to us in various mediations - - scripture, sacrament, tradition, etc. - - all of which are intertwined with one another and implicated in one another. And the scriptural mediation is the preeminent one as the inspired and privileged “witness” to the primary Revelation which is Christ. Tradition, though not reducible to scripture, is nevertheless constitutively oriented to it as the authoritative “witness” to the scriptural witness. And it forms the only proper “home” or binding address for scripture in order for scripture to be most itself as the Church’s foundational witness to Christ her Lord. All of it represents a single pedagogy of the Holy Spirit active in the Church in all of her mediations and in no way should this pedagogy posit separate movements of the Spirit in each of the mediations. And this whole debate at the Council further illustrates how a theology rooted in a defensive apologetics comes to be distorted. Because the reason why the manualists developed the idea of tradition as an independent source of Revelation was because certain dogmas of Catholicism - - e.g. the Marian dogmas - - could not (or so it was thought) be found in scripture. They thus agreed with the premises of the Protestant critique of those dogmas (that they are not in scripture) but dismissed such criticisms on the grounds that those dogmas can be found in tradition and so there is no need to ground them in scripture in the first place. But Vatican II rejected such notions and reinstated the truly traditional view of the interrelationship between the various mediations of Revelation.
Therefore, there can be no denying that the Church herself has taught that some of her teachings have been in error and then corrected those errors. I have listed only a few examples here of where the Church has taught error and then corrected that error, but there are also other instances. For example, there is also the issue of salvation outside of the Church and that at one time the Church taught a very, very narrow version of that doctrine, but which is a view the Church has since decidedly modified in a more expansive direction. I could discuss the evolution of the Church’s teaching on the death penalty where she once not only taught that it was allowable but also actually carried out judicial executions of her own, whereas she now clearly teaches the opposite and condemns the death penalty as a violation of human dignity. But none of these examples should imply that the doctrines of ecclesial indefectibility or infallibility in dogmatic matters is called into question. Because the Church has never claimed that all of the authoritative teachings of her ordinary magisterium enjoy the charism of infallibility. She has never claimed that such ordinary teachings, though authoritative, are irreformable and incapable of error. What such examples do call into question, however, is the slow and steady extension of the veneer of infallibility into all corners of the Church’s teaching. Such examples should remind us to avoid the triumphalist “infallibility bloat” that has taken over our self-narrated, revisionist history of unerring teaching in all things, and that one should convert to Catholicism since it is an intellectual certitude factory that has never taught a single wrong thing ever. I do not normally quote authors at great length in these blog essays for reasons of space. But Guarino’s conclusions in this regard make the point with such clarity that I cannot do better:
“Catholic theology does not regard ordinary teaching as intrinsically irreformable or irreversible. Such teaching does not intend to establish incontrovertible dogmatic landmarks; consequently, material identity, continuity, and perpetuity are not characteristics that belong to it necessarily and essentially. Such authentic teaching, while received by Catholics with religious respect and submission, is not proferred with the Church’s full authority, and so a reversal does not constitute a permutatio fidei or distortive corruption. If the magisterium of the Catholic Church could never be wrong, then its every utterance would need to be shrouded with the veil of infallibility - - a theologically indefensible position. That is why it is important to see the two ways ressourcement was employed at Vatican II: as the supplementation and enrichment of prior ecclesial teaching and, at times, as the reversal of ordinary magisterial teaching.” (65)
This, of course, raises as many questions as it answers. For starters, we are not speaking here of errors over minor and tangential topics. We are talking about errors relating to serious matters of some importance, even if those matters are not dogmatic in nature. What do we make of that? Second, if Vatican II really did reverse several teachings of the recent pre-conciliar ordinary magisterium, then why was Vatican II so silent, so coy, over the fact that this is what it was doing? Cynical, conspiracy minded traditionalists like to say that it is because the council fathers were planting little “liberal time bombs” into the texts which would explode in the Church at a later date, which is, as they claim, precisely what happened.
