Benedict XVI, Vatican II and Modernity (Part 1)

Tracey Rowland on the Pope’s Interpretation of the Council

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MELBOURNE, Australia, JULY 24, 2005 ( Many believe that «Gaudium et Spes» was the key document that shaped the life of the Church in the years immediately following the Second Vatican Council.

However, according to theologian Tracey Rowland, 40 years of post-conciliar history and reflection on the 1965 pastoral constitution have led many to conclude that the document had an inadequate understanding of culture, particularly that of the culture of liberal modernity.

The result, Rowland reckons, was the unleashing of currents within the Church that gravely harmed the liturgy and offered a false humanism ultimately destructive to the pastoral care of souls.

Rowland is dean and permanent fellow of the John Paul II Institute for Marriage and Family — Melbourne and author of «Culture and the Thomist Tradition: After Vatican II» (Routledge).

She shared with ZENIT why a reconsideration and reinterpretation of «Gaudium et Spes,» a dominant theme in the theological work of Joseph Ratzinger, is necessary to reorient the Church’s encounter with liberal modernity.

Part 2 of this interview will appear Monday.

Q: What was Joseph Ratzinger’s role at the Second Vatican Council, and how did it shape his theological views?

Rowland: He attended the Council as a peritus for Joseph Cardinal Frings of Cologne. In a famous speech, Frings launched an attack on the Holy Office and the exchange between him and Alfredo Cardinal Ottaviani is often described as the most passionate debate of the Council. It is thought that the young Ratzinger contributed ideas for Frings’ criticism.

As for the effect of the Council on Ratzinger, his attendance as a peritus would have given him a valuable bird’s-eye view of the Catholic intellectual landscape, a knowledge of the problems faced by the Church in different parts of the world and some experience of the operation of the Curia.

I don’t think, however, that the Council changed his views so much as his views shaped the Council.

Q: What is the new Pope’s view of the Church’s role and its relationship to «the world" as understood by the Second Vatican Council?

Rowland: The Second Vatican Council described the Church as the universal sacrament of salvation. Accordingly, the Church is not an entity distinct from the world but the world reconciled unto itself and unto God. This is the kind of vision one would expect Benedict to promote.

Contrary to popular perceptions, his Augustinian spirituality does not mean that he is against the world or that he believes that Catholics should crawl into ghettos.

What it does mean is that he is no Pelagian. He doesn’t think that with sufficient education the New Jerusalem can be built on earth. Civics education alone, lectures on human rights, exhortations about brotherly love and the common good, will get nowhere unless people are open to the work of grace and the guidance of the Holy Spirit.

A humanism that is not Christian cannot save the world. This was the conclusion of his fellow peritus Henri de Lubac, and Benedict has made some very strong statements against the pretensions of a mere secular humanism.

Moreover, while he is not advocating a retreat from the world, he has exhorted Catholics to rediscover with evangelical seriousness the courage of nonconformism in the face of the social trends of the affluent world.

He has said that we ought to have the courage to rise up against what is regarded as «normal» for a person at the end of the 20th century and to rediscover faith in its simplicity. In other words, one can engage the world, and be in the world, without being of the world.

Q: How has this project, laid out by the Council Fathers in «Gaudium et Spes,» succeeded or failed?

Rowland: Against the background of secularizing readings of «Gaudium et Spes,» John Paul II argued that the document needs to be read from the perspective of Paragraph 22. In a nutshell, it says that the human person needs to know Christ in order to have self-understanding.

No doubt Pope Benedict would agree that this paragraph undercuts some of the ambivalent language if it is taken as the lens through which the rest of the document is read. But how many of the world’s Catholics, including the clergy, know about the significance of Paragraph 22?

The popular interpretation of this document was that it represented an acknowledgment on the part of the Church that modernity is OK and that it is the will of the Holy Spirit that Catholics accommodate their practices and culture, including liturgical culture, to modernity’s spirit as quickly as possible.

This had the effect of generating a cultural revolution within the Church such that anything that was characteristically pre-conciliar became suspect.

Modes of liturgical dress, forms of prayer, different devotions, hymns that had been a part of the Church’s cultural treasury for centuries, were not just dumped, but actively suppressed. To be a practicing Catholic in many parishes, one had to buy into the pop culture of the 1960s and 1970s.

Against this, Ratzinger has been critical of what he calls «claptrap and pastoral infantilism» — «the degradation of liturgy to the level of a parish tea party and the intelligibility of the popular newspaper.»

If the project of «Gaudium et Spes» is taken to mean «accommodating the practice of the faith to the culture of modernity,» then I think that the project has been problematic in pastoral terms.

If, however, it is read more through the lens of de Lubac’s «The Drama of Atheistic Humanism,» then I think that the project of reaching out to so-called modern man and helping him to find himself by promoting John Paul II’s theology of the body, the Trinitarian anthropology of the encyclicals «Redemptor Hominis,» «Dives in Misericordia» and «Dominum et Vivificantem,» and the values of the Gospel of Life in «Evangelium Vitae» and «Veritatis Splendor» — that project has really only just begun and has a long way to go before it starts to bear fruit.

Q: In what sense is there continuity or discontinuity between in the views of Pope Benedict XVI and Pope John Paul II — a major contributor to «Gaudium et Spes» — in regard to the Church’s interaction with «the world»?

Rowland: I think that there will be continuity in the sense that Benedict would no doubt agree that a de Lubacian-type reading of «Gaudium et Spes» is desirable — that culture is not theologically neutral, that we have a choice between a civilization of love and a culture of death, and that Christ and a Christian anthropology are needed to rescue us from a web of cultural and moral practices which destroy human integrity and foster nihilism.

However, one difference in nuance is that Benedict is less inclined to use a particular rhetorical strategy favored by John Paul II.

To give an example, John Paul II once said that the Church of the Council «saw itself as the soul of modernity.» He then defined modernity as «a convergence of conditions that permit a human being to express better his or her own maturity, spiritual, moral and cultural.» The problem here is that this is not what most people think of when they hear the expression «modernity»; and it is certainly not the reading one finds in the many scholarly accounts of this cultural phenomenon.

From what I have read, Benedict doesn’t adopt this intellectual strategy. When Benedict talks about modernity he doesn’t try to redefine the common meaning. This is perhaps because he thinks that there is little rhetorical advantage in pres
enting the Church as modern when the postmoderns are so busy being critical of modernity. It simply aligns Catholics with a position whose popularity in on the wane.

A second way I think the papacies of the two might differ is that whereas John Paul II concentrated on ethics and anthropology — and hence the central themes of «Gaudium et Spes» — it is possible that Benedict will take a more ecclesiological focus, concentrating on themes in «Lumen Gentium» and the [Vatican II] decree on ecumenism as well as dealing with the whole territory of liturgy.

In the «City of God,» St. Augustine wrote that in the composition of the world’s history under divine providence there is a beauty arising from the antithesis of contraries — a kind of eloquence in events, instead of in words.

Comparing the two papacies there is a kind of historical eloquence in that Wojtyla, the Pole, is elected to see off the Marxists and focus on the promotion of an alternative Christian anthropology, while the German Ratzinger is elected to contend with problems created by, among others, Luther and Nietzsche.

This papacy may well be focused on healing the wounds of the Reformation that began in Germany, and fighting what Benedict calls the «dictatorship of relativism» whose intellectual lineage is also strongly Germanic.

There is a definite divine beauty and playfulness in this.

[Monday: Benedict XVI, Thomism and liberal culture]

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