On this, the two year anniversary of Pope Benedict’s renouncement of the papacy, most of the commentary that I’ve read on the topic has been focused on just how much the so-called “Pope Emeritus” is missed.
This makes sense, of course, given the chicanery emanating from Rome on a near daily basis under his successor.
I, however, am going to take another approach; one that seeks to counter the romanticism with which so many are reminiscing about the Benedictine pontificate.
Don’t get me wrong, the seas were much calmer under then, but let’s not pretend that they were a veritable pleasure cruise; they were not, the Barque of St. Peter under the command of Pope Benedict XVI was also sailing perilously close to rocky shores.
With this in mind, I post here an essay that I wrote some three months following Benedict’s abdication.
Shaded perceptions of the rose-colored kind
The first step in solving any problem is admitting that you have one.
In his 1988 Apostolic Letter marking the 25th anniversary of Sacrosanctum Concilium, the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy of Vatican II, Pope John Paul II said:
“The vast majority of the pastors and the Christian people have accepted the liturgical reform in a spirit of obedience and indeed joyful fervor. For this we should give thanks to God for that movement of the Holy Spirit in the Church which the liturgical renewal represents; for the fact that the table of the word of God is now abundantly furnished for all … for the radiant vitality of so many Christian communities, a vitality drawn from the wellspring of the Liturgy.”
As the Holy Father wrote of “liturgical renewal, joyful fervor, and radiant vitality,” the Archdiocese of Detroit, by contrast (to name just one such example), was addressing the real world state-of-affairs by unveiling plans to board-up some 40% of its parishes.
His successor, Pope Benedict XVI, followed suit, painting similarly unrealistic portraits of the Council’s impact on Catholic life.
On January 1, 2013, for example, Catholics who have long since accepted bankrupt dioceses, empty seminaries and irreverent liturgies as the “new normal” heard Pope Benedict’s Message for the World Day of Peace, in which the Holy Father spoke of “the Second Vatican Council which helped to strengthen the Church’s mission in the world.”
The matter-of-factness with which the pope offered this assessment would seem to suggest that it is simply self-evident that the Council fortified the Church, and yet one is hard pressed to deny that every meaningful measure indicates precisely the opposite.
Though he no longer reigns today, the “hermeneutic of continuity” – the centerpiece of Benedict’s pontificate – remains the lens through which the authorities in Rome, including Pope Francis (about whom I’ll have more to say in a moment), are determined to view Vatican II and its place in the life of the Church.
As such, a closer look at the Benedictine appraisal of the Council will prove helpful in shedding light on the mindset of the Holy See today, illuminating the shaded perceptions that have long stood in the way of reaching an end to the current ecclesial crisis.
On October 10, 2012, L’Osservatore Romano published perhaps the most revealing reflection of its kind wherein Pope Benedict XVI offered a detailed overview of his thoughts on the Council and its teachings.
Recalling the Council’s opening, Benedict wrote, “A general sense of expectation hovered in the air. Christianity, which had built and formed the Western world, seemed more and more to be losing its power to shape society. It appeared weary and it looked as if the future would be determined by other spiritual forces.”
This snapshot of the state of Catholicism circa 1962 gives rise to some questions, as by most accounts the Church seemed to be doing rather well as the Council drew near. Here in the United States, for example, pews and seminaries alike were consistently full, and the parish – the locus of one’s devotional, liturgical, and to some extent, social life – was the epicenter of an unmistakably robust Catholic identity.
(I am reminded of the opening chapter of George Weigel’s book, Letters to a young Catholic, in which he writes about “growing up in seemingly the last moment of intact Catholic culture in the United States: the late 1950’s and early 1960’s.”)
In Pope Benedict’s estimation, however, “The sense of this loss of the present on the part of Christianity [as the Council met], and of the task following on from that, was well summed up in the word aggiornamento (updating). Christianity must be in the present if it is to be able to form the future.”
“So that it might once again be a force to shape the future,” the Holy Father continued, “John XXIII had convoked the Council without indicating to it any specific problems or programs. This was the greatness, and at the same time, the difficulty of the task that was set before the ecclesial assembly.”
Pope Benedict speaks, on the one hand, of a Church that was “weary” and “losing its power to shape society,” and was even showing signs of ceding ground to evil, and yet on the other, he states that “there was no specific problem to resolve.”
