Thursday, October 15, 2009

And So It Begins: Robert Moynihan on the "Formal Theological Discussions about Vatican II"

Robert Moynihan at Inside the Vatican lays out rather nicely some of the context of the forthcoming theological discussions about the Second Vatican Council, as well as some of their potential import.

And So It Begins

Formal theological discussions about Vatican II will begin later this month, it was announced today. Why is Benedict XVI allowing this new debate on the most vexed questions of the Second Vatican Council?

By Robert Moynihan, reporting from Rome


"The first real task of the Council was to overcome the indolent, euphoric feeling that all was well with the Church, and to bring into the open the problems smoldering within." —Father Joseph Ratzinger, in a talk on the Second Vatican Council delivered in October 1964, while the Council was still in session (he was then 37 years old and a peritus or "expert" at the Council; see

"What has happened since the Second Vatican Council can, according to Cardinal Ratzinger, be described as a cultural revolution, considering the false zeal with which the churches were emptied of their traditional furnishings, and the way that clergy and religious orders put on a new face. That 'rashness' is already regretted by many, the cardinal contends. There was, he believes, a 'widening gulf' between the Council Fathers, who wanted aggiornamento, updating, and 'those who saw reform in terms of discarding ballast, a more diluted faith rather than a more radical one...'" —The London Tablet, April 19, 1997, reviewing the book Salt of the Earth, a book-length interview with German writer Peter Seewald (conducted when Ratzinger was in his late 60s)

"After the Second Vatican Council, the impression arose that the Pope really could do anything in liturgical matters, especially if he were acting on the mandate of an Ecumenical Council. Eventually, the idea of the givenness of the liturgy, the fact that one cannot do with it what one will, faded from the public consciousness of the West. In fact, the First Vatican Council had in no way defined the Pope as an absolute monarch. On the contrary, it presented him as the guarantor of obedience to the revealed Word. The Pope's authority is bound to the Tradition of faith..." —Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, The Spirit of the Liturgy, 2000 (published when Ratzinger was 73 years old)


Pope Benedict XVI has just made a dramatic choice, one which will certainly be numbered among the major decisions of his pontificate.

He has decided, in effect, to reopen formal debate on the Second Vatican Council and its teaching.

The new dialogue, which will take place in Rome between the leaders of the Fraternity of St. Pius X (the followers of the late Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre) and Vatican experts will take place on October 26 at the Vatican, Jesuit Father Federico Lombardi, the Vatican spokesman, said today.


For the Pope's critics, the decision is unwise, as it seems likely to open a large can of worms.

These critics have argued that the lid on this can should be kept tightly closed. In essence, they have advised the Pope not to "dignify" the Society's objections to certain conciliar teachings -- or to the interpretations of those teachings -- by granting such a formal dialogue.

But Benedict has decided to let the dialogue begin.

For the Pope's supporters, the decision is an occasion for praise.


Because the Pope, almost five years into his pontificate, has finally decided to face head on and "bring into the open" the doctrinal problems "smoldering" (to cite his own words of 45 years ago) just beneath the surface of Church life throughout the entire post-conciliar period (1965 to the present, or 44 years).

So, with this decision to engage in a dialogue about the Council, a very significant phase of Benedict's pontificate begins.

Because this dialogue will inevitably come to grips, more than a generation after the close of the Council, with profoundly important doctrinal issues -- issues which seriously divided the Council Fathers at the time of the Council, and which eventually, and tragically, led:

(1) to a formal schism in the Church between those whom we may call "traditionalists" and "progressives" (though the two terms are woefully inadequate) when in 1988 the bishops of the Society of St. Pius X (the Lefebvrists) were excommunicated, and

(2) to widespread confusion among the Catholic faithful, to many exaggerated and erroneous interpretations of Christian and Catholic identity, and even to the formal or de facto abandonment of the Catholic faith by many.

With Benedict's decision, the Second Vatican Council is, in a certain sense, as it were, being called in "for further questioning" -- for an new examination and cross-examination, like a witness in a trial, to determine what the Council actually said, and intended.

And this means that theology, the strong point of this "theologian-Pope" (his career before he was consecrated a bishop was as a professor of theology in Germany), is about to take center stage in Benedict's pontificate.

And the goal in all this will be to arrive at clarity and a common understanding of the faith which will allow the reunion of the Lefbevrists with Rome, and so end of the only formal schism since Vatican II.


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