The MOST Theological Collection: Vatican II: Marian Council
"Chapter 10 - Living out faith"
In urging religious to imitate Mary, Vatican II said that the practice of the evangelical counsels of poverty, chastity, and obedience1 "contribute more than a little to spiritual freedom. They continually arouse the fervor of love, and especially, they are able to make the Christian person more and more conformed to the virginal way of life in poverty which Christ the Lord chose for Himself, and which His Virgin Mother embraced..."
In following out such spiritual ideals, in varied ways and degrees according to our various states in life, we are actually acting on faith. We saw in the introduction to the last chapter that imitation of Mary's faith includes chiefly two things: first, believing and obeying the Church, out of confidence in the promises the Father gave us through His Son, and then, acting on faith. We turn now to this second way.
So the Council wants religious to imitate closely the life of poverty, virginity-celibacy, and obedience which Christ chose for Himself, for He alone of all men could choose all the circumstances of his daily life, which for others, even Mary, are things to be "embraced" from the hand of God. The Council recommends these practices because they continually arouse love, and make one more like Christ and His Mother.
Those who are not called by God to literally and most fully live a life of poverty, chastity and obedience, still can. and should, follow these counsels literally in some degree, and totally in their spirit. The reason is obvious. The whole of Christian life2 could be summed up by saying this: A man is saved and is made holy if, and to the extent that, he is a member of Christ and is conformed to Him. No one can be saved at all, can be His disciple, unless he to some degree is like Christ. The more like Christ a man is in this life, the more he will later be like the glorious Christ.
But we want to note a special aspect of the practice of the counsels. To follow them really is a matter of faith, of living out the implications of faith. How and why that is true needs a bit of exploration.
One way to make the situation clear to ourselves is to investigate what is called the "New Spirituality." Many first became aware of such a movement with the publication of a book by J. D. Gerken, Towards a Theology of the Layman. Gerken asserted that if one compares two things, celibacy for a religious motive, and marriage, he should make two comments: neither one is any better in itself than the other; neither helps more for spiritual growth. To make his point, Gerken had to try to explain away so many statements in Scripture and in the documents of the Church which teach the opposite.
But actually, this view of Gerken's is just one facet of a much larger attempt at a revolution in the whole of the spiritual life. It could be summed up this way. If one compares, again, two things: to give up any creature or pleasure for a religious motive, or not to give it up, he must again make the same two comments, namely, neither one is any better in itself than the other; neither one helps more for spiritual growth.
We find indications of this basic view of the New Spirituality in many recent writings. For example, Father E. Larkin, in an article3 on "Desacralization and Asceticism" happily wrote that in the old spirituality, one became holy by avoiding the world. But, he said, a different attitude reigns now, for the world also is "transparent of God". He meant that all creation is a manifestation of Christ, a vehicle of grace, and a means of contact with God. For, he said, the things of God are everything. Even more impressive at first sight is a footnote4 in the Abbott edition of Vatican II that asserts that the age-old detachment of the Church from the world is no longer valid.
We must remark at once that that footnote is not by the Council, but by the editor of that translation.
But if we look at the passage of the Council5 to which the note is attached, we will see the chief base on which the defenders of the New Spirituality attempt to rest their case. In it, the Council teaches that all creatures are good, for a triple reason. First, God made them all good, as He Himself proclaimed in the opening chapters of Genesis after creating each new thing. Second, creatures acquire an added dignity since they are for the use of man, the highest being in visible creation. Third, creatures are still further ennobled by the fact that in the Incarnation, Christ took on a created nature and used created things.
With this triple goodness of creatures as a foundation, the New Spirituality concludes: Therefore, there is no spiritual gain in giving up such good things.
We notice at once that they have made a very large leap. It is one thing to say that creatures are good; another to conclude that therefore there is no gain in foregoing any of them.
Did Vatican II really mean to teach this New Spirituality? There is no need to merely guess at the thought of the Council by making a long leap. The Council did, most directly and explicitly, say what it meant on this point. It did this chiefly by its teachings on the three evangelical counsels, for they are, actually, nothing other than the three chief ways of giving up creatures. By poverty, one gives up possessions; by chastity? he foregoes the lawful use of sex; by obedience, he relinquishes to a considerable degree, his personal freedom. At the opening of this chapter we read one statement of the Council in which the practice of these counsels is explicitly praised as a means of being like Christ, as a means of stirring up love and promoting Christian freedom. There are many other statements by the Council to the same effect.
For example, in the Constitution on the Church we read:6 "The Church repeatedly thinks over the admonition of the Apostle, who, urging the faithful to love, exhorts them to take the attitude that was found in Christ Jesus, who 'emptied Himself, taking on the form of a slave... [and] became obedient even to death' and for us 'became poor, though he was rich.' " Similarly, in the Decree on the Missions:7 "The Church, at the urging of the Spirit of Christ, must advance by the same way that Christ did, that is, by the way of poverty, obedience, service, and self-immolation even to death..."
So the Council actually teaches the opposite of what the New Spirituality claims it teaches! (We recall how the press reported the Council downgraded Mary, when in reality, it went farther in its Marian teaching than any Council in the entire history of the Church).
The advocates of the New Spirituality are apt to reply. "But we do approve of mortification. We merely say that there is so much of it in our lives anyway, sent us by Providence, that there is no point in imposing more mortification on ourselves by giving things up without need."