What is one to make of it all?
According to noted author and historian, Charles Coulombe, who commented via email for this article, “Despite the real prosperity in that last year of Pius XII, there were real problems in the Church, albeit not of a specific kind.”
“Above all, in North America and Western Europe, there was no great desire to evangelize, especially among Catholics in the United States, who were only too happy to see one of their own in the White House, in spite of the price that Kennedy paid to get there,” he continued.
According to Coulombe, the vibrancy of Catholic life belied “a torpor, if you will, a sense of doing things by rote, rather than for themselves.”
“Under that listless façade also lurked some real doctrinal and liturgical evils, addressed in the Encyclicals Humani Generis and Mediator Dei respectively, but while Pope Pius XII effectively contained these dangers to some degree, he was unable fully eradicate them.”
Surely the same can be said of the pontificate of Pope St. Pius X and his threefold counter-offensive against modernism (Syllabus of Errors, Pascendi, Oath Against Modernism), a program that managed to shield the faithful from danger by condemning the errors of the day plainly while establishing in clear and uncertain terms what is acceptable and what is to be avoided.
In sum, therefore, it would appear that the reality of Catholic life in 1958, in spite of whatever need may have existed to reenergize the troops – both lay and ordained – was hardly that of a Church that had lost its way.
In a recent article in the Italian newspaper, La Stampa, journalist Sandro Magister quoted the late, eminent, theologian, Fr. Divo Barsotti (1914–2006), who wrote in his unpublished diary rather critically of moderns who paint an overly dark image of the Church pre-Vatican II, saying, “In order to justify a Council that presumed to renew all things, it had to be affirmed that everything was going poorly, something that is done constantly, if not by the episcopate then by the theologians.”
With all of this in mind, the suggestion that the Church of the 1950’s was on the verge of succumbing to “other spiritual forces” can reasonably (and charitably) be understood as an exercise in hyperbole.
In any case, enter Pope John XXIII, who in the estimation of historian Coulombe, “was looking to address this malaise and knew of no other way to do so” than to convene an ecumenical council.
“Of this I have no doubt,” Coulombe continued, “especially considering his constant talk of updating the ‘presentation’ of the Faith while retaining its truths inviolate.”
The Council opened on Oct. 11, 1962, at which point, according to Coulombe, “The modernists that Pius XII had sought to control roamed about freely, seeking whom they might devour.”
“The fact that such stalwarts as Cardinals Ottaviani, Bacci, McIntyre (my old confessor), etc. had so little effect, and that the worldwide collapse happened so quickly in the aftermath of the Council, shows that all was not entirely well beneath the surface,” Coulombe continued.
“The result was to retain many of the evils the pre-conciliar popes opposed, while minimizing what truly had been healthy in the life of the Church. Nearly everything that Pius XII had condemned in the two cited encyclicals – the same that Benedict XVI has characterized as the ‘hermeneutic of disruption’ – has been triumphant in the everyday life of the Church ever since,” Coulombe observed
Is it truly reasonable to imply that the situation just described is the fault of the Council’s interpreters alone, such that all one needs to do is to embrace every jot and tittle of conciliar teaching in order to emerge from the devastation that followed?
Pope Benedict seems to have thought so.
Speaking to the priests of Rome on February 14th, just two weeks before his formal abdication, the Holy Father said, “There was the Council of the Fathers – the real Council – but there was also the Council of the media … We know that this Council of the media was accessible to everyone. Therefore, this was the dominant one, the more effective one, and it created so many disasters, so many problems, so much suffering: seminaries closed, convents closed, banal liturgy.”
In Pope Benedict’s view, the “real Council” is apparently beyond reproach, and his unshakable determination to cast it in a purely positive light was plainly on display in the aforementioned L’Osservatore Romano reflections.
“The various episcopates undoubtedly approached the great event with different ideas … There was a need to amplify the doctrine of primacy from the First Vatican Council by giving greater weight to the episcopal ministry,” the Holy Father writes.
At this, one cannot help but be perplexed.
Yes, the Council Fathers were most certainly determined, one might even say Hell bent, on “giving greater weight to the episcopal ministry,” but this was never intended, neither in theory nor in practice, to “amplify” the papal primacy defined at Vatican I. On the contrary; it was a deliberate attempt to tone down the sovereignty of the pope by way of the false democratization of the Church that we now call “collegiality.”
