The Wrath of the Lamb: A Critique and Retrieval of Gaudium et Spes

October 4, 2021
Communio Theology

Hi to all.  I want to begin by offering my thanks to all who wrote to my during my Covid illness and who offered their prayers.  You have no idea how deeply grateful I am.  My run-in with Covid was relatively mild.  It was mainly like having a bad, two week long sinus infection.  The worst part was the brain fog and the crushing fatigue, which is why I simply could not write.  But I am fully recovered and that recovery, I have no doubt, was the fruit of all of your prayers for me.  God bless you all.

“Then the kings of the earth and the great men and the generals and the rich and the strong, and every one, slave and free, hid in the caves and among the rocks, ‘Fall on us and hide us from the face of him who is seated on the throne, and from the wrath of the Lamb; for the great day of their wrath has come, and who can stand before it?”
Revelation 6: 15-17.

Once upon a time, long, long ago, I was in the seminary.  Before entering my first year of minor seminary in 1978 I had been given a gift from my mother of a crucifix necklace that she was very proud of purchasing for me.  It was silver with a two inch long crucifix dangling from the chain.  It was actually quite beautiful and the corpus on the cross was dignified without masking the ugliness of the crucifixion it depicted.  She asked me to wear it on the outside of my shirt as a kind of prayer on her behalf, much like lighting a candle in Church.  And so I did and there it stayed during my first year in the seminary.  Nobody ever said a word to me about it until I was out for some beers with about six seminarians at a local pub (the drinking age was a sane 18 back then) whereupon they all started to make fun of the fact that I wore the crucifix on the outside of my shirt.  They ridiculed me as some kind of a “holy roller” who was acting as if I were a bishop with a pectoral cross.  I told them the story of my mother and why I wore it as I did only to be told by the guy sitting next to me that Gaudium et Spes was asking us to “reach out to the world” and that such public displays of piety were off-putting to most “ordinary people” these days and that my wearing of the crucifix, though fine in and of itself, was a bad prudential move on my part and was not in the “spirit of Gaudium et Spes.” All at the table nodded vigorously in agreement with the profound insights being offered on Gaudium et Spes, like a set of post-conciliar bobbleheads purchased at the “Gather Us In” Catholic bookstore. The latter was a real place run by an elderly ex-nun who smelled of mothballs and Brie, whose shop catered to the boutique shop Catholicism of Lefty Catholics who were in the market looking for such sacramentals as dreamcatchers and Jade incense.  And she too loved Gaudium et Spes since, as she told me once, it had opened the door for dialogue with radical feminism.  You can’t make this stuff up.  Just when you think you might have a silly caricature in your mind of what post-conciliar “liberals” were like, into the room walks “sister relevancia of the removed tabernacle.”  

When the sermonette at the pub on Gaudium et Spes from the mini-me Vorgrimler was over, I bit my tongue and swallowed my pride and just smiled and said that the crucifix would stay where it was.  I should have punched the snotty little twerp in the face but refrained from doing so since I thought it incongruous to defend the crucifix through an act of pugilistic retribution.  But the thought did cross my mind since the dude in question was a miserable and sniveling little weasel who probably would have benefited from such a comeuppance.  In all things charity, right? He ended up getting ordained but left the priesthood after five years and ran off somewhere with his boyfriend, living, I assume, within the spirit of Gaudium et Spes.

I recount this story because such invocations of Guadium et Spes (hereafter cited as GS) as a justification for muzzling the Church’s public witness were not anomalous outliers proffered by marginal nitwits but were instead part of the stock-in-trade rhetoric of the Catholic Left.   How did we reach such a pathetic state?  How is it that a seminarian wearing a crucifix would be an object of ridicule by fellow seminarians? I remember thinking, “who are these people and where does the Church find such men??”  It was not as if I was wearing an effigy of something truly embarrassing – – say, for example, an American flag pin right next to a Reagan button – – so it was something that I found both troubling and instructive.  This was Christ crucified I was wearing and I was told that it was an off-putting embarrassment by men studying to be priests of that same Christ.

All of this is a preamble to my topic today, which is the proper understanding of GS, arguably the most controversial document produced by the council, and the namesake of this blog. It has been used to justify all manner of ridiculous liturgical abuses and theological shenanigans which has led many to accuse it of being responsible for much of the post-conciliar mayhem.  But is this accusation accurate?  In some ways yes, since there can be no doubting the historical fact that GS was invoked as the magna carta for ecclesial secularization. And there is enough ambiguity in the document with regard to the nature of modernity that it was easy to manipulate in those secularizing directions.  But in the end there is a christocentric bombshell in the text that scuttles all such misrepresentations, as I hope to show.

