Tuesday, November 14



My discussion about hermeneutics of rupture and continuity in the comments box on Matt's NPR post elicited disagreement on two levels. The first of these was about the value of a hermeneutics of continuity at all, and whether reading Vatican II supports such a thing. The second, and I believe the more serious, had to do with my reading of recent history, specifically recent American Catholic history. I, in fact, have my own particular thesis, based on both (what I consider) thorough research and reading of both sides of the issue from the time period in question, as well as encounters with those who were present. Thus, I feel that I speak with some degree of competence, regardless of limitations of age. Furthermore, I am of the firm belief that some distance from those tumultuous times might actually provide a healthy detachment of perspective from the events, and thus a different lens of interpretation than might otherwise be available.

With that, let me share my perspective on American Catholicism in the 1950's. The Church was strong in terms of numbers as such and in terms of attendance; no one can really disagree with this. Behind this exterior strength, however, I do believe that there were certain kinds of interior issues that were not present on the surface but that came out with a vengeance in the next decade.

One of these, I think, was an often weak theological formation for priests and religious, which of course also found its way to the laity. While Leo XIII in Aeterni Patris called for a re-emphasis on the theology of Thomas Aquinas, the way this often ended up coming to the average seminary was in the form of neo-scholastic manuals that often bore little resemblance to the teaching of St. Thomas himself. Furthermore, the dryness and singular approach of these manuals (I admit that I am making some inevitable generalizations here, but not particularly unfair ones, in my opinion) tended on the one hand a) to mask the theological creativity within the Church and b) to give the impression of a fixed theological system (as opposed to a fixed deposit of faith with a plurality of legitimate theological expressions, especially on matters not pertaining to defined dogma). This led to both a desire for more compelling theology, whatever it might be, and a degree of unpreparedness for change. Had they been reading de Lubac at the time rather than the manuals, one suspects they may have had less thirst for more radical theologians later. That they were not reading de Lubac, of course, had partially to do with unjust strictures stemming from Humani Generis, which de Lubac graciously accepted - a patience which later helped him become an influential part of the Second Vatican Council.

This confident, burgeoning Church of the 1950's also flourished within a milieu where American Catholicism was still an urban phenomenon and only beginning the move to the suburbs. Note what some suburban churches (and city churches, for that matter, as Matt recently explicated with the unfortunate chapel at NYU) built in that decade look like, and you might get a sense that some sort of aesthetic change for the worse was already afoot. American utilitarian and consumerist attitudes were already starting to make their way into the Church, and the continuance of this phenomenon would have likely produced some sort of crisis later on, one way or another. Add to this the fact that, some places excepting, the United States did not have a particularly consistent tradition of liturgy and music, leading to the "layered closets" of which Thomas Day speaks in which one finds, even before Vatican II, a marked degree of trendiness, much of it for the worse. Exceptions aside, the musical disasters of the 1950's and later did not come out of a vacuum but rather out of a continual lack of a sense of musical tradition. If, as Day argues, more choirs were abolished in the 1950's than in the 60's, something was definitely problematic already. Ironically, the exceptions to this dismal choral record seem to have come mostly in the Midwest, where the liturgical movement was taking hold in interesting and occasionally strange ways (such as Cardinal Stritch's versus populum funeral in Holy Name Cathedral in Chicago in 1958), but such careful approaches were quickly left in the dust of the chaotic '60's.

In the area of religious life, it is also strongly arguable that many religious communities in the 1950's were perhaps approaching the religious life with a bit too much rigidity and ignoring legitimate ways of adapting. This is evident, for example, in women's religious communities in the 1950's that were resistant to changes that, had they implemented them, might have staved off some of the problems of the '60's. It is also evident in the fact that those communities that were the very strictest in the time before the Council tended to be the ones that experienced the worst problems afterwards. It would seem to show that in some cases a healthy moderation was lacking, and that perhaps earlier openness to small change might have prevented some of the disasters to come.

The Church in America, like much of the rest of the world, was thus unprepared to deal with a Council that was in some sense long overdue. It also entered the Council at something of a crossroads in its own life, though it probably did not realize it was at a crossroads. Thus, the event of the Council itself unwittingly unleashed many latent forces in American Catholicism that only needed an excuse to express themselves, and apparently had no idea how to do so in a healthy manner. What happened at this point was not the effect of some massive conspiracy against a thriving Church, but rather of existing weaknesses showing themselves and becoming epidemic. This is not to blame all of the problems we have endured on this particular condition, but rather simply to acknowledge that it was there and that the 1950's and preceding decades and centuries were not an idealized past, but a time like any others, with good points and also with problems.

A hermeneutic of continuity, then, proposes that Vatican II was not only not a bad thing but was in itself a good and necessary event for the Church. The evangelical impulses coming out of Trent and its surrounding events had perhaps done as much as they could, and it was time for the Church to engage herself with new and good trends within the Church, such as the nouvelle theologie and the new lay movements in their infancy at the time. By acknowleding religous freedom, this Council bequeathed to us Dignitatis Humanae, whose discussion of that issue far surpasses any before or since in American polity. It bequeathed to us also the new evangelization, proposed in Paul VI's Evangelii Nuntiandi, championed in John Paul II's pontificate, and continued in Benedict XVI's. Furthermore, legitimate theological plurality within the Church lends itself to new and healthy engagement with philosophy and the others sciences, as well as the continuous unpacking of giants like St. Thomas himself, St. Bonaventure, and more recent greats like Hans Urs von Balthasar. This kind of plurality is necessary for theology in the Church to function creatively as it ought, and to engage in positive, serious dialogue with Orthodox and Protestant thinkers.

But a hermeneutic of continuity also acknowledges that we cannot have a brighter future by ignoring the present and the past 40 years. That is not to validate the mistakes that have been made, but rather to realize that we have to deal with their aftermath and approach it compassionately and realistically. This is why St. John Cantius or FSSP parishes, while providing insights to us, cannot realistically be a model for how to move forward liturgically at this time. While these places are certainly not entirely ideologically uniform, as I may have mistakenly implied earlier, they do presuppose a certain unity of openness to Latin, chant, and the like that simply cannot be expected to immediately take hold elsewhere. We cannot expect the average parish, with its plurality of views, to immediately go in the direction we might want, and indeed that the Church wants. Rather, we must learn to bring the insights of the tradition to bear on our current context with charity and with patience. Not everyone is going to listen to, and many will resist vehemently, proposals to use chant or polyphony at Mass.

In opposition, then, to our earlier commentors I think that the nouvelle theologie of de Lubac, Danielou, Balthasar, Benedict XVI, and John Paul II, and the Council that it helped inspire and continues to draw inspiration from, provide the best chance for the future of the Church. Our mission, then, is to go out and to proclaim the joy of living the Gospel and the Catholic life, the joy and beauty of the riches of our liturgy and tradition. Such a proclamation, I strongly believe, will open many eyes and ears that have perhaps been henceforth closed.

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