Editor’s note: The following essay was originally delivered on January 8, 2021, as the Convocation for Spring 2021 Semester at the University of Mary in Bismarck, North Dakota.
There is an old story about the devil calling an emergency staff meeting because the latest statistics showed that too many people were getting into heaven. He called for new strategies. One lieutenant suggested, “We will tell them there is no God,” and another proposed, “We will tell them there is no heaven and no hell.” The devil replied, “They won’t fall for that. It’s simply too obvious that God exists and that there is a final reckoning.”
So, he opened the floor, and the following proposal came forth: “Let’s distract them with concerns about things other than God, and, if they experience a moment of conscience, realizing that their principal obligation is to seek God by seeking eternal truths, acknowledging those truths, and living them, then we’ll tell them, ‘Relax. Don’t worry. There are too many important things right now—other truths, truths of a practical nature, truths concerning worldly well-being. You can always return to God tomorrow. There is no hurry.’” “That’s it,” the devil exclaimed, with an unholy eagerness. “That will work.”
The devil knows the wisdom of King David, “If today you hear His voice, harden not your heart” (Ps 95:7–8). He is the master of distraction. Good things, after all, are not intrinsically evil. They are created by God, and they are good. His ruse is to play on that goodness, and to lead people to love the good things created by God with excess. This, it seems to me, is behind that pervasive distortion of conscience seen in those who consider themselves basically nice people and in a right relationship with God simply because they are “not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers …” (Lk 18:11).
Vatican II may be thought of as a counter staff meeting, of the leaders of Christ’s apostolic Church, for a reinvigorated implementation of the only strategy for getting to heaven, namely, the proclamation of the mystery of Christ.
The Pastoral Nature of Vatican II
The Council should be seen as the Church’s response to the deterioration of Christian conscience. It was an assembly of those whom Christ Himself calls and ordains to succeed His apostles, over which the successor of St. Peter presides, impelled by a pastoral solicitude spurred by the success of the enemy’s strategy. Unlike the challenge faced by previous councils, which addressed heresies and clarified the correct understanding of the Catholic faith, Vatican II’s challenge was to set forth the Church’s faith so that people—especially the faithful—could perceive the faith’s meaning-for-life. Of course, this presupposes the fact that the faith is true and has a claim on the assent of faith because it is revealed by God.
By the time of the Council, Western society and culture had become self-satisfied and self-assured with an increasingly militant secularism. The very concept of God was treated as a superstitious holdover from a more primitive era. God is irrelevant, even hostile, to man’s new fascination with securing his own liberation and a better future. A materialist philosophy reduced his world to the sphere of things that he can manipulate. The denial of man’s transcendence, implicating a rational order the precedes him, completely undercut most important dimension of what it means to be human, namely, the moral dimension. Even as his conquests over the material world advanced, moral confusion and decadence accelerated. If man cannot control himself, what assurance is there that the control he thinks he exercises over the world around him will contribute to his integral well-being?
In a cultural situation like this, the new emphasis had to be on the question of why one should believe in the first place, on how faith in the God of Christian revelation is the only definitive answer to the questions that man confronts about the meaning and purpose of life. The essential message of Vatican II is that man cannot fully know himself, and consequently he cannot direct his life to the fulfillment that he seeks, without reference to God. This is why the Council is often referred to as anthropocentric, that is, on proclaiming the integral truth about the human person, made in the image of God and called to communion with Him. Some have misunderstood this and accused the Council of a wholesale infidelity that uprooted the theocentrism of Christian faith. It is difficult to imagine a more ungrounded allegation.
Well before the Council, some were reading the signs of the times and sounding the alarm. For example, in 1958 Joseph Ratzinger gave a lecture titled, “The New Pagans and the Church.” Too many souls—not only in the world but even among those who are baptized—are “living as if God does not exist.” They may attend Mass and profess their faith on Sundays and say a prayer before meals. They may receive and be present at other sacraments, but when it comes to daily life, their decision-making is based more on the hierarchy of values of the secular culture around them than on what God has revealed and entrusted to His apostolic Church. They do not overtly reject God, Christ, the Church, and faith. Rather, they live in a state of what St. John Paul II and Benedict XVI called a “quiet apostasy.” Theirs is not a principled, thought-through materialism, but a practical materialism (and related practical atheism).
