Vatican II as a Ressourcement Council. Part One: Father Robert Imbelli's Conciliar Retrieval
“In its penetrating analysis of “the modern world”, the Second Vatican Council reached that most important point of the visible world that is man, by penetrating like Christ the depth of human consciousness and by making contact with the inward mystery of man, which in biblical and non-biblical language is expressed by the word “heart”. Christ, the redeemer of the world, is the one who penetrated in a unique unrepeatable way into the mystery of man and entered his “heart”. Rightfully therefore does the Second Vatican Council teach: “The truth is that only in the mystery of the incarnate Word does the mystery of man take on light.”
Saint Pope John Paul II, Redemptor hominis, 8.
Among many of my friends I sense a growing “Vatican II fatigue” that is weary of all of the many debates that continue to coalesce around a council that is now almost 57 years in our rear-view mirror. The debates seem to many to be on a par with arguing over who really kidnapped the Lindbergh baby. A lot of this indifference, it seems to me, is rooted in the fact that many of the council’s diagnostics with regard to the “signs of the times” and many of its pastoral prescriptions for responding to those signs are now out of date. We are in a new historical situation and the conciliar optimism with regard to the Church’s dialogue with the world comes across now as a hopeless naivete that is best set aside as a mere antiquarian curiosity. How quaint, and almost cute, the conciliar fathers now seem with their robust belief that if the Church would just fling open her doors that the world would come a begging, breathlessly, looking for the Church’s wisdom. However, sadly, the truth is, as Karl Barth pointed out, that the Church opened her windows seeking fresh air and a hurricane blew through instead. The face of Catholicism has changed and the era of the theological giants of the 20th century is over. It would seem, therefore, that it is just time to move on from the council
Not so fast I say. Because while it is true that many of the conciliar pastoral prescriptions are now out of date, there were theological milestones that the council championed that are as relevant today as they were then, perhaps even more so now. And even though the council billed itself as a “pastoral” council and even though, as Joseph Ratzinger points out, it proposed no new dogmas, the fact remains that it did move the theological needled and it did “develop” doctrines in very significant ways. Indeed, if this were not true then why do so many traditionalists, as well as the SSPX, call the council into question owing to its theological innovations? Therefore, the tired trope that the council was nothing more than pastoral turtles all the way down and can therefore be safely ignored is self-contradicting since the reason why traditionalists want to ignore it is not because its pastoral provisions are now irrelevant but because it does advance theological positions with which they disagree. Furthermore, the distinction drawn between “pastoral” and “theological” is a superficial one since all pastoral strategies imply a theological vision and all theological visions, insofar as they are truly Catholic, imply pastoral strategies. Indeed, is it not, once again, the argument of the traditionalists that the disastrous pastoral implosion following the council was the direct result of its theological innovations? Therefore, the current debates surrounding the council - - debates given new life and urgency by the tonalities of the current pontificate - - are most properly theological debates that still burn hot with an unresolved intensity that cry out for resolution.
In my view, therefore, Vatican II is done a disservice when it is treated by progressives as some kind of a sui generis “super council” that is part of a great ecclesial “reset” (build back better!) that has instituted a second Reformation from within the Church herself. Rather, the council should be viewed as the theological culmination of the great project of ressourcement that began within Catholicism in the 19th century and then exploded onto the scene in full force in the 20th. There were, of course, other voices at the council, but absent the theological project of the ressourcement theologians the neo-scholastics would have won the day since they dominated the curial landscape, drew up all of the pre conciliar documents, and were the main engine driving the ecclesial locomotive with full papal support. Pope John, for example, was so content with the curial pre conciliar schemata that he thought the council would be over after a single session and everyone could go home by Christmas. (Source: Peter Seewald’s biography of Pope Benedict, Volume I, p. 340). Furthermore, there was no way the council fathers were simply going to ignore the neo-scholastics and climb aboard the progressive bullet train and ride it at full throttle into a brave new rapprochement with Protestantism. It was only through the interventions of ressourcement thinkers like Ratzinger, de Lubac, and Danielou, and their episcopal supporters, that caused the council to reject the proposed schemata and to launch out into deeper waters. There was the danger that such a new approach could open the door to the progressive wing of the Church taking advantage of the situation, but such a danger was thought to be negligible. The ressourcement thinkers were wrong about that danger as the post conciliar co-optation of the council by the progressive wing proves, but the conciliar documents themselves bear the unmistakable fingerprints of the ressourcement thinkers in a deeply programmatic way, no matter what the traditionalist critics of the council say about the various progressivist “ambiguities” that they allege the documents contain. And it will be the gravament of my blog series on Vatican II to make this clear. The “tell” comes when the traditionalists lump together the ressourcement and progressive thinkers and label the whole affair an exercise in “modernism,” and then proceed immediately into their endless thunderations against ecumenism, religious freedom, inter-religious dialogue, and liturgical reform. Ambiguities? Not really. What it is instead is a simple theological disagreement with the very clarity of the documents as such, which endorse all of those things, although not in a progressivist register as is alleged.
