Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Saturday, September 10, 2005

St. Paul & The Spirit of Vatican II

I've been meaning all week to discuss last Sunday's second reading from Paul's letter to the Romans:

Brothers and sisters:Owe nothing to anyone, except to love one another;for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law.The commandments, "You shall not commit adultery;you shall not kill; you shall not steal; you shall not covet," and whatever other commandment there may be,are summed up in this saying, namely, "You shall love your neighbor as yourself." Love does no evil to the neighbor;hence, love is the fulfillment of the law. (Rom 13:8-10)

Now, as I held a squirming toddler in the vestibule last Sunday and listened to this reading, I had fresh in my mind some recent debates about the worth, or lack thereof, of Vatican II. (More on those later.) And it struck me: In a way this passage has all the same problems that I often hear people complain about in Vatican II.

What Paul is doing here is taking a bunch of prohibitions and turning them into a positive command. Don't think that you just need to not steal, not kill, not covet, not commit adultery. All of these are partial ways of saying, "Love one another, for each human being is a unique and valued creature of the Lord your God." And so Paul seeks to innoculate us against our pharisaic sides by saying, "Don't focus on what you don't do, focus on what you must do."

One of the glosses of Vatican II that I've read which really rings true to me is that in a mood of profound optimism, the council fathers essentially sought to say: "Children, you have shown by your obedience to the law that you truly love God and wish to make yourselves pleasing to him. Thus, we would like to draw your eyes away from the law a bit encouragerage you to enter a more mature form of spirituality, not merely to 'do not' but to 'do'."

Now, I think they were right at a very deep level, in that to be spiritual adults we must not merely obey God's commands and the Church's disciplines but grow to have an understanding and love for God that is active in the world. But the danger is, if you say, "Let's stop emphasizing the letter of the law so heavily and start thinking about the spirit of the law" and your audience really was only up to understanding the letter of the law, their response will be "Oh goody! We don't have to follow that law any more."

And I think, honestly, that this is much of what happened with the chaos that Vatican II ushered in. The council fathers were right to think that many of the laity (and indeed the clergy) were on autopilot, going through motions and following laws that they didn't understand very well. The problem is, many of these people were so stuck on the motions and the laws, that all they heard from the council was "You don't have to worry about those laws so much anymore."

For instance, think of the Friday fast. This had, for many Catholics, simply become an identity exercise. So when the bishops advised people that instead of abstaining from meat on Fridays they could, if they so chose, substitute another act of penance or charity to be performed on Friday's in commemoration of Christ's death what happened? People didn't hear the "substitute another penance or charity" part of the equation, they just heard the "you don't have to abstain from meat" part. So now even most church attending Catholics do no particular Friday penance.

It's easy to say, as many do, "Vatican II just produced a bunch of vaguely worded 'pastoral' guidance that destroyed the solid old church." But given the way the practice of Catholicism fell apart so quickly in many areas, there must have been something wrong in the first place. Furthermore, we find Christ and the apostles themselves often making these kinds of "vague" pastoral statements. After all, how much have we seen statement's like the above passage from Romans abused by those who object to traditional Christian morality. "Christ told us the greatest command is to love one another, so how can we say that it's wrong for two men to love one another." What these people forget is that Jesus (and Paul in the passage above) is not saying that people do not need to obey the law, rather he is explaining to them why they must obey the law. The commands such as "do no kill, do not steal, do not commit adultery" are the training wheels: they help us form a proper understanding of what "to love" is. You cannot throw someone with an unformed conscience out into the deep by saying "Just love everyone and you'll be fine." Before someone can get by with only the command "love one another" he must first have a firm idea of why having relations with his neighbors wife could never be an example of "loving".

Without question the implementation of Vatican II in many places was deeply deficient, but at root the documents of Vatican II did us no greater disservice than Christ himself: they gave us not only the precise, training wheel-style moral instructions, but also the general principles on which they are based. And like Christ's words, Vatican II's more general statements have been twisted by those who object to it's specific teachings, in order to turn it back as a weapon against itself.


Kate said...

"It's easy to say, as many do, "Vatican II just produced a bunchvaguelyelly worded 'pastoral' guidance that destroyed the solid old church." But given the way the practice of Catholicism fell apart so quickly in many areas, there must have been something wrong in the first place."

Precisely! I would love to see a good study of the pre-Vatican II Church for this reason. Obviously, something was wrong. But what was it?

Anonymous said...

An interesting look at the pre-Vatican II church can be found in The Church and I by Frank Sheed. It was published in the mid '70s. In it Sheed discusses his relationship with the Church from his childhood in Australia (where his Marxist father preached communism on weekdays and sent him to a Methodist Sunday school on Sundays) through his work in England doing street preaching for the Catholic Evidence Guild, to the then current day. His take on why things fell apart so quickly was that Catholics in general had little theological background. He felt that they knew the what they believed, what the Church taught, but not the "why" behind it.