Like the Israelites of old, the Church’s contemporaries of the mid-twentieth century, including her own members, had forgotten God. Their fascination was no longer on the event that gives definitive meaning to all of life, the paschal mystery, but on the prospect of a more secure and comfortable life promised by science, technology, and clever management of the modern political and economic systems. God is not relevant to such a view, to such an understanding of human happiness. There is an increasing eclipse of the moral dimension and with it the loss of the sense of sin, the stultification of conscience, and the relegation of God to a pre-scientific, pre-technological past.
Paul VI summed up the God-centered preoccupation of the Council as the Church’s response to the new age of paganism—Godlessness—in terms of the virtue of religion:
We should like to devote this precious moment to one single thought which bends down our spirits in humility and at the same time raises them up to the summit of our aspirations. And that thought is this: what is the religious value of this council? We refer to it as religious because of its direct relationship with the living God, that relationship which is the raison d’être of the Church, of all that she believes, hopes and loves; of all that she is and does.
To appreciate it properly it is necessary to remember the time in which it was realized: a time which everyone admits is orientated toward the conquest of the kingdom of earth rather than of that of heaven; a time in which forgetfulness of God has become habitual, and seems, quite wrongly, to be prompted by the progress of science; a time in which the fundamental act of the human person, more conscious now of himself and of his liberty, tends to pronounce in favor of his own absolute autonomy, in emancipation from every transcendent law; a time in which secularism seems the legitimate consequence of modern thought and the highest wisdom in the temporal ordering of society; a time, moreover, in which the soul of man has plumbed the depths of irrationality and desolation; a time, finally, which is characterized by upheavals and a hitherto unknown decline even in the great world religions.
It was at such a time as this that our council was held to the honor of God, in the name of Christ and under the impulse of the Spirit: who “searcheth all things,” “making us understand God’s gifts to us” (cf. 1 Cor. 2:10-12), and who is now quickening the Church, giving her a vision at once profound and all-embracing of the life of the world. The theocentric and theological concept of man and the universe, almost in defiance of the charge of anachronism and irrelevance, has been given a new prominence by the council, through claims which the world will at first judge to be foolish, but which, we hope, it will later come to recognize as being truly human, wise and salutary: namely, God is—and more, He is real, He lives, a personal, provident God, infinitely good; and not only good in Himself, but also immeasurably good to us. He will be recognized as Our Creator, our truth, our happiness; so much so that the effort to look on Him, and to center our heart in Him which we call contemplation, is the highest, the most perfect act of the spirit, the act which even today can and must be at the apex of all human activity.
Secular humanism … has, in a certain sense, defied the council. The religion of the God who became man has met the religion (for such it is) of man who makes himself God (Address for the Closing of the Council, December 7, 1965).
Guided by the Holy Spirit, promised by Christ, Vatican II adopted the only strategy that has ever worked, the strategy of God Himself. Like the prophets, Christ Himself, and the apostles, the Council calls men to conversion. For this, they must enter their hearts and consciences, the only “place” where God can be encountered. While the devil contrives to keep people out of their hearts, the Church of Christ reminds them of their dignity as image of God and exhorts them to “discern their destiny beneath the eyes of God, Who probes their hearts and awaits them there” (Gaudium et spes, 14). The human heart or conscience is the battlefield of salvation. The devil detests moments of truth of conscience, while Christ’s Church professes, based on St. Paul in Romans 2:14–16, “In the depths of his conscience, man detects a law … which holds him to obedience.… For man has in his heart a law written by God. To obey that law is the very dignity of man; according to it he will be judged. Conscience is the most secret core and sanctuary of a man. There he is alone with God, whose voice echoes in his depths” (Gaudium et spes, 16).
