Spinning Vatican II & Facing Reality



Back in June, Fr Martin Boland, the Dean of Brentwood Cathedral, gave a lecture on the modern period as part of a diocesan centenary series. The thesis presented in this talk was The Spirit of the Second Vatican Council has been the guiding force in the life and structures of the Diocese of Brentwood over the past thirty five years. Although I found the content impeccably worded, it provides an excellent example of the "VII as rupture" school of thought. The section on the Liturgy is particularly telling. I recognise as Dean, he could hardly say much else. Yet there is a fundamental dissonance between the picture of the post-conciliar Church he paints and the reality. It left me wondering whether he really thinks like this or if he was told to say it? Fr Martin begins like this:
Vatican II eschewed the forms and language of previous councils, and chose to find a more pastoral key to communicate its meaning. I would characterise this as the Second Vatican Council, the Church, finding an adult syntax.
It is certainly true that Vatican II was innovative. Pope John XXIII, in his opening speech to the Council (November 11, 1962), declared its aims to be the following:
  • that the Catholic Faith should be kept and taught,
  • but taught in the language of modern man by a magisterium “which is predominantly pastoral in character,”
  • and this without resorting to any condemnations,
  • thus appealing to all peoples (this Council was to be ecumenical, not only in the sense of being a general council of the Church, but also in that of appealing to the religiosity of all people of whatever religion).
These aims could be seen as laudable, but do they constitute a "the Church finding an adult syntax"? If anything it seems that Vatican II was an attempt to simplify and dumb down the language of the faith in order it be better accepted. Indeed, the counter argument can be made that these ideals led directly to Catholic teaching being presented weakly (i.e. without any definitions or condemnations), confusedly (without any technical, scholastic terminology), and one-sidedly (so as to attract non-Catholics).The council ran for four sessions between October 11, 1962 and December 8, 1965. Fifty-two years later, have the aims of the council been achieved in terms of reunification? What about the council's aims with regard to the work of evangelisation and reaching out to people of all faiths and none? Fr Martin is very positive about this aspect of the council:
The beauty of Christ was to be presented without a defensive or strident tenor in order that all men and women of goodwill might freely respond to this beauty. Far from being abandoned, dogma and truth found a more soft-spoken pitch in the key of reconciliation, mercy and persuasion. However, this was not an experiment in linguistic ornamentation, but, rather, this tone and style offered fresh and mature approaches by which we might witness to Christ.
Has this been successful? Have men & women of goodwill freely responded to the beauty of Vatican II's presentation of the faith? A survey published yesterday confirms a devastating reality. The number of Anglicans in Britain has collapsed by 50 per cent in under two decades. Any objective appraisal of the situation over fifty years on would need to accept a key change in the challenges facing the Church. Atheism and secular culture are ascendant in a culture that has become largely religiously illiterate. I would propose that illiteracy is due to the way Christianity has been presented in the intervening decades: weakly, constantly apologising for itself, with a fundamental neurosis born of a lack of confidence in the truths it has historically proclaimed and the culture and civilisation it has built. Fr Martin puts forward the opposing thesis:
The Spirit of the Council far from representing a dilution of the faith is, in fact, a distillation into a purer and richer form. The image of the crucified and risen Christ properly restored; painstakingly cleansed of all distorting accretions and theological grime in order that His glory be made more visible and accessible. My tentative claim is that this has been working itself out with particular vigour, the vigour of the Holy Spirit, in the life of our diocese.
Honestly I just don't know how you can objectively conclude this. Young people are leaving the Church in droves, Christianity is losing cultural ground on all fronts and the Church itself is divided on seemingly every level about what constitutes the faith (this has found tremendous focus in the battles over Amoris Laetitia where we see those "who want Amoris Laetitia to say something it simply doesn’t, and who are trying, with the zeal of medieval alchemists, to change the gold of Church teaching into the dross of the Kasper proposal." as Ed Condon said in The Catholic Herald this week).

