George Weigel

To Sanctify the World: The Vital Legacy of Vatican II

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Hey, Millennial: It’s time to get a clue about Vatican II

A recent Crisis online article—“OK, Boomer: It’s time to move on from Vatican II”—articulates a point of view that has become far too prevalent today among young Catholics who are suffering through a kind of exhaustion over the whole topic of Vatican II. Therefore, it deserves a response from one of the “Boomer” theologians he is criticizing for not understanding, allegedly, why Vatican II is now irrelevant.

The thesis of the essay, authored by Adam Lucas, is a simple one: Vatican II is, for this generation, a complete irrelevance since the pastoral significance of the Council is inextricably linked to the cultural and political situation of the 1960s. And that cultural situation is now irrelevant to young people of today. Lucas claims that those of us who still blather on about the Council are folks stuck in the past, who have not noticed that our concerns are time-bound anachronisms long past their sell-by date. Lucas thus treats the Council itself like a gallon of spoiled milk—at one time it may have been wholesome and healthy, but now it is only fit to be poured down the sink. And so we should stop arguing about whether or not we can still make yogurt or sour cream out of it. Just toss it.

One gets the impression that Lucas thinks theologians like me may still have rotary phones at home and rabbit ears on our television sets. He seems to be saying that Vatican II is as passé as Beta Max machines and eight-track tape players. Therefore, to continue to debate the interpretation of the Council is to lock us into a “prison” of discourse (referring here to Ross Douthat’s recent essays on that topic in The New York Times), which will get us nowhere.

It is best, then, to ignore the Council and to move on to something else.

But what is that something else? Lucas does not specify what the alternative might be, except to float the idea, in a somewhat ambivalent fashion and without any elaboration, that perhaps we should return to the “approach” of the pre-Vatican II Church. But what “approach” is that? Lucas does not say, and other than asserting that we should just ignore the Council, he presents precisely nothing specific and gives us nothing in the way of theological elaboration.

And by “nothing” I really mean nothing. A more contentless essay would be hard to imagine.

Which is related to a further question he does not address in the slightest: If we are now just to ignore the Council, then what exactly is it we are ignoring? And in favor of what? Is there nothing at all of enduring value in the Council? Or is the entire thing just all spoilt milk? Lucas never once raises any theological specifics, or mounts even the slightest theological argument in favor of anything—or against anything in particular. In his accounting, apparently there is no need for hoity-toity theological hair-splitting from egg-headed Boomer nerds; this is your Grandpappy’s Council and that is that. He says something vague about the Latin Mass and how many young people like it. But he never discusses how many young people like it, never cites any study on the topic, and he never mentions that there are many young people today who do not like the old Latin Mass.

There is no demographic or sociological analysis provided beyond his vague polemics about the Council being a nostalgic analgesic for aging “Boomers”. But even this is wrong. I am a Boomer, and I can assure Mr. Lucas that my formative years were spent squarely within the world of post-conciliar Catholicism. Further, I did not experience it as “liberative” since I had no memory of the pre-Vatican II Church. In reality, most of the “Boomers” criticized by Lucas have mostly negative memories of the post-conciliar era, and thus we have even more reasons than he does for rejecting the Council as the cause of our youthful misery.

And yet, for the most part, we do not reject the Council. That should give Lucas pause, but it doesn’t since it is an inconvenient fact that interrupts his simplistic narrative of Boomers devoted to nostalgic anachronisms. In short, the plain facts contradict the entirety of his narrative. Boomers suffered greatly in the post-conciliar Church, and whatever “nostalgia” we may have for that era is limited to mood rings and lava lamps—but not for the Council.

So why do we continue to support it?

Mr. Lucas would do well to pick up a copy of To Sanctify the World: The Vital Legacy of Vatican II, the excellent book on Vatican II by George Weigel, and to read it carefully. At once erudite and accessible, the book lays out why the Council was necessary, what it actually said in all of its major texts, and how popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI, in particular, offer us an authoritative interpretation of the Council.

And I recommend he read the book, not only because it is excellent, but also because, like it or not, Vatican II was a valid ecumenical council, ratified by several popes, and now a permanent piece of furniture in the ecclesial living room. If we are its “prisoners” we are so in the same manner that we are “prisoners” of everything else the magisterium teaches with authority. But Lucas apparently does not like being so “bound” to an ecumenical Council that he is now also obligated to take it seriously. Thank goodness Athanasius did not think that way, or Maximus the Confessor!

The first flawed notion Weigel demolishes is the idea that Council was called in order to make the Church more compatible with the modern world in an “accommodationist” sense. He shows clearly that the concept of aggiornamento developed by Pope John XXIII was a call to an evangelical awareness of the vocabulary and thought of a modern audience, in order to better evangelize that audience—not to cave in to it. But Lucas appears to make the same mistake as do the progressives when he conflates what came after the Council with the Council itself, reading back into Pope John’s call for aggiornamento an illegitimate cultural accommodationism.

