The Second Vatican Council (1962-1965) is a topic much spoken of today, especially in light of the impending Year of Faith announced by Pope Benedict XVI in his motu proprio Porta Fidei.
This pronouncement seems to have caused much excitement among the faithful. But for some, the excitement is tinged with a touch of trepidation because discussions on Vatican II often provoke anti-ecclesial rhetoric among certain circles of clerics and laity.
As I am a relatively new member of the Church, I know of a good number of people who might all too soon point out that my strong allegiance to the Pope and the Church can be attributed only to the fact that I am still too green in the Church for my views to be of any critical good.
It may naturally be construed that my argument for unflinching obedience to the Church, which is often accused of being uncritical and unintellectual, stems from nothing more than a lack of understanding of how things have worked out in the Church since the Second Vatican Council.
Or perhaps my case for obedience arises from the sheer zeal of being a new member of the Church.
To exercise the kind of obedience I propagate, “progressive” voices say, is to set the Church back to its pre-conciliar ways.
For these “progressive” voices, the Second Vatican Council represents absolute freedom, autonomy and a breaking away from the centralized modus operandi of the Church, often even to the extent of according to the Pope a role of mere ceremonial primacy: No more does he exercise supreme and universal authority over the Church. Rome, in this new economy, has become a nonessential entity.
Some have even resorted to accusing the Holy See of being “controlling,” “bullying” and “imperialistic.” Evidently, the Protestant Reformation of 1521 continues even within the Catholic Church itself today, and one wonders how far it will go.
The truth is, having been a Protestant for more than 20 years of my life and having spent a number of these years dabbling in what many have thought to be “progressive” ways of thought, I have experienced the impending bankruptcy of such absolute free thought.
It was the need for a sacred magisterium based on apostolic ministry in communion with the Successor of St. Peter that brought about my decision to be a member of the Holy Catholic Church.
As a former Protestant, I very well understand that one cannot be more Protestant than to seek the absolute self-accorded authority of private interpretation in all matters of faith and morals.
Furthermore, a rendition of Christianity that exalts unguided free inquiry — and I emphasize the word “unguided” — can be nothing more than an exercise of narcissistic intellectualism that enthrones self-reasoning above the age-old ecclesial enterprise of truth which employs the twin pillars of faith and reason.
You see, the notion of absolute free thought is a superfluous fallacy. We are all bound by some kind of ideology, whether or not we are honest enough to admit it.
If we do not subscribe to an authority above the self, then it simply means that one has appointed oneself as the absolute authority. No one is absolutely free; if we are not submitted to an external authority, then we are imprisoned within the confines of self-defined authority.
The irony lies in how self-appointed authoritarians often accuse the Church of dictatorship.
Of course, there might also be those who claim, “We obey God [or Scripture], but not necessarily the Church.”
This incongruent notion itself stems from a deficient construction of the nature of the Church and her relationship with the divine life of the Holy Trinity, which, in turn, is a result of enthroning oneself as the arbiter of reason.
Because of this, I will not venture to address questions such as: “Are there times when the Church may be wrong?” or “Were there not times when the Church had to retract its views on certain issues?” Such questions betray undue over-humanization of the Church and ignorance of its ontological nature of being not just human but also divine.
To misunderstand the foundational nature of the Church and her participation in the divine life of the Holy Trinity is inevitably non-Catholic, and this, in the era of the earlier Church councils, would have been unapologetically condemned as heresy.
Divine truth never changes, even though its pastoral implications may be misapplied and newly appropriated over time.
In addition to that, to attempt to engage such questions would soon lead independent inquirers to question even the infallible nature of the Church and the extraordinary infallibility of the Pope, both of which are essential ecclesial dogmas. Or has Vatican II opened the doors for even such issues to be subjectively debated without so much as posing an impact on one’s salvation?
Unfortunately, even many who consider themselves to be accomplished Catholic theologians have pandered to this error of defect.
