Editor’s note: Prof. Bushman’s article for CWR, “How to Think about Vatican II” (February 26, 2021), was the catalyst for a significant number of spirited comments. During an exchange, Prof. Bushman suggested that perhaps it would serve the readers of CWR to address at least some of those comments.
CWR: Were you surprised by the number, content, and tone of the comments to your article?
Bushman: I had the opportunity to read through them. The ratio of negative to positive comments seems to be about ten to one. That is not a total surprise. Neither is it surprising that there was nothing new in the complaints about the Council. Many blame Vatican II for the crisis that afflicts the institutional Church in North America (and Western Europe). A good number also claim that the Council contradicted prior, established papal teaching.
Writing about the Council as I did clearly hit a nerve. While I wish that the Church were fully united around the Council, I prefer a spirited exchange of views to indifference.
CWR: You indicated that the origin of the article was an address you gave at the University of Mary. What was your original intention for that address?
Bushman: I have been painfully aware of the attacks on Vatican II, and I assumed that the students at the University of Mary, like students at most Catholic colleges and universities, are either reading and studying the Council, or at least being exposed to the views of their professors, other students, authors and bloggers about the Council. With my time limited to only 45 minutes, I realized that I could not get into any of the particular, controverted teachings of Vatican II, which some claim contradict prior papal teaching. (“Heresy” and “heretical” came up several times in the comments on my article.)
So, rather than to focus on the teachings of Vatican II (fides quae) I decided to focus on the disposition of faith of the faithful (fides qua). My modest hope was that my audience of undergraduates would realize that dissent from Vatican II, or withholding assent to the Council, or labeling it heretical, is a choice between one kind of authority, which is merely human, and another kind of authority, which is divine. For undergraduates 18–22 years old, this most likely entails choosing between their parents and the apostolic Church (Vatican II). Ultimately, this is a choice between a hermeneutic of continuity and a hermeneutic of rupture. I take the hermeneutic of continuity as a postulate of faith, rooted in Christ’s promise to be with the Church He founded on the apostles and the guidance of the Holy Spirit that continues to accompany the Church through the apostles’ successors.
Thus, just as assent to an article of faith is first of all assent to the God who reveals, so adherence to the teaching of Vatican II presupposes a conviction about its authority. St. Thomas Aquinas puts it this way: “Whoever believes assents to someone’s words; so that, in every form of belief, the person to whose words assent is given seems to hold the chief place and to be the end as it were.”
As I understand it, those who accuse the Council of contradicting the established tradition do so precisely because they are committed to the hermeneutic of continuity as a postulate of faith in God and what He has revealed about the apostolic Church. So, the main issue regarding which the Church’s members are being forced to understand more clearly is ecclesiological in nature. It concerns the unicity of the Church and her enduring identity, based on her faith, throughout the ages, and thus it concerns the proper understanding of the hermeneutic of continuity as a postulate of faith. (By the way, the opposing characterizations of the period prior to the Council confirm the fact that on one level or another people are aware that the hermeneutic of continuity is in play.)
Basically, I wanted to appeal to my audience to roll up their sleeves and to do their homework, to check out the opposing positions, to work through the arguments, but to do so with a clear understanding of that fides qua precedes fides quae. In this way, I wanted to remind them about what should be happening at a fine school like the University of Mary. For, the goal of education is to equip maturing men and women with the intellectual and moral habits that make it possible to engage in a critical examination of what heretofore they have held simply, or mainly, because it was passed on to them by their culture. I am as opposed to an uncritical rejection of a received tradition as to an uncritical acceptance of a received tradition, whether that tradition be natural or supernatural. Neither is worthy of the dignity of their faith and personal responsibility for it. Regarding our Catholic faith, at some point everyone needs fully to appropriate the faith in order to say “I believe.” My calculation: the will to investigate is likely to begin only with the realization that there is another way of looking at things, in this case, Vatican II, that reasonable people actually do look at things that way, and that, in the end, one’s relationship of faith with Jesus Christ is at stake. My hope is that the faculty at the University of Mary are willing to work with whatever momentum might have been generated by my talk, and to make time to accompany (as we say these days) those who might have been stirred.
Bottom line: thinking about the teachings of Vatican II needs to happen within the faith, and thus with the docility of faith and with the presupposition or postulate of the hermeneutic of continuity. That was one of my main points. And, I am confident that if students, or anyone wanting to know the truth about Vatican II, reads the documents with the docility of faith and investigates conflicting versions for explaining the texts that present difficulties, they will see that the case for the hermeneutic of continuity outweighs the case for any essential rupture.
