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

Conscience, Authority, and Obedience

Unrestrained, the liberal stance stresses the individual and conscience to the point that authority is viewed with suspicion and seen as a threat. This removes the very possibility of conversion. By its own inner logic it tends toward a separation between Christ and the Church, holding at least implicitly that it is possible to be faithful to Christ without being faithful to his Church. It is even claimed that one can be a good Catholic without adhering to what the Church teaches.

Because the claim is seldom made outright, it might be helpful to see what this stance really is when analyzed. Let's give the name "ecclesial agnosticism" to the product of the analysis. It is a disincarnate ecclesiology. If agnostics don't deny God, they deny that he can be known, certainly that he became a man and can be identified with Jesus of Nazareth. Similarly, without denying the existence of the Church, without even denying that the Church possesses apostolic authority to teach, one can deny that this Church can be concretely identified, or that the conditions for infallible teaching are ever realized. But an unverifiable God cannot make demands on anyone, nor can a Church that possesses a charism of infallibility that can never be verified. The very condition of conversion, knowledge of absolute truth, becomes impossible to ascertain.

On the conservative side is the tendency to see in sound doctrine the answer to all problems. If the liberal spirit greeted the Catechism of the Catholic Church with reticence, reservation and resentment, the conservative spirit saw it as confirmation of its conviction and the perfect instrument for exposing erroneous teaching. But before it is an instrument for judging others, it is a sure guide for one's own faith. Neither liberals nor conservatives outdo the other when it comes to personal attacks and presumption about motives. Liberals see conservatives as afraid of change, clinging to old traditions and institutions, while conservatives see liberals as insufficiently grounded in tradition and too ready to compromise with the spirit of the day. Each can express exasperation and intolerance with respect to the other.

But the first form of intolerance should be intolerance of the sin within, which is just another way to describe conversion. The truth is certainly worth fighting for, but the first battle is within oneself. This is the authentic renewal, and it can be obscured or put off for later when one's energies are directed towards checking the errors of others. Furthermore, Jesus teaches us that those who know the truth are called to suffer for those who do not. While it is true that the truth is greater than any relationship, it is also a fact that the family divided two against three and three against two is not a goal but only a predictable outcome of bringing truth into a world marked by sin. If conservatives are to be a real force for renewal in the Church, they must reinvent Christ-like service and suffering precisely for those who are in need of it.

For the liberally minded, obedience is difficult to reconcile with human dignity and can even pose a threat to it, while for the conservatively minded obedience is one of the highest virtues and reasoning can be seen as a threat to it. Vatican II's teaching on dignity, conscience and obedience transcends these opposing tendencies, and the realization of the Council's teaching in the life of the Church will require a discovery by both parties of its balanced synthesis of these notions.

The Dialogue Between Faith and Reason

Liberals and conservatives are mistaken about the dialogue between faith and reason. Liberals tend to side with reason because this is thought to be the province of the individual and guarantee of autonomy, while conservatives side with faith. The contrast between the caricature of the Church before Vatican II and the actual state of affairs today is striking, if not to say lamentable. If the windows were shut because dialogue with world was a dangerous affair, running the risk of error corrupting the faith, today people are open to dialogue with every religion and philosophy, including those blatantly antithetical to Catholicism, yet they retain a suspicion of just one institution—the hierarchical Church. We have gone from believing that truth exists only in the Church to being disposed to finding it just about anywhere except in the Church.

Conservatives are suspicious of the dialogue. They have seen how it can corrupt the faith, and they tend toward fideism. Henri de Lubac has described this inclination as "an orthodoxy so complete and so easy of decision that it looks rather like indifference . . ." This produces a way of "submitting to dogma . . . in principle and in advance." [20] But assent and obedience given in advance can only be to what one thinks the Church teaches. In this case, faith cannot be the light for their living. It can be venerated as from a distance, it can serve to distinguish one group from another, but it cannot put down roots in daily life. This deficient adherence of faith "establishes its own lists of what is suspect—in the fashion of religious authority itself–and is ready to call the authority to order, if need be . . . it brands as 'liberalism' or 'modernism' every effort made to disentangle Christianity in its real purity and its perpetual youth, as if this were an abandonment of doctrine." [21]

People of this mindset can learn from Mary, who is the model of this dialogue. Her assent to the One who spoke through the angel Gabriel did not eliminate questions; rather, it gave rise to them. And she continued to ponder what she experienced. In Mary, God's word "is not taken up rashly to be locked into a superficial first impression and then forgotten." Rather, it "is given a place of permanent abiding in which it can gradually unfold its depth." Treasuring all that God said to her, "Mary held a conversation with the Word. She entered interiorly into a dialogue with the Word. She addressed the Word and allowed herself to be addressed by it in order to arrive at its basic meaning." [22] The dialogue between faith and reason is born of the humility that asks if one has accurately understood what God has revealed. It is not an invitation to question the veracity of what God has revealed.

If there is good reason to be wary of this dialogue because it has produced questionable fruit since the Council, as too often the findings of the human sciences seem to have greater authority than the Church's teachings, [23] the dialogue is no less necessary. Gaudium et Spes provides the fundamental principles that must guide this dialogue, without which both faith and reason are impoverished.