But I think this second question is fatuous since even a passing familiarity with the documentation of the conciliar debates shows that the bishops there hid nothing from each other and that there were numerous contentious debates that dragged on for days, weeks, months, and even years, over a single word or phrase, often requiring an intervention from Paul VI for resolution. Nobody was successfully manipulating anybody, and even if some were trying to do so there is scant evidence that they were successful at their Freemason subterfugery and skullduggery. Every theological position was there in full view and all of the major factions were quite open and vocal. If there was subterfuge going on it was of a very strange sort never seen before: deception via open and transparent debate. The only thing missing was St. Nicholas yanking on Arius’ beard.
The more reasonable view, one not riddled with the bilious jaundice of the traditionalists, is that of Guarino, who refers to the conciliar reluctance to openly admit to reversals of previous teachings as a “masking” of the true state of affairs out of a pastoral concern that the integrity of the magisterium not be called into question by average believers. The bishops at Vatican II were deeply reluctant to challenge explicitly the reigning ecclesial narrative that all developments of doctrine in the history of the Church, including at Vatican II, are organic, smooth, and in material continuity with all else that has come before. However, considering that Vatican II did reverse certain prior teachings and that the Council fathers knew darn well that they were, does this not constitute a kind of deception on their part? In a word, no. Because even though the Council did not explicitly challenge the narrative of total material continuity in all things authoritatively taught, it did not for all that affirm that narrative either. It simply ignored the issue of the hermeneutics of tradition altogether and never explicitly addressed the question of what its various reversals of previous teachings implied with regard to how we are to think about the development of doctrine in the light of those reversals. Obviously, had they done so they would have had to develop a notion of “development” that was expansive enough, and hermeneutically sophisticated enough, to encompass the fact that the Church has at times taught error and therefore, that “development” means not only organic supplementation but also various negations and reversals. But the Council did not do this and rather than viewing this as deceptive I view it as the typical product of compromise via committee. Paul VI was intent, as his interventions demonstrated, of making sure that the traditionalist faction was listened to and their concerns addressed. But Paul also clearly wanted the ressourcement wing to proceed as well. The result was a chimeric hybrid of the two, neither nefarious in motive nor as “ambiguous” as its critics claimed, the net result of which was definitely the masking of all ruptures and reversals in the language of material continuity. In other words, in the language of the grand myth.
Sadly, their failure to develop a proper hermeneutic of how to retrieve the tradition - - even if that failure was motivated by a sincere pastoral concern not to crush the bruised reed - - was the single biggest mistake, theologically and even pastorally speaking, made by the Council. Because it left the door wide open for others in the post-conciliar era to fill that void and to propose a hermeneutic of rupture as the key motif of the Council - - a rupture they viewed as so extreme that everything was now up for reinterpretation. Therefore, the so-called “spirit of Vatican II” so often invoked by the progressive wing of the post conciliar Church finds its theological grounding in both what the Council actually “did” in reversing some previous teachings, but also, and more importantly, in what the Council did NOT say: “Here is what it all means for our notion of “development” and here is what it does NOt mean.” The failure of the Council to achieve its stated aim of a new springtime in the Church can be tied directly to this lacuna in its interpretive apparatus. And it is a lacuna that proved fatal to its entire ressourcement project of renewal since the various reversals of the Council, left hanging and without conceptual contextualization in a broader theology of development, had political consequences in the Church that were of the very kind the Council hoped to avoid by not addressing the topic of the hermeneutics of development at all. Fail.
