Response to Brendan Foley

March 21, 2010 at 5:54 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment
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Since I don’t get too many comments about my blog posts, I thought I would express my appreciation to Brendan Foley for his response to my March 9 entry, “The Rupture of Inculturation?” by writing back. 

Brendan suggests that I don’t seem to know very much about Vatican II, and mentions that he himself took a course on Vatican II with Joseph Komonchak. Komonchak, as I mentioned in an even earlier blog, co-edited the great five-volume history of Vatican II, along with Giuseppe Alberigo.  Since I certainly did not take such a course, it seems likely that Brendan knows more, perhaps even a good deal more, about Vatican II than I do.

Brendan, as I read him,  doesn’t understand my criticism of a talk given at the 2008 Stonehill Conference on Religious Life in which Franc Cardinal Rode,  the prefect of the Vatican congregation on religious life, argues that there is a right and wrong interpretation of Vatican II.  Why, Brendan wonders, do I think that Rode’s condemnation of the “wrong” hermeneutic  is aimed at Komonchak’s reading of Vatican II as an event. Komonchak himself would say that some readings of Vatican II are wrong–those of the Lefebrvists, for example. I must admit, I hadn’t thought of the Lefebrvists. Brendan has a point here. I should have said I’d never heard any of the progressive Catholics I hang out with use the word “rupture” to characterize the Council.

All that notwithstanding, I want to assure Brendan that it isn’t the Lefebrvists that Cardinal Rode is addressing in his Stonehill talk. It’s the “Bologna school” historians who advanced the interpretation of Vatican II as an event (and US women religious).  John W. O’Malley SJ introduces his chapter in Vatican II: Did Anything Happen?  (Continuum 2008) with the details of a presentation by another Vatican official, Camillo Cardinal Ruino. In this presentation Ruino welcomed a new book on the Council as a counterpoint to–“indeed, the polar opposite”–of the interpretation that had previously monopolized conciliar historiography. As such, the new book would move the church on to a “correct” interpretation of the Council. In this presentation the Cardinal singled out the Bologna school as the principal and most influential creator of this incorrect understanding (52-53). O’Malley continues:  

“…the Bologna school and especially Alberigo are being singled out as the great propagators of a history of the council that badly distorts it and that must be opposed. Other scholars are being criticized for a similar approach, but Alberigo and his colleagues are the ones most often mentioned by name…

O’Malley then elaborates on these attacks:

“I do not see that Alberigo and others who have used ‘event’ as an instrument to interpret the council have given it the radical meaning that their critics attribute to them…Nowhere in the Alberigo volumes is there the slightest suggestion that “new beginning” meant in any way a rupture in the faith of the Church or a diminution of any dogma” (54-55).

And while O’Malley does not mention Komonchak by name at this point, the volume begins with Komonchak’s Henri de Lubac lecture given at St. Louis University in 1997, “Vatican II as an Event.” Komonchak knows that since he is Alberigo’s co-editor, the “wrong” interpretation of Vatican II–Vatican II as rupture– is being projected onto his work.

Lastly, let me respond to Brendan’s observation that if I were to learn more about Greek philosophy, I would realize that some things really are either right or wrong. Perhaps, Brendan; perhaps. On the other hand, pre-Enlightenment philosophy may not provide the most effective tools for understanding as massive and complex an event as the Second Vatican Council. Almost twenty years ago the historical sociologist Gene Burns published a penetrating study of Vatican II, The Frontiers of Catholicism (Princeton 1992). In it he argues compellingly that the legacy of Vatican II is  ambiguous. And indeed, here we are, still fighting about what it means, almost half a century after it ended. Perhaps while I’m boning up on the Greeks you should take a look at Frontiers.


