Iowa Prelate on Vatican II, Evangelizing and What to Do Now

"We Must Stop Speaking of the 'Pre-Vatican II' and 'Post-Vatican II' Church"

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SIOUX CITY, Iowa, OCT. 19, 2009 (Zenit.org).- Here is an excerpt of a pastoral letter by Bishop R. Walker Nickless of Sioux City. The letter, "Ecclesia Semper Reformanda" (The Church is Always in Need of Renewal), was published last Thursday.

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II. The Second Vatican Council and the New Evangelization

As is well known, Blessed Pope John XXIII convened the Second Vatican Council to be the moment of renewal for the Church in the modern world. The world had changed a great deal since the Protestant Reformation, the Catholic Counter-Reformation, the so-called Enlightenment, and the secular revolutions of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The Church now found herself beset on all sides by a world that could no longer understand her, and from within by an unfortunate tendency to isolation, fearing engagement with the rapidly changing world.

In opening the Council, Blessed John stated that the “greatest concern of the Ecumenical Council” was twofold: “that the sacred deposit of Christian doctrine should be [both] guarded and taught more efficaciously.”[1] Later in the speech, he elaborated on this: “The substance of the ancient doctrine of the deposit of faith is one thing, and the way in which it is presented is another.”[2] The teachings of the Church, our identity and culture as Catholics, must be loved and guarded, yet brought forth and taught in a way understandable to the modern world.

Pope Paul VI and Pope John Paul the Great constantly preached the same thing in calling for a “New Evangelization” of the faithful, our separated brothers and sisters in Christ, and all those who do not know Jesus Christ or the Church. This New Evangelization was to be “new not in content but in ardor, methods, and expression.”[3] It is readily apparent from his teaching and ministry that for Pope John Paul the Great, the New Evangelization was the true fruit of the Second Vatican Council. Indeed, the Council was the beginning and blueprint for evangelization in the modern world. He explicitly stated this as his particular mission at the time of his election, and he lived it to the end.[4] He spent his entire pontificate interpreting and implementing the Council’s documents according to the light of the Holy Spirit, given in virtue of his office, amid the changing circumstances of the Church and the world.

We now find ourselves 44 years since the close of the Council. Many questions still need to be asked and answered. Have we understood the Council within the context of the entire history of the Church? Have we understood the documents well? Have we truly appropriated and implemented them? Is the current state of the Church what the Council intended? What went right? What went wrong? Where is the promised “New Pentecost”?

Pope Benedict XVI reflected on these important questions in an address to the Roman Curia in December, 2005:

"The question arises: Why has the implementation of the Council, in large parts of the Church, thus far been so difficult? 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 quarreled with each other. One caused confusion, the other, silently but more and more visibly, bore and is bearing fruit.

"On the one hand, there is an interpretation that I would call 'a hermeneutic of discontinuity and rupture,' it has frequently availed itself of the sympathies of the mass media, and also one trend of modern theology. On the other, there is the 'hermeneutic of reform,' of renewal in the continuity of the one subject -- Church -- which the Lord has given to us. She is a subject which increases in time and develops, yet always remaining the same, the one subject of the journeying People of God.

"The hermeneutic of discontinuity risks ending in a split between the pre-conciliar Church and the post-conciliar Church. It asserts that the texts of the Council as such do not yet express the true spirit of the Council."[5]

Notice, first, Pope Benedict’s honest acknowledgement that the implementation of the Council has been difficult and is not complete. Notice also his clear-sighted grasp of how two rival interpretations have led to different “camps” within the Church. This division has weakened our identity and mission.

It is crucial that we all grasp that the hermeneutic or interpretation of discontinuity or rupture, which many think is the settled and even official position, is not the true meaning of the Council. This interpretation sees the pre-conciliar and post-conciliar Church almost as two different churches. It sees the Second Vatican Council as a radical break with the past. There can be no split, however, between the Church and her faith before and after the Council. We must stop speaking of the “Pre-Vatican II” and “Post-Vatican II” Church, and stop seeing various characteristics of the Church as “pre” and “post” Vatican II. Instead, we must evaluate them according to their intrinsic value and pastoral effectiveness in this day and age.

