Some Thoughts on the Recent Negative Commentary on Vatican II

Douglas P. McManaman
Aug 27, 2020
Reproduced with Permission

About 20 years ago when corresponding with Germain Grisez about a number of moral and theological issues, he made two remarks that puzzled me at the time; one, made shortly after my ordination, had to do with the "new clericalism" making its way into the Church; the other had to do with the negative but subtle influence of Neoplatonism that can be detected in the writings of a great many Catholic spiritual and moral writers throughout the centuries. The very word "clericalism" conjured up images of life in Quebec during the pre-conciliar years, so I had imagined it was a thing of the past. And, I was skeptical of Grisez' contention regarding Neoplatonism, in particular his objection to the reduction of intelligible human goods to merely temporal goods instrumental to an eternal life of pure contemplation. It wasn't too long after ordination, however, that I began to see what he was referring to with respect to a resurrection of the old clericalism; the subtle influence of Neoplatonism took a little longer for me to notice, but I eventually came to see the legitimacy of his concern here as well.

Recently, a priest relatively indifferent to Vatican II said to me that the Council was a product of its time; he seemed to be suggesting that its time has passed. I think this might be an indication of the subtle influence of Platonism - neo or otherwise - lurking in the background; for every single ecumenical council in the history of the Church was a product of its time. We exist in time, and everything we do is a response to historical and geographic conditions. The bible itself is a product of its many periods of time in history, but that certainly does not mean that it is not inspired by God. My friend's remark seems to imply that it is possible that an ecumenical council not be a product of its time, as though it should really be a product of eternity alone (an emanation from above), and not in any way "of time" (from below). The implication, it seems to me, is that Vatican II was "merely" a product of its time, which would mean that it did not come from God, who is eternal. But how could one know such a thing?

Among a number of other cognitive habits, the recent negative commentary on Vatican II seems to be firmly rooted in the post hoc ergo propter hoc fallacy (after this, therefore, because of this). It is as if the Individualism of the 60s, the Sexual Revolution and the resulting decline in marriage, the Hedonism of the swinging 70s, the irreverent humor of 80s pop culture and the Nihilism of the 90s, not to mention the ensuing postmodern deconstruction of cultural norms, the fundamentals of ethics, science, etc., with all its social repercussions, including declining Church attendance, would never have materialized had Vatican II not occurred.

But for all we know, things might have been unimaginably worse for the Church had there been no Second Vatican Council. More to the point, history is exceedingly complex; for there are innumerable factors and combinations of factors that account for what we have witnessed in the post conciliar years. Understanding history is not like watching a single passenger train go by; rather, it is more like being inside one train among countless others, assigned to one seat and looking out the window. No matter how much we study history, in the end we are only left with one or more relatively thin fibers of a narrative. To make grand and absolute cause and effect assertions about history often reveals a lack of appreciation for the limitations that matter, sense perception, time, and place, etc., impose on human knowledge; our truth claims bearing upon the contingencies of history are for the most part tentative. The reason is that our conclusions are information sensitive; for they are underdetermined estimates, possibly our best estimates at the moment, the maximally plausible estimates formulated on the basis of the limited data currently available.[1]

Within a Platonic frame of mind, being and essence (ousia) are one and the same. "To be" is identical to being a certain kind of thing. Both Plato and Aristotle were essentialists (universalists); Aquinas, on the other hand, was not. Rather, being and essence are not one and the same, but really distinct. The act of existing (esse) is the "to be" of all the acts of a thing (its form, quantity, time, and other accidental modes of being), and the act of existing is that by virtue of which a being is an individual, that is, a single being. Aquinas is more accurately designated an existentialist;[2] he was without question a particularist. For it is simply not the case that the immaterial is more real than the material; nor is it the case that since time is the measure of motion and "essence" is unchanging, time is not fully real. On the contrary, form, matter, motion, extension, activity, time, etc., are entirely real by virtue of a thing's received act of existing (esse).[3]. Moreover, coming to understand the nature of a thing is time consuming, because we only come to know the natures of things through their activity, and the activities of material things are measured by time.[4]

A persistent and stubborn Platonism, however, continues to shape the reasoning of a good number of Catholic commentators. If nothing is in the intellect that is not first in the senses and sensation is a temporal process, then knowledge acquisition is fundamentally historical. Human reasoning begins in observation and proceeds to the best and most consistent, coherent, or maximally plausible determination.[5] New data, either empirical, historical, or rational, typically upsets the consistency and coherence of our limited set of data, causing us to reform or change our minds. An "essentialist" mind, however, is not disposed to pay much attention to the vicissitudes of history, just as it is not disposed to invest much time in studying the sensible world (i.e., the physical sciences).[6] And if the ideal state is to be created after the pattern of the realm of eternal ideas, then a society so modelled will inevitably resist change, for it is less in need of reform to the degree that it is patterned after the ethereal realm of ideas.

But the ideal state is not patterned after an ethereal world of unchanging forms. Rather, we come to understand the complex nature of a state gradually, through experience, reasoned reflection on that experience, dialogue, more experience and further reflection in light of new ideas and new information. And of course the same is true for the Church, which is a society.[7] The more we understand the pre-conciliar period, as well as the tone and style of previous councils, the easier it is to appreciate the more than 2500 bishops' conviction of the need for such a council. Anyone who is a teacher of young people knows that style (i.e., bedside manner) is almost everything. A person might have great content, but if students detect a whiff of condescension, arrogance, or pretension, the intellectual treasures he/she possesses are not going anywhere.[8] The style of the Second Vatican Council is radically different from every council that has gone before it. The model of the Roman Senate has finally been laid to rest, there are no anathemas, canons or definitions, a much more invitational spirit is evident, not to mention a significant recognition of the limits of human knowing, [9] thus greater stress on the need for dialogue,[10] a new and positive ecumenical attitude, a deeper appreciation for the developmental nature of the Church's self-understanding [11] and a recognition that the Church learns and benefits significantly from the world, among many other things.[12]

The Church is genuinely modernist, in the true sense of that word - as opposed to the false modernism that is nothing but Hegelian reductionism. In fact, the Church cannot help being modernist, for her mission is to proclaim Christ, who is the Word, who is the Truth (Jn 14, 6), and the Truth became flesh, that is, the Truth became historical, and the Holy Spirit that Christ sent leads the Church through history to the complete truth (Jn 16, 13). The Church always reflects upon her own experience, penetrating more and more deeply into the meaning of the gospel. The Church continually moves forward without leaving her treasures behind, gathering up her past in an embrace of all that is true and good.

Those who reject the Council and see nothing but what they regard as its negative fruits are in some ways like a mother who cannot see positive developments that were the result of her son's move into adolescence: life was wonderful when he was 6, 7, 8, etc. We got along so well, she says to herself; he was obedient and sweet. Then suddenly he's a teenager, and life becomes a mess. Only an utterly ahistorical habit of mind would regard this stage of development as unnecessary; for it is very necessary in view of the tremendous good that lies ahead. The terms of this analogy refer to the Church as a whole, not individuals, and the analogy highlights something about the nature of development. Vatican II was a genuine development, but with every new stage of development there are undesirable and, most importantly, unforeseeable side effects, as we know through the move into adolescence or any other stage. We would like for our children to remain at a grade 6 level of likeability, but that is unrealistic. A great deal of good lies ahead, and the price we pay to get them there is adolescence, which has its charms, but overall can be a rather difficult and obnoxious stage to endure. It is an existential/developmental frame of mind that is important here, as opposed to the old "essentialist" mind frame, which tends to abstract from the very motion of the Church, that is, the movement of the Church through history towards eschatological completion.