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Vatican II Where are You? Who stole my Church?

Publish date: Friday, January 4, 2013

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By Steve Landregan
Originally published in the Texas Catholic (1/4/2012)

Recently a priest friend asked “Vatican II where are you?” He was expressing disappointment and frustration over his feelings that the bright promise that the council would bring about a “true” aggiornamento had been dissipated, the windows opened by Pope John XXIII slammed shut and the Church again filled with musty air. On the other hand many of my contemporaries are bemoaning the fact that “the council stole my church.”
Both comments are sincere expressions from good people. So what is the answer? Where is Vatican II and has the church I grew up in been stolen?

At the outset we need to recognize that many changes which have occurred in the church during the past half-century were echoes of tectonic shifts in society and of human failings that cannot be attributed to actions of the council.

Of course the answers to the questions posed depend on the expectations of the people asking the questions. Differing expectations of the council were reflected in the dialogue among the council fathers.

Among the fathers there were two principal alliances; those styled as “International Fathers” whose concern could be described as maintaining the status quo and causing as little disruption as possible to the church structure as formed by Vatican I and the Council of Trent; a church whose continuous evolution had been shocked into inert introspection by the trauma of the Reformation.

A second alliance was informally termed the “Northern European Fathers,” whose concern could be described as accommodating the structure and mission of the church to a very different world than that of Trent and Vatican I.

Early in the first council session it became apparent that the “Northern Fathers” and those of like mind constituted a majority, but the rules of the council were structured to insure a balance in time available for interventions by both alliances and other views.

Both popes of the council, but especially Pope Paul VI intervened on occasion to avoid potentially serious divisions. With an eye toward the schisms that occurred after The First Vatican Council, Pope Paul was committed to insuring a unified outcome. His success is evident in the overwhelming, virtually unanimous, positive final votes on the sixteen documents.

Of course the high positive vote counts came at a cost; compromises to accommodate minority views. It has been said that selective reading of the documents presents two different Councils, reflecting the majority and minority positions among the council Fathers, a situation that tempts “cafeteria Catholics” on both ends of the spectrum to choose which council  to embrace. Many have done so.

On one extreme of the spectrum of Vatican II hopes and fears are those who reject the council as invalid as did Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre and his Society of St. Pius X (SSPX) who dissented from certain of the teachings of the council. He was excommunicated in 1988. The schism continues and Pope Benedict made it clear last June to the society that there could be no picking and choosing. In a letter in his own hand the Holy Father is quoted as saying to the dissident society (and by extension to the church) that to be considered part of the church, “it is necessary to truly accept the Second Vatican Council and the post-conciliar Magisterium.”

On the other extreme of the hopes and fears spectrum are those who envisioned a church with more collaborative leadership based on a clerical-lay partnership, a married, gender neutral priesthood, pastoral not juridical and rejecting triumphalism for simplicity and humility.

In his 2005 Christmas address to the Curia, Pope Benedict described both extremes as  “a hermeneutic of discontinuity and rupture” that risks ending in a split between the pre-conciliar church and the post-conciliar church. It asserts that the texts of the council as such do not yet express the true spirit of the Council. It claims that they are the result of compromises in which, to reach unanimity, it was found necessary to keep and reconfirm many old things that are now pointless. “However, the true spirit of the Council is not to be found in these compromises but instead in the impulses toward the new that are contained in the texts.”

For the majority of Catholics the changes emanating from the council were easily and quickly assimilated and resulted in a deeper understanding of their Faith, enriched experiences of liturgy and enhanced relationships with those of other faiths.

However, disappointment still lingers among those whose hopes were not fully realized and among those who grieve the loss of church they had always known, but the church is the body of Christ, it is dynamic and evolving. As Pope John XXIII said to the council, “the Christian life is not a collection of ancient customs.” Noting that many of the fundamental elements cannot be changed but that everything else is changeable and “ought to be changed with the passing of time to express more clearly the holy things which they signify.”

Following the First Vatican Council Cardinal John Henry Newman predicted that it would take 100 years before the teachings of a council would become fully effective. If Cardinal Newman was correct, we are halfway there.

There will continue to be those who disparage the contributions of the council and live in self-imposed exile from reality but the church has not been stolen and Vatican II has not been lost.

Far from being stolen, the church of my childhood, renewed by the council, emerged from four centuries of isolation to re-engage the world in the spirit of Pope Gregory the Great whose choice to engage rather than retreat created Christendom.

Fortified by the Holy Spirit “she is given strength to overcome patiently and lovingly the afflictions and hardships which assail her from within and without, and to show forth in the world the mystery of the Lord in a faithful though shadowed way, until at last it will be revealed in total splendor.”(Lumen Gentium, 8)


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