Sacrosanctum concilium @60 – still getting our bearings

Sacrosanctum concilium

On 11 October 1962, the Second Vatican Council opened, and a year later, Sacrosanctum concilium changed the Church’s liturgy.

It was expected by most of the bishops that it would ratify a series of documents prepared by the curia covering a raft of issues – but in essence, this was seen as an exercise in tidying up a few loose ends that had been debated since 1870 – and the whole affair would be over by Christmas.

The expectation of many bishops as they arrived in Rome in early October was that the council would involve just that single trip.

Some suspected that the Feast of the Immaculate Conception on December 8 would be a most appropriate day on which such an event could end, and so the bishops (allowing some time to visit Gammarelli’s, the papal tailors, for some new kit) would be home well before Christmas.

Those bishops expecting a short, rather technical council were right about one thing: it ended on the Immaculate Conception feast, except that they got the year wrong. It ended on 8 Dec 1965 – three years and four ‘sessions’ later – making it the second longest council in the history of the western church.

Moreover, what we would now call its ‘outputs’ – formal documents ranging from binding constitutions to messages of goodwill – dwarf in volume, range, and complexity the productions of any previous council.

‘The documents of Vatican II’ is a hefty paperback!

Then, on 4 December 1963, came the first bombshell: Sacrosanctum concilium. The liturgy would change.

Now, sixty years on, we have enough distance to take stock of where we are in relation to it.

Mixed messages

Some months ago, Pope Francis annoyed many who express their great regard for pre-1969 liturgical practices.

Francis stated that they might be using those liturgical claims as an excuse for a much wider rejection of the teaching of Vatican II.

Such a rejection, the pope has made clear now in several documents, is simply not an option for Catholics.

This position is clear and consistent: an ecumenical council with the approbation of the Bishop of Rome is the highest teaching authority.

While one can find any number of individuals – and their websites – who disagree with the pope on this and who view Vatican II with a range of attitudes from being “a rant by trendy liberals in the ‘60s” to it being the demonic invasion “foretold in Revelation 12,” the situation is otherwise when it comes to bishops!

However, to a man, they are staunch supporters of Vatican II and add a few footnotes to it in everything they write.

But, one suspects that for some of them, this is simply ‘the party line.’

In fact, we all know that for some bishops – and quite a number of presbyters and deacons – their acceptance of Vatican II is little more than ticking the obligatory box and expressing the right sentiments.

There are many who would like to skip the council as a blip, and, since that is impossible, give it as minimal an interpretation as they can.

Would it be good to face this?

The idea that all the bishops appointed or all teachers in seminaries in the last 60 years would be equally enthusiastic about the vision of Vatican II is, of course, an illusion, albeit a pious one.

Even the credal text of Nicaea in 325 – which was, after all, what we today would refer to as a ‘convergent text’ – left many of its signatories wondering whether they had gone too far.

But Catholic episcopal unanimity is a deeply entrenched illusion that has been fostered with care since the time of the Reformation.

While Protestants, those ‘others,’ might speak with many voices and have ever more divisions, we Catholics speak clearly with one voice and all in harmony with and under Peter.

That was the theory; and for many, that is still the theory, and it is just that: a theory.

One has but to read some of the pastoral letters of several bishops – and they are present in every episcopal conference – to see that there are ‘church parties’ as alive and well in the Catholic Church as they are in every other Christian communion!

The same range of attitudes can be found among presbyters – and the tensions can be felt in any number of parishes.

The claim, plus those few quotes from Vatican II documents, is that Vatican II is wholly accepted.

The reality is very different.

This pretence is unhealthy.

In a way, Pope Francis, in pointing out that liturgical ‘preferences’ were/are being used as an analogue for rejecting the council, has lanced a boil.

Perhaps the time has come for an open discussion of whether or not we accept, partially accept, or reject what was set in train by Vatican II.

This would require jettisoning the myth that we all think ‘with Peter,’ but it might inject honesty and realism into many debates in our communion.

A couple of decades ago, we still imagined that a ‘few bad apples’ – with reference to sexual abuse by clerics – could be dealt with ‘discreetly.’

Now we know it was not only morally wrong but a mistake.

We might learn from that mistake.

There are deep tensions over the legacy of the Council.

Within the church, there has been a great deal of laziness in regard to studying its implications and this results in confused messages and practices.

There are some whose theological vision and/or pastoral approach is tantamount to a rejection of Vatican II, and it might be healthy to bring this into the open.

Bringing it into the open would indeed be in line with the pilgrim People of God ecclesiology advocated by the council.

Moment or process?

Some years ago, there was a wonderfully vibrant debate at a conference of theologians.

The debate concerned whether Vatican II, and its subsequent enactments was to be construed ‘strictly’ in terms of what is written in its documents or was to be seen as the beginning of a process that began with John XXIII, window-pole in hand, and then continued with ‘the spirit of Vatican II.’

The debate rumbled on from the lecture room to the meals to the evening relaxation – without a clear victor.

What did become clear was that this was a clash of hermeneutical perspectives.

It is a version of the question as to whether the US Constitution should be interpreted in terms of its original eighteen-century moment – and to accept ‘the mind’ of the framers as a limitation – or whether it should be interpreted in the light of the evolution of society and needs.

Likewise, this is the question of whether a text – even a sacred one – somehow contains the truth or is to be seen as a momentary witness within a trajectory?

These distinctions often overlap with the social binary of ‘conservative’ / ‘liberal’, but they are not identical, nor can they be mapped one onto the other.

Does Vatican II condemn us to theological ‘culture wars’?

From another perspective, is it possible that there is a genuine conciliar hermeneutic within theology – or are these approaches a function of individuals’ epistemology?