The history of that effort has been well documented. So egregious were the progressive Council Fathers’ attempts to reconfigure the monarchical structure that the Lord had given to His Church, that Pope Paul VI had to take the unprecedented step of inserting a nota praevia (an “explanatory note”) in Lumen Gentium at the eleventh hour in order to preserve some modicum of sacred Tradition on the subject. (The note, incidentally, did little to correct the problem.)
Most disturbing of all, however, are the Holy Father’s reflections on what is perhaps the Council’s most controversial document, the Declaration on Religious Freedom, Dignitatis Humanae.
“With developments in philosophical thought and in ways of understanding the modern State,” Pope Benedict writes, “the doctrine of tolerance [of false religions], as worked out in detail by Pius XII, no longer seemed sufficient.”
One naturally wonders to whom, and in what sense, the traditional doctrine seemed no longer sufficient. For an answer, it is reasonable to turn to John Courtney Murray, the Council peritus (theological expert) who was the chief architect and driving force behind Dignitatis Humanae.
The traditional doctrine of tolerance (as opposed to the Council’s call for States to guarantee a civil right to false religious practices in the public arena) was deemed insufficient by Murray, as indicated in his writings, because Catholics in the United States prior to the Council, with their recognition of the Sovereign rights of Christ the King and their allegiance to His vicar on earth, were viewed as less-than-trustworthy collaborators by America’s largely protestant political and social ruling classes.
To Murray, this represented a bona fide crisis; to the Holy See prior to Pope John XXIII, it represented little more than the blessed persecution that one should expect when carrying out the mission of the Church. (“And you shall be hated by all for my name’s sake.” – Mt. 10:22)
So doctrinally unacceptable were Murray’s attempts to anoint with Catholic chrism the religious pluralism enshrined in the U.S. Constitution that he was censured by the Holy Office in 1954, and he was forbidden to publish on the subject any further.
Just over a decade later, those very same ideas would be enshrined in the document, Dignitatis Humanae!
“At stake,” according to Pope Benedict, “was the freedom to choose and practice religion, and the freedom to change it, as fundamental human rights and freedoms.”
There’s no way to sugarcoat it; apart from serious qualification, this statement is nearly impossible to understand in a fully Catholic light.
The first demand of justice is to render unto God that which He is due; i.e., to worship Him, not in the manner of one’s own choosing, but in truth, as He Himself established. It is toward this worship alone, according to Catholic doctrine, that man enjoys a positive right to religious freedom.
While free-will enables man to err and to embrace a false religion, sometimes in ignorance and at times even with the best of intentions (something that the Church, after the manner of her Lord, understands and tolerates, within certain limits), man does not enjoy a fundamental right to choose and to practice just any religion that suits his fancy.
“Given its inner foundation, such a concept [namely, a supposed right to choose and to practice any number of religions] could not be foreign to the Christian faith, which had come into being claiming that the State could neither decide on the truth nor prescribe any kind of worship,” the Holy Father continued.
This is also very troubling.
It is one thing to say that the State cannot decide, of its own authority, what is, and what is not, “the truth,” and indeed the Church has never imputed such authority to the State, and as for “prescribing” worship, the Church has always held that man cannot be coerced into accepting the one true faith.
It is quite another thing, however, to imply, as the Holy Father does, that the State does not even have the ability to recognize the truth (more properly, the true religion) and therefore has no duty to seek it, uphold it and serve it, as if the State must concern itself with purely secular concerns alone.
This proposition has long been rejected by the Church.
“That the State must be separated from the Church is a thesis absolutely false, a most pernicious error. Based, as it is, on the principle that the State must not recognize any religious cult, it is in the first place guilty of a great injustice to God; for the Creator of man is also the Founder of human societies, and preserves their existence as He preserves our own. We owe Him, therefore, not only a private cult, but a public and social worship to honor Him. Besides, this thesis is an obvious negation of the supernatural order.” – Pope Pius X, Vehementer Nos – 3
In any case, Benedict continued, “The Christian faith demanded freedom of religious belief and freedom of religious practice in worship, without thereby violating the law of the State in its internal ordering; Christians prayed for the emperor, but did not worship him. To this extent, it can be said that Christianity, at its birth, brought the principle of religious freedom into the world.”
