00 6/4/2009 9:19 PM

June 4, 2009

This article was rerun today with the note that it "was originally published in a slightly different form in the November/December 2000 issue of Catholic Dossier".

It continues to be very relevant even if it was written before the Pontificate of Benedict XVI - because it makes the very points that he has been constantly preaching - even using the very same words in referring to key concepts.

I am uncomfortable with the author's choice to make his points in terms of a 'liberal-conservative' juxtaposition, but I understand that he makes it for rhetorical convenience

Years of teaching courses on Vatican II and Ecclesiology have provided me the data of an ongoing survey that continues to produce amazingly consistent results.

The question is simple: "What is the first word that comes to mind when I say, 'Vatican II'?" Invariably the response is "renewal" and "change."

The same answer comes from countless groups of adults with whom I have reflected on the Council that Pope John Paul II described as "the gift of the Holy Spirit" to the Church of our time.

The follow-up question produces similarly consistent results, though it may be difficult to discern at first.

To the question, "What kind of change?" people point first to the liturgy: Mass said in English, priest facing the assembly, laity serving as extraordinary ministers of the Eucharist, communion received in the hand.

Often mentioned is the adaptation of the discipline of abstinence from meat on Friday. Others point to participation on parish or diocesan pastoral or finance councils, while some refer to institutional innovations such as the synod of bishops, the International Theological Commission, and the many new pontifical councils.

Seemingly widely diverse, these examples have something in common; they are visible and institutional changes. Observable changes such as these naturally draw our attention; they are the first things we notice.

The Council, however, did not see changes as ends in themselves, but as means to something higher. The challenge is to look beyond them, or through them, to discover that more profound reality.

Such a "looking beyond" is natural for Catholic faith, which perceives the Son of God in Jesus of Nazareth, and the bestowal of grace in the visible signs we call sacraments.

What is that more profound reality? It is holiness, as unchanging in its nature as doctrine, the essence of the sacraments, and the hierarchical constitution of the Church.

Holiness, that is, life in communion with God in faith, hope and charity lived in the ongoing conversion that is an unending task for the Church, is fundamentally the same in all ages.

The real challenge of Vatican II is the change or renewal of hearts that in the Gospels is called metanoia. [Whicb Benedict XVI constantly invokes
in his homilies and addresses as a continuing process he calls 'conversion', just as he consistently calls on bishops and priests to be xamples of 'holiness' in the community.]

It is possible to get distracted, caught up in the liturgical and institutional dimension of renewal, and lose sight of the fact that these are at the service of making the Church's mission more effective.

That mission is identical to Christ's own: the reconciliation of men with God through the forgiveness of sins and justifying grace that makes those who receive it sharers in God's own life.

All the liturgical adaptations are intended to bring about that "fully conscious and active participation" [1] in the liturgy that is fundamentally a matter of the heart.

Similarly, the new expressions of the Church's ages-old faith [2] is intended to arouse faith and to convey the salvific value of what God has revealed so that modern man may discover the "meaning for life" of what the Church teaches.

And the reorganization of institutions and the establishment of new ones have as their goal to facilitate the living out of the Christian life and a more effective realization of the Church's mission [3] in which all share and for which all are responsible.

In other words, the Council's aim is to perfect the inner man, to be the agent of the conversion of the heart that produces the fruit of those immanent activities that are the very essence of religion. "The exercise of religion, of its very nature, consists before all else in those internal, voluntary and free acts whereby man sets the course of his life directly toward God" (Dignitatis Humanae, no. 3).

This is reflected in the very first words of the first text promulgated by the Council:

This sacred Council has several aims in view: it desires to impart an ever increasing vigor to the Christian life of the faithful; to adapt more suitably to the needs of our own times those institutions which are subject to change; to foster whatever can promote union among all who believe in Christ; to strengthen whatever can help to call the whole of mankind into the household of the Church" (Sacrosanctum Concilium, no. 1).

The immanent acts, which Pope John Paul II calls "consciousness" and "attitudes" [4] are the source of the visible actions of engagement in the Church's life and mission.

Faithful to this vision, Pope Paul VI and Pope John Paul II have underscored that the call to holiness is the chief teaching of the Council.

