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Chapter Three

If things are really as I have described them, then it is going to bc impossible to understand what has happened unless one keeps both aspects of the situation the movement for reform and the attempted revolution squarely before the mind and in balance. However, large numbers of Catholics plainly find this difficult.

They tend to concentrate on one aspect more or less to the exclusion of the other. Either they see any and every change as a more or less legitimate expression of reform, or they detect signs of revolutionary intent where in fact there are none that is, if they do not view the Council as an unqualified disaster which it would have been better never to have embarked on.

The reason is simple enough. Reform and rebellion have been closely intertwined, both having sprung from the same source. By the same source I mean the body of theologians, mentioned in Chapter One, who led the reform party and were responsible for what is new or seemingly new in the Council documents. Although they did not see eye to eye on every point, their aims were sufficiently alike for them to work together during the Council more or less as one, and they rapidly became its chief interpreters.

Books explaining what they had in mind or what they thought needed to be done had been pouring from Catholic publishing houses from the moment Pope John announced the Council, and during the Council itself or between meetings of the general assembly they gave lectures, some official, some not, to groups of bishops and their assistants in order to familiarise them with the new thinking. Thus they were able to win over numbers of bishops to their view, of what the Council was about, while much of its work was still to be done.

They had other advantages. Since 1963 they had had their own news agency, IDOC, started by the Dutch hierarchy, and from 1965 their own theological quarterly Concilium to explain to theologians and the higher clergy what the Council was doing. They also had the backing of the world press. They were the party of change and change suggested that the Church might be about to abandon some of her more "unpalatable" doctrines.

In these circumstances, it is not surprising that the new theology, of which they were among the chief representatives, rapidly came to be identified with the voice of the Church.

But were they identical? As the Council proceeded, more and more people began to realise that the errors beginning to circulate in the Church at large were not coming from men on the fringes of the theological world but from within the reform party itself; that not only were some of the reformers trying to influence the decrees in a way unacceptable to the magisterium, but that the new theology carried within it in addition to ideas the Church could make use of the seeds of a revived modernism.1

If this estimate of events is incorrect, if there was not something amiss with the new theology, or elements in it, the revival of modernism becomes impossible to explain. It could not conceivably have been the work of outsiders alone. By the end of the Council the prestige of the new theologians was unparalleled. They would only have had to band together and shout "Hold your tongues. That isn't what we were saying", and any outsiders would have been silenced.

The crucial conflicts at the Council were about these attempts to give a heterodox or partly heterodox meaning to the new orientations. The most dramatic concerned the passage in the decree on the Church (Lumen Gentium, the Council's key document) about collegiality. Does the fact that the bishops together with the Pope rule the Church as a "college" mean that the Pope is merely the college's spokesman? Pope Paul had to intervene at the last minute to make clear that it did not. He also had to issue two encyclicals during the Council, one on the Church (Ecclesiam Suam), the other on the Eucharist (Mysterium Fidei), to explain how the Council's teaching on these subjects was and was not to be understood.

For a time, the authorities were able to keep the more disagreeable of these facts partially out of sight. Concealment was made easier by the post-conciliar euphoria. The euphoria was natural enough. There is always something appealing in new beginnings, and any of the faithful who thought about it knew there was plenty in Catholic life that could be improved. But with the publication of Pope Paul's encyclical Humanae Vitae against contraception in 1968, disguise was no longer possible. Headed by Fr. Karl Rahner and Fr. Edward Schillebeeckx, with the help of Fr. Hans Küng (not an original thinker but a propagandist of the first rank), the rebellion became public. For the next 10-15 years, Rahner and his allies were to be the interpreters of the Council for the media and the majority of Western Catholics.2 Not only Humanae Vitae, but a whole spectrum of Catholic beliefs was openly challenged.

It was as though Luther's rebellion had been delayed fifty years, breaking out immediately after the last sessions of the Council of Trent, with Luther, Melancthon and Zwingli having first taken part in it as theological experts.

Pope Paul had prepared for the explosion by declaring the 12 months from June 1967 to June 1968 a "Year of Faith", and closing it with the publication of his Creed of the People of God, which, taking the articles of the creed one by one, reaffirmed the Church's beliefs on each contested point.

None of this means that the Council was not a work of God as well as man, but it was clearly a much more mysterious work of God than many people seem to have been willing to recognise.

The doctrinal and moral teaching of a general council ratified by the reigning Pope, will always be capable of a Catholic interpretation. But they are not directly inspired as Christians believe the text of the Bible to be. Nor does the fact that the participants receive the assistance of the Holy Spirit mean that those taking part will fully correspond with his inspirations. They will not necessarily do their work perfectly or in every detail as God wanted. The teaching of the Council of Ephesus (431) about the relationship of Christ's two natures had to be tightened up and clarified by the Council of Chalcedon twenty years later. The presence of proto-monophysites at the second Council of Constantinople about a hundred years later (553) led to some of its condemnations being phrased in a way that provoked misunderstanding and revolt in the western empire, and a schism in northern Italy lasting about half a century. Of the Fifth Lateran Council (1517), the historian Philip Hughes remarked that one can scarcely read many of its decrees without impatience, so ineffective were they, given the need for reform.

Nor is it without precedent for the Church to take some of a famous theologian's ideas and reject others, or for such a theologian afterwards to go off the rails. When it comes to truth, the Church is not choosy about the source. She holds in high regard the writings of the Church Fathers Tertullian, Origen, and Theodoret, although Tertullian left the Church to join the Montanists, a sect believing in the imminent arrival of the New Jerusalem, and Origen and Theodoret, while remaining in the Church, had some of their ideas condemned after their deaths by general councils. Novatian, before he went into schism in the middle of the third century, gave the western Church its first full treatise on the Trinity, from which Pope John Paul II quoted a passage to illustrate his encyclical Veritatis Splendor. Nearer our times, Fr. Rosmini, who gave two new religious orders to the Church, had a large number of philosophical propositions censured 3, and the Fr. Pasoglia who worked on the bull Indfabilis Deus (1854) defining the Immaculate Conception, afterwards ranged himself against the papacy in its struggle with the government of Turin.

The mixed nature of the reform party and the new theology is the first and chief reason why reform and rebellion have been so bewilderingly tangled up and why the rebellion began to manifest itself not only simultaneously with the Council but in a certain sense through it.

There is an additional problem. If we could make a clear division between the two wings of the reform party, attributing all the good it achieved to the orthodox members and the deficiencies to the heterodox, things would be reasonably simple. But the heterodox made positive contributions to the conciliar teachings. Not all their ideas were harmful, even if, carried too far, they could become so. Rahner, for instance, helped to promote the idea of the Church as the "universal sacrament of salvation", a concept taken from 19th-century German theologians. On the other hand, not everything proposed by the orthodox has proved innocuous. The Church is far from having endorsed all their views. In spite of this they have often continued to press them on her regardless.4

If the reformers had a common weakness, it would seem to have been an inability to accept the fact that the Council was God's, not theirs; that he had other instruments in his tool chest besides themselves; that although they were his principal agents for formulating the new orientations, many of their ideas only became acceptable after they had been pruned, tailored or knocked into shape by bishops and theologians of a quite different stamp, even (horror of horrors) "conservative" ones.

On the contrary, not a few of them appear to have regarded the new theology with its mixture of acceptable and unacceptable or less acceptable ideas as the true expression of God's mind, while regarding the limitations put on their ideas as purely human obstacles, permitted no doubt by God, but contrary to his will, which the next general council, or a pope more to their way of thinking, would one day remove.

Perhaps the best way of picturing the situation is to see the Council as a sieve, which God held out for the Church's leading thinkers to pour their ideas into. Then the sieve was shaken (by the conciliar debates and voting) and into the documents fell more or less what God wanted. I say "more or less", because for the analogy to be exact we would have to imagine some of the new theologians punching the odd hole here and there in the mesh so that more of certain substances and not enough of others came through, and the resulting mixture was thus not in all cases, perfectly balanced. What did not come through should then have been thrown onto the rubbish tip. But theologians, like parents, tend to love all their children, even the ugly ones. So they went to the rubbish tip, rescued their discarded offerings, mixed them up again with what the Church had accepted and, through their books and lecture tours, served this up to the faithful as the conciliar teaching.

What most of the faithful throughout the West have been receiving over the last twenty years as the conciliar teaching, when not overt modernism, is only too often, 1 believe, nothing but the new theology before it was purified by the conciliar process.

Why were the more orthodox reformers so slow to react once they saw their one-time associates going off the rails?

Partly, I think, for the same reason that the magisterium was slow to react the difficulty of providing an explanation that would not totally discredit the Council in the eyes of the faithful. How could one admit that some of the men who had influenced the drafting of the conciliar documents were now attacking fundamental doctrines without the documents themselves being compromised? 5

On top of this there was the bond of shared aims and interests, transcending disagreements about particular doctrines. In spite of the disagreements, the thinking of orthodox and heterodox still had the same starting point: adjustments of some-kind in the Church's practice and ways of presenting her teaching were necessary; and the same final goal an apostolate specially aimed at modern man, however defined. There was also a large measure of agreement about which aspects of modern life and thought could and should be "baptised". The questions that divided them were what precisely these borrowings from secular culture were to mean when incorporated into the Church's theology.

