Sailing the Postmodern Sea
"The twenty-first ecumenical council," was to be, "in faithful and perfect conformity to the authentic doctrine, which, however, should be studied and expounded through the methods of research and through the literary forms of modern thought."
Pope John XXIII
Meaning, style, and spirit
In his opening speech to Vatican II, John Paul XXIII stated, “Provided the meaning and understanding of them is safeguarded…, the deposit and the truths of the faith are one thing, the manner of expressing them is quite another.”
How can meaning and understanding be safeguarded if they are open to repeated interpretations and reinterpretations ad nauseum based on various modes of expression? This would be like trying to put together a puzzle with pieces taken from different boxes.
The rope-dancer in Nietzsche’s Thus Spake Zarathustra serves as ample illustration. Just after pronouncing, “Man is a rope stretched between the animal and the Overman – a rope over an abyss,” Zarathustra watched a rope-dancer perform his trade by crossing over a rope stretched between two towers above a marketplace. In Zarathustra’s world, rope-dancers performed over an abyss of relativism, a marketplace of competing “truths,” to cross from the marketplace to Overman, a veritable superhero who is able to impose truth upon the world.
The rope-dancer came out a door near the top of one of the towers and started across. When he was halfway to the far side, the door opened again, and “a gaudily dressed fellow like a buffoon sprang out and went rapidly after the first one. ‘Go on, halt-foot,’ cried his frightful voice, ‘go on, lazy-bones, interloper, sallow face! – lest I tickle thee with my heel!’” The buffoon then overtook the rope-dancer, “uttered a yell like a devil, and jumped over the other who was in his way.”
The rope-dancer fell Adam-like into the marketplace. Zarathustra knelt next to the dying man to hear his confession, "I knew long ago that the devil would trip me up. Now he drags me to hell."
Something similar might be said about “the deposit and the truths of the faith are one thing, the manner of expressing them is quite another.” The statement, even when made with the best of intentions, is like a rope stretched over an abyss. It invites a Nietzschean-like relativism to cross over into the Church.
Pope Paul VI, in 1972, may have realized as much when he wrote,
We would say that through some mysterious crack – no, it’s not mysterious; through some crack, the smoke of Satan has entered the Church of God. There is doubt, uncertainty, problems, unrest, dissatisfaction, confrontation.
The Church is no longer trusted. […] I repeat, doubt has entered our conscience.
To say this fog of doubt remains more than a half-century later would be an understatement. Did Vatican II inadvertently invite relativism inside the Church? Like a vampire at the door, was the devil simply waiting for an invitation to sow the seeds of doubt?
Vatican II was ill-designed. This lack of clarity allowed the twentieth century, itself defined by a revolutionary spirit bent on building a heaven on earth, to infect the Church.
The twenty-first century, too, is brimming with a spirit of revolution that disdains tradition and would create a secularized heaven on God’s earth. At the end of the nineteenth century, Nietzsche, in the posthumous The Will to Power, saw it coming:
What I am now going to relate is the history of the next two centuries. I shall describe what will happen, what must necessarily happen: the triumph of Nihilism. […] The whole of our culture in Europe has long been writhing in an agony of suspense which increases from decade to decade as if in expectation of a catastrophe: restless, violent, helter-skelter, like a torrent that will reach its bourne, and refuses to reflect—yea, that even dreads reflection.
Our own century, the second of Nietzsche’s prophecy, because it dreads reflection, invents grandiose theories that require too much expression at the expense of substance. Rather than genuine thinking about the grand mystery of the universe and our place within, pseudo-intellectuals taking refuge in college campuses teach that a person’s mental projections are capable of creating new realities that have never existed before. They conflate the flux of relativism and the stability of truth.
This is what Hannah Arendt meant when she wrote, “Evil is a failure to think.”
Embodied minds generate ideas; ideas, in and of themselves, cannot generate real beings. An expression is not reality. A biological male, in an increasingly familiar example, cannot become a woman by expressing his desire to do so. At the bottom of that desire is nothingness, an unreality of irrational desire cut off from the real. This is a marker of madness.
