Thursday, March 13, 2008

Reading the Documents of Vatican II (Part 2)

In this second excerpt from the preface of The Church in the Making, theologian and author Richard R. Gaillardetz explains why it is a mistake to attempt to lift out of the documents of the Second Vatican Council “a systematic and internally coherent ecclesiology” (i.e., model of church).

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
Libertas Ecclesiae
The Shrinking Catholic Tent


kevin57 said...

The author makes a very valid point. It is more than possible to find justification for just about any theological perspective in the documents of the Council.

There is little doubt, though, that Vatican II chartered a radically new course for the Church. One needs no further analysis than to look at "very traditionalist" sources. They either ignore Vatican II or believe it to be an illegitimate Council (never is evidence presented for this).

Another question to put to your presenter. As the Council wore on it became progressively more 'progressive.' For instance, the first document on the liturgy was the most cautious. The last one, "Gaudium et Spes" was the most radical. That in itself reveals the thrust of the Spirit's inspirations.

Michael J. Bayly said...

Hi Kevin,

As always, thanks for sharing your observations and insights.



Anonymous said...

There's another new book out that bears reading and that advances the cause of V2 as "event":

Vatican II: Did Anything Happen?

Ed: David Schultenover.

Jimmy Mac

kevin57 said...

I think it is instructive...and sad...that in the two encyclicals written by Pope Benedict XVI there is only one citation from the documents of Vatican II. It makes one wonder if he thinks the Council was a mistake. At least JPII believed in the Council's work. I suspect this one doesn't.

Anonymous said...

Returning to the sources was really the impulse generated by John Henry Newman, who, like many Anglican Catholics, knew the Patristics better than anyone.

One of the sources, of course, is the Vincentian Canon of religious orthodoxy: that which is always, everywhere, by all believed. But what does that entail? Most Christians were Arians, which is heterodox.

But indisputably, all writings from Christian men and women to be retained condemn murder, theft, abortion, and homosexuality -- consistently for 2,000 years.

As Kevin57 observes, the most radical document is Gaudium et spes, 1964, which is a communitarian theocracy. Sure don't hear much said about its change from a hierarchical universe, because essentially, it remains hierarchical. The "dignity of man" is how the Church defines "dignity," which some of us find closer to "slavery."

"Natural Law" does not make many appearances (cf., JPII and Bene), because it is a fallacy, illogical, and untrue. Not even god can overrule logic, biology, or reason, except for Catholics, Christians, Jews, and Muslims.

But the whole conciliar effort avoided the use of "obey," and "obedience." Today, it is used incessantly. Even freedom of conscience, which Aquinas, Newman, and council insist is paramount, is now subordinate to fidelity oaths. Can dungeons, racks, wheels, and inquisitions be far behind?

Perhaps not. But nor will any change occur in the Church's homophobia and misogyny. It may relent on certain birth control, but still prefers people die from AIDS than use a condom to protect others. How the use of latex separates god from his creatures I'll never understand, or why dying of AIDS is both a sin even to protecting your spouse (partner).

Oh, the fresh air of aggiornamento turned stale, stuffy, and rancid rather quickly. Authority figures don't like it.

kevin57 said...


At times your arguments bug me, but this post is spot on. What's truly annoying and ludicrous is that the same crowd, "the orthodox," trumpet JPII and Bene XVI (ordinary magisterium) but somehow fail to cite an ecumenical council (extraordinary magisterium).

In the end, though, I believe the Church will yield. The one thing she cannot afford becoming is irrelevant (a la the Amish). But I put no timetable on this evolution.

Anonymous said...

"[the Church] still prefers people die from AIDS than use a condom to protect others. How the use of latex separates god from his creatures I'll never understand, or why dying of AIDS is both a sin even to protecting your spouse (partner)."

Hmmm...I can't for the life of me find a public pronouncement by anyone with teaching authority in the Church that "prefers people die from AIDS." That doesn't mean some people (to their discredit) aren't bigots. I'll stand corrected if there is an actual written or spoken statement advocating that people die from AIDS. In the absence of something we can all read and/or hear, I'd be interested in seeing something that clearly infers that "people die from AIDS." Again, its not that some people don't hold such a hideous opinion, but to assert the pastors of the Church favor it is hyperbole at least.

How about this idea: that if a person suspects they (and/or their partner) have HIV or full-blown AIDS, why not refrain from sex altogether? No need for condoms at all that way, and no risk of getting or spreading HIV/AIDS. Yes its a sacrifice, but it beats dying.