Pope Francis’ recent apostolic letter on the use of the traditional Latin Mass, Traditionis Custodis, presumably written in the spirit of unity, has produced a firestorm of reactions—some positive, some negative, others seeking a middle way. The confusion it has spawned, I suggest, is related to the manner in which the documents of Vatican II were written and how they were received by so many.
For example, Gaudium et spes is the longest document in the history of the Church’s ecumenical councils, with over 33,300 words (not counting footnotes). Joseph Ratzinger criticized the verbosity of the Pastoral Constitution after its publication. Since then, much has been written about the “spirit” of Vatican II, but might meaning be obscured when focus is on the revolutionary “spirit” of the age in which the document was written?
The opening of Gaudium et spes generates an ambiguity that dogs the writing throughout, “The joys and the hopes, the griefs and the anxieties of the men of this age, especially those who are poor or in any way afflicted, these are the joys and hopes, the griefs and anxieties of the followers of Christ.” As Bishop Robert Barron observed, “Who positions whom here? In a word, is ‘the world’ setting the agenda for the Church, or vice versa?’” These moments of ambiguity invite diverse interpretations into the document as a whole and, instead of promoting unity, have served to engender division.
To be clear, I am not suggesting that the intent of Vatican II was to sow the seeds of discontent—just the opposite. But in an attempt to communicate faith in God to a modern world bent on self-destruction, Vatican II endeavored to rise above the political and philosophical foment responsible for two World Wars and the many other horrors of the twentieth century. The true spirit of the Council was well-intentioned, it was the spirit of peace and love. However, translating that spirit into words proved to be a daunting challenge.
Dialogue with the world
This approach to communicating with the world opened a fissure from which, according to Pope Paul VI, “the smoke of Satan has entered the temple of God.” The smoke is the ambiguity inherent in language, which has been exploited by modern Gnostics such from Michel Foucault, Herbert Marcuse, and others who have and continue to seek to undermine Western civilization. The unintended consequence of Vatican II has become, for many, the source of our Catholic discontent.
Pope John Paul II, years after the publication of the Council documents, advised, “They need to be read correctly, to be widely known and taken to heart….” Pope Benedict XVI observed, “…freeing them [Council documents] from a mass of publications which instead of making them known have often concealed them, [as] a compass in our time….”
The solution to the current conundrum might be to read the documents correctly, have them taught widely, and extricate them from the snares and traps that have sought to contort the spirit of the message by means of tendentious interpretations.
One example of a correct reading may be found at the beginning of Gaudium Et Spes 29, which avoids ambiguity by making a bold claim that grounds the argument in reality:
Since all men possess a rational soul and are created in God’s likeness, since they have the same nature and origin, have been redeemed by Christ and enjoy the same divine calling and destiny, the basic equality of all must receive increasingly greater recognition.
The next paragraph, when taken out of context of the opening, is ambiguous:
Nevertheless, with the respect to the fundamental rights of the person, every type of discrimination, whether social or cultural, whether based on sex, race, color, social condition, language, or religion, is to be overcome and eradicated as contrary to God’s intent.
When the second quote is taken out of context and read in the “spirit” of the revolutionary climate of the 1960s (and our own), it opens the door to radical notions concerning sexuality, gender identity, marriage, and myriad other cultural canards posing as reality that run contrary to Church teaching. However, if it is read within the boundaries of the rational soul of man clause, confusion is thwarted and the door is closed on irrational claims of discrimination. The Council documents, when read carefully and in their entirety, are rooted in the Church tradition of faith and reason. They are grounded in natural law.
Natural law, human law, and the irrational
Natural law is key in distinguishing the rational from the irrational. For Aquinas, human law relies on natural law and cannot deviate from its spirit. In other words, when reason commands the human soul, people will choose that which accords with nature. If emotion rules the day, whether it be pride or even love, people often make choices according to ego-driven desires that are opposed to nature.
If, for example, a human law claims that a biological male can identify as female and compete in women’s sporting events, it defies natural law and is therefore invalid. Men are typically physically stronger than women. It is a fact of nature. Barring biological males from competing in women’s sports, then, is not discriminatory but rational in that it agrees with natural law.
Traditionis Custodis, on the other hand, is discriminatory and, ironically, contradicts that which it seeks to defend. The Church is informed by tradition in similar fashion to humans being informed by chromones and hormones. Just as sex change is physically impossible, suppressing the traditional Latin Mass is a contradiction. It is unnatural and contrary to reason. Tradition, like human law, must accord with natural law if it is to be viable.
For Vatican II to achieve what it intended, Catholics—leaders and laity alike—must return to its primary documents, teach them in context, and avoid the brouhaha surrounding the Council that leads inevitably to division. We must pay homage to the rational soul that distinguishes man and sets him apart.
Traditionis Custodis appears as more of an emotional reaction to a perceived problem than a rational response that promotes unity. It is not for the world to set the agenda of the Church, but for the Church to guide the world. For this to occur, harmony between faith and reason is vital. When emotion runs high, even if well-intentioned and brimming with love, reason must remain in charge to prevent a descent into madness.
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