Where these sympathies and affinities were strongly felt, one has the impression that reform and updating had come to be seen as almost more precious and in need of protection than the faith and Church they are meant to serve. Anyone claiming to be on the side of reform and aggiornamento was automatically regarded as an ally, even if the person in question showed signs of doubting truths revealed by God, while anyone expressing reservations, even legitimate ones, about the possible wisdom of certain conciliar initiatives, was classified as an opponent, even though he believed everything the Church teaches.

This state of mind partly, I think, explains Pope Paul's more unfortunate episcopal appointments; also why he gave some of the more loyal members of his flock the unsettling impression that he found them an embarrassment while hankering after the approval of the sheep who were defying him and fleeing into heresy. His unusual psychology more like that of a hypersensitive 19th-century poet than of the average pope increased their bewilderment.

It was as though Leopardi had been called to do battle with Damon and Robespierre, or Gerard Manley Hopkins with Lenin.

In the end, however, the rapid unfolding of events forced the orthodox reformers to bite the bullet.

The theological quarterly Concilium had originally been regarded as an organ of the reform party; up to the early 1970s, all the leading reformers had written for it. But the main intentions of the founders a Dutch businessman, Mr Anton van den Boogard, a Dutch publisher, Mr Paul Brand, and Fr. Edward Schillebeeckx had in fact been to provide a platform for Fr. Karl Rahner, and Rahner and his allies had all along been the preponderant influence.

By 1972 the magazine's policies had become so manifestly subversive and so much of its contents questionable that Frs. von Balthasar, Ratzinger and de Lubac detached themselves and founded the rival international theological quarterly Communio, to which other members of the reform party still loyal to the Holy See, like Frs. Louis Bouyer and Rene Laurentin, soon adhered. Fr. Congar, perhaps the most solid of the new theologians, adopted, one deeply regrets having to say, a fence sitting position. From time to time he would express regrets or doubts about this or that Concilium initiative, but remained on the editorial board well into the 1980s. 6

Concilium's editorial offices in the Dutch university town of Nijmegen (Fr. Schillebeeckx's university) can be considered modernism's international nerve centre. It gives modernism whatever unity it has, and from it most of the agitation against Rome is orchestrated. 7

The founding of Communio was the first public sign of serious disagreement within the reform movement, and as such, 1 believe will be seen as a crucial date or turning point in the history of the Church since the Council. In Fr. von Balthasar, Rahner was confronted with a rival of equal theological "weight" and erudition, who rapidly moved into position as chief interpreter of the Council for the followers of the orthodox wing of the reform party. By 1980 he had become a kind of Karl Rahner for the orthodox in general.

Concilium and Communio have since become the two poles towards which theologians tend to gravitate according to the Catholicity or uncatholicity of their ideas, conducting a theological star wars over the heads of the faithful, though not without the faithful being hit by a lot of Concilium's flak and other fallout.

If the mixed nature of the reform party and the new theology has been the main cause of confusion among the faithful, a supplementary cause, I think, has been the new terminology which came in at the time of the Council, with its borrowings from German idealist philosophy, neo-Protestant theology, and French personalist humanism.

The faithful no longer or only rarely heard about sin, grace, sanctification and salvation. Sermons overflowed with words like commitment, encounter, community, pluralism, dialogue, reconciliation and faith experiences. In place of the soul, they were told to think about the "whole man". Instead of divine revelation, they heard about "God's saving deeds". The Faith was no longer taught or preached, only proclaimed. Christ's life death and resurrection were referred to as "the Christ event".

Although the new terminology can have a perfectly Catholic meaning the reasons for its introduction will appear later it is hardly surprising that, hearing the conciliar teaching and heresy simultaneously preached in this unfamiliar tongue, many of the faithful, either with dismay or rejoicing, concluded that the Council really was changing the meaning of the Church's teaching.

A third and final cause of confusion has been the special nature of the Council's work. It introduced, as we have said, important shifts of emphasis and the beginnings of new doctrinal developments. But these things are much more difficult to control than defining doctrines and pinpointing errors (which almost all previous Councils had done).

Let me explain.

When a teacher moves the weight of emphasis from one part of his subject to another what he is really moving is his audience's focus of attention. Ultimately, he wants it to be centrally focused. But we are assuming it has hitherto been turned too much to one side. So to begin with he must start moving it towards the opposite side. However, once you set people's minds moving, it is difficult to bring the movement to a halt precisely where you want.

It is this tendency of the mind to be carried along by ideas as though they had a momentum of their own like physical bodies which has worked so momentously to the advantage of the theological innovators.

If, for instance, you talk all the time about God's love and rarely if ever about his holiness and justice, your listeners are eventually going to conclude they are all but sinless and that their salvation is a certainty. Tell them often enough that they are as important as the clergy and eventually a proportion is going to imagine they can say Mass and forgive sins. Dwell exclusively on the goodness of this world and the importance of making the best of it, and many will forget about heaven, or at least ignore the obstacles to getting there. Speak solely of what Catholics, Christians and other religions have in  common, and they will decide that what is peculiar to each of them is of no consequence. In other words, speak only or mainly about the points the Council wanted given greater but not exclusive attention to and, under the appearance of fidelity to the Council, you will have produced a different religion.