GS was the last document produced by the council and the end product was the result of a tumultuous and contested process of schema after schema, revision after revision, and much back and forth between various factions.  It has come in for a lot of criticism, much of it deserved, as it displays a strange irenicism toward modern secular culture as it sought to position the Church as a viable voice for dialogue on the contested social issues of the day. In what follows I will begin with an analysis of what I think GS gets wrong and why its approach to modern culture is so deeply flawed.  But I will then conclude with a positive retrieval of GS using section 22, the inspiration for and title of this blog, as the hermeneutical key, not only for GS, but indeed for the entire council.  I want to give a special attribution for what follows to the analysis of GS given by Aidan Nichols O.P, in his concise but excellent text, “Conciliar Octet.”

There were three basic groups involved in the debate over GS.  First, there were ressourcement theologians like Chenu, Congar, Ratzinger, Danielou, and de Lubac.  Second, there were “social justice” progressives led by Cardinal Suenens and Archbishop Helder Camara of Brazil. Third, there were the neo-scholastics of various persuasions who had the advantage of a strong curial representation.  The goal of the text was to develop an analysis of modern culture and a theoretical structure for dialoguing with that culture from within the categories of the Church’s theology.  The fathers wanted the Church to speak to the burning issues of the day, especially in matters of economic justice and with regard to the rights of all human beings congruent with their “dignity.”  

True to form, the ressourcement theologians insisted that whatever the document might say with regard to social issues that it must do so from within explicitly theological criteria, rooted in the Scriptures, the Fathers, and the medieval scholastics.  This, they said, is the Church’s special area of competence whereas she has no competence in matters that are more “worldly” and secular.  They also insisted, and in line with an explicitly theological focus, that the Council, even as it embraced dialogue with the modern world, must also be critical of those aspects of modern culture that were not amenable to the Gospel.  

The Suenen’s school wanted far less emphasis on theology and a much more irenic tone toward modernity, embracing the highly doubtful assertion that the modern world was ripe for dialogue with the Church since the world was now trending toward a greater emphasis on “personalism,” “rights,” and the need for a “global solidarity” of peoples reminiscent of the Gospel’s universalism.  Their goal was a document long on social analysis and short on theology, hoping to reach out to as many people of “good will” as it could, without a lot of alienating theological mumbo jumbo.  It seemed not to bother them that the Church has no special competence in such matters or that reasonable people could disagree about the best prudential path forward in matters economic and political.  The Church therefore ran the risk of appearing to “take sides” in disputed political questions, but this seemed to them a risk worth taking given the high stakes involved in a world dominated by the Cold War, the threat of nuclear annihilation, and the instability created by the presence of vast pockets of economic inequality.  The scholastics mounted their usual arguments from the commentorial tradition on Thomas, but became increasingly irrelevant as the conversations wore on.

Lurking in the background in all of the deliberations was the last encyclical written by Pope John, Pacem in terris, which sought to speak to the entire world and to all people of good will.  To that end, the encyclical deliberately eschewed theological and philosophical language, as well as the use of Scripture on any deep level, seeking instead to speak in a more “neutral” language accessible even to non-Christians.  This approach was hailed by many progressives, and the secular world in general, which only served to mask the encyclical’s deep sociological flaw. And what was that flaw? The erroneous assumption that the secular world actually gave a damn what the Church thought about anything.  Furthermore, the encyclical suffered from a naivete with regard to the compatibility between the Church’s concept of human dignity – – a dignity rooted in God – – and the concept of human dignity found in modern Western culture.  These two conceptions of human dignity are in reality deeply at odds with one another on a deep metaphysical level and they are certainly at odds on the question of the nature of freedom and its orientation to truth, especially religious truth. Pacem in terris proceeds as if it is blissfully unaware of how deeply toxic to the faith modernity is and how self-consciously antagonistic to the faith our cultural and political elites are.  Nor should these have been hard facts to ascertain since numerous Catholic intellectuals in the ressourcement school had been pointing this out for decades. Henri de Lubac’s influential text, “The Drama of Atheist Humanism,” one of the most famous books of that era and written in 1944, mounts a powerful argument in favor of the idea that the only antidote to modernity’s atheistic humanism is a robust Christian meta anthropology rooted in a deep meditation on the full implications of the Incarnation.  Therefore, one cannot help but reach the conclusion that the decision made by so many in the Church of the conciliar era to eschew de Lubac’s full-throated Christian humanism in favor of the dulcet tones of a superficial, and largely sociological, form of “dialogue,” had to have been deliberate.

