Friday, July 19, 2013

Book Reflections: Vatican II, the New Theology, and the Search for Meaning in Post-Conciliar Faith Formation

I wrote this back in January on our diocesan "professional page"/social network. Since I'm about to move back to Albany in about a week, I wanted to make sure that this existed someplace else. The audience was other faith formation leaders who work in the diocese. I wanted to give people who do what I do for a living access to some background on the Nouvelle Théologie and it's contributions to the Second Vatican Council and how much it relates to our work.

I think the title is a little pretentious and the tone is too, if not a little distant as well. But I think the info is helpful if you like this kind of thing.

I also really recommend both of these books.

Book Reflections, 1/24/2013: Vatican  II, the New Theology, and the Search for Meaning in Post-Conciliar Faith Formation

Without question, the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965) was the most significant event within the last century of the Catholic Church's history. It marked a shift in everything from how we worshiped, how we engaged the non-Catholic world, and how we understood ourselves as God's people. Today, faith formation leaders embody the Council's call for greater lay participation in the life and leadership of the Church, as found in the Constitution Lumen Gentium and the Decree Apostolicam Actuositatem.

A number of recent books have evaluated the post-Conciliar landscape as a quest for identity, for example John O' Malley's "What Happened at Vatican II?" and Massimo Faggioli's "Vatican II: The Battle for Meaning". Modern debates on the Council distinguish between what the Council meant and what it actually said. These questions still play out in parishes when the Council is invoked as the reason to do this or that. Some of the great fault lines in the life of the Church today mark the different assessments that people make of the Council and its legacy.

Usually, these debates take into account two different aspects, either the so-called "spirit of the Council" or the documents themselves. But two recently published books give another perspective to the Council, particularly the period that led into the Council. This time period is not incidental. In fact, if there is a hermeneutic to the Council then it must include historical situation surrounding it. That meaning of the Council cannot be reduced to simply "aggiornamento" or simply an opening up the world (as important as that is). Joseph Ratzinger/Benedict XVI has noted that any authentic interpretation of Vatican II needs to take into account the two councils that set the stage for it, namely Trent and the first Vatican Council. Clearly there is a bigger story to tell.

Moreover, the Council itself was also the culmination of a century of theological debates. At the time of the convening of the Council, the prominant theological school was Neo-Scholasticism, which built upon the thought and methodology of St. Thomas Aquinas and his later commentators. The scholastic approach of Aquinas was recognized by Pope Leo XIII as normative for the whole Church in his encyclical Aeterni Patris, especially as an antidote to radically secular approaches to philosophy. By the end of the 19th century, however, a revolution had begun in philosophy and the sciences, particularly in the historical sciences. In turn, theologians began to evaluate the Tradition in the context of its sources.

This return to the sources, or ressourcement, slowly began to revolutionize the theological landscape. The Church Fathers of both East and West were re-appropriated into the Tradition. The early liturgies were studied and helped spur a wider Liturgical Movement. Doctrine was studied in terms of their formation over the course of time. The Catholic convert John Henry Newman had already published his Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine in 1845 and had recast Tradition as a process that finds its root in the apostolic era but not fully-formed, illuminating Jesus' words to his Apostles in John's Gospel, that the Holy Spirit would teach and remind them after the Resurrection (John 14:26). In particular, Biblical studies went through a long and storied struggle as they too appropriated new methodologies to better understand the text.

All of this was not without controversy. Divisions arose within the Protestant traditions when these methodologies were applied to the Bible, with liberal Protestantism siding with the new methods in biblical studies and the biblical fundamentalist movement arising in reaction to the perceived new threat to the inerrant word of God. The Catholic tradition, however, had always embodied the relationship between faith and reason. These controversies occasioned a further self-reflection in the Church with debates that were hardly resolved by the time of the Council. Pius IX issued a Syllabus of Errors to combat many modern philosophical and theological approaches that were incompatible with Church teaching. Pius X later issued a Syllabus of his own, as well as the encyclical Pascendi Dominici Gregis, which condemned many modern approaches under the umbrella of a movement known as Modernism. Modernism, he wrote, was "the synthesis of all heresies".

This encyclical, along with the Syllabus set a program that ran counter to the ressourcement movement. It is only in the years after the Council that the overarching meaning of those condemnations have become clear. Joseph Ratzinger noted that the proper interpretation of these pronouncements sees that any approach to philosophy and theology that denies any place to God or is hostile to his immediate involvement is untenable to Catholics. In the introduction to his commentary on the Vatican II Constitution Dei Verbum he also notes that many within the Council's administrative leadership were surprised to find that what they had been condemning as "Modernism" was in fact an entirely different theological school than neo-scholasticism and saw itself as being in the service of the Church and not at all opposed to it. As a matter of approach, Councils do not decide in favor of one theological school over an other with regards to approach. Ratzinger's assessment has also been echoed by Pope John Paul II in his encyclical Fides et Ratio, as was as the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith's document Interpretation of the Bible in the Church as well as the future Pope's own Apostolic Exhortation Verbum Domini.

