|Professor Leonard Swidler was a former teaching colleague with Pope Benedict at the University of Tubingen. Professor Swidler, like many people today who were excited and energized by the Second Vatican Council, has become increasingly disturbed in recent times by the endeavours to turn back the insights and reforms of that Council. Headlines over Easter generated by Pope Benedict have drive Dr Swidler to address this open letter to his former colleague.|
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Professor Swidler's focus today is possibly the gutsiest part of this Chapter. He looks at the reforms that the assembled wisdom of the Church's bishops sought to implement at the Second Vatican Council towards greater colleagiality and shared decision making. He also looks at the call for a different sort of relationship with the peoples of other faiths.
The five "Copernican" Turns of Vatican II (cont'd)
IV. THE TURN TOWARD INNER REFORM…
Since the 16th century, inside the Catholic Church even the word "reform" was forbidden, to say nothing of the reality (there were periods of notable exception, but they were largely obliterated- even from our church history textbooks!). At the beginning of the 20th century Pope Pius X, leapfrogging back to his prior predecessor, Pope Pius XI, launched the heresy-hunting Inquisition of Anti-Modernism, crushing all creative thought in Catholicism for decades. In the middle of the 20th century, leading theologians were again censured and silenced (e.g., Jean Danielou, Henri de Lubac, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, John Courtney Murray, Karl Rahner). Then Pope St. John XXIII burst those binding chains and called Vatican Council II. However, in order to understand what a significant move this was, it is important to see it against its historical backdrop.
In the beginning of the Christian community the leadership had the example of its "Initiator," Jesus, who stated that his followers were to be like him, the servants of all. Eventually the Christian communities in the most important cities of the Roman empire were recognized as the preeminent Churches. The Roman Church was recognized as the primus inter pares, first among equals. After the Empire was divided into East and West in the late fourth century, the bishop of Rome also became the recognized leader of the Western Church.
A low point in the state of Roman Church was reached in the tenth century when its bishops, called Papa, Pope, were one after the other assassinated and placed on the papal throne by a powerful woman. After 1170, however, the papacy in the West rose dramatically in power, reaching its apogee in Pope Boniface VIII's 1302 fateful papal bull Unam Sanctam:
Consequently we declare, state, define and pronounce that it is altogether necessary to salvation for every human creature to be subject to the Roman Pontiff (Why would this not also qualify as an ex cathedra "infallible"-and yet, no Catholic theologian, or pope, would affirm it today?).
After Boniface VIII the status of the papacy declined significantly through the "Babylonian Captivity" of the Avignon Papacy (1309-1377) when the popes lived in Avignon in France, into the morass of the late 14th-early 15th century "Western Schism", wherein there were for decades simultaneously two, and even three, popes. This disaster was resolved finally by the Ecumenical Council of Constance (1414-1418) which accepted and confirmed the resignation of two of the popes and deposed the third, and then elected a new pope, Martin V (1417-1431).
There had already been since the beginning of the 13th century, and increasingly in the following two centuries, a great deal of canonical and theological argumentation against the idea of supreme papal power in favor of the notion of the supreme ecumenical council. This "conciliarist" move reached its high point at the Council of Constance, which in 1415 issued its famous decree Sacrosancta declaring the Council to be superior to the Pope: "A General Council … has immediate power from Christ, which every state and dignity, even if it be the papal dignity, must obey in what concerns faith."
Three years later in 1417, the Council issued its equally famous decree, Frequens, solemnly declaring the regular calling of an Ecumenical Council every ten years mandatory, thereby placing the power of the pope within the college of bishops in Ecumenical Council:
We enact, decree and order by this perpetual edict that henceforth General Councils shall be...always held from decade to decade...if no such action shall have been taken by the Pope, the Council itself shall do so. So that with this continuity a Council will always be either in session or it will be awaited at the end of a certain current period.
Nevertheless, a centralized papacy recovered its power, and succumbed again to the thirst for power, this time fed by the corrupting influences of the Renaissance — all of which led in turn to the tsunami of the Reformation, catastrophically shattering the unity of Western Christianity. In the wake of the subsequent reforms of the Counter-Reformation Council of Trent (1545-1563), a centralized papacy was once more resurgent into the middle of the 18th century Enlightenment. Then the forces of the Enlightenment began to melt away to some extent the centralized fortress of the papacy, especially through the movements of Gallicanism, Febronianism, Josephinism and Aufklärung Catholicism. [For Aufklärung Catholicism see Leonard Swidler, Aufklärung Catholicism 1780-1850 (Missoula, MT: Scholars Press, 1978)] The situation once more reverted to the Counter-Reformation mentality under popes Gregory XVI (1830-1846), Pius IX (1846-1878), and then Pius X (1903-1914).
