Updated: Dec 4, 2022
“Evil comes from a failure to think… That is the banality of evil.”
Part I: The Fog Descends
Those who believe the controversies of Vatican II are no longer relevant are making a grave mistake. Why? The myriad problems we face today are rooted in the 1960s. If they are ignored, those roots will continue to nourish the flowers of evil that threaten the demise of Western Civilization.
This evil is about as banal as a thick fog off the Oregon coast. It is disorienting. It is dangerous. Cognitive dissonance is another type of fog. It, too, disorients and in doing so provokes confusion and doubt. We live in an Age of Fog.
It makes sense, then, that many people of sound mind are confused. There are good reasons for it. Those who aren’t at all perplexed likely hold to their convictions by closing themselves off to questioning. Those who are both clear-headed and open-minded often have trouble getting through to others, and this can lead to confusion as well.
A good portion of this confusion has been intentionally sown. Intellectual chicanery befuddles our most vulnerable regarding things like gender, sexuality, and personal identity. The result: People who have difficulty distinguishing reality from fantasy. With nothing to tether them to the real, these people attempt to create “truths” to suit their desires. When the attempt to exchange fantasy for reality fails, as it inevitably must, they are engulfed in a fog of cognitive dissonance. Anxiety becomes the norm.
When catch-phrases like “social justice” reduce complex concepts to morphed Marxisms or mutating forms of abject consumerism, the fog thickens. Young people are taught that individuality is trumped by whatever group they fall into. They are classified as this or that, racist or anti-racist, an oppressor or the oppressed. Reductionist identity propaganda falls from on high like acid rain on a parade of bewildered onlookers.
Even with centuries of tradition to fall back on, the Catholic Church is not immune to the identity crisis that has spread like a virus through all things Western. Controversy continues to swirl around the “post-conciliar” Church. Sex scandals careen through news headlines like bats with damaged sonar. Rumors abound. Confusion thrives.
This confusion generates doubt. Doubt serves as a breeding ground for fear which gives rise to anger. Love and reason, the markers of sanity, are squelched in the noise of upheaval. For many, the Ship of Faith appears rudderless upon a stormy sea.
Chaos and uncertainty, of course, are nothing new. In the eighth century, St. Boniface – in just one example – observed, "In her voyage across the ocean of this world, the Church is like a great ship being pounded by the waves of life's different stresses. Our duty is not to abandon ship but to keep her on her course."
It is difficult to keep a ship on course in a tempest, especially when the storm has been conjured Prospero-like by cultural forces bent on sinking it.
In our era, the 1960s summoned the storm clouds that continue to linger over the West. One could go further back, of course, to the Enlightenment and beyond, to St. Augustine when the Church was, as today, beset on all sides by competing heresies. One could go even further, to the very beginning, back to Eden and the Fall, but now is not the time. The past can find no place to abide in an age that dreads reflection.
The 1960s were revolutionary. The assassinations of President Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr. The Civil Rights Movement. Vietnam. The list goes on. Vatican II is on that list. In many important ways, the Second Vatican Council was a microcosm of 1960s America. It was there that the spirit of revolution that defined a generation crept like smoke under the door and into the Cathedral.
That same spirit of revolution is with us today. It is the spirit of destruction. It seeks not to renew but to destroy. The hope that it will dissipate with time has proven naïve. The spirit of destruction has been with us since the beginning. It’s the serpent in the garden. The only path to peace, it would seem, is to bruise the serpent’s head.
The Second Vatican Council
Many of the debates that followed Vatican II have yet to be resolved. If there was a way to put them to rest, the fog of doubt might begin to clear. The ship could then set a course out of what Pope Benedict XVI called the “ghetto to which it had been relegated since the nineteenth century,” to “become involved once more in the world at large.”
Steering the Church back into the world, however, has proved to be a complicated, even dangerous, endeavor. To assess the results of Vatican II’s attempt to set a new course, it is necessary to examine the main documents of the Council, especially “Gaudium et Spes: Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World”.
Joseph Ratzinger criticized the verbosity of Gaudium et spes (GS) after its publication in 1965. At over 33,000 words, it is the longest document in the history of the Church’s ecumenical councils. That’s no small feat. An inherent problem with the verbosity is the style in which the document was written. This is not the muscular, clear prose of a St. Thomas, quite the opposite. The prose in GS, as we shall see, invites conflicting interpretations.
