The Battle for Meaning, Fifty Years and Counting

by Julia Smucker

When Pope John XXIII called the Second Vatican Council, he famously used the image of opening the windows of the Church to let the fresh air of the Spirit blow through. In studying and hearing about the council during the two years since I’ve been in the Catholic Church, and especially with all the commemoration going on in this golden-anniversary year, I sometimes seem to catch a breath of that freshness. And then at other times, it feels like the Church is exhausted from spending the past 50 years arguing about what happened.

Did the council go too far or not far enough? Was it a break from tradition or an affirmation of it? Were the conciliar documents the beginning of a conversation or the end of one? I find these polarizing arguments the most exhausting thing about being Catholic, which makes it easy to feel nostalgic for the hopeful energy of an event that took place before my lifetime – an event that we now seem oddly constrained from celebrating, since even those who want to celebrate it are too busy being angry about the Church today.

If we are to move beyond these tired arguments, we will need to let go of our polarized narratives and embrace a dynamic and politically transcendent hermeneutic. To that end I propose, perhaps audaciously, that we recommit to living out the spirit of Vatican II, as an integral part of the whole living tradition of the Church, in a spirit of hope rather than anger.

Much has been made of fears that Vatican II and its practical implementations are being “rolled back,” but while some on the fringes of the Church may wish this were possible, it is not. The more significant developments that resulted from the council, such as participatory vernacular liturgy, magisterial involvement in ecumenical and interfaith dialogue, and a more pastorally nuanced relationship between Church and world, are here to stay. For better or worse – and I believe it is overwhelmingly for the better – the genie is out of the bottle and cannot be put back in.

Some Catholics are anxious to put the brakes on any further reform, while others are equally anxious for another transformative event on the level of Vatican II. Neither anxiety reflects the organic development of Church tradition.

Nothing short of the parousia will prevent the eventual necessity of another landmark council, but to clamor for one now is somewhat premature. Vatican II, like Trent, was an era-defining council, and a sorely needed one. Yet by the same token, era-defining events by definition can only happen once in an era. Even Vatican I was not era-defining in the way that both Trent and Vatican II were, although the raw fact that the First and Second Vatican Councils were roughly a century apart has occasionally prompted me to think that the Church might do well to do some serious self-examination, perhaps aggiornamento, every hundred years or so. So perhaps in another 50 years it may be time for a “Vatican III,” though none of us can predict exactly when or how the Spirit will move. In the meantime, we still haven’t finished working out the implications of Vatican II, and that should keep us busy enough for the foreseeable future.

If indeed Vatican II is an event with ongoing repercussions, this reality is in basic continuity with the idea of continuity. Continuity does not mean that nothing has changed, still less that nothing will change. It does mean that what happened 50 years ago and what happened 2,000 years ago are pieces of the same story – dynamic plot twists which dramatically alter the course of this grand narrative, with implications that continue to unfold well beyond the events themselves. Those who live through such defining moments cannot help but measure time by the before and after. At the same time, if their meaning can continue to play out, it is because the story itself maintains a certain cohesion.

I have sometimes thought of the Church as a giant tree, ancient yet ever living, whose very rootedness allows it to move and grow. Or to use another metaphor, as a friend and mentor of mine has said, “It is often said that the Catholic Church moves at a glacial pace. But when glaciers move, they reshape the face of the earth.”

Julia Smucker is a Mennonite Catholic, or a Mennonite who has come into full communion with the Catholic Church, or a Catholic profoundly and gratefully shaped by her Mennonite heritage – take your pick. She regularly brings the various harmonies and dissonances of this biecclesial identity into her coursework at St. John’s School of Theology in Collegeville, Minnesota, where she is working on a Master of Theology (ThM) degree after earning her MA in Systematics. She is in the “Modern Liturgical Movements” class this semester taught by Fr. Anthony Ruff, OSB. She is enthused by finding big-picture connections and relishes her title as the reigning Anti-Dichotomy Queen.

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7 comments

  1. Thanks for your reflections. I was in the seminary, a few years from ordination, when the Council began. It has been the guiding vision of my priestly life and ministry. But just as the aftermaths of most Church Councils have had their ups and downs, so also Vatican II. Many blame the losses of church membership on Vatican II. My perspective is that the losses would have been much greater if we had not had Vatican II. We are only 50 years into living out the new vision of Vatican II, not much time at all. And it is clear that its documents embrace positions that re-affirm the past, open us to new perspectives and even venture visions of what might be on the horizon. A recent review of church history has suggested to me that we need to be more aware of the diversity of the church over the centuries and continents. We have endless ideas of what should be. Life and hope, however, come from having faith in the practices of divine love. Thank you for sharing your hope with others. Keep up the good work.

