WHEN ONE READS the luminous encyclical Ecclesiam Suam of Pope Paul VI or the magnificent “Dogmatic Constitution on the Church” (Lumen Gentium) of the Fathers of the Council, one cannot but realize the greatness of the Second Vatican Council.
False interpretations of the Second Vatican Council
But when one turns to so many contemporary writings – some by very famous theologians, some by minor ones, some by laymen offering us their dilettante theological concoctions – one can only be deeply saddened and even filled with grave apprehension. For it would be difficult to conceive a greater contrast than that between the official documents of Vatican II and the superficial, insipid pronouncements of various theologians and laymen that have broken out everywhere like an infectious disease.
On the one side, we find the true spirit of Christ, the authentic voice of the Church; we find texts that both in form and content breathe a glorious supernatural atmosphere. On the other side, we find a depressing secularization, a complete loss of the sensus supernaturalis, a morass of confusion.
The distortion of the authentic nature of the Council produced by this epidemic of theological dilettantism expresses itself chiefly in the false alternatives between which we are all commanded to choose: either to accept the secularization of Christianity or to deny the authority of the Council.
The true meanings of conservative and progressive
These drastic alternatives are frequently labeled the progressive and conservative responses. These terms, facilely applied to many natural realms, can be extremely misleading when applied to the Church. It is of the very nature of Catholic Christian faith to adhere to an unchanging divine revelation, to acknowledge that there is something in the Church that is above the ups and downs of cultures and the rhythm of history. Divine revelation and the Mystical Body of Christ differ completely from all natural entities. To be conservative, to be a traditionalist, is in this case an essential element of the response due to the unique phenomenon of the Church. Even a man in no way conservative in temperament and in many other respects progressive must be conservative in his relation to the infallible magisterium of the Church, if he is to remain an orthodox Catholic. One can be progressive and simultaneously a Catholic, but one cannot be a progressive in one’s Catholic faith. The idea of a “progressive Catholic” in this sense is an oxymoron, a contradictio in adjecto. Unfortunately, there are many today who no longer understand this contradiction and proudly proclaim themselves to be “progressive Catholics.”
Conservative and progressive are false alternatives
With the labels conservative and progressive they are in fact requiring the faithful to choose between opposition to any renewal, opposition even to the elimination of things that have crept into the Church because of human frailty (e.g., legalism, abstractionism, external pressure in questions of conscience, grave abuses of authority in monasteries) and a change, a “progress” in the Catholic faith which can only mean its abandonment.
These are false alternatives. For there is a third choice, which welcomes the official decisions of the Vatican Council but at the same time emphatically rejects the secularizing interpretations given them by many so-called progressive theologians and laymen.
True renewal calls us to transformation in Christ
This third choice is based on unshakable faith in Christ and in the infallible magisterium of His Holy Church. It takes it for granted that there is no room for change in the divinely revealed doctrine of the Church. It admits no possibility of change except that development of which Cardinal Newman speaks: the explicit formulation of what was implicit in the faith of the Apostles or of what necessarily follows from it.
This attitude holds that the Christian morality of holiness, the morality revealed in the Sacred Humanity of Christ and His commandments and exemplified in all the saints, remains forever the same. It holds that being transformed in Christ, becoming a new creature in Him, is the goal of our existence. In the words of St. Paul, “This is the will of God, your sanctification.” (1 Thess. 4:3)
This position maintains that there is a radical difference between the kingdom of Christ and the saeculum (world); it takes into account the struggle between the spirit of Christ and the spirit of Satan through all the centuries past and to come, until the end of the world. It believes that Christ’s words are as valid today as in any former time: “Had you been of the world, the world would love its own; but as you are not of the world, as I have chosen you out of the world, the world hates you” (John 15:19).
This is simply the Catholic position, without further qualification. It rejoices in any renewal that enlarges the establishment of all things in Christ – the instaurare omnia in Christo – and that brings the light of Christ to added domains of life. This is in fact a specific encouragement to Catholics to confront all things with the Spirit and Truth of Christ – in season and out of season – regardless of the spirit of the present age or any past age. Such a renewal follows the admonition of St. Paul: “Test all things; hold to what is good” (1 Thess. 5:21). It appreciates reverently those great gifts of previous Christian centuries which reflect the sacred atmosphere of the Church (for example, Gregorian Chant and the admirable hymns of the Latin Liturgy).
The Catholic position maintains that these gifts should never cease to play a great role in our Liturgy and that they have today as in the past a great apostolic mission. It believes that the Confessions of St. Augustine, the writings of St. Francis of Assisi, and the mystical works of St. Teresa of Avila contain a vital message for all periods in history. It represents an attitude of deep filial devotion to the Holy Father and reverent love for the Church in all its aspects, the true sentire cum ecclesia.
It should be clear that this third response to the contemporary crisis in the Church is not timidly compromising, but consistent and forthright. It is not retrospective, nor does it anticipate a mere earthly future, but it is focused on eternity. It is thus able to live fully in the present, because real presence is fully experienced only when we succeed in freeing ourselves from the tension of past and future, only when we are no longer imprisoned in a frantic propulsion toward the next moment. In the light of eternity every moment in life – whether of an individual or a community – receives its full significance. We can do justice to the present age, therefore, only by regarding it in the light of man’s eternal destiny – in the light of Christ.
The response that we have been describing involves grave concern and apprehension over the present invasion of the life of the Church by secularism. It considers the present crisis the most serious one in the entire history of the Church. Yet it is full of hope that the Church will triumph, because our Lord Himself has said: “The gates of Hell shall not prevail against it” (Matt. 16:18).
Given the theological puberty crisis we are currently living through in the Church, I highly recommend the following book for study and meditation: Dietrich von Hildebrand’s Trojan Horse in the City of God, written in 1967, but as relevant today as then. Below is the first chapter of the book: