From Michael Novak's 'The Open Church', published by Dayton, Longman & Todd
THE chief story of the
second session of the Vatican Council is the story of the erosion of a school of theology, the theology of -the prophets of doom". It is the story of the growing ascendancy of other theologies, more contemporary and more ancient, over the immobile and abstract theology which since the Reformation has predominated in the Church.
The secondary concerns a procedural struggle. In that struggle, the representatives of the contemporary and ancient theologies, who were in the majority at the Council, tried to make the central organs of the Council, and of the Church, more responsive to their views. The majority struggled against a minority, but the minority held the key parliamentary positions.
T h e manoeuvering a n d struggling for parliamentary power makes a more engrossing story than the development of theology ; actions arrest attention more easily than ideas. But in the long run, when actions are forgotten, ideas are still being studied, meditated on, and giving rise to new actions. Here lies the essential meaning of the Council. Unless the theology is grasped, nothing of importance is grasped.
It is, in fact, the difference in theology which even the common mind of the peoples has already sensed, under the metaphors of "winds of change," "fresh air," "open doors," and even the word "renewal." The difference in theology—in attitude of mind—is so fundamental that even the outward history of the Council recorded in the public Press has been a parable about it.
Those who have read the Press dispatches and the articles have grasped the parable. Many of them are struggling to analyse it in more precise and clearer terms.
When Pope John, and Pope Paul after him, called for an agpiornamento in the Church, by that very fact they shook the. justification on which the unrenewed, unreformed institutions within the Church rested. The resistance was vigorous, sometimes direct, sometimes subtle. The resistance to renewal and reform is not very widespread ; but it runs very deep, for the theology on which it rests runs deep.
We need a name for this entrenched theology of the last 400 years. One might call it "Roman theology," but its supporters are found in many cities, in many lands. Moreover, by no means all the theologians of Rome support it.
One might call it "curial theology," but many of its adherents do not belong to the Roman Curia. One might call it "the theology of the Holy Office." for it is that most noble of offices which has been chiefly charged with preserving it.
But the name would then call too much attention to too small a group, and leave untouched the many more proponents spread throughout the world. One might call it "the theology of the Counter-Reformation," but that title embraces far too much and, besides, awakens old polemics which do not accurately describe what is at stake.
Interpreters of the first session were fond of using the terms "liberals" and "conservatives," "progressives" and "traditionalists." "reactionaries" and "innovators".
But these terms, besides borrowing too much from political life, are not faithful to Christian history. All Catholic theologians wish to conserve the Word given to the Church, and to preach it anew to progressing ages. The debate at issue is how best to conceptualise and to formulate the tradition for our time, once having recovered it.
Another proposal for naming the entrenched theology of the last 400 years is to call it by its leading characteristics: "immobile theology," or "abstract theology," or "triumphal theology". This proposal seems to strike more nearly at the heart of the matter.
It emphasises that the fundamental point at issue is a question of methodology: Is there more than one Catholic theology? If so, what methods do these theologies use? By what means is "the mind" of the Church discovered?
The root issue, then, is not: Which among alternative propositions shall we choose as best representing the faith given to the Church by God? The root issue is: By 'what method shall we decide which of two alternative propositions best represents the faith'?
Debate on the floor of the Council can succeed in covering up this root issue. The debate can seem to concern the meaning of contrasting propositions. It can seem to concern the attitudes, or points of view, or schools of thought, of the contesting Council Fathers.
It can seem to concern the limited aims, local problems, or abiding personal interests of the individual disputants. Because the Council Fathers pit themselves against each other on all these various levels, the root question is often obscured.
The problem of theological method is a ticklish one, and we will do well to leave it to theologians. One of the greatest of them has long been at work on it. In his opening address and in Pacem in Terris, Pope John XXIII saw to it that the Council was founded on two principles: the principle of historical development and the principle of concrete reality.
Both of these principles insist upon attention to concrete history to the men, movements, and events of history. Both principles insist that the man who uses them must enter the stream of history and work from within it, conscious that his words and his concepts are conditioned by it (the principle of development), and that his theories must meet the test of concrete facts. movements, and events (principle of concrete reality).
The first principle is aimed against the idea that works have meaning outside of their historical context, or are unconditioned by their origins. The second is directed against the ideal that ideology is "pure" and should he judged only in the light of logic. It insists on judgment of institutions, men, and events as they appear in fact as well as in theory.
Both principles deny the man who uses them the right to claim that he or his ideas are uninfluenced by history, or that he need not undertake the work of bringing his ideas and methods to the bar of concrete reality. Words are not enough ; abstract definitions are not enough ; his -views must meet the tests of facts, from both the present and the past.
However, many thinkers at the Council seemed to be afraid of these two principles. For these principles seem to deny them the safety of their stand on the ground of unshakable. unchangeable and unconditioned propositions, and their claim that these propositions are correct, complete,
efficacious, a n d triumphant whatever the historical realities around them.
Many at the Council seemed to be afraid of history. They preferred the bright. clear world of their truths. They saw danger in admitting that the formulation of these truths was conditioned by historical events and that their efficacy (not their truth) was to be judged by their success in the actual world, not by their coherence in a book or a system.