  2. Fr Ron Chochol : We are only 50 years into living out the new vision of Vatican II, not much time at all. And it is clear that its documents embrace positions that re-affirm the past, open us to new perspectives and even venture visions of what might be on the horizon.

    You’ve captured the essence of my post in these two sentences, and with such a classic “Catholic long view” perspective. I love it.

  3. ” All of us who have received one and the same Spirit, that is, the Holy Spirit, are in a sense blended together with one another and with God. For if Christ, together with the Father’s and his own Spirit, comes to dwell in each of us, though we are many, still the Spirit is one and undivided. He binds together the spirits of each and every one of us, . . . and makes all appear as one in him. For just as the power of Christ’s sacred flesh unites those in whom it dwells into one body, I think that in the same way the one and undivided Spirit of God, who dwells in all, leads all into spiritual unity.” -CCC #738, quoting St. Cyril of Alexandria

    Excellent post, Ms. Smucker. I thought the above was appropriate.

  4. Julia [in her aforementioned post]: It does mean that what happened 50 years ago and what happened 2,000 years ago are pieces of the same story – dynamic plot twists which dramatically alter the course of this grand narrative, with implications that continue to unfold well beyond the events themselves.

    Excellent observations, Julia. I wish to respond to this post in greater detail soon in my own post.

    Indeed I agree that the implications of each historical era of the Church continue to unfold within one another. No period of time will ever be left behind. The Church carries within itself a certain parthenogenetic history which resists modification or destruction.

    The presence of the Tridentine ethos within the now unfolding postconciliar era highlights your observation that the history of the Church is not an assembly of discrete historical events. A certain revanchist attitude, typified in institutional form by the SSPX, represents not merely a desire to entirely return to the liturgical and political rigidity of the Tridentine era. Rather, the “Tridentine continuing movements” are a daresay necessary manifestation of the organicity which you mention.

    Many have reflected on the SSPX’s refusal to accept Dignitatis Humanae. Not a few Catholics contend that the SSPX’s intransigence stems from the perception of many in the aforementioned movement that DH formally accepts that “error has rights”. I would say instead that the issue is the autonomy of individual conscience. In the postconciliar era, various organs of the Church such as the Holy Office do not necessarily impose orthodoxy on the faithful with the vigor of past eras. Rather, an understanding of orthodoxy derives first from stirrings within the People of God.

    Not a few Catholics are likewise apprehensive that the genesis and cultivation of conscience has shifted decidedly to individual believers. The tension between institutional orthodoxy and personal conscience continues to strain the Church, not only in matters of moral theology but also in liturgy.

  5. Nothing short of the parousia will prevent the eventual necessity of another landmark council, but to clamor for one now is somewhat premature

    I agree if for no other reason than we are very conscious of Vatican II, and therefore it has created expectations that may be difficult to meet, and/or even inappropriate.

    1. The Bishops at Vatican II felt free to reject the agenda and the documents of the Curia. A next council in the near future would expect to have the same freedom and also expect to use it. So the media expectation that the Council will make news will be very high. The expectation of Catholics and Christians around the world for change would be great. A new Council might find it very difficult living up to expectations.

    2. The next Council will not be able to conduct its business in the same way that the last Council did. Observers have now begun to speak to Synods. So there would be an expectation that Observers will address the Council.

    3. If observers get to address the Council, why not religious and laity? Religious and laity played a very small part directly in Vatican II. However, historically both Abbots and Rulers have played major parts. The next council will have to find a way to have both religious and laity have a larger and more visible role than they did in Vatican II.

    I think we need another 50 years to develop the full potential of the laity implicit in Vatican II. The priest and religious shortage in the USA will provide a good opportunity to do that.

  6. just a query to Mark Emery (post of 23rd oct 2012) – i was fascinated by the quotation (CCC no. 738) – and i was wondering is it a citation from cyril of alexandria or a paraphrase. Hope it’s not a silly question!

    To everyone on this praytellblog – i’ve just come across this website and am thrilled and enthralled by the wonderful conversations going on. Sin é!

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