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The Renewal of Vatican II: Distractions and Distortions | Douglas Bushman, S.T.L. | Ignatius Insight

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Years of teaching courses on Vatican II and Ecclesiology have provided me the data of an ongoing survey that continues to produce amazingly consistent results. The question is simple: "What is the first word that comes to mind when I say, 'Vatican II'?" Invariably the response is "renewal" and "change." The same answer comes from countless groups of adults with whom I have reflected on the Council that Pope John Paul II described as "the gift of the Holy Spirit" to the Church of our time.

The follow-up question produces similarly consistent results, though it may be difficult to discern at first. To the question, "What kind of change?" people point first to the liturgy: Mass said in English, priest facing the assembly, laity serving as extraordinary ministers of the Eucharist, communion received in the hand. Often mentioned is the adaptation of the discipline of abstinence from meat on Friday. Others point to participation on parish or diocesan pastoral or finance councils, while some refer to institutional innovations such as the synod of bishops, the International Theological Commission, and the many new pontifical councils.

Seemingly widely diverse, these examples have something in common; they are visible and institutional changes. Observable changes such as these naturally draw our attention; they are the first things we notice. The Council, however, did not see changes as ends in themselves, but as means to something higher. The challenge is to look beyond them, or through them, to discover that more profound reality. Such a "looking beyond" is natural for Catholic faith, which perceives the Son of God in Jesus of Nazareth, and the bestowal of grace in the visible signs we call sacraments.

What is that more profound reality? It is holiness, as unchanging in its nature as doctrine, the essence of the sacraments, and the hierarchical constitution of the Church. Holiness, that is, life in communion with God in faith, hope and charity lived in the ongoing conversion that is an unending task for the Church, is fundamentally the same in all ages. The real challenge of Vatican II is the change or renewal of hearts that in the Gospels is called metanoia.

It is possible to get distracted, caught up in the liturgical and institutional dimension of renewal, and lose sight of the fact that these are at the service of making the Church's mission more effective. That mission is identical to Christ's own: the reconciliation of men with God through the forgiveness of sins and justifying grace that makes those who receive it sharers in God's own life. All the liturgical adaptations are intended to bring about that "fully conscious and active participation" [1] in the liturgy that is fundamentally a matter of the heart. Similarly, the new expressions of the Church's ages-old faith [2] is intended to arouse faith and to convey the salvific value of what God has revealed so that modern man may discover the "meaning for life" of what the Church teaches. And the reorganization of institutions and the establishment of new ones have as their goal to facilitate the living out of the Christian life and a more effective realization of the Church's mission [3] in which all share and for which all are responsible.

In other words, the Council's aim is to perfect the inner man, to be the agent of the conversion of the heart that produces the fruit of those immanent activities that are the very essence of religion. "[T]he exercise of religion, of its very nature, consists before all else in those internal, voluntary and free acts whereby man sets the course of his life directly toward God" (Dignitatis Humanae, no. 3). This is reflected in the very first words of the first text promulgated by the Council:
This sacred Council has several aims in view: it desires to impart an ever increasing vigor to the Christian life of the faithful; to adapt more suitably to the needs of our own times those institutions which are subject to change; to foster whatever can promote union among all who believe in Christ; to strengthen whatever can help to call the whole of mankind into the household of the Church" (Sacrosanctum Concilium, no. 1).
The immanent acts, which Pope John Paul II calls "consciousness" and "attitudes," [4] are the source of the visible actions of engagement in the Church's life and mission. Faithful to this vision, Pope Paul VI and Pope John Paul II have underscored that the call to holiness is the chief teaching of the Council. "This strong invitation to holiness could be regarded as the most characteristic element in the whole Magisterium of the Council, and so to say, its ultimate purpose." [5] "It is possible to say that this call to holiness is precisely the basic charge entrusted to all the sons and daughters of the Church by a Council which intended to bring a renewal of Christian life based on the Gospel." [6] Yet the message is only now beginning to resound among the faithful.

The following reflections are an attempt to identify and analyze some of factors that have contributed to muffling the message, and to point out the balance required in order to be faithful to the Council's teaching.

The Need for Balance Between Holiness and Action

The new ecclesial awareness brought by the Council produced a kind of giddiness of activity. The Council stressed that everyone participates in the Church's mission, and there was no lack of energy for translating that into a whirlwind of activity. Cardinal Ratzinger identified the problem:
There is a popular idea today, which can also be found among the hierarchy, that a person is only a Christian insofar as he is committed to ecclesiastical activities. The trend is a type of ecclesiastical therapy of getting up and doing; the idea is to assign a committee to everyone or in any case, at least some commitment within the Church. It is thought that there must always be some sort of ecclesiastical activity, the Church must be spoken about or something must be done for it or within it. But a mirror which only reflects itself is no longer a mirror . . . .