Furthermore, it is my claim that despite the fact that the ressourcement theological achievements at the council were eclipsed and scuttled by the post conciliar progressive tsunami, that this tsunami would have eventually swept into the Church anyway, no matter how neo-scholastic the council itself may have been. The cultural forces for radical secularization were just too strong for the Church to resist for long with nothing more than large doses of the neo-scholastic Aquinas and meatless Fridays standing in their way. The collapse of the Church’s Ancien Régime of papal oracularism, Constantinian establishments, and “fortress Thomism” theology, was well on its way even before the council, with the council acting as a mere accelerant for combustibles that were already there waiting to be lit. And council or no council, those combustibles were going to be lit eventually. It is, in other words, a restorationist pipe dream that had the Church merely clung to her “old ways” that none of this would have happened. Because it was already happening and if the council had never happened some other event, the promulgation of Humanae vitae for example, would have been the triggering agent instead. And as for the liturgy, Paul VI could have reformed it and promulgated the Novus Ordo with or without the council. In fact, the Novus Ordo (which I support with some criticisms) seems in some ways to contradict elements of the conciliar documents on the liturgy. Therefore, the utterly simplistic post hoc ergo propter hoc thinking of so many traditionalists on this score is an ideological exercise in socio-cultural naivete all its own, and is, as far as I am concerned, risible restorationist nonsense.
Therefore, in light of the fact that modernity presents us with an unparalled challenge unique in the Church’s long history, and in light of the fact that a mere restoration of the previous ecclesial Tridentine form will not suffice to answer that challenge, it is imperative that the great conciliar ressourcement theological project be carried forward with renewed vigor since it remains an unfinished project, both theologically and pastorally. The pre conciliar ressourcement thinkers were too focused on slaying the neo-scholastic dragon, and in many ways caricatured the genuine achievements of the neo-scholastics in unfair ways. The time is now ripe for the completion of Vatican II’s core theological ideas, drawn from the ressourcement thinkers, and to move the project forward with an eye toward the repristination of the Gospel message in a world gone mad, rather than on the debates of the past.
For example, the endless debates over the proper relationship between nature and grace during the pre-conciliar era focused on what Aquinas did or did not say on the topic. Frankly, and don’t take this the wrong way, in one sense I don’t care. Because regardless of what Aquinas may or may not have held, the deeper question is simpler: what does Revelation teach on the topic? Aquinas, after all, could have been wrong. De Lubac, given the theological stranglehold that Aquinas held in his time, had to deal with how to square the circle of his more patristic understanding of the topic with whatever it was Aquinas said. He could not in any way simply have said at that time: “Aquinas is wrong about this and I am going with the Church fathers instead.” And so the debate over Aquinas was on, de Lubac was censured, and then rehabilitated just before the council. Today, by contrast, the time has come to treat Aquinas as one voice in the conversation among many (albeit perhaps the most important voice) and for Thomists and ressourcement thinkers to make common cause in the adjudication of how best to theologically nuance the topic for our time. That is just one example of what I am talking about and this series on Vatican II will explore many others.
Finally, to those critics who might say that the council is now so far in our rear view mirror that there is no need to debate its theological developments since we can do theology, thank you very much, without the aid of the council, I say in response that Chalcedon is much further away in our rear view mirror but we are still debating its theology 1700 years later. And if I thought for one second that Vatican II really did not achieve anything of theological significance I would join the chorus of voices saying we should just move on. But it did and so I won’t.
