Opposition to Pope Francis is Rooted in Opposition to Vatican II

…and, I might add, opposition to Vatican II is rooted in opposition to the gospel of Jesus Christ.

Anyway, here is part of Massimo Faggioli’s insightful look at the war on the Council, on the Holy Father, and on the gospel by the Greatest Catholics of All Time:

The first thing to acknowledge when we talk about the Second Vatican Council today is the gap between the horizon of expectations raised by the council and the situation of the Catholic Church today, especially in this country. Vatican II called Catholics to unity: unity in the one human family, with non-Christians and non-believers, with Christians of other traditions, and with fellow Catholics.

But in these last few years we have seen that the fundamental call of Vatican II to unity through reconciliation has often turned into a source of bitter division and contention, at times dangerously flirting with schism. This is paradoxical because reconciliation is maybe even more original as an intent of Vatican II than the call to church reform.

We have seen all this with shocking clarity during the pontificate of Francis. This is more than a chronological overlap. There is a parallel between the rejection of Vatican II and the relationship between the church in the United States and Pope Francis. The opposition to Pope Francis is rooted in the opposition to Vatican II — a theological crisis that did not begin with this pontificate.

This is a problem that is not just theological, but also ecclesial, that is, it has profound consequences for the ways in which all Catholics experience their life of faith in the church. Therefore, it is a problem that needs to be addressed. Also, because it would be naive to think that it’s a problem created by Francis and that it will disappear with the next pontificate. Hence, this is the attempt at an analysis of the problem and to offer some possible solutions.

Phases in reception of Vatican II

Despite some limitations in the wording in the final documents about the need of the church to reckon with the past, Vatican II took history seriously. We should do the same thing for the history of the post-Vatican II period, that is, try to identify different historical phases in order to comprehend the origins of a crisis in the reception of Vatican II.

One way to look at the issue of the reception of Vatican II is that the reception of a council like Vatican II takes a long time, at least a century to be fully implemented. This is true if one looks, for example, at the history of the reception of the Council of Trent. The greatest historian of the council of Trent, German Fr. Hubert Jedin remarked, in the very first lines of his multi-volume History of the Council of Trent, that the first century after the end of the council was shaped by the clash of historical and theological narratives on the council between the Venetian Servite Brother Paolo Sarpi and the Roman Jesuit Francesco Sforza Pallavicino. Only three centuries later, in the middle of the 20th century, it had become possible to write an account of that theological and ecclesial turning point that Trent was — something more than a battle between “accusation and defense.”

At the same time, choosing a mechanistic periodization — that is, expecting that the full reception of Vatican II will necessarily happen in the next 50 years or 200 years — is risky because it ignores the fact that in church history there have been failed councils: councils that did not accomplish their stated goals (the Council of Ferrara-Florence of 1438-1445, a council of “union” with the Eastern Orthodox Churches), or that fundamentally missed what was going on (the Fifth Lateran Council, 1512-1517, concluded immediately before the beginning of the Reformation), or that were overwhelmed by external factors and whose trajectory became substantially different from what the council had in mind (the Council of Moscow for the Russian Orthodox Church, 1917-1918).

Now, Vatican II is not a failed council. There is — despite the well-known differences and tensions — a fundamental consensus between papal magisterium, the sensus fidelium in the people of God, and the theological tradition on the fact that the teachings of Vatican II represent a development, a growth in our understanding of God’s Revelation. If anything, the “signs of our times” represent evidence of the necessity of the reorientation of the Catholic Church at Vatican II.

But we must acknowledge that we live in a time of interruption in the reception of Vatican II in the U.S. — and this crisis has been there for quite some time. We need to understand the present state of the reception of Vatican II, especially in the U.S., in order not to be trapped into narratives that posit a direction toward a pre-determined end.

In the literature on Vatican II, there are different periodizations of the post-conciliar period. Few of them try to deal with the fact that Vatican II was a council for the global church, received by the global church in a timeline that may vary dramatically from country to country and continent to continent. Periodizations of the post-Vatican II years still tend to cling to perspectives tied to national or (at best) continental histories. We still do not have a global history of the post-Vatican II Catholic Church, and even less an accepted narrative of the global post-Vatican II period — something that is more possible for the reception and application periods of previous councils, given that their impact can be measured on a Catholic Church that was predominantly European and Mediterranean (at least in its idealized models).

