A particular theologian, of undeniable holiness, had some rather strong words about the chaotic state of the post-Conciliar Church. He began his remarks on the subject by conjuring up a colorful image of a perilous naval battle:
To what then shall I liken our present condition? It may be compared, I think, to some naval battle which has arisen out of time old quarrels, and is fought by men who cherish a deadly hate against one another, of long experience in naval warfare, and eager for the fight. Look, I beg you, at the picture thus raised before your eyes. See the rival fleets rushing in dread array to the attack. With a burst of uncontrollable fury they engage and fight it out. Fancy, if you like, the ships driven to and fro by a raging tempest, while thick darkness falls from the clouds and blackens all the scenes so that watchwords are indistinguishable in the confusion, and all distinction between friend and foe is lost. To fill up the details of the imaginary picture, suppose the sea swollen with billows and whirled up from the deep, while a vehement torrent of rain pours down from the clouds and the terrible waves rise high. From every quarter of heaven the winds beat upon one point, where both the fleets are dashed one against the other.
Of the combatants some are turning traitors; some are deserting in the very thick of the fight; some have at one and the same moment to urge on their boats, all beaten by the gale, and to advance against their assailants. Jealousy of authority and the lust of individual mastery splits the sailors into parties which deal mutual death to one another. Think, besides all this, of the confused and unmeaning roar sounding over all the sea, from howling winds, from crashing vessels, from boiling surf, from the yells of the combatants as they express their varying emotions in every kind of noise, so that not a word from admiral or pilot can be heard. The disorder and confusion is tremendous, for the extremity of misfortune, when life is despaired of, gives men license for every kind of wickedness. Suppose, too, that the men are all smitten with the incurable plague of mad love of glory, so that they do not cease from their struggle each to get the better of the other, while their ship is actually settling down into the deep.
He then turns “from this figurative description to the unhappy reality” of the state of the post-Conciliar Church:
Did it not at one time appear that the Arian schism, after its separation into a sect opposed to the Church of God, stood itself alone in hostile array? But when the attitude of our foes against us was changed from one of long standing and bitter strife to one of open warfare, then, as is well known, the war was split up in more ways than I can tell into many subdivisions, so that all men were stirred to a state of inveterate hatred alike by common party spirit and individual suspicion. But what storm at sea was ever so fierce and wild as this tempest of the Churches? In it every landmark of the Fathers has been moved; every foundation, every bulwark of opinion has been shaken: everything buoyed up on the unsound is dashed about and shaken down. We attack one another. We are overthrown by one another. If our enemy is not the first to strike us, we are wounded by the comrade at our side. If a foeman is stricken and falls, his fellow soldier tramples him down. There is at least this bond of union between us that we hate our common foes, but no sooner have the enemy gone by than we find enemies in one another.
Bad enough that we should have to face down schismatics and secular opponents from without; it’s worse when we Catholics tear one another to shreds (while tearing to shreds the foundations of our faith, and ignoring the Church Fathers). Of course, such a state of affairs is deadly for souls:
And who could make a complete list of all the wrecks? Some have gone to the bottom on the attack of the enemy, some through the unsuspected treachery of their allies, some from the blundering of their own officers. We see, as it were, whole churches, crews and all, dashed and shattered upon the sunken reefs of disingenuous heresy, while others of the enemies of the Spirit of Salvation have seized the helm and made shipwreck of the faith [1 Timothy 1:19]. […]
Harsh rises the cry of the combatants encountering one another in dispute; already all the Church is almost full of the inarticulate screams, the unintelligible noises, rising from the ceaseless agitations that divert the right rule of the doctrine of true religion, now in the direction of excess, now in that of defect. […]
Plain speaking is fatal to friendship, and disagreement in opinion all the ground that is wanted for a quarrel. No oaths of confederacy are so efficacious in keeping men true to sedition as their likeness in error. Every one is a theologue though he have his soul branded with more spots than can be counted. The result is that innovators find a plentiful supply of men ripe for faction, while self-appointed scions of the house of place-hunters reject the government of the Holy Spirit and divide the chief dignities of the Churches. The institutions of the Gospel have now everywhere been thrown into confusion by want of discipline; there is an indescribable pushing for the chief places while every self-advertiser tries to force himself into high office. The result of this lust for ordering is that our people are in a state of wild confusion for lack of being ordered; the exhortations of those in authority are rendered wholly purposeless and void, because there is not a man but, out of his ignorant impudence, thinks that it is just as much his duty to give orders to other people, as it is to obey any one else.