The title of this blog is Gaudium et Spes 22 and I chose that title for a reason, despite the fact that it is not a title that many people will immediately understand. I will get back to that point later. Gaudium et Spes is the last of the great “constitutions” that make up the documents of the Second Vatican Council - - “The Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World” - - and its writing occasioned a lot of debate from the conciliar fathers. The title is drawn, as many magisterial texts are, from the first words of the document and it literally means “Joy and hope.” The first line is as follows: “The joys and the hopes, the griefs and the anxieties of the men of this age, especially those who are poor or in any way afflicted, these are the joys and hopes, the griefs and the anxieties of the followers of Christ.” And this is so, the document goes on to say, because nothing that is good in our human condition “fails to raise an echo” in the hearts of Christians since the Church too is made up of human beings and seeks to reach everyone with her message of hope and salvation. To that end, the document specifically states that its chief audience isn’t just the sons and daughters of the Church, but indeed the entire world. Thus, the entire document is an attempt by the council to express to the world just how the Church views its relation to the men and women of today.
That sounds like a rather simple message on paper, but in reality the question of just how the Church is to speak to the world was a matter of much debate and quite a lot of it heated. Pope John XXIII, shortly before his death, had published the influential encyclical, “Pacem in terris,” (“Peace in the world”, April 11, 1963). The encyclical dealt with many issues relating to matters of social justice and, like many other of the so-called “social encyclicals,” it was not heavy with references to scripture, Christ, or other specifically Christian theological terms, opting instead for the language of the Church’s natural law moral reasoning. Ostensibly this was done in order to reach as wide of an audience as possible. Therefore, during the debates surrounding Gaudium et Spes many of the bishops expressed a desire for the document to adopt a similar methodology and language. Rising in opposition to this were bishops who wanted a document more in keeping with the “ressourcement” approach which would ground it in explicitly Christian theological categories with many references to scripture and the early Church fathers. Their goal was a more evangelical message that played down the language of natural law in order to initiate a true renewal and reform of the Church’s traditional social justice discourse by grounding it more specifically in the sources of Revelation. There were, of course, also bishops of a more traditional, scholastic bent who were suspicious of the entire project, with its vague and ill-defined “optimism” toward dialogue with the world, and who were fearful of just what the progressive wing of the Church had in mind (and not without reason.) Finally, there were other bishops of the ressourcement school who wanted the document to speak to the entire world but out of a new vision of a Christocentric anthropology that would seek to position the Church as the champion of a truly liberative humanism that was up to the task of combatting the atheistic/secularistic humanism of modernity. In this latter camp was the future pope, Karol Wojtyla, whose first encyclical, Redemptor hominis, was expressive of just this kind of Christocentric anthropology.
So, at the end of the day, who won this debate? In terms of the post conciliar reception it was clearly the progressive faction that won the day as the Church as a whole, and despite protestations from Rome, lurched in the direction of a simplistic accommodationism to the spirit of the age. Specifically, the opening to the world called for by Gaudium et Spes was increasingly viewed as a green light to so “naturalize” grace that the distinction between the Church and the world all but vanished. The Church merely “thematizes” what is already latent everywhere in the world, and where this thematization seems to run afoul of modernity’s canons of rationality, it was the latter that was taken to be normative since “reading the signs of the times” requires of us to see the Spirit as always already everywhere in the progressive “curve of history” towards justice. In other words, it is not true to say that the post conciliar Church was simply guilty of cowardice as it capitulated to the world in an act of pusillanimous surrender. I wish that it were that simple and superficial. Rather, the shift toward a Church that took on the coloration and tonalities of modernity was a decidedly theological move that was rooted in a distortion of Rahner’s views on grace. Space precludes a discussion of Rahner’s enormously complex and rich theology, but suffice it to say that his epigones in the progressive Catholic academy had turned his very nuanced development of Thomistic epistemology and its application to the question of our reception of God’s grace, into a distorted theological endorsement of the notion that grace is so thoroughly operative everywhere in “salvific” ways that the world’s “experience” and “praxis” constitute genuine loci of Revelation as such in a very direct and unproblematic way. And from there it is a short walk to a full-blown importation of these loci into the very heart and soul of the Church.