This same deliberate choice bleeds over into GS since many of the progressives took up the tone and tenor of Pacem in terris as they worked into the document an ambiguous concept of the “rightful autonomy of culture.”  It is ambiguous because it does not make clear what it means by “autonomy” and leaves the impression that what it is really trying to do is to disengage the discussion of social issues from explicitly theological warrants in an effort to combat any restorationist or integralist influences.  One must constantly be aware of the ecclesial ethos of those times and that for many progressives nothing was more important than destroying the old regime of tight linkages between throne and altar, cult and culture, and faith and social coercion.  And as laudable as such a goal perhaps was, the means they chose to achieve it – – the deliberate “bracketing” of the Church’s faith in a vain attempt at social “relevance” – – was deeply problematic and which contributed to all of the post conciliar nonsense about the “spirit” of the council and of GS in particular.  This is why I began with my pub narrative from my seminary days.  Such conversations were not outliers.  They were common.  And even though old-timers like me are starting to bore folks with our constant reminders of what happened back then, I hope we continue to do so since what was old seems to be new again.  We are raising the alarm not out of an old man’s nostalgia (“In my day young man the liberals ate the traditionalist’s babies!”) but because there are worrisome signs that the antiquated sword of “Vatican II’s spirit,” grown rusty in it scabbard of time, rises yet again.    

There is indeed a legitimate sense that nature, and therefore culture, though constitutively oriented to a perfecting in grace, remains nevertheless, “nature,” and is not simply dissolved in the acid of a spiritual monism of divine identity.  So yes, culture has a “rightful autonomy” from ecclesial control.  But in any truly Catholic approach it must also be emphasized that nature, in order to remain most truly itself precisely as nature, must have a constitutive inner orientation to grace.  As Pope Benedict points out in Deus caritas est, if eros does not complete itself in agape it does not even remain eros, but degenerates into a fragmented perversion of itself.  Eros begins with a spirit of acquisition and possessiveness and, therefore, unless it culminates in an oblative renunciation for the sake of its beloved, it will lose itself entirely.  There is no stasis in the spiritual life, no neutral ground in some alleged “pure nature.”  We are either trending upward toward a fulfillment of our nature in a higher register of being, or we are trending downward into the Pauline world of “sarx” and left staring at our crotch, or our gut, or our veins.  It is either the Amor Dei or the Libido Dominandi.  Those are our choices and, as Balthasar puts it, only the valor of Christ’s unshielded heart provides the theological matrix in which such a transformation can occur.  Christ is the existential Kairos that provokes such a decision, the fulcrum on which it all depends, and therefore the concept of a pure state of nature that can be happy in a natural way without Christ is an anti-Gospel fantasy born out of scholastic speculations run amok.

This analysis of the nature and grace relation is exactly what the old school neo-scholastics just could not accept as they thought it robbed grace of its gratuity and nature of its own integrity.  And the fact that the progressives took this same approach of treating nature and grace as extrinsic to one another only goes to show how deeply rooted many of them were in the old, neo-scholastic thought world.  And how it is simply false, therefore, that neo-scholasticism was this great bulwark against modernism.  Rahner, for example, is by orders of magnitude far more neo-scholastic in his approach than that of folks like Balthasar and Ratzinger.  And the same goes for the revisionist moral theologians of that era like Fuchs and Haring.  It is simply risible therefore, to anyone who knows the intellectual history of that period, to blame ressourcement thinkers for the troubles that followed when in point of fact it was precisely the extrinsicist understanding of the nature-grace relation so beloved of both the conservative and progressive neo-scholastics that created, as Robert Barron puts it, a condition where God’s transcendence is viewed competitively with our immanence.  And it is precisely such a competitive view that I am claiming animates much of the social analysis in GS.

The Australian theologian and member of the International Theological Commission, Dr. Tracey Rowland, has pointed out in her wonderful book “Culture and the Thomist Tradition: After Vatican II, pp. 11-34,” that there are indeed logoi spermatikoi throughout the world which the Church can purify and then embrace as her own. Nevertheless, not all cultures are equal in this regard and a given culture may have a ruling “logos” as its animating formative principle that is incompatible with the Gospel and which, therefore, cannot be purified and must simply be rejected.  She further claims that the serious mistake GS makes is its lack of recognition that modern Liberal culture, rooted as it is in a concept of freedom as a radical individualism with a false sense of autonomy from grace, cannot be assimilated into the Catholic thought world without doing tremendous damage to the faith.  Thus, much of the post conciliar turmoil can be attributed to the distorting effects caused by the superficial embrace GS grants to modern Liberal culture in its sections devoted to the autonomy of culture. It is true that GS also states that the autonomy of culture and of human nature awaits a perfecting in the order of grace – – a statement that is a bit tepid and ambiguous but which at least allows GS to avoid the charge of having adopted a dangerous extrinsicism of grace. Therefore, I am not accusing GS of being completely in the clutches of a false theology of nature and grace, but rather that in its social analysis it remains far too irenic toward the negative elements of modern culture and its theological moorings were somewhat muted.

