Thursday, June 9, 2011

Rupture and Reform

Over thirty years ago James Hitchcock wrote

“In the postconciliar period the dimming of the sense of eternity, of the Church as mediator between two worlds, was paralleled by a drifting away from many of these traditions – in doctrine, in liturgy, in morality, in structure because they were irreformably predicated upon belief in the Church as a supernatural institution. Reformers who began with the intention of remaining respectful of the past soon found this impossible, given their belief in the essentially temporal mission of the Church; the traditions could scarcely bear such reinterpretation without violence to their fabric. Conversely, the lessening of the authority of the traditions also meant that the eternal dimension of the Church became less and less intelligible, since the very language through which it could be expressed was lacking.”

(Catholicism and Modernity: Confrontation or Capitulation?, p. 15)

The validity of his assertion that one effect of the post-conciliar period has been a dimming of the sense of the eternal, is obvious in the modern Church. It could even be argued that in many parts of the Church a view to the eternal has been almost entirely lost. A confused form of eschatology has developed within some sectors of the Church, arguing that if God is a loving parent he would never condemn us to an eternal punishment for our temporal disobedience[1]. This idea or variations of it are widely found throughout the Church with the result being that many believe God will not hold us to account for our sins and transgressions. We would need to be guilty of only a few very grave sins, such as genocide to warrant eternal punishment. Over the years a few sins have been added to this list, such as intolerance or homophobia, but on the whole there are usually no eternal consequences for our sins as long as we try to be nice and good.

This of course is complete garbage and does not stand up to serious theological or philosophical scrutiny, but ideas such as this rarely are put under any significant scrutiny, with the result being that Catholics stop thinking about their final end because it has been assured and there is little they can do to change it. The Church then is no longer seen as a divinely instituted organism, the channel of grace and necessary means of our salvation, but rather is viewed as an organisation whose primary role is to engender and encourage the promotion of justice and peace in the world.

This is but one example of the confusion and controversy that has swept the Church in the wake of Vatican II. The enthusiasm of the reformers was so strong that many of them were carried away by a tide of change that in reality had little to do with the teachings of the Council.

We live in an exciting time of uncertainty in the Church, some would say a time of crisis like no other. A struggle of ideas is taking place for the right to authoritatively interpret the teachings of the Second Vatican Council. While the claims of a crisis are not overstated, it is certainly not unique in the history of the Church. When making his assessment of the difficulties experienced by the Church in her attempts to implement the teachings of the Council, Pope Benedict XVI noted that such crises had been the experience of the Church after other councils[2]. At the same time Benedict identified two competing views of the Council, each with its own hermeneutic or key to unlock the true meaning of the council documents.

Anyone who has held even a superficial interest into the workings of the Church since the Council would be able to identify a dichotomy of interpretations of the Council. There exists a constant struggle between those who hold these interpretations, and conversations about the changes will inevitably yield up words like old and new, conservative and liberal, traditional and progressive, pre-Vatican II and post-Vatican II, orthodox and modernist. Benedict has attempted to classify these contradictory positions in terms of the hermeneutic they use to interpret the council[3]. He identifies a hermeneutic of reform which maintains that Vatican II is part of the organic development of the Church and maintains conformity to and continuity with the teaching of the Church throughout history. The second hermeneutic he identifies is a hermeneutic of discontinuity or rupture that views the Council either explicitly or implicitly as a new beginning or change in direction for the church. The former teachings, liturgy and practice of the church had been superseded by Vatican II[4].

The Seeds of Rupture

The Second Vatican Council was unique in the life of the Church, in that it was not called at a time of crisis in the Church, in order to confront error, clarify a point of doctrine or settle a dispute within the Church. This council was not intended to modify or change Church Doctrine and belief but to guard it, to take “a step forward toward a doctrinal penetration and a formation of consciousness in faithful and perfect conformity to the authentic doctrine, which, however, should be studied and expounded through the methods of research and through the literary forms of modern thought.”[5] The council was called to “bring up to date” the methods of evangelisation and to respond to a world that had changed significantly in its political structures and technological advancements.

Unlike former councils of the Church, the Fathers of the council relied heavily on the attending periti (expert theologians) to advise them on the detail of proposals in the working documents. In fact the theologians became so influential that they became in a real sense the teachers of even the Bishops.[6]

The enthusiasm of the periti engendered by the council spread quickly among other theologians, priests, religious and laity alike, and this continued after the council. “Theologians increasingly felt themselves to be the true teachers of the Church and even of the bishops.”[7] Discovered by the media, the theologian became the expert and the Magisterium, and especially the Vatican, began to be seen as antiquated and medieval in the eyes of the world.[8] The superiority and veracity of the theologian was assumed, and objections by the Magisterium or appeals to its authority were often met with ridicule or analogous references to the Galileo controversy. This negative view of the Vatican or anyone who questioned the expertise of the theologians was assisted by appeals to Pope John XXIII’s opening speech to the Council. They took out of context his references to “prophets of gloom” who were worried about the nature, timing and possible outcomes of the council.[9]


The enthusiasm for reform quickly became an expectation of change that began to pervade the Church. The call to update the Church and to engage the modern world soon became in the minds of many, a call to change the Church and accommodate the modern world. The first significant evidence of this came in 1968 with the promulgation of Pope Paul VI’s encyclical on Human Life, Humanae Vitae. Theologians, academics, priests and religious protested its continuation of the Church’s moral teaching against the use of contraceptives to regulate the conception of children.

