Trent and Vatican II: Suggested Principles for Analysis

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.

Avery Cardinal Dulles, whose analyses on some points differs from Fr. O’Malley’s, nevertheless makes a similar observation:

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 Reflectionwhose 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.

 

5 thoughts on “Trent and Vatican II: Suggested Principles for Analysis

  1. Trevor, you are aware of RC’s who gain leverage with Protestants by claiming that Rome never changes, yes? So do you think those apologists and advocates need to change their claim? But it goes beyond contemporary apologists. Prior to Vat 2 it was common to hear that THE church does not change (because God’s truth doesn’t change) and THE church does not err. Protestants believe the same about the Bible. I agree that Vat 2 changed THE church’s self understanding of itself. So too did liberal Protestants change their understanding of the authority of the Bible. And they did that very much along the lines you’ve suggested here in this piece.

    So as much as you are arguing for continuity, that argument winds up supporting the perception that Vat 2 was a significant rupture by adding historicism (Mark Massa’s point) to the church’s understanding of itself, its teaching, and authority. To argue for continuity sounds conservative and the aim may be conservative. But by having to stretch to make the continuity, the stretch actually blurs what came before the stretch.

    Perhaps the best illustration is the claim that dogma has not changed. Yes, I see that. But prior to Vat 2 that dogma was administered in a way that led bishops to protect, warn, and hector church members to keep them from errors and sins that could destroy their souls. After Vat 2 the church did not so apply those truths. It took away the critical and antithetical character of the church.

    An important question, though, is how do you change that way if dogma hasn’t changed? If it used to be dangerous to read Hume of Calvin (Index of Books) because of what the church taught about salvation etc., doesn’t it look like those truths are no longer important the way they used to be if you get rid of the Index of Books?

    On the matter of words and the truths behind them, that is a classic move by Protestant modernists. Just look at the Auburn Affirmation http://www.pcahistory.org/documents/auburntext.html. Plus, I’m really not sure you want to favor this understanding of truth and words since part of the TRF project relies so much on careful reading of words and expressing ideas in words. If words only go so deep and don’t get to deeper truths (which makes sense in a way), what does that do to the authority of papal or scriptural words, or to the authority of bishops or the Bible. I’d recommend great caution about separating words from truth too much

    I’d offer similar caution about historical situatedness. In some ways, this is obviously true. But it can also lead to relativism and undermine church or biblical authority. It also raises questions about the enterprise here. It’s merely a product of its history, so what gives it weight to gain someone’s attention and affirmation?

    The point, I guess, is that in communions like mine, which takes seriously the era of Protestant scholasticism (even venerates? the Westminster Divines), we have rejected historicism of the kind that Massa says “changed” Roman Catholicism. Our rejection may be naive, sometimes thoughtful, sometimes glib. But for those who take the Reformation seriously on the Protestant side, historicism is a real danger.

  2. Darryl,

    I appreciate that Liberalism is a real danger, but I’m having trouble finding its distinguishing marks in anything I’ve said. As I said, I’m not ‘solving’ the issue of continuity between Trent and Vatican II. I was laying out principles, none of which I think ‘belongs’ to Modernism or Liberalism.

    You: “Trevor, you are aware of RC’s who gain leverage with Protestants by claiming that Rome never changes, yes? So do you think those apologists and advocates need to change their claim?”

    Me: Yes, I’m aware of assertions like this. It would depend on what the apologist means. If he or she says the Church has ‘never changed’ in its affirmation of the essential truths pertaining to faith and morals (CCC 890), I would agree. If he or she means the Church has never made a mistake, erred, or changed any of its beliefs or practices whatsoever, full stop, I would disagree. Between those two positions are perhaps intermediary ones, and it would depend on the case whether I would affirm or disagree with the apologist.

    You: “as much as you are arguing for continuity, that argument winds up supporting the perception that Vat 2 was a significant rupture by adding historicism (Mark Massa’s point) to the church’s understanding of itself, its teaching, and authority.”

