Shortly after announcing his abdication of the papal throne, Pope Benedict XVI met with the clergy of Rome and spoke (unscripted) to them about the Second Vatican Council. As a man who was both present at the Council and spent a great deal of his pastoral life energies in implementing it, his comments are particularly relevant as the Church continues to make sense of what St. John Paul II called the greatest gift of the Holy Spirit to the Church in the third millennium.
Volumes could be written on what the Pope Emeritus said that day, there is one point in particular that is worthy of mentioning and that is the struggle within the Church to authentically interpret the Council and to implement it. This is because there were actually two Councils that “occurred” which Benedict calls the real council and the virtual council. The latter he saw as a Council of the media in which, led by the press, the teachings of the Council were presented as wholly new. Thanks to a decided advantage of being able to capture the limited attention span of the priests and laymen in the pew, the “real Council had difficulty establishing itself and taking shape; the virtual Council was stronger than the real Council.”
Of course, any authentic understanding of the Council must begin by examining its purpose. In an address that he gave to open the second period of the Second Vatican Council, Blessed Paul VI emphasized the pastoral character of the Council and went on to define its four purposes. They were to come up with a fuller definition of the notion of the Church, to renew the Church, to promote the restoration of unity among all Christians and to initiate a dialogue with the contemporary world. Perhaps the most overarching theme was the necessity of the Church to be in dialogue with the modern world. In fact, in the Papal Bull convoking the Second Vatican Ecumenical Council, St. John XXIII said that the Council was called “to place the modern world in contact with the life-giving and perennial energies of the Gospel.” The Pope proposed that this encounter with the world would be carried out through a process of what he called aggiornamento.
As the Church has expanded into different cultures throughout history, she has always done so by a spirit of inculturation. The Church would look at each new culture and see what elements could be “baptized,” helping to explain the truths of the faith by using something the people were already familiar with. Think of it as using parables in time. Parables used some familiar image and make some change to it in order to highlight a truth that had never been seen before (like the farmer who everyone would think “stupid” throwing seed on the walkway to show the “recklessness” of God in giving grace). So something like local gods were replaced with patron saints—not gods, but powerful intercessors before the One True God but with powers for good similar to their local gods.
Although the word Aggiornamento literally means updating, it is more accurately described as being akin to inculturation, except as applied to a specific time rather than a specific culture. The Church wanted to examine the modern paradigm, especially the prevailing philosophies and see what elements could be “baptized” to better explain the Faith to the modern world.
Why this was even necessary was because the spirit of the world had eclipsed the Christian spirit. The Church had been true leaven in the world for a number of centuries and that was no longer the case. Previously Christian societies were becoming non-Christian, or even decidedly anti-Christian. In other words, the Church and the World had grown such that they were once again at odds with each other. This led to a prevailing attitude of pessimism about anything “secular” and a rejection of anything that didn’t have its source in the Church. This pessimism led to the formation of Catholic ghettos and a serious loss of apostolic zeal.
Even if the members of the City of God wanted to be apostolic, they lacked the language to engage those who lived in the City of Man. Thus a need to examine the world and see which elements could be included in the Church’s explanation of Revelation and herself.
In order to counter this pessimism, the Council Fathers thought it necessary to point out the positive aspects of the elements of the surrounding culture. And this is where Pope Benedict’s identification of the two councils is particularly apt. Because many aspects, heretofore only mentioned in a negative way, are now mentioned in a positive way it appears to be a “change” in the Church’s teaching. Since the council of the media will only report news, i.e. that which is “new,” then most people will only hear about change. It will appear as if the Church is finally updating the faith and getting with the times. If those things changed, then why can’t everything change with the world? And thus we see the invention of the virtual council’s “Spirit of Vatican II.”
In short, there was a widespread tendency to fall into the most fatal of all fallacies, what I call the “either/or” fallacy. Fatal, because to be Catholic is to see “both/and.” This should not surprise us since the basis of our faith is that Jesus is not either God or man, but both God and man. How this applies to the Council is that it was never intended to replace the negative with the positive. It emphasized the positive so that we could see the wheat amongst the chaff. It never meant to say that we should swallow the chaff with the wheat or to say that it was all wheat.
The Power of the Footnote
Take for example the Council’s teachings on other religions, a point that Philip Trower makes in his excellent book on the Council called Truth and Turmoil. There are two ways of looking at other religions. They can be seen as systems of belief that make a claim on man’s total allegiance and thus as obstacles to the Gospel or they can be viewed as man’s groping for truth without the help of divine revelation and therefore contains seeds of truth even if imbedded in error. It is in the latter sense that it is a preparation for the Gospel. The Council’s emphasis on the latter was just that, a point of emphasis, and not a rejection of the first viewpoint. Both, of course, are (still)true.
This is why Pope Benedict XVI repeatedly insisted that the “spirit of Vatican II is in the letter.” What he meant is that you had better read the documents of the real council and not the virtual council before rendering judgement on what actually happened. Many people are surprised at the contents of the documents when they actually read them. We all have a tendency to skip over footnotes when reading, but with Church documents it is important to pay attention to them. They are not merely “prooftexts” but show how the teaching fits within Tradition. Before you quickly rule something as “new” or “changed” you better make sure the footnotes don’t say something different than your interpretation. There is great power in the footnotes.
Rather than fall victim an “either/or” mentality, it bears mention that even the “real council” is not without its problems. But rather than emphasize those problems the question is how to move forward. It was a valid Council and any Catholic that bears the name must believe that the teaching of any Council ratified by the reigning pope will always be capable of a Catholic interpretation. That interpretation might not be clear and it may be convoluted because of poor wording.
I don’t think John Paul II was exaggerating or wearing rose colored glasses when he viewed the Council as a gift. What this means though is that we must look at what the Holy Spirit had in mind when He called (or allowed it to be called) the Council. That is where the true interpretation lies. In a time when the Church is greatly divided, it may be the Council and its authentic interpretation that unites us. This starts with a personal commitment from all the Faithful to read, study and pray through the documents.