Friday, February 12, 2010

Vatican II: Deconstructing Certain Notions

I've been in online trad circles for several years now, and was in neoconservative ones for several years before that. I know the lingo, I'm familiar with the common slogans, sound-bites, cookie-cutter arguments, etc. This is a knowledge that can only be gained by experience, and it has been quite a specialized education. I think the phenomenon of internet Catholic communities would be a great topic for anthropologists, ethnographers, and sociologists to study.

One of the common lines you'll hear from neocons and more moderate trads, of course, is this whole idea that "Vatican II was fine. It was just misinterpreted," or "The documents themselves are great, it was the implementation." In other words this idea that "Spirit of Vatican II" is somehow separable from the texts themselves, something "bad liberals" ran wild with in defiance to the "true meaning" of "what the Council
really intended" which someday we shall still achieve, but only after a long "struggle" because if the Pope were to just declare it all today "there would be a revolt" so he has to have a "secret plan" which he is implementing "gradually".

It is an idea based on this perhaps over-inflated reverence for even the non-dogmatic decrees of Ecumenical Councils, as if they are direct mandates from God that the Council merely produces as some sort of oracle. As if, even though they derive their authority only from the hierarchy, they somehow bind the hierarchy irrevocably afterward.

And yet this "the true implementation of the Council has never really happened, but when it does we will see all the Council's riches shine forth!" attitude is simplistic. It is riddled with contradictions at best, and at worst dangerously turns "the Council" into a sort of perpetual empty watchword, a thought-terminating cliche that everyone pays lip-service to but under which all manner of things are cloaked in legitimacy, a touchstone of a "constant revolution." Like how Communist countries used to explain past failures; "There were problems before because
'true' communism was never really implemented!!"

I have refined my argument against it, my deconstruction (a term I use in the Postmodern sense, as you will glean from my notions of textual interpretation), time after time, in forum after forum, comment box after comment box. I was recently posting about it on a blog in response to more of that same sort of logic, and perhaps simply quoting that would be the most effective way to get my point across, though I may expand some of my comments. But I find it's easier to jump right into the meat of the argument when it is in response to some initial comment/counterpoint.

For example, one poster said:
For those who continue to ignore SC and what it explicitly says, and use SC as an excuse to make up their own Protestantized approximation of Catholicism, there is no excuse.
So I said:

Well, not that I like the New Rite…but there actually IS an excuse: namely, that they were authorized by the Pope to do what they did.

Future Popes are not bound by the merely disciplinary decrees of Councils…so Paul VI was free to ignore, modify, or alter the liturgical vision of Sacrosanctum Consilium and approve something different. And he did. Let no one pretend that the Vatican didn’t approve the work of the Consilium (and continues to), however disingenuous they may have been, no matter their motives. The "true implementation" is, ultimately, defined as what the Pope does, in fact, implement.

And most of the bishops who made up the Council...went back to their dioceses and didn't particularly complain about the Novus Ordo either, even if it wasn't what they had imagined at the time of the Council.

People on BOTH sides need to realize that the merely disciplinary/prudential documents of councils are not Inspired Scripture and are not some sort of Divine Mandate. They are only valid in the first place if they are in union with the Pope, and future Popes are free to revoke their approval and change them.

The Pope was free to go further than the changes proposed by Sacrosanctum Concilium, to be more conservative, to make different changes, or to change nothing at all. Just as a Pope today would be free do any of that or to reverse the changes that have happened completely. Again: the Pope is not bound by a Council on disciplinary questions.

Yet a Conciliarist ecclesiology seems to have even conservative Catholics believing he is so bound, and that the Council in its texts is a new perpetual standing authority that everything now has to be justified in terms of (like the US Constitution for the Supreme Court), at least until another Council is called.

And so you'll see all this energy put into sometimes tortuous attempts to "interpret the Council in light of tradition" or establish a "hermeneutic of continuity" to explain away a clear shift in the way the hierarchy spoke since Vatican II (like the expansion of the "Commerce Clause" by the Supreme Court), rather than just, on the one hand, admitting that some (non-dogmatic) things did change rather severely and, on the other, that this nevertheless could all be officially overturned tomorrow if the Pope wanted, if he thought it was best for the Church. The Council was made for the Church, not the Church for the Council.

(On a similar note, I also think that, rather than trying to portray changes as "interpretations of the Constitution"...a mere word-game...the Supreme Court should just admit it makes new law; the exercise of "grounding it in the text" is ultimately mental masturbation, as texts are fundamentally ambiguous and ANY reading can be valid [as 5-4 split decisions show] why not just make the most useful reading, as determined by the majority opinion, without claiming it is the "true" reading, as if such a thing even existed? But I'll probably do a post about this particular tangent later.)

