The Council and modernity in a nutshell

As described by Bp. Fellay (h/t Rorate Caeli):

This is an atmosphere that has come alongside the real situation of the Church, but the situation itself has not changed. We have gone from one pontificate to another, and the Church’s situation has stayed the same. The basic lines remain the same. On the surface there are variations: one might say that these are variations on a well-known theme! The basic assertions: we find them, for example, about the Council. The Council is a reinterpretation of the Gospel in light of contemporary or modern civilization—the pope has used both terms.

I think that we should begin by very seriously asking for a definition of what contemporary, modern civilization is. For us and for average mortals, it is quite simply the rejection of God; it is “the death of God”. It is Nietzsche, it is the Frankfurt School, it is an almost universal rebellion against God. We see this almost everywhere. We see it in the case of the European Union which in its Constitution refuses to acknowledge its Christian roots. We see it in everything that the media propagate, in literature, philosophy, art: everything tends toward nihilism, to the affirmation of man without God, and even in rebellion against God.

Then how can we reread the Gospel in that light? It is quite simply not possible; that is squaring the circle!

Has someone been reading this blog?

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This blog’s four assumptions

Every line of inquiry proceeds from a set of axioms, and the inquiry to be conducted on this blog is no exception. I have four general principles which will guide my inquiry into the Second Vatican Council. They are as follows:

  1. The Second Vatican Council was primarily concerned with tactics, not doctrines, and its formulations (to the extent they do not simply repeat previously-defined teachings) may therefore be regarded as open to continuing discussion.
  2. To the extent the Council dealt with doctrine at all, it is able to be reconciled with Tradition.
  3. To the extent the Council dealt with prudential calculations, it failed in its endeavor to make the faith intelligible to the modern world. (Nearly everyone outside the EWTN / Catholic Answers thought bubble agrees).
  4. The reason the Council failed is because it misjudged modernity as orthogonal to Catholicism, rather than diametrically opposed. The modernity to which the Church tried to reconcile itself isn’t just accidentally anti-Catholic, it’s positively deranged.

Assumption #4: Modernity and Catholicism are diametrically opposed

The Council, I said previously, was largely concerned with adapting the Catholic faith to the realities of modern life. It failed in this endeavor, not because it was hijacked but because its aim was flawed from the outset. Here’s Pope John XXIII again, describing the Council’s vision:

In the daily exercise of our pastoral office, we sometimes have to listen, much to our regret, to voices of persons who, though burning with zeal, are not endowed with too much sense of discretion or measure. In these modern times they can see nothing but prevarication and ruin. They say that our era, in comparison with past eras, is getting worse, and they behave as though they had learned nothing from history, which is, none the less, the teacher of life. … We feel we must disagree with those prophets of gloom, who are always forecasting disaster, as though the end of the world were at hand. [1]

No doubt, good Pope John was motivated by the best of intentions in saying this, and in calling the Council for this reason. It is a tragic flaw of good men that they are so often oblivious to the perils facing them. But oblivious he was.

The Council’s primary error was its judgment of modernity as an essentially neutral or even benign force to which the Church could potentially be reconciled without having to compromise itself. It judged wrong. Modernity and Catholicism are not orthogonal, they are diametrically opposed.

Modernity expresses itself in a number of different ways; in the sphere of aesthetics, as artistic modernism; in politics, as liberalism; in theology, as any of a variety of degrees of denial of ancient Christian values (from high-church Protestantism at its weakest to Hitchensian atheism at its strictest); in epistemology, as any of a variety of minimalisms that seek to discount some field of inquiry as a valid source of human knowledge (scientism being the most popular form today); in ontology, as materialism/naturalism; and so on. [2]

In all of these things, modernity is flatly opposed to Catholicism. Against the Church’s use of art to express transcendental truths, modernity uses it to shock and scandalize ordinary people from their bourgeois sensibilities or even to mock them; against the Church’s endorsement of authority, both political and familial, as divinely instituted for the good of man, modernity denies the objective reality of justice and asserts that power is exercised justly only by the arbitrary will-to-power of the self-creating autonomous superman; against the Church’s trust in the basic reliability of human reason, especially when supplemented by the virtue of faith, modernity asserts the unreliability of reason and the need to rely on arbitrary hermeneutics; against the Church’s belief in the reality of the spirit as an integral aspect of the human person, modernity asserts that reason, free will, and the like are mere epiphenomena of electrical discharges in the brain; against the Church’s articulation of a moral law that arises spontaneously from human nature, modernity calls pleasure and anesthesia the only objective criteria of the good. None of these are recent, either; Hitchensian atheism didn’t form overnight but is a logical development of trends always and vigorously opposed by the Church that have their roots in various Enlightenment actors such as Hegel, Bentham, and Comte.

