Vatican II: Substantive Teaching
I appreciate the invitation of the editors of America to respond to the article in this issue by John W. O’Malley, S.J., “Vatican II: Official Norms,” and to the very substantive letters published on March 17 commenting on my own article “Vatican II: The Myth and the Reality,” which was published on Feb. 24.
Father O’Malley is quite correct in what he says about the style of the Second Vatican Council. Pope John XXIII sensed that Catholics had spent too long lamenting the errors of the modern world and had failed to take sufficient account of the good things going on outside their own community. They were in danger of isolating themselves, to the detriment of the church’s mission. Following the pope’s wise counsel, Vatican II made every effort to avoid the tone of condemnation in speaking of other Christian churches, of non-Christian religions and of secular science and ideologies—even though the council did condemn a few things, such as Marxist atheism, abortion and obliteration bombing.
The benefits reaped from the council’s change of course have been enormous. We need cordial dialogue with those whose convictions differ from our own. But such dialogue should never mean a retreat from the fullness of the Catholic faith, of which we are the heirs and the trustees.
Here, precisely, is the rub. The council did, as Father O’Malley perceives, adopt a rhetoric of consensus, service, openness to change and inclusiveness. But that rhetoric did little to prepare people for cases in which consensus could not be reached, or in which people did not want to hear what the church was to obliged to preach, or in which ecclesiastical institutions are not subject to change, or in which inclusion would destroy the necessary unity of the flock of Christ. By their tone, if not their content, the council documents exuded optimism and perhaps raised unrealistic expectations. The calls for submission and compliance were so muted that readers could easily overlook them.
The difficulty was increased by the condition of Western culture in the years when the council was being received. In the Western world the dominant liberalism impelled the interpreters to fit the council’s teaching into the prevailing democratic and egalitarian categories. Publicists of the council, moved by the spirit of the times, often gave tendentious readings to the documents. When they could not successfully twist the texts to suit their own purposes, they appealed to the spirit (or the style) and ignored the letter. They simply assumed that the council could not have meant to say anything offensive to non-Catholic Christians, to members of other faiths or to people raised in a liberal democratic culture. As a result, everything came to be placed on the same level: Christianity and other religions, the Catholic Church and other Christian communities, the hierarchy and the laity, the sacred and the secular. Everything had to give way to what Father O’Malley identifies as the criteria of “liberty, equality and fraternity.”
I have no difficulty in speaking of the spirit of the council, nor did the Synod of Bishops in 1985. But the spirit should not be driven against the letter; style should not eclipse substance. As most of the letters to the editor recognize, the council fathers were not starry-eyed liberals. The council documents did affirm the need to preserve the apostolic heritage of faith, sacraments and ministry. To a degree that seems surprising in view of the popular impressions of the council, the council fathers affirmed continuity with the past, including the Council of Trent, the First Vatican Council and the teaching of Pope Pius XII.
Since the council, the popes and the synods of bishops have been laudably conscious of their responsibility to guard the deposit that has been entrusted to them (1 Tm 1:14). They have found the council documents very helpful for that purpose, when those documents are read for their substance rather than their style. At times the Roman authorities have found it necessary to speak more plainly and less diplomatically for the sake of truth and fidelity. Dominus Iesus did precisely that in its treatment of the uniqueness of Christ and of the Catholic Church. The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith seems to have learned from hard experience that when you couch unpopular teachings in “polite” language, people easily conclude that you didn’t really mean what you said.
Several of the letters to the editor reflect a misunderstanding of what is meant by the “hermeneutics of continuity.” When the Synod of Bishops in 1985 recommended this approach to the council documents, it had no intention of denying change. No serious student of Vatican II would wish to say that it changed nothing—the view that the Rev. Charles Miller, in his letter to the editor, attributes to Cardinal McIntyre. But the council was careful to avoid disruptive change.
In his Essay on the Development of Chistian Doctrine (1845), Cardinal John Henry Newman gives a full and lengthy defense of change as a sign of vitality in the church. But he insists on what he calls “preservation of type,” “continuity of principles” and “conservative action on the past.” Right from the beginning of his book he excludes the possibility of doctrinal reversals. Those who think that Christianity accommodates itself to times and seasons, he says, usually end up by abandoning the supernatural claims of Christianity—a phenomenon that is no less common today than it was in Newman’s day.
Curiously enough, the most dramatic doctrinal innovations of Vatican II would seem to run directly against the spirit of egalitarianism. No previous council explained at such length the role of Christ as the author of every grace and as the center and goal of all human history. The council affirmed the necessary role of the church as the instrument used by Christ for his entire work of redemption. It repeated the strongest claims of Vatican I for papal primacy and infallibility and supplemented them with a strong insistence on the hierarchical authority of bishops. The council went far beyond earlier magisterial pronouncements in teaching that episcopal ordination is a sacrament that places bishops in a distinct order, and that bishops have, together with the pope, complete authority over the church, under Christ the Lord, to whom they must render an account of their ministry.