So the post-conciliar Popes act as if all their decisions are grounded in the Council and that they can't act independently of it, that they can only interpret and implement it (however tenuous the grounding of their actions in the texts may be). But that's not true. Councils come FROM the Magisterium, not vice versa. And so the magisterium has authority over them, and the Pope could make disciplinary and prudential decisions on his own authority as Pope, utterly independent of the Council or any reference to it.

Paul VI and his Curia did just that; they ignored/modified council directives, as they have every right to do, when it came to the Liturgy. Sacrosanctum Concilium said that “Gregorian Chant is to be given pride of place”...but so what? Who cares? The Pope is free to modify or ignore that, and he basically did by approving a GIRM that allows the Propers to be replaced by “another suitable song” and tolerating the occurrence of that all throughout the world.

What happened was bad because it produced ugly ambiguous liturgy and discarded tradition in favor of a zeitgeist, for ecumenism and change’s own sake. Critique it for THOSE reasons, not because “it ignored the Council” which is really neither here nor there (as the Vatican has every right to ignore the disciplinary decrees of the Council). Even if the Council itself HAD called for the Novus Ordo, I still wouldnt like it, and no one would be under any obligation to. (Going back the Constitution analogy, reject Roe v. Wade because the decision was evil, not because it "isn't the correct interpretation of the Constitution" which doesn't really matter one way or the other; even if abortion were unambiguously guaranteed in the Constitution it would still be bad).

Again, someone said:

We can all agree that the NOM (by virtue of its very existence if nothing else) is not what the Council Fathers actually asked for. The disagreement is whether it is what the Council Fathers actually wanted.

To which I replied:

“The Council Fathers” were 4000 different men who ran the gamut from Lefebvre to Bugnini! Trying to attribute a collective intent to all of them, is ridiculous. There was no individual concrete vision that went into the documents, different bishops imagined different things, some more vaguely than others.

The fact is, the Vatican is not bound by the disciplinary decrees of a Council, and the Consilium was the organ given charge of liturgical change.

Council documents are not a Divine Mandate. There is not a "Council" that is somehow separate from the bishops who made it up and the Pope who presided. The Vatican (and those the Pope authorizes and approves) were free to ignore or modify the vision of the Council and in many ways they did (whether that was a good idea, is another question). The bishops didn't even particularly object.

Though even some of the things in the constitution itself were offensive like, “The Hour of Prime is to be abolished”. But, I wouldn't get too hung up over them because, as I've been saying, the Pope is free to modify or ignore something like that. He could bring back Prime or suppress concelebration if he wanted, even though those things
were specifically mentioned in the constitution on the liturgy.
Someone else said:
The fact that there is a difference between what the Council officially said and what can reasonably be deduced that it wanted is simply proof of the promise of Christ.

I said:

Again, well intentioned, but a fallacy. This notion that the Council documents themselves somehow bind us, even though no dogma was decreed. This idea that we have to defend the Council documents as if infallibility is at stake in them. But these were disciplinary/prudential decrees. Infallibility is a negative protection not to teach heresy only. It doesn’t guarantee the Church will make good disciplinary decisions.

The Council could have just come out and described the Novus Ordo, and that would have been possible. At the same time, the fact that the Consilium implemented something somewhat more radical than Sacrosanctum Concilium seems to describe…is no defense either, as if “the Council” was all-perfect and only the “wrong interpretation” made things bad.

This idea of a "right interpretation" according to some sort of strict-constructionist notion of the texts as not even cognitively meaningful. The right interpretation…is the one the Pope and bishops approve and implement. And the Pope approved the Novus Ordo, and still approves it, and the bishops accepted and implemented that many bishops are vigorous defenders of it.

You may not think it's "what Vatican II intended" (as if that means anything)...but so what? Vatican II was 50 years ago, and the Pope and bishops are free to modify it, ignore it, etc, according to current needs. Study up on your theology; this isn't Eastern Orthodoxy, we don't need to call another Council to modify mere disciplines from a previous Council. The Pope could totally unilaterally revoke it and just go back to the Old Rite entirely.

The fact that Popes recently haven't done things like that suggests that the Orthodox have nothing to worry about. The Pope is extremely hands-off even in the West, I bet he wouldn't touch the East. On the other hand, I have to think, "If the Pope's theoretical supremacy is good for's for situations like this, where he should use those 'reserve powers' to get the Church back on track when it is in chaos and tepid dissolution like this..." If he's not using his authority for that, then what is it for? But, then again, the conservative bureaucracy of the Church is convinced that nothing is wrong, that the status quo is just great.

