The Vatican II That Never Was

Vatican II: The Continuing Agenda edited by Anthony Cernera

Back in the 1960s, the Jesuit paleontologist Pierre Teilhard de Chardin enjoyed the status of a cult figure in some Catholic circles. Enthusiasm has cooled since then, but Teilhard's influence remains.

Teilhard sought to give a Christian account of evolution—or, perhaps more accurately, an evolutionary account of Christianity. He spun out a quasi—scientific, quasi—mystical vision of ceaseless change leading to an ever—higher synthesis. His curious blend of Darwin and Hegel did a lot to form the progressive Catholic sensibility as it now stands.

Anumber of the essays collected in Vatican II: The Continuing Agenda express that sensibility's flowering. A clear statement can be found in the last of them, “Reading the Signs of the Times,” by the book's editor, Anthony Cernera, who is president of Sacred Heart University in Fairfield, Conn.

Cernera, who holds a doctorate in theology from Fordham, rhapsodizes about Vatican II's somewhat uncritical embracing of the signs of the times. It is theology's task, he says, to “scrutiniz[e] the signs of the times so as to hear the word of God being addressed to the Church today.” This can plainly be understood in a sense that is true, just as it can be understood in a sense (i.e., ongoing revelation) that is not. Either way, it provides a necessary starting—point for the progressives’ program of ongoing change.

The program takes many forms, but decentralization, pluralism, and “inculturation” are central to it. Thus, in an essay on ecclesiology, Georgia Masters Keightley makes the claim that “the Council suggests that the local Church is the normative historical form of ecclesial reality.” Keightley, who teaches at Trinity College in Washington, heads a Catholic Theological Society of America task force on “communion ecclesiology and collaborative ministry.”

To say Vatican II suggested that the local Church is “the normative historical form of ecclesial reality” is no small matter. If true, it means the Council took the view that “Church” is present essentially at the local level and only in some secondary, derivative way at the level of the universal Church. The local Church is the standard of faith, worship, and Christian life.

Where then does Vatican II make this suggestion? Keightley's statement is footnoted, but the footnote does not cite a conciliar text; it merely observes that there is “debate about whether the local Church is the diocese or the particular, national Church.”

This uncertainty is itself remarkable. Was Vatican II really that careless about such a crucial point? But let that pass. Keightley is writing here about Lumen Gentium, the Council's dogmatic constitution on the Church. What does it say? A re—reading of that seminal document does not turn up anything about the normativity of the local Church (however defined). Instead, one finds statements like these:

“The individual bishops are the visible source and foundation of unity in their own particular Churches, which are constituted after the model of the universal Church; it is in these and formed out of them that the one and unique Catholic Church exists” (23).

“All the bishops have the obligation of fostering and safeguarding the unity of the faith and of upholding the discipline which is common to the whole Church; of schooling the faithful in a love of the whole Mystical Body of Christ … of promoting all that type of active apostolate which is common to the whole Church” (23).

“This multiplicity of local Churches … shows all the more resplendently the catholicity of the undivided Church” (23).

One could go on, but the point seems clear. Vatican II expressed a healthy appreciation for the local Church, but it did not assign it normative status. Keightley is free to argue that the local Church truly is normative; she is entitled to make the case that Vatican II missed the boat in not declaring it such. But she is not at liberty to say the Council said or suggested something it didn't say or suggest.

Clearly, however, it is necessary that Keightley make this claim. For the normativity of the local Church is the essential ecclesiological foundation for the progressive program of decentralization, pluralism, and ongoing change; the idea that the Church is one, universal, and united in doctrine, worship, and Christian life stands in the way of all that.

Then there is Jesuit Father James Keenan on moral theology. Father Keenan, who teaches at the Weston Jesuit School of Theology in Cambridge, Mass., writes that since the Council, “moral theologians no longer believe that moral theology is about determining which actions are right and which are wrong.” Rather, it is about teaching people prudence or “the virtue of reasoning well.”

There are at least two problems with that.

First, when Father Keenan speaks of “moral theologians,” he means moral theologians like himself— that is, moralists of the proportionalist school like Fathers Joseph Fuchs SJ, Charles Curran, and Richard McCormick SJ. It is a slippery political tactic to load one's rhetoric so as to exclude from the category “moral theologians” those with whom one disagrees.

Second, the notion that the proportionalism of Father Keenan's school can be equated with “reasoning well"—indeed, that it is rational at all—has been exploded many times, by critics from Elizabeth Anscombe to Germain Grisez. As the critique of proportionalism makes clear, there is no rational way to do the moral calculus—the weighing of values and disvalues—that proportionalism demands. In the final analysis, proportionalism is not reasoning well; it is moral intuitionism.

But this view of moral theology also is required by the progressive program. The body of clear moral doctrine contained in the Catholic tradition must be set aside, as must the very idea of absolute moral norms. Only then will the way be entirely open to radical pluralism and continuing change.

With variations suited to their subject matter, the same mode of thought appears in other essays in this volume. H. Richard McCord Jr., of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops (writing on laity), and David O‘Brien of Holy Cross College (writing on social doctrine) adopt the cheery Americanist view of cultural assimilation. According to this story, the more inculturated Catholics are, the better.

McCord and O‘Brien would do well to read Charles Morris's American Catholic, published last year, for a realistic account by a writer who is not a conservative of the havoc wrought by assimilation in American Catholicism during the last 40 years.

Some of the essays in this volume are sensible enough, and some others are at least innocuous. On the whole, nevertheless, the message here is the message of progressive Catholicism: decentralization, inculturation, pluralism, change. These people have not set out deliberately to harm the Church; they sincerely believe they are helping it. The book's subtitle speaks of a “continuing agenda,” and, sure enough, there really is an agenda here. It's just not the agenda of Vatican Council II.

Russell Shaw writes from Washington D.C.