Did Vatican II Change the Church’s Understanding of Church?

This morning, I mentioned Dr. Jeff Mirus’ excellent series on Vatican II. His premise is the same as our current pope’s: that Vatican II renewed and reformed, but didn’t reverse, the Church. That is, it’s the same Church before and after. So when you get folks like Cardinal Mahoney saying doltish things likeThe Tridentine Mass was meant for those who could not make the transition from Latin to English [or other languages] after the Council. But there is no participation by the people, and I don’t believe that instills the spirit of Christ among us,” they just don’t get it. First, the Tridentine Mass (1570) predates “the Council” (1962-1965) by centuries. It wasn’t created by Vatican II to be some sort of “transition Mass.” Second, to deny the spirit of Christ operates through the extraordinary form of the Mass is stunning. Was the spirit of Christ not present in the Latin Rite between Trent and Vatican II?

Sadly, Cardinal Mahony’s grasp of history and eclessiology is shared by all too many who view the Church prior to the Council as stupid-evil-bad. And nothing less than the fate of Christendom is at stake here. If the Church wandered at Vatican II from “infallible” to “stupid-evil-bad” (the sedevacantist view, more or less) or from “stupid-evil-bad” to “infallible” (the Modernist view, more or less), She’s untrustworthy. If the Church can reverse Herself on a dogmatic issue, then there’s no unchanging Deposit of Faith to speak of. It’s just the will of those in power. If She can dogmatically declare x, and then dogmatically declare not-x, then She’s never got the final word in any discussion. Even those things which are clearly off the table, like women’s ordination, could come back on the table later. So anyone who claims that the Church did reverse Herself on some dogmatic issue should have, at the bare minimum, the burden of showing — from the texts themselves – where She did so. What this frequently produces is embarassing.

Here’s one example: Osmond Rush, in his book Still Interpreting Vatican 2, finds it “highly significant” that Lumen Gentium puts chapter 2, “On The People of God,” before chapter 3, “On The Hierarchical Structure Of The Church And In Particular On The Episcopate.” Peter Hebblethwaite, in his book Inside the Vatican, likewise noted: “The fact that Vatican II placed the People of God before the hierarchical constitution of the Church had great practical importance.” This is an embarassing fact to have to admit: it’s really scraping the bottom of the barrel intellectually to claim that you’re hinging your eclessiology not on what the Council says, but the order in which it said it.

Here are the kind of bizarre conclusions this silly premise leads to: William V. D’Antonio, a former department head (in sociology, I think) at Notre Dame from 1966-1971, writes in American Catholics: Gender, Generation, and Commitment, that:

Before Vatican II, the Church defined itself as an institution. It saw itself
as a hierarchical, bureaucratic organization with the pope at the top and the
laity at the bottom of the organizational chart. This institutional view of
Church was evident in Lesson 11 of the Baltimore Catechism […] Vatican II
offered a dramatically different image of Church. Instead of emphasizing the
institutional or organizational view of Church, Council documents defined the
Church as the “people of God.”

No less than Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger (now our Pope) responded to this notion: “it is preposterous to try to conclude from the placement of the chapter on the People of God before the chapter on the hierarchy that the Church’s understanding of the hierarchy and the laity has changed, as though all the baptized were already vested with all the powers of ordination and the hierarchy were just a matter of maintaining order.

The reason is simple. “People of God” doesn’t mean “laity.” It mean everybody. So Chapter 2 is everybody (clerics and laity), chapter 3 is clerics, and chapter 4 is laity. So if these are in order of their importance to the Church, all it’s saying is that “clerics and laity together are more important than clerics by themselves; but clerics are more important than the laity.” That’s the exact opposite of the conclusion Rush, Hebblethwaite, and D’Antonio arrive at (arriving at, mind you, by ignoring the fourth chapter of Lumen Gentium, and conflating “people of God” with “laity”). So even if the silly notion that the ordering of chapters was a pyramid chart of some sort were true, it would still refute their Modernist notion.

But beyond that, the Church has always understood “everybody” as being more important than priests alone. In the quote above, D’Antonio slams Lesson 11 of the Baltimore Catechism as “institutional,” and quotes from it at length to prove his point. His Baltimore Catechism quotation begins: “Jesus Christ wants all men to be saved. For this reason, He made a Church (special group of people) before He went back to heaven.” So the Baltimore Catechism defined the Church as a “special group of people,” and then proceeded to explain the various hierarchical roles within the Church, concluding with the laity. Then comes Lumen Gentium with its “dramatically different image of Church” as the “people of God” (instead of “special group of people”), followed by an explainating of the various hierarchical roles within the Church, concluding with a chapter on the laity. Where, exactly, is the distinction D’Antonio finds so significant? These are essentially identical views of the Church.

Obviously, it’s much more reasonable to say that both before and after the Council, the Church considered the “People of God” Her most important members, after Christ Himself (the subject of chapter 1 of Lumen Gentium, by the way). Christ made the Church for His people. Of these people, they are divided into two parts: clerics, and laity. The former are indispensible, the latter are not. The Church could exist with only priests, but can’t exist without priests. This doesn’t mean that the laity are of less worth to God, but it is to suggest that the functions of the Catholic priesthood are created by Christ to be indispensible. And, oh yeah: this understanding of the Church comports completely with both the Baltimore Catechism and Lumen Gentium: no need to pick between the two!

Unfortunately, this is the way it is with both Modernism and radical (anti-Vatican II) Traditionalism. To “prove” that Vatican II totally reinvented the Church, proponents cite incredibly weak evidence (the order of chapters, the use of “subsists in” instead of “is,” etc.), distort that evidence, and run with it. In every case, it turns out that there’s some simple explanation which they’ve just shut their eyes to.

1 Comment

  1. If the Church can reverse Herself on a dogmatic issue, then there’s no unchanging Deposit of Faith to speak of. It’s just the will of those in power.

    This is a really important point that a lot of people, Protestant and Catholic alike, just don’t get. They hold a completely different mental perspective that regards the church as some sort of social gathering place of which they can take and leave parts as they will, since they believe the church as an institution. It may be worth writing a post investigating the necessity and existence of a dogmatically consistent and visible institution. It would be hard to bridge the paradigm gap to those who view all disputes in the Church history as evidence of blundering humanity rather than Divine Providence being at work.

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