Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Some Notes on the Meaning of Church in Light of Benedict's Rehabilitation of SSPX

As discussion has unfolded in recent days about Benedict XVI’s choice to rehabilitate the Vatican II-denying group Society of St. Pius X, it has occurred to me that many people following that discussion may not fully understand all that is at stake with Vatican Council II. What I take for granted both as a professional theologian and as someone who lived through the council years many other may not take for granted—or perhaps even know. Since I began this blog with the intent of sharing my own theological journey with others, and also making freely available to others resources I’ve gathered in that journey, I’d like to offer some reflections here about Vatican II.

These are very much at what professional theologians might call the “popular” area. That is, they are not written in the abstruse language spoken by most theologians, nor do they cite the copious sources a well-documented account should cite. In my view, there is a valid and compelling reason that some professional theologians need to do such theology.

Theology needs to reach people where they live—and professional theology also needs to recognize that many “ordinary” believers and “ordinary” human beings are doing theology in their own way and in their own right, and can teach professional theologians as we enter into dialogue. One serious shortcoming of much contemporary theology is that it is deliberately written for an in-house audience and avoids such dialogue. Some theologians, particularly in the Catholic church today, deliberately avoid engaging the public, in fact, for fear that they will be punished if they make themselves too clear.

Many accounts of Vatican II focus on the council as a response to the modern world, a belated Catholic response to cultural developments that took place in the Western world from the Reformation into the 20th century. It is certainly possible to view Vatican II that way, and Pope John XXIII’s statements when he called the council—statements that he hoped to open the windows of a building long closed and bring the church up to date (aggiornamento) certainly reinforce such an interpretation.

But it is also possible to argue that the primary goal of the second Vatican Council was to rethink the issue of ecclesiology. Ecclesiology is the area of theology that talks about the church—about how we think about it, about the theological sources that norm the conversation about the church, etc.

Many commentators on Vatican II note that, at a very fundamental level, the documents of Vatican II retrieve ancient, traditional notions of the church which had fallen by the wayside in the modern period, as the church reacted to modernity (and to the Reformation, a seminal event of modernity). In reaction to the Reformation, the Catholic church chose to view itself first and foremost as what it called “a perfect society.” This notion of the church was promoted by an influential cardinal of the late 16th and early 17th century, Robert Bellarmine.

In response to the Reformation and the development of the modern nation-state, Bellarmine argued that the church is a “perfect” society in that it has rulers that lay down its laws and regulations, and enforce the interpretation of doctrinal truth. This is in contrast to the growing claims of the nation-state that each ruler had the right to determine within the boundaries he or she ruled how people believed, and in contrast to the Reformation emphasis on the right of individual Christians to apply their consciences and make moral and theological judgments on that basis, resorting to scripture as their norm.

Note what lies at the heart of Bellarmine’s notion of a “perfect society”: a defense of monarchy as part of the “constitution” of the church, of how the church is made. This notion has had strong (and some would argue, primarily negative) consequences in Catholic thought. It is not merely a description of how things are, but a statement about how they should be: to retain its perfection and fulfill its mission, the church has to be ruled from on top by an absolute monarch.

The reaction against modernity that this concept of the church implies continued to grow accentuated throughout the modern period, due to a number of factors. These included revolutionary movements in Europe and America and the loss of the papal states, the territories ruled by the pope in central Italy. Almost simultaneously with the fall of these lands to reunification troops in 1870 (and in response to the demands being made by the troops for a sovereign state in Italy), Pope Pius IX convened the first Vatican Council, which formally proclaimed the dogma of papal infallibility.

Several years before Vatican I, in reaction against modernity—which he tended to view as a godless, secular movement intent on overthrowing clerical control—Pius IX had issued an encyclical called the Syllabus of Errors in which he condemned the modern world wholesale. The ecclesiology that came to prevail in this period from the Counter-Reformation Council of Trent through Bellarmine and Vatican I up to Vatican II was largely reactionary and defensive: reacting against modernity itself.

The church of this period of history is often called by historians and theologians “the fortress church,” since it envisaged itself as the sole locus of salvation in a world hurtling itself to damnation. In contrast to the world, where there was darkness, relativism, lack of perfection, the church proclaimed that inside its walls was to be found light, truth, perfection. The believer’s chief responsibility was to accept the truths handed down to him or her from the keeper of the perfect order, the Pope, through those who received these truths from the papal hands, the bishops and priests.