But in terms of the document itself the key feature that interests me here is the Christocentric bombshell that is the namesake of this blog. Namely, section 22 with its affirmation that it is only in the light of the Word made flesh that the mystery of our human nature can be understood. And this Christocentric bombshell was the handiwork of ressourcement thinkers like de Lubac and Wojtyla. This is the true theological advance to be found, not only in Gaudium et Spes, but in many other conciliar documents as well. And if some of the pastoral prescriptions of the council are now out of date, this Christocentric bombshell most certainly is not.
So important did Pope John Paul II think Gaudium et Spes 22 was that he not only quoted it in Redemptor hominis, but in almost every one of his other encyclicals as well. It is not a stretch at all to say that the Christocentric anthropology of the council was the central focus of his entire pontificate, not only in what he wrote, but also in his global travels which had as one of their primary aims to champion a form of Christian humanism that alone could uphold human dignity and the sacredness of human life in the face of modernity’s technocratic and instrumentalist anthropology. Therefore, it is also not a stretch to say that Pope John Paul also added a considerable magisterial weight to a hermeneutic of the council that sees its Christocentrism as it truest and most enduring theological legacy. Pope John Paul had lived through the Nazi and Soviet occupations of his native Poland. He had witnessed first-hand the dehumanization and degradation of the most anti-humanistic “isms” of the past century. And therefore, like de Lubac in his seminal work “The Drama of Atheist Humanism,” Pope John Paul sought to position the Church as a beacon of the true humanism of Christ who alone can conquer the “principalities and powers” that dominate the world.
It is precisely this Christian humanism, foreseen especially by Saint Francis de Sales, that is the deepest legacy of Vatican II, a legacy that is also intrinsically related to its universal call to holiness, and is a legacy the true significance of which was lost on the post conciliar accommodators to modernity who saw in the “humanism” of the worldly world the very movement of the Holy Spirit. A deeper betrayal of the conciliar project cannot be imagined and it explains their tooth and nail opposition to the pontificate of John Paul as well as the document “Dominus Iesus” put out by Ratzinger’s CDF during that same pontificate.
Father Robert Imbelli, in an important essay in Church Life Journal, echoes my belief that the true legacy of the council is its Christocentrism and the ressourcement theology that was its source. (You can access his essay here). Father Imbelli, a priest of the Archdiocese of New York, and Associate Professor emeritus at Boston College, was a seminarian in Rome during the council and has, therefore, an account of the council that is at once theological and personal. Entitled “Remembering and Misremembering Vatican II,” Father Imbelli’s essay foregrounds Dei Verbum (The Dogmatic Constitution on Revelation) as the most important conciliar document since unless you get Revelation right all else will fall to pieces and come to nothing. Father Imbelli notes that the original schema of Dei Verbum was voted on by the bishops but did not even muster 40% of the vote. It needed to be sent back for revisions but did not have the requisite threshold of negative votes for that to happen. Therefore, the document was stuck in a kind of limbo. It would have been discussed on the floor of the council since it did not have the votes to be sent back, but to what end? Pope John intervened and sent the schema back for revision the end result of which was a document that bore the unmistakable Christocentric stamp of the ressourcement school. And Dei Verbum was a dogmatic constitution which means that its christocentric focus carries dogmatic authority with direct implications for the Church’s pastoral practice. Here is what Father Imbelli says:
“Distinctive to Dei Verbum’s presentation of revelation is that it is explicitly Christocentric. Though it celebrates God’s revelation in the course of the history of the people of Israel, it confesses that God’s revelation attains its fullness in the person of Jesus Christ. It is this Christ-centered understanding of God’s revelation and promise that permeates the documents of Vatican II—prominent not only in Sacrosanctum Concilium and Lumen Gentium, but also in Gaudium et Spes. It is this Christological “depth grammar” which belies any facile separation of “doctrinal” and “pastoral.” Nor can the Council be read as promoting a “pastoral paradigm” in opposition to a ‘doctrinal paradigm.’”
