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from issue no. 01 - 2010

Reflections on the mystery and the life of the Church

Vatican Council II: Tradition and modern issues

by Cardinal Georges Cottier, OP

Saint Peter’s Basilica during the Second Vatican Council

Saint Peter’s Basilica during the Second Vatican Council

Forty-five years after its conclusion, the Second Vatican Council continues to cause debate. Even after Pope Benedict XVI, in his famous speech to the Roman Curia in December 2005, provided valuable authoritative criteria for a shared, non-confrontational reception of the Council, re-interpretations and variously oriented contributions on how to interpret and where to place the last Council in relation to the historical trajectory of the Church, follow periodically on one another.
Still today most of the controversies on interpretation focus on the relationship between the Church and the historical world order, namely the set of institutions and political, social and cultural contingencies in which Christians find themselves living.
World history in itself does not coincide in Hegelian fashion with the self-revelation of God, but neither is it a meaningless flow indifferent to events proper to the history of salvation, the story of grace through which God reveals Himself and communicates with mankind. Christians, in historical circumstances and contexts, can discern opportunities and occasions more or less favorable to the mission entrusted to them to proclaim and witness to the salvation wrought by the Lord. It is a matter of “reading the signs of the times”, so the Second Vatican Council itself described this particular form of discernment, which is favored by the fact of taking some important distinctions into consideration.
One of these distinctions is that which passes between the Church and the various possible forms of Christendom. There is only one Church of Christ, throughout the whole course of history and up to eternity, that which is at the same time the Church of today and the Church of always. But then there are several Christendoms. The concept of Christendom is a historical concept. When a society is composed of a majority of Christians, in such circumstances, it happens that the faith will inspire also the temporal order, namely the sphere of culture and the legal and political forms. In such circumstances the fact that grace does not destroy nature, but tends it since it is wounded, comforts and elevates it, is also manifested at the level of social life. This is the contribution of the Gospel to the temporal world recognized in its proper autonomy and consistence. And this can be a social reflection of the existence of large Christian communities, as were those in Europe until now. But this is not the only form of Christendom possible. It’s enough to think of the Christendoms that arise in a social, cultural and religious context other than the one inspired for centuries by Western Christendom. Modern Popes, well before the Council, recognized in definitive terms that evangelization is not to be confused with the transposition elsewhere of the forms taken by Western Christendom. And that therefore cultures and social and civil contexts are to be considered in their positive specificity and diversity. So one can imagine an African, or Indian, or Chinese Christendom.
One can also imagine a Christendom that remains a small minority. Sacred Scripture repeats that the Gospel must be proclaimed to all nations, but then the flowering of Christian life, when it happens, takes place in a mysterious and unpredictable way, as already seen in the Acts of the Apostles. “It is not we who must produce the great fruit; Christianity is not a moralism, it is not we who must do what God expects from the world”, said Benedict XVI, speaking to Roman seminarians, on 12 February last.
Among the reasons for many problems in relations between the Church and the temporal world order registered in modern and contemporary epochs there is also the following: in some cases, before the upheavals of history and the consolidation of new cultural, social and political structures the only criterion of evaluation in some Christian circles has become the greater or lesser conformity of these structures to the models that had dominated in previous centuries, when unanimity of a Christian mould of the civil society shaped or at least influenced political and social orderings.
Paul VI and Jacques Maritain during the closing ceremony of the Second Vatican Council, 8 December 1965

Paul VI and Jacques Maritain during the closing ceremony of the Second Vatican Council, 8 December 1965