It has been the same with the new developments. In an effort to resolve certain pressing theological problems (like the salvation of non-believers or the role of civilisation and progress in the plans of God), the Council allowed the introduction of a number of solutions without defining their precise limits. With regard to these, and borrowing the words of another writer about a very different gathering, the Council could be said to have "opened doors" more than "resolved issues". All this was in keeping with Pope John XXIII's decision that the Council should be "pastoral". But open doors make it easier for unwelcome as well as welcome guests to pass through. In this way a greater and more dangerous imbalance than existed before the Council has temporarily been created.

The difficulty of controlling both processes once under way can perhaps best be illustrated by a scene from an imaginary movie.

Six men are pushing a heavily loaded car which has run out of fuel. Three of them, who have been riding in the car, want to push it twenty yards to get it into a lay-by. The other three, who have offered to help, mean to push the car fifty yards and shove it over a cliff followed by the car owner and his two friends. Once the pushing begins and the car starts moving it is probable the car is going to come to rest more than twenty yards from the starting point, even if it does not end up at the cliff's foot.

Now let us imagine what a group of people watching from a nearby hilltop will make of the incident. They will start by assuming that all six men have the same intentions. The car is moving steadily forward. Then they see three of the men detach themselves from the back of the car, run round to the front and try to stop it. Which are the trouble-makers? Those surely who are now opposing the process that has been started.
So it has been with the conciliar teaching and reforms. Whenever the Holy See or an energetic bishop has endeavoured to correct or contain the abuses, the innovators, with every appearance of plausibility, have been able to accuse them of trying to reverse the Council's work. They have only had to cry "Touch us and you touch the Council and reform too" for large numbers of the faithful to believe them.

Notes to Chapter Three

1. Fr. Chenu, with characteristic candour, has given a number of examples of the way he and his colleagues were able to influence the texts, sometimes to their advantage. sometimes not. In one case he describes how, when the main text had been voted on and therefore could not be changed, they were able to get an additional paragraph introduced contradicting the previous one. See Un théologien en liberté Jacques Duquesne intérroge le Père Chenu (T.L.), Le Centurion, Paris, 1975. pp. 17, 18, 63, 81, 106, 177-9, 184. For Fr. Congar, Vatican II "wasn't perfect, but due to its broad outlook ... it was able to promote movements which went beyond the Council itself" (Forty Years of Catholic Theology, S.C.M. Press, 1987, pp. 56 & 68).

2. Is the Council responsible for the present crisis? "The answer to this question, put in such general terms, must be a resolute No ... However we don't deny that the Council has played a part in what has grown into the crisis." Fr. Congar, Challenge to the Church, (Collins 1976, pp. 50-51). Fr. Chenu goes further. The cause of the crisis "is in the Council itself  in the logic of its proceedings and dynamism." (T.L. 195).

3. John Paul II, more sympathetic than his predecessors to Rosmini's philosophical ideas, and, perhaps because of this, understanding better what he was trying to achieve, had the censures lifted.

4. A small example, to avoid more complicated and controversial topics at this point: Fr. Chenu was fond of saying that obedience is a "mediocre" virtue. It was silly and wrong-headed, even if he was thinking of cases where what appears to be obedience is in fact being used as an excuse for cowardice or shirking one's responsibilities. But it became positively pernicious with the greater partof the Church's intelligentsia in a state of open revolt. He continued to state it nevertheless. (T.L. 22)

5. In fact, doubts about the activities of some of the periti were already fairly widespread before the Council ended. Cardinal Heenan of Westminster's comments at the time are well known.

6. See The Tablet, 8 June 1991. At a theological forum in Cambridge organised by Concilium in 1981, which the author reported, Mr van den Boogard. "a formidable fundraiser," gave the impression that he saw Vatican II as completing or continuing the work of the Protestant reformation. The U.S. National Catholic Reporter and, in England, The Tablet are the main channels through which Concilium theology and viewpoints reach the English-speaking laity. Fr.Congar's friends claim that he remained on Concilium's editorial board to act as a restraining influence. If true, it was like von Papen imagining he could restrain Hitler.

7. For example, the series of signed protests in the early 90s,by theologians of one
country after another against the policies and teachings of John Paul II. The "We Are Church" movement in Austria, Germany and elsewhere can be seen as a lay by-product. We Are Church" is a movement for bringing pressure on the hierarchy to modify Church teachings which conflict with the European middle-classes' new lifestyle.


Copyright © Philip Trower 2003, 2017

Version: 7th March 2017



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