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Thinking about those sad, old Vatican II ‘fundamentalists’ — such as Pope Benedict XVI?

Thinking about those sad, old Vatican II ‘fundamentalists’ — such as Pope Benedict XVI?

If religion-beat journalists looked carefully enough, they could see an interesting question lurking inside the rhetoric of the current Latin Mass wars.

That question: What does it mean to be “pro-Vatican II”? If reporters flip that question around it turns into this: Who is “anti-Vatican II”?

For example, see this language at the top of a Catholic News Agency report this past summer with this headline: “Pope Francis: There are many ‘restorers’ in the US who do not accept Vatican II.

There are many “restorers” in the United States who do not accept the Second Vatican Council, Pope Francis said. …

Speaking to the editors of Jesuit journals, he criticized what he called “restorationism” in the Church, which he defined as the failure to accept Vatican II, the ecumenical council held from 1962 to 1965. He said: “Restorationism has come to gag the Council. …”

Note the tension between “accept the Council” and “gag the Council.” What, precisely, does it mean to “gag” the Second Vatican Council? Let’s keep reading:

“The problem is precisely this: in some contexts, the Council has not yet been accepted. It is also true that it takes a century for a Council to take root. We still have 40 years to make it take root, then!”

Pope Francis cited opposition to Vatican II when he issued the motu proprio Traditionis custodes in July 2021, limiting celebrations of the Traditional Latin Mass.

This leads to a logical question: What ARE the teachings of Vatican II? Are they the actual contents of the Council documents or are these teachings an evolving body of work with current and future Catholic leaders deciding what the Council meant to say? Yes, note how these questions echo decades of academic warfare about, well, everything from the U.S. Constitution to the New Testament.

This is a timely subject, in light of the recent death of Pope Benedict XVI — one of few remaining Vatican intellectuals who, as an advisor to a cardinal in the Vatican II sessions, had direct exposure to the debates that led to its final documents. Benedict stressed a strict reading of the contents of Council’s teachings on a host of subjects — such as liturgy and the future role of Catholic tradition.

That leads us to a Religion News Service think piece written before shortly before the death of Benedict XVI. The author, Jesuit Thomas Reese, is a priest who for decades has been one of the most powerful voices (think “usual suspects”) shaping news coverage of American Catholicism. Here’s that double-decker headline:

Vatican II after 60 years

Conservatives, reading Vatican II’s documents like biblical fundamentalists, miss what it meant to participants.

This analysis addressed the issue of the few remaining Catholic leaders with direct exposure to the Council, noting that the “ last American bishop to attend the council, Archbishop Raymond Hunthausen, died four years ago at the age of 96. Pope Benedict XVI, who is 95, served as an expert as a young priest in his 30s.”

In most coverage of fights over Vatican II, journalists turn to a familiar left v. right structure, with the “far right” asserting that the “council was a mistake,” while the left (no “far” in this case) has argued that the “council did not go far enough in its stated purpose: updating the church for the modern world.”

Meanwhile, Reese notes that polls show that modern Catholics — no information provided there on their level of Mass participation — have moved on and now, to some degree, support the ordination of women, chances in doctrine on sexual morality, etc.

That’s old news. What this article is about is, methinks, is putting the spotlight on “fundamentalists” who insist that the actual words and content of the Second Vatican Council — yes, and tensions contained in those documents — are what matter as the church moves into the future.

Who are the bad guys in this drama? Read the following carefully:

Conservatives stressed the council’s continuity with the past, while liberals stressed how the council had changed the church.

What confused anyone who followed these debates was the ability of either side to find passages in the council documents that supported their positions.

The source of this confusion goes back to Pope Paul VI’s desire to have the council documents approved by consensus. A majority vote was not sufficient; not even a two-thirds vote would do. He wanted near unanimity.

To reach consensus, Paul demanded that the council placate its conservative minority. … Progressives accepted these compromises because they thought the future belonged to them. But when John Paul II was elected, he took a conservative line on many of these ambiguous passages.

Believing that the post-Vatican II church was in chaos, John Paul pushed for stability. Further change was not going to happen under his watch. He brought Joseph Ratzinger, later Benedict XVI, to the Vatican to make sure that their interpretation of Vatican II was the only acceptable interpretation in the church. Theologians and priests who did not accept it were fired from seminaries and removed from chanceries. Supporters, meanwhile, became bishops.

Thus, the doctrinal left is on the right side of history, when it comes to adapting to modern culture.

This leads to the thesis statement, which is clearly a description of a post-Benedict XVI world. These conservatives are “like biblical fundamentalists who read Scripture without understanding the historical and cultural context of the passage,” or “like judicial textualists who simply look at the words in the law without respecting the intention of the legislators.” The big idea:

For conservatives, it is sufficient to quote the council text and the interpretation given to it by John Paul and Benedict. End of discussion.

In other words, the meaning of the Second Vatican Council is a matter of power and interpretation in the here and now. The “intention of the legislators” will be determined after that generation of thinkers and leaders has passed away — the generation that included the sainted John Paul II and Benedict XVI, who were both active participants in Vatican II and the creation of its documents.

Read it all. It is a rather striking call for some kind of new Anglican-esque Reformation, with a Western Catholicism that moves in the direction of modern Protestantism. In other words, the goal of Vatican II was Vatican III?

Here’s how I described the current moment in the “Crossroads” podcast post last week (“Benedict XVI protected ancient doctrines, while looking into an ominous future”):

The death of Pope Benedict XVI, if anything, seemed to raise the stakes in many lingering debates in Catholic life. My takeaway is that it represented the final, formal close of the era of St. Pope John Paul II, as well as that of Pope Benedict XVI, who, as Cardinal Ratzinger, had played a crucial theological role in support of John Paul.

Thus, this event — for many on the Catholic right and left — marked the end of the “Veritatis Splendor” era, with John Paul II’s emphasis on the defense of transcendent truths, and the open door into the Synod on Synodality era, with its modern Jesuit emphasis on dialogue and evolving doctrine.


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