As for the Friday abstinence, as one who was there at the time, I can truthfully say that we heard nothing from the pulpit about the need to do penance on Friday -- only that we were no longer required to abstain from meat. I never heard the whole story until at least a decade later -- and then only as a result of reading and study on my own.

Todd said...

I disagree about attributing the Catholic Collapse to weak theological background, at least as a major cause. The obvious answer about what was wrong was that the Church, especially the hierarchy, was unprepared for the vast changes in society brought on by industrialization, world war, mass migrations, and the boom in science and technology.

It's easy to look at the CC as solely an intellectual phenomenon. "If only people knew better, they'd make better choices." It's not that easy. St Paul knew it.

It might also be uncharitable to suggest that people looking for new meanings in V2 have been involved in a twisted game of twisting. I think there are well-meaning people on both sides who are just incorrect, but don't realize it.

Darwin said...


Yeah, one of my biggest questions (as a Catholic growing up entirely in the post conciliar period) is 'What allowed things to fall apart so fast.' To read a lot of traditionalist stuff (and the strong Catholic culture stuff written in the 40s and 50s) you'd think the Church was solid and strong, but that just can't be the case considering the way things went in the 60s and 70s. As we seek renewal and the building of a stronger Church in the decades to come, it seems like we need to understand what was missing before so we don't back ourselves into the same problems.

Darwin said...


I've had that one on my list for a while, but the reading has been going pretty slowly for a while...

Darwin said...


Sad fact is, I'm mostly only good at addressing the "head" side of Catholicism (as opposed to the "heart" side) -- primarily because my own faith is almost exclusively head rather than heart. So when I see something like "the Church, especially the hierarchy, was unprepared for the vast changes in society brought on by industrialization, world war, mass migrations, and the boom in science and technology." my immediate thought is: "Well, then clearly they didn't understand their beliefs clearly enough to see how they applied to new circumstances." Which is not to say there aren't some less tangible elements of faith involved to, but that I'm not the sort of Catholic who can speak to those. For me, at least, the answer to those questions is entirely intellectual.

"It might also be uncharitable to suggest that people looking for new meanings in V2 have been involved in a twisted game of twisting."
I wouldn't generally characterize it as a game of twisting so much as a failure to reconcile the general with the particular, and instead discarding the particular in order to focus on particular understanding of the general.

Plato insisted that no one knowingly chooses anything but the good, and in that sense someone who uses Christ's "love one another" to over rule His other moral commands is partly right, while at the same time also wrong.

Todd said...

Darwin, maybe. I might liken it to a moral theologian who can give a wonderful, even interesting lecture on Church teaching, but what happens when people want simple consolation?

Vatican II hammers away at testing things, new ways of addressing problems, etc.. What worked for an ethnic parish in the city might not work for the spanking new suburban church, full of integrated American generation next.

Were the parish priests unprepared for the world wars, nazis, suburbs, etc.? Obviously enough were.

I think the fault of missing the forest for the trees was played at least equally by many pre-conciliar folks: rubricists come to mind from the liturgy camp. Vatican II's general ideals: full and active participation, simplification of the rites, clergy education, parish liturgy being source & summit: all these have conservatives picking at particulars and missing the overall points.

But no doubt: some people on the left do that too. That's one reason why we have each other as correctives.

Darwin said...


Oh, definitely. Indeed, my theory, as it's gradually shaping up, is essentially that the reason that the implementation of Vatican II went astray is precisely because the council fathers were right about the problems with the Church. Far too many people were experts on trees and ignorant of forests. And it was precisely because of this weekness in the pre-conciliar Church that people had so much difficulty in changing when the trees starting changing. Because if you hadn't been aware of the forest, you didn't see this as a new expression of the old, as an attempt to bring Christianity's ancient teachings into a form more readily understandible to the modern world. Rather, some people (certainly not all) began to imagine there were not trees, or indeed no forest.

I've been reading and thinking about Vatican II a good bit lately, so I'm going to try to trot some more stuff out over the course of the week.

(BTW, I love your occasional series on your blog where you post and comment on the conciliar documents. I usually don't feel like I have a lot I can add comment-wise, but it's a great service that you do us all there.)

strivingforholiness said...

Reading that your faith is more in your head than your heart reminded me of this quote from St. Augustine: "Faith itself is of no avail without charity. For without charity faith can indeed be, but can profit nothing." (From De Trinitate)
Perhaps I'm interpreting this quote incorrectly? If not, then I will pray that it increases in your heart...God bless!