All that being said, it is precisely the presence of these little ressourcement nuggets scattered here and there in GS that prompts Rowland to point out that this is why we can retrieve GS in a manner that is far more constructive.  In particular, Rowland, following the lead of Pope John Paul, directs our gaze to the radical Christocentrism that sits there like an unexploded bomb in GS section 22: “The truth is that only in the mystery of the incarnate Word does the mystery of man take on light.”  Far from being a throw-away line put in place to placate the ressourcement thinkers, GS 22 is the hermeneutical key to the whole. And I say this for three reasons.  First, the council was given its official magisterial retrieval in the pontificates that followed and in all cases the post conciliar popes – – even Paul VI – – made reference to the essentially christocentric nature of the council. This was especially true of John Paul II who repeatedly made GS 22 the centerpiece of his conciliar retrieval.  In short, the council, insofar as it is an act of the magisterium, means whatever the later magisterium says it meant, most especially when it comes to statements in the council that stand in need of greater clarification and which do not lend themselves easily to a singular theological interpretation.  And that kind of clarification is precisely what the magisterium is designed to provide.  To try and “get behind” later magisterial teaching and to “recover” what the council “really said” on these contested issues might have exegetical, historical and even hermeneutical value, but such analyses can only ever be an adjunct to the process of retrieval and never a substitute for magisterial traditioning.  In other words, such analyses can be instructive but rarely determinative.  Second, all conciliar documents should be interpreted in the light of the entire council and not treated as stand-alone documents and when one does that with GS its entire teleology becomes clear as a christocentric one.  Third, all conciliar documents must be read charitably in the light of the whole Tradition, which is precisely what the post conciliar popes do.  Therefore, to claim that GS 22 is the interpretive key to the whole is not an importation of a foreign superstructure that then distorts the text’s “true” meaning, but is rather a theologically and ecclesiologically coherent approach to the larger text. Indeed, in order for later liberals to invoke GS as their chief warrant, they must suppress section 22 and others like it.

This becomes even clearer once we realize that the progressive faction at the council was not opposed to such christocentric emphases, and did not oppose section 22, but simply did not want them foregrounded lest the document lose its rhetorical force as an opening to the world.  This is, of course, silly in a suicidal way since it is only Christ that gives the Church its warrant to speak on anything in the first place.  And the desire to bracket such christological claims indicates that the progressive wing of the Church, then as now, does not think that Christ is a publicly accessible reality and, therefore, that speaking explicitly of Christ as the chief warrant for why we think the way we do is a kind of fideistic embarrassment.  In other words, you only “bracket” something that you think is extraneous to the matter at hand. There is a time and a place for such bracketing if one wants to engage in a propaedeutic that establishes a certain common ground of understanding for the ensuing conversation.  But at some point, for the sake of a truly honest and authentic conversation, you need to show your cards. It can’t be brackets all the way down.  And it is GS 22 that shows us those cards.

But why is all of this important in the first place?  Because it is this christocentric moment that is the true revolution introduced by the council.  It is the full drawing out of the anthropological implications of the Incarnation.  The first millennium of the Church focused on getting Christ’s nature correct and the proper metaphysical understanding of the hypostatic union.  The second millennium focused on getting the Church’s nature correct especially in light of the Protestant rebellion.  And now in the third millennium the Church is bringing its christology and its ecclesiology into a tighter synthesis in order to negotiate the Church’s proper stance to the worldly world.  The unprecedented rise of modern secularism which has swept much of the world requires a new approach that cuts to the very core of the Church’s christological identity.  Gone are the integralist confessional states with their powers of coercion. Gone is the deep Christian culture animated through and through by the Church’s thought world.  Gone is the innate religiosity of the pagan world ripe for conversion to the Gospel.  Gone as well is the last residue, the faded halo, of the Christian moral patrimony. Ours is not even a post-Christian culture any longer but has now moved into the uncharted waters of a culture defined by the non-public, unreality of God.  There isn’t even any longer a robust atheism since our culture cannot even work up enough energy to oppose the Gospel in trenchant ways, opting instead for the thin, bloodless lips of Dostoevsky’s Grand Inquisitor who wants to protect our material security at the expense of our existential seriousness.  