CWR: This confidence that you express seems to confront the harsh reality that the divide seems to be widening and that, in reality, more and more people seem persuaded by the “we are in a mess because of Vatican II” perspective.
Bushman: I said I was confident, but I did not say it is easy to win people over to the hermeneutic of continuity. Intellectual conversions are all too rare, and many people are already deeply invested in the position that Vatican II is to blame for the current crisis.
In my experience, the typical attack is based on taking an assertion from a pope prior to the Council, lifting it out of its context, and placing it alongside a passage of Vatican II, in order to show that the latter contradicts the former. This is done without placing either in historical context. This is precisely where I find dialogue so difficult to foster. For, those who vehemently, and rightly, condemn the historicism that characterizes Modernism are distrustful of any attempt to interpret things by taking historical context into account. Isn’t that precisely the historical relativism, which ends up being a relativism of faith, that the Church condemned with Modernism? So, distrust of any hermeneutical procedure that entails historical consciousness virtually excludes the very possibility of dialogue.
But historical and cultural context are simply necessary. For example, if people take as pertaining to the very definition of ecumenism that all parties in dialogue must set aside any claim to being the one, true Church of Christ, if the condition for ecumenical dialogue is to renounce the Catholic Church’s claim to be this one, true Church of Christ, then by definition Catholics cannot be ecumenical, that is, they cannot participate in the ecumenical movement. If, on the other hand, ecumenism is defined as an exchange ordered to better mutual understanding (without giving up anything essential to one’s identity), then Catholics can be involved in the ecumenical movement. If one is to be truly faithful to Christ and His Church, then it is incumbent on the faithful to understand the proper definition of His Church and ecumenism. This is precisely what Vatican II did in its Decree on Ecumenism.
CWR: A consistent theme in the comments on your article is that Vatican II is responsible for the crisis of faith in the Church today, manifested especially in shabby liturgy and heterodox catechesis, but also in an apparently ever-expanding secularism and lost of Catholic identity. What do you have to say in response to that?
Bushman: First, I would say: I see what you see. I have attended Masses (obviously, without anticipating what I am about to relate) in which Christ’s words of institution were said over crumbling ginger bread and in which non-ordained preached during the time reserved for the homily. Only one time do I recall leaving the church during the Anaphora, because the celebrant had so innovated, substituting his own words for those prescribed in the Missal, that I made the judgment that the combination of words invalidated the sacrament. I could tell you stories from eye-witnesses of things that have transpired in major seminaries, but I do not want to place the editor of Catholic World Report in the position of having to censor them because they are X-rated. Do we even need to mention the clergy sexual abuse scandal, including efforts to cover it up?
So, I see what you see regarding the scandals in the Church and the steep and seemingly accelerating capitulation to the secular culture. But, Vatican II sanctioned none of these things. Nor can they be blamed on purported ambiguities in the Council’s texts. They are, pure and simple, acts of infidelity. Regarding what can be considered secondary matters, some may be non-culpable. Deacons and priests entrust their formation to their bishop, and for way too long bishops failed to exercise proper oversight of seminaries and programs of formation for deacons, and for that matter, catechists and lay leadership. Many times I have seen the look of surprise and horror on the faces of those who were mal-formed, at the moment that I enlightened them about what they should have learned. And, the sign of their good will is that they immediately submit to the truth. I wish that were always the case.
And this is related to several comments about the spirit of Vatican II. Great damage was done by theologians and clergy who attempted to justify their infidelity by appealing to “a spirit” of the Council. But any spirit that is disincarnate from the actual texts of Vatican II, and from the doctrine of the Catholic tradition, cannot be taken as its authentic spirit. Of course, this ungrounded appeal to the Council could only cause people who take their faith seriously to view the Council with suspicion.
CWR: One of the positions taken against Vatican II claims that it is a counterfeit council, that the real council of Pope John XXIII is contained in the seventy preparatory schemas that, proponents of this view say, were rejected so that theologians and bishops steeped in Modernism could draft their own documents. Can you shed any light on this?
Bushman: I assume that the foundation for this view is based on the historical record that the period of preparation for the Council produced 70 draft documents, which brought together teachings of the popes of the 100 years or so preceding the Council, from Leo XIII to Pius XII. Yes, some thought that the bishops would come to Rome and certify the schemas as the Church’s faith by their vote, and then return home after just a few weeks. On this view, the 70 schemas are the real council, the council of Pope John XXIII, and the actual sixteen documents of Vatican II are a counterfeit council.
