**Warning – controversy alert. Read at your own risk.**
Currently during lunch in the monastic refectory we are listening to What Happened at Vatican II by John W. O’Malley. Privately I am reading The Second Vatican Council: An Unwritten Story by Roberto de Mattei. These books represent the two predominant trends in the assessment of the Council: the one sees it as the great liberation from a rigid and stifling neo-Scholasticism that dominated the Church as a result of an over-reaction to the Modernist crisis, giving power back to the bishops from the hands of a narrow curia clinging desperately to its power exercised from with an ivory tower; the other sees something disturbing in the the forces leading to the Council, the forces that prevailed during the Council, and the forces that prevailed in the subsequent implementation of the Council.
You will recall that Benedict XVI in his last days as pope expressed his understanding of the Year of Faith as an initiative to help the Church re-discover the “real Council”, and to move beyond the “virtual Council” erected by those who knew best how to manipulate the media according to their own agenda. The Australian theologian Tracy Rowland has written a fine piece on the subject, detailing particular areas in which such a rediscovery needs to be pursued – revelation, ecclesiology, liturgy, as well as a re-assessment of the weakest yet disproportionately popular conciliar document, Gaudium et Spes.
So far Pope Francis has not seemed overly concerned with the Council. His preoccupations seem to lie in structural reform of the Church and the daily Christian living of the faithful, often at is most basic level (eg the need to avoid gossip, to recognize and resist the works of the Devil). Speculation on the Council seems so far to be a luxury he has no time to indulge.
Of course, it is not a luxury. Since the modern Church is, one way or the other, the product of the Council, the trials and failings in many parts of the Church that have attended the post-conciliar reforms require that we revisit the Council in order to assess with some degree of objectivity the legacy of the Council. To a great extent this will require us to look beyond the documents of the Council, which were so readily disregarded in practice except as unexamined talismans for the reform agenda (eg the “spirit of Vatican II”). What needs greater attention is the Council as event.
The event of the Council involves not only the documents of the Council, its official legacy, but also the context in which it occurred. Consciously or otherwise this is what more recent histories of the Council are doing. Thus we find that the Modernist crisis and the neo-scholastic reaction against it initiated by St Pius X is being re-examined, as too the unease with this reaction that informs the rise of the nouvelle théologie and which gave new impetus and direction to the liturgical movement. After the announcement of the Council, the preparations made especially by northern European theologians and liturgists - the so-called Rhine alliance – need more careful examination, as does the careful strategic planning they employed in order to push through their agenda at the Council. De Mattei especially shines a light on the sometimes almost cynical method by which the Rhine minority won over the moderate majority in the Council. This feat was only fostered by the relatively vague pretext for the calling of the Council, an un-focused, idealistic and even naive desire for breathing ‘fresh air’ into the Church rather than (as had always been the case) any pressing need to meet a doctrinal or political crisis in the life of the Church. Lastly the event of the Council continued beyond the conciliar sessions, in the process of its implementation by the very same minority that had prevailed during the conciliar sessions themselves. This process saw the conciliar documents overtaken by the “spirit” they were said to have embodied and set in motion. No less a part of the conciliar event is the global context of the 1960s, a period of fast-paced revolutionary change as man turned to himself in the wake of the horrors of the Second World War and God’s apparent failure in the face of it.
We have seen this expressed in so many ways. Liturgists focused on pleasing man rather than God. Theologians sought to write out of existence any difference between men, especially religious difference, so as to remove any pretext for future conflict – the brotherhood of man replaced the primacy of the Church as God’s chosen people. The Church was de-militarised, as it were: spiritual combat and vigorous evangelization of the world with the truth of Christ gave way to accommodation to the world, and affirming its alleged intrinsic goodness. Those who remember the 1960s American sitcom Bewitched will recognise in this process an example of baby Tabitha’s “wishcraft”: if we close our eyes and say that everyone is good and that we are all equal, then it will surely come to pass.
History, if we choose to examine it, gives the lie to this wishful thinking that lies at the heart of the event of the Council. Repression in communist countries and in nations newly freed from the “yoke” of colonialism waxed rather than waned; terrorism emerged as a new phenomenon, bringing the violence of war to the streets of nations otherwise at peace; an intolerant and repressive Islamic fundamentalism emerged as the great threat to the peace of the world, reflecting a mindset that clearly rejected the new dogma of universal equality within the brotherhood of man; and as the Church accommodated herself to the supposed desires and aspirations of the world, the world grew even less interested in her, and so too even her members who, ironically, drifted away in great numbers from a liturgy deliberately re-designed to please them.
To say all this is to open oneself up to attack from those who still see in the event of the Council their great liberation. There are still many who have pinned their colours to the standard of the Council, and for many of them there can be no going back. That would be too unsettling, too disappointing. Who, after all, likes to admit they were wrong?
Pope Francis’ failure so far to engage with the Council is, perhaps, not such a bad way to proceed. The Council as event has overtaken the Council’s own understanding of itself in its documents. So perhaps the whole thing is best left to the side. The young have very little interest in the Council, if any at all. It does not figure in their vocabulary or their conversation. They are far more interested in popes and bishops who have a message that resonates with their deepest, often unarticulated, intuition. Somehow, in the midst of all the confusion, the Church’s perennial message has got through to them and they have embraced it. Christianity is for them a way of life that makes real demands personally and socially. It informs and bolsters their identity. It gives them a cause and mission in life. Christ is seen not so much as friend as powerful saviour intimately concerned with them, yes, but also with his Church into which he calls them. Liturgy is seen less as a vehicle for self-expression and more of a privileged place in which they might lose themselves in God, who can then give power to their lives. For the younger generation, the battles and preoccupations of the conciliar generation are no longer relevant, and indeed, no longer desirable. So the Church must move on with them, not by accommodating to them as such, but by addressing their legitimate needs, needs for truth, transcendence, the experience of God and its necessary expression and validation in daily life. The Church, insofar as it offers a real alternative to the world, will attract the young from the world with relative ease.
So perhaps the Council is best left on the backburner for now, as we rediscover that there have been other, and more important, councils than the most recent one. Reclaiming the entire treasury of doctrinal, liturgical and spiritual wealth in the Church, we can get on with the inescapable duties of being Christian: loving God and neighbour in deed as well as in word; worshipping God in spirit and in truth; fighting evil with the weapons of the Gospel; making God the foundation of our lives 24/7, and not just for an hour on Sundays. The young will look to their elders above all to model this authentic way of Christian living, and not to peddle the world-conditioned obsessions of their own, long distant, youth. In doing so some of these elders have already re-discovered the splendour of the Faith.
For all that, the event of the Council will have to be dealt with, if only so that we can embrace what is good in it, discard what is defective and reorient ourselves back on to the way of salvation. Specialists will do so, and have begun that mission already. For now, Pope Francis bids us commit ourselves to Christ who ever abides with his people, the Church. If God be for us, who can be against?