So who penned these shocking words? St. Basil the Great (330-379 A.D.), writing about the chaos in the decades following… the Council of Nicaea (321 A.D.). It’s worth remembering that, while the Council of Nicaea is widely regarded as one of the (if not the) greatest Councils of all time, its salutary effects were not always felt immediately.
Another saintly theologian, Pope Benedict XVI, pointed to these words from St. Basil in his own analysis of the aftermath of the Second Vatican Council (1962-65 A.D.):
The last event of this year on which I wish to reflect here is the celebration of the conclusion of the Second Vatican Council 40 years ago. This memory prompts the question: What has been the result of the Council? Was it well received? What, in the acceptance of the Council, was good and what was inadequate or mistaken? What still remains to be done? No one can deny that in vast areas of the Church the implementation of the Council has been somewhat difficult, even without wishing to apply to what occurred in these years the description that St Basil, the great Doctor of the Church, made of the Church’s situation after the Council of Nicea: he compares her situation to a naval battle in the darkness of the storm, saying among other things: “The raucous shouting of those who through disagreement rise up against one another, the incomprehensible chatter, the confused din of uninterrupted clamouring, has now filled almost the whole of the Church, falsifying through excess or failure the right doctrine of the faith…” (De Spiritu Sancto, XXX, 77; PG 32, 213 A; SCh 17 ff., p. 524).
We do not want to apply precisely this dramatic description to the situation of the post-conciliar period, yet something from all that occurred is nevertheless reflected in it. The question arises: Why has the implementation of the Council, in large parts of the Church, thus far been so difficult?
That’s from his Christmas greeting for 2005, and Benedict answers his own question in this way:
Well, it all depends on the correct interpretation of the Council or – as we would say today – on its proper hermeneutics, the correct key to its interpretation and application. The problems in its implementation arose from the fact that two contrary hermeneutics came face to face and quarrelled with each other. One caused confusion, the other, silently but more and more visibly, bore and is bearing fruit.
The first of these interpretations, the disastrous way to understand Vatican II, is through “a hermeneutic of discontinuity and rupture.” Pope Benedict warns that it “risks ending in a split between the pre-conciliar Church and the post-conciliar Church.” Benedict points to those who elevate the “Spirit of Vatican II” over and against the actual Conciliar texts as being guilty of holding to this flawed hermeneutic. Read in this view, Vatican II abolished the old Church in favor of a new Church, a view tantamount to a repudiation of Christ’s plain words in Matthew 16:17-19 about the indestructibility of the Church.
The other approach is often called the “hermeneutic of continuity,” but that’s not actually what Benedict calls it. He prefers the term “hermeneutic of reform,” which recognizes that the Church is “a subject which increases in time and develops, yet always remaining the same, the one subject of the journeying People of God.” G.K. Chesteron put the matter wittily: “When we say that a puppy develops into a dog, we do not mean that his growth is a gradual compromise with a cat; we mean that he becomes more doggy and not less.” The hermeneutic of rupture has the pre-Conciliar puppy compromising with a cat. The hermeneutic of reform sees the pre-Conciliar puppy growing into a dog.
The Church doesn’t — and can’t — just shed her sacred doctrines like old clothes, and nothing in the Council called for her to do so. Rather, the Council — like the Council of Nicaea before it — should be seen as a moment of growth and maturation in one and the same Church. To be sure, there are growing pains, and I think that we can plainly see those growing pains all around us. But Benedict’s words, and Basil’s, remind us to keep our present worries in perspective. As a Church, we’ve been through worse, and the Holy Spirit has always gotten us through.