Several things should be considered regarding this claim. First, it is indicative of a lack of knowledge and experience of ecclesial matters to imagine that a Pope would call together bishops from around the world, away from their normal and time-consuming duties, simply to ratify 70 draft documents, the content of which the Pope could promulgate himself. But, of course, he did not.
Second, the hypothesis of a rapid ratification of the prepared schema was simply unrealistic, given the history of the two preceding councils, Vatican I and Trent, characterized by vigorous and protracted debates.
Third, Pope John could have halted the Council at any moment, or given it authoritative direction when it became clear that the preparatory schemas were going to be set aside. But he did not. In fact, the historical evidence points in precisely the opposite direction: Pope John approved of and even aided the effort of the majority of bishops to produce new documents (which, by the way, retained a great deal from the draft schemas). Finally, the draft texts have no authority of their own. They only have the authority of the texts on which they are based and which they incorporate: Scripture, Church Fathers, prior councils, and the papal magisterium. So, there is no ground at all for claiming that these 70 draft schemas are anything more than a compilation by theologians, working under papal mandate to prepare for the Council.
The narrative that drives a wedge between John XXIII and the final texts of Vatican II is unable to account for the real facts. What those who push this narrative omit is that because Pope John believed that the Holy Spirit would guide the bishops’ deliberations, he did not micromanage the Council in advance. In fact, he resisted suggestions that he needed to be more specific about his intentions and vision for the Council, trusting that the Holy Spirit would guide the deliberations of the Church’s pastors. He really believed in the collegiality of bishops—and lived it! Also (conveniently) omitted are a number of events that clearly indicate that Pope John had serious misgivings about the preparatory schemas. These misgivings did not concern their orthodoxy, but rather their failure to present the Church’s faith in a way that corresponded to his understanding of the needs of the time. First, November 20, 1961, Cardinal Frings gave a speech in Genoa, on the historical context of the upcoming council and its implications for the council. This speech was authored by a priest-theologian named Joseph Ratzinger. The challenge that Vatican II had to address is the virtual substitution of various ideologies, like existentialism, secularism, and Marxism, for religion. Two noteworthy passages are:
In the errors of our time, certain values that attract men can be seen, and the Church’s task is to shine a new light on and to give their rightful place to the values that people think they can no longer find in her.
As a council of renewal, its task is not so much to formulate doctrines [which had already been clarified] as to foster the witness of Christian life in the contemporary world in a new and deeper way, in order to show in all truth that Christ is not only the “Christ of yesterday,” but the Christ who “is the same yesterday and today and forever” (Heb 13:8).
When Pope John read text of the speech in February, 1962, he invited Cardinal Frings to a private audience to thank him and to convey that Cardinal Frings’ assessment of the situation of the world and of the corresponding tasks of the Council corresponded to his own. (Remarkably, this assessment is strikingly similar to the submission to the Ante-Preparatory Commission by a young auxiliary bishop from Poland, named Karol Wojtyła. Providentially, both Ratzinger and Wojtyła would play major roles in shaping the final texts of Vatican II and in implementing them. I see this as Providence, not a Modernist conspiracy.)
Second, sometime in the winter of 1962, thus seven months prior to the Council, after reviewing the 70 draft texts, Pope John expressed disappointment that they did not consider the real problems of the world at the time. As he would say in his address for the opening of the Council, the need was not for further clarification of doctrine—because for anyone who sincerely wanted to know what the Church teaches the record was clear—but for demonstrating that Christian revelation is the answer to all for which the Church’s contemporaries are searching. In reality, he was looking for a new apologetics, an apologetics of meaning, which answered the question, “Why believe?” instead of the question, “What to believe?” He was convinced that this latter question had been sufficiently clarified. By the way, it is important to realize that in this apologetics of meaning, “Why believe?” presupposes the content or doctrine of faith, the “What to believe?”
In other words, the Pope John envisioned a Council that would set forth the truth of Catholic faith in such a way that people are more likely to perceive it corresponds to their deepest human aspirations and their confrontation with evil and suffering, both within themselves and in the world. Thus, the pastoral, apologetic approach envisioned by Pope John is not antithetical to a doctrinal approach. To be pastoral is to go beyond clarifying what should be believed and how it should be understood in order to demonstrate how believing it will enrich your life. To come to faith is to fulfill the fundamental dynamism of loving oneself, of seeking the definitive meaning of life in the truth.