In a prime example, GS opens with “The joys and the hopes, the griefs and the anxieties of the men of this age, especially those who are poor or in any way afflicted, these are the joys and hopes, the griefs and anxieties of the followers of Christ.” The openness of the opening may have a conciliatory tenor, but the decades following Vatican II were not as peaceful as the Council, or the world, may have hoped.
It sounds harmless enough. Who could disagree? Pausing to reflect on the 41-word sentence, however, one begins to wonder what it means. It’s abstract, to say the least. “Griefs,” “joys,” “anxieties,” and “hopes”? What does “in any way afflicted” refer to? Is “afflicted” a synonym for “oppressed”? If so, oppressed by whom or what? The opening sentence in a foundational document such as GS should serve as a wind coming into the sails of a ship at the outset of a journey. In this case, the sails may have set the ship on the wrong course.
Bishop Robert Barron zeroes in on this sentence and cuts to the chase, “Who positions whom here? In a word, is ‘the world’ setting the agenda for the Church or vice versa?”
It is an excellent question.
Italian Church historian Robert de Mattei, in his book The Second Vatican Council (an unwritten story), ferrets through the uncertainty that came out of Vatican II. The main cause of the confusion, according to de Mattei, was a lack of focus on the Council’s purpose. You can’t get to where you’re going if you don’t know where you intend to end up.
“The Second Vatican Council did not issue laws, and it did not even deliberate definitively on questions of faith and morality,” writes de Mattei. “The lack of dogmatic definitions inevitably started a discussion about the nature of the documents and about how to apply them in the so-called ‘post-conciliar period.’ For this reason, the problem of the relation between the council and the ‘post-conciliar period’ is at the heart of the hermeneutical debate.”
The two dominant hermeneutical theories emerging from Vatican II were “continuity” and “rupture.” Herein lies the problem: the fact that there is more than one hermeneutic coming out of a Church council.
According to de Mattei, “assuming that the correct interpretation [of Vatican II] is the one emphasizing continuity, it remains to be seen why after the Second Vatican Council something happened that never happened in the aftermath of any council in history, namely that two (or more) contrary hermeneutics found themselves in conflict and, to use the words of the pope himself, ‘quarreled’ with each other.”
Two unprecedented incidents from a centuries-old institution that relies on tradition for purpose and direction: the longest document in the history of ecumenical councils and two or more contrary hermeneutics quarreling with one another after a council. This could be considered a rupture by those who are so inclined. Many, it appears, were so inclined. But why have those who seek rupture from tradition flourished?
Under the pope, councils have ultimate teaching authority in matters of faith and morals. They are the judges and legislators. It is their job to provide clarification as to how a council’s documents are to be written and received. They are the helmsmen steering the ship. How, then, did more than one hermeneutic emerge from Vatican II? You can’t steer a ship in two directions at once.
De Mattei turns to the late Roman theologian Monsignor Brunero Gherardini to make clear that Vatican II because it described itself as “pastoral,” had no definitional doctrinal character. This does not mean it was not without doctrine. Vatican II does have specific teaching, but “none of its doctrines, unless ascribable to previous conciliar definitions, are infallible or unchangeable, nor are they even binding: he who denies them cannot, for this reason, be called a formal heretic.”
Was the purpose of Vatican II to usher the Church into the modern world or to usher the Modern World into the church?
Confusion concerning the purpose of any type of council – academic, legal, political, religious, or otherwise – alters the intended outcome by leaving it to be assumed by the participants. This is a sure way to drift into a fog of doubt.
“The existence of a plurality of hermeneutics,” continues de Mattei, “is evidence of a certain ambiguity or ambivalence of the documents. If one must resort to a hermeneutic criterion external to the document to interpret the document itself, it is obvious that the document is not sufficiently clear in itself: it needs to be interpreted.”
If de Mattei is correct, and there is good reason to think he is, the meaning of Vatican II is still open to debate and, theoretically, will always be open to debate. This openness may have been the purpose of the Council: to open the Church to the Modern World. The latter part of the subtitle, “the Church in the Modern World,” suggests as much. Here the Church takes a diminutive position inside the “Modern World,” even though it has borne witness as historical periods come and go and is larger than any one of them.
Openness, at first glance, appears to be a good and noble cause. But what, in the context of Vatican II, does “openness” actually mean?
Who reads who here? Is the Church reading the world, or is the World reading the church?