Four years ago at this time, I was beavering away on an essay on Orientalium Ecclesiarum, the document of the Second Vatican Council treating the Eastern Churches. I had been asked to contribute the essay to a collection edited by the late priest-scholar Fr. Matthew Lamb and by the dear and prolific Dr. Matthew Levering. My essay—alongside many others—was published under their editorship by Oxford University Press in early 2017 as The Reception of Vatican II.
In that essay, I felt under no constraint to do anything other than assess strengths and weaknesses fairly and openly. My approach then, and even more so today, seems increasingly rare. Official churchmen assert with adamantine certainty that Vatican II was a great and flawless good. Other commentators have recently re-emerged to issue condemnations of the entire council, while still others, plainly holding their noses, want to rubbish select bits while downgrading or dismissing the rest. These are not new tactics or claims, of course, and their more virulent repetition this year does nothing to mitigate their tiresomeness.
Why write of them at all? I do so not to defend Vatican II—or any council, none of which need my superfluous efforts.
Rather, I write because it affords an opportunity to think once more about the uses and abuses of Catholic history and tradition, to which I gave some thought almost exactly a year ago on CWR. I want to develop what was said there and consider the methods and the psychology found in just about any historical controversy today—whether it be the statutes of Confederate generals, the authority of past popes and canonical texts, or the status of Hagia Sophia.
Last year I quoted the great Byzantine historian Fr. Robert Taft of the Society of Jesus. He came to mind again recently, providing—as was his wont—a much blunter statement of what I will presently say at length. We were together on a panel in 2011 at the Orientale Lumen conference in Washington, D.C., at which I recall how Taft exclaimed with enormous exasperation that nobody (except Taft, of course—there was no false modesty in the man!) ever reads history, least of all church history, on its own terms. Instead, he groaned, people “plunder it for present felt purposes.”
On certain issues about which we feel passionately, Taft was correct: we too often cherry-pick the good or bad bits to feed our prejudices. Why do we do that?
Here is where, in teaching and in lecturing on historiographical issues (especially about religious conflicts such as the Crusades or between Catholics and Orthodox in Ukraine, about which I have a book coming out late this year), I have found the works of the University of Virginia scholar and clinician Vamik Volkan (whom I recently interviewed) invaluable. Volkan has spent most of his fascinating and productive life studying historical conflict—between Turkish Muslims and Greek Christians, between Arabs and Jews, and in many other venues.
Volkan has provided singular insights into the underlying psychological mechanisms in ethnic, religious, and cultural conflicts and their histories out of which wars and genocides may erupt. From his many books going back decades, he has discerned three phenomena that I think Catholics fighting about Vatican II (or anything historical) are engaged in: “time collapse,” “chosen trauma,” and “chosen glory.”
There are so many examples that we could spend days cataloging them. Every nation’s founding mythology is wantonly embroidered with chosen traumas and glories. Military history, ancient and modern, abounds with them. Christian history is no different. For brevity’s sake, let me offer an example that illustrates all three phenomena at once.
At a conference at the University of Vienna in 2016, designed to bring leading Russian Orthodox and Ukrainian Catholic scholars and hierarchs together to discuss the pseudo-sobor of Lviv of 1946, I listened to the low-ranking Russian official sent to defend his Church claim that the events of 1946 were the direct result of, and really justification for the supposed crime of, 1595-96, the Union of Brest. In other words, he did three things: first, he collapsed four centuries of history so that there was a straight, causal line between 1596 and 1946; second, it was clear that the Russian Church had chosen for present political purposes to regard Brest as a trauma blame for which was solely to be laid on Catholic shoulders even today; and third it was noted that 1946 was chosen (and regularly, publicly, and liturgically celebrated in an official capacity by Russian hierarchs well into the 1980s) as a glorious moment at which we saw the “return of the uniates” to “holy Orthodoxy” and their “mother church” of Moscow, finally binding up the traumatic wound of 1596.