The challenge modernity poses to us is therefore unprecedented and real.  And I am firmly convinced that Vatican II’s Christocentrism remains the only truly viable response to this challenge.  The council had flaws. All councils have flaws. And all consequential council’s create turmoil in their wake.  Just ask Athanasius what he thought of the post-Nicene ecclesial world. But Athanasius was eventually vindicated, and his arguments for Nicene orthodoxy won the day.  And it is my claim that the Christocentrism of Vatican II, typified and codified in GS 22, will also be vindicated as the only possible answer to the agonistic nihilism and despair of modern techno-paganism.  

The council did indeed burn something down.  And what burned down was more than it intended, like a controlled burn in an overgrown forest that runs amok owing to an unexpected gale. But the ecclesial forest really was overgrown and was choked with all manner of invasive shrubs and filled with spindly trees with shallow roots.  And the lightning storm of the sixties and seventies would have eventually set it ablaze even if the council had never happened.  Indeed, as Ratzinger already saw in 1958 in his prescient article “The new pagans in the Church,” the fires had already started before the council. There were simply too many combustibles around, born of centuries of ecclesial insouciance toward the inner life of the Church’s christological faith.  The post-Tridentine form of contractual Catholicism, with its bloated and inflated sacramental economy, its diminishment of any evangelical form of the faith out of an exaggerated fear of Protestantism, its infantilizing of the laity as incapable of living the counsels or even of reading the scriptures, its hyper clericalism that allowed for an explosion of perverts hiding in the shadows, its fear of engaging modern forms of thinking that were legitimately interesting and potentially fruitful, its monomaniacal devotion to a degraded and degrading scholastic manualism, its intellectually dullard clergy, its sclerotic bureaucracy, and its forensic approach to moral theology, all contributed the combustibles necessary for the conflagration that came later after the council lifted the lid off of the ecclesiastical libido.  

As I have said before, the council fathers were guilty of a double naivete.  They were naïve about the internal strength of the Church which caused them to underestimate the inherent volatilities that were waiting to explode, and they were naïve about just how toxic modern culture was to the faith.  Nevertheless, and despite these failures, the council does contain the theological remedy to the forces it itself helped to unleash.  And that remedy is its christocentric revolution.  There was no way that the Tridentine form of the Church could continue on with a business as usual approach, closing its eyes and exclaiming, like Sergeant Schulz, “I see nothing!” And so the council proposed a repristinating of the evangelical core of the Gospel through a retrieval of scripture and the Fathers, and a rereading of Aquinas in that light, as the only truly viable path forward for a Church grown moribund.  And that project remains as viable and as true today as it was then.  Thus does the council retain its relevance even on a pastoral level if only we had the insight and the courage to retrieve its true radicality – – a radicality that was hijacked after the council by those who interpreted GS as a mandate for bourgeois conformity.  

Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin both taught that only a revolution of the soul can save the Church.  And for them that revolution was a christocentric one.  For them it was an evangelical call to arms.  The conciliar project therefore remains unfinished and it will continue to remain unfinished until the Church sheds the last vestiges of its concordat with the cult of bourgeois well-being and embraces the full radicality of the council’s christocentric revolution and the universal call to holiness in an evangelical register.  I began this post with a quote from the book of Revelation which speaks of the “wrath of the Lamb.”  That is a strange juxtaposition when one pauses to think about it.  I raise sheep.  Lambs are not wrathful but beautifully docile. And Christ was like a lamb led to the slaughter by those who, following Girard here, were consumed with the mimetic desire for an acquisition of worldly power (the power of theocratic Israel) that quickly led into a spirit of scapegoating accusation.  But in the end, all such worldly desires will fail as the kings and powers of this world look on the Lamb whom they have pierced.  Therefore, as Gil Bailie points out in his masterful book, “God’s Gamble,” it is only the gravitational power of crucified love that will win the day.  Seen in this light, the Lamb’s “wrath” is nothing more than the searing scorch of God’s bottomless love.

One can be a progressive Catholic or a Tridentine restorationist or, like me, a ressourcement type, but none of it will amount to anything without the crucified Christ putting fire into the equations.  If we can all agree on that, and put our focus on the message of GS 22, we can lay down our arms and our rhetoric and make common cause. Because if we do not do this together, we will not do it at all.  

Dorothy Day, pray for us.

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