by Trevor Anderson
I was born about twenty years after the Second Vatican Council, and came into communion with the Roman Catholic Church about twenty-five years after that, so I have no recollection of what the Catholic Church was like before Vatican II. Likewise, I have no recollection of what the relations between Protestants and Catholics, both ‘official’ and personal, were like, though I understand they were quite different than they are now. Thus, I cannot pretend to address the question of the continuity/contrast of post-Vatican II belief and practice with pre-Vatican II belief and practice with any first-hand experience.
With that said, the question of the continuity between the pre-Vatican II (read: Tridentine) and post-Vatican II Church is one worth asking, and if left unanswered can pose a barrier to Catholic-Protestant conversation insofar as the post-Vatican II Catholic Church – with its newfound friendliness, inclusiveness, and don’t-mind-nasty-old-Trent-revisionism – seems like a moving target. As Darryl Hart writes, it is hard to see how “a meaningful conversation can take place between confessional Protestants and Roman Catholics as long as one side is so uncertain about that for which it stands.” A fair point.
In hope of shedding some light on this issue, here are a few principles that could inform how one might approach the question of the pre- and post-Vatican II Catholic Church. Each of these points will be open to a suspicious interpretation that will render it as dodgy hand-waving, but such an interpretation is not, I think, required, nor is it the most explanatorily powerful.
Also, note that I do not intend these points to “solve” any difficulties, as if tensions within the Catholic tradition are a math problem to be resolved with some handy axioms, postulates, and proofs. These are rather principles that might contribute to seeing a coherence between the pre- and post-Vatican II Church.
First, it is undeniable that at Vatican II there occurred a profound shift in the way the Catholic Church understood and articulated a number of its fundamental beliefs and practices. This idea should be distinguished from the idea that the Catholic Church betrayed its own identity or became something else. Perhaps the Church did do the latter as well as the former, but not necessarily. Significant, even seismic shifts do not imply that the thing shifting has become a different thing; in the same way, someone making a significant change in one’s own life and habits does not make one into a different being. Fr. John O’Malley writes on this point:
Vatican II…[made] a significant break with the past…[T]his is nothing to be frightened about in itself. Even the most radical discontinuities in history take place within a stronger current of continuity. France, for example, was still France after the French Revolution. A more profound continuity has, almost by definition, marked every great change in the history of the church. This is true even for something as radical as the Roman Emperor Constantine’s recognition of Christianity in the fourth century. Since change is part of the human condition, it cannot be something un-Catholic. Change, moreover, does not necessarily entail loss of identity. In fact it is sometimes necessary to assure identity, especially of a living organism.
To reform is to give new and better form to a preexistent reality, while preserving the essentials. Unlike innovation, reform implies organic continuity; it does not add something foreign or extrinsic. Unlike revolution or transformation, reform respects and retains the substance that was previously there… The point of departure for reform is always an idea or institution that is affirmed but considered to have been imperfectly or defectively realized. The goal is to make persons or institutions more faithful to an ideal already accepted.
Of course, the question is not whether these fairly standard descriptions of reform (or “change,” as described below) are accurate, but whether what happened at Vatican II can be considered an instance of reform, or whether its “reforms” were so drastic as to constitute a rupture in its identity and its authoritative teaching. To Fr. John O’Malley, the primary target of the Council’s changes was the modus operandi of the Catholic Church:
The council was about many things, but most fundamentally it was about style, about the “how” of the church. It was about how we “do business.” It asked the great question that is very much on people’s minds today: “What kind of church do we want?”
This “how” change, he says, was away from an insular, polemical, top-down, controlling, static, exclusionary “style” toward one that was collegial, servant-minded, open to reform, and inclusive. Perhaps this sounds like a “squishy” move; but certainly Popes Paul VI, John Paul II, and Benedict XVI, who are not frequently accused of modernist/liberal tendencies, saw the Council as a reform of this type, and not a rupture. (A Protestant analysis of the Council and its relation to the Catholic Church’s identity and integrity that affirms this interpretation is Berkouwer’s The Second Vatican Council and the New Catholicism, which is worth reading.) There were things that were wrong with the pre-Vatican II Church that ought to have been changed – chief among these being what Fr. O’Malley calls the “closed, ghetto-like, secretive, condemnatory, authoritarian style” of conducting Church life.
What is important here, as mentioned above, is that this change in the “how” of the Church does not necessarily mean the Church has fudged on its own fundamental commitments. Granting that there are numerous contemporary issues that are vigorously debated by Catholic theologians, the Catholic Church does seem to have remained committed to its fundamental teachings and essential identity. This observation seems to follow from the facts that, for instance, (a) it has repudiated none of its dogmas, (b) it has since Vatican II produced a Catechism that clearly lays out Catholic teaching on various issues, (c) Protestants seem to be able to discern post-Vatican II Catholic positions on issues of fundamental importance clearly enough to disagree with them and think they are incorrect (for instance, Sproul, Allison, Noll and Nystrom, and Zachman).