This failure is doubly tragic since the Council in its ressourcement re-interrogation of the tradition had in seed form the makings of a truly profound and radical, and yet utterly orthodox, hermeneutical revolution. The traditionalists are correct that Vatican II was a unique Council in both style and substance since it was not called to address a particular heresy, or a specific crisis, or a specific geo-political challenge, or even a particular pastoral problem. Instead, it was called in order to address … well… hmm… everything. Pope John XXIII, in calling the Council, did not task it with updating this or that particular doctrine in the light of modern challenges. He called on the Council in a very generic and unspecified way to re-interrogate the entirety of the deposit of the faith and to repropose that deposit in a new form, stripped of turgid, neo-scholastic language, and in a manner more Christological and evangelical. To my knowledge, such a project had never before been attempted by the Church and it does not take a great deal of perspicacity to see that the risks and potential rewards in such an endeavor are huge: succeed and the Church might just yet reinvigorate the West’s lost Christian culture; fail and the entire dadgum ecclesial edifice might collapse into a ragtag flotilla of lost refugees in uncharted waters. What it was that Pope John was proposing now seems to us, after all of these years, as “old news” and rather “boilerplate” as a piece of historical information. But in reality the Pope’s mandate was the equivalent of a high-stakes gambler going “all in” with a poker hand that was not a slam dunk.
Part Three: The revolution that failed
Michael Pakaluk, in a provocative essay which you can access here, argues that Vatican II has missed its historical moment to effect whatever change it wanted to accomplish and is now “spent” as a viable force in the Church. Pakaluk, who is an avid supporter of Vatican II, further argues that we need another council in order to clarify what it was that Vatican II did, or did not, teach. I think I largely agree with this assessment because Pope John’s “all in” gamble did not result in the renewal he desired. Only a fool would doggedly stick to some narrative of conciliar success in the practical sense in which Pakaluk is defining that term. Nevertheless, I do have one large caveat with this thesis - - a caveat I think Pakaluk would agree with. Namely, that any new council cannot be a repudiation of Vatican II but would instead build off of the still legitimate insights of its failed ressourcement poker-gambit of re-interrogating the entirety of the tradition. Therefore, following from the logistics of my analysis above, in my mind the most pressing theological need is the development of a renewed hermeneutics of tradition-retrieval.
I have already described the broad outlines of what I call the “hermeneutics of kenosis” in my last blog post and so there is no need to add to this already too long essay by rehashing what I said there. But I will add a few things to that analysis by way of clarification. First, my claim is that Vatican II was in many ways the most important and the most daring Council in the history of the Church since the end of the patristic era. In that regard I consider the attempts to tamp-down the post-conciliar controversies by emphasizing a “move along, there is nothing to see here” interpretation of the Council as deeply flawed. The Council rightly understood that modernity represents the greatest and most epochal change in human thinking and consciousness since we homo sapiens first began making totemistic cave drawings of the animals we wanted to consume. And this is why many theologians, and the conciliar bishops and popes, sought a new “form” for the Church’s message that went beyond mere stylistic changes in language and included as well changes in actual theological substance. The “syllabus of errors” approach of the past was to be discarded as overly defensive and dialectical. In its place, as Guarino notes, is the new approach by way of analogy: to seek out what truth there is in the non-Catholic world - - including the non-Catholic religious world - - in order to make the Church’s own unique truth claims a true “player” in the conversation that marks modernity. Nor is this a facile accommodationism since often times the form of the dialogue, as de Lubac noted, will be that of confrontation. But now it will be a confrontation within the broader context of dialogical engagement, rather than scorched-earth denunciations of anything that goes beyond the stale repetition of Church doctrines which are put forward as unerring and unchanging boulders of truth in the midst of a world that has nothing to offer except error.
But in the midst of this change there also must be repentance and contrition for our past sins and errors as a Church. And the criterion for adjudication is Christ himself in his full paschal-cruciform reality. The ressourcement project thus focused on a hermeneutical stance toward the entirety of the tradition that was thoroughly christocentric and which engaged in a christological refraction and distillation of all that came before. The entirety of the tradition is to be re-interrogated, re-oriented, and re-structured, according to this cruciform logic of the Gospel. And anything in the non-dogmatic elements of the tradition that runs afoul of the “Gestalt” of the Christ-form is to be rejected, while all that conforms will be deepened and foregrounded. To view this ressourcement reorientation as anything less than the very essence of Christian radicality is to completely misunderstand the conciliar project. The problem with traditionalism, conservatism, and progressivism is that they all are not nearly radical enough, not nearly traditional enough in the full sense of the tradition, and not nearly, therefore, compelling enough, since they all replace the radicality of the Christ Gestalt with politico-ecclesial ideologies that are afraid of the long shadow of Christ crucified and act, in their own way, like Dostoevsky’s Inquisitor who chastised Jesus for being too damnably radical in what it was he was asking of people.