He goes on to add the following:
“’Ressourcement’ is a term associated with those theologians who contributed to the movement known to their detractors as ‘la Nouvelle Théologie.’ They were certainly interested in retrieving the texts of the Great Tradition, especially those of the fathers of the Church: Les Sources Chrétiennes. But their animating concern sought, through the texts, to apprehend anew the true source of the Church’s faith: Jesus Christ himself. Already in 1938 Henri de Lubac wrote in Catholicism: “The whole Christian fact is summed up in Christ—as the Messiah who was to come—who had to be prepared for in history, just as a masterpiece is preceded by a series of sketches; but as ‘the image of the invisible God’ and the ‘firstborn of all creation,’ he is the universal Exemplar.” And , in 1950, Yves Congar wrote this of ressourcement: ‘It is re-interrogating texts, but something more also, and more essential: it is re-centering upon Christ in his Paschal Mystery.’”
I quote the essay at length since the texts in question underscore everything I have written in this blog on the council from day one. Specifically, my own analysis of the council’s Christocentrism and the ressourcement theology that animated it. I do not highlight these texts out of vanity (See how they all agree with me!) but in order that the casual reader can see that my reading of the council is not some idiosyncratic hobby horse of my own made up out of whole cloth. Indeed, it is my claim that Father Imbelli’s hermeneutic of the council as a Christocentric ressourcement project is so plainly obvious that only someone imbued with an ideological bias that is opposed to that project would say otherwise. The theological revisionists of both the Left and the Right get this wrong because they have a vested ideological interest in portraying the council as a progressivist fever-dream of the “great reset.” The Left wants it portrayed this way in order to legitimate its revolution, and the Right wants it similarly portrayed in order to legitimate its dissenting devolution. But neither get it right and neither, therefore, are reliable guides for the council’s proper reception.
Father Imbelli goes on to do more than just highlight the council’s Christocentrism and specifies as well the deep theological development of the concept of the “paschal mystery” in the conciliar texts. Noting that the conciliar use of this term is an innovation never before seen in a magisterial document, he links it to the universal call to holiness which must be christologically grounded in something more than an emphasis on the passion of Christ in order to be truly effective. The council emphasized by the introduction of the “paschal mystery” that our salvation hinges on the entirety of Christ’s mission, which included not only his passion, but his resurrection and ascension as well. Our call to holiness is a participation in the whole Christ who is forever the “Lamb who was slain” but is such precisely as risen and ascended to the Father. In other words, his passion endures in the trinitarian life of God but as a passion that has been transformed through resurrection and ascension into something that is truly life giving. Furthermore, in so emphasizing the paschal mystery the council thus affirms that the internal theo-logic of the passion is constitutively oriented to just such a fulfillment. There are, of course, broad ecumenical implications in this view with regard to the Eastern emphasis upon theosis and such emphases were ever on the mind of the ressourcement theologians. Again, here is what Father Imbelli writes:
“Thus, among the attributes of Vatican II’s distinctive style, besides biblical, pastoral and dialogic, … I would add and underscore ‘mystagogic.’ In this regard, chapters one and five of Lumen Gentium, ‘The Mystery of the Church’ and ‘the Universal Call to Holiness, are intimately, mystagogically, linked. The call to holiness is the call to appropriate more fully and enter more deeply into the Mystery of Christ who is the Light of the nations.
Thus, it is imperative to highlight a neglected aspect of Vatican II’s achievement. Its employment of the term ‘paschal mystery.’ The term has become so commonplace we fail to attend sufficiently to its innovative appearance and usage at the Council. In an address commemorating the fiftieth anniversary of Vatican II’s Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, Sacrosanctum Concilium, Abbot Jeremy Driscoll noted that Pius XII’s encyclical, Mediator Dei (1947) ‘did much to prepare the way for Sacrosanctum Concilium; yet, one of the ways of measuring the difference and the progress between the two documents is to note that ‘paschal mystery’ is never mentioned in Mediator Dei.’ And the ‘progress’ to which Driscoll alludes is well summed up in the title of a book by Father Dominic Langevin: From Passion to Paschal Mystery.
