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The 150th anniversary of Vatican I and the Church today

Has any and all harmony between Vatican I and the central thrust of the reconvened Second Vatican Council now been extravagantly jettisoned?

Rendering of the opening of the First Vatican Council. (PINOT & SAGAIRE | Wikipedia)

The First Vatican Council conducted its last session on September 1, 1870, and was “suspended”—not adjourned—in October:

[We] do suspend the same [the council] until some more convenient and appropriate time, to be assigned by this Apostolic See praying God, the author and defender of His Church, when all impediments shall have been finally removed, to restore his faithful bride, as soon as possible, liberty and piece. (Bull of October 20, 1870).

Now, 150 years later, we can consider the same universal Church against the backdrop of two world wars, the rise and fall of the Soviet Union, the festering “binding synodal path” in Germania, the cults of Pachamama and the Chinese communist party in Amazonia and China, and at Abu Dhabi even a genuflection to a “pluralism” of religions.

For his part, Pope Pius IX hunkered down and declined to be placed on the payroll of the fledgling and secular nation-state of tiny Italy.

Of the Barque of Peter, “if the salt shall lose its savour, wherewith shall it be seasoned” (Lk 14:34)? Rather than the papacy as the isolated Prisoner of the Vatican in parochial Italy (1870-1929), is it the case today that parts of the Vatican are coupling with a much more expansive and post-Christian Globalism?

Back in 1870, Vatican I self-immunized against rapidly pandemic ideologies by affirming, clarifying, and circumscribing—neither modernist nor ultramontane—the dogma and reality of “papal infallibility,” as part of the living Tradition dating forward from St. Peter under the indwelling presence of the Holy Spirit (Mt 16:17) and Pentecost (Acts 2:1-31). Three years before the Council, in 1867, St. John Henry Cardinal Newman already had written in his Apologia Pro Vita Sua that the purpose “is not to enfeeble the freedom or vigour of human thought in religious speculation, but to resist and control its extravagance.”

But has any and all harmony between Vatican I and the central thrust of the reconvened Second Vatican Council (1962-65) now been extravagantly jettisoned? Instead of a Prisoner of the Vatican, is there engagement with the modern world (aggiornamento) rooted in going deeper into sources (ressourcement)? Do we now risk the extravagance of “accompaniment” mutating into accommodation, as in the paradigm-shifty “hermeneutics of discontinuity?” And, instead, do we also risk scuttling the follow-up Second Vatican Council by simply giving too much credit to, yes, rhetorical wedges planted here and there by now-dead termites of the 1960s?

As for the termite infestation in the decades following the Second Vatican Council, they hang their case on a misquoted and pivotal message from Newman—the “Father of Vatican II.” Their enthusiasm for an ideology of unhinged “change” is an abuse of Newman’s actual message of steadfastness found in his Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine. Instead, and quoted in full:

[…] old principles reappear under new form. It [a philosophy] changes with them [circumstances] in order to remain the same. In a higher world it is otherwise, but here below to live is to change, and to be perfect is to have changed often. (emphasis added)

What, then, are some reliable compass points for navigating the perennial Barque of Peter in today’s lower world of epochal and uncertain change? Three modest suggestions: (1) the essential, rather than an amorphous “polygon” Church, (2) the duality (not dualism) of a collegial “ellipse,” and (3) even before any grounding in revelation, or any kind of theology: moral virtue.

First: what is essential? When interviewer Peter Seewald asked Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, in 2002’s God and the World, what the Church needs in the future, the future Benedict XVI replied: “… essentializing—one of Guardini’s words—is in my opinion what is fundamental. This is not so much a matter of making imaginative constructions of something in advance, which will then turn out to be quite different and not something we could have constructed artificially, as of turning our lives toward what is essential, which can then be embodied and represented anew.”

And, he added:

In this sense, a kind of simplification is important, so that what is truly lasting and fundamental in our teaching, in our faith, can emerge. So that the basic constant factors, the questions about God, about salvation, about hope, about life, about what is fundamental in ethics, can be made visible in their basic elements and by available for the construction of new systems.

Second, what of the ecclesial “ellipse”? Of Vatican II, Emeritus Pope Benedict XVI rescues the “real council” from the counterfeit and widely-marketed “virtual council”. Instead of the geometry of a “polygon” Church, he depicts ecclesiology as an “ellipse”—a duality of two focal points, the primacy of the papacy as successor to Peter and the episcopacy as successor(s) to the other apostles (see God’s Word: Scripture, Tradition and Office, Ignatius 2008). Reduced to neither a political monarchy nor to an unraveled parliament of democratic national assemblies or succession of synods.

