Gaillardetz’s words of caution echo theologian William Hunt’s recent observation that “the Vatican II documents, in many places, are compromise documents that smooth over some of the major conflicts without resolving them.”
Despite this rather problematic reality, Gaillardetz, in the excerpt below, identifies and describes “two impulses” that were shared by the bishops at Vatican II and which impelled them to seek ecclesial reform and renewal.
As I noted in Part 1, Richard Gaillardetz will be the keynote speaker at next month’s Call to Action Minnesota conference. The topic of his presentation will be: “Rethinking Hierarchy: Becoming a Community of Conversation.” For more information about this event, see the “Upcoming Events” section in the latest issue of The Progressive Catholic Voice online journal.
As we study the documents of the [Second Vatican] Council, it would be a mistake to try and lift out of those documents a systemic and internally coherent ecclesiology. Attempts at developing a nascent conciliar ecclesiology around a particular biblical image, like the people of God, or one theological concept, like that of communion, risk imposing on the texts a theological unity that simply is not there. It is unrealistic to expect that a council in which between two and three thousand bishops and numerous other theologians played some part would be able to construct a rigorously systematic theology of the church.
The work of the council was grounded less in a common theology of the church than in a shared commitment to two impulses that impelled the bishops to seek ecclesial reform and renewal. One is captured by the French term ressourcement, a “return to the sources.” This term referred to a commitment to recover the theological vision of the early church that had been eclipsed by the static neo-scholastic view dominant on the eve of the council. This ressourcement led to a recovery of a more theological understanding of the church grounded in baptism and Eucharist rather than in law and jurisdiction. It meant a return to the liturgical spirituality of the first millennium in preference to the arid mechanistic view of liturgy and sacraments that dominated in neo-scholasticism.
The second impulse for renewal is captured in the Italian word aggiornamento, which can be translated as “bringing up to date.” Advocates of this view feared that the church had become largely irrelevant to the concerns of the modern world. The work of aggiornamento demanded a policy of active and respectful engagement with the world out of a confident expectation that the hand of God was at work in the world. It called for a new ecumenical impulse. This theological perspective, with its relatively greater confidence in God’s action in the world, reflected not so much the patristic theological vision of the first millennium as the theological vision associated with the thirteenth-century Dominican, St. Thomas Aquinas.
Pope Paul VI, early in his pontificate, expressed a concern that the documents of the council might engender harmful church divisions. Consequently, though the rules of the council allowed a document to be approved with a two-thirds majority, Pope Paul made it known that he wished the documents to be approved by a moral (rather than absolute) unanimity among the bishops. A cursory review of the final voting suggests that the pope got what he desired, as no document was opposed in the final vote by more than a handful of bishops.
But there was a price to be paid for this high level of unanimity. Significant compromises were made. When achieving full consensus was unlikely, one way of obtaining approval of a document was to juxtapose, sometimes in the same paragraph, alternative formulations. Sometimes this juxtaposition occurred merely at the level of formulation, with diverse formulae employed to express a deeper consensus. At other times the compromise required was much more profound, occurring at the level of content, where two or more fundamental views which could not be reconciled were placed side by side. Some of the tensions in post-conciliar interpretation were a direct consequence of this latter form of juxtaposition or compromise.
To some extent this form of compromise is evident at every council. It is why conciliar documents should never be considered to be systemic treatises. Indeed, anyone who has ever served on a committee to draft a common document is aware of this fact. However, because of the uniquely transitional character of Vatican II, juxtaposition appears particularly striking in its documents. At the council, the advantages of this method of juxtaposition was that it ultimately enabled passage of sixteen conciliar documents. The disadvantage was that it would become possible for various ideological camps to appeal to certain passages that appeared to support their particular ecclesiastical agenda.
In an influential study, Antonio Acerbi maintained that in Lumen Gentium two fundamentally different ecclesiologies were being juxtaposed, one more juridical in character and the other orientated toward the priority of baptism and the church as communion. The result has been the creation of a “canon within a canon,” in which each group cites texts in justification of its agenda without any consideration of the whole corpus of documents.
- Excerpted from The Church in the Making by Richard R. Gaillardetz (New York: Paulist Press, 2006).
For Part 3 of “Reading the Documents of Vatican II,” click here.
See also the previous Wild Reed posts:
Reading the Documents of Vatican II (Part 1)
Truth About “Spirit Vatican II” Finally Revealed
The Shrinking Catholic Tent