"This strong invitation to holiness could be regarded as the most characteristic element in the whole Magisterium of the Council, and so to say, its ultimate purpose." [5]

"It is possible to say that this call to holiness is precisely the basic charge entrusted to all the sons and daughters of the Church by a Council which intended to bring a renewal of Christian life based on the Gospel." [6] Yet the message is only now beginning to resound among the faithful.

The following reflections are an attempt to identify and analyze some of factors that have contributed to muffling the message, and to point out the balance required in order to be faithful to the Council's teaching.

The need for balance
between holiness and action

The new ecclesial awareness brought by the Council produced a kind of giddiness of activity. The Council stressed that everyone participates in the Church's mission, and there was no lack of energy for translating that into a whirlwind of activity. Cardinal Ratzinger identified the problem:

There is a popular idea today, which can also be found among the hierarchy, that a person is only a Christian insofar as he is committed to ecclesiastical activities. The trend is a type of ecclesiastical therapy of getting up and doing; the idea is to assign a committee to everyone or in any case, at least some commitment within the Church. It is thought that there must always be some sort of ecclesiastical activity, the Church must be spoken about or something must be done for it or within it. But a mirror which only reflects itself is no longer a mirror . . . .

It can happen that a person is continually active in ecclesiastical associations and activities but he may not be a Christian at all. It can also happen that a person simply lives only by the Word and the Sacrament and puts the love that comes from faith into practice, without ever sitting on an ecclesiastical committee, without ever bothering about the latest in ecclesiastical politics, without ever participating in synods or voting at them. And yet, he is a true Christian. We do not need a more human Church but a more divine one; only then will it be really human. And for this reason all that is man-made within the Church must reflect its pure character of service and withdraw in the face of what counts, the essential. [7]

Activity is necessary, but it needs to be seen as the fruit of spiritual renewal. The implementation of the Council will be based on a proper understanding of the relation between being and action, captured in the principle operatio sequitur esse: action follows upon being.

Though the perception has been widely diffused that one must select one or the other, prayer or activism, sacramental worship or being really engaged, in the texts of Vatican II the two stand together and cannot be separated.

There always has been and always will be a priority of contemplation over action, of sacramental worship over mission, because contemplation and the liturgy are the sources of the grace that transforms our being into Christ, and it is from this renewed being that actions flow.

Thus, the priority of contemplation and worship poses no threat to action and mission, but rather assures their integrity. The Council itself offers us the necessary balance:

It is of the essence of the Church that she be both human and divine, visible and yet invisibly equipped, eager to act and yet intent on contemplation, present in this world and yet not at home in it; and she is all these things in such wise that in her the human is directed and subordinated to the divine, the visible likewise to the invisible, action to contemplation, and this present world to that city yet to come, which we seek (Sacrosanctum Concilium, no. 2).

It can be tempting to think that all we need in order to make the Church's mission complete is better organization, more efficient institutions, more professional conduct, the latest methods.

Recognizing the validity of a concern for effectiveness, Henri de Lubac sensed a troubling spirit that can accompany it. Is it motivated by "a pure overflowing of charity," or is it based on "this illusion . . . that it is enough to make a change of method . . . to obtain results which primarily suppose a change of heart?" [8]

Without vigilance, even a justifiable concern for efficiency can lead one to regard all elements of the Church as subject to revision based on the criterion of greatest productiveness.

Doctrine and sacramental worship are then judged by their power to elicit the active participation that supposedly defines the Council's intention. This produces a new kind of hierarchy of truths that has nothing to do with the Council's understanding of the phrase. [9]

How would this affect the theology of the Eucharist, and its role in the renewal of Vatican II? A renewal in keeping with the conciliar magisterium must recognize the Eucharist as "the summit toward which the activity of the Church is directed; at the same time it is the font from which all her power flows" (Sacrosanctum Concilium, no. 10).

The Church is not built up without our activity, but that activity is essentially a cooperation with God. For this reason the edification of the Church is not solely proportioned to our labors. The fruits of our labors exceed what we can rightfully expect because the Church is built up by the Eucharist, [10] and this reminds us that its unity and mission are a gift that must be constantly received anew.

This is where the teaching of the Council on Mary takes on great pastoral significance for the Council's implementation.

Mary is the model of how we must receive in order actively to take our place in God's plan. [Again, another constant theme in the Magisterium of Benedict XVI.]

Both the plan itself and the grace that transformed her being are God's. Her being overshadowed by the Holy Spirit in order to bear fruit for salvation, and the overshadowing of the entire Church on Pentecost in order to engage in its saving mission, indicate that all of the Church's activity must be seen as presupposing an epiclesis.