Second, we should acknowledge that there is a difference between a truth and its historically particular articulation. Thus Bavinck: “No one claims that content and expression, essence and form, are in complete correspondence and coincide. The dogma that the church confesses and the dogmatician develops is not identical with the absolute truth of God itself” (Reformed Dogmatics, Prolegomena, Volume I, 31-32).
Anthony N. S. Lane, a Reformed scholar, likewise points out that we should not commit the fallacy of a “naive identification of truth with words.” Rather, we ought to be primarily concerned with “the reality that lies behind the words. It was only because Athanasius and others were able to rise above this approach that a coalition was able to be formed over the doctrine of the Trinity…” (Justification by Faith in Catholic-Protestant Dialogue, p. 4).
Commenting on Vatican II, Pope John XXIII wrote in a similar way: “the deposit or the truths of the faith, contained in our sacred teaching are one thing, while the mode in which they are ennunciated, keeping the same meaning and the same judgment, is another” (quoted by Eduardo Echeverria, Dialogue of Love, p. 23). This is not the same thing as relativism; it is rather an acknowledgement of the finite, historical nature of human beings – including those who constitute God’s church – who can rightly apprehend truths and express those truths in correct, but necessarily limited, terms. We grow both in our understanding of the truths we affirm and in the manner in which we articulate those truths. Indeed, the conviction that truths can be variously expressed can, in a certain way, be taken as an antidote to relativism, since it implies that linguistic constructions that point to nothing more than themselves are not the ceiling of meaning; rather, there are existent realities that are deeper, truer, and more abiding than verbal expressions about them.
Third, when considering the enduring relevance of Trent (does the Catholic Church still care about it? has the Church revoked Tridentine decrees or not? why does the post-Vatican II Church look so different than it did before?), it is legitimate to take into account the fact that the Council of Trent was historically situated. No one, Catholic or Protestant, is in the same position as were the Reformers and Tridentine-era Roman Catholics. This does not mean that Trent is now a relic of the past. Nor does it mean that there are no enduring theological concerns that continue to divide the Catholic and Protestant traditions. But those theological disagreements may appear in a different light and admit of alternate (not necessarily contradictory, just alternate) approaches to those taken in the Reformation era. Dr. Lane makes this point in relation to the Tridentine decree on justification:
The Tridentine Decree on Justification is a vitally important document, but we must not fall into the mistake of simply equating it with the Catholic doctrine. Trent is what the Roman Catholic Church chose to say at the time in response to what it then understood the Reformers to be saying. To understand what the Roman Catholic Church today is saying to what it now understands Protestants to teach we need to listen to contemporary Roman Catholic theology. (p. 85)
In connection with this Lane mentions (pp. 5-6, n. 6) that Fr. Stephanus Pfürtner, OP, in his Luther and Aquinas: A Conversation, puts forward “three qualified ways in which one can speak of a Catholic critique of Trent”: “(1) Are the views condemned actually the views of the Reformers? (2) Trent makes no claim to have expounded justification exhaustively. (3) Trent was polemical in approach but this does not preclude other approaches (such as ecumenical) at a later date.” None of these three questions does violence to Trent, nor denigrates its importance; rather, they respect the Council’s authority (or else why bother to ask the questions?) while respecting the Council’s character as a historically conditioned event.
There have been several significant engagements of Tridentine doctrines by Roman Catholic theologians in the past several years, all of which have had some version of these three critiques in mind. A few are Condemnations of the Reformation Era: Do They Still Divide?, Justification by Faith: Do The Sixteenth-Century Condemnations Still Apply?, and Hans Küng’s Justification: The Doctrine of Karl Barth and a Catholic Reflection, whose thesis Lane observes (Justification by Faith, p. 89) has been widely accepted by Küng’s theological peers, and has raised no objections from the Vatican.
Trent was indeed an authoritative word for the Roman Catholic Church. But it was not the final word, nor is it as if the Catholic Church must either ignore Trent or overthrow Trent if the Church wants to continue its own growth and engagement with other Christian communions and with the secular world.
To conclude, I want to say again: these are principles – (1) the concept of reform vs. the concept of rupture; (2) the distinction between truth and its formulation; (3) the historical nature of Tridentine formulations – for thinking about the relation between the ‘Church of Trent’ and ‘Church of Vatican II’. They are not solutions to theological problems (regarding continuity, or modernism, etc.). While there are some conceptual problems to which they might be able to be applied with the effect of complete resolution, that is not how I intend them. Rather, it seems to me that they may prove useful tools in analyzing some theological aporia and problematic dichotomies going forward. For instance, must one either adhere to Tridentine/16th century Scholastic rigor or the ecumenical “softness” of Vatican II? Must one believe either in propositional truth or “change” and “reform”? Must one be either a Tridentine realist or a post-Vatican II relativist? Of course these are caricatures, but I think they may represent certain perceived antinomies – antinomies that are worth discussing.