Pope Paul VI, in his decree Poenitemini of February 17, 1966 answers this claim: "... the Church ... invites all Christians without distinction to respond to the divine precept of penitence by some voluntary act, in addition to the renunciation imposed by the burdens of everyday life." In saying this, pope Paul is merely following the pattern set by St. Paul, who, in writing a second time to the Corinthians, enumerated the many hardships he encountered in his work of preaching the Gospel. Yet St. Paul added8 "fastings also".
The entire teaching of the Council and the Popes on this subject is really just a restatement of Scripture. Christ Himself in the parable of the sower pictured the good seed as falling on various types of soil. Some of it fell among thorns. It began to sprout, but then the thorns choked it. And He explained:9 "As to that which fell among the thorns, these are the ones who hear [the word] and as they go, are choked by the cares and riches and pleasures of life, and they do not bear fruit." Now the riches and pleasures of this life are good, even triply good. But they can at the same time be thorns, that is, they can be a danger to spiritual development. That is why He also promised:10 "And everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters, or father, or mother, or wife, or children, or lands for the sake of my name, will receive a hundredfold and will inherit everlasting life."
We can see now how the Council can say that all creatures are good, triply good, but that still, there is a spiritual gain in giving them up: even good things can have disadvantages or can bring dangers. Or, to look at another aspect of the same reality, there are two scales on which we can rate creatures, the absolute scale, and the relative scale. On the absolute scale, rating creatures in themselves, we must say that they are all good. But on the relative scale, that is comparing their goodness with the things to come in the future life, we must say they are very slight indeed, and that if they cause a danger, it is better to have rather little to do with them.
St. Paul understood this relative scale well. He told the Romans11 "The sufferings of the present time are not worthy [to be compared] to the glory that is to be revealed in us". And even more forcefully:12 "The things that were gain to me, these I have considered loss, on account of Christ. But I therefore consider all things loss, on account of the outstanding knowledge of Christ Jesus my Lord, for whom I have taken the loss of all things, and I consider them as dung." So on the absolute scale, creatures are triply good; yet on the relative scale, they are mere dung, compared to the glory that is to come.
To see this truth requires faith. It is quite the opposite of what our senses tell us. They insist that the things Of this world alone are worthwhile.
So if we want our faith to grow, we need to act on it, to act according to it. That means, to actually part with some creatures and pleasures, and to be detached from the others, as Paul urged the Corinthians:13 "The time is short. As for the rest, [I urge] that those who have wives be as though not having them, and those who weep, as though not weeping, and those who rejoice as though not rejoicing, and those who buy, as though not having, and those who use the world, as though not using it."
Another great reason why there is important spiritual value in giving up creatures and in mortification appears in the doctrinal introduction to a new document on indulgences by Pope Paul VI. Scholastic theologians had long taught that there is a universal moral order. We might compare it to the type of scales in which there are two pans, hung from a beam, which ought to balance. When someone sins, he as it were, takes for himself more than he should have: the scale is out of balance. Reparation for sin calls for putting the scales back into balance. That is done if the sinner himself, or someone acting for him, gives up something he otherwise might have legitimately had, or suffers some evil voluntarily. God, in His love of goodness, wants the scales balanced.
This new document of Paul VI marks the first time, that the Magisterium of the Church has explicitly endorsed the theological teaching we have just sketched. The Pope said that14 "for the full remission and reparation of sins, it is necessary that all the values of the universal moral order itself ... be fully reestablished." He explains the Redemption in terms of this balancing, for he says there is a "treasury of the Church ... which is the infinite and inexhaustible price that the expiations and merits of Christ have before God, offered that all humanity might be liberated from sin..." So the chief work of balancing the scales was done by Christ. But we saw in our previous study of the price of Redemption that the Father willed that the Redemption be made as rich as possible, by joining the contribution of Mary to that of Christ. Similarly, in this matter of the balancing of the scales, which is simply another aspect of the Redemption, Mary contributes:15 "Furthermore, there pertain to this treasury also the truly immense, immeasurable, and ever new price that the prayers and good works of the Blessed Virgin Mary and all the Saints have before God." We note the Pope mentions the other Saints as well as Mary: it is the will of the Father that the balancing reparation be made not only by Christ the Head, but by the whole Christ, Head and Members. In the objective phase of the Redemption, there was only Christ and His Mother; in the subjective phase, the contribution of all the members of Christ is added.
So it is obvious: to imitate Mary and her Divine Son, we must take part in this work of reparation, of balancing the moral order. Such is the will of the Father. This cannot be done by giving up nothing, as the New Spirituality suggests.
Pope John XXIII wrote an almost frightening passage about the special duty of priests to join in this work.
In his Encyclical on the Cure of Ars, he quoted the Cure.16 "His reply is well known to a priest who complained that his apostolic zeal was devoid of fruit: 'You have prayed humbly to God', you have wept. you have groaned, you have sighed. Did you add also fasting, staying awake, sleeping on the floor, chastisement of the body? As long as you have not come to these things, do not think you have tried everything.' Our mind turns again to priests who have the care of souls, and we beg them earnestly, to hear the vehement force of these words. Let each one, led by that supernatural prudence to which all our acts must be conformed, think over again his way of life, (and ask himself) whether it is such as the care of the people entrusted to him calls for."