If we cleansed the image of the crucified and risen Christ, cleansed Him of all distorting accretions and theological grime in order that His glory be made more visible and accessible, it seems fewer and fewer people understand that message, or an increasing number are rejecting it for secular culture. I see this all around me and engage with it daily. I believe in the transformative power and joy of a life lived in Christ which is why I engage with it. I simply do not see people being attracted to "nu church", a few maybe, but they are mainly people who have bought into the legacy of the sixties and, while recognising the lie of the new age spiritualism on some, fundamental level, are not quite ready to abandon the "peace and love" message that formed them there.

The idea that everything is lovely and cuddly and all we need to make the world a better place is to accept each other and hold hands is a false idol. This "fluffy Jesus" theology inherently fails to speak to the trials and suffering most people encounter in their everyday lives. People respond to the idea of sacrifice and need confidence that there are a). objective truths they can cling to and b). people who understand and can articulate those truths in a meaningful, not abstract way.

To justify his claim about the vigorous work of the Council in the diocese of Brentwood, Fr Martin uses GS 22, which emphasises the fundamental dignity of every human person made in the image and likeness of God, and links this teaching with various actions of Bishop Thomas McMahon: the inauguration in 1984 of a new Diocesan Social Welfare Commission, a letter he wrote to President “Pik” Botha of South Africa concerning the Sharpeville six.

It is certainly the case that Bishop McMahon was well known to be solid on pro-life issues and was even present to pray outside an abortion clinic on one occasion, which marked him out among the bishops of England and Wales. But is that a result of the inspiration of the council? Surely it is just a basic Catholic impetus and imperative to feed the hungry, care for the sick and the needy (see Matthew 25:30-40)? Is there an implication that these things did not happen before the Second Vatican Council? I do not understand the connection being made here.

The next connection between Brentwood Diocese and Vatican II is about the liturgy.
The development of a profound interior and exterior participation in the liturgical act, the saving work of Christ expressed through the liturgy, became an active focus in the diocese.
This is an intriguing statement. I have no idea how it could be justified. The legacy of Bishop Thomas in the diocese is the destruction and re-ordering of our Churches, specifically the incorrect removal of tabernacles from a central position to side chapels which came about as Bishop Thomas misread one of the post-conciliar documents (Fr Ray Blake even mentions this historical fact in this post). Another Bishop Thomas anecdote is his public declaration that he 'does not believe in the god of the crumb', referring to the fraction. I am wondering what I have missed in Bishop Thomas' 34 years that could give credence to the focus on Christ's saving work? Fr Martin continues:
A concrete expression of this was written in stone on 31 May 1991 when Brentwood Cathedral was dedicated by the late Cardinal Basil Hume. I have just returned from retreat in a monastery in the Highlands of Scotland. Over breakfast one morning, a new guest asked me where I was from. “Brentwood Cathedral”, I replied. “I know it,” he remarked, “The box of light.” I explained to him that I was the Dean of that “box of light”.

His description may be rudimentary, but it’s true that in Brentwood Cathedral everything is about light: the light of the resurrection that illuminates the sacrifice of Christ for us.
Interior of Brentwood Cathedral. No, this is not pre-decoration, this is what it actually looks like all the time!
Ah! Brentwood Cathedral! Everything about Brentwood Cathedral may well be about light, what it is not about is Christ! It contains virtually nothing to denote it as anything even vaguely religious, let alone distinctly Catholic, being described variously by people I meet as a "music hall", a "Quaker meeting room" or a "Methodist chapel". I've even heard it called a "Masonic lodge". It has practically no Catholic iconography and the stations of the cross are an utterly unintelligible vanity project. It is impractical for worship and inspires no devotion. Jesus is hidden away in a wooden doll's house in a side chapel. The nicest comment I've ever heard is "it's alright I suppose" but I don't know anyone who knows who thinks it is anything other than horrendous!

