I was alerted this morning, over breakfast with one of the most erudite priests of my acquaintance of a book review in the Wall Street Journal.
Let’s have a look with my emphases and comments.
What Happened at Vatican II
By John W. O’Malley
(Harvard/Belknap, 380 pages, $29.95)
DECEMBER 25, 2008, 9:37 P.M. ET
Chronicle of a Council
The debates, controversies and effects of one of the 20th century’s most significant religious events.
By EDWARD T. OAKES, S.J.
Contrary to popular wisdom, the highest authority of the Catholic Church is not the pope acting alone, reigning like some Jacobean absolute monarch. [hmmm] No, the Catholic buck stops when the pope teaches in communion with his fellow bishops. [I think the "buck stopping" and exercise of teaching authority are different concepts.] True, the pope can act alone, and when he does his writ is universal and without appeal. Nonetheless, when he convokes a solemn assembly of bishops — technically called an ecumenical council ("ecumenical" meaning here world-wide, not local) — the church witnesses the highest instance of its teaching authority. As the church’s own "Code of Canon Law" of 1917 says: "An ecumenical council enjoys supreme power over the universal Church."
[Bookshelf] [The 1983 is the Code now in force for the Latin Church. I found this paragraph confusing. Lumen gentium is pretty clear about the Supreme Pontiff’s ability to teach entirely apart from a Council or the body of bishops in union with him. ]
The 21st of such councils, which met each fall from 1962 to 1965, is known as the Second Vatican Council — usually abbreviated as Vatican II. It was, most competent observers would agree, one of the most significant religious events of the 20th century. [Man bites dog!] But there agreement stops. Did Vatican II mean a rupture or a continuation with the church’s past? [Sooo… Pope Benedict’s 2005 Christmas address to the Curia continues to shape the conversation!]
John O’Malley, a Jesuit professor at Georgetown University, [the author of the book in question] is a prominent exponent of the view that Vatican II represents discontinuity. (Another Jesuit, Cardinal Avery Dulles, who died on Dec. 12, 2008, led those scholars who insist on Vatican II’s continuity. [With all due respect to the late Cardinal, I think Joseph Ratzinger was the leader in this area. But this is a Jesuit writing about a Jesuit commenting about a late Jesuit.]) At least superficially, Father O’Malley has a point: The Mass is now celebrated in the language of the people instead of in Latin;[That is just a fact… it is not the Church’s law. The same Vatican II we are talking about here required that Latin be maintained. It was definitely an application of a hermeneutic of discontinuity and rupture which removed Latin from our worship, to the great detrimment of the whole Church.] liturgical translations avoid Renaissance cadences in favor of staccato syntax; [They do. They also favor incredibly banal language nearly bereft of theological or linguistic fidelity to the Latin originals. The new translation will be better.] thundering condemnations of the modern world (and of Protestants) have been replaced with openness and dialogue — and vocations to the priesthood and convent life have plummeted. [A tree is known from its fruits.]
Of course, no major event in history can escape the law of unintended consequences; and Vatican II is no exception. The assembled bishops hardly intended to empty rectories and convents, but that is what happened. Which forces the question: How much of this disruption was predictable and how much was due to the unexpected winds of history, such as the student rebellions of 1968 and the rise of the so-called counterculture? And if predictable, should Vatican II, at least to some extent, be faulted — for the sin of imprudence if not of untruth? [How much was… planned … ?]
Not according to Father O’Malley, who sees Vatican II as an unalloyed good, precisely because it marked a break with the past. [This fellow is in the same theological morass as was (Jesuit) Karl Rahner and especially Hans Kung, who still thinks that the break of continuity didn’t go nearly deep enough.] As he puts it in "What Happened at Vatican II": "At stake were almost two different visions of Catholicism: from commands to invitations, from laws to ideals, from definition to mystery, from threats to persuasion, from coercion to conscience, from monologue to dialogue, from ruling to serving, from withdrawn to integrated, from vertical to horizontal, from exclusion to inclusion, from hostility to friendship, from rivalry to partnership, from suspicion to trust, from static to ongoing, from passive acceptance to active engagement, from fault-finding to appreciation, from prescriptive to principled, from behavior modification to inner appropriation." [blech]
This passage nicely exemplifies the standard ploy of Whig and liberal historiography: Take the high road of monopolizing all the virtue and consign "conservatives" to a hidebound redoubt of obscurantism. [Good observation.] How much such rhetorical sleight of hand can itself be regarded as an example of dialogue over monologue might be questioned. But it has to be said in Father O’Malley’s favor that his liberal advocacy never impairs his acutely observed history of the Council, now the go-to work on "what happened at Vatican II." He is particularly illuminating when he gives the background and context to the debates (often very heated) that gave birth to its decrees. The narrative might be Whig, but the history is fair – and rivetingly told.
Ironically, Father O’Malley’s dedication to his craft often undercuts his discontinuity thesis. He openly admits that, without the advances made in church teaching during Pius XII‘s pontificate (1939-58), Vatican II would have been inconceivable. Not only did Pius call on Catholic biblical scholars in 1943 to study the Bible as a set of variable documents conditioned by their respective cultural settings (thereby undercutting a budding Catholic quasi-fundamentalism), he also urged Catholics to promote democracy. In an important radio address on Christmas Eve 1944, he almost sounded like Woodrow Wilson: "Taught by bitter experience, people today more and more oppose monopolies of power that are dictatorial, accountable to no one, and impossible to reject. They want a system of government more compatible with the dignity and liberty due to citizens." In that same address the pope even said that "the future belongs to democracy." Pope John XXIII (who convoked the Second Vatican Council in 1959) could not have said it better.
Nor was Vatican II, as Father O’Malley admits, quite as noncondemnatory as it is often taken to be, for it roundly denounced both abortion and the wholesale destruction of cities in war. Even on birth control it did no more than repeat past teaching. The author also concedes that the assembled bishops were not just divided along conservative/progressive lines but that deep divisions ran through both camps. For example, Cardinal Francis Spellman of New York (Eleanor Roosevelt’s bête noire) strongly defended the Decree on Religious Liberty against the worries of many bishops from Spain and Italy that such a concession represented the heresy of "Americanism."
In other words, in "What Happened at Vatican II," the historian is at war with the editorialist. Fortunately, the historian wins almost every time.
Father Oakes teaches theology at the University of St. Mary of the Lake in Mundelein, Ill., the seminary for the archdiocese of Chicago.
I won’t be rushing on the strength of this review to get the book, but I will look at it if it comes my way and I don’t have to buy it.
I think we have had enough of the "discontinuity" camp.
We need far better history of the Council than hitherto has been published. Some scholars are beginning to move in this direction, opposite the Alberigo camp, the School of Bologna, etc. I have in mind, for example, Archbp. Marchetto’s work in Italian.