It is impossible to overstate the naive optimism on offer here: it would require one either to ignore the brutal anti-Catholicism of the Puritans, the Jacobins, the Bolsheviks, and other assorted thoroughly modern affiliations, or else to attribute their brutality to the defensiveness of the Church, which could be repaired only by its unilateral disarmament in the culture wars. History, that “teacher of life,” has made the lesson clear: the modern world does not want the Church’s friendship; it wants her submission, and thus her death.

When I was in RCIA some years ago, the permanent deacon who instructed us told us that the Second Vatican Council had aimed to reform a Church that had become too insular, to tear down the walls that had been built up. Yet it is hard to see how the Church of the last 50 years, with all of its cloying and tedious self-obsession, could possibly be less insular than what came before, and harder still to see how those “walls” were an impediment to an evangelization effort that, fifty years ago, was reaping a bounty of adult converts and vocations to the priesthood and religious life while rendering Catholicism an effective social force even in the United States, and which today is depopulating like a plague-stricken medieval hamlet.

As it turns out, tearing down the walls is a bad idea when you’re under siege.

[1] Pope John XXIII, opening address at the Second Vatican Council, 11 October 1962.

[2] Industrialization and scientific progress are typically represented as expressions of modernity but it is more appropriate to think of them as consequences of it — as products of the hypertrophied attention which modernity insists on paying to efficient and material causes to the exclusion of final and formal ones.

Explanatory narratives of the Council’s failure

Nearly everyone outside the party line (“The Church is not falling to pieces. It has never been better.”) agrees that Vatican II failed as a force of Catholic renewal, but not everyone agrees why. Let’s take a moment to examine some of the different explanations for its failure.

The liberal narrative: Advanced by the likes of Hans Küng, the liberal narrative goes something like this: “The Second Vatican Council prescribed a bold plan of reform for the entire Church that would open it up to the modern world and reject traditional patterns of autocratic governance and stern moralistic lecturing. Unfortunately, its implementation was hijacked by cynical reactionary bishops and Popes like John Paul II, who betrayed the Council’s vision. The Council failed in its aim, but only because we didn’t get enough of it; the solution is to get more of it, to continue reforming everything in sight.”

The (neo)-conservative narrative: Defended in many respects by Pope Benedict XVI (as Unam Sanctam Catholicam reports here), the conservative (or neo-conservative, if you prefer) narrative proceeds thus: “The Second Vatican Council’s reforms were [qualifications] necessary, good, and proper, but their implementation was hijacked by [villain], who betrayed the Council’s vision. The Council failed in its aim, but only because of treachery and the spirit of the age; the solution is to repent of the hyper-reformational ‘Spirit of Vatican II’ and return to the plain meaning of the texts.” The neo-conservative narrative splits into several different camps depending on the contents of the qualifications variable above: for the strict-conservative narrative, insert “surely”; for the strong-conservative narrative, leave blank; for the weak-conservative narrative, insert “arguably.” The villain variable can take any of several values, typically liberal clergy but sometimes the media or , more generally, the secular world, and sometimes a combination of two or more of the above.

The traditionalist narrative: This narrative, more protean than the others, argues something like the following: “Calling the Second Vatican Council was a blunder and the whole endeavor was surely doomed to failure; there was no possible way for it to succeed.” This narrative splits again into several camps depending on the exact reason given. The weak traditional narrative says that the Council failed because its reforms (tactical, prudential, non-Magisterial, and thus prone to error, as I explained here and here) were deeply imprudent given the realities of the age — because, in a sense, the reformers misdiagnosed the problem and so prescribed the wrong solutions; this is the position of, e.g., mainstream traditionalist Catholics such as the FSSP. The strong-traditionalist narrative of, e.g., the SSPX et al., holds that the Council was doomed to failure because the Council fathers were heretics and the Council itself positively taught error, the implementation of which naturally produced poisoned fruits. The strict-traditionalist narrative takes the strong-traditionalist narrative a step further and rejects the Council’s ecumenicity and Catholicity, deriding it as altogether invalid; this narrative usually veers into sedeprivationism, sedevacantism, or outright schism.

