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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