On Truth and Love, Unity and Holiness

For liberals the emphasis is on relationships and tolerance as the formula for unity. For conservatives it is on truth, doctrinal purity and visible unity that is correspondingly pure. The conservative stance disposes people to sacrifice relationships for the sake of purity of truth and unity, while the liberal inclination is toward compromising on the latter for the sake of the former. Neither measures well against the Gospel, or against Vatican II, where truth, love and unity, as well as patience, forgiveness and reconciliation are recognized as pertaining to the Church's life and mystery.

The Church is indeed one and holy, and her unity and holiness are essentially the same as God's, since they are nothing other than a participation in the unity and holiness of God through Christ. However, while Christ is totally without sin, the Council considers the Church's holiness "real although imperfect" (Lumen Gentium, no. 48) since "the Church, embracing in its bosom sinners, at the same time holy and always in need of being purified, always follows the way of penance and renewal" (Lumen Gentium, no 8). The Council's approach to unity is similar. On the one hand it is a gift from God that cannot fail, on the other hand there is a humble acknowledgement of the actual historical situation of division among Christians.

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It is the task of theologians to wrestle with this conciliar teaching and do full justice to it. A one-sided emphasis on how the human element in the Church affects the realization of holiness and unity cannot deplete them of content. Nor should a one-sided emphasis on their reality obscure how sin affects their realization in the Church. The Church is a sign of salvation inseparable but distinct from the sign that is Christ. If the Church's self-testimony is to be accurate and credible, she has no alternative but to speak about her unity and holiness as "real though imperfect." [24]

Full justice to the Council's teaching is also missing in ecclesiologies that place the realization of unity and holiness in the future, as if they are not real attributes and supernatural gifts that are properties of the Church. The reason is that the Church of Christ subsists in the Catholic Church already, and thus so do all her properties. [25]

The relationship between truth and unity brings out tendencies of both liberals and conservatives. For liberals unity is a given, and it can be preserved by being accepting of others. Truth can be the enemy of unity because truth divides. If we are free to hold our own opinions, then we can be one in that freedom that we grant one another, and the purpose of authority is above all to safeguard that freedom. Liberals tend to see the apostolic teaching office as divisive, as a threat to unity, while conservatives see it as the guarantee of unity, since they see that there can be no unity without truth. For conservatives, authority serves unity by drawing firm lines that cannot be crossed and by expelling those who cross them, while for liberals silence on issues claimed to be controverted is the wisest use of authority.

Liberal unity is more the absence of hostility than it is a genuine bond based on commonly held principles. Stressing truth risks melting and dissolving unity. There is no room for conversion because the objective content of unity is so underplayed. Conservative unity, in contrast, leaves little room for conversion by wanting a perfect unity. But if perfection comes by way of expulsion of all who are not yet perfect, there is no conversion.

These tendencies produce a set of impossible expectations for our bishops and priests. The subject requires an entirely different article, even a book. Here it suffices to observe that for both liberals and conservatives the post-Vatican II experience of pastoral leadership, and of the apostolic teaching office in particular, has been one of frustration. For liberals, it is the frustration of interference, of close-minded and rigid adherence to and outmoded tradition that stultifies the free-blowing Holy Spirit. For conservatives, it is the frustration of perceived compromises on the truth in favor of not creating hostilities. Liberals would remind the bishops of the compassionate, patient, forgiving Jesus, the Good Shepherd who goes in search of the lost sheep, while conservatives are impressed by the fact that he boldly admonished those in error and had the courage to watch the rich young man and many followers walk away from him rather than compromise on his teaching. All would do well to remember that Christ is the source of both truth and unity, and so are our bishops.

Since Vatican II, the tendency to elevate unity above the truth is certainly one of the more serious betrayals of the Council, and of the entire Catholic Tradition. If unity is the highest good and the function of every pastor is to keep as many sheep in the fold as possible, then truth risks being reduced to a means, and subject to manipulation for the sake of unity. In this case, every group and every individual possesses a kind of power of veto over what they consider offensive and unacceptable. The resulting unity is no longer the unity for which Christ prayed and for which he died. Only when we see his death in terms of both truth and love do we arrive at the theological depth of the mystery of their unity.


The Council, it has been claimed, was an unresolved juxtaposition of liberal and conservative elements, of old and new ecclesiologies. Consequently, the claim goes, Catholics must choose between the two. But this is a false dilemma. The Church's tradition is simultaneously conservatizing and progressive. Its law is conversion. That conversion is the underlying gift of Christ to the Church, and it is in its essence irrevocable, both on the part of God, who ceaselessly provides the graces of fidelity, and on the part of the Church, who in Mary is the faithful handmaid of the Lord. "The same motive that induces one endowed with continuity to cling imperturbably to truth will compel him also to be open to every new truth. The ability to remain constant in the Yes once given requires an unremitting readiness to change." [26] Conversion is a mystery of continuity and growth.

