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Key perceptions of—and at—the Second Vatican Council

By Dr. Jeff Mirus (bio - articles - email) | Nov 14, 2017

Most of us have our own convictions about the nature and significance of the Second Vatican Council. Surprisingly, we often hold these convictions without having read the documents. At this point, over fifty years after the close of the Council, it is hard to insist that people go back and read them—unless, of course, they wish to make informed comments on what the Council said or did.

To make things easier, I wrote a guide to the documents of the Council back in 2010. Starting with A funny thing about Vatican II…, it grew to a total of 34 brief installments and is available as a free ebook: The Documents of Vatican II: A Summary and Guide. So it is still possible to be reasonably knowledgeable even if you do not wish to devote all of your spare time to the task.

Of course it is one thing to have our own perceptions of the Council now. It is quite another to have perceptions from within the Council when it was actually in progress. Our duty as Catholics is to be guided by the “Second Vatican Council”, defined as the authoritative documents it produced, just as we would be guided, where applicable, by the Council of Trent or, for that matter, the Council of Jerusalem.

But the Council as an event is not the same thing as the Council as a set of documents. As an event, any council is a complex process of human discussion, planning, pressure, wrangling and even procedural trickery as various parties work either together or at cross purposes to produce documents that say what these parties think needs to be said. The Second Vatican Council was no different, and one of the best windows on the process that was Vatican II was opened through the publication of the extensive notes taken during the Council sessions by the great theologian and peritus (expert advisor) Henri de Lubac.

I posted a series of interesting excerpts from the first volume of de Lubac’s two volumes of notes shortly after it was published by Ignatius Press, but I never did find time to do the same with the second volume. Still, I am very slowly making my way through it, and I believe it will be worthwhile to call the reader’s attention to this unique source once again.

Personal Assessments

De Lubac was a remarkably fair and balanced observer. Still, for those who run across his early work on the theology of his fellow Jesuit, Teilhard de Chardin, perhaps one clarification is in order, as I have never been a fan of Teilhard. De Lubac, for his part, thought Teilhard was largely misunderstood. That is actually quite possible, considering how little Scripture has to say about Teilhard’s “Cosmic Christ” (see St. Paul’s letter to the Ephesians), and considering the impenetrable nature of Teilhard’s prose, along with the confusing new words he was fond of coining. My only disagreement with de Lubac is that he seemed to me, at least early on, insufficiently sensitive to Teilhard’s tendency to view the fulfillment of all things in Christ as a kind of evolutionary process that is too easily misunderstood in a scientistic age.

But I digress. De Lubac was a Catholic spiritual giant with a towering intellect, and his observations at the Council are unerringly on target. For example, in his notes on a meeting to discuss the treatment of religious liberty contained in the initial draft of the document on ecumenism, de Lubac neatly summarizes the impressions made by a number of figures: “Father Häring was there, ever intrepid for the cause of a liberal Gospel; he stood up to Father Fernández. But we were all in the end drowned in the imprecise, inconsistent but vehement verbal flood of Bishop Spanedda.” (p 13)

Of these men, Fr. Häring is most remembered as a leading exponent of that modern contradiction in terms which came to dominate the academy in the last third of the twentieth century—the contradiction best described as “theological secularism”. De Lubac saw it coming. Later, after a discussion on the use of Biblical quotations in the Council documents, particularly the eschatological texts which are always mysterious, he would write:

Archbishop Garrone criticized the misuse, in the schema, of the expression “signa temporum” [signs of the times]. Bishop Guano, secretary, explained; not very convincing. Bishop Charue recommended prudence in the biblical questions so as not to make imprecise applications (but he is himself inspired by a rather rough literalism); he proposed that Fr. Béda Rigaux, exegete, give a conference. A Charue-Rigaux-Häring dialogue followed. (In my opinion, they were wrong on all sides; the Belgians do not see that the eschatological texts can have an echo within history; Häring reduces the religious texts to a wholly temporal and profane meaning.) [p 70]

Ongoing conflict with the Holy Office

“Conservative” Catholics tend to think very well of the Holy Office as it operated back in the days before and during the Council. This has been handed down to us, quite irrelevantly, through the liturgy wars, and it is a grave mistake. Under Cardinal Ottaviani, that curial group repeatedly censured any ideas that did not fit tightly within their own favored scholastic box; offered notable resistance to those who wished to revivify theology by a “return to the sources” (Scripture and the Fathers of the Church); put censors in place wherever they could to circumvent the ability of bishops to judge the work of their own theologians; restricted and sullied the reputations of some of the greatest theologians of the second half of the twentieth century (de Lubac, Congar, and many others); drove Pope Saint John XXIII to distraction; sought continually to wrest control of the Council from the assembled bishops; misled others concerning alleged papal approval for their viewpoints; and precipitated a reaction that, out of sheer frustration, would do great damage to the Church.

In putting this so strongly, I do not mean to justify the many Catholic academicians who went off the rails as Western culture dissolved into secularism. All of my readers should know very well the contempt I have for such transparent betrayals of Christ, a contempt de Lubac already felt a generation earlier. But I have great sympathy for a dramatic and even astonishing comment de Lubac made in June of 1964.