Needless to say, the history of Brest is considerably more complex than this, but so too (and I write as a Ukrainian Catholic) the history of the aftermath of 1946 is more complex than has often been realized—as the forthcoming book I have edited with Daniel Galadza will show. In neither case are we looking only at a monochromatic and monolithic case of one group of Christians attacking and seizing another, making “martyrs” of them thereby. There are multiple overlapping actors with multiple motives and many complicating details resisting overly tidy summary. There is little glory in either Brest or Lviv, and enough trauma to go round, including that experienced by some Catholics still alive today after the events of 1946. If you are not prepared to do the work necessary to discover and understand all these motives and actors and events, and to assess them with ascetic judiciousness, then you have no business commenting on them.
The same holds for today’s fights around Vatican II. For those who look at new life and developments in the Church in the last six decades, Vatican II must get the glory. For those who choose to espy only collapse and degradation in the Church, Vatican II can only be regarded as a traumatic wound we must overcome. In either case, the tendency is to move from 2020 to the early 1960s, tracing a direct causal link. No serious historian, scientist, or social scientist would do this. No logician would, either: post hoc ergo propter hoc remains a logical fallacy whether you like it or not!
Rather than choosing, selectively and almost always tendentiously, to regard some periods, personages, and events as either glorious or traumatic, the Catholic imaginary, carefully shaped (not least by by regular spells in the confessional), knows that human and historical causation is rarely simple, and hamfisted attempts to make it so deliberately obscure the messiness and complexity where real human beings—and not the grotesques we conjure up—are to be found.
Once we find those real human beings of our past—their practices, teachings, and ideas—what do we do? Are we bound to follow what we discover? If the fact that something was standard before Vatican II is now rare, must we recover the pre-conciliar practice without further ado? Must history and tradition dictate the future?
Formidable historian that he was, Taft nonetheless (as I heard from some of his students after his death) hid beneath his gruff exterior a warm pastor’s heart that well understood the foibles of the human condition. In that capacity he also insisted that as much as he valued real history, and as scornful as he was of those who fondly invented images of a past that never existed, nonetheless nobody was bound to regard the discoveries of historians as a kind of ukase. In other words, as he put it, “history is instructive but not normative.”
That, it seems to me, is exactly the balance Catholics must maintain: to know history, based on primary sources in original languages, proffered by competent scholars—but in nowise to be inexorably bound by it, as though gripped by rigor mortis. We are not prisoners of a past that is dead, but members of a living body. As Pope Benedict XVI insisted in his inaugural homily in 2005: “The Church is alive – she is alive because Christ is alive, because he is truly risen.”
As living, the Church can and must draw on (but is never imprisoned by) her past, which does not dictate what we are to do now. The balance was nicely described by Hans Urs von Balthasar in two passages from his essay “The Fathers, the Scholastics, and Ourselves”. That essay was written—nota bene—in 1939. He begins by denouncing the declinists and doom-mongers of his own day, long before Vatican II was even a flicker of a thought in the future Pope John XXIII’s imagination, saying that “no Catholic who knows something of the promise of the Spirit to stand by as Advocate through all times and epochs will look on the history of the Roman Catholic Church as that of a progressive going astray, from which only today we are now finding our way back.”
The past—any past—is not some halcyon age when all liturgies were sung beautifully, all priests behaved impeccably, and all popes taught perfectly. The present is not some lesser age, some detour of destruction that has landed us in a ditch. We remain alive and therefore free to chart our course. In the aftermath of Vatican II, as in the aftermath of every single council, we sometimes have chosen wisely, sometimes poorly, and usually both, and that is exactly as it should be. As the Swiss theologian puts it later in the same essay:
No time is completely like another, and the Church is always standing before a new situation, and, therefore before a new decision in which she can let herself receive advice and admonition from her past experiences but in which, however, the decision itself must be faced directly: The past can never lighten, let alone dispense from, the decision itself.
If nothing else, the decision to be faced by Catholics today is whether we will allow ourselves to manifest the maturity necessary to stop treating Vatican II as either a trauma or a glory and instead to see it as all councils from our past: an event where some of the crooked lines of human history were used by God to write straight the salvation of the world. If He is content to leave some lines askew on the page, some tares and wheat in the fields of the Church until the end of the age (cf. Matt. 13: 24-30), why can we not grant ourselves the same freedom to stop clinging to pseudo-intellectual genealogies helpful to nobody and instead get to work healing today’s myriad crises in Church and world alike?
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