There is an understandable reason why people readily allow themselves to be seduced by the superficial enjoyments of worldly prosperity. It is the intuitive insight that to meet God in the heart and conscience will surely entail an encounter with sin. But this is precisely why the Council’s teaching on divine revelation, on the Church, on the liturgy, and on the Church’s mission to the world places the paschal mystery of Christ at the center, as does the Creed. The paschal mystery is the ultimate revelation of God’s merciful love. For this reason, it is the definitive answer from heaven to the questions that come forth from the experience of evil and suffering on earth, especially the moral evil of sin and the corresponding suffering of a conscience burdened by unreconciled guilt.
To reinforce this teaching, Vatican II calls on all those who have ears to hear to bear witness to the transforming power of God’s merciful love in word and by the way they live. For, both words and actions have the same root, namely, the human conscience. In the apostolic kerygma, Baptism confers the gift of a conscience purified by the blood of Christ (Heb 9:9, 14; 10:2; 20–22; 1 Pet 3:21). Christ shed His blood to reveal His love and to send the Holy Spirit, the light of consciences. Men and women with consciences purified by the blood of Christ—that is, saints—are the most powerful apologia for Christ and His Church. Nothing is more relevant, more practical, more powerful for shaping history, than the life of those whose freedom has been set free for love. Holy men and women take up the mission of building up Christ’s kingdom, restoring Christian culture, and promoting a civilization and culture of love.
Thus, the Council teaches that “every benefit which the People of God during its earthly pilgrimage can offer to the human family stems from the fact that the Church is ‘the universal sacrament of salvation,’ simultaneously manifesting and exercising the mystery of God’s love” (Gaudium et spes, 45). This continues the mission of Christ, Who “by the revelation of the mystery of the Father and His love, fully reveals man to man himself and makes his supreme calling clear” (Gaudium et spes, 22).
In the end, that is the goal of Vatican II—the restoration of Christian culture, which is the fruit of the actions of men and women guided by consciences purified by the blood—that is, the love—of Christ. It cannot come about as the result of the privileges the Church enjoyed because of her historically unique relation to the secular power that typified the Age of Christendom. It has to come about by conquering consciences with the truth—the truth about God and His love, and the truth about man.
How should we think about Vatican II?
With this background in mind, we can turn to the original question, framed by the organizer of this lecture: How should we think about Vatican II? This question implies two things: first, that there is a right way to think about Vatican II, and, second, that there exists a certain disposition to do so. Regarding the latter, I am reminded of the refrain in the writings of St. Luke: “What should we do?” (Lk 3:10, 12, 14; 10:25; 18:18; Acts 2:37; 16:30; 22:10). And, St. John: “What must we do, to be doing the works of God?” (Jn 6:28) Those who are rightly disposed realize that God’s word, whether proclaimed by John the Baptist, Jesus Himself, or the apostles, calls for a response: What must we do? It is no different for Vatican II.
So, let me give a direct answer: receive the teaching of Vatican II, in faith, as the gift and word of the Holy Spirit to the Church of our age, and live it. That is the response of two saints, St. Paul VI and St. John Paul II. That is what they did. And, they have crossed the finish line. When it comes to getting to heaven, there is no such thing as an excessive pragmatism! Do what the saints did, and what they advise you to do. The first and foundational relation of each Catholic to Vatican II is based on faith, which the Council beautifully described in the words of St. Paul as obedience to God that entails a total self-entrustment to Him by the full submission of our highest faculties, intellect and will, an entrustment that manifests itself both in assent to what God has revealed and in living out what faith holds to be true (Dei Verbum, 5).
Before the Conciliar documents are the object of theological investigation, they have a claim on Catholic faith. For, theology is faith seeking understanding. Understanding is not a condition for coming to faith, but the blossoming of faith.
