George Weigel’s new book The Next Pope is a call to ressourcement. This means that the Church must engage in a retrieval of her teaching by looking back to the authoritative sources of the faith—Scripture and Tradition. And in order to revitalize the present so as to move faithfully forward. The specific focus is on the papacy and the next pope in light of a Church in mission.
Weigel argues that the Church is currently living through the turbulence of a transition from Counter-Reformation Catholicism to Vatican II Catholicism, the Church of the New Evangelization. The “world Church [has] embraced the Christ-centered, evangelical vision of the Catholic future” proposed by John XXIII in his opening address at Vatican II, Gaudet Mater Ecclesia. The central question has been around for more than half century: “the debate over whether Vatican II was council in continuity with revelation and tradition, or a council of rupture and discontinuity in which the Church essentially reinvented itself.”
Weigel’s answer to this question dovetails with Pope Benedict XVI’s call, in his now famous 2005 Christmas address to the Roman Curia, for interpreting Vatican II in light of “the ‘hermeneutic of reform’, of renewal in the continuity of the one subject-Church which the Lord has given to us. She is a subject which increases in time and develops, yet always remaining the same, the one subject of the journeying People of God.” This means, says Weigel, that Vatican II documents demonstrate the adherence of “John XXIII’s admonition to preserve intact the fullness of Catholic faith and his challenge to devise ways to express that faith so that it could be heard by the people of today.” The Catholic Church, he adds, has followed and should continue to follow “that path of renewal in continuity with revelation and tradition.”
This evangelical vision of Vatican II’s documents is given an authoritative interpretation in the pontificates of John Paul II and Benedict XVI. It is reinforced in the postconciliar Church, first by Pope Paul VI’s 1975 apostolic exhortation, Evangelii Nuntiandi (Announcing the Gospel). The core teaching of this exhortation is that the “Catholic Church exists to proclaim Jesus Christ and his Gospel.” This is what Weigel calls the “vision of an engaged Catholicism.”
Second, that authoritative interpretation pivoted in 1985, on the twentieth anniversary of the close of Vatican II, when John Paul II convened an extraordinary assembly of the Synod of Bishops with the aim of encouraging a deeper reception and implementation of the Council. The Synod set forth, in the document A Message to the People of God and The Final Report, a proper framework for interpreting the Conciliar texts. In particular, six hermeneutical principles for sound interpretation of these texts were set forth.
Third, this interpretation was further put forth during the Great Jubilee of 2000, especially in Novo Millennio Ineunite (Entering the New Millennium), and in the 1994 Apostolic Letter, Tertio Millennio Adveniente (Advent of the Third Millenium), presented in preparation for that jubilee.
The principles postulated by the 1985 synod for interpreting Vatican II texts are presupposed in Weigel’s reflections on the new evangelization, Christian anthropology, the priesthood, the laity, the moral life, the episcopacy, ecumenism and interreligious dialogue, and the papacy:
- The theological interpretation of the Conciliar doctrine must show attention to all the documents, in themselves and in their close inter-relationship, in such a way that the integral meaning of the Council’s affirmations – often very complex – might be understood and expressed.
- The four “constitutions” of the Council (those on liturgy, the Church, revelation, and the Church in the modern world) are the hermeneutical key to the other documents – namely, the Council’s nine decrees and three declarations.
- The pastoral import of the documents ought not to be separated from, or set in opposition to, their doctrinal content.
- No opposition may be made between the spirit and the letter of Vatican II.
- The Council must be interpreted in continuity with the great tradition of the Church, including earlier councils. The Church is one and the same throughout all the councils.
- Vatican II should be accepted as illuminating the problems of our own day.
The hermeneutical norm of the first and second principles is twofold: one, intratextuality, meaning thereby interpreting the meaning of a particular passage within the context of the whole document; and two, intertextuality, meaning thereby interpreting any specific document in the context of the whole body of documents (particularly attending to the authoritative priority of the constitutions). The third principle states the unity and interdependence of the doctrinal and pastoral dimensions of the council documents.
The fourth principle pertains to the relationship between the “spirit” of Vatican II and its “texts,” that is, the “letter.” The former refers to the deep motivating force of the Council to revitalize the Church in moving faithfully forward, as Weigel makes clear throughout the book. This faithful movement forward cannot be done without affirming the normativity of the “letter” of the texts, of the literal sense of Vatican II documents—the sense intended by the authors of the text and expressed in the language that it used—as the point of reference of Catholic theology and life.
The fifth principle is also particularly important today given the “development” of Vatican II regarding ecumenism and interreligious dialogue, the calling of the laity, the turn from the Old Christendom—an ecclesiastically unified culture—to the New Christendom—a sanctified laity involved in the transformation of the whole of life, including the spectrum of culture, for the sake of the Lordship of Christ.
