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For good or ill, something happened at Vatican II.

The debate about the Second Vatican Council is oversimplified when it contrasts a hermeneutic of discontinuity with one of continuity. If there may be some people who see no discontinuity at the council, surely no one in the world thinks there was no continuity at the council.

In his December 2005 speech to the Roman Curia, Pope Benedict XVI avoided such simplification by distinguishing between a hermeneutic of discontinuity and one of reform, and then devoted the larger part of the speech to illustrating how reform entails both continuity and discontinuity on different levels. Other binary terms he used were "novelty in continuity" and "fidelity and dynamism."

It might be helpful to recognize that the question of continuity can be put from three different standpoints: doctrinal, theological, and sociological or historical.

From a doctrinal standpoint, there is clear continuity, in that Vatican II did not discard any dogma of the church and it did not promulgate any new dogma. On the other hand, the council did recover important doctrines that had been relatively neglected in the previous centuries: e.g., the primacy of the liturgy, the collegiality of bishops, the priesthood of all the baptized and the common responsibility for the life and mission of the church, the theology of the local church, the importance of Scripture, etc. Recovering such vital aspects of the life and structure of the church meant placing other doctrines in broader and richer contexts than before.

Typically modern orientations and emphases, adversarial to a host of perceived enemies, were replaced by the more serene and confident articulation of the faith that characterized the Scriptures and the earlier tradition. The council also deliberately departed from the normal language of ecumenical councils such as Trent and Vatican I and followed Pope John XXIII's injunction that it abstain from the anathemas common in those previous ecumenical councils and offer instead a positive vision of the faith and to do so in a more accessible rhetoric.

Theologically, the council was the fruit of movements of renewal in the 20th century: in biblical, patristic and medieval studies; in liturgical theology; in ecumenical conversation; in new, more positive encounters with modern philosophy; in rethinking the church-world relation; in rethinking the role of laypeople in the church. At least 30 years of scholarship and pastoral experience lay behind the council's achievement: It did not fall down directly from heaven.

But during those decades, most, if not all, of these movements had fallen under some degree of Roman suspicion or disapproval, and many of the people active in them had long been under the proverbial cloud. The official texts prepared for Vatican II were intended to fix in stone that condemnatory attitude. This is why there was such genuine drama in the council's first session when those texts were severely criticized for falling short of the theological and pastoral renewal already under way, and crucial votes made it clear that the great majority of bishops wished to say something more positive and hopeful to the world.

As a result, the leadership of the council was transferred to prelates who were open to such renewal, and theologians who had been suspect for years were brought in as official experts. The style of the final council texts had the effect of dethroning the methods and language of modern scholasticism. In all this there was considerable discontinuity made possible by a "return to the sources," that is, by bringing a richer, deeper and broader tradition to bear.

From the standpoints of sociology and of history, one looks at the council against a broader backdrop. John XXIII, after all, had urged a prayer that the council be "a new Pentecost," and enthusiasm soon led people to speak of "the end of the Counter-Reformation," even of "the end of the age of Constantine." If such phrases were too sweeping in scope and too general in content to be very helpful, the very calling of the council represented a break from the day-to-day assumptions and attitudes of a Roman Catholicism that had prided itself on its not needing the kind of spiritual renewal and reform that John had called for. As it would be for any large social system, the process of reflecting on its structures and life in the light of Christ's desire for the church (spiritual renewal) and by the criterion of pastoral effectiveness in the last third of the 20th century (aggiornamento) was a jolt to the taken-for-granted process of the church's self-realization.

As at the time it was natural that the chief experience of the council, as revealed, for example, in the journals of participants, would stress what was novel in its work and in its texts, so historians will by occupational habit emphasize the aspects of the council as an event, that is, as a break with routine. It is, after all, rather difficult to write a history in which nothing happens. Nor, for a critical historian, can the event of the council be restricted to the intentions of the protagonists.

The popes and bishops of Vatican II may have intended only reform and not revolution, but for reasons beyond the control of the conciliar leaders what was mere theological and canonical reform could under certain circumstances become quite revolutionary. Historians are not likely to be impressed by claims that the church does not know such revolutionary breaks in its concrete life. For good or for ill, something happened at Vatican II.

So in the end, if the issues are posed in terms of continuity versus discontinuity, it would be helpful to demand something similar to what Benedict did in his 2005 speech: take a particular text or teaching of the council and analyze it in those terms. And for many, perhaps even all, of the most important themes, I believe it will not be difficult to find both continuity and discontinuity on different levels and from different perspectives.
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Author:Komonchak, Joseph A.
Publication:National Catholic Reporter
Geographic Code:4EXVA
Date:Oct 11, 2012
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