Cardinal Sarah’s book The Day is Now Far Spent is a brilliant read, and just the book we need for the present crisis in the church. He addresses at length the question of clerical celibacy, the crisis of faith, decadence and heresy in the West and raises a prophetic voice on all the issues of our time.
One of the chapters that caught my eye was the crisis in the church and his comments on the two extreme approaches to the second Vatican Council. The two extremes might be nicknamed the “trendies” and the “traddies”.
The trendies take the documents of Vatican II as the primary revealed, Spirit inspired text of the Catholic Church for the modern age. For them it was all about the aggiornamento —the opening up of the church to the world. It was about building bridges, not walls. The council documents were not so much teaching documents but a kind of manifesto which set out the guiding principles for a new kind of church that would be welcoming to all and which would engage with the modern world with creativity, optimism and hope for the future. These documents set out a vision of a democratic church, a local church guided from above by caring, sympathetic pastors who were real men of the people. They glory in the fact that it was a “pastoral council” and not dogmatic because dogma divides and it is the pastoral sense of meeting people where they are and accompanying them in their own situations which is what makes the Catholic church alive, relevant and real to ordinary folks. These documents were the marching orders for the church to stride confidently into the New Age of man–offering a spirituality for all with open doors to all.
You get the idea.
Some traddies, on the other hand, view the Second Vatican Council with horror. The more extreme reject the council altogether as being a devious plot devised by Freemasons to infiltrate and bring down the Catholic religion. They whisper in the corners of their blogs and booklets about the Protestants who were there, the pollution of the church with interfaith dialogue and the erosion of the liturgy and the doctrine by unfaithful shepherds, heretics and apostates. If they are not that extreme, they view the second Vatican Council with distaste, disapproval and a spirit of intense criticism. Indeed, the council is the cause of all the bad liturgies, the corrupt seminaries, the lack of faith in the Catholic universities, the decline of the religious orders, the wholesale abandonment of the faith by millions and the disastrous decline of the Church in Europe and around the world. Rather than being the hope for the future, the Council is the curse of the future. It was the beginning of the end, the rot that infested the church and at worst it was engineered by demons, put in place by devil worshippers and promoted by sodomites, heretics and sinners of every stripe. The sedevacantists determine that there have been no valid popes since Pius XII and therefore no valid sacraments. The church is not a sinking ship. It has sunk. The traddies who are not that extreme feel much the same way, but are smart enough to realize that if you go down that road to far you’ll end up not being Catholic at all. So they stay put and “recognize and resist.” They’re not sedevacantists. They just don’t think the popes since Pius XII were any good and possibly very bad.
Here’s what I find so curious about both extremes: both of them are making up their own religion just as certainly as any red blooded independent Protestant pastor. They disregard the authority of the church and do whatever they please. One of the signs of Protestantism is that the Protestant believes in sola Scriptura. They have their authoritative text and they’re sticking by it. However, they don’t have just the Bible, they also have their interpretation of the Bible, and that interpretative text is an authoritative text of their own choosing. Likewise in the Catholic Church, the trendies have not only the church teaching, they have all their favorite theologians and spiritual writers who give the “real” interpretation of the church teachings. The traddies do the same. Dismissing the new Catechism they proclaim proudly that they only use the “Catechism of the Council of Trent”. Rejecting the new lectionary and calendar, they hold to the old calendar and lectionary. Their extra Biblical writings (just like the trendies) consist of their favorite theologians, apologists and propagandists for their alternative form of Catholicism.
These two factions in the church cause continual division because both are schismatic in spirit. The traddies blame the trendies for following a “hermeneutic of rupture” while they are following a “hermeneutic of continuity” but are they really following a hermeneutic of continuity?
I wonder. Traditionalist Catholicism is an attempt to preserve the past and be faithful to the “faith once delivered to the saints.” I get that and I appreciate that. But those who go off the deep end and reject the council are in danger of taking refuge in a baroque ghetto which is a new kind of Catholicism devised to meet the challenge of the modern age just as the trendy version has. The only difference is that the trad version is old fashioned and the trendy version is new fashioned. What we see in contemporary traditionalism is not a return to a pre-Vatican 2 Catholicism. Talk to the old people. They will tell you that the church before Vatican 2 wasn’t like the gorgeous liturgies reproduced by the traditionalists today. If one is not careful it all becomes no more than an exercise in nostalgia and no more authentic than Cinderella’s castle at Disneyland.
Does it have to be like that? No of course not. There is an authentic traditionalism that remains within the church and displays a genuine “hermeneutic of continuity” just as there are those who are more on the trendy side who practice their Catholic faith with a proper respect and reverence for the traditions and rightful authority of the church, and in my experience there are far more Catholics in this middle ground than occupying the fringes.
Cardinal Sarah condemns both extremes and quotes Pope Benedict XVI:
To defend the true tradition of the Church today means to defend the Council. It is also our fault if we have at times provided a pretext (to the right and left alike) to view Vatican II as a “break” and an abandonment of the tradition. There is, instead, a continuity that allows neither a return to the past nor a flight forward, neither anachronistic longings nor unjustified impatience. WE must remain faithful to the today of the Church, not the yesterday or tomorrow. And this today of the Church is the documents of Vatican II, without reservations that amputate them and with the arbitrariness that distorts them…neither embrace nor ghetto can solve for Christians the problem of the modern world.