    Me: I don’t know that I go along with Massa’s take on VatII all the way, but even on his reading, I don’t know that he’s making the point you’re making. Massa explains historicism by reference to Herder as the idea that “The history of any phenomenon…was a sufficient explanation of it, and all human institutions and belief systems could be understood and evaluated through the discovery of their historical origins and development…life and reality were synonymous with history and history alone” (ACR, 154). Later Massa says that Catholic theologians (including those at VatII) came to terms with ‘historical consciousness’ by coming to see that “everything, including the Church, changes as history unfolds.” But this latter statement is not at all the same thing as historicism as Massa has characterized it. Recognizing that things change as history unfolds is not the same thing as thinking that everything is determined by history alone. And Massa, at least as I am reading him, doesn’t indicate that he thinks the Church is determined solely by history; and if he does, I disagree with him, and think I can show from Church documents that that is not how the Church understands itself. But in any case, Massa’s point rather seems to be that historicism was an idea in the water of modern times (Feuerbach, Herder, etc.) that needed to be encountered; VatII encountered it. But one can encounter an idea without being overtaken by it, and can glean what is true about it without buying it all (plundering the Egyptians, so to speak).

    You: “On the matter of words and the truths behind them, that is a classic move by Protestant modernists.”

    Me: I think this, at least as stated, is oversimplistic; you make it sound like the very distinguishing between truth and words itself is a “Liberal” thing to do. But first of all, the fact that Liberals do something doesn’t make it automatically wrong, right? I can still study the Bible, even though that’s also something Liberals did. Perhaps it was the way they studied it, and their motives for that, that you disagree with. But simply making a logical distinction, the way I did, is not Modernism. Second, I wasn’t quoting Liberals on this point; I was quoting Bavinck and Anthony Lane. Do you consider them to be Liberals (honest question)? Or am I misrepresenting what they’re saying? I don’t know if I’m making a claim as large as it seems you think I am; I’m merely pointing out that words themselves are not identical with the truths they point to. Is that controversial, or Liberal? That is the same point Lane is making about ‘naive realism’:

    What is the status of our theological language? Do our doctrines partake of the precision of mathematical formulae? If so, there can be no scope for diversity. If the result of the sum is 15, all other answers are simply wrong. This approach would imply an extreme and naive form of realism foreign to the way in which theology actually works…If this naive approach were true there would be no hope of reconciling a document that proclaimed justification by faith alone and another that denies it. I am referring, of course, not to the Reformers and Trent but to Paul and James (Lane, Justification by Faith, 128).

    You refer to the Auburn Affirmation, but I guess I’m missing what in there is similar to what I’m saying. Can you show me where you see convergence?

    Also, the fact that it is a classic Modernist move doesn’t automatically mean it’s wrong, does it? Deferring to your superior knowledge of Machen, he seems to understand Modernism as a general spirit or ethos (denying the supernatural/denying truth/”indifferentism”), though of course there are ‘moves’ that come along with that (denial of resurrection, miracles, etc.). But simply highlighting that words are not identical to concepts is not Modernist, unless Aristotle was a Modernist–or, for that matter, Augustine: “a sign is a thing which, over and above the impression it makes on the senses, causes something else to come into the mind as a consequence of itself” (De doctrina christiana, 2.1). There is the sign, and there is the thing that the sign points to. Signs can be accurate, but incomplete; or, the words we use as signs may need to be reordered or transposed as we progress in our understanding of the truth. That is all I’m saying. I have a hard time seeing how making this point aligns me with the Liberal agenda.

    You: “Plus, I’m really not sure you want to favor this understanding of truth and words since part of the TRF project relies so much on careful reading of words and expressing ideas in words. If words only go so deep and don’t get to deeper truths (which makes sense in a way), what does that do to the authority of papal or scriptural words, or to the authority of bishops or the Bible.”