"If there is to be spiritual fruit actualizing the mystery of Christ in our lives, there must be an invocation of the Holy Spirit, epiclesis." [11]

In all these actions and for all these actions, the necessary role of an intervention of the Holy Spirit, of epiclesis, is to assure that neither the 'earthly means' nor the institution produce these actions by themselves. It is a matter of a work which is absolutely supernatural, divine and divinizing. [12]

A major casualty in this enthusiasm of activity has been a genuine apostolate and spirituality of the laity. The risk is real that the model for an active lay man or woman is holding a stable and often salaried position in the Church.

The model can include the highly visible functions of sitting on the parish council and serving as an extraordinary minister of the Eucharist or performing the function of lector. The greatly increased numbers of laity involved in such functions is indeed a fruit of the Council.

Nevertheless, the vast majority of the lay faithful engages in those "voluntary and free acts whereby man sets the course of his life directly toward God," and thereby strives for holiness and builds up the kingdom of God, in relative obscurity, amidst the daily activities of family and job, social, political, economic and cultural life.

The implementation of the Council with respect to the renewal of the temporal order through the laity will require a spirituality for the laity that does full justice to the primacy of the immanent activities that animate the lay apostolate. The Council stresses those inner activities in texts such as the following:

For all their works, prayers and apostolic endeavors, their ordinary married and family life, their daily occupations, their physical and mental relaxation, if carried out in the Spirit, and even the hardships of life, if patiently borne-all these become "spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ" (Lumen Gentium, no. 34).

Finally all Christ's faithful, whatever be the conditions, duties and circumstances of their lives — and indeed through all these, will daily increase in holiness, if they receive all things with faith from the hand of their heavenly Father and if they cooperate with the divine will.

In this temporal service, they will manifest to all men the love with which God loved the world (Lumen Gentium, no. 41).

A distillation of the Council's teaching will provide the necessary balance between contemplation and action, sacraments and mission, and will look to Mary as the model of all ecclesial activity.

Balance of truth and love:
on liberal and conservative

Back to word association. Students and audiences attending talks unfailingly associate a strong emphasis on the social gospel and the preferential love for the poor with the word "liberal," and a strong concern for doctrinal integrity with "conservative."

To demonstrate the inadequacy of these categories to embrace the Christian mystery, consider how it would make Mother Teresa of Calcutta and Pope John Paul II simultaneously arch-liberals and arch-conservatives.

In the two arguably most widely recognized Catholics of the last half of the last century, love for the poor and love for the truth coexist in harmony and simplicity. In them the social gospel and doctrinal integrity do not exist in tension, but as necessary complements, even as truth and love are one in God, and the meaning of Christ's death is captured in terms of both love (Jn 15:13) and truth (Jn 18:37).

To choose one at the expense of the other undermines the integrity of the one that is chosen.

Of course no Christian, let us hope, explicitly rejects either truth or love. This renders difficult the following consideration of other dichotomies between the liberal and conservative mindsets or tendencies. [13]

Notwithstanding that aligning various positions with liberal or conservative inclinations has its limitations, my informal surveys lead me to think that the general correlations retain a certain validity.

My main point is to show that both the liberal and conservative dispositions, when allowed to cross certain lines, present obstacles to the interpretation of Vatican II and to the renewal-through-conversion envisioned by it.

Triumphalism, criticism and renewal

Vatican II was an ecclesiological council. Because ecclesiology reflects Christology, errors about Christ recur as errors about the Church.

The most fundamental errors about Christ regard the unity of his divine and human natures. Paralleling this there are two tendencies in ecclesiology. One emphasizes the divine dimension to the point of obscuring the human dimension, while the other obscures the divine dimension by over-emphasizing the human.

Though the Church is both human and divine, the distinction between the two is absolutely necessary as a condition for renewal.

An over-emphasis on the Church's divine element produces the pre-Vatican II reality known as triumphalism, which aligns with a conservative stance. How can there be renewal if it is thought that virtually everything is of divine institution?

Further, if the four notes of the Church are to serve as signs pointing to this divine dimension, then how can account be made of the sins of its members?

Vatican II met this question head on, always distinguishing between the divine and human aspects of the Church, and between the Church as such and the individuals that she embraces.