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  1. I am delighted that you have taken the time to read my post and give some response on the matter, however I think you are taking a few of my comments in the wrong light. For instance, my comment about the Greeks was not to show that you had much to learn from them about right and wrong, but to show simply that your assertion that “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)”, was a bit misleading since ideas of right and wrong and ‘either-or’ are not at all unique, new, or even a reintroduction of the Enlightenment, but instead are some of very few very common characteristics of Western philosophy in general since very ancient days, and indeed characteristic elsewhere as well (there is a very narrow ‘right’ way of doing EVERYTHING in some branches of Hinduism, for instance, and you either are fulfilling Dharma or you are breaking Dharma). I also wished to point out that you yourself seem to already, and likely would in other cases (like that of murder I would hope) adhere to certain ideas of right and wrong.
    Also, I suggested not that you know little about Vatican II itself, but that you may not have been following the aftermath of interpretations very long. The difference? Well, its like if you read a book: you might know an incredible amount about that book, but that doesn’t mean you know how it has been received by many different circles, nor does it mean you have been reading many critics and scholarly (or unscholarly) papers that have been written about the book and thus what many others say and how they interpret things, nor the major conflicts and debates that those circles and scholars have amongst each other about the book.
    You also seem to have overlooked that, after mentioning the Lefebvrites (which is a group that, from what I have gathered from your posts, is one you would not approve of and call wrong, and indeed you seem to have done so directly here), I also mentioned that there are those on the opposite extreme of the Lefebvrites who similarly look at Vatican II as a rupture, or discontinuity, from whence almost a ‘new Catholicism’ was born (whether in so many words or not). This group looks at the discontinuity as a good thing, of course, rather than a negative thing like the Lefebvrites, yet they still interpret the matter in a very similar way, and may be equally accused of ‘wrong’ interpretation of Vatican II by those who, conversely, both believe in ‘right and wrong’ and who interpret it as continuous, which is actually the rarer interpretation. There are, of course, other options to both these. Benedict XVI refers to the interpretation of Reform as a more proper interpretation, while rejecting both extremes of discontinuity (including aspects of what seems to be a popular conspiracy theory that had the minority conservative Bishops not been at the Council the progressive ones would have done much more, and should have, and thus some people prefer to follow the ‘spirit of Vatican II’ as they see it, rather than the documents. Benedict XVI, as you know, had been at the heart of the most progressive elements of Vatican II as an assistant and in fact the writer of much for Cardinal Frings during the Council.) Komonchak has another idea, which uses ‘event’ to an extent, and likewise rejects both extremes of discontinuity but also tries to recognize real change in a certain way. He tries to emphasize the documents themselves as well as central to Vatican II, while acknowledging that historical context and aftermath may be considered as part of the picture, at least to some extent.
    Now, even he would admit he could be in the wrong with his distinction, just as he says others are in the wrong on theirs to greater or lesser degrees for various reasons. Part of the reason I wrote before was that I didn’t see what the issue you had was with Cardinal Rode saying that there is a wrong interpretation, and a correct one, and forwarding what he believes both to be. Initially, and this may have been misinterpretation on my part, it seemed that you were simply upset that he believed there could be a ‘wrong’ way of interpreting things at all. And again, I was unable to determine beyond that what was so wrong about what he said (and even to a large extent what the connection was with Komonchak with whom you began the first post) from what you said about it, and while you were kind and fair enough to provide a link to what he said (I assume) it was (still is) broken, and so I had to operate on what I could gather from you.

    Interestingly, while we read the articles you mention with Komonchak, he did not seem to take accusations about ‘rupture’ and the other ideas of wrong interpretation as against himself so much, and if he did I don’t recall it bothering him as anything more than a misinterpretation of what he was getting at.

    To finish: Indeed ‘the legacy of Vatican II’ is still ambiguous, but it need not always be so ambiguous. I honestly wouldn’t expect much to be really worked out about it for ANOTHER 50 years (100 years of back and forth confusion and correction and so on seems to be a typical rough track record for Ecumenical Councils, and these disagreements are part of the process of working out what really should be done with it all, though they don’t exactly disappear after that first century either). Still, I’m not sure why ambiguity would in any way negate ‘right’ and ‘wrong’, as you seem to be indicating by that reference, but I may myself be misinterpreting what point you are trying to make, in which case I hope we may be able to clarify any ambiguities between us in this dialogue soon.


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