One’s amazement can only increase at such an analysis.
Firstly, the earliest Christians most certainly did “violate the law of the State” inasmuch as the State demanded that one render worship unto the Roman Emperor.
St. Polycarp (d. circa 155 A.D.), for instance, when urged to declare “Caesar is Lord,” and to offer incense to his likeness, refused, saying, “How then can I blaspheme my King and Savior? Bring forth what thou wilt.”
For this, he was martyred by burning at the stake.
Secondly, the early Church, even as it was being persecuted, never insisted that the emperor, or anyone else, had a fundamental right to practice the false religion of their choosing. Nowhere does one find evidence of the Church urging the State, as the Council does, to grant a civil right to pagans, that they may publicly worship their false gods.
Even if this was the case, why in God’s name would one simply gloss over nearly twenty centuries of sacred Tradition, as though the Church had not grown one iota in her understanding of the Sovereign rights of Christ the King, and for what, to recreate the good ol’ days when the State fed Christians to the lions?
The ironic thing is, as I write, we are well on our way to a return to such persecution, and yet, for whatever reason, most of the churchmen of our day simply cannot see that this is precisely what the Second Vatican Council’s pluralistic treatment of religious liberty has invited.
“Yet the interpretation of this right to freedom in the context of modern thought was not easy, since it could seem as if the modern version of religious freedom presupposed the inaccessibility of the truth to man and so, perforce, shifted religion into the sphere of the subjective,” the Holy Father continued.
In truth, the pluralistic approach to religious freedom adopted by the Council is often defended, as we have seen, by the implication that the truth is in some sense inaccessible, not so much to man, per se, but to the State, and this has most certainly contributed toward shifting “religion into the sphere of the subjective.”
One major point of departure from Tradition that is apparent in Benedict’s defense of Dignitatis Humanae lies in the fact that he, as all of the post-conciliar popes, fails to acknowledge (much less, insist) that the State has the very same obligation to seek and to serve the Lord Jesus Christ as any individual person.
In other words, the prevailing tendency is to treat the State as a nameless, faceless, less-than-human organ, when in truth (as Pope St. Pius X so clearly taught) it is not.
The dehumanizing of the State has opened the way for men to delude themselves into believing that the most that the Church can demand of the State in the name of the Lord is religious neutrality, an unattainable proposition given the fact that the concerns of the State, as they pertain to the good of the society of man, quite naturally intersect with the concerns of the Church.
As an aside, can there be any doubt that a relationship exists between the Church’s newfangled concept of a “dehumanized” State, and the fact that the State in our day is growing increasingly bold in thumbing its nose at the Church as it goes about dehumanizing its citizenry?
Even at this point in or limited examination, considering the degree to which Benedict’s view of the Council is shaded, not the least by questionable assumptions concerning that which preceded it, one senses why the “hermeneutic of continuity” that he proposed at the outset of his papacy has done little to right the Barque of St. Peter, even after seven years of serving at the helm.
Moving on to Nostra Aetate, the Holy Father writes, “At the outset, the intention was to draft a declaration on relations between the Church and Judaism, a text that had become intrinsically necessary after the horrors of the Shoah.”
Given that neither Catholic doctrine nor discipline had anything whatsoever to do with the Shoah, I find it very troubling that anyone, much less the pope, would even hint that this event somehow made Nostra Aetate “intrinsically necessary.” I can imagine no other motive for such a comment beyond the pressures brought to bear by political correctness, but whatever the motive may be, comments of this nature are harmful and ultimately serve to hamper the Church in her mission.
“The Council Fathers from Arab countries were not opposed to such a text, but they explained that if there were an intention to speak of Judaism, then there should also be some words on Islam,” the Holy Father wrote. “How right they were, we in the West have only gradually come to understand.”
It is noteworthy that Nostra Aetate, properly speaking, does not directly address the religion, Islam, as much as it speaks of individual “Muslims,” albeit in such a highly nuanced way as to invite confusion. This oft overlooked distinction is important lest one come to the unfortunately widespread, and erroneous, conclusion that the false god of Islam is also the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.
“Lastly,” he continued, “the realization grew that it was also right to speak of two other great religions – Hinduism and Buddhism – as well as the theme of religion in general.”