Thus, the Council may be “spent” but if it is so it is because the Church was unwilling to embrace the radicality of its message, and any future Council will also fail unless it too embraces this radical hermeneutic. And this embracing of a hermeneutic of true reform (Pope Benedict’s preferred description) cannot shy away from admitting that the Church in the past has taught error and that these errors must be explicitly identified and repudiated. And lest one think that this now opens the door to an “anything goes” hermeneutic of accommodation to the Zeitgeist think again: the radicality of a hermeneutics of kenosis is hard to live, but it does not involve rocket science, and will lead one, more often than not, to a deep countercultural stance of prophetic witness against the “principalities and powers” of this world. The magisterium itself, if it is marked through and through by the winnowing and purgative logic of the cross, will be able to guide the Church’s living tradition into the deeper waters of a Church that can grow and change even if that means some painful admissions of error. And we all need to be reminded, myself included, that the kind of “certitude” of unchanging doctrine that so many seek, is itself a modern invention and is redolent with the cadences of modern anxiety and doubt. It is, in short, a deeply seductive idolatry of certain kinds of modern psychological preoccupations. Even the apostles, who lived with Jesus and walked with him, and witnessed his resurrected state and his ascension and whose minds were enlivened with divine wisdom at Pentecost, did not enjoy absolute certitude in all things and quite often misunderstood things - - as Peter did with regard to the so-called “judaizers” which necessitated a rebuke from St. Paul. The key here is that if we do “put on the mind of Christ” then we will develop the connatural ability to see how and why the Church sometimes changes her doctrines on some things because we will be able to see the christological logic involved. The kenotic logic of cruciform love. And in so seeing its logic, we will also then quite naturally and calmly affirm it, rather than panicking and getting all verklempt because your tidy little ecclesial ideology - - an ideology that was never really anything more than a shibboleth for our highly modern psychological anxiety - - has been overturned.
I will end this long post with an observation about Saint Peter. In the Gospels Peter is linked to the cross over and over. Most instructive is the account of his commissioning by Christ as the “rock” upon which the Church will be built. The endless debates about whether or not this “rock” was Peter’s faith or his very person are silly, because it is both. And as soon as Christ gives Simon his new name he proceeds to discuss his journey to the cross. Peter - - whose faith has just affirmed Christ as the messiah - - rebukes Jesus for this, whereupon Christ immediately identifies this Petrine temptation and “error” for what it is: Satanic seduction and deception. And is not this rejection of the cross as the proper form for all of Christian existence the very source of all papal and magisterial failures in the Church? This story in the Gospel is not just some nugget of biographical detail concerning Peter; it is a cautionary warning and prescient foreshadowing from Christ about what the quintessential temptation will be for all future ecclesial leaders: to flee the cross in favor of worldly solutions. Later in the gospels Peter runs from the cross when he, out of fear, denies that he even knows Jesus. And in John’s Gospel Christ elicits from Peter a threefold affirmation of love as contrition for this betrayal of the way of the cross. And he then predicts that Peter too will be crucified. And all of this is why, in the apocryphal story of Peter fleeing Nero and encountering Christ on a road leading away from Rome, he asks Christ: “Quo Vadis?” And Christ responds by saying that he is going back to Rome to be crucified again. Peter again repents, heads back to Rome, and embraces his own cruciform martyrdom as the final seal of his ministry as the rock.
The “rock” of magisterial “certitude” and the mark of its truth, is its conformity to the cross. And it is only in that cross does her “indefectibility” reside. Vatican II sought this kind of indefectibility. And the hope for that radical retrieval is far from spent.
Thank you all for your patience in reading this long post.
Dorothy Day, pray for us.