It can happen that a person is continually active in ecclesiastical associations and activities but he may not be a Christian at all. It can also happen that a person simply lives only by the Word and the Sacrament and puts the love that comes from faith into practice, without ever sitting on an ecclesiastical committee, without ever bothering about the latest in ecclesiastical politics, without ever participating in synods or voting at them. And yet, he is a true Christian. We do not need a more human Church but a more divine one; only then will it be really human. And for this reason all that is man-made within the Church must reflect its pure character of service and withdraw in the face of what counts, the essential. [7]
Activity is necessary, but it needs to be seen as the fruit of spiritual renewal. The implementation of the Council will be based on a proper understanding of the relation between being and action, captured in the principle operatio sequitur esse: action follows upon being. Though the perception has been widely diffused that one must select one or the other, prayer or activism, sacramental worship or being really engaged, in the texts of Vatican II the two stand together and cannot be separated. There always has been and always will be a priority of contemplation over action, of sacramental worship over mission, because contemplation and the liturgy are the sources of the grace that transforms our being into Christ, and it is from this renewed being that actions flow. Thus, the priority of contemplation and worship poses no threat to action and mission, but rather assures their integrity. The Council itself offers us the necessary balance:
It is of the essence of the Church that she be both human and divine, visible and yet invisibly equipped, eager to act and yet intent on contemplation, present in this world and yet not at home in it; and she is all these things in such wise that in her the human is directed and subordinated to the divine, the visible likewise to the invisible, action to contemplation, and this present world to that city yet to come, which we seek (Sacrosanctum Concilium, no. 2).
It can be tempting to think that all we need in order to make the Church's mission complete is better organization, more efficient institutions, more professional conduct, the latest methods. Recognizing the validity of a concern for effectiveness, Henri de Lubac sensed a troubling spirit that can accompany it. Is it motivated by "a pure overflowing of charity," or is it based on "this illusion . . . that it is enough to make a change of method . . . to obtain results which primarily suppose a change of heart?" [8] Without vigilance, even a justifiable concern for efficiency can lead one to regard all elements of the Church as subject to revision based on the criterion of greatest productiveness. Doctrine and sacramental worship are then judged by their power to elicit the active participation that supposedly defines the Council's intention. This produces a new kind of hierarchy of truths that has nothing to do with the Council's understanding of the phrase. [9]

How would this affect the theology of the Eucharist, and its role in the renewal of Vatican II? A renewal in keeping with the conciliar magisterium must recognize the Eucharist as "the summit toward which the activity of the Church is directed; at the same time it is the font from which all her power flows" (Sacrosanctum Concilium, no. 10). The Church is not built up without our activity, but that activity is essentially a cooperation with God. For this reason the edification of the Church is not solely proportioned to our labors. The fruits of our labors exceed what we can rightfully expect because the Church is built up by the Eucharist, [10] and this reminds us that its unity and mission are a gift that must be constantly received anew.

This is where the teaching of the Council on Mary takes on great pastoral significance for the Council's implementation. Mary is the model of how we must receive in order actively to take our place in God's plan. Both the plan itself and the grace that transformed her being are God's. Her being overshadowed by the Holy Spirit in order to bear fruit for salvation, and the overshadowing of the entire Church on Pentecost in order to engage in its saving mission, indicate that all of the Church's activity must be seen as presupposing an epiclesis. "If there is to be spiritual fruit actualizing the mystery of Christ in our lives, there must be an invocation of the Holy Spirit, epiclesis." [11]

In all these actions and for all these actions, the necessary role of an intervention of the Holy Spirit, of epiclesis, is to assure that neither the 'earthly means' nor the institution produce these actions by themselves. It is a matter of a work which is absolutely supernatural, divine and divinizing. [12]

A major casualty in this enthusiasm of activity has been a genuine apostolate and spirituality of the laity. The risk is real that the model for an active lay man or woman is holding a stable and often salaried position in the Church. The model can include the highly visible functions of sitting on the parish council and serving as an extraordinary minister of the Eucharist or performing the function of lector. The greatly increased numbers of laity involved in such functions is indeed a fruit of the Council. Nevertheless, the vast majority of the lay faithful engages in those "voluntary and free acts whereby man sets the course of his life directly toward God," and thereby strives for holiness and builds up the kingdom of God, in relative obscurity, amidst the daily activities of family and job, social, political, economic and cultural life.

The implementation of the Council with respect to the renewal of the temporal order through the laity will require a spirituality for the laity that does full justice to the primacy of the immanent activities that animate the lay apostolate. The Council stresses those inner activities in texts such as the following:
For all their works, prayers and apostolic endeavors, their ordinary married and family life, their daily occupations, their physical and mental relaxation, if carried out in the Spirit, and even the hardships of life, if patiently borne-all these become "spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ" (Lumen Gentium, no. 34).
Finally all Christ's faithful, whatever be the conditions, duties and circumstances of their lives — and indeed through all these, will daily increase in holiness, if they receive all things with faith from the hand of their heavenly Father and if they cooperate with the divine will. In this temporal service, they will manifest to all men the love with which God loved the world (Lumen Gentium, no. 41).