It is very difficult to accept the assertion that the false religions just named are “great,” especially when one considers that it is the Vicar of Christ who is speaking!
As if Catholic sensibilities haven’t been battered quite enough, the Holy Father continued, “Then, following naturally, came a brief indication regarding dialogue and collaboration with the religions, whose spiritual, moral, and socio-cultural values were to be respected, protected and encouraged.”
It is a dangerous enough proposition for the pope, even in the present context wherein he is speaking as a private citizen, to say that religions that deny the Lordship of Jesus Christ deserve our respect, but for the Holy Father to say, without distinction, that the values of these false religions, some of which reek of evil, are to be protected and even encouraged, is again, difficult to accept.
Oddly enough, the invitation to grave error that this commentary represents is not entirely lost on the pope, after all.
He goes on to say, “In the process of active reception, a weakness of this otherwise extraordinary text has gradually emerged: it speaks of religion solely in a positive way and it disregards the sick and distorted forms of religion which, from the historical and theological viewpoints, are of far-reaching importance; for this reason the Christian faith, from the outset, adopted a critical stance towards religion, both internally and externally.”
I would only add that what the Holy Father refers to as a “gradual emergence” is really more akin to a veritable explosion of ecclesial “diplomat-speak” wherein religious indifferentism has found fertile ground to prosper. Even so, the Holy Father does make an important observation, and so one wonders why we haven’t heard more pointed commentary from him or any other pope in the post-conciliar period regarding the dangers of false religions.
What emerges in these reflections is the degree to which contradiction and tension existed in this pope, a man who throughout his pontificate gave evidence of recognizing the gravity of the post-conciliar crisis, but who ultimately is “a man of the Council” who is committed, perhaps even subconsciously so, to ensuring that its legacy is glorified.
“If at the beginning of the Council the dominant groups were the Central European Episcopates with their theologians, during the Council sessions the scope of the common endeavor and responsibility constantly broadened,” the pope continued as he drew near to his conclusion.
“The bishops considered themselves apprentices at the school of the Holy Spirit and at the school of reciprocal collaboration, but at the same time servants of the word of God who were living and working in faith.”
The Holy Father stopped just short of proclaiming that the content of the Council is in fact the blessed fruit of time well spent at the knee of the Holy Spirit, but his successor appeared to take that suggestion one step further in his homily of April 16:
“The Council was a beautiful work of the Holy Spirit. But, after 50 years, have we done everything that the Holy Spirit told us in the Council? In the continuity of the growth of the Church that the Council was? No. We celebrate this anniversary, we make a monument, but do not bother. We do not want to change. And there is more: there are calls [voci, also ‘voices’] wanting to move back.”
It isn’t explicitly clear, in the estimation of Pope Francis, which parts, if not all, of the Council comprise what “the Holy Spirit told us,” nor is it clear precisely whom he intended to criticize.
Presumably the pope’s finger is being pointed at those who place a very highly value on the Church’s venerable liturgical tradition (to say nothing of her current liturgical laws) and who want desperately to “move back” to a papacy that neither shies away from its own monarchical authority, nor hesitates to proclaim the Kingship of Jesus Christ as once the Roman Pontiffs did before the Council.
All of which brings us right back to where we began: The first step in solving any problem is admitting that you have one.
I have spent much of the last decade creating faith formation materials, writing and speaking on the content of Vatican Council II, drawing attention to its largely beautiful and doctrinally sound treatments of the Catholic faith, all in an effort to aid my fellow Catholics in viewing and interpreting the conciliar text by the light of sacred Tradition.
Though my presumption going in was that the documents of the Council are impeccable in themselves, it became increasingly impossible to avoid the realization that they also contain critical ambiguities and doctrinal difficulties that have contributed in no small measure to the errors and confusion that have permeated all levels of the Catholic Church ever since their promulgation, and it is imperative that they be addressed head-on.
Until our leaders in the sacred hierarchy set aside the rose-colored glasses and follow suit in soberly admitting to the Council’s shortcomings, we can be absolutely certain that the Church will continue to struggle in the longsuffering effort to emerge from the post-conciliar crisis.
NOTE (2/11/2015): Of course Benedict is missed, but if we’re honest we will admit that he missed in the manner of a departed father who gravely mismanaged his family’s affairs in light of the step father in residence who beats his children daily.