Several theologians contributed to this "new theology" or Nouvelle Théologie. Henri De Lubac and his collaborators spearheaded new studies into the Church Fathers, creating a series that reprinted and re-translated their work for modern audiences. Marie-Dominique Chenu wrote of the practical and pastoral dimension to theology. Jean Danielou wrote about the necessity to return to the sources and was critical of Thomism as a solitary approach to theology. Yves Congar, widely considered among the biggest (if not the biggest) influence on the Council Fathers, wrote about the possibility of reform in the Church that did not necessitate schism. He also worked tirelessly in the ecumenical movement at a time when the Church was still struggling with its role in dialogue with other Christians.

Congar was also a theological advisor, or peritus, of the Council, as were several representatives of the Nouvelle Théologie. He also kept a diary from the time of the announcement of the Council that extends past the end of the last session in 1965. His diary gives a unique perspective of the Council on an almost day-to-day level from one its most influential behind the scenes workers. Congar helps construct interventions, study groups, lectures, and even sections of the texts. There is a story that prior to his elevation as pope, John XXIII had read Congar's "True and False Reform in the Church" and mused at the idea that reform was really possible within the Church. Apparently he thought so. Many of the Council Fathers let Congar know that they had been strongly affected by his work, even though Congar is frequently unsure of the value of his presence at the Council.

His diaries also show the radical differences in theological approaches present among the Council Fathers. Within days of Pope John XXIII's legendary opening address at the Council, however, the tide begins to turn towards greater openness and dialogue with the world. Congar recounts the interventions of the Council Fathers during the sessions. Many are tedious (at times worthy of an eye roll or two) but some of them really move the hearts and minds of the other Council Fathers. Many of the influential peritii are stereotyped as modernists by a few influential members, but it's clear that equating their positions to Modernism holds little weight to most of the Council Fathers. The diary is also a veritable "who's who" of the Catholic world of the time. At one point, Congar meets Raymond Brown at a time when his star was still rising within the field of biblical studies. He also records his impressions of Fulton Sheen, which is it once resonant and hilarious, even for his admirers.

Congar recognizes a "spirit of the Council" from the very beginning. It is this "spirit" that will be a point of contention after the Council. The peritii themselves will populate the post-conciliar theological landscape. Names like Yves Congar, Karl Rahner, Joseph Ratzinger, Edward Schillebeeckx, Henry De Lubac, and Hans Küng are familiar to lay Catholics. Many of them would continue their work in support of a Vatican III, seeking a more radical vision of the Church. Küng in particular saw the documents of the Council as compromises that did not do justice to what he has seen as the real vision of the Council. But Ratzinger, De Lubac, and other like-minded theologians began to feel uncomfortable with certain currents that were making their way through the post-conciliar Church. This vision of the Council was not only superseding the intentions of the Council Fathers, but at times breaking with them entirely. Ratzinger will later note that calls for a Vatican III do not recognize how monumental and even traumatic a Council is in the life of the Church. Councils take several decades before they begin to be understood. In Congar's diaries, Ratzinger is almost always mentioned along with his once close collaborator Karl Rahner. Afterwards, Ratzinger will speak of the parting of ways that he experienced with Rahner and others who he joined in founding the academic journal Concilium (including Küng, Congar, and Schillebeeckx). Ratzinger (who along with De Lubac, Walter Kasper, and Hans Urs Von Balthasar founded an alternate post-conciliar academic journal Communio) felt that their call for a new Council, as well as the themes of their writings, had sailed beyond their original vision of faithful renewal into entirely different waters. This tension is still present in the current theological landscape (for a great review by Fr Robert Barron of Congar's diaries and the Concilium/Communio divine, see here: Yves Congar and the Meaning of Vatican II

Faith formation leaders often feel very far from the world of academic theology but any benefit of the legacy of the Council has to take into account the foundations of the Council. That foundation is simply this: how we think and believe is as important as what we think and what we believe. It is also a reminder that the pastoral dimension of the Church does not exist apart from the theological dimension of the Church. Karl Rahner once wrote that "all theology is pastoral theology". This is very clear when faith formation leaders work with parents. The question is not "What is the Trinity" but rather "How does God's self-revelation as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit apply to my daily life and struggles? How do the teachings of the Church help me make sense of who I am and my place in this world? What real hope do I have beyond this life? Is there any life besides this one? How real is it? And what of my loved ones?" The knowledge of the faith makes little sense to most people without the personal dimension. Gaudium et Spes tells us that "the revelation of the mystery of the Father and His love, fully reveals man to man himself and makes his supreme calling clear." In Christ, we find out who we really are. Dei Verbum speaks of God's revelation to us squarely in terms of "salvation", that is, that God reveals Himself to us in our current troubles and worries precisely to offer a solution to them. Ultimately, that solution is found in God Himself, the Father who lovingly supplies for the needs of His children, the Son who shows us the meaning of life and rescues us from sin and death, the Holy Spirit who teaches and reminds us everything we are so apt to forget while giving us an immanent experience of God's life in the here and now as to prepare for the life to come.

In Christ we are given a real hope and the promise of salvation. His Kingdom is both "at hand" (Mark 1:15) and "does not belong to this world" (John 18:36). It is not enough to tell people about God as though He is merely an object of study. Rather, for the faith to take hold there has to be a concrete encounter with the God who not only cares for us greatly but who is alive and active, who is concerned with all of our problems and wants to share in all of our joys, who rescues us and will never let us go.