Rorate Caeli

Vatican II at 40 – Continuity - I

Several people have expressed far better than I ever could my own opinion on this Council.

There can be no doubt in the mind of anyone seriously committed to reality that the Council ushered in the current era of crisis – and “ushered in” must be understood here in the most literal sense: I will not affirm if the Council did or did not “cause” the crisis, but it certainly opened the doors for this critical moment in the history of the Church.

Now, Traditional Catholics have often argued that they accept the Council “interpreted according to Tradition”; those were the words coined by the late Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre and were mentioned, for instance, in the deal which led to the establishment of the Apostolic Administration of St. John Mary Vianney, in Campos, Brazil (2001-2002). Most importantly, these words, which used to be abhorred by some “mainstream conservative Catholics” (because they imply that the words of the Council may, even if interpreted literally, go against Tradition and that, therefore, Tradition MUST be the guide in the interpretation of the conciliar documents), were literally repeated by the Holy Father in his accession speech, pronounced in the Sistine Chapel on April 20, 2005.

It is my own opinion that the ambiguity of large amounts of the Conciliar documents is so great that, when the Council is “interpreted according to Tradition”, little of it is left, except for what the Council itself repeats of the pre-Conciliar Magisterium. There is nothing wrong with that, naturally – one can write a lengthy History of the interpretation of the famous “subsistit in” clause in Lumen Gentium, arriving in the end in the article published less than a couple of weeks ago in L’Osservatore Romano by Fr. Karl Becker, SJ, which argued that "subsistit in” must be simply read as “est”. Every single ambiguity of the Council can be interpreted thus.

Which is why I have always considered that the right strategy regarding the Council is what I call “overcoming”. It is absolutely unrealistic to expect a pope – any pope – to appear in the central window of the loggia of St. Peter’s and declare to the world that “the experiment of the Second Ecumenical Council of the Vatican is over”. This will never happen. But it is possible to implement the "Continuity strategy": to consider that nobody really knows exactly why it was assembled, to agree that the Conciliar Fathers had (at least most of them) the best of intentions, but that, for several reasons (the documents themselves, the general feeling of deconstruction generated by the Council among ordinary Catholics, the bad luck of the timing of the Council), it failed. Let’s get over it (now, nobody will say that, either, but all serious-minded people may ACT accordingly).

This is what Benedict XVI seems to be doing. His very interesting and profound homily in the feast of the Immaculate Conception was a great example of this new, truly POST-Conciliar spirit: the spirit which considers the Council a permanent fixture of the past of the Church, uses some of the Council’s own imagery, but overcomes it: it was not the first Ecumenical Council, it was probably not the last one, but it must not be seen as a watershed in the History of the Church. It was an event, it failed, may bygones be bygones and let the Church walk on its historical path, in which Vatican II was just an event, as so many others.