This blog largely takes the weak-traditionalist narrative in that it views the Council as a tactical mistake; it accepts the conservative narrative only insofar as it applies to questions of doctrine. This is, I believe, the most coherent position available to us, each of the rest suffering from some sort of crippling defect of its own. The liberal narrative is simply deranged and utterly without merit, hence why nearly no thinking Catholic today below the age of 70 or so actually believes it; to the extent it’s believed at all, it’s because it is the poison which has seeped into the groundwater and from which most Catholics unconsciously sip. It is a classic example of denial, of reframing one’s own failures as the result of the shortcomings and weaknesses of others, and of course we need hardly even speak of its manifestly delusional parousiastic character.

The conservative narrative walks the tightrope between the party line (“things have never been better!”) and acknowledging reality, trying to do the latter while sparing the former of harsh criticism. There is much to recommend in that a careful reading of the actual text of the conciliar documents is necessary in order to situate the Council properly in Tradition, an endeavor I maintain is perfectly possible. The extent to which those reforms were necessary at all certainly is a matter of dispute, however, and I do not take the conservative position for granted here, especially when it comes to the reform of the liturgy, where the Church’s tactical error was most manifest; moreover, I do not believe that an acceptance of the Council’s doctrinal character necessarily commands an acceptance of its prudential reform. The two are separable and it is perhaps necessary to start giving serious thought to jettisoning some or all of the latter altogether.

The strong-traditionalist narrative is, to me, simply incoherent, and maintaining it requires a lot of the linguistic equivocation of the sort I described earlier. It is, I think, the product of a mindset that can’t think in terms of anything but doctrine, a mindset I hope to describe in greater depth at some later point; suffice it to say that it is itself a modern and minimalistic mode of thinking. Being incoherent, it tends to collapse into either the weak or strict narrative, and the strict narrative is just about as unthinkable and deranged as the leftist one. To believe it, one would have to believe that Christ is a liar and hence very nearly apostasize from the faith altogether.

In the next post, I’ll give some further insight into the weak-traditionalist narrative, specifically, what I hold to be the crucial error of the Council: its fundamental misunderstanding of the pernicious character of modernity.

Assumption #3: The Council failed

Certainly, the results [of Vatican II] seem cruelly opposed to the expectations of everyone, beginning with those of Pope John XXIII and then of Paul VI: expected was a new Catholic unity and instead we have been exposed to dissension which—to use the words of Paul VI—seems to have gone from self-criticism to self-destruction. Expected was a new enthusiasm, and many wound up discouraged and bored. Expected was a great step forward, and instead we find ourselves faced with a progressive process of decadence which has developed for the most part precisely under the sign of a calling back to the Council, and has therefore contributed to discrediting for many. The net result therefore seems negative. I am repeating here what I said ten years after the conclusion of the work: it is incontrovertible that this period has definitely been unfavorable for the Catholic Church.

Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger (c. 1984)

If the Church were not divine, this Council would have buried it.

–Giuseppe Cardinal Siri

This assumption will take some time to unpack — it is sufficiently detailed that I’ll need at least three posts to do so.

The ostensible purpose of the Second Vatican Council, I said before, was tactical: it aimed, not to proclaim a new dogma, but to provide the Church with a more effective schema for evangelizing the modern world.

I take it for granted on this blog that the Council failed in this endeavor. The Catholic faith is not only less intelligible to moderns, it is now less intelligible even to Catholics. There are plenty of examples that can be cited here, plenty of polls, plenty of anecdotes, but I think the most damning piece of evidence in this regard is the recent admission of Abp. Müller, prefect of the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith, that the common understanding of marriage as an exclusive, indissoluble, sacramental union has so dissolved that many, perhaps even most, marriages today are invalid. (For more on this line of reasoning, see Zippy Catholic’s characteristically excellent post on the topic here).

What went wrong here? Blogger “Ches” over at The Sensible Bond has an excellent ongoing series on the nature of aggiornamento, wherein, at one point, he makes this crucial observation: that the operating assumption of the Council and the conciliar reformers was that “one could deconstruct and reconstruct the kinds of cultural syntheses that had resulted from centuries of Christian life.” By the time of the Council, the Catholic faith had become fused to a particular way of life over the course of centuries of practice, and the Council’s concern was that this sort of lived reality of faith had become an obstacle to effectively interfacing with a modern world. In their prudential calculus, it was therefore necessary to dismantle that synthesis in order that a new one could replace it, one that might make her a more vibrant force in the modern world.