Under Pope Pius IX papal jurisdictional supremacy was formally declared once more, along with the more notorious papal doctrinal infallibility. Vatican Council I (1869-70) intended to also spell out the relationship between the papacy and the body of bishops, but that goal was frustrated by the suspension of the Council because of the invasion of the Papal States by the Risorgimento forces shaping the modern nation state of Italy. The German bishops, who as a group had been most resistant to the papal claims of infallibility and primacy, issued a public clarification after the Council in 1875 (which received the explicit approbation of Pope Pius IX), insisting that bishops were not the agents of the pope, but authentically pastors in their own right within their dioceses. Nevertheless, the lack of a conciliar document stating that, in practice left the field to the ultra-papalist elements, with the result that the centralizing forces in the Church continued expanding until Vatican Council II.
In January, 1959, Pope St. John XXIII burst those chains binding Catholic reform by calling Vatican Council II. He spoke about "throwing open the windows of the Vatican" to let in fresh thought, about aggiornamento, bringing the Church "up to date".
"Christ summons the Church, as she goes her pilgrim way, to that continual reformation of which she always has need." Those are not the words of Luther, Calvin, or some other 16th-century Reformer, but of all the Catholic bishops of the world, including the pope, at Vatican Council II. Indeed, the pope and bishops were even more insistent when they said: "All are led … wherever necessary, to undertake with vigor the task of renewal and reform." Notice, the pope and bishops did not say all bishops, all priests, all religious, but simply, "all", that is, all those to whom that Decree was addressed, namely, all the Catholic faithful.
Moreover, this mandate to renewal and reform was not conceived as a luxury for those Catholics who have nothing else to do. Rather, it is a duty that is incumbent on all Catholics, as the pope and bishops made clear: "Catholics … primary duty is to make a careful and honest appraisal of whatever needs to be renewed and done in the Catholic household" (Decree on Ecumenism).
Many Catholic laity, religious, clergy, and even hierarchy responded positively to the charge to renew and reform the Church to make it relevant to today's world, responding to Pope St. John XXIII's call for aggiornamento, to "bring the Church up to date," when he called the Second Vatican Council. Renewal moved ahead with great elan for the first few years after the end of the Council in 1965.
Within the Vatican II Copernican turn toward inner self-reform a key notion was "collegiality" — i.e. the College of Bishops in communion with its head, the pope was likewise the subject of supreme, full power of the whole Church, just as was the pope. Although it primarily referred to the governance of the Church by all the bishops acting together as a college of bishops, it is obvious that acting in a collegial manner at the top of the hierarchical ladder was bound to have its effect on all the lower levels as well-inevitably drawing the Church toward a more democratic structure.
Without directly challenging the extreme papalist positions expressed in Vatican I, Vatican II attempted, with modest success, to emphasize the episcopal collegial approach-which of course has an even much more honored history in the Catholic Church going back to the early centuries before the rise of the centralized feudal papacy only well after the first millennium of Christian history-to say nothing about the hyper-clear command by the necessarily-acknowledged Ecumenical Council of Constance that the Ecumenical Council is superior to all, including the papacy, and that an Ecumenical Council must assemble every ten years.
Even this modest Collegiality received its first major setback in 1968, with Paul VI's encyclical against birth control, Humanae vitae, in which he rejected the huge majority's recommendation of his own appointed Commission (following rather, the tiny minority, supported by Cardinal Karol Woytila who, though a member of the Commission, refused to attend and secretly fed much of the key wording of the later encyclical to the pope).
Another heavy blow came by way of omission in connection with the recommendation to change the electors of the pope from the papal-appointed cardinals to delegates elected by the national bishops' councils around the world. This decree sat on Pope Paul's desk already in 1970, but he was dissuaded from signing it by conservative Curial elements, who seemed to have whispered in his ear the prediction of a catastrophe that would result if he did sign it. The only catastrophe, of course, would have been for certain church power-holders. Had he made this momentous decision, the whole subsequent history of Catholic Church renewal would have been radically different. Every new pope would necessarily have had a sense of responsibility to, and more collegiality with, his "constituents", the representatives of the world church. But most importantly, this structural change at the top would have released an irresistible movement for bishops in some substantial way to be elected by their "constituents," and then also for pastors in turn to be elected.
As the Church moved further into the 1970s Pope Paul became increasingly indecisive, wanting on the one hand to carry out the Vatican II mandate of renewal and reform, while on the other fearing the specter of error and anarchy that was constantly whispered in his ear. Then came Pope Paul's death in 1978 and his replacement first by the briefly reigning Paul John I, and then the long-reigning John Paul II, beginning late in 1978.