Here is the background: At that time, the current session was set to discuss the draft of the text on Divine Revelation. It began with the distribution of a portion of an issue of the journal Divinitas, presented with a card that read “Tribute from the Saint Pius V Institute” (of which Ottaviani was the head), seeking to settle “theological questions currently debated” before the discussion could begin. In his notes, de Lubac blew a fuse. The flash of light can still be appreciated today:

”Standum firmiter per fidem” [to stand strong through faith] (Saint Hilarius, De fide, init.)—The greatest objection today did not come from anti-Christian or atheist thinking or from so many things that our reformists denounce in the Church, without any rhyme or reason, often stupidly and at times slanderously, and without seeing the opposing views [so make no mistake: de Lubac had the same view of the secularizers as we do]. It comes from this little group, from this clan that always claims to have a monopoly on the faith and wants to assert itself dictatorially. It succeeds in making even those who are fighting against it or who suffer it unwillingly believe that it represents tradition, that it is the sole orthodoxy; now, during the council, it obliges a number of bishops, in order to thwart it, to assume a revolutionary manner, which compromises the peace of the Church and leads to false interpretations. Nothing is more demoralizing than to see at close range its mediocrity (spiritual and intellectual), its thoughtlessness, its extreme smugness, its absence of scruples in the little intrigues—although, in private, they are for the most part decent men. [Then, quoting Newman:] “The mind is below truth, not above it, and is bound, not to descant upon it, but to venerate it.”

Think for a moment of the tendentious anti-rigidity rhetoric of Pope Francis today. In reality, of course, it is hard to find this destructive rigidity in today’s Catholic world. But men like Pope Saint John XXIII, Pope Blessed Paul VI, Pope Saint John Paul II (who made de Lubac a cardinal), and Pope Benedict XVI—recognized that it had been a blight on the Church before and during the Council. As I said above, there is no excuse for the Modernist culture-bound secularizing movement that followed in academia, from which it also infected the clergy, but the atmosphere created by the Holy Office deserves some of the blame for what was, at least in part, a genuine reaction to something that was very wrong—a movement, more importantly, that could too easily take as its cover the semblance of precisely such a justified reaction.

De Lubac’s own reputation

That de Lubac knew what he himself suffered from this official cabal is made clear in a light-hearted comment in another place, offered with admirable spiritual detachment. As background, let me remind you that de Lubac himself was restricted in his publishing for a time by his Jesuit Superior under the pressure of the Holy Office. Consequently, a great many lesser minds in the Church were seeking to score points at his expense. Hence this story:

Bishop Baud, my former student, a Capuchin, missionary in Africa, recounted to me how a Dominican, between 46 and 50, was mounting a campaign with students in order to have me condemned; one of his arguments consisted in exhibiting a course on the Sacraments, supposed to be what I taught at Lyons; Fr. Baud, then at Chambéry, had occasion to disabuse his bishop, but too late. It seems I was teaching that the sacraments were an invention of the middle ages. That, like so many other things, must still be in my file. [p 35]

De Lubac’s solid reporting of what went on in the sessions of the Council and the meetings that surrounded them continues to be as valuable in Volume 2 as it was in Volume 1. But there is enough detail throughout these notebooks to daunt any but the most dedicated scholar. Therefore, looking for situations which have explanatory power, along with special elements of human interest, pays enormous dividends. In his notes, as in his formal theological writings, de Lubac is an unfailing source of faith and insight in what was then, just as it is now, a beleaguered Church.

Jeffrey Mirus holds a Ph.D. in intellectual history from Princeton University. A co-founder of Christendom College, he also pioneered Catholic Internet services. He is the founder of Trinity Communications and CatholicCulture.org. See full bio.

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Show 3 Comments? (Hidden)Hide Comments
  • Posted by: bkmajer3729 - Nov. 16, 2017 7:46 AM ET USA

    This is always a struggle-are we being honest about our thoughts & feelings; really trying to understand before we pronounce...anything? Or, are we too often motivated & guided by our personal prejudices "because we think we know"? Politics & human desire often get in the way clamoring in the gears of thought & avoiding the Holy Spirit. But this too is opinion; yet it does bother why there isn't more reflection before pronouncing - especially when reputation is lanced. But no, we know better...

  • Posted by: koinonia - Nov. 14, 2017 9:41 PM ET USA

    If one reads Pius X one begins to see that modernism is intolerably dangerous. He taught that that it must be fought relentlessly. He spoke even in violent imagery against it. Most Catholics have no idea who Pius X. Those who do are few. The stark reality is that reality is surprisingly stark in such short time. Great minds are great, but Our Lord never spent much time discussing them in the Gospel. He did focus on receptivity and the humility required to believe in Him and in His message.

  • Posted by: mary_conces3421 - Nov. 14, 2017 7:32 PM ET USA

    Thank you for your scholarship. This all makes so much sense to me. For one thing, it helps me to understand why some of my staunchly Tradionalist friends deprecate De Lubac, who, when I read him, seems illuminating. And why another friend is enamoured of Chardin—and why I’m not. And some of the windmills against which Pope Francis seems (pointlessly, in my opinion) to be tilting. All of us, I hope, trying to be good Catholics.