This attitude also explains at least in part also the objections that from the Council debate have greeted some Council documents, such as the declaration Dignitatis humanae on religious freedom and the declaration Nostra aetate on relations with Judaism and other religions. The critics argued that these documents represent a rupture with various pronouncements of the social teaching of the centuries immediately preceding.
Indeed, the popes since Vatican II have used with positive meaning formulas relating to religious freedom and freedom of conscience that only a century ago appeared to have been condemned in some magisterial documents. Rather than bringing out a contradiction, the change is the effect of a clarification occurring in the light of the changing political and social contexts. From the eighteenth century these formulas were used by the masons to argue that human conscience is fully autonomous even before God. Whereas the Council declaration Dignitatis humanae does not warrant this relativistic subjectivism. On the contrary, it repeats that the truth can be known by mankind and that every man has a duty of conscience before God to seek the truth. Rather, the document highlights the formula of religious freedom as a criterion according to which no one should be forced or prevented from the outside from seeking and recognizing truth. The State cannot act as a judge of consciences. It cannot impose by external coercion the act of faith or a renegation of faith, whichever it may be.
This distinction, crucial to clarifying the whole issue, did not immediately emerge. Over time, given the new historical circumstances, there was a sort of purification that has distinguished the essential fact to be preserved – in this case, the fact that truth can be known, and that conscience is bound to accept it and follow it when it knows it – from various relative, contingent factors. Namely, those ideas that flourished in the periods of Christendom whereby the States and the laws that regulate social life cannot be neutral with regard to different religious identities since they are themselves guarantors of the upholding of Christendom in society (think of the cuius regio, eius religio of the Treaty of Westphalia, which meant a de facto subordination of Church to State, that Catholic doctrine has never accepted).
Over time, the ideas have sometimes stiffened into a global condemnation of the modern, when from the French Revolution on the established order was no longer in name or in fact conceived as a Christian social order. The persistence of such ideas can be traced in some of the objections aimed from the beginning at the Council documents mentioned above, when they were dismissed as a break from “Tradition” in the form of a yielding to the issues and culture of the new times.
The documents of Vatican II express simple openness to multi-faceted human reality and the factors that shape it in the current historical phase: the context of a global and plural world, that entails coexistence between communities and people having the most diverse cultural and religious identities. But this openness towards earthly orderings is the distinctive trait that has marked the Christian presence in different societies in sui generis fashion and from the beginning, from apostolic times and of the Fathers of the Church. Ever since the early Christians found themselves faced by an empire which was itself characterized by deification of the emperor, by the worship of idols, by structured philosophical and cultural conceptions, by practices and customs contrary to the life and dignity of the person. The rejection by Christians of all that is incompatible with the teaching of the apostles never expressed itself as radical antagonism to the established order as such in its legal, cultural, political and social basics. If one perceives the transcendence of the life of grace, one also sees that the life of grace does not negate the cultural, social and political orderings of this world, when they are compatible with the law of God, nor does it set itself in opposition to them as such and at the same time is never reducible to them. This is the meaning of the word “supernatural” that perhaps we should put back into circulation.
In short, the very openness promoted by Vatican II towards some of the issues of modern times is further confirmation that the Council was following in the wake of Tradition. Because it is precisely loyalty to Tradition that on different occasions prompts a reading of the signs of the times that is more quickly responsive and appropriate to the circumstances.
From the left, Monsignor Pierre Mamie, the future Bishop of Lausanne, Geneva and Freiburg, Cardinal Charles Journet and Georges Cottier in Rome during the Council works

From the left, Monsignor Pierre Mamie, the future Bishop of Lausanne, Geneva and Freiburg, Cardinal Charles Journet and Georges Cottier in Rome during the Council works

This openness never decays into ideological modernism, never considers modernity as a value in itself. As Paul VI wrote in the Creed of the People of God, “We confess that the Kingdom of God begun here below in the Church of Christ is not of this world (cf. Jn 18, 36), whose form is passing (cf. 1 Cor 7, 31), and that its proper growth cannot be confounded with the progress of civilization, of science or of human technology, but that it consists in an ever more profound knowledge of the unfathomable riches of Christ, an ever stronger hope in eternal blessings, an ever more ardent response to the love of God, and an ever more generous bestowal of grace and holiness among men”. But it is this same love – Paul VI went on – “which induces the Church to concern herself constantly about the true temporal welfare of men. Without ceasing to recall to her children that they have not here a lasting dwelling (cf. Heb 13, 14), she also urges them to contribute, each according to his vocation and his means, to the welfare of their earthly city”. Ever ready to recognize that there are good things and bad things in present contingencies, there is evil, there is sin, new snares, but also new opportunities for the salvation of souls, like those opening up to the millions of non-baptized who come to live in countries of ancient Christian tradition.
Opposing in a priori fashion the given political and cultural contexts does not belong per se to the Tradition of the