This fundamental distinction is also the critical principle for understanding John Paul II's candid recognition, in conjunction with the Jubilee, of the sins of the sons and daughters of the Church. This has consternated some who espouse a kind of hyper-apologia of the Church's divine constitution.

The liberal tendency is to place strong accent on the human element of the Church. In the extreme, it can be difficult to see the presence of God or the fulfillment of his promises, and it can degrade into a hyper-critical attitude toward the Church.

This too makes conversion impossible, for there must be hope of a future based on God's promises and grace if conversion is to be genuinely Christian. [14]

The Council was a great examination of conscience for the Church, [15] and thus a call to conversion. Conversion presupposes the identification of sin — a judgment, self-criticism in the light of God's word.

Paul VI's great vision for the Council was that it would engage in this self-criticism in order to embrace the call to conversion. It would deepen its awareness of its own mystery by reflecting on what God has revealed about the Church.

Then it would "compare the ideal image of the Church just as Christ sees it . . . with the actual image which the Church projects today," recognizing that "the actual image of the Church is never as perfect, as lovely, as holy or as brilliant as that formative Divine Idea would wish it to be."

This would prompt conversion, prompted by "an almost impatient need for renewal, for correction of the defects which this conscience denounces and rejects." [16] And this renewal would yield the fruit of renewed missionary activity through dialogue.

As the Church deepens its being in Christ, the result will be Christ-like activity: operatio sequitur esse. Like the Lord, the Church will become more and more the one who comes to serve.

After the Council it became fashionable to criticize the Church and, for some, the process of self-criticism became an end in itself. It drifted beyond criticism of the human dimension alone, [17] and called into question elements long considered pertaining to the divine dimension.

Such criticism removes the very possibility of conversion, since it makes certitude about the truth impossible. There is no longer any measure for judgment or criticism. [18]

Rather than humbly present the Church for remolding according to the divine vision for her, this tendency resulted in remolding the Church to make her conform to the expectations of modern man, a danger about which Pope Paul VI had given sufficient warning. [19]

Criticism of the Church is a delicate matter. It might be likened to the uncomfortable position in which middle-aged adults find themselves with respect to their parents. How does one balance the respect due to one's parents with the desire to assist them in dealing with their imperfections?

On the one hand, there is the objective norm of human happiness that one desires for his parents. On the other, there is the love they deserve because life itself and much more was their gift.

Conscience, authority, and obedience

Unrestrained, the liberal stance stresses the individual and conscience to the point that authority is viewed with suspicion and seen as a threat. This removes the very possibility of conversion.

By its own inner logic it tends toward a separation between Christ and the Church, holding at least implicitly that it is possible to be faithful to Christ without being faithful to his Church.

It is even claimed that one can be a good Catholic without adhering to what the Church teaches.

Because the claim is seldom made outright, it might be helpful to see what this stance really is when analyzed. Let's give the name "ecclesial agnosticism" to the product of the analysis. It is a disincarnate ecclesiology.

If agnostics don't deny God, they deny that he can be known, certainly that he became a man and can be identified with Jesus of Nazareth. Similarly, without denying the existence of the Church, without even denying that the Church possesses apostolic authority to teach, one can deny that this Church can be concretely identified, or that the conditions for infallible teaching are ever realized.

But an unverifiable God cannot make demands on anyone, nor can a Church that possesses a charism of infallibility that can never be verified. The very condition of conversion, knowledge of absolute truth, becomes impossible to ascertain.

On the conservative side is the tendency to see in sound doctrine the answer to all problems. If the liberal spirit greeted the Catechism of the Catholic Church with reticence, reservation and resentment, the conservative spirit saw it as confirmation of its conviction and the perfect instrument for exposing erroneous teaching.

But before it is an instrument for judging others, it is a sure guide for one's own faith. Neither liberals nor conservatives outdo the other when it comes to personal attacks and presumption about motives.

Liberals see conservatives as afraid of change, clinging to old traditions and institutions, while conservatives see liberals as insufficiently grounded in tradition and too ready to compromise with the spirit of the day. Each can express exasperation and intolerance with respect to the other.

But the first form of intolerance should be intolerance of the sin within, which is just another way to describe conversion. The truth is certainly worth fighting for, but the first battle is within oneself. This is the authentic renewal, and it can be obscured or put off for later when one's energies are directed towards checking the errors of others.