Instead, a “hierarchical communion” as articulated by Vatican I and II (see Lumen Gentium, Chapter 3, with the clarifying Prefatory Note) taken together. The Petrine teaching office either by itself or with the bishops, but not the papacy versus the bishops.

Third, what of the moral virtues? Even before affirming revelation, might we appeal to the built-in, universal Natural Law?

This rather than abdication to “anthropological cultural change.” Instead, at least this: Temperance as the avoidance of imagination’s “extravagances;” Justice as involving the real encounter with One who is other than ourselves; Courage as the willing freedom toward the truth and not falsely from restraint; and Fortitude as steadfastness rather than courting the ambulatory “right side of history.”

The moral virtues protect against possible exploitation and mutation Pope Francis’ four protean principles in Evangelii Gaudium (2013): “Time is greater than space” otherwise at risk of flattening into Historicism? “Unity prevails over conflict” otherwise risking a clerical chaplaincy for one-world Globalism”? “Realities are more important than ideas” otherwise risking synodal Nominalism? And “the whole is greater than the part” otherwise sacrificing intrinsic morality to the mere “calculus of consequences” (proportionalism and consequentialism, as addressed by St. Pope John Paul II in Veritatis Splendor)?

In 2013 Pope Francis stated:

I see the Church as a field hospital after battle. It is useless to ask a seriously injured person if he has high cholesterol and about the level of his blood sugar. You have to heal his wounds. Then we can talk about everything else. Heal the wounds, heal the wounds…

But, now well into the 21st century, are we not only “after the battle,” but also very much still in and before the battle? And, are the “wounds” due in large part to our failure to talk and teach both compassionately and clearly about “everything else”? What, then, is the medicine for both healing and reinvigorating a tired and globalizing world? Where, in the field hospital, are to be found the truly radical physician and disciples for “Jesus Christ, the same yesterday, today and forever” (Heb 13:8)?

A century ago, marveling of the Gospel’s apostolic witnesses—who were not yet derailed by secularism (or muffled by national conferences of bishops)—G.K. Chesterton could still write, in The Everlasting Man:

Those runners gather impetus as they run. Ages afterwards they still speak as if something had just happened. They have not lost the speed and momentum of messengers; they have hardly lost, as it were, the wild eyes of witnesses [….] We might sometimes fancy that the Church grows younger as the world grows old.


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About Peter D. Beaulieu 11 Articles
Peter D. Beaulieu earned an interdisciplinary doctorate in urban and regional planning from the University of Washington (1975), is a member of the Society of Catholic Social Scientists and author of Beyond Secularism and Jihad? A Triangular Inquiry into the Mosque, the Manger & Modernity (University Press of America, 2012) and A Generation Abandoned: Why 'Whatever' Is Not Enough (Hamilton Books, 2017).

3 Comments

  1. Mr. Beaulieu,
    Your article reminded me of Bishop Olmsted’s inspiring Apostolic Exhortation to men, “Into the Breach”. There, he also speaks of termites boring into and eating away what is left of the Christian ethos in society.

    He also speaks of the Church as a field hospital after battle. Olmsted, though, says this imagery is incomplete. She is also a war college.

  2. ´…has any and all harmony between Vatican I and the central thrust of the reconvened Second Vatican Council now been extravagantly jettisoned?…´

    No.

    To take one example, ´…cum Petro et sub Petro…´ still holds, as illustrated, for instance from the reference to it in:

    1) https://en.romana.org/56/editorial/omnes-cum-petro/

    2) http://www.30giorni.it/articoli_id_8923_l3.htm

    3) https://w2.vatican.va/content/francesco/en/speeches/2014/october/documents/papa-francesco_20141006_padri-sinodali.html

    4) https://w2.vatican.va/content/francesco/en/speeches/2014/october/documents/papa-francesco_20141018_conclusione-sinodo-dei-vescovi.html

    ´…Instead of a Prisoner of the Vatican, is there engagement with the modern world (aggiornamento) rooted in going deeper into sources (ressourcement)?…´

    Once a thief, always a thief? Once a prisoner of the Vatican, always to remain so? Aggiornamento and ressourcement need not always be looked upon with suspicion.