I am convinced that there is a conciliar, and strictly theological, hermeneutic that has to be applied – and has been applied historically – to conciliar judgements and that this approach has to map onto our theology of tradition rather than be justified by an appeal either to a particular view of what constitutes a right judgement, a criteriology, or to a wider position within jurisprudence.

The argument can be sketched out in this way.

The church is a community ‘stretching out’ over time, and so we never experience more than our moment – a tiny ‘slice’ of the reality, a still within a movie.

In this, our koinonia is fundamentally different from a political institution whose public commitment is to a set of rules and procedures.

A community – as a living organism – is constantly changing, both for better and for worse, and no moment can be considered ‘golden’ or definitive.

The Spirit is ever active – and there was no moment of a divine ‘go slow’ such as after the last canonical book was written, the last ‘apostle’ died, or some event such as Christianity becoming a religio licita in 313.

The Spirit, celebrated as active by Luke at Pentecost in Jerusalem, was celebrated as equally active at the council in 1962, and will be celebrated as just as active in the synod in 2023.

Only at the eschaton will the community ‘possess the truth’ and, meanwhile, over the whole of her life, the Church relies on the leading and guiding of the Spirit.

But the Church is also truly human – and like the Logos made flesh exists in history – and so the Spirit is a presence, not a mechanism.

Similarly, the object of our koinonia is not the community itself (such as is the case in a political or judicial body), but the mission entrusted to it, which it must carry out ‘in season and out of season’ (2 Tim 4:2).

The community, therefore, does not know the exact parameters of its task tomorrow any more than it knew yesterday what are today’s challenges.

God, and our following, is full of surprises!

Moreover, when the church reflects – in a local community, a regional synod, or ecumenically in a council – her ‘object’ is always beyond definition.

When the church imagines that God, or the mystery of the Christ, or the mystery of salvation can be defined, she has forgotten the very first element of monotheism: the divine is always greater than can be imagined, and all our statements are momentary stutters.

We need to refine, renew, and re-invigorate them continually – once they get ‘stuck,’ they rapidly lose their value.

We know this when we refuse to surrender to textual literalism or to confuse revelation with a book, but it is a temptation to falsehood that we must shun as an insidious virus.

If we freeze the moment of a council, we deny that through its dynamic influence, the Spirit might be active now in the Church.

Moreover, Nicaea was revisited by Constantinople, then by Chalcedon, then by any number of Western councils – until in the aftermath of Trent, we had one Christology being preached by the Jesuits – the Sacred Heart – and another by the Redemptorists – the Merciful Redeemer – and any number of combinations.

But these were at odds not just with one another but with the Nicene vision.

But we lived with this because each theology was a sincere attempt to get around the problems of late medieval scholasticism.

Our responses to the divine cannot be grasped in any one way.

Our expressions of our worship and its abstraction as teaching constantly evolves.

We never step into the same river twice, but there is a river for we live within it.

Vatican II was but a moment in the process, and being loyal to it (as to any council) is a dynamic affair of seeking out, in the Spirit, its spirit rather than its letter.

In this sense, it does not matter whether we are six or sixty years after Vatican II: this was the last time we came together in such a meeting, and so we must journey in its wake – far more elusive than its text – until there is another.

This constant journeying is not only what will allow us to grow towards a deeper life together within the Catholic Church but is the way forward in our relations with other churches.

… never deformed?

There is an adage that ‘the church is ever in need of reform but has never been deformed.’

This is similar to the dilemma of the washing powder brands who are always pitching ‘the new, improved formula’ powder but are unwilling to admit that the older stuff was not as good as the competition and might even have been useless!

Three and half centuries of telling Protestants that they were mistaken when the said Rome had lost its way (e.g. in using an academics’ language for worship), and nine centuries of telling the East that there was no basis for their complaints about what the west did in either practice (e.g. introducing unleavened wafers at the Eucharist) or theology (e.g. adding ‘and the Son’ to the creed) had left their mark.

When Vatican II wanted to introduce changes, it felt compelled to do so while insisting that there was nothing wrong with what was already there!

This, perhaps naturally, produced a reaction to the council’s innovations akin to the mechanics’ maxim: ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it!’

If something was ‘fit for purpose’ one day, why was it unfit the next?

And, if the council’s teaching was the polar opposite of what went before (e.g. Unitatis redintegratio (1964) compared with Mortalium animos (1928)), then were we wrong then [i.e. in the old position] or are we wrong now [i.e. having changed it]?

The position was, and is, made more confusing in that in most documents – indeed, in texts still being written – there is a lengthy praise of the older position to show, ingeniously, that nothing has changed.

The effect of this strategy – saying nothing has changed [when it has] and we have never erred [when we must have or we could not have had to make such drastic changes] – is dispiriting and, more perniciously, generates a suspicion that it is but a game of words or ‘the fashion’ of those in office.

It would be far better both for our appreciation of the Council and its changes, and for our ongoing relationships with other churches if we just put our hands up and confessed: yes, we did get things wrong in the past, confusions and bad practices did embed themselves, and for every development of doctrine and practice that we find valuable there was a another that is corrupt.

Only when openly asserting our inherited defects can we appreciate that change was needed and that the result is a true reform.

Moreover, as a conscious attempt ‘to renew all in the Christ’ (Eph 1:10), Vatican II is more than just an option.

In short, after 60 years, implementing Sacrosanctum concilium is still very much a work in progress.

  • Thomas O’Loughlin is a presbyter of the Catholic Diocese of Arundel and Brighton and professor-emeritus of historical theology at the University of Nottingham (UK). His latest book is Discipleship and Society in the Early Churches.
  • His latest book is “Shaping the Assembly: How Our Buildings form us in Worship”.

Additional reading

News category: Analysis and Comment.

Tags: , , ,