Catholic teaching is akin to a stack of milk cans arranged like a pyramid on the supermarket floor. One primary dogma logically leads to several others, and those several others also have dogmatic implications on various other aspects of Catholic belief. This is called the “hierarchy of truth.”
When one unwittingly plucks out a can from the stack, the entire structure crumbles. This is often what happens when a self-appointed authority, rather than enforcing strongholds on the stack of cans, removes a can because of intellectual fashion and fancy, thinking this to be a newly granted concession arising from the Second Vatican Council.
Unfortunately, most people who are guilty of this action also lack the intellectual prowess to reconstruct an alternative hierarchy of truth in a consistent way because they fall short of the age-old wisdom possessed by the Church.
Those shrewd enough to avoid the Inquisition merely erode the entire theological enterprise into a series of socio-political creeds devoid of solid dogmatic foundations.
This brings us back to the upcoming Year of Faith. The Holy Father, Pope Benedict XVI, is not unaware of the state of faith among Catholics today.
If I read his intentions correctly, the Year of Faith is more than being about basic evangelization, in the sense of introducing the Catholic faith to those who do not know Christ.
It is also a call for all those who call themselves “Catholic” to return to orthodoxy of faith.
This is especially true when one keeps in mind that the Year of Faith is also expressly a commemoration of the opening of the much debated Second Vatican Council. The call to return to “faith” places the cause of the Council Fathers in proper light.
The fathers had never intended for the Council to be dogmatically pivotal in any way such that the Catholic faith be distorted or deconstructed in a way the earlier councils preceding it would hardly recognize.
Rather than employing a hermeneutic of rupture by applying erroneous principles of absolute independence unguided by sacred Tradition, the popes have been calling for the application of the hermeneutic of continuity.
In other words, Vatican II overturned nothing that had been solemnly defined by previous councils. If anything, it was an implementation of the desires of other councils preceding it.
The call of Vatican II was one of applying pastoral change to certain very crucial ecclesial practices, not one of “rectifying” timeless truth.
Unsurprisingly, this call for the hermeneutic of continuity has often been dismissed or ignored altogether by hearers who are characterized by self-defined agendas.
Pope Benedict XVI has gone even further to speak of a new kind of radicalism beyond that of radical ideology. It is a radicalism of obedience.
While few seem to be listening, fortunately, an ever-growing generation of younger clerics and laity are intently paying heed to his call. After all, Benedict XVI himself is no stranger to ideology.
He has found it to be a dead end — hence, his constant claim that the only way to an authentic renewal for the Church is through radical obedience. Ironically, “progressivism” is an ideology that is fossilized in the 1960s and the 1970s, despite having branded itself as being “progressive.”
To be truly progressive is to transcend the intellectual confusion arising soon after the Council (which stemmed from various misinterpretations of the Council Fathers’ intentions) and to move towards the timeless kerygma of the Church that is eternal in Christ.
It would be a gross misunderstanding to construe the Holy Father’s call as a summons to unreason and anti-intellectualism. From the early days of the Church, Church Fathers have often employed St. Anselm’s principle of fides quarens intellectum (faith seeking understanding) in their intellectual explorations.
This principle explicates the reality that human reason has intrinsic limits despite its potentials, and, when left unguided by divine revelation that is received in faith as its guiding source, intellectual adventures can and will go wrong.
One would have thought that 20th-century human history was enough to have demonstrated this reality. Seek to understand our faith we must, but not in open-ended ways that enthrone a right to establish our own conclusions on grave matters of faith and morals.
The thing about pendulums is that they swing. The post-conciliar children of the Church have a 50-year frame of reference to which we can refer, and we have seen the devastating effects of intellectual anarchy among clerics, religious and laity.
The pendulum now rests at the center, and this growing generation of younger Catholic clerics and laity recognizes that the only way forward is that of radical obedience.
Deacon Sherman Kuek is a moral and social theologian with the Diocese of Melaka-Johor in Malaysia.