    ´…Do we now risk the extravagance of “accompaniment” mutating into accommodation…´

    Risk is the operative word. Any move that is not inherently bad is always fraught with risk – examples: overdoing / doing the right thing but at the wrong time / doing the right thing with improper motives / starting off on the right note but then losing the way, etc.

    Also, re ´mutating into accommodation´ see Amoris Laetitia # 300 – https://w2.vatican.va/content/dam/francesco/pdf/apost_exhortations/documents/papa-francesco_esortazione-ap_20160319_amoris-laetitia_en.pdf – noting in particular the words: ´…These attitudes are essential for avoiding the grave danger of misunderstandings, *such as the notion that any priest can quickly grant “exceptions”*…´

    There is nothing wrong with “accompaniment” per se. One just needs to stick to the One who is the Way, who accompanies us in being Emmanuel, and there won´t be a ´mutation into accommodation´.

    ´…do we also risk scuttling the follow-up Second Vatican Council…?´

    Again, risk is the operative word. One can affirm and adhere to the essential teaching of both V-I and V-II without scuttling either. Of course, one can also go to extremes and risk getting off the rails. (Cases in point are the magisterium of the SSPX and the super magisterium of the folks at https://novusordowatch.org/ )

    Some people may have ´enthusiasm for an ideology of unhinged “change”´ – but that does not mean change per se is always unhinged.

    The three compass points are stated to be ´reliable´. But quo warranto?

    Citing Ratzinger does not count as support for the ´reliable´ certification. Why read or imply that the ´essential´ is necessarily exclusive of a “polygon” perspective? Why imply that the bit about ¨making imaginative constructions of something in advance¨ is referring to an understanding of the Church as a “polygon”? Why imply that the ´simplification´ Ratzinger refers to precludes the ¨polygon¨?

    ´…what is truly lasting and fundamental in our teaching, in our faith…the basic constant factors, the questions about God, about salvation, about hope, about life, about what is fundamental in ethics, can be made visible in their basic elements…´
    >> all of these can be done from the ¨polygon¨ perspective too, with the insights from the People of God contributing a richer understanding (CCC 91 to 95 – https://www.vatican.va/archive/ccc_css/archive/catechism/p1s1c2a2.htm ) through the locus of authority of individual Successors to the Apostles cum Petro et sub Petro. [And no, that latter part does not equate to ¨an unraveled parliament of democratic national assemblies¨.]

    Yes, the ´real council´ should be differentiated from the ´virtual council´ – but the ´virtual council´ should not be implied as some sort of precursor to, or alter ego of the polygon perspective of the Church.

    ´…Instead of the geometry of a “polygon” Church, he depicts ecclesiology as an “ellipse”…´

    Again, why is the former being set against the latter? A depiction need not always capture all the different legitimate perceptions. Think of the kaleidoscope as a loose analogy – when looking through it, one sees an image. On turning the kaleidoscope, the focus shifts and a different image is seen.

    With that in mind, – why can´t there be a harmonious reading whereby it is fine to speak of ´a duality of two focal points´ as well as – when ´the kaleidoscope of perception / focus is turned´ – ´the geometry of a “polygon” Church´?
    In the former, there is a focus on the Pope who exercises full and immediate authority over the whole Church and a Bishop whose jurisdiction is over his diocese. In the latter, there is a focus on the whole body of bishops who also jointly exercise authority as successors to the Apostles. (Think of the lot falling on Matthias to replace Judas > that came about not by fiat of Peter alone or the fiat of an individual Apostle but of the whole body of Apostles.)

    ´The Petrine teaching office either by itself or with the bishops, but not the papacy versus the bishops….´
    Why imply that the polygon perspective is a case of the papacy versus the bishops?

    ´…even before any grounding in revelation, or any kind of theology: moral virtue…Even before affirming revelation, might we appeal to the built-in, universal Natural Law?…´

    Perhaps / depends. Without the Creator, the creature would disappear. If (some, if not all of) the robbed / wounded have reached such a state of delusion that they presume to cobble up new laws and rights, (example: https://www.catholicnewsagency.com/news/vatican-official-says-un-gay-rights-agenda-endangers-churchs-freedom ), what value are they going to give to the universal Natural Law?

    As then Cardinal Ratzinger said (https://www.vatican.va/gpII/documents/homily-pro-eligendo-pontifice_20050418_en.html ): the ´dictatorship of relativism…does not recognize anything as definitive and (its) ultimate goal consists solely of one’s own ego and desires…´

    Inflated egos chasing disordered desires would probably not give two hoots for the universal Natural Law. No harm in trying, though. Perhaps it can take a while for the prodigal child to ¨come to his / her senses¨ and actually appreciate things such as the universal Natural Law.