However, even that modest progress was still further restricted during the pontificate of John Paul II, as can be seen, e.g., in the 1983 Code of Canon Law. The fine words of Vatican II are repeated:
The College of Bishops...is also the subject of supreme and full power over the universal Church. (Canon 336) The College of Bishops exercises power over the universal Church in a solemn manner in an ecumenical council. (Canon 337 §1)
However, repeatedly any power the College of Bishops might appear to be granted is always checkmated by wording such as:
Decrees of an ecumenical council do not have obligatory force unless they are approved by the Roman Pontiff... (Canon 341 §1) For decrees which the College of Bishops issues to have obligatory force this same confirmation and promulgation is needed, when the College takes collegial action in another manner, initiated or freely accepted by the Roman Pontiff. (§2)
What was even more discouraging was what happened to the international Synod of Bishops that Vatican II conceived and was put into action on a regular basis under Pope Paul VI. The Synod of Bishops was to be an instrument by which the College of Bishops would exercise its collegiality. However, Pope John Paul II in the 1983 Code turned it around to an instrument of papal power:
A synod of bishops is directly under the authority of
the Roman Pontiff whose role is to:
This conceptualization and terminology is far distant from that of the 1414-18 Ecumenical Council of Constance which in the wake of three contending popes restored the unitary papacy and upon which the papacy's validity today totally depends.
In brief: The watchword of Vatican II was Reform; the watchword of Pope John Paul II was Restoration.
V. THE TURN TOWARD DIALOGUE…
Far too often religion has held men and women back from their neighbor in their deepest dimension, their religious dimension, because their religion was different. There are still many Catholics and Protestants who hate each other, many Christians who hate Jews, many Christians and Jews who hate Muslims-religiously. When this happens, religion, including Christianity, becomes an enslaving force; religion — Christianity — becomes the anti-Christ, for the truth of Christ should make women and men free and open to all men and women, to all reality, to all paths to God.
For centuries, especially since the 16th, the Catholic Church has been largely trapped in a kind of solipsism, talking only to itself, shaking its finger at the rest of the world. When, for example a committee of Protestant churchmen shortly after World War I visited Pope Benedict XV to invite him to join in launching the Ecumenical Movement to work for Church reunion, he told them that he was happy they were finally concerned about Church unity, but that he already had the solution to the problem of Christian division: "Come home to mama!" The forbidding of Catholic participation in dialogue was subsequently constantly repeated (e.g., 1928 Mortalium animos, 1948 Monitum, 1949 Instructio, 1954 barring of Catholics at the Evanston, Illinois World Council of Churches World Assembly).
Again, St. John XXIII and Vatican II changed all that navel-staring radically. Ecumenism was now not only not forbidden, but was said to "pertain to the whole Church, faithful and clergy alike. It extends to everyone" (Decree on Ecumenism). Pope Paul VI issued his first encyclical, Ecclesiam suam, (1964), specifically on dialogue, saying:
Dialogue is demanded nowadays.... It is demanded by the dynamic course of action which is changing the face of modern society. It is demanded by the pluralism of society and by the maturity man has reached in this day and age. Be he religious or not, his secular education has enabled him to think and speak and conduct a dialogue with dignity.
At Vatican II Catholics were taught that to be authentically Christian, they must cease being enslaved by their tribal forms of Christianity; stop their fratricidal hate; recall their Jewish roots and the fact that the Jewish people today are still God's Chosen People; to turn from their imperialistic convert-making among Muslims, Hindus, and other religious peoples, and turn toward bearing witness to Jesus Christ by their lives and words, toward helping the Muslims be better Muslims and the Hindus better Hindus. This will make Christians love their own liberating traditions not less, but more, for these traditions will then be even more fully Christian.
Nowhere was this stated more forcefully than in the Vatican's Humanae personae dignitatem:
Doctrinal discussion requires recognizing the truth everywhere, even if truth demolishes one so that one is forced to reconsider one's own position, in theory and in practice, at least in part.... In discussion the truth will prevail by no other means than the truth itself. Therefore the liberty of the participants must be ensured by law and reverenced in practice.
This turn toward dialogue naturally was directed toward the first obvious dialogue partners for Catholics: Fellow Christians, Protestants and Orthodox. But this turn from an inward gazing outward had its own inner dynamic: why stop at talking with Protestants and Orthodox; why not continue on to dialogue with Jews, and then Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, etc., and even non-believers? And so it is now happening in an explosion of interreligious/interideological dialogue of exponentially increasing magnitude. One need only look at the flood of books now appearing in the field.
Moreover, this dimension of the Copernican turn will be at least as radical in its creative transformation of Catholic self-understanding as the other four, and hence will profoundly affect all aspects of Christian life. For example, since in this new "Age of Dialogue" we Christians understand that our Jewish or Muslim neighbors can be "saved" without becoming Christian, our relationship to them ceases being one of "proselytization," and becomes dialogue and cooperation.
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What are your thoughts on this commentary?