Furthermore, Jesus teaches us that those who know the truth are called to suffer for those who do not. While it is true that the truth is greater than any relationship, it is also a fact that the family divided two against three and three against two is not a goal but only a predictable outcome of bringing truth into a world marked by sin.

If conservatives are to be a real force for renewal in the Church, they must reinvent Christ-like service and suffering precisely for those who are in need of it.

For the liberally minded, obedience is difficult to reconcile with human dignity and can even pose a threat to it, while for the conservatively minded obedience is one of the highest virtues and reasoning can be seen as a threat to it.

Vatican II's teaching on dignity, conscience and obedience transcends these opposing tendencies, and the realization of the Council's teaching in the life of the Church will require a discovery by both parties of its balanced synthesis of these notions.

{The Vatican-II documents that I have had occasion to review often in the past four years are very clear, however, on the supreme authority of the Pope in matters of Magisterium - a presumably self-evident principle which many dissenting bishops and priests have freely igonored - using the much-vaunted argument of 'primacy of individual conscience' to justify their disobedience to the Magisterium. In this case, there is neither recognition of authority nor the duty of obedience.]

The dialogue between faith and reason

Liberals and conservatives are mistaken about the dialogue between faith and reason. Liberals tend to side with reason because this is thought to be the province of the individual and guarantee of autonomy, while conservatives side with faith.

The contrast between the caricature of the Church before Vatican II and the actual state of affairs today is striking, if not to say lamentable. If the windows were shut because dialogue with world was a dangerous affair - running the risk of error corrupting the faith - today people are open to dialogue with every religion and philosophy, including those blatantly antithetical to Catholicism, yet they retain a suspicion of just one institution — the hierarchical Church. We have gone from believing that truth exists only in the Church to being disposed to finding it just about anywhere except in the Church.

Conservatives are suspicious of the dialogue. They have seen how it can corrupt the faith, and they tend toward fideism. Henri de Lubac has described this inclination as "an orthodoxy so complete and so easy of decision that it looks rather like indifference . . ." This produces a way of "submitting to dogma . . . in principle and in advance." [20]

But assent and obedience given in advance can only be to what one thinks the Church teaches. In this case, faith cannot be the light for their living. It can be venerated as from a distance, it can serve to distinguish one group from another, but it cannot put down roots in daily life.

This deficient adherence of faith "establishes its own lists of what is suspect — in the fashion of religious authority itself – and is ready to call the authority to order, if need be . . . it brands as 'liberalism' or 'modernism' every effort made to disentangle Christianity in its real purity and its perpetual youth, as if this were an abandonment of doctrine." [21]

People of this mindset can learn from Mary, who is the model of this dialogue. Her assent to the One who spoke through the angel Gabriel did not eliminate questions; rather, it gave rise to them. And she continued to ponder what she experienced.

In Mary, God's word "is not taken up rashly to be locked into a superficial first impression and then forgotten." Rather, it "is given a place of permanent abiding in which it can gradually unfold its depth."

Treasuring all that God said to her, "Mary held a conversation with the Word. She entered interiorly into a dialogue with the Word. She addressed the Word and allowed herself to be addressed by it in order to arrive at its basic meaning." [22]

The dialogue between faith and reason is born of the humility that asks if one has accurately understood what God has revealed. It is not an invitation to question the veracity of what God has revealed.

If there is good reason to be wary of this dialogue because it has produced questionable fruit since the Council, as too often the findings of the human sciences seem to have greater authority than the Church's teachings, [23] the dialogue is no less necessary.

Gaudium et Spes provides the fundamental principles that must guide this dialogue, without which both faith and reason are impoverished.

On truth and love, unity and holiness

For liberals the emphasis is on relationships and tolerance as the formula for unity. For conservatives it is on truth, doctrinal purity and visible unity that is correspondingly pure.

The conservative stance disposes people to sacrifice relationships for the sake of purity of truth and unity, while the liberal inclination is toward compromising on the latter for the sake of the former.

Neither measures well against the Gospel, or against Vatican II, where truth, love and unity, as well as patience, forgiveness and reconciliation are recognized as pertaining to the Church's life and mystery.

The Church is indeed one and holy, and her unity and holiness are essentially the same as God's, since they are nothing other than a participation in the unity and holiness of God through Christ.