In conflating the Council with the cultural revolution that came after, Lucas misses the true significance of the Council and why it is actually more relevant today than it was even in the Sixties. Weigel shows is that the chief theological concerns of the Council were the same as those in the ressourcement camp of theology, which included not only well-established luminaries such as Henri de Lubac, but also some rather unnoticed folks including Joseph Ratzinger and a young bishop named Karol Wojtyla. Weigel shows that their chief concern was to develop a Christian humanism grounded in a Christo-centric theological anthropology, meant to combat the anti-human and degrading anthropologies latent within the various “isms” of the modern world. He shows that their concern was with the nihilism of modernity, its materialistic reductionism, its technocratic scientism, and its corrosive skepticism toward the supernatural orientation of the human person.

It was this secular skepticism toward any spiritual dimension in human existence that generated the Christo-centric approach of Lumen GentiumDei Verbum, and the first half of Gaudium et Spes. The goal was to unpack, theologically and philosophically, the structure of human existence in such depth that we can demonstrate that the Church’s Christological anthropology is far more expansive, explanatory, and joyous than the dour and tragic anthropologies of secular modernity.

As one might imagine, Weigel is especially deft at showing how the pontificate of John Paul took this anthropology and made it his guiding theme, as can be seen in his very first encyclical Redemptor Hominis. As Weigel notes, there had never before been an encyclical on theological anthropology, and therefore its emergence as the first in John Paul’s lengthy pontificate was a key to understanding the Council as well.

The most salient feature of Weigel’s text is also what is most lacking in the Lucas essay: the insistence that the Council was indeed, like all other councils before it, called to address a crisis. It is often said by more traditionalist critics of the Council that its problem is that it is unfocused since it was not called to deal with a specific crisis (or heresy) of any kind, but was “merely” an open ended project of “pastoral theology”. But as Weigel shows, this is not true; in fact, the Council was called in order to combat, not just any crisis, but the greatest crisis the Church has ever faced.

And that is the deep and profound crisis of modern unbelief, which is a form of systemic cultural disbelief that forms and directs, as Charles Taylor would say, the “social imaginary” of our times. A de facto practical atheism undergirds all of our major institutions and molds the plausibility structures that frame our common notions of what counts as the “really real”. It is the air that we breathe; it invades and affects us in ways we cannot even completely understand. This is what Weigel notes as the primary concern of the Council, and he is right to do so. This is what Pope John Paul also railed against in his references to our “culture of death” and in his emphasis on human dignity in all of his travels. This is what Pope Benedict meant by “the eclipse of God” in our time and the “dictatorship of relativism”.

So, if Lucas is correct about Vatican II being irrelevant, then so also are the pontificates of John Paul and Benedict, since their message, as Weigel demonstrates, is the same as the Council’s message.

And by the way, just how “irrelevant” are the concerns of the Sixties? After all, that decade was a mere twenty years after the end of the greatest genocidal catastrophes and war the world had ever seen, and right in the middle of a cold war that threatened nuclear extinction, and contending with a series of regional “hot wars” that were proxy wars between the superpowers, and right on the cusp of a burgeoning awareness of environmental destruction caused by our technology and industry, and right in the middle of the birth of the “national security state” with unparalled domestic surveillance and covert operations to destabilize governments. It was not all about free love, sex, and drugs.

The Second Vatican Council, carried forward by men who had lived through the great catastrophes of the 20th-century, had in view the ongoing relevance of the God of Jesus Christ in a world gone mad. In a world that had forgotten God. The adults of the Sixties had seen war, genocide, totalitarianism, the rise of militant atheism, poverty, homelessness, environmental destruction, and the nuclear annihilation of two cities. But, according to Lucas, those are no longer “our” concerns.

Weigel, like Bishop Robert Barron, insists that Cardinal Newman is the true father of the Council, as he was one of the first modern prelates to understand that the crisis of modernity is a crisis of unbelief. And they both understand, unlike Lucas, that this crisis is not only still with us but has gotten worse. Much worse. If anything, our cultural situation today is simply the Sixties gone digital and on social media steroids. Therefore, now is not the time to chuck the Council into the trash like yesterday’s newspaper.

Sadly, there are those among a younger generation of Catholics (and those like certain liberal prelates in an older generation) who do not understand this, and therefore do not understand the true nature of the crisis we face. Popes John Paul and Benedict did understand the crisis we face and interpreted the Council accordingly. Which is why their pontificates are now also under attack; ironically, there are those who seek to nullify their achievements as “anti-Vatican II”!

The remedy to our current crisis, however, is not to ignore Vatican II, but to double-down on its key Christo-centric message, and to promote and defend the papacies of John Paul and Benedict as the interpretive key to that message. This might seem like an endless and exhausting task. But it is the task that is upon us and it is the moment, as Balthasar would call it, of our Ernstfall crisis of decision.

Sometimes, when you ignore things because you are “tired” of debates about them you are missing why it is that people are debating those things in the first place. And in so doing you are making yourself the irrelevant one.

George Weigel’s column is syndicated by the Denver Catholic, the official publication of the Archdiocese of Denver. 

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