Monday, June 12, 2006

Cardinal George: Will the real Vatican II stand up please?

By Francis Cardinal George

In the time after Pentecost, the Church considers the impact of the Holy Spirit in her life. Individuals often speak of an inspiration, of feeling led by the Spirit. Works of mercy and compassion get organized against all odds. In the midst of serious disputes, unity of faith and life is preserved. In the Church’s common life, an Ecumenical Council is one of the events that is guided by the Holy Spirit. The Spirit guards the Church in every age from abandoning the apostolic faith, and a Council is an instrument for strengthening that faith from generation to generation.

The Second Vatican Council (1962-1966), 40 years after its conclusion, remains for many Catholics a source of both joy and tension. What was the Holy Spirit calling us to think and to do? For some, the Council itself was the work of the Spirit, but its implementation has been hijacked by left-wing or right-wing ideologues, depending upon one’s choice of enemies. For others, the Council itself was flawed because its documents are ambiguous or even inconsistent with apostolic tradition. The extremists in this line made tradition another word for museum and lose the sense of a living Body of Christ. Some even believe that Pope John XXIII and all his successors are anti-Popes and that the Church has been without a Bishop of Rome since the death of Pius XII in 1958.

A few months ago, the current Bishop of Rome and successor of St. Peter, Pope Benedict XVI, offered an interpretation of the Second Vatican Council that merits close attention. The Council was called in order to give genuinely new impetus to the Church’s mission in the world. In order to overcome within the Church anything that might impede or obscure the Church’s mission, the Council called for an updating or renewal in the Church’s life. “Aggiornamento,” which is Italian for updating, was not, however, intended to mean that the Church should simply accommodate herself to the world. Ecclesiastical renewal is not a form of self-secularization. Pope Benedict says of those who took this path: “They have underestimated the inner tensions as well as the contradictions of the modern epoch.”

Pope Benedict contrasted two interpretations of the Council. One is a story of discontinuity and rupture with the Church’s past. It is as if the Church after the Council was a new, a different Church from all that had gone before. Where the texts of the Council did not support this interpretation, they were put aside in the name of the “spirit” of the Council. This is not to deny that a “spirit” of a meeting is always more than the texts it produces; it is to say that the Church’s development from one age to the next cannot be in contradiction with her apostolic origins. Among those arguing for rupture, some Americans found attractive the idea that a Council can reconstitute the Church with a mandate from the “people,” understood as separate from their pastors. But the essential structures of the Church come from Christ, and the bishops of Vatican II had no mandate from Christ to make a new Church or destroy the nature of their own apostolic office.

The more authentic interpretation of Vatican II, according to our Holy Father, sees the renewal or reform rooted in the tradition that links the Church to her apostolic origins. The Council did set out to give “a new definition of the relationship between the faith of the Church and certain essential elements of modern thought,” as Pope Benedict puts it, but in a way that “preserved and deepened the Church’s inmost nature and identity.” The Council’s emphasis on ecclesial communion means that everything and everyone in the Church is related. Nothing can be understood apart from our relationships among ourselves and with all those who have gone before us in faith. This communion or network of relationships across space and time is made vital through the action of the Holy Spirit. Synthesizing fidelity and the dynamics of renewal, the Pope states that: “The Church, both before and after the Council, was and is the same Church, one, holy, catholic and apostolic, journeying on through time; she continues her pilgrimage amid the persecutions of the world and the consolations of God, proclaiming the death of the Lord until he comes.”

Forty years after the end of the Council, its major documents are being taken up and studied again here and around the Catholic world. It is the Pope’s desire that these documents will give life to the Church a generation after they were first written in the hope of a new springtime for the Church’s mission in the world. That hope shaped the “spirit” of the Council and must remain with us now. To abandon hope is to sin against the Holy Spirit.

As the Council’s documents are re-read today, the question inevitably arises about the experience of the last 40 years of their implementation. Much that is positive and helpful in the Church today comes from the instructions of the Council. Much that is negative and destructive in the Church today comes, it seems to me, from fratricidal arguments about elements of the Church’s life and teachings, conflicts that distract Catholics from attending to the reason the Council was called: the conversion of the world.

The Holy Spirit is the spirit of truth, the personal expression of the love between the loving Father and the beloved Son. The Holy Spirit desires that the entire world know the truth about God, about ourselves and about the world itself. That divine desire is thwarted when the Church is not an eager and effective instrument of evangelization. The Holy Spirit works to make us an evangelizing Church. Let us pray to cooperate with the Spirit and to implement the Second Vatican Council more fully. God bless you.

Catholic New World: Cardinal's Column

More recent articles:

For more articles, see the NLM archives: