I held off from mentioning my own reaction to one key passage in the pope’s letter of this past week. Here are the Holy Father’s words:
The Church’s teaching authority cannot be frozen in the year 1962 — this must be quite clear to the Society. But some of those who put themselves forward as great defenders of the Council also need to be reminded that Vatican II embraces the entire doctrinal history of the Church. Anyone who wishes to be obedient to the Council has to accept the faith professed over the centuries, and cannot sever the roots from which the tree draws its life.
I think Pope Benedict misreads the mainstream of Catholicism on this point. As he does at a few other points in his letter, whether from personal inexperience or an awkward avoidance of relativism, he fails to grasp the nuances of the position of those who embrace Vatican II.
I would suggest that post-conciliar enthusiasts are operating in many spheres, not just pro- and anti-tradition. The Holy Father has a dangerously faulty discernment of what’s happening on the ground, away from the academic circles. For most ordinary lay people who have embraced the Council, they count their improved and more fruitful experience as believers as the prime witness to the fruits of the council. An intelligible liturgy, participation enhanced, the Bible, ecumenism, and a sense of optimism about the faith. This is one reason why there was so much consternation over the SSPX incident. It’s the main reason why I dread the implementation of the new English translation: the laity in the pew will perceive tinkering with something that has worked well, at the expense of overlooking things that haven’t.
Politically, Vatican II was a repudiation of the curia. Bishops and others acted in haste largely because they didn’t want to see the curia reconsolidate under a new pope and gather new power. If anything the incompetence of some curial figures has been permitted to continue under the long watch of the last two popes. Pope Benedict says as much in other places in this letter. Annibale Bugnini is painted as a liturgical antichrist by his detractors. But like those Roman elements he struggled against, he was operating, in part, as a political person in a political setting.
My theological take is that Vatican II was less a repudiation of 1545-1563 (Trent) than 1564-1962 (the Tridentine period of calcification). True, there was much good happening in the years between Trent and Vatican II. But how much of that was due to the fact that lay people in religious orders and out were responding to God’s call? Or that many heroic priests, sometimes with the disdain of their superiors, pushed the Church into acts of charity, mission work, and compassion? I don’t know what the pope is reading when he suggests Catholic progressives want to sever the roots. All we want is for the post-Tridentine growth to be examined for its fruits and be pruned accordingly.
I also think that Pope Benedict really needs to expand his mindset from the one-dimensional approach of two contrasting hermeneutics: continuity or rupture. The fact is that every major Church council has had its detractors, sore losers who went off moping and setting obstacles in the way of just and proper reform. Among other American figures, Cardinal Krol said as much after the council, that he was going to sandbag and stonewall efforts in the Phiadelphia archdiocese to the possible limit. The pope needs to have his eyes opened to the Hermeneutic of Obstruction and see just how much it has weaseled its way into the proclamation of tradition.
One commentator on NPR thought the pope showed weakness in this letter. I can’t disagree. He really has failed to grasp Vatican II not as a council, but as a spiritual event that enlivened and deepened the faith of hundreds of millions of Catholics. Why wouldn’t the grace of God be working more clearly through a modern event than from any particular council of the past twenty centuries? And if Vatican II can be misinterpreted as some suggest, why shouldn’t appropriate criticism be brought to bear on the post-conciliar implementations of centuries past?