Vatican II: Too Early to Tell?
I’ve read a couple of things recently that have got me thinking a lot about the state of the Roman Catholic church in light of its most recent ecumenical council: Vatican II. The first comes from Hendrik Hertzberg’s The Talk of the Town piece in the current issue of The New Yorker about the “Occupy Wall Street” events in Manhattan and around the country. In an effort to illustrate the as-of-yet unknown impact and future of these ostensibly grass-roots happenings, Hertzberg recollection of what Zhou Enlai supposedly said in response to then-president Richard Nixon when the president “asked him to assess the impact of the French Revolution: it’s too early to tell.”
The second comes from the renowned systematic theologian and Franciscan friar, Kenan Osborne, who, in his book Priesthood: A History of Ordained Ministry in the Roman Catholic Church (Wipf & Stock), wrote: “The Second Vatican Council presented the Roman Catholic Church with a theological understanding of ministry which [sic] will continue to exert an influence for decades, perhaps even centuries to come.”
Both of these remarks got me thinking about the Church and the way in which people continue to respond to the theological and pragmatic shifts brought about by the Council. We recently observed the 49th anniversary of Bl. Pope John XXIII’s calling of a new ecumenical council, a perfect time to pause and look at where we’ve come and where we are going, especially as major half-century milestones of the event approach.
There have been some trends in the Church of late that rightly give pause to those concerned about seeing the prophetic and practical dimensions of the Council implemented and lived within the life of the Body of Christ. Recently, I was thinking about the understanding of the threefold understanding of the priesthood as it is presented in the Council’s theology of ministry (particularly in the texts Lumen Gentium and Presbyterorum Ordines). The notion that the members of the Body of Christ, which is the Church, share in Christ’s ministry of teacher, sanctifier and leader is not limited to those in holy orders (deacons, priests, bishops), but also includes, in very explicit terms (Lumen Gentium art. 34-38), the fact the laity too share this mission and responsibility.
It should come as no surprise given the recent discussions on DatingGod.org and elsewhere about the policy changes in Phoenix and Madison that the role — liturgically and ecclesiastically — of the laity and the role of the ordained would be a matter of timely concern. There are indeed ways in which the Second Vatican Council seems to be curbed by such behaviors, if not in the letter of the documents (although one might argue that is indeed true), then in the spirit of the texts.
I am increasingly convinced that few people, including those whose responsibilities are to shepherd local churches, have a competent grasp of these Church documents from Vatican II, which are still very new at under fifty-years old each. It doesn’t take long, having read only the primary constitutions and decrees from the Council to realize that the vision of Church and the heuristic model laid out by the Council Fathers continues to be treated only in the most superficial ways, if not ignored in some places entirely.
I used to think — and still do to some extent — that this was largely do to a willed ignorance of the texts and a disregard for the change that necessarily comes with a substantial effort to return to a more authentically Christian way of living as Church. But I also wonder, in light of Hertzberg and Osborne’s remarks, if part of the problem isn’t just the small amount of time that has passed since the closing of the Council. How long does it take for the vision of an ecumenical council to take hold? How long should it?
This is not to suggest that certain liturgical and ecclesiastical shifts haven’t already taken hold and for the better, but read Lumen Gentium, Gaudium et Spes and Sacrosanctum Concilium — if only those three constitutions — and tell me that we’re living that understanding of Church today! I don’t think you could, whether you like it or not. I am concerned that we are not more consciously imbuing ourselves with the texts of the Council, saturating our thinking and vision with this liturgical and ecclesiastical worldview. Instead, we hear of the silly-to-absurd actions of certain local churches (prohibiting girl altar servers, restricting communion under both kinds, limiting the involvement of the faithful in the ecclesiastical and liturgical life of the community in several ways, and so on). I’m not sure what is behind these sorts of things, but I know that nowhere in the Council documents does one find justification for such behavior. Sure, there may be juridical authority to do these things, but that doesn’t make it right.
So, I’m left to continue thinking about Vatican II and whether or not it might indeed be too early to tell if things will change and work out for the best. To return to Hendrik Hertzberg’s article again, I think the closing line of his piece rings true here too: “It’s too early to tell, but not too late to hope.” Amen.