The theology which has been entrenched for the last 400 years, then, might be described as "non-historical" or even "anti-historical". It favours speculation which is not called to the bar of historical fact. past or present. Moreover, it often seems to fear principles which would make it face such a bar.
It sometimes discourages speculation altogether, and confines itself to making commentaries on a theoretical structure built up in the late Middle Ages. It would be fair to name this theology "anti-historical orthodoxy,' because it defends a system of propositions as orthodox, while refusing to commit itself to the work of investigating that system's historical justification, or making it relevant to the historical realities of the present.
It would be fair to call it "anti-historical orthodoxy" but a more neutral designation is simply "non-historical". For it defends an orthodoxy suspended, as it were, outside history, in mid air.
Non-historical orthodoxy encourages, or rather insists upon, • the view that "truth is unchanging". But it does not seem to notice that languages change, that intellectual viewpoints and methods change, that new facts (even about ancient happenings) are discovered, that men's manner of understanding even the same sentences change.
What, then, about truth remains unchanging? The answer differs with each "truth" that is in question. "The sun moves around the earth" once seemed to be a fixed truth, as fixed as the earth it described. "Mary was immaculately conceived" once seemed a matter of theological uncertainty. "The donation of Constantine" once seemed a fundamental historical fact.
"Christ is consubstantial with the Father." once seemed a verbal innovation. "The bishops share in the universal pastorship with the Pope by divine right,
Vatican II and the school of fear
even now seems to some false and to others a matter that is and always has been true.
The sentence "Truth is unchanging", in other words, is a fog which tells us nothing of the hard objects, the "truths" it is meant to describe. It is a misleading expression. "Truth" may be unchanging, whatever it is when thus considered in the abstract. But, in the concrete. men's struggle to understand is not static and unchanging. Men's grasp of "truths" therefore changes, too.
Finally, non-historical orthodoxy likes the woad of principles, ideals, theories, platitudes, perfections. So long as a matter is understood juridically in the purity of its logic and its conections with principlesyou may, then, in practice, use casuistry to do as you please. The utmost unscrupulousness in the concrete may thus be combined with the most delicate sense of principles.
Non-historical orthodoxy encourages the moraliser, the preacher, the rhetorican in us. It does not encourage getting down to cases and getting on with concrete proposals. Nonhistorical orthodoxy encourages lovely images and elevated•sentiments. It finds the actual world bewitching, dangerous and "dirty". It thus combines triumphalism about the glories of the Church with pessimism about the contemporary world.
Non histOrical orthodoxy, therefore, encourages loyalty to the ideal Church, without worrying about how to make the actual Church efficacious in the present world. It visualises the Church as an anvil on which the ill-willed world rains its unavailing blows. The Church is always triumphant. without moving.
The order of fact, history, concrete reality is the enemy. The Church must try to remain in the pure world-the pure world of irrelevance. Men are to blame, real, concrete, historical men, for not lifting their minds to the loftier realm where non-historical orthodoxy lies.
When it urges men "Lift up your minds," it means that they should shift their mental focus from the real world they know to the ideal world where all is serenity, triumph, beauty and holy sentiment. It does not mean that they should reflect that just as they are, in their individuality, in their particular circumstances, in the uncertainties and risks of their personal situation, they are sons of God.
ABSTRACT It encourages them to retreat from the real world, instead of to be more faithful to it. It encourages them to treat it as a temptation or a defilement or a punishment, rather than as a movement by movement conversation with Providence, in which His will and His love are steadily revealed. It encourages a conscience formed .around abstractions or general laws, rather than a conscience formed around personal and concrete decisions.
As a consequence, it makes the supernatural world appear to be an artificial, abstract, distant world, instead of the world of sun, moon, stars, and wind into which Christ was born, and which He redeemed. It complicates and falsifies man's approach to God, by introducing the confusing, dualistic philosophy of two worlds, one
supposedly ideal and the other supposedly ugly. into our reflections on our faith.
There is only one world, fallen and redeemed. Each object, event, and person that touches our life is a grace. "Everything," as Bernanos said, "is grace." It is possible to be very simple in one's belief, and very direct, as Pope John understood.
Perhaps we have said enough to show what is at stake in the Second Vatican Council. Theologies alive to history, formed by history, loving. respecting, and criticising history, are struggling to find a right to exist within Roman Catholicism. Each of them offers its light for the illumination of a faith greater than they, a faith as great as the Word Himself.
One theology, long entrenched in the Church, pretends to exclusive rights over the faith. Then men who serve it are convinced that if they are defeated the faith is defeated with them. Men who support the other theologies believe that Catholic faith is greater than the one theology thinks.
The Second Vatican Council is trying to come to grips with the world in which the Church of the twentieth century finds itself. It is trying to insert the Church back into the centre of historical life, with respect for the moment of history in which it acts.
There are those who are afraid of this venture ; and the story of the second session of the Vatican Council is largely a story of the struggle of these well-placed, p o we r f u 1 few against the majority. It is a story all the more dramatic because each side believes that it is right.