Father Martin says:
Brentwood Cathedral articulates for our whole diocese the Spirit of the Council as found in Sacrosanctum Concilium.
I could not disagree more. As Dom Hugh recently pointed out, the heart of the Liturgical Movement was not centred in changing the liturgy and its rites, but in changing those who took part in it, that the people could draw as much as they could from it and so be nourished, strengthened, enlightened, and encouraged even more than they were already (see SC 48). To my mind, Fr Martin is very brave to even cite  Sacrosanctum Concilium. This is because the document is not very useful for anyone wishing to defend the “mainline” reforms that happened after Vatican II. It offers little justification for that agenda. Thus we usually find that the Council is interpreted as an event, ongoing and unfinished, and that we must look beyond the texts to the “spirit of the reformed liturgy”. Fr Martin says that
The desire to bring God to human beings and human beings to God is the animating force behind the liturgical renewal during this period and will be with any future reforms.
And this is indeed a worthwhile endeavour. But can we seriously look at the post-conciliar period and suggest that this has in any way been successfully achieved? Eric Sammons makes the point in a provocative essay that appeared in Crisis last week:
If an entirely objective social scientist were to study the Catholic Church in the second half of the twentieth century, he would see one fact staring him straight in the face: the Church experienced a precipitous decline in the Western world during that time.
Fr Martin goes on to say:
This desire transcends the hackneyed liberal/conservative debate which not only weakens the catholicity of the Church, but also paralyses her mission. For the liturgy is not something that we manufacture, the liturgy is what Christ does to us. Furthermore, liturgy is not an expression of personal taste, it is the Mystery that we are caught up in now and it is, indeed, the future glory that awaits us.
And I completely laud this sentiment and agree with what he says here, but he himself has stopped priests celebrating the EF Mass in his deanery when it was asked for. So I find myself wondering whether he is being honest about his own position in the debate here. In fact, this whole lecture seems to me to be a perfect expression of what Eric Sammons refers to in his Crisis essay: the problem (whatever it is) is compounded, Sammons remarks, by a general refusal to acknowledge the reality of our post-conciliar difficulties: what he terms a “soft censorship” of unpleasant news. Bishops and pastors, diocesan newspapers and parish bulletins have bombarded us for years with reports that the Church is “vibrant,” that programs are booming, that the liturgy is beautiful, that religious education is robust. Never is heard a discouraging word. Yet we know better. We know about the shortage of priests; we see the news of parish closing; we notice the empty pews on Sundays. Something is wrong; we know that.

Sammons argues persuasively that this “soft censorship,” this see-no-evil approach, is now an impediment to evangelisation, because it thwarts serious discussions about the current state of the Church. Evangelisation means bringing people to the truth, he reasons, and that process “cannot thrive in a censored environment.”

Perhaps unintentionally, Fr. Martin seems in complete agreement with Sammons and also the German author Martin Mosebach, author of another excellent essay, which appeared earlier in First Things, in that the “liberal” or “progressive” interpretation (cf Fr Martin's comment that: "this tone and style offered fresh and mature approaches") sees the Council as a decisive break with Catholic tradition, language, etc and welcomes it as Father Martin appears to at the beginning of his lecture. In reality, citing the “spirit of Vatican II,” proponents of this sort of interpretation have implemented radical and controversial changes in the Church (it could be argued that Father Martin has done this himself in the Cathedral, see here for an example), and they continually push for more. I reiterate that my concern is that many appear to see a need to soften or even change the timeless teachings of the Church to make them more palatable or compatible with the age. This quite clearly is Modernism: an ideology by which religious truths, and especially Catholic teachings, are derived and interpreted in accordance with personal religious experience, under the influence of the spirit of the current age.

I would argue that this is Fr Martin's true thesis in this lecture, the Modernism which is part of a powerful accommodationist trend we have seen grow in the years following the Second Vatican Council, significantly weakening the Church’s response to modern secularism and expressly defined in Lamentabili Sane and later condemned in Pascendi dominici gregis. This accomodationism is the driving force behind a bland, insipid Catholicism which seeks to rob the Cross of all power, seeking to contradict Christ's call to repentance and replace it with a Gospel of accompaniment and message that all are welcome. This certainly was evident in Bishop Thomas McMahon's "ecumenical" drive which seemed to greatly favour an Anglican model.