It is only too painfully obvious that not all Catholics perceive Vatican II in the same way. This is a lamentable aspect of the historical context in which this address on the Council is being delivered. I might add: some very intelligent and devout Catholics disagree. Much could be said about this, but perhaps the most important thing to say is that what other Catholics do or say or hold has no claim on my faith—or your faith—our faith. Only God’s revelation in Christ can make a claim on my faith—and your faith—our faith. And, since that revelation has been entrusted by Christ to His apostolic Church, the teaching of that Church is the norm of my faith—and your faith—our faith.
The unmasked criticisms of Vatican II tend to place the faithful, who have not acquired the theological competence to verify those criticisms for themselves, in the position of having to choose between the personal views of some theologians and the apostolic Church of Christ. This reminds me of St. Paul’s Letter to the Corinthians:
For it has been reported to me by Chloe’s people that there is quarreling among you, my brethren. What I mean is that each one of you says, “I belong to Paul,” or “I belong to Apollos,” or “I belong to Cephas,” or “I belong to Christ.” Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul? I am thankful that I baptized none of you except Crispus and Gaius; lest any one should say that you were baptized in my name. (1 Corinthians 1:11–15)
To apply this to today: None of us was baptized in the name of Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre, Taylor Marshall, Peter Kwasniewski, or Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò. It is no small irony that at a moment when a secular culture places Catholics in a position of having to choose between being thinking, scientific, technology-using—modern—beings, on the one hand, and being a person of faith, on the other hand, some members of the Church are effectively placing Catholics in the position of having to choose between a pre-Vatican II Church and a post-Vatican II Church.
Let me directly address especially my younger brothers and sisters in Christ here in the University of Mary community of faith. Recall the devil’s strategy of distracting people, including the faithful. He is not averse to enlisting the unwitting cooperation of self-proclaimed defenders of the truth, and who are even now placing Catholics in the position of having to choose between defining their fidelity to Christ either as fidelity to the Church of Vatican II or fidelity to a pre-Vatican II Church. To repeat St. Paul’s rhetorical question: “Is Christ divided?” I exhort you: Do not let those who have confused their personal crises of hope in Christ’s promise to be with His Church, with issues of doctrine. Do not let them cause you to rethink your Catholic faith and your relation to Christ’s apostolic Church.
Thinking about Vatican II within the Faith
Does this mean that there is no place for asking questions about the teaching of Vatican II? Certainly not! The Church has always encouraged the intellectus fidei—faith that seeks understanding—and has never exhorted the faithful to believe without asking questions about the foundations and intelligibility and coherence of faith. That, in fact, has been condemned as fideism—another strategy of the Church’s enemy to undermine the credibility of the faith. What she does insist on is that dealing with questions that arise because of faith be done in a certain way—within the faith, not as a pre-condition for faith. So, my appeal to the Catholic community of the University of Mary is simply this: Think about Vatican II within the faith!
For this, your Patroness, the Blessed Virgin Mary, is a sure guide. When, at the Annunciation, she was confronted with the unimagined way in which God decreed to fulfill His promises—in her and through her—she responded with the question, “How shall this be?” This is the paradigm for thinking within the faith.
A most important corollary that follows from this is that for anyone who values his Catholic faith and is serious about living in conformity with all of its implications, it is not permissible to substitute any authority for that of the teaching office of Christ’s apostolic Church—the magisterium. In study and research, it is inevitable that the theologian will encounter difficulties. This is one of the occupational hazards of exercising the gift of theology in service to the Church.
It is, however, salutary to recall two important things. The first is St. John Henry Newman’s insight that a thousand difficulties do not constitute a single doubt. To refer again to Mary’s faith at the Annunciation, the prospect of a virginal birth presents a difficulty, but she never doubted the truth and efficacy of what Gabriel announced. Second, for the sake of the common good of the Church, a theologian or anyone who has encountered a difficulty and finds himself withholding the assent of faith should not teach it or publish it, lest the faith of others be shaken.