A committee of experts had recommended that Pope Paul change the Church’s teaching and he didn’t. Who did he think he was, defying the experts? In many parts of the world, in the West in particular, the laity were counselled that while the Church “teaches” that contraception is wrong, Vatican II says that there is a primacy of conscience, so if you feel in your conscience that you should use contraception, then you can without being guilty of any sin. Hence the uptake of “the Pill” has been the same among Catholics as it has been among others despite the Church’s ban.[10]

The dissent from Humanae Vitae was widespread and even some national Episcopal Conferences dissented from it.[11] A culture of dissent quickly grew among theologians and individuals who began to dissent not only from the moral teachings but also from long settled doctrinal teachings of the Church. Theologians who had led the council changed their understanding of the Church and its ecclesiology.[12]

The beginning had been made of what Avery Dulles came to identify in the dissenting positions of the Catholic Theological Society of America as a “kind of alternative magisterium for dissatisfied Catholics.”[13]  Those theologians, Bishops, priests, religious and laity who embraced the culture of dissent believed that the documents of Vatican II were a result of compromise and did not fully reflect the true intentions of the Council Fathers and it was thus up to them to keep alive the Spirit of Vatican II,[14] even if no one could clearly state the objectives or ends to which this “spirit” was moving.


The Second Vatican Council has given the Church much to digest and, when properly interpreted according to its word rather than a vague “spirit”, the tools we need to go out into the world and bring the Gospel to all men. Many, though certainly not all, have in the name of progress and the Council, run blindly into the world chanting for change and they have only been successful really in causing confusion and slowing the real task of the council. They still attempt to justify dissent[15], or claim that the Pope does not properly understand the teaching of the council and the vocation of theologians.[16] Yet by identifying the hermeneutic of rupture and the hermeneutic of continuity the Holy Father has given the Church the tool necessary to sift the chaff from the wheat.

The generation of dissent is aging as they has largely been unable to inspire young people to take up their call to continue the revolution. This failure is contrasted with the huge success of World Youth Days held around the world which has enabled the Church to engage the culture in a meaningful way. Young Catholics are being challenged by an Orthodox message of faith and they find it both convincing and compelling. Through these modern tools and a greater use of the media and new technologies, the Magisterium is increasingly able to sidestep the remaining theologians and inspire, instruct, and educate people as the fathers of the Council intended.

The hermeneutic of discontinuity has largely run its course, it has caused much damage to the body of Christ and the faith of those raised within its influence but it is increasingly losing traction in the minds of a smaller and younger generation of theologians, priests, Bishops, religious and laity. Increasingly theologians or Bishops and priests will run to the media to dissent from certain teachings, but fewer and fewer Mass going Catholics are paying any attention to them. Their public dissent is more and more looking like, what the author of three interview based books on Pope Benedict XVI has called, a rebellion in a nursing home.[17] 


[1] Linn, D., Linn, S.F., Linn, M. Good Goats: Healing Our Image of God  (Mahwah, N.J., Paulist Press, 1994)

[2] Benedict XVI, Address to the Roman Curia Offering them His Christmas Greetings, (22 December, 2005) [retrieved from the Vatican Web Site – 6th June, 2011] 

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] John XXIII, Address on the occasion of the solemn opening of the Most Holy Council, (11 October, 1962)  [retrieved from Our Lady's Warriors – 6th June, 2011]

[6] Ratzinger, J., The Nature and Mission of Theology, (San Francisco, Ignatius Press 1995) [Kindle Edition retrieved from Amazon, May 2011] Location #1,192.

[7] Ibid., Location #1,195

[8] Ibid.

[9] John XXIII op. cit. (A good example of this is found at the site

[10] Shea, L., Catholic Church Birth Control  from the site Lisa Shea / Naturalist,  (Copyright  © 2011 Minerva WebWorks LLC), [retrieved 8th June 2011] 

[11] The Bishops of Canada, CANADIAN BISHOPS' STATEMENT ON THE ENCYCLICAL "HUMANAE VITAE'' (Winnipeg, Canada - 27 September, 1968) [retrieved 9th June 2011]

[12] Messori, V. & Ratzinger, J. The Ratzinger Report (San Francisco, Ignatius Press 1985) p.18

[13] Dulles, A., Donovan, M.A., Steinfels, P. How Catholic Is the CTSA? Three Views - Commonweal. Volume: 125. Issue: 6. (Publication Date: March 27, 1998.)

[14] Benedict XVI, op cit.

[15] Curran, C., A Place for Dissent: My argument with Joseph RatzingerCommonweal (Publication Date: May 6, 2005) ) [retrieved 7th June 2011]

[16] McBrien, R., Interpreting Vatican II – (Copyright ©2007 Richard P. McBrien) Voice of the Faithful of Long Island website, [retrieved 6th June 2011]

[17] Luxmore, J. Theologians' dissent a 'rebellion in a nursing home' Catholic News Service, Reprinted in the Perth Record 16th February, 2011

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