A Truce in the Year of Faith
October 11, 2012 marked the 50th anniversary of the opening of the Second Vatican Council. Our Holy Father, Pope Benedict XVI has declared that date as the beginning of a “Year of Faith” - an opportunity to refresh and build up our faith. In the words of Pope Benedict it is a “summons to an authentic and renewed conversion to the Lord, the One Savior of the world” (Porta Fidei 6).
Perhaps it also a time to declare a truce in the war of “the spirit of Vatican II.” In my twenty plus years as a Catholic, I have heard no phrase that is comparable in its overuse and outright abuse. As we celebrate the half-century mark of this pivotal moment in the history of the universal Church, it is time for us to back away from the division caused by misinterpretation of the legacy of the Second Vatican Council. For so many Catholics it is time to actually find out what the Council meant for the Church, rather than cling to the vague delusion that “the spirit of Vatican II” means “all bets are off”.
Somewhere in my disheveled home library is a dense, complete copy of the documents of Vatican II, a souvenir of my religious studies classes back in the 1970s. (I can’t say that I’ve read the whole thing - this is an intense book and my attention wanders.) Unfortunately, much of my collegiate use of the book was in classes where it was used injudiciously for proof-texting demonstrations of the ways the Church had been so ‘wrong’ and ‘out of it’.
But that was the ‘70s, everyone was crazy, right? I was a little crazy. I had, in my interest in the Roman Catholic Church, landed in a small Catholic women’s college which was, in some ways, a hotbed of crazy. My faculty advisor for two years was Fr. Matthew Fox, now an Episcopalian priest best known for his Creation Spirituality and Cosmic Mass. We were privileged to have contact with other big names of the day. There was the late Mary Daly (of “Beyond God the Father” fame), who, in those days, was still tangentially related to Christianity. I look back and say, why? Why was she there? Just why? And Rosemary Radford-Ruether; she was nice, she gave me an A. But now I see the holes in her thinking, and wonder what I was writing that she found so promising. There was so much talk about Church - so little talk about Jesus Christ.
But that was the ‘70s and the crazy trend should be winding down by now. It still bubbles up from time to time, whether in bizarre puppet liturgies or pitiably tiny groups of old women who stand on the steps of our cathedral and demand ordination. The ‘spirit of Vatican II’ is still with us as a divisive tool, a re-active response to what is still perceived as an oppressive Church.
For many orthodox Catholics the term “spirit of Vatican II” conjures visions of felt banners, liturgical dance, enneagrams, labyrinths, guitars, mimes, and ‘relevance’ supplanting the traditional beauty and wisdom of the Church. Frankly, there is a legitimate bitterness that stays with those who saw their parish churches stripped of their familiar beauty and piety in the name of this ‘spirit’ sweeping through the Church.
The marking of the fiftieth anniversary of the Council could be a good time for everyone to get a grip. There has been time for everyone to catch their breath and there should have been time for people to learn the solid teaching of Vatican II and prepare to convey these truths to the next generation.
There are still those with a certain Vatican II prejudice who wish to give their agita to our children. I recently read an article from Creative Catechist magazine on how catechists can give their students background on Vatican II. The author’s primary thrust is the shift in language in pre- and post-conciliar documents. Mean language versus nice language. A suggested exercise is for student to read quotes from Church documents before and after the Council and list the terms documents used to refer to the laity. Make sure the students understand that before 1962 the Church was mean and out of touch, right? Talk about proof-texting! To jump straight to making before and after lists, discussing what is a very deep and nuanced moment in Church history with such a dubious and simplistic exercise can’t be the way to bring the true “spirit of Vatican II” to young minds. Can there be any better way of perpetuating a hermeneutics of discontinuity than to teach children about how bad the Church was before 1962 and how Vatican II ‘changed all that’?
This Year of Faith should be our time to delve into the fruits of the Second Vatican Council. A moratorium on the use of “spirit of Vatican II” might be in order. As Avery Cardinal Dulles wrote almost a decade ago, "There is no reason today why Vatican II should be a bone of contention among Catholics.” Whether used by those who have a grievance with Father repainting the sanctuary beige or those who are miffed by Father pulling the plug on the gray haired,well meaning, amateur Electric-Tambourine-Soft Rock-Good Time Praise band at Mass: try to phrase your concerns without the “spirit of Vatican II.” If we say it less - and pray for it more - the true spirit of Vatican II may truly come to abide with us.
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