A distillation of the Council's teaching will provide the necessary balance between contemplation and action, sacraments and mission, and will look to Mary as the model of all ecclesial activity.

Balance of truth and love: on liberal and conservative

Back to word association. Students and audiences attending talks unfailingly associate a strong emphasis on the social gospel and the preferential love for the poor with the word "liberal," and a strong concern for doctrinal integrity with "conservative." To demonstrate the inadequacy of these categories to embrace the Christian mystery, consider how it would make Mother Teresa of Calcutta and Pope John Paul II simultaneously arch-liberals and arch-conservatives. In the two arguably most widely recognized Catholics of the last half of the last century, love for the poor and love for the truth coexist in harmony and simplicity. In them the social gospel and doctrinal integrity do not exist in tension, but as necessary complements, even as truth and love are one in God, and the meaning of Christ's death is captured in terms of both love (Jn 15:13) and truth (Jn 18:37). To choose one at the expense of the other undermines the integrity of the one that is chosen.

Of course no Christian, let us hope, explicitly rejects either truth or love. This renders difficult the following consideration of other dichotomies between the liberal and conservative mindsets or tendencies. [13] Notwithstanding that aligning various positions with liberal or conservative inclinations has its limitations, my informal surveys lead me to think that the general correlations retain a certain validity. My main point is to show that both the liberal and conservative dispositions, when allowed to cross certain lines, present obstacles to the interpretation of Vatican II and to the renewal-through-conversion envisioned by it.

Triumphalism, Criticism and Renewal

Vatican II was an ecclesiological council. Because ecclesiology reflects Christology, errors about Christ recur as errors about the Church. The most fundamental errors about Christ regard the unity of his divine and human natures. Paralleling this there are two tendencies in ecclesiology. One emphasizes the divine dimension to the point of obscuring the human dimension, while the other obscures the divine dimension by over-emphasizing the human.

Though the Church is both human and divine, the distinction between the two is absolutely necessary as a condition for renewal. An overemphasis on the Church's divine element produces the pre-Vatican II reality known as triumphalism, which aligns with a conservative stance. How can there be renewal if it is thought that virtually everything is of divine institution? Further, if the four notes of the Church are to serve as signs pointing to this divine dimension, then how can account be made of the sins of its members? Vatican II met this question head on, always distinguishing between the divine and human aspects of the Church, and between the Church as such and the individuals that she embraces. This fundamental distinction is also the critical principle for understanding John Paul II's candid recognition, in conjunction with the Jubilee, of the sins of the sons and daughters of the Church. This has consternated some who espouse a kind of hyper-apologia of the Church's divine constitution.

The liberal tendency is to place strong accent on the human element of the Church. In the extreme, it can be difficult to see the presence of God or the fulfillment of his promises, and it can degrade into a hyper-critical attitude toward the Church. This too makes conversion impossible, for there must be hope of a future based on God's promises and grace if conversion is to be genuinely Christian. [14]

The Council was a great examination of conscience for the Church, [15] and thus a call to conversion. Conversion presupposes the identification of sin—a judgment, self-criticism in the light of God's word. Paul VI's great vision for the Council was that it would engage in this self-criticism in order to embrace the call to conversion. It would deepen its awareness of its own mystery by reflecting on what God has revealed about the Church. Then it would "compare the ideal image of the Church just as Christ sees it . . . with the actual image which the Church projects today," recognizing that "the actual image of the Church is never as perfect, as lovely, as holy or as brilliant as that formative Divine Idea would wish it to be." This would prompt conversion, prompted by "an almost impatient need for renewal, for correction of the defects which this conscience denounces and rejects." [16] And this renewal would yield the fruit of renewed missionary activity through dialogue. As the Church deepens its being in Christ, the result will be Christ-like activity: operatio sequitur esse. Like the Lord, the Church will become more and more the one who comes to serve.

After the Council it became fashionable to criticize the Church and, for some, the process of self-criticism became an end in itself. It drifted beyond criticism of the human dimension alone, [17] and called into question elements long considered pertaining to the divine dimension. Such criticism removes the very possibility of conversion, since it makes certitude about the truth impossible. There is no longer any measure for judgment or criticism. [18] Rather than humbly present the Church for remolding according to the divine vision for her, this tendency resulted in remolding the Church to make her conform to the expectations of modern man, a danger about which Pope Paul VI had given sufficient warning. [19]

Criticism of the Church is a delicate matter. It might be likened to the uncomfortable position in which middle-aged adults find themselves with respect to their parents. How does one balance the respect due to one's parents with the desire to assist them in dealing with their imperfections? On the one hand, there is the objective norm of human happiness that one desires for his parents. On the other, there is the love they deserve because life itself and much more was their gift.

Read Part 2 of "The Renewal of Vatican II"


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