    Me: But “words only go so deep and don’t get to deeper truths” is not what I said; it is the opposite of what I said. I said that words do get to deeper truths; that is what makes them meaningful. What I said was that words are not identical to the intelligible realities they ‘get to’. From my post: “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.” Again, I take this to be the same point Bavinck and Lane are making. What am I missing here?

    You: “I’d recommend great caution about separating words from truth too much.”

    Me: So would I; but how am I separating them “too much,” unless any separation is too much separation? Lane points to two passages in Scripture (Paul and James) that, verbally, contradict each other. If the words are identical to their realities, then Scripture would contradict itself. But neither of us thinks it does, so we have to interpret them. The point I was making in the post is the same; it falls to any of us, Catholic or Protestant, to interpret documents that we want to understand–Scripture or otherwise. I quote Pope John XXIII to this effect, that while the mode changes, the enunciations of truth keep “the same meaning and the same judgment”–that is, they are making contact with the same truths as before. the quotation from Augustine above also applies here. Again, I am not trying for a radical point, just to highlight a fairly banal point that seems relevant to the conversation.

    You: “I’d offer similar caution about historical situatedness. In some ways, this is obviously true. But it can also lead to relativism and undermine church or biblical authority. It also raises questions about the enterprise here [I’m taking this to mean TRF]. It’s [meaning TRF] merely a product of its history, so what gives it weight to gain someone’s attention and affirmation?”

    Me: I agree; that’s why I pointed out that the position I was affirming was the opposite of relativism (my quotation above) and did not undermine church authority: “…nor is it as if the Catholic Church must either ignore Trent or overthrow Trent.”

    How does it follow from what I said that TRF is “merely a product of its history”? I did not say that Trent was “merely a product of its history”; I only said that Trent took place within history, and is historically situated. I think I am making the point that you find to be “obviously true,” simply that anything that occurs in the realm of creation is an historical event and for that reason is subject to certain limitations, as is every human undertaking, even the writing of Scripture (saying that Paul was historically situated does not deny the authority or inerrancy of Scripture, right?). There is a Scylla of ahistorical idealism on one hand, and a Charybdis of relativist historicism on the other. I agree that the latter is a real danger, just as you do. But there must be a way to steer between these two–not for the sake of Trent or other councils, but for the sake of Scripture itself.

  3. Trevor, I recommend William R. Hutchison’s The Modernist Impulse in American Protestantism. Mark Massa and I both studied with Hutchison. Mark’s first book was on an liberal Presbyterian, Charles Briggs, supervised as a dissertation by Hutchison. I think I have a good sense of what he means by historicism and I’m pretty sure he saw Vat II as doing something (good) like liberal Protestantism.

    The point about words is simple. Do we go by the letter of the word or the spirit? Liberals like to go by the spirit and claim that on their surface, words only go so far. But we are in a position to understand what they are doing, what they meant by their words even if they didn’t say it.

    I don’t think you write your posts or comments with the idea that someone could understand your intent. I think you want a fairly literal reading.

    Modernists don’t like literal readings because modernists disagree. So they appeal to the spirit or ambiguity of words.

    I don’t mean to imply you are doing this. I do urge caution about the sort of arguments you lay out in this post.

  4. I would hope that we can make use of both the letter and spirit of a text. But if any hierarchy is to be established between the two, wouldn’t the words of Christ suggest the latter is more definitive? The hermeneutic derived from “the letter kills but the Spirit gives life” is not a bogeyman appearing for the first time in Schleiermacher (and conditioned by his rejection of any visible ecclesial authority) but is a foundational rubric for Origen, Ambrose, and Augustine. Doesn’t Paul recommend to us a reading of the rock in the desert that finds its true meaning in the Spirit? Doesn’t the Letter to the Galatians complete its critique of salvation through works of the law with a critique of interpretation which halts at the letter? Why else does he say that Hagar and Sarah are truly the earthly and heavenly Jerusalem? It seems like the distinction between letter and Spirit can be employed without becoming a nineteenth century German Liberal Protestant since this is what the Apostle Paul and the early Church Fathers did consistently.

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