Saturday, June 25, 2011

Nick Needham on Roman Catholicism Today 5: Vatican II and “The Great Leap Forward”

Here are the first four parts of this series:

Nick Needham on Roman Catholicism Today, Part 1: “New Territory” (0:00 to 6:50)
Nick Needham on Roman Catholicism Today, Part 2: “The Advent of Modernism” (6:50 to 15:55)
Nick Needham on Roman Catholicism Today, Part 3: “John Henry Newman” (15:55 to 21:42)
Nick Needham on Roman Catholicism Today 4: The Nouvelle Theologie Opens the Door to Modernism (21:42 to 27:20)

The opportunity for the nouvelle theologie to change the official face of Roman Catholicism came with the election of a new pope on October 28, 1958. His personal name was Angelo Guiseppe Roncalli. He took the papal name John XXIII. Unlike his predecessor, Pius XII, the new pope, although already an old man, was susceptible to the modernizing agenda of the nouvelle theologie. (27:20)

John XXIII profoundly believed that for a church living in the second half of the twentieth century, it wasn’t sufficient to stand still and just repeat everything it had said in the past. It was necessary, instead, to embark on a radical process of what he called, aggiornamento, that’s an Italian word meaning something like “bringing things up to date”. His instrument for achieving this would be a second Vatican Council. (27:52)

Thus when John XXIII summoned Vatican II, in 1962, his specific intention was not merely repeating or even clarifying what had been taught in the past, but rather, bringing about a religious leap forward, making Roman Catholicism more open to the transformed situation of twentieth century man. (28:16)

As the pope made clear in his address which inaugurated the council, his justification was that the “substance” of the ancient doctrine of the “deposit of the faith” is one thing, and the way which it is presented, is another. This distinction between “the substance of the faith” and “the way it is presented” was amenable to a “nouvelle theologie” interpretation. “The substance” was the person of Christ. “The presentation” was “changeable theological ideas”. (28:50)

The result of Vatican II was a clash of theologies and their representatives, with the neo-Thomist traditionalists fighting the modernizers of the nouvelle theologie. As David Wells recounts, when the two parties came to conflict with each other, three outcomes were possible. On rare occasions, one side prevailed unequivocally. Sometimes, when neither side backed down, a reconciling statement was drawn up, which was ambiguous enough to mean different things to the two parties. And sometimes, no such reconciling statement could be devised, in which case, the two opposing positions were simply recorded alongside each other. (29:41)

Perhaps the most important single victory of the nouvelle theologie modernizers was the rejection of the old traditional Roman Catholic doctrine of Scripture as verbally inspired and infallible. Vatican II instead teaches that Scripture is inspired only in terms of those things which God wishes us to believe for our salvation. In other words, of salvation. [It seems as if there was a bad edit in the recording at this point.] Matters of cosmology, history, geography, etc. (30:17)

Vatican II did a number of other things in its pursuit of aggiornamento, or updating the church, notably getting rid of Latin as the language of worship, and reforming the shape and the content of Roman Catholic worship, to make it more “people-centered”. As a result, a modern post-Vatican II service of worship, in, say, a British Roman Catholic church will now be little different from a traditional Protestant service. Hymns, Bible readings, sermons, all in English. (30:50)

This has all contributed to the view that what happened at Vatican II was a genuinely biblical reformation, such as the sixteenth century Protestant Reformers had called for. But the theological background to Vatican II’s work was, as we’ve seen, very different. Not an acceptance of Reformation theology, but the nouvelle theologie with its modernist ideas. (31:17)

So then, the problem that Vatican II bequeathed to Roman Catholics was a set of council documents which could often be interpreted in varying ways; an ambiguous blend of more traditional notions with the more progressive philosophy of the nouvelle theologie thinkers and reformers. Rather than resulting in clarity, what Vatican II did in many ways was to produce theological uncertainty within the Roman Catholic communion. (31:50)
I don’t imagine any of this is too different from what most of you would have expected. One of the primary things that has occurred in Roman Catholicism over the last 50 years, then was to try to work out these “ambiguities.” Given that Pope Paul VI was largely an ineffective pope after Vatican II, this task fell to Pope John Paul II, and his theological watchdog, Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, who was Prefect of the Congretation for the Doctrine of the Faith (formerly the Holy Office, and prior to that, the Inquisition).

The next installment talks about that process.

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