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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
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."
 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." 
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."  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
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,  the dialogue is no less necessary. Gaudium
et Spes provides the fundamental
principles that must guide this dialogue, without which both faith and reason
On Truth and Love, Unity and
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
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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." 
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
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
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."  Conversion is a mystery of continuity
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
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.
 This is the well-known phrase
of Sacrosanctum Concilium, 14.
 On the new formulae of faith,
see Pope Paul VI, Ecclesiam Suam, nos.
41, 83, 85.
 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).
 See Sources of Renewal. On
the Implementation of Vatican II (San
Francisco: Harper & Row, 1980).
 Motu proprio, Sanctitatis
Clarior, March 19, 1969; AAS 61(1969),
 Christifideles Laici, no. 16.
 "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.
 The Splendor of the Church (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1986), pp. 293-294.
 On the hierarchy of truths,
see the article, "The Hierarchy of Truths" in The Catholic Faith, Vol. 6, No. 1 (January/ February, 2000).
 On this see Dominicae
Cenae, no. 4.
 Je Crois en l'Esprit
Saint, III. Le Fleuve de Vie coule en Orient et en Occident (Paris: Cerf, 1980), p. 348.
 Je Crois en l'Esprit
Saint, III, p. 350.
 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.
 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.
 Ibid., p.
 Ecclesiam Suam, nos. 10-11.
 See the judicious discussion
of the limits of criticism by Pope John Paul II in Redemptor Hominis, no. 4.
 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."
 In Ecclesiam Suam, nos. 48-49.
 The Splendor of the Church
(San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1986), pp. 100-101.
 Ibid., p. 283. All of chapter
8 of this remarkable book could be read with great profit with respect to our
 Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, "'You
are Full of Grace': Elements of Biblical Devotion to Mary," in Communio, XVI (1989), N. 1, p. 61.
 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.
 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).
 This is one of the assertions
of the Declaration, Mysterium Ecclesiae,
of June 24, 1973.
 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
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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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