This lecture presents Vatican II as a great success, and denies that any serious problems arose in the Council’s aftermath. Fr Martin seems clear that he considers the changes are proving successful and all is well.

I studied Vatican II for five years as part of a pontifically validated degree in Catholic theology. When you look at the documents with the eyes, mind and spirit of born of faith, of course you interpret them as orthodox and valuable. But I would say yes, Fr Martin is correct that the tone and style of the council did offer a new approach, but as to whether that tone was more mature? Did it in fact allow ambiguities to enter into doctrinal certainties that could be misinterpreted? So much so that documents like Dominus Iesus became a post conciliar necessity?

Anyone who has studied theology knows the particular problems with the council, Lumen Gentium 16 introduced confusion over the missionary dimension of the Church. Lumen Gentium 8 caused huge problems regarding our understanding of ecumenism. We are still trying to sort these issues out, and the relativism, utilitarianism and consequentialism we thought had been put to bed with Veritatis Splendor are now rearing their ugly heads again in the arguments surrounding Amoris Laetitia. Ultimately, though Fr Martin's lecture is very well written and thought out, I fear he is trying desperately to sell untruths here.

I am fast losing faith...Not in Christ, but in the men who claim to be workers in His vineyard and yet seem intent on misleading us and ignoring reality. From bishops who accommodate and facilitate scandals like the CES Document on gay and homophobic bullying, priests making scandalous biblical analogies, complicit silence about well known immorality from bishops the list goes on and on. Perhaps they live in their own little bubble and need a bit more honest challenge when they seek to feed us stuff like this? When it goes wrong and the faithful ask questions, we are patronised with silence. (E.G. An enquiry into Bishop Conry was promised, what have we heard about that?).

Catholics who follow Christ feel increasingly frustrated at the lack of faith of those who are our priests and bishops. We want to help, not constantly criticise but when our bishop's conference seems to make consistently poor decisions, frustration grows to a point where not saying anything feels like complicity in sin and error. Catholics who believe what the Church teaches and try to be faithful are labelled as "nasty", "rigid" or "autistic".

For example, take the CES Scandal. Ttony recently drew together the dots to ask why the Catholic Education Service (CES), led by Paul Barber, recently hosted a study day for CV which was aimed a coming up with a definitive "line to take" on transgenderism. Given the manifest errors in the CES's own document on this issue, largely plagiarised from LGBT lobbyists, it is really very worrying that Catholic Voices, the "go to" organisation for the media to find out what the Church teaches, appears to be looking for a moral lead from the CES!? Where are our bishops? I personally know several Catholic professors who would be only too pleased to facilitate a Catholic response to this challenge with an authentic anthropology, working with our bishops. Why do our bishops not take advantage of these opportunities and marshal all the resources at their disposal to come up with authoritative and sound Catholic responses to secular challenges?

What should our response as Church be to all this? Any experienced leader knows that the first step in dealing with a problem is to acknowledge its existence.

Step 1. Stop pretending there's no problem, a la Fr Martin's lecture above.
Step 2. Start teaching the faith. Authentically. Simply.
Step 3. Lex orandi, lex credendi, lex vivendi. Without understanding the Mass as an opportunity to encounter the living God, who draws all creation to Himself, & thus is the centre & focus of our being, we can never evangelise the people. Therefore make Mass reverent & transcendent.
Step 3. Stop dictating to God and start listening: look at where the Spirit is moving, where the faith is growing and push resources there, even if that contradicts what we think we know (e.g. youth myths).
Step 4. Start engaging with the culture & challenging it instead of accommodating it.

The bishops can really make a difference, but they have to do more than just say nothing. I think this video is quite instructive in the realities of our situation:

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