The book argues that in Pius XII’s treatment of the sacraments ‘the accent . . . remained singularly and solely upon the Passion of Christ.’ Vatican II, however, reaped the fruits of such pioneering work as Louis Bouyer’s Le Mystère pascal (1945) and François-Xavier Durrwell’s La Résurrection du Christ, mystère de salut (1950). The result of such studies, as well as the reform under Pius XII of the Holy Week liturgies (1955), was that ‘when the Fathers of the Second Vatican Council assembled, they did not find it difficult to affirm that both the Passion and the Resurrection are mutually salvific.’”
So much for the idea that Vatican II did not advance anything truly new on a theological level. Those who say that the council was a failure and should just be “set aside” because there really is nothing in its documents worth paying attention to anymore, are people we should not be paying attention to anymore. There are a lot of folks out there these days, especially on social media, who like to pretend that they “know” Vatican II and “what is was all about” but who haven’t spent two minutes actually doing the hard work necessary to truly understand why it is still something worth valuing, indeed, worth cherishing. And that is true even on a pastoral level, despite the chaos and turmoil that ensued after the council. Too often, I think, critics of the council - - especially the lay critics - - take for granted the pastoral advances the council initiated. For example, many of the leading intellectual lights in the traditionalist movement are lay men and women. I wonder how many of them have ever stopped to ponder the fact that in the pre-conciliar Church there were very, very few lay theologians. Now they proliferate everywhere and are a true blessing in the Church. There are even lay traditionalists out there who have published books publicly denouncing Pope Francis as both a material and a formal heretic. I wonder if they realize that such books would have never seen the light of day in the pre-conciliar Church and, on the off chance that they did get published, would have brought down upon their heads a swift magisterial condemnation, and perhaps even excommunication.
But I digress. Father Imbelli continues his analysis by lamenting, along with Pope Benedict, that the Church these days seems to be suffering from a Christological amnesia as the great Christocentric message of the Council goes unnoticed and unheeded. This amnesia is also one of the reasons why the council is so routinely misrepresented and misunderstood. It is misunderstood because it has been “misremembered” as a “liberal” council with “aggiornamento” as its only guiding principle. But as Imbelli points out aggiornamento was decidedly not the main feature of the council and that the ressourcement focus on a christological re-centering of the Church was the impetus for aggiornamento and not the other way around. Thus, the Christological amnesia has led to a false narrative of the council and this false narrative had some negative pastoral consequences. Father Imbelli remarks:
“I will abbreviate my remarks in this section, since I have elsewhere lamented and attempted to chart the loss of Vatican II’s Christological ressourcement in many academic and pastoral circles since the Council. I characterize this declension from the robust Christological vision of Vatican II as the case of ‘the decapitated Body.’
Among other symptoms of this malady I have pointed to a unitarianism of the Spirit in which the names of ‘Jesus’ and ‘Father’ are expurgated; the not so benign neglect accorded Dei Verbum’s affirmation of Christ as both ‘mediator and fullness of revelation’ (DV §2); the soteriological relativism that places a hesitant question mark after the Council’s bold confession of ‘no other name’ (GS §10); the widespread ‘liturgical horizontalism’ (decried by Benedict XVI) in which almost exclusive focus is placed on the community celebrating—often expressed in the reductive slogan: ‘what’s important is who is around the altar!’.
I contend that this concern about Christological amnesia has animated the theological labors of Joseph Ratzinger—from his 1968 Introduction to Christianity, through the statement of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith: Dominus Iesus (accorded a frosty reception in many theological circles), to his 2007 volume, Jesus of Nazareth where he calls for a ‘Christological hermeneutic, which sees Jesus Christ as the key to the whole and learns from him how to understand the Bible as a unity.’”
Finally, Father Imbelli notes that the council, in its innovative development of the notion of the “paschal mystery,” recovers the importance of the Ascension of Christ as an absolutely critical component of our salvation. He couples this with the theology of Transfiguration and emphasizes that it is only when our humanity is taken up into the Divine Life through the Ascension of Christ that our true transformative transfiguration can begin. It was only after Christ’s “translation” into his heavenly reign that the historical Christ is now the eschatological Christ, ushering in the age of the “Church.” Thus, Christ’s passion, resurrection, AND his Ascension are all interrelated parts of a singular Theo-Drama which the council designates as the “paschal mystery.” Father Imbelli again:
“I will now offer some thoughts which build upon and develop what I have been arguing is crucial to the achievement of the Second Vatican Council: its return to the origin and sustaining source of the Church’s life: Jesus Christ himself. I do so by accenting the importance of two pillars of Christian faith: Ascension and Transfiguration. And, borrowing from Charles Taylor’s use of the notion of the ‘social imaginary’—that complex network of symbols, images, and concepts that articulate and orient a community’s understanding of reality—I suggest that Ascension and Transfiguration are critical dimensions of a rekindled ecclesial imaginary. Poets, musicians, liturgists, even theologians, must realize (in Newman’s strong sense of ‘realize’) and re-imagine these two inexhaustible mysteries of the faith. Realize by reimagining.
