Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Obama and Vatican II

Up through the 1980s, self-identified liberals routinely spoke of the pre- Vatican II Church and the post- Vatican II Church, almost as though they were two churches, with the clear implication that a very large part of the preceding centuries had been consigned to the dustbin of history. To describe that depiction of the council, philosopher Robert Sokolowski employs a football metaphor: “The impression was given that the tradition of the Church was not a continuous handing on through the centuries of something received; it was more like a long pass from the apostolic age to the Second Vatican Council, with only distortions in between, whether Byzantine, medieval, or baroque.” That's an exaggeration, of course, but an exaggeration in the service of an important part of the truth.

During the council, the media often pilloried “the conservatives” for obscurantism, intransigence for being out of touch, and even for dirty tricks. One thing can surely be said in their favor. They saw, or at least more straightforwardly named, the novel character and heavy consequences of some of the council's decisions. The leaders of the majority, on the contrary, generally tried to minimize the novelty of some of their positions by insisting on their continuity with tradition. It is ironic that after Vatican II, conservative voices began insisting on the council's continuity, whereas so-called liberals stressed its novelty.

There is indeed irony, but it is not the irony that O'Malley proposes. What Happened at Vatican II is a 372-page brief for the party of novelty and discontinuity. Its author comes very close to saying explicitly what is frequently implied: that the innovationists practiced subterfuge, and they got away with it. Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre and his Society of St. Pius X are right: The council was a radical break from tradition and proposed what is, in effect, a different Catholicism. The irony is in the agreement between Lefebvre and the liberal party of discontinuity. O'Malley and those of like mind might be described as the Lefebvrists of the left.

It is almost half a century after the council. The pontificates of Paul VI, John Paul II, and Benedict XVI, along with the scholarly arguments represented by books such as Vatican II: Renewal Within Tradition, make it evident that the hermeneutics of continuity is prevailing, if it has not already definitively prevailed. Fr. O'Malley may suspect that is the case. His book has about it the feel of a last-ditch effort to defend the story line of the post-Vatican II Church vs. the pre-Vatican II Church that was popularized by Xavier Rynne all these many years ago. The final irony is that if, in the twenty-fifth century, the Second Vatican Council is remembered as a reform council that failed, it will be the result of the combined, if unintended, efforts of the likes of Marcel Lefebvre and John O'Malley in advancing the argument that the council was a radical break from the tradition that is Catholicism. I do not expect they will succeed.

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