What, then, does the phrase “manner of expression,” as it applies to the deposit of faith, mean? When style becomes meaning, “Professions of faith and canons are replaced by a ‘literary genre,’” according to Father O’Malley, a Jesuit historian cited by de Mattei.
“This mode of expression was a significant break from past councils,” wrote O’Malley. This break from the past leads to a place where “Style is the ultimate expression of meaning. It does not adorn meaning but is meaning.”
In other words, the biological male who “expresses” his desire to be a woman actually believes he is one and this belief is accepted by others as truth. When fantasy passes for reality, a flurry of cognitive dissonance descends. When relativism is conflated with truth, the mother of all tempests brews on the horizon. That storm is upon us.
The Death of the Author
The world can be seen as setting the agenda for the Church when literary critic Roland Barthes published “The Death of the Author,” an influential 1968 essay. In a nutshell, Barthes argued, in line with Derrida and others, that writing is “the destruction of every voice,” because the reader cannot know with any degree of certainty who is speaking in a written work. Is it the author speaking through a character, or is a character the mouthpiece for the author, or maybe the author is using a character to channel the voice of his dead mother? Who knows for sure?
Barthes intended to suggest meaning of a text is not something to be retrieved from the text. On the contrary, meaning is produced by the reader interacting with a text. Power shifts from the author’s intent to the experience of the reader. Taken to the extreme, the individual experience of reading a text creates the meaning of the text.
Sound familiar? It should. It is Protestantism on steroids.
Reading becomes an act of power that stands out over the author’s intent. Barthes, to usurp authorial authority, advised readers to downplay the life of the author and the message the author was attempting to convey.
For Barthes, like Nietzsche, there are only interpretations, no objective truths. When individual context becomes king, reading signifies only what the reader decides to take from it. The reader lords it over the text. This is relativism run amuck. It is hubris.
Was the spirit of the 1960s invited to read the Church by the spirit of openness signaled in the opening sentence of GS? This would explain why more than one hermeneutic emerged from the Council.
There has been a lot of spirited debate over the “spirit” of Vatican II. Michael Novak summed it up best:
It was as though the world (or at least the history of the Church) were now to be divided into only two periods, pre-Vatican II and post-Vatican II. Everything 'pre' was then pretty much dismissed, so far as its authority mattered. For the most extreme, to be a Catholic now meant to believe more or less anything one wished to believe, or at least in the sense in which one personally interpreted it. One could be a Catholic 'in spirit'. One could take Catholic to mean the 'culture' in which one was born, rather than to mean a creed making objective and rigorous demands. One could imagine Rome as a distant and irrelevant anachronism, embarrassment, even adversary. Rome as ‘them.’
Fueled by Barthes’ making the author “them,” reader-response literary criticism flourished in the decades after Vatican II. The theory underscored the reader’s reaction as central to interpreting a text’s meaning, and the critic quickly learned that a reader’s reading can be intentionally framed.
The critic might bring a psychoanalytic lens, a feminist lens, or a Marxist lens to a text and interpret it through that lens. One might choose to read GS through the lens of “continuity,” “rupture,” or “liberation theology,” to name a few, all of them valid inside the parameters of their respective frames.
This may be why, as Father O’Malley put it, “the ‘pastoral council,’ has a teaching, a ‘doctrine,’ that to a large extent it has been difficult for us to formulate, because in this case doctrine [meaning] and spirit [mode of expression] are two sides of the same coin.” He might have gone on to say, “Make of it whatever you will.”
This is where we now stand as a culture: Make of it what you will.
The question remains: Is ‘the world’ to set the agenda for the Church or vice versa? For those who see Vatican II as old news, I would urge them to reconsider. The same destructive spirit that fueled the 1960s is with us today. It not only resides in the world but now in the Church where there is no room for it.
Something’s gotta give.