But anyway, these attempts to save the appearances and defend “the documents themselves” as opposed to their “misuse,” as if we need to make that stark distinction, as if the documents are the Word of God and must be exonerated from any a false and sophomoric dichotomy.

And now there is this, from an article by some bishop, regarding the new translation:

“A claim that troubles me is that this initiative is somehow a retreat from all that Vatican II tried to promote and enact and a betrayal, therefore, of the (Second Vatican) Council and, by implication, the Holy Spirit,”

Notice the absolute commitment to the "idea" of "Vatican II," so it becomes just a watchword like "democracy" or "freedom" in US politics which both Democrats and Republicans unwaveringly claim to value, even though they each have their own interpretation of what it "really means". I reply:

A claim that troubles me is that even the merely disciplinary decrees of Vatican II were some sort of Inspired text or Divine Mandate. They weren’t.

By that logic, Vatican II itself was a betrayal of Trent and therefore, by implication, the Holy Spirit.

But the future is not bound by the disciplines past councils, and the Pope is not bound by the merely disciplinary decisions of Vatican II, which are the products of men. Yet this bishop [in another part of the article] calls "the reform" unquestioningly “a Gift from God” (though he also contends that the "real reform" never happened...) as if liturgical reform is a divine mandate just because Vatican II said it, as if a Pope could not totally overturn or ignore the disciplinary decrees of the Council, though he in fact could.

The Holy Spirit only guarantees that they won’t teach heresy (and Vatican II didnt); infallibility is a negative protection. However, Councils are not, anymore than popes, positively inspired oracles of some sort. opinion of Vatican II is one that a certain Cardinal Ratzinger hinted at in a quote before he was elected Pope:

“Not every valid council in the history of the Church has been a fruitful one; in the last analysis many of them have been just a waste of time"

But, of course, when you invest a lot of time and emotion in something, when it is your life's work and you are expecting it to live up to something monumental like, say, Trent...then you're not going to want to admit that. You're going to want to save face.

John Paul II was so eager to "apologize" for things that the institutional church had done hundreds of years ago, but neoconservative Catholics still have this tendency to be very defensive of recent actions, to try to do damage control with all sorts of spin...even when things are indefensible, and even when they are mere prudential/disciplinary/administrative questions on which the hierarchy is most definitely NOT guaranteed to act in the best possible manner (in fact, we're free to believe they have acted or are acting in the worst, most imprudent manner.)

There is a sort of psychological over-extension of infallibility here to non-dogmatic issues (What happened to the healthy anti-clericalism that used to be so endemic to the laity?!), an emotional "emanation from a penumbra" that is severely crippling to healthy institutional self-critique and free-thinking among Catholics, especially when the leaders are not using that sort of unquestioned authority for good.


Anonymous said...

This "rant" seems so perfectly logical that it almost could be a valid reading of most people's thoughts when you get to the core of the issue. Some of us are not able to categorize our opinions so neatly. (nothing wrong with that). Impressed and thankful for a good, logical, truthful "rant" that should be more widely read and perhaps adopted as a collection of one's own thoughts on the subjects. Bravo.

Michael said...

See, this is why I wanted you to write a book. Let me explain the situation, at least from my own experiences Newman.

Many Saints have written about the virtue of obedience, and neo-Cons are not ignorant of their writings -- especially when there has emerged something of a pop culture for Catholic books. Most of these people are new to philosophical writings, like me, or have other perhaps serious psychological issues. When they read stuff from St. Therese, Bernard, Ignatius or Frances de Sales that talk about taking up holy reading as a virtue and out of obedience, they don't take into context the monastic or medieval environments of their writers -- but, tend to treat the info like it was meant for THEM, NOW -- because that is how it is presented. Even Scripture is "applied" to present-day situations in often erroneous or destructive ways. Then, perhaps through the guise and trickery of Satan, or I don't know -- EVERY Catholic book is good spiritual reading, even if it is bad, and there becomes something like a cult for reading religious books (at Newman it was especially bad). I think St. John of the Cross mentioned something about "spiritual gluttony," etc (don't quote me because I've never finished the book, and neither have many neo-Cons).

So, if you write a Catholic book about VII or even just something like "Discipline and Doctrine," you are bound to get attention and stop a downward spiralling tunnel in Jansenism.

I also agree with Anonymous' comment. Verily, Bravo.