But for our intent here it suffices to divide the first three decades in three periods. The first is the age of Vatican II acknowledged, received or rejected — the 15 years between 1965 and the end of the 1970s: the time of the implementation of the liturgical reform, of the translations and dissemination of the final texts of the council, of the great commentaries written mostly by those men who helped draft the final texts of the council. The rejection of Vatican II was limited to small fringes of extremists — fringes both in the church and society — that articulate their opposition on the basis of nostalgia for pre-secularization Christendom and allegations of violation by Vatican II of the continuity of tradition. It was not yet based on sociopolitical arguments, that is, the alleged evidence of the failure of Vatican II to reframe the relations between the church and the world.

A second period is the one of Vatican II remembered, reconsidered and expanded — the 1980s. It is the time of Pope John Paul II’s effort to stabilize the reception of Vatican II by keeping “letter and spirit” together (the extraordinary synod of 1985) and to “institutionalize” Vatican II (the Code of Canon Law of 1983, the 1992 catechism project launched after the 1985 synod). At the same time John Paul II pushed the teaching of the church beyond the boundaries of the letter of Vatican II, especially on ecumenism and interreligious dialogue (with Judaism and Islam in particular).

The third period is the one of Vatican II historicized and lamented — the 1990s and the early 2000s: the period of the effort to write the master narrative on the history of Vatican II while at the same attempting to narrow down the import of the openings of the council by the institutional church in a rebuke to the appeals to the “spirit.” But there was still among Catholics of the two aisles a fidelity (although sometimes nominalistic) to the letter of Vatican II and to the legitimacy of the conciliar tradition that extends to and includes Vatican II.

It is in this third period, 30 years from the celebration of the council, that the crisis of the reception of Vatican II in the U.S. begins, and this activates the diversion of large pockets of U.S. Catholicism from an ecclesial reception of Vatican II.

On the one side, there is the beginning, in academic theology, of symptoms of detachment from the institutional church but also from a connection with the lived experience of the people of God, in ways that are more drastic than anywhere else in global Catholicism. It is the rise of a post-ecclesial horizon also thanks to a false polarity between institution and society as argued by Italian philosopher Roberto Esposito. It was not just a healthy relativization of the institutional church in favor of the transcendent. It was also the failure to recognize that also the institutional element in Catholicism allows different kinds of theological-spiritual cultures and different subjects to build the catholicity of the church.

But we must acknowledge that we live in a time of interruption in the reception of Vatican II in the U.S. — and this crisis has been there for quite some time.

On the other side, there is the neoconservative ideologization of Catholicism, which still showed in the 1990s a certain amount of respect (at least nominally) for Vatican II. It’s the long wave and the American Catholic version of the “comeback of God” in politics which Gilles Kepel wrote about three decades ago. But in the U.S. there is also the dangerous turn on its head of a clerical culture of identification of Catholicity with one particular model of papal leadership. On the conservative and traditionalist side of the spectrum, in the early 2000s the papacy is still providing important legitimacy to Vatican II.

But Pope Benedict XVI’s interpretation of Vatican II was different from John Paul II’s. From Benedict’s famous — and often misquoted — speech to the Roman Curia of Dec. 22, 2005 onwards, the polarity of “continuity and reform versus discontinuity and rupture” became something like a mantra. The argument of “continuity with the tradition of the council,” presented at the beginning as an argument against the Lefebvrite thesis of Vatican II as a “rupture” with the Catholic tradition, soon turned against any idea of “reform” — which was in fact an integral part of that pivotal December 2005 speech by Benedict XVI.

This protection given by the papacy to the legitimacy of Vatican II, lasts only until the end of Benedict’s pontificate and dangerously made it easier to trade one kind of ecclesial source of identity for another in favor of a new papalism. This happens at the expense of a healthy sense of the Catholic tradition — which was ironic or tragic for a theologian, like Joseph Ratzinger, who was among the main authors and interpreters of key documents of the council such as Lumen Gentium and Dei Verbum.

One of the effects of the identification in the U.S. between Benedict XVI’s pontificate and Catholic resistance to theological progressivism was the creation of the premises for the transition from Vatican II conservatism to a neo-traditionalist rejection of Vatican II among the Catholic intellectual and clerical elites in the U.S. It was a key turn: a rejection not anymore just of the vague appeals to the “spirit,” but also a rejection of the letter, of the documents of Vatican II and their theology. The explosive effects of this expansion of the anti-conciliar Catholic front became clear beginning in March 2013.

A new phase with Francis

The interruption in the reception of Vatican II has become a crisis of ecclesial communion during the pontificate of Francis. 

Much, much more here. Read it all.

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One Response

  1. It says the author is Massimo Faggioli, not Michael Sean Winters, who helped organise the conference.

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