The problem is that people do not live in a purely mental, abstract sphere of doctrinal correctness: the faith is always lived out in some sort of practical and concrete way, and the Church, by repudiating the culture that made that possible (most prominently by the liturgical reforms, the liturgy being the most public point of interface between the Church and the world), effectively stripped Catholics of the only effective alternative to modern narcissistic degeneracy. Nature abhors a vacuum, so naturally, the void left in the life of the Church by the destruction of her practical consensus on living the faith was filled almost immediately by the world and its values, to her great shame and enduring difficulty.

Thus rushed into the Church the “smoke of Satan,” lamented by Pope Paul, through the fissure of conciliar hubris: the hubris of thinking that one can remake better, in a decade, what generations of saints built over the course of two millennia.

Note: the faith-culture synthesis isn’t itself doctrinal, it’s a lived expression of doctrine. Whether or not to retain that synthesis, then, is not itself a question of doctrine, but of tactics; and in deciding prudential matters like how best to govern the faithful or to evangelize, the Church’s authority, while binding, is not necessarily free of error. She can make, and has made, bad decisions. In making this claim, I go against neo-conservative Catholics of the EWTN / Catholic Answers mold, but it is what it is, and those who wish to dispute this position have an awful lot of historical legerdemain to accomplish.

In this, I stand firmly against what Dr. Roberto de Mattei called “a fideism of a pietist mould,” which insists that the Holy Spirit utterly absorbs and negates human freedom, reducing us to mere Ouija boards channeling the will of God, so that every one of the Church’s undertakings is imbued with the mandate of divine inevitability. On the contrary, I profess that the Church’s divine nature supplements, transfigures, and orders her human nature without overwhelming it completely, and that the narrowness of Christ’s promises to the infant Church were intended precisely to protect human freedom and so ensure that our decision to turn to him is truly free. Our shepherds act in persona Christi when celebrating Mass, absolving penitents, and exercising the teaching office entrusted to them through the Great Commission; in other respects, perhaps more often than not, they rule as men — men to whom authority has been given and who are thereby entitled to our obedience and respect, but who are not immune to the frailties and weaknesses of the human condition; they are therefore men with whom any Catholic may, in good faith, charitably voice disagreement in matters pertaining to the welfare of the Church (per the Code of Canon Law, can. 212 § 3).

In short, this blog takes it as a given that the Second Vatican Council failed, not for reasons of implementation but because of its own aims and intentions, and it is in light of this understanding that the Council will be examined. In the next two posts, we’ll examine competing narratives regarding the Council (most of which acknowledge its failure), as well as another aspect of the Council’s failure, namely, the mistaken estimation on the part of the Council’s father of the essentially antagonistic attitude of modernity to the Catholicism they wished to modernize.

Assumption #2: The Council’s continuity with Tradition

Well, it all depends on the correct interpretation of the Council or – as we would say today – on its proper hermeneutics, the correct key to its interpretation and application. The problems in its implementation arose from the fact that two contrary hermeneutics came face to face and quarrelled with each other. One caused confusion, the other, silently but more and more visibly, bore and is bearing fruit.

On the one hand, there is an interpretation that I would call “a hermeneutic of discontinuity and rupture”; it has frequently availed itself of the sympathies of the mass media, and also one trend of modern theology. On the other, there is the “hermeneutic of reform”, of renewal in the continuity of the one subject-Church which the Lord has given to us. She is a subject which increases in time and develops, yet always remaining the same, the one subject of the journeying People of God.

–Pope Benedict XVI [1]

This blog takes it as a given that the Second Vatican Council, to the extent it was Magisterial at all, is in continuity with Tradition, and that even its prudential recommendations can be understood in light of Tradition. There are a few reasons for this assumption:

  1. Continuity should always be the default hermeneutic when attempting to understand any given Magisterial text.
  2. This is especially true given that it is almost always possible to assign a discontinuous interpretation to any such text, as by assigning a certain meaning or understanding to words that is different from what would normally arise by context, or by fixating unduly on the motives of the authors, either accurately assessed or else uncharitably maligned.
  3. As a matter of tactical prudence, it is always unwise to cede more ground to one’s enemies than is absolutely necessary, and this is what, e.g., the SSPX’s criticisms of the Council effectively do. In this case, “one’s enemies” means those who use the Council (or, more generally, the “spirit” of the Council) as a blunt object with which to bludgeon lovers of Tradition.
  4. Finally, it is a matter of humility and obedience to the express will of Pope Benedict XVI (and apparently endorsed by his successor, Pope Francis) that we read the Council in this way. As Benedict is undoubtedly a genius, and as he is vastly more familiar with the work of the Council than I am, I’m inclined to think that, if he says it’s possible, it must be possible.