Like the Church itself, the Council falls into the category of mystery, because it is an action of the Church and an expression of its mystery of being both divine and human. The same tendency to reduce the Church to one element of its mystery has been applied to the Council, with the result of reducing it to a merely human clash between liberal and conservative forces. The assertion that we must choose one or the other has been one of the most significant weaknesses of post-Vatican II theology, and this has presented a significant obstacle to the renewal that the Council began.

It would be more correct to see the Council in the same light in which the apostles saw their first assembly in Jerusalem after the Lord ascended. "For it has seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us . . ." (Acts 15:28). At this first council, human action and divine agency combined, and new teaching arose out of the old. That new teaching, and the entire body of doctrine of which it was a part, was the fruit of Peter's conversion in understanding the mysterious ways of God. It constituted a call to conversion on the part of those who would see the Church as a radical break with Judaism, as well as those who saw it as simply reduced to Judaism. No less a conversion is required today of those who see Vatican II as a departure from the Tradition or as a completely new beginning.


[1] This is the well-known phrase of Sacrosanctum Concilium, 14.

[2] On the new formulae of faith, see Pope Paul VI, Ecclesiam Suam, nos. 41, 83, 85.

[3] This is essentially the reason given by Pope John Paul II for the revision of the Code of Canon Law in Sacrae Disciplinae Leges (January 25, 1983).

[4] See Sources of Renewal. On the Implementation of Vatican II (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1980).

[5] Motu proprio, Sanctitatis Clarior, March 19, 1969; AAS 61(1969), p.149.

[6] Christifideles Laici, no. 16.

[7] "Reform from the Beginnings," article in 30 Days, November 1990, pp. 66-67. The same theme is taken up in The Ratzinger Report (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1985), pp. 45-53.

[8] The Splendor of the Church (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1986), pp. 293-294.

[9] On the hierarchy of truths, see the article, "The Hierarchy of Truths" in The Catholic Faith, Vol. 6, No. 1 (January/ February, 2000).

[10] On this see Dominicae Cenae, no. 4.

[11] Je Crois en l'Esprit Saint, III. Le Fleuve de Vie coule en Orient et en Occident (Paris: Cerf, 1980), p. 348.

[12] Je Crois en l'Esprit Saint, III, p. 350.
[13] Some of what follows agrees with and was inspired by the article of Cardinal Francis George, "How Liberalism Fails the Church," in Commonweal, November 19, 1999.

[14] Cardinal Ratzinger gives a profound analysis of this in his book, Principles of Catholic Theology. Building Stones for a Fundamental Theology (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1987), pp. 372-373.

[15] Ibid., p.

[16] Ecclesiam Suam, nos. 10-11.

[17] See the judicious discussion of the limits of criticism by Pope John Paul II in Redemptor Hominis, no. 4.

[18] Cardinal Ratzinger made a similar remark in his Intervention on the Occasion of the Presentation of the Declaration, Dominus Iesus: "missing the question of truth, the essence of religion does not differ from its 'non-essence,' faith is not distinguished from superstition, experience from illusion. Finally, without a serious apprehension of the truth, the appreciation of other religions becomes absurd and contradictory, since there are no criteria for ascertaining what is positive in a religion."

[19] In Ecclesiam Suam, nos. 48-49.

[20] The Splendor of the Church (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1986), pp. 100-101.

[21] Ibid., p. 283. All of chapter 8 of this remarkable book could be read with great profit with respect to our subject.

[22] Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, "'You are Full of Grace': Elements of Biblical Devotion to Mary," in Communio, XVI (1989), N. 1, p. 61.

[23] See Pope John Paul II's remarks on the uncritical acceptance of the findings of the human sciences as an obstacle to conversion in Reconciliatio et Paenitentia, no. 18.

[24] The best treatment of this subject of which I know is by Rene Latourelle in Christ and the Church, Signs of Salvation (Staten Island, New York: Alba House, 1972).

[25] This is one of the assertions of the Declaration, Mysterium Ecclesiae, of June 24, 1973.

[26] From Transformation in Christ by Dietrich von Hildebrand, as quoted by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger in Principles of Catholic Theology. Building Stones for a Fundamental Theology (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1987), pp. 63-64.

This article was originally published in a slightly different form in the November/December 2000 issue of Catholic Dossier.

Related IgnatiusInsight.com Links/Articles:

Pope John Paul II and the Christ-centered Anthropology of Gaudium et Spes | Douglas Bushman
Understanding The Hierarchy of Truths | Douglas Bushman
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Was Vatican II "Pre-Conciliar"? | James Hitchcock
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Motherhood of the Entire Church | Henri de Lubac, S.J.
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The Role of the Laity: An Examination of Vatican II and Christifideles Laici | Carl E. Olson
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Excerpts from Theology of the Church | Charles Cardinal Journet
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Authority and Dissent in the Catholic Church | Dr. William E. May

Douglas Bushman holds a licentiate in sacred theology from the University of Friebourg. He is Director of the Institute for Pastoral Theology at Ave Maria University, and author of the adult faith enrichment program, In His Image, published by Ignatius Press. Professor Bushman and his wife, JoAnn, home school their six children in Green Bay, Wisconsin.

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