However, while Christ is totally without sin, the Council considers the Church's holiness "real although imperfect" (Lumen Gentium, no. 48) since "the Church, embracing in its bosom sinners, at the same time holy and always in need of being purified, always follows the way of penance and renewal" (Lumen Gentium, no 8).

The Council's approach to unity is similar. On the one hand it is a gift from God that cannot fail, on the other hand there is a humble acknowledgement of the actual historical situation of division among Christians.

It is the task of theologians to wrestle with this conciliar teaching and do full justice to it. A one-sided emphasis on how the human element in the Church affects the realization of holiness and unity cannot deplete them of content. Nor should a one-sided emphasis on their reality obscure how sin affects their realization in the Church.

The Church is a sign of salvation inseparable but distinct from the sign that is Christ. If the Church's self-testimony is to be accurate and credible, she has no alternative but to speak about her unity and holiness as "real though imperfect." [24]

Full justice to the Council's teaching is also missing in ecclesiologies that place the realization of unity and holiness in the future, as if they are not real attributes and supernatural gifts that are properties of the Church. The reason is that the Church of Christ subsists in the Catholic Church already, and thus so do all her properties. [25]

The relationship between truth and unity brings out tendencies of both liberals and conservatives. For liberals unity is a given, and it can be preserved by being accepting of others. Truth can be the enemy of unity because truth divides. If we are free to hold our own opinions, then we can be one in that freedom that we grant one another, and the purpose of authority is above all to safeguard that freedom.

Liberals tend to see the apostolic teaching office as divisive, as a threat to unity, while conservatives see it as the guarantee of unity, since they see that there can be no unity without truth. For conservatives, authority serves unity by drawing firm lines that cannot be crossed and by expelling those who cross them, while for liberals silence on issues claimed to be controverted is the wisest use of authority.

Liberal unity is more the absence of hostility than it is a genuine bond based on commonly held principles. Stressing truth risks melting and dissolving unity. There is no room for conversion because the objective content of unity is so underplayed.

Conservative unity, in contrast, leaves little room for conversion by wanting a perfect unity. But if perfection comes by way of expulsion of all who are not yet perfect, there is no conversion.

These tendencies produce a set of impossible expectations for our bishops and priests. The subject requires an entirely different article, even a book. Here it suffices to observe that for both liberals and conservatives the post-Vatican II experience of pastoral leadership, and of the apostolic teaching office in particular, has been one of frustration.

For liberals, it is the frustration of interference, of close-minded and rigid adherence to and outmoded tradition that stultifies the free-blowing Holy Spirit. For conservatives, it is the frustration of perceived compromises on the truth in favor of not creating hostilities.

Liberals would remind the bishops of the compassionate, patient, forgiving Jesus, the Good Shepherd who goes in search of the lost sheep, while conservatives are impressed by the fact that he boldly admonished those in error and had the courage to watch the rich young man and many followers walk away from him rather than compromise on his teaching. All would do well to remember that Christ is the source of both truth and unity, and so are our bishops.

Since Vatican II, the tendency to elevate unity above the truth is certainly one of the more serious betrayals of the Council, and of the entire Catholic Tradition. ['To elevate unity above the truth'? I find that a most questionable formulation applied to the dissenters to orthodox Catholicism. Their very interpretation of Vatican-II as a rupture which, in effect, gave birth to a new Church, is the worst argument one can give for 'unity'! What could be more literally 'divisive' than that?]

If unity is the highest good, and the function of every pastor is to keep as many sheep in the fold as possible, then truth risks being reduced to a means, and subject to manipulation for the sake of unity.

In this case, every group and every individual possesses a kind of power of veto over what they consider offensive and unacceptable. The resulting unity is no longer the unity for which Christ prayed and for which he died. Only when we see his death in terms of both truth and love do we arrive at the theological depth of the mystery of their unity.


The Council, it has been claimed, was an unresolved juxtaposition of liberal and conservative elements, of old and new ecclesiologies. Consequently, the claim goes, Catholics must choose between the two. But this is a false dilemma.

The Church's tradition is simultaneously conservatizing and progressive. Its law is conversion. That conversion is the underlying gift of Christ to the Church, and it is in its essence irrevocable, both on the part of God, who ceaselessly provides the graces of fidelity, and on the part of the Church, who in Mary is the faithful handmaid of the Lord.

"The same motive that induces one endowed with continuity to cling imperturbably to truth will compel him also to be open to every new truth. The ability to remain constant in the Yes once given requires an unremitting readiness to change." [26] Conversion is a mystery of continuity and growth.

