Nothing Changed at Vatican II Dontcha Know!!

March 2, 2010 at 1:21 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | 7 Comments
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Lately, there’s really a lot of talk about Vatican II. You know: the Council of the Catholic Church that took place between 1962 and 1965. Last week I went to hear Father Joseph Komonchak, the great historian of the Council, speak up at Corpus Christi Church in Manhattan. He gave a splendid talk about the Council as event, that is, something that happened that changed the direction of history. This is the argument that underpins the five-volume history of the Council that he edited with Giuseppe Alberigo. Komonchak is a tall, handsome, impressive man. He gave his talk as part of the vespers service at Corpus Christi for the first Sunday of Lent. He and the pastor, Father Raymond Rafferty, were fully vested, and there was a lot of singing and praying and incense. It was a great honor to hear him present an overview of his life’s work.

Now, today, there’s an article in the National Catholic Reporter on-line about the relationship between the Council and the future of the Roman liturgy. Here we learn that the great dispute is between those who say that the Council effected a rupture within Catholic tradition and those who say that it continued it. I note that the word “event” appears nowhere. When I went back to school twenty-five years ago I learned that “either-or” is a thought structure characteristic of the Enlightenment and that serious thinkers had moved on to “both-and” (at the very least). So it’s a little troubling that we are having this either-or fight in 2010.

But what’s really got me going is a talk given by Franc Cardinal Rode, the Vatican Prefect of the Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life (CICLSAL) at a conference on religious life at Stonehill College in September of 2008. CICLSAL is the body that’s conducting the current visitation of US congregations of Catholic Sisters. I am reading Rode’s talk for a paper I”m writing about the visitations. It doesn’t overstate the case to describe it as an opening shot across the Sisters’  bow. And guess what? A lot of it is about the meaning of Vatican II.

I knew we were in trouble as soon as I read the title of the talk: “Reforming Religious Life with the Right Hermeneutic.” As the NCR article referenced above observes, “hermeneutic” is a scholarly term meaning “frame of interpretation.” It seems that the big fight over Vatican II is focused on which hermeneutic should be used to interpret it.

The thing is, it’s pretty rare in academic settings to hear discussions about the “right” hermeneutic and the “wrong” hermeneutic. (See my comment above about “either-or” / “both-and”.) “Hermeneutics” signals a shift in humanities scholarship from a quasi-scientific, quantitative, right-wrong emphasis to more complex and nuanced readings of whatever is in question. Documents. Events. Cultures. 

So a talk about the “Right” (not even the preferred or the more adequate or the more authoritative) hermeneutic is cause for concern just out of the gate. But then Rode goes on to lay out the very either/or interpretation of Vatican II that the NCR alerts us to. The cardinal claims, quoting Benedict XVI, that some people interpret the Council in terms of discontinuity, or rupture– a complete “Yes to the modern era” (p. 7).  Such a hermeneutics of rupture has dominated the renewal of religious life in recent years (hence the visitations). But the right hermeneutic for interpreting the Council is “continuity and reform,” especially in religious life. Continuity continuity continuity. 

Let’s note a few things about Rode’s argument here. First of all, he never once mentions who these people are who advance this hermeneutics of rupture. Nor, again, does Komonchak’s word, “event,” appear even once, though Komonchak, and the American Jesuit historian John O’Malley, are surely the primary targets of the Cardinal’s attack. Finally, Rode never even hints at the possibility that an event as massive and overdetermined as the Second Vatican Council might involve elements of continuity and elements of change. As when Pope John XXIII, in his opening address, used the famous phrase  a “New Pentecost” to describe the Council. Pentecost: continuity. New: change.

I have  a lot more to say about Cardinal Rode’s talk, but I must stop; I’m way over any reasonable word limit for a blog. Stay tuned.



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  1. Clearly, the either/or problem is what has caused me a lot of trouble in the past when applied to Church teaching especially. Those who lived at the time know, however, that Vatican II provided continuity if for no other reason than without the reforms those of us brought up with either/or were going to move away from the church even more rapidly. We may have become the cafeteria Catholics so scorned by the more traditional but we remained in the pews with our presence and contributions. At least then. Re the scrutiny of the religious women – if that’s all the boys in the Vatican have to do to keep themselves busy, I’d recommend they join the people working on relief in our earthquake stricken continent.


  2. My comment on Cardinal Rode would be “I’ll save my breath to cool my porridge.” (My father’s Irish family had this to say when faced with foolishness.) He seems to be as ineducable as most cardinals.

    I love much in the Catholic tradition. I’m grateful to the Catholic Church (a.k.a. the People of God) for giving me a language and a way; for the Christian symbol system, which remains meaningful to me; for teaching me to pray; for the sacraments–even locked as they are “in an iron casket of law.” It is to me a hallowed finger pointing to the moon.

    But I consider the governance of the Catholic institution to be demonic. An infallible monarchy is a poor model for a Christian community.

    Forty years ago, when our friends in the Dominicans were negotiating with Cardinal Antoniutti about how many layers of serge they should wear in July, I thought they resembled battered wives. I wondered why they gave him this power: why they didn’t “deregister,” as some Glenmary Sisters ultimately did–regrouping to continue their wonderful work without canonical interference.
    I think it’s much smarter for Catholic women to be nonentities–beyond the reach of lawmen “all dressed up like the Infant of Prague.”

    Henry Dollinger got excommunicated for his dissent at Vatican I. But a great thing about being an undocumented female is that nobody knows or cares what I think of papal infallibility.


  3. It’s hard not to agree. Some years ago, two United Methodist ministers and I wrote a couple of books about the figure of Wisdom, Sophia. They both got called up on heresy charges for it. Not a thing happened to me. Who cares about some laylady writing books? This is of course ond reason for which to be grateful that women have not been ordained.

    But I still feel the need to rail at Cardinal Rode et al. For one thing, he and his cohorts can and may well do a great deal of harm to women whose presence in my life has been, and still is, invaluable. . Besides, aren’t we called by our baptism to give the “demonic” a hard time?


  4. I think the best thing for those invaluable women would be to get themselves a canon lawyer and respectfully proceed to unshackle themselves from the Vatican–while retaining their bond with the People of God and continuing to act out their vocation without borders. The Grail had some good ideas.


  5. Thanks for posting this; just found your blog searching around. Keep up the good work!


  6. I’m not a theologian, nor much of a church-goer these days, but I was a young adult during V2 and recall and still value much of its spirit and style. The church/people either-or/both-and tension reminds me of the dominant conversation alive in publishing, where I work: Can/will social media (the people) kill serious journalism (the church)?

    Risks are high on both sides. Social can become Crowd, and repeat the worst of earlier eras. Established publishing monopolies can, unchallenged, grow complacent, indifferent, self-satisfied. Intelligent, creative collaboration between and among could stand a chance of preserving the best of the past while welcoming new voices of the future.


  7. Disent, disent, disent. The Disenters redefine disent as those prophetic words indicate, “The time will come when good is called evil, and evil is called good.”

    Oh well, Holy Writ does testify to them: “There are many among us who are not of use.”


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