Friday, December 29, 2023

The Unresolved Debate: What Is the Proper Interpretation of Vatican II? (Opinion)

The papacy of Pope Francis has been marked by pointed debate from its inception, and 2023 was no different in this regard. 

As always, the Pope has his fervent adherents, as well as his fevered detractors.

However, in order to situate this papacy in its proper context it is important to view the continuing controversies surrounding Pope Francis, and the pushback they have generated, as part of a larger and unresolved debate in the Church about the proper interpretation and reception of the Second Vatican Council.

And when viewed in this light we will see that the challenges posed by this papacy are both less serious than those who have alleged that the Pope has taught heresy, but also worse than those who think that he is in total continuity with the previous two pontificates. 

Because the “phenomenon” that is Pope Francis is an eruption into full view of a deep clash of theological approaches concerning the Council that has never been resolved and which has been festering in the Church for 60 years.

This is why I think all of the recent talk in some circles of papal heresy is both irresponsible and empirically false. 

Nothing the Pope has said or written in the form of an official magisterial text contains formal or material heresy and all of it can be interpreted in an orthodox way. 

It is closer to the truth, I think, to view Pope Francis as part of the ongoing and unresolved 60-year-old debate within modern Catholicism about how to properly read Vatican II.

To that end, I think the best interpretation of Pope Francis is that he is a pre-Vatican II liberal along the lines of a Yves Congar or a Romano Guardini in his basic instincts, but that he has also evolved beyond those theological categories and has placed himself within the stream of a post-conciliar theological trajectory that is more progressive than those pre-conciliar liberals were.

This requires some unpacking. In the post-conciliar theological guild, a view of the Council emerged among progressives who maintained that the actual conciliar texts were still too conservative since they are the product of a series of endless compromises made at the Council with the conservative bishops who were acting as obstructionists. 

The end result, the progressives maintain, was a series of documents that contain the “seeds” of a more radical vision even if they are still buried under the soil of an excessive traditionalism.

The Council, they say, should be viewed as a Holy Spirit-inspired event that established processes of change that transcend the actual documents. 

Thus, in their view, what the Holy Spirit was seeking was a radical change to the very essence of the Church and thus, via the conciliar “process,” inspired the Church to move toward a kind of self-rupture with certain key elements of its “recent” past. 

In particular, a rupture was sought with the form of the Church produced during the medieval, renaissance, and baroque eras.

I think Pope Francis, while not necessarily buying into the full-orbed conclusions of such theological approaches, embraces nevertheless many aspects of the view that ecclesial processes are more important than particular theological constructions, and that this is not only true of Vatican II but also of other ecclesial endeavors as well. 

And as evidence for this I need only point to the recently concluded first installment of the Synod on Synodality whose various textual expressions are heavily larded with this language of “process” and “event,” beginning with the initial instrumentum laboris and on through the final document put out by the Synod at its conclusion. 

And immediately we saw various progressive pundits begin to emphasize that the actual final text produced by the Synod is not nearly as important as the “event” of the Synod as such.

This is indeed a red flag for many, but there are other factors to consider, as well, and those other factors complicate things a bit. 

Because if the Pope is so sympathetic to a hermeneutics of Spirit-led radical revisionism, how then to interpret the fact the Pope has not given the progressives even one of their most sought-after changes?

He has not changed the teaching on contraception, homosexuality, women’s ordination, priestly celibacy or even, and despite some small opening in Amoris Laetitia, communion for the divorced and civilly remarried.

But actions speak louder than words, and certainly louder than the silence of the inactions described above, and the actions of this pope indicate a strong preference for theologians and prelates who read the Council as a rupture with the past and as a mandate for an ongoing revolution within the Church. 

Personnel is policy, as the adage goes, and therefore the key to this papacy is to look at who he has favored in his episcopal appointments, and how he has restructured various pontifical institutions in terms of personnel, as well as the calculated optics of whom he chooses to grant private audiences to and the transparent skewing of Synodal listening in a progressive direction. 

This skewing of the Synod can be seen in the fact that the Relator General of the Synod, appointed by Pope Francis, is Cardinal Hollerich of Luxembourg who has publicly dissented from Church teaching on homosexuality — a dissent he does not even bother to nuance in any way as he claims, simply and bluntly, that on this issue the Church is just “wrong.” 

There is also the fact that the majority of the Vatican-chosen voting representatives to the Synod are also progressives seeking changes on hot-button issues on sex, gender, and Holy Orders.

However, is it possible that the Pope does indeed want many of these same progressive changes following the “spirit of Vatican II,” but wants the Church to “grow” into them organically via a process of “synodal listening” precisely in order to avoid schism and protect ecclesial unity? 

This would also explain why he allows the German Synodal Way to continue even as he cautions them about forging ahead on their own without a broader Church consensus on such things as ordaining women. 

The Pope, in other words, is sympathetic with the broader theological aims of the German synod but sees the danger of a balkanized Church with various episcopal conferences all going their own way. 