My appeal, directed especially to the student members of the Catholic community of the University of Mary, is to bear in mind two things. First, that another’s difficulty is not your difficulty. In order for it to become truly your difficulty, you have to do the research required to see the difficulty for yourself. Second, that to choose to side with someone who thinks he is justified in withholding consent to the teaching of Vatican II is to choose a merely human authority in place of the teaching authority of the apostolic Church, established by Christ and assisted by the Holy Spirit. And that is a grave offense against the virtue of faith.
Final thoughts, on grumbling versus believing
To conclude, let me propose a lectio divina of St. John’s account of two quite different responses to our Lord’s Bread of Life discourse. Today, some respond to the teaching of Vatican II as some among Jesus’ disciples responded to His teaching, “This is a hard saying, who can listen to it?” (Jn 6:60). In the following verse, John tells us that Jesus was aware of their grumbling. They grumbled because they could not see how to reconcile the teaching of Jesus with what they already believed. They placed themselves in the position of having to choose between continuing to follow Jesus, with all the difficulties that this presented to their faith, and leaving Him in the name of fidelity to that very same faith.
This verb, to grumble, is theologically supercharged. It is the word that describes those Hebrews in the desert who lost hope and complained against Moses (Ex 15:24; 16:2, 7, 8; 17:3). They grumbled rather than believed and trusted, and this despite all of the marvelous works of God that they had witnessed (Ps 106:21–25). It is the same verb that describes the Pharisees who cannot read the signs of the times in the mission of Jesus, especially when He associates with sinners (Lk 5:30; 15:2; 19:7)—again, despite all of the signs that Jesus had performed.
Grumbling is opposed to faith; it is a sin against faith. To grumble as the Hebrews and the Pharisees did is to disapprove of the way that God is conducting His affairs. Those who grumbled against Jesus’ Bread of Life teaching “turned back and no longer walked with Him” (Jn 6:66). The translation of the New American Bible elaborates: “As a result of this, many [of] his disciples returned to their former way of life and no longer accompanied him” (Jn 6:66). Presumably, they left Him in the name of being faithful to what they already believed because they thought Jesus’ teaching contradicted it. They did not approve of what God was doing to bring their faith, and the hope rooted in it, to its fulness and fulfillment. Like the Hebrews in desert who wanted to return to what they thought was the preferred security of slavery in Egypt, they retreated into their former way of living because they had become comfortable with it.
Surely, the disciples who were scandalized by Jesus’ Bread of Life teaching had followed Him in the first place because they had begun to believe that He would be the One to fulfill their eschatological hopes, their desire to witness the consolation of Israel. Yet, despite the signs that had led them to Him, His way of fulfilling that hope caused them to grumble because they could not get beyond their own expectations for that fulfillment. Peter experienced the same thing, when Jesus first predicted that His mission would lead Him to be rejected, to suffer and to die. Peter, too, disapproved of God’s way of conducting His affairs, of fulfilling His promises; he grumbled interiorly, and rebuked the Lord.
You perceive the spiritual reading of this text that I am proposing. Vatican II is like a new Bread of Life discourse or a new prediction of the passion. For some it has become the occasion for grumbling. They have believed in the Church and followed Christ in His Church, but now it is apparent that it is a qualified following. The Church must conform to their expectations, to what they think must follow from what comes before. Like Jesus, the “sign that is opposed,” the Council has become the occasion for “the thoughts out of many hearts to be revealed” (Lk 2:34–35).
It is profoundly ironic that some who so ardently desire to see the Church renewed and robust in her mission are unable to see in the Council God’s answer to their desires! But this is how God always answers our prayers, with the surprise of the divine wisdom that we cannot fathom. His answers to the prayers that express our desires are always the occasion for a choice: to grumble and to return to the way life was, or to purify and to deepen our faith and hope. Jesus’ words are ever relevant, and the Second Vatican Council is the occasion for them to echo anew: “Do you also wish to go away?” (Jn 6:67).
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