To discern whether this possibility is a legitimate or an illegitimate development must be decided, as always, in light of ecclesial warrants, such as Holy Scripture, which has a primacy, followed by Church councils, creeds and confessions, theological doctors of the Church, Christian faithful (sensus fidei), and the past normative exercise of the Magisterium. In this connection, we should understand that the Petrine ministry “is not above the Gospel or the Church.” Indeed, the papal magisterium is a servant of the Word of God (see Dei Verbum, no. 11); it is an “authoritative office whose holder is the custodian of an authoritative tradition. He is the servant of that tradition, that body of doctrine and practice, not its master.” In sum, without those authoritative sources, there is no sure and stable guide to Catholic truth.
This principle is a segue to the sixth principal, namely, the documents of Vatican II illuminates contemporary problems. Chief among these problems is the question, “Who is Man?” We are living in the twilight of Western thought—“a crisis in the great project of Western humanism.” The Church takes as its first principle regarding Christian anthropology “the conviction that Jesus Christ really does disclose the truth about the human person in a unique and unsurpassable way, and the nerve to make that proclamation in the face of the various counterproposals on offer.”
Weigel rejects theological liberalism that is reductionist in contrast to “Catholicism-in-full” that, for example, “does not set ‘Gospel’ against ‘doctrine’.” This reductionism “does grave damage to the Church.” Theological liberalism places an “inordinate emphasis on one or another truth of faith, [and hence] these would-be-reformers implicitly or explicitly degraded other truths of faith.” Rather, Catholicism-in-full involves both mercy and truth, the Church as Mother and Teacher, and regarding the atoning work of Christ both mercy and justice.
Neither mercy nor justice is absent from the cross; indeed, the cross is rather their mutual fulfillment. Pope Francis at his clearest says similarly, “[T]hese [justice and mercy] are not two contradictory realities, but two dimensions of a single reality that unfolds progressively until it culminates in the fullness of love. . . . Thus the Cross of Christ is God’s judgement on all of us and on the whole world, because through it he offers us the certitude of love and new life. (Miserecordiae et Vultus, Bull of Indiction of the Extraordinary Jubilee of Mercy, 2015, nos. 20-21). God’s love is the single reality that unfolds dynamically throughout salvation history in the dimensions of justice and mercy with these two harmoniously coming together supremely and unsurpassably in the cross.
By contrast, the reductionism of theological liberalism mutes or suppresses sin, judgment, wrath, and the cross, giving rise to a sentimental view of God and his love. This is best summed up by H. Richard Niebuhr: “A God without wrath brought men without sin into a kingdom without judgment through the ministrations of a Christ without a cross.”
Fundamental to Catholicism-in-full is its insistence on “the truth of divine revelation”; indeed, “the notion of a divine revelation that is binding over time.” Revelation is personal because in a fundamental sense, God reveals himself, and so we may say that the content of revelation is God’s own proper reality, his self-revelation, the gift of himself, and this gift is salvific in purpose. Vatican II’s Dei Verbum recognizes that we need to be taught by God in its affirmation that “the plan of revelation is realized by deeds and words having an inner unity” (no. 2). Thus, jointly constitutive of God’s special revelation are its inseparably connected words (verbal revelation) and deeds, intrinsically bound to each other because neither is complete without the other; the historical realities of redemption are inseparably connected to God’s verbal communication of truth in order that we may, as the late Catholic theologian Francis Martin puts it, “participate more fully in the realities mediated by the words.” Revelation is cognitive and propositional, such that the latter means that revelation presents a proposition as being true to reality, and hence as an enduringly valid truth of divine revelation.
The ecclesiology of Catholicism-in-full affirms that “The Catholic Church exists because of the salvific design of God, which is the interior truth of history and the cosmos. And the Catholic Church exists to proclaim Jesus Christ and his Gospel.” The first principle of Catholic ecclesiology is that the Church that Christ founded subsists in its own right alone in the Catholic Church. Furthermore, this unparalleled identification between Christ’s Church and the Catholic Church does not preclude ecclesial existence in some qualified sense outside the visible boundaries of the Church; that’s because there exists elements of truth and sanctification outside the Church’s visible boundaries (see Lumen Gentium, no. 8).
Still, this recognition does not lead Vatican II to ecclesial relativism where the Catholic Church would be just one church among many. As Weigel states echoing Vatican II’s Decree on Ecumenism, Unitatis Redintegratio, “The next pope must strengthen the quest for Christian unity as a quest for unity-in-truth.” John Paul II rightly adds, “Dialogue is not simply an exchange of ideas. In some way it is always an ‘exchange of gifts’,” indeed a ‘dialogue of love’” (Ut Unum Sint, nos. 27, 47). Moreover, Vatican II rejects religious pluralism in which all religions are true in some sense and equally vehicles of salvation. The Church avoids a religious indifferentism and fosters a “truth-centered interreligious dialogue.”
I encourage all to read carefully George Weigel’s book to gain a balanced perspective of the contours of what the next pope should embrace in order to promote the radically Christocentric and evangelical imperative of the Church.
The Next Pope: The Office of Peter and a Church in Mission
By: George Weigel
Ignatius Press, 2020
Hardcover, 141 pages
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