Put another way, perhaps Pope Francis wants a more liberal Church, one more in line with the tonalities of modern values, and one less focused on doctrines and theology, without for all that succumbing to the fractiousness of the Anglicans who have trod a similar path before us.

It is instructive then to examine carefully the response given by Pope Francis to the five dubia (questions) sent to him recently.

In his answer to the fourth question, which was on the ordination of women, the Pope responded by reiterating the authoritative nature of Pope John Paul’s teaching on the inadmissibility of women the Holy Orders. 

But he then qualified this statement and said, “On the other hand, to be rigorous, let us recognize that a clear and authoritative doctrine on the exact nature of a ‘definitive statement’ has not yet been fully developed. 

It is not a dogmatic definition, and yet it must be adhered to by all. No one can publicly contradict it and yet it can be a subject of study, as with the case of the validity of ordinations in the Anglican Communion.”

This qualification has not been noticed by many commentators who tended to focus on the Pope’s reiteration of a strong “No” to women’s ordination. 

And yet, the qualification given here is actually quite a little bombshell in its own right since what the Pope is saying is that the Church does not really have an “authoritative doctrine” on just exactly how perennially binding a “definitive statement” of the magisterium is. 

A further implication is that if a teaching is non-infallible it is by definition merely “definitive” but not necessarily binding for all time. And therefore, despite being “definitive” in a sense that calls for ecclesial obedience, it does not really close the door to any future changes that further “study” might stir up.

His apparent deep antipathy for more traditional Catholics, who he dismissively characterizes as “backwardists,” is another “tell” that he leans in the direction of a post-conciliar line of rupturist interpretations. 

His draconian response to the traditional Latin Mass movement corresponds to a view of the Council as establishing a process characterized by an “ever-forward” dynamic and which therefore frowns upon mere text-based approaches to the Council as so much hide-bound conservatism.

Sacrosanctum Concilium, whose 60th anniversary we just celebrated, is a case study in this mentality. A careful reading of its actual text would not lead one to conclude that the Mass of Paul VI is the liturgy the Council fathers actually envisioned. 

But if one treats the document instead as a simple initiator of a spirit of change that now has free rein to move beyond the text itself in a radical way, then adherence to the Mass of Paul VI becomes the litmus test of one’s adherence to that particular conciliar hermeneutic. 

This is why all criticism of the new Mass has to be squelched because any such criticism further implies a criticism of “the conciliar process,” even if those criticisms appeal to actual conciliar texts, or especially if they appeal to conciliar texts.

We can lament these facts as a horrible betrayal of Vatican II but that would be a futile exercise. Because what the progressives’ approach to the Council, as an event that transcends text and as a spirit that transcends the letter, is not going to be refuted by quoting that text and that letter right back at them, because it is that very letter which they reject as insufficient as a baseline for applying the Council’s inner “spirit” toward an ongoing movement of reform.

Theologically, what has to be developed first is exactly why the distinction that liberals make between text and event, spirit and letter, is so deeply incoherent on a foundational theological level — why such a distinction violates the first principle of Christianity as the self-exegesis of God in the historically real particularism of the Incarnation. 

And therefore, that it further violates the first principle of the ecclesiology that follows from this, which is an affirmation that the Incarnation is palpably and visibly extended into history precisely in and through the concrete “letter” (flesh) of inspired textual word (Scripture), doctrine (conciliar and papal texts), and sacrament (ex opere operato structure and office).

There is therefore a deep theological contrast between the fundamentally christological nature of the proper incarnational approach to the Council — as with all councils — and the dangerously open-ended nature of liberal calls for a Church in a state of endless “suspension” of its doctrines. 

And in this endless suspension of doctrines, which are casually dismissed as historically relativized truths for another era, we also see that those in the Church who continue to take doctrines seriously are accused of that most protean of categories: “fundamentalism.” 

But the Church is not a high school debating club and cannot be in a constant forensic posture of political debates with no inner guiding christological teleology that all agree upon as normative.

Therefore, and no matter how exhausted many are with the whole tiresome question of “what did Vatican II really say?” the fact is that the case of Vatican II has been reopened by the Pope himself. 

No matter how maddening it might be, we need to head back into court to relitigate a case we thought the last two popes had already decided. 

And we must remember as well that it took several centuries, and not a few martyrs to the faith, to finally put in place a standard, magisterial understanding of the christological dogmas of Nicaea. 

Where would we be now if Athanasius or Maximus had said, “What? This same nonsense again about conciliar interpretations? Forget it! I am tired of these conciliar ambiguities and fights over them! Now let go of my tongue.”

So the game’s afoot. We can either run away into some imagined fortress of solitude while burning bridges behind us with accusations of papal heresy, or we can, like those before us, take a deep breath and take on the task of conciliar interpretation and appropriation once again. 

Because other than rejecting the Council and the entirety of the magisterium of the Church since then, we have no other choice.