What needs to be noted about this ecclesiology of the perfect society and the fortress church is that it is not traditional at all, as many of its defenders after Vatican II now seek to claim. Many of those attacking Vatican II claim that this council departed from tradition and created an innovative new ecclesiology that is not rooted in the church’s tradition at all.

This is not the case. In contrast to the defensive ecclesiology that had grown up in the modern period, the second Vatican Council called on the Catholic church to return to its ecclesiological roots by retrieving far more ancient, and more biblically grounded, notions of the church than the “perfect society” model and the fortress church model.

In particular, Vatican II reemphasized the ancient patristic (and biblical) notions of the church as the pilgrim people of God and the body of Christ. These metaphors for the church stress that the church is on pilgrimage through history along with all other human beings, seeking the reign of God at the end of history. As Augustine taught, its relationship to the world is not hierarchical, as the perfect society and fortress church images suppose: it is dialogical. The church interacts with the world in a dialogic fashion as it proceeds through history.

Far from having all truth shut up inside itself, the church receives truth from sources external to itself. If, as influential patristic theologians following St. Paul taught, the Spirit of God breathes within all of creation as all creation groans for salvation, then the church has an obligation to listen for and discern the presence of the Spirit outside its own walls—in other Christian churches, in non-Christian religions, and in secular movements seeking the same salvific goals towards which the church itself journeys on pilgrimage.

All of this is implicit in the image of the church as the pilgrim people of God. The image of the church as the body of Christ accentuates the “belonging” of all members of the church—and not just the ordained ones—to one body animated by one Spirit. This image critiques the concentration of power and privilege at the top of the church, the imagination that truth is somehow confined to the top and handed down to those below as passive recipients of divine truth. This notion of the church sees all Christians as led by the Spirit, as co-seekers of God along with the hierarchy. This ecclesiology undergirds the sensus fidelium concept of 19th-century theologian John Henry Newman, who argued that the Spirit speaks and acts within the faithful in a way that sometimes speaks truth to those at the top and corrects their mistakes.

Interestingly enough, for its authority figures as it retrieved these ancient, venerable ecclesiological notions, Vatican II turned to many of the same theologians who had been condemned in the early 20th century under the guise of pursuing those who were modernizing the faith. These included French theologians whose specialization was the patristic era, and who were involved in a ressourcement movement to recover the actual thought and words of the fathers of the church (e.g., Henri de Lubac, Yves Congar), and German theologians involved in dialogue with modern personalist philosophies (e.g., Karl Rahner) and with the biblical research being done in Germany in the 20th century.

When the council documents were voted on, with their call for a return to patristic and biblical images of church predating the perfect society notion, Bishop Karol Wojtyla, later Pope John Paul II, voted against the proposed documents and in favor of the perfect society model of the church. To many theologians, this speaks volumes about the anti-Vatican II restorationist model that John Paul II and his right-hand man head of the Holy Office Cardinal Ratzinger began setting into place after the election of Wojtyla.

Though Ratzinger had been part of the group of theologians promoting the return to patristic and biblical models of the church at Vatican II, at decisive moments in his career, he did an about-face. His own writings suggest that the turning point was when he saw close-hand the effects of student discontent as he taught at Tübingen in the 1960s. Ratzinger implies that, in the student uprisings of that period (which were much milder at Tübingen than in many other places, including Paris), he saw the ultimate effects of modernity gone wild: relativism, destructive political ideologies that undermined Christianity, etc.

For many theologians who have followed Benedict XVI’s theological career, however, the real turning point took place in 1981 when John Paul II named Ratzinger head of the Holy Office, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, which enforces doctrinal purity in the church. From that decisive moment in Ratzinger’s career, it became clear to many of his colleagues that he was integral to—even spearheading—the anti-Vatican II movement to restoration that has dominated the life of the Catholic church from the papacy of John Paul II up to now.

And in my next posting on this theme, I’d like to give some consideration to the question of why: why John Paul II and Benedict preferred the perfect society model of the church over Vatican II’s ecclesiology, and the practical consequences of that preference for the church as a whole.