Conciliar Disputes

Chronicle of a Council (Wall Street Journal December 25, 2008) — Fr. Edward T. Oakes reviews John W. O’Malley’s What Happened at Vatican II (Belknap Press. September 2008), a book I’m almost finished reading. Oakes’ appraisal of the book is spot-on. As far as his editorial bias, O’Malley is unabashedly on the side of the ‘progressives’. Unfortunately, I don’t think I can concur with Rourke’s confidence (“his liberal advocacy never impairs his acutely observed history of the Council”.

I found it to be a decent enough introduction to the lead characters and controversies; the disputes between the ‘conservative’ minority and the ‘progressive’ majority; the language and style of the documents that gave the Council its innovative character.

But I’d also admit something does get lost in the condensation — and Novak seems to agree as well (A Spirit of Affirmation Washington Post October 5, 2008):

Based on my experience of the same events [Novak was a correspondent for the National Catholic Reporter during the second session], O’Malley does a truly superior job of reporting the crucial details and capturing the moods and passions of that time. Secondly, he has the advantage of many testimonies not known to us back then. These, too, he handles deftly.

But to my thinking, O’Malley’s approach is a little too lacking in irony, a little too blind to the council’s negative effects and much too blind to errors committed by progressives in pursuit of noble goals: Translations of council documents (and important texts of the Scriptures) were so ideologically cast that they distorted the meaning. The abruptness of changes in the sacred liturgy unloosed a sense of instability and make-it-up-yourself theology. In some places, there followed a “me decade” of “cafeteria Catholics” who felt they could pick and choose from church doctrines.

As Novak states, Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI have in the course of four decades become the council’s chief interpreters — striving to repair the damage wrought by the progressives. O’Malley’s work might have benefited from an examination of their critiques.

Which is why I’m pleased to encounter — by way of Fr. Neuhaus’ review in First Things — the anthology Vatican II: Renewal within Tradition (Oxford UP, April 2008) — which “shamelessly pulls rank on O’Malley by opening with a reflection by Pope Benedict XVI on the proper interpretation of the council”:

A great difference between the Lamb and Levering hermeneutic and the O’Malley hermeneutic is that the former is primarily theological and attuned to what is believed to be divinely revealed truth as it has been handed on and its understanding faithfully developed over the centuries. The O’Malley interpretation is dominantly sociological, psychological, and linguistic, aimed at demonstrating how the council moved beyond “the status quo.”

I found Neuhaus’ conclusion is particularly insightful:

Some essays in the Lamb and Levering volume weigh in so heavily on the side of the hermeneutics of continuity that one might get the impression that not much happened at Vatican II. Obviously, that is not the case. After allowing that the liberal leaders at the council were sometimes elitist and manipulative, O’Malley gives this telling reflection on how the council is interpreted:

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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