… Christ’s Ascension constitutes a new redeemed order of existence, a re-configuration of space and time, centered around the person of Jesus Christ, which is the present visible order brought to transfigured fulfillment. Moreover, contrary to an impoverished imaginary, which ‘pictures’ the Ascension as Jesus’s absence, almost as though he were on a much deserved ‘sabbatical,’ a deeper perception realizes with Benedict XVI that he ‘has not ‘gone away,’ but now and forever by God’s own power, he is present with us and for us . . . His going away is in this sense a coming, a new form of closeness, of continuing presence.’
… Charles Taylor, in a little noticed retrieval, challenges a secular age to recover a sense of theosis. To move beyond merely human flourishing to that ‘further greater transformation’ that breaks through the constricted and ultimately dehumanizing ‘immanent frame.’ It entails a purification of the spiritual senses that enables one to perceive, in the words of Gerard Manley Hopkins (whom Taylor invokes in his final chapter ‘Conversions’) that ‘the world is charged with the grandeur of God’ and that ‘Christ plays in ten thousand places/ lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his/ to the Father, through the features of men’s faces.’
Christ’s Ascension has definitively broken the bounds of the ‘immanent frame’ and inaugurated the new creation of humanity’s transfiguration in the glory of God. As the Collect for the Mass of the Ascension proclaims: ‘Christ’s Ascension is our exaltation!’ The Ascension brings into bold relief the unique Headship of Jesus Christ and founds the new identity of Christians as members of his body.
… What ‘interpretation of reality’ is offered by an ‘ecclesial imaginary,’ that sees and confesses Christ’s Ascension as integral to his Paschal Mystery and that sees transfigured humanity as perfected image of its Creator? It is a vision of reality as constitutively relational, of being as communion. Few have realized so fully the generative and transforming power of the Paschal Mystery and its implications for Church and theology as clearly as Louis Bouyer. In his pioneering work, Le Mystère pascal of 1945, Bouyer has a chapter on believers’ oneness in Christ that is as bold as Augustine. Bouyer writes:
By our new and supernatural subsistence in Christ, founded upon the Incarnation and conserved in all of us by the Eucharist, we form a single new being in the body of Christ, or, more profoundly still, in the whole Christ, in the plenitude of Christ . . . New relations are established between us, uniting us indissolubly, since henceforth we all have no longer but a single life—that of Christ in us.”
None of these theological advances would have been made absent the groundbreaking role played by the ressourcement theologians of the past century. And none of them would have gained magisterial importance without the equally groundbreaking theology of the council. The council’s Christocentrism, its development of the concept of the “paschal mystery,” its development of a profound Christian humanism, and its recentering of the Church’s theology of Revelation around these realities, are all part of the conciliar legacy. And we are only scratching the surface of that legacy.
I want to thank Father Imbelli for writing this magnificent essay, and I want to thank the incorrigible Artur Sebastian Rosman at Church Life Journal for having the wisdom to publish it. I am hoping to do a video interview with Father Imbelli on the article as a follow-up to this post. So stay tuned for that. Father Imbelli is a brilliant theologian whose talents in that regard far exceed my own and so I am looking forward to that interview. And if my former colleague at DeSales University, the gifted Balthasarian Rodney Howsare, can join us, we should have a raucous conversation.
Finally, there are more posts to come on Vatican II. My next post will be on religious freedom and the conciliar document that championed it, Dignitatis Humanae. The concept of religious freedom in that document is one of the biggest bones of contention in the ongoing debates surrounding the council. So stay tuned….
Dorothy Day, pray for us.