To “defend the council” is first to understand the council, the circumstances of the time, the centuries of history and conflict which brought the Church to that time, the intentions of the Council fathers and the content of the documents themselves. Feelings are high among both trendies and traddies about the council, but how many of us have actually stopped and read the documents themselves and attempted to understand them in their context? How many of us have read the documents with a spirit of objectivity and humility–ready to learn and grown from reading the documents? Most of us are too lazy to read them. Instead we read the biased blog posts, propagandistic articles and commentaries on the documents.
What is my opinion? My opinion doesn’t really matter, but I am a Catholic today because of the Second Vatican Council. There is no way I could have made my progress into the Catholic Church as it was before the Council. I am grateful for the spirit of open ness, but also grateful for the spirit of resourcement– going back to the roots. It is through the documents of the council and the new catechism that I was able to understand and accept the Catholic faith, and it is that spirit of open-ness which brought me into the fullest appreciation of the history behind the Catholic faith, the need for loyalty to tradition, the love of traditional liturgy and devotions and the depth of traditional Catholic spirituality. But I could never have become the conservative Catholic I am today if it hadn’t been for the council. My own position, therefore, is to embrace the open-ness of the council and the ancient traditions of the Catholic faith.
Cardinal Sarah has the final word:
It is time for us to recover a peaceful and joyful spirit, a spirit of sons of the Church who accept all her history as grateful heirs. The council must not be retracted. Instead, it is necessary to rediscover it by carefully reading the official documents that were issued by it. It is necessary to read the council without a guilty conscience but with a spirit of filial gratitude toward our Mother the Church.
“But I could never have become the conservative Catholic I am today if it hadn’t been for the council.”
Father, we think of ourselves as “conservative” Catholics. But from the perspective of Vatican II we are solidly in the liberal camp. If you look at Vatican II as a clash between conservatives and liberals, it is clear that the liberals won. The winners then divided into two camps. The “moderate” camp represented by Communio and led by thinkers such as von Balthazar, Ratzinger and Woytila and the more “progressive” camp represented by Conculium and thinkers like Rahner, and Kasper. And then after the council arose the liberation theologians who are just as radical as the as the Concilium group but in a different way. The Communio group gets labeled (and sometimes labels itself) as “conservative” but is it really? I think a more realistic description is that of a moderate, middle-ground between the traddies (who have always been very suspicious of the Council) and the trendies (who have always had a radical interpretation of the Council. Unfortunately, despite the work of 50 years of the Magisterium of Pope St. John Paul II and Benedict XVI, the center has not held and now the radicals are steering the ship. busily trying to roll back or erase the “limits” placed on radical interpretations of the Council that were put in place by these moderate pontificates. This is having (in my view) unfortunate effect of driving many people toward the traddies and denial of the legitimacy of the Council, while not attracting new people to the Church.
A good assessment
These past 6 1/2 years have been a real tough slog for someone like me, who is squarely in the Communio camp but coser to the traditional end of the spectrum. There is a very strong temptation to conclude that something went seriously awry at Vatican II. For all of my adult life, I could take solace in the view that Popes St. John Paul II and Benedict XVI were giving an authoritative and binding interpretation of the Council – a middle way between traditionalism and radicalism – a hermeneutic of “reform in continuity” with the past. It was comforting to think that they had corrected the errors of the immediate post-Council years and had set the Church back on track. But, it really does now seem that all they accomplished is being wiped away – with glee – by the radicals.
I do not know what to make of the current situation. One might be tempted to conclude the that Vatican II was simply a “bad council” and retreat into traditionalism. Or, one might be tempted to see signs of the end times as related in CCC 675, with the Church passing through its “final trial” just like Christ. Or, one might be tempted to become a “Benevecantist” who holds that Benedict XVI’s resignation is invalid and he is still pope, or a sedevecantist who thinks the chair of Peter is empty because of shenanigans surrounding Pope Francis’ election. Or, one might be tempted to conclude the whole thing has been fake from the beginning – a fraud of grand proportions – if a new Pope can simply come in and reverse or erase the magisterium of the preceding ones.
But I can’t do any of that. I have to hold on, and pray.
I do wonder, however, about Pope Benedict XVI’s abdication. I love Pope Benedict but I feel that he abandoned the flock Christ had asked him to shepherd. The impression given was that after he received the “dossier” on corruption – both financial and sexual – in the Vatican (which by the way we have never seen again since Benedict personally handed it to Francis on camera) he realized he did not have the strength or temperament to clean house in he way that was required. I am sure he thought the college of cardinals could never be more “stacked” and a solid “conservative” younger, more energetic and more ruthless than he, would be elected. Boy, was he wrong. Pope Francis was elected, ostensibly on a platform of reforming the curia and evangelizing the world. Turns out, he had other priorities – a progressive and liberationist theological revolution.
Thank you for this article…i fully agree with everything you wrote…i have read the documents of Vatican 2 and they are beautiful…my favourite theologian is Pope Benedict XVI. Tradition is beautiful of course but so is being open to peoples of good faith. The most important thing i think is to never cease praying for the church and let the Holy Spirit contnue to guide it…