    And then there is https://www.vatican.va/content/francesco/en/speeches/2013/september/documents/papa-francesco_20130921_intervista-spadaro.html where we read:

    ¨…We cannot insist ONLY on issues related to abortion, gay marriage and the use of contraceptive methods. This is not possible. I have not spoken much about these things, and I was reprimanded for that. But when we speak about these issues, we have to talk about them in a context. The teaching of the church, for that matter, is clear and I am a son of the church, but it is not necessary to talk about these issues all the time.

    The dogmatic and moral teachings of the church are not all equivalent. The church’s pastoral ministry cannot be obsessed with the transmission of a disjointed multitude of doctrines to be imposed insistently. *Proclamation in a missionary style focuses on the essentials, on the necessary things*: this is also what fascinates and attracts more, what makes the heart burn, as it did for the disciples at Emmaus. We have to find a new balance; otherwise even the moral edifice of the church is likely to fall like a house of cards, losing the freshness and fragrance of the Gospel. *The proposal of the Gospel must be more simple, profound, radiant. IT IS FROM THIS PROPOSITION THAT THE MORAL CONSEQUENCES THEN FLOW*…
    …I see clearly…that the thing the church needs most today is the ability to heal wounds and to warm the hearts of the faithful; it needs nearness, proximity. I see the church as a field hospital after battle. It is useless to ask a seriously injured person if he has high cholesterol and about the level of his blood sugars! You have to heal his wounds. Then we can talk about everything else. Heal the wounds, heal the wounds…. And you have to start from the ground up…*THE MOST IMPORTANT THING IS THE FIRST PROCLAMATION: JESUS CHRIST HAS SAVED YOU!…¨

    So, first preach moral virtue and then Revelation? The Pope would disagree.

    Not sure where he teaches that there should be an ¨abdication¨ to anthropological cultural change. Source for that claim?

    Re the 4 principles in Evangelii Gaudium – just to be clear – there is nothing wrong with them per se. It is only when someone has his head screwed wrongly / doesn´t think with the Church that all sorts of risks and train wrecks can result.

    Re before / in / after (the) battle >> all are true in their own ways. If the prodigal son has ¨come to his senses¨ > thereby acknowledging how much better is the house of the Father / the Church, >> then in a sense, it is already ¨after¨ battle. (The war of course remains to be finished.)

    ´…are the “wounds” due in large part to our failure to talk and teach both compassionately and clearly about “everything else”?…´

    Perhaps. There is failure all around. We can have that inquisition later, and then apportion blame and penance thereafter. But first, – heal the wounds. The Good Samaritan mingled with the tax collectors and the prostitutes to primarily heal, bind up the wounds…
    ¨…neither do I condemn you…¨ first.
    i.e., restore / re-integrate.
    then
    ¨…go and sin no more…¨

    ¨Where, in the field hospital, are to be found the truly radical… disciples for Jesus Christ…?¨

    As Pope St. Paul VI said in #41 and 42 of Evangelii Nuntiandi (https://www.vatican.va/content/paul-vi/en/apost_exhortations/documents/hf_p-vi_exh_19751208_evangelii-nuntiandi.html ) : ´…for the Church, the first means of evangelization is *the witness of an authentically Christian life*, given over to God in a communion that nothing should destroy and at the same time given to one’s neighbor with limitless zeal…*Modern man listens more willingly to witnesses than to teachers, and if he does listen to teachers, it is because they are witnesses.”*…St. Peter expressed this well when he held up the example of a reverent and chaste life that wins over even without a word those who refuse to obey the word. It is therefore *primarily by her conduct and by her life* that the Church will evangelize the world, in other words, by her living witness of fidelity to the Lord Jesus- the witness of poverty and detachment, of freedom in the face of the powers of this world, in short, *the witness of sanctity*.

    (Also)…the importance and necessity of preaching…´

    All of us have received the marching orders long ago. It is up to each one of us to decide whether we want to go to the Banquet by being a true neighbor to the wounded.

    Thus, let us preach moral virtue by first striving to live it heroically. We are the only Bible that many would ever read, as the saying goes.
    Lk. 12: 48, after all.

  3. I used to think there was a difference between kaleidoscope verbosity and verbose diarrhea, but now I’m not so sure. For example, it is precisely because not all change is unhinged that one specifies “unhinged change.” Etc. etc. etc. etc. and etc.

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