Two margin notes here. One, this assumption necessarily means fixating on the written word of the conciliar texts as the actual, authentic Magisterial act. The intentions (noble and ignoble) of particular personalities at the Council may be fruitfully explored as a part of a holistic picture of the Council and its works but they are frankly immaterial to the question of the Council’s fruits as a matter of the teaching authority of the Church. In short, this blog, as far as Magisteriality is concerned, adopts an “original meaning,” not “original intent,” paradigm.

Second: to expand a little on point #2 above, the rhetorical force of the claims that the Council is discontinuous with Tradition depends on the notion that there is no possible way to reconcile a given conciliar statement with Tradition. The hermeneutic of continuity, then, simply requires that we demonstrate that there be at least one possible way to do so; it does not even require that we demonstrate that it is necessarily the objectively correct way. In my experience, it is almost always possible to come up with at least one such interpretation. As a general rule, in examining the texts, I will consider objections-from-discontinuity only in order to refute them.

[1] Address to the Roman Curia, 22 December 2006.

Assumption #1: The Council was tactical

Many confused claims are made regarding the Second Vatican Council that must be put straight. The first of these is that the Council was not “ecumenical” but “pastoral.” The distinction here is meaningless because the two terms are orthogonal: ecumenicity denotes scope, pastorality aim. There is no contradiction in a Council being both pastoral and ecumenical and Vatican II was, arguably, both.

The second is that the Council taught nothing new. This is, as far as it goes, true. It never once explicitly invoked its apostolic authority in order to command the assent of the faithful to adhere to a newly-proclaimed doctrine. But more is often read into this claim than is justified: that the Council taught nothing new doesn’t mean it didn’t teach at all, which leads us to our third claim.

The third is that, since the charism of infallibility was never exercised, the Council is in no way binding on the faithful. This is, again, untrue, for two reasons: first, because infallibility determines the degree of certitude of the assent which must be given to a set of teachings, not whether or not such assent be given at all; and second, because the Council did, in fact, relate infallible teachings, though the infallibility of those teachings inheres due to Magisterial exercises that predate Vatican II. There is often a regrettable stink about postconciliar discourse of “if it ain’t infallible, I don’t hafta believe it” — call it the “spirit of Vatican I.”

So I reject, on the one hand, the claim that the Council was not ecumenical (it was, because its scope was universal); I accept the claim that it taught nothing new; yet I reject the claim that the Council’s teachings are fallible in toto by virtue of that fact.

The apparent contradiction between these positions resolves when you understand that the Council was primarily concerned with tactics, not strategy — not with teaching but with adapting the immemorial customs and traditions of the Church to the demands of modernity. In this sense, it certainly was “pastoral.” Hence,

In calling this vast assembly of bishops, the latest and humble successor to the Prince of the Apostles who is addressing you intended to assert once again the Magisterium (teaching authority), which is unfailing and perdures until the end of time, in order that this Magisterium, taking into account the errors, the requirements, and the opportunities of our time, might be presented in exceptional form to all men throughout the world. [1]

In other words, the Council is Magisterial, but its Magisteriality is being invoked primarily to re-express (and, in that sense, reform) teachings from of old in a way that is intelligible to modern man.

This blog thus takes for granted:

  1. That the Council was a legitimate ecumenical Council of the Roman Catholic Church;
  2. That the Council was largely concerned with prudential, not doctrinal, matters, and in this respect is non-Magisterial;
  3. That the Council is doctrinally infallible to the extent it expresses previously infallibly defined teachings; but that
  4. The re-expressions themselves are prudential adaptations.

A logical conclusion of #4 is that a particular re-expression of doctrine may be objectively true, properly understood, but that it may be expressed in a way such that it is easy or possible to take away the wrong meaning from it. It recognizes, in other words, that there is a difference between saying something correct (in, perhaps, Mandarin), and saying something correctly in Mandarin: “saying something correct” is the Magisterial bit, “saying something correctly” is the prudential bit, and while the Church cannot err in the former, I see no reason to believe the re-expressions themselves were necessarily the best possible ones, nor do I see any reason to believe that this failing would necessarily impugn the Church’s teaching authority.

We were promised that our teachings would ultimately be right, not that they would necessarily be understood in any particular way at any particular time by any particular group of people.

[1] Pope John XXIII, opening address at the Second Vatican Council, 11 October 1962.