Like the Church itself, the Council falls into the category of mystery, because it is an action of the Church and an expression of its mystery of being both divine and human.

The same tendency to reduce the Church to one element of its mystery has been applied to the Council, with the result of reducing it to a merely human clash between liberal and conservative forces.

The assertion that we must choose one or the other has been one of the most significant weaknesses of post-Vatican II theology, and this has presented a significant obstacle to the renewal that the Council began.

It would be more correct to see the Council in the same light in which the apostles saw their first assembly in Jerusalem after the Lord ascended. "For it has seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us . . ." (Acts 15:28).

At this first council, human action and divine agency combined, and new teaching arose out of the old. That new teaching, and the entire body of doctrine of which it was a part, was the fruit of Peter's conversion in understanding the mysterious ways of God.

It constituted a call to conversion on the part of those who would see the Church as a radical break with Judaism, as well as those who saw it as simply reduced to Judaism. No less a conversion is required today of those who see Vatican II as a departure from the Tradition or as a completely new beginning.


[1] This is the well-known phrase of Sacrosanctum Concilium, 14.

[2] On the new formulae of faith, see Pope Paul VI, Ecclesiam Suam, nos. 41, 83, 85.

[3] This is essentially the reason given by Pope John Paul II for the revision of the Code of Canon Law in Sacrae Disciplinae Leges (January 25, 1983).

[4] See Sources of Renewal. On the Implementation of Vatican II (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1980).

[5] Motu proprio, Sanctitatis Clarior, March 19, 1969; AAS 61(1969), p.149.

[6] Christifideles Laici, no. 16.

[7] "Reform from the Beginnings," article in 30 Days, November 1990, pp. 66-67. The same theme is taken up in The Ratzinger Report (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1985), pp. 45-53.

[8] The Splendor of the Church (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1986), pp. 293-294.

[9] On the hierarchy of truths, see the article, "The Hierarchy of Truths" in The Catholic Faith, Vol. 6, No. 1 (January/ February, 2000).

[10] On this see Dominicae Cenae, no. 4.

[11] Je Crois en l'Esprit Saint, III. Le Fleuve de Vie coule en Orient et en Occident (Paris: Cerf, 1980), p. 348.

[12] Je Crois en l'Esprit Saint, III, p. 350.
[13] Some of what follows agrees with and was inspired by the article of Cardinal Francis George, "How Liberalism Fails the Church," in Commonweal, November 19, 1999.

[14] Cardinal Ratzinger gives a profound analysis of this in his book, Principles of Catholic Theology. Building Stones for a Fundamental Theology (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1987), pp. 372-373.

[15] Ibid., p.

[16] Ecclesiam Suam, nos. 10-11.

[17] See the judicious discussion of the limits of criticism by Pope John Paul II in Redemptor Hominis, no. 4.

[18] Cardinal Ratzinger made a similar remark in his Intervention on the Occasion of the Presentation of the Declaration, Dominus Iesus: "missing the question of truth, the essence of religion does not differ from its 'non-essence,' faith is not distinguished from superstition, experience from illusion. Finally, without a serious apprehension of the truth, the appreciation of other religions becomes absurd and contradictory, since there are no criteria for ascertaining what is positive in a religion."

[19] In Ecclesiam Suam, nos. 48-49.

[20] The Splendor of the Church (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1986), pp. 100-101.

[21] Ibid., p. 283. All of chapter 8 of this remarkable book could be read with great profit with respect to our subject.

[22] Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, "'You are Full of Grace': Elements of Biblical Devotion to Mary," in Communio, XVI (1989), N. 1, p. 61.

[23] See Pope John Paul II's remarks on the uncritical acceptance of the findings of the human sciences as an obstacle to conversion in Reconciliatio et Paenitentia, no. 18.

[24] The best treatment of this subject of which I know is by Rene Latourelle in Christ and the Church, Signs of Salvation (Staten Island, New York: Alba House, 1972).

[25] This is one of the assertions of the Declaration, Mysterium Ecclesiae, of June 24, 1973.

[26] From Transformation in Christ by Dietrich von Hildebrand, as quoted by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger in Principles of Catholic Theology. Building Stones for a Fundamental Theology (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1987), pp. 63-64.

[Edited by TERESA BENEDETTA 2/14/2010 3:40 AM]