Therefore, we must heed the Holy Father’s point that one interpretation, the “hermeneutic of reform,” is valid, and has borne and is bearing fruit. This hermeneutic of reform, as described above, takes seriously and keeps together the two poles of identity (the ancient deposit of faith and life) and engagement with the world (teaching it more efficaciously).  Lastly, the Holy Father, going into greater detail later in the address, explains that the “spirit of Vatican II” must be found only in the letter of the documents themselves. The so-called “spirit” of the Council has no authoritative interpretation. It is a ghost or demon that must be exorcised if we are to proceed with the Lord’s work.

III. The Current Context

There was a great excitement immediately after the Council: excitement for innovation, change, freedom, renewed dynamism. There was a great desire to implement the Council immediately, with the best of intentions. In doing so, the Church after the Council achieved many things. The Council’s aggiornamento brought about a great breath of fresh air, a new freedom and excitement about being Catholic. However, this era of change and freedom took place during a most tumultuous time. The 1960’s and 1970’s brought about a wholesale change within our culture and society, so that it seemed that everything was “up for grabs.” The Church seemed to be going the same way as society, suggesting that nothing was certain or solid. If the Church could change some things, it could change anything and everything. Sometimes we set out to convert the world, but were instead converted by it. We have sometimes lost sight of who we are and what we believe, and therefore have little to offer the world that so desperately needs the Gospel. A pendulum effect began in the Church and has not yet stopped swinging. In the effort to correct exaggerations or one-sidedness in various areas, the reform often times swung to the exact opposite pole.

This pendulum swing can be seen in the areas of liturgy, popular piety, family life, catechesis, ecumenism, morals, and political involvement, to name just a few. It seems to me that in many areas of the Church’s life the “hermeneutic of discontinuity” has triumphed. It has manifested itself in a sort of dualism, an either/or mentality and insistence in various areas of the Church’s life: either fidelity to doctrine or social justice work, either Latin or English, either our personal conscience or the authority of the Church, either chant or contemporary music, either tradition or progress, either liturgy or popular piety, either conservative or liberal, either Mass or Adoration, either the Magisterium or theologians, either ecumenism or evangelization, either rubrics or personalization, either the Baltimore Catechism or “experience”; and the list goes on and on! We have always been a “both/and” people: intrinsically traditional and conservative in what pertains to the faith, and creative in pastoral ministry and engaging the world.

My brothers and sisters, let me say this clearly: The “hermeneutic of discontinuity” is a false interpretation and implementation of the Council and the Catholic Faith. It emphasizes the “engagement with the world” to the exclusion of the deposit of faith. This has wreaked havoc on the Church, systematically dismantling the Catholic Faith to please the world, watering down what is distinctively Catholic, and ironically becoming completely irrelevant and impotent for the mission of the Church in the world. The Church that seeks simply what works or is “useful” in the end becomes useless.

Our urgent need at this time is to reclaim and strengthen our understanding of the deposit of faith. We must have a distinctive identity and culture as Catholics, if we would effectively communicate the Gospel to the people of this day and Diocese. This is our mission. Notice that this mission is two-fold, like the Second Vatican Council’s purpose. It is toward ourselves within the Church (ad intra), and it is to the world (ad extra). The first is primary and necessary for the second; the second flows from the first. This is why we have not been as successful as we should be in bringing the world to Jesus Christ and Jesus Christ to the world. We cannot give what we do not have; we cannot fulfill our mission to evangelize, if we ourselves are not evangelized.[6]

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[1] Pope John XXIII, Oct 11, 1962 [2] Ibid.  [3] Address to the Assembly of CELAM (March 9, 1983), III: AAS 75 (1983), 778. See also Ecclesia in America, 6.
 [4] E.g., Inaugural Address of Pope John Paul II, October 22, 1978 : “Do not be afraid. Open wide the doors for Christ. To his saving power open the boundaries of States, economic and political systems, the vast fields of culture, civilization and development. Do not be afraid. Christ knows ‘what is in man.’ He alone knows it.”
 [5] Pope Benedict XVI, Christmas address to the Roman Curia, December 22, 2005. [6] Paul VI, Evangelium Nuntiandi, #15: “The Church is an evangelizer, but she begins by being evangelized herself. She is the community of believers, the community of hope lived and communicated, the community of brotherly love, and she needs to listen unceasingly to what she must believe, to her reasons for hoping, to the new commandment of love.”

[Text adapted]

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On the Net:

Full text of Bishop Nickless' letter: www.scdiocese.org/files/Pastoral_Letter_updated100809.pdf