Third, in March, 1962 Pope John reached out to one of the “modernist villains” of the false narrative that the Council was hijacked, namely Cardinal Suenens. Realizing that 70 draft schemas covering a very diverse number of subjects was simply unmanageable, he asked Cardinal Suenens to review them and to put some order into them. Pope John so valued Cardinal Suenens’ proposal that he asked him to share his proposal with several other cardinals (including Cardinal Montini, the future Paul VI). During the Council’s first session (fall 1962) these cardinals intervened to propose the essentials of this vision for the Council, previously acknowledged by John XXIII.
Fourth, at a pivotal moment during the first session, Pope John intervened to bring the discussion of the schema on divine revelation to a close by remanding it to a joint commission for revision. During a private meeting at that time, he confided to Cardinal Leger that the decision to rework the draft schema on divine revelation corresponded to his own views about it.
Knowledge of these events, combined with Pope John’s emphasis on responding to the grave cultural and religious crisis of the time in his radio message one month before the Council, and his call for a pastoral presentation of the Church’s faith in his address for the opening of the Council, makes it untenable to claim that “his council,” allegedly embodied in the 70 schemas, was hijacked and replaced by a counterfeit council. It is more accurate to say that the historical record shows that, both during the months leading up to the Council and during the first session, he supported and encouraged the desire of the majority of bishops to go in the direction they did. And they persistently, faithfully, and obediently kept referring back to his statements, taking them as guides for the work of the whole council. Pope John played a pivotal role, then, in guiding the council away from the expression of the Church’s faith in the 70 preparatory schemas and toward what would eventually emerge as the 16 documents of Vatican II.
CWR: Do you have any final thoughts?
Bushman: Yes! Many! But for now, let me end by recounting what for me has been a profoundly edifying and recurring experience. I am thinking of times when I have been engaged in dialogue with knowledgeable and devout non-Catholics, particularly those for whom the figures of the Protestant Reformation have shaped their faith. When the issue of the veneration of saints, especially the veneration of the Blessed Virgin Mary, comes up, they often accuse the Catholic Church of robbing God of His due glory by deflecting attention away from Him and placing it on the saints. I try to explain to them that the only realistic way to give God glory is to point out what He has accomplished, and His greatest accomplishment is the justification of sinners. If the heavens proclaim the glory of God, then how much more do the lives of holy men and women, who have been transformed, re-created by His grace? In addition, if we just read the accounts of the saints and read what they have written, it is clear that they are profoundly humble and exalt God above all for His mercy and grace. St. Paul puts it this way: “by the grace of God I am what I am” (1 Cor 15:10). In venerating the saints, the Church joins them in praising God for His mercy and grace, and she instructs the faithful about the true meaning of faith and humility.
I relate this because I think that the scandal experienced by my non-Catholic brothers and sisters in Christ over the veneration of saints is unfortunate and unnecessary because it is based on a faulty understanding of veneration. Vatican II clarified it, not only or even primarily for non-Catholics, but for her own faithful. So, while I think that these brothers and sisters in Christ are misinformed, nevertheless I greatly admire their zeal for God’s glory. If only all Catholics were so zealous for God’s glory! Thus, in the language of Vatican II, I am aware of a profound communion with these non-Catholic brothers and sisters, precisely on this point of zeal for God’s glory (and there are many others). It is not a full and perfect communion, but even in its being partial it is real and profound and edifying.
You perceive how this applies to how I read the comments on my article by my Catholic brothers and sisters in Christ, who are scandalized by what they think Vatican II taught and directed. They are especially scandalized by the appalling inadequacies in catechesis, liturgy, and Christian life in the years following the Council. I see and have experienced the same things, but I do not see that the Council is the cause. I do not deny that many experiments in catechesis and liturgy claimed “the spirit” of Vatican II as their justification, and it is quite clear that we are witnessing the devastating effects of defective moral theology and moral catechesis. But these happened despite the Council and the guidance of the post-Conciliar magisterium, not because of them. In the early Church, some attempted to justify the rejection of the Old Testament by appealing to the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of the Gospels. The Church condemned that heresy.
So, for full disclosure, for me the love and zeal for the Church of Christ in those with whom I disagree about Vatican II is deeply edifying. I think that I understand their disillusionment, for I have witnessed the same scandals that they have. But, I have also witnessed priests and bishops who have studied and implemented the Council, and the fruits of vocations to consecrated life, the diaconate, and the priesthood, a prayerful and engaged laity, holy families, and powerfully reverential liturgies in the Novus Ordo, and any number of prolife initiatives, as well as others, that strive to restore Christian values in our culture.
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