Did the council’s teaching on the common priesthood give the laity new powers? Some tried to use the spirit of the council, and even some phrases in its texts, to argue that it gave lay persons a kind of veto power over magisterial teaching. Avant-garde theologians have argued that the common priesthood, recognized by Vatican II, confers the right to perform certain priestly functions, including that of consecrating the Eucharist. But the council excluded these aberrations. It taught that the common priesthood of the faithful and the ministerial priesthood of the ordained differ in kind and not only in degree.
Do I, as John F. Long, S.J., in his letter alleges, take a purely juridical view of the laity? That is far from my intention. Even in the brief compass of my article, I used the opportunity to mention the importance of consulting the laity and the value of cooperation between clergy and laity. The contribution of the lay auditors at Vatican II, to which Father Long and Dennis Haugh allude, is exactly the kind of collaboration I had in mind. In addition, I took notice of the specific vocation of the laity to refashion secular society according to the Gospel. I only cautioned that the council kept the ministry of pastoral governance firmly in the hands of the hierarchy. After listening to the advice of the laity, the pastors still have the duty to exercise their own judgment, which is decisive. Am I being narrowly juridical?
Many of the letters raise questions about my position, or that of Cardinal Ratzinger, on the term subsistit in (Long, Sullivan, Andy Galligan, Haugh). For my part, I have never understood the council as teaching, or intending to teach, or in any way suggesting, that the church of Christ subsists anywhere except in Roman Catholicism. By “subsisting,” the council apparently meant not only existing in some minimal sense, but continuing to exist in substantial completeness, with all the institutional elements that Christ bestowed upon his church. This, I think, is the meaning of subsistence that Cardinal Ratzinger has set forth in many documents, including the two cited by Father Sullivan.
Father Sullivan accuses me of giving the impression that Vatican II did not say anything really new about the relationship between the church of Christ and the Catholic Church. Let me then clarify. The council brought a new and deeper theology of catholicity to bear on the ecumenical question. The church of Christ, it taught, is essentially one and catholic. Everything authentically Christian, therefore, must have a catholic character and tend toward catholic unity. Christ’s church is not a large tent housing a variety of denominational churches, of which the Catholic Church would be one. Nor is it a genus containing multiple species. Catholicity is not something added on to Christianity from the outside.
Churches that lack full communion with Rome are imperfectly Catholic and by that token imperfectly Christian. But because they have authentic Christian endowments, they can grow in sanctity by devoutly using these means of grace. Father Long is correct in saying that the Eucharist, celebrated in Orthodox churches, may contribute to the building up of the church of God. In the words of Vatican II, “the Spirit of Christ has not refrained from using them [these churches] as means of salvation, whose efficacy comes from that fullness of grace and truth which has been entrusted to the Catholic Church” (UR, No. 3). Every grace-filled event in these separated churches augments the partial communion they already have with the Catholic Church.
In reply to Father Kobler, I must point out that my article was only a corrective of some misreadings of the council. For my positive views on the contributions of Vatican II to ecclesiology I can refer to several books I have written on the subject. The theme of my recent article required a concentration on the doctrinal teaching of the council. That teaching is hardly unimportant. In the speech to which Father Kobler refers, Pope John XXIII asserted: “The greatest concern of the Ecumenical Council is this: that the sacred deposit of Christian doctrine should be guarded and taught more efficaciously.”
Nathan Kollar chides me for not having relied on autobiographies and memoirs for the interpretation of the council documents. I have actually read quite a number of such accounts, but I would be cautious in drawing on them. Where the documents are ambiguous, different fathers presumably had different views. What one or another of them had in mind is of little importance if they did not succeed in getting their views written into the text. The principles of interpretation proposed by the Synod of Bishops in 1985 are on the whole more reliable.
Professor Joseph Kelly, whose letter concludes the mailbag to which I am responding, is certainly correct in saying that dissent has abounded since Vatican II. This development is regrettable in a community that heeds Paul’s exhortation “that all of you agree and that there be no dissensions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same judgment” (1 Cor 1:10).
Why is dissent so rampant among younger Catholics? An important contributing cause, I suggest, is the reluctance of their elders, both lay and clerical, to challenge them with the hard truths of the Gospel. Misled by a false spirit of accommodation, parents and teachers take the easy path and advise people to follow their own conscience, as though conscience did not have to be formed in light of the teaching of Christ, which continues to resound through the church. In giving this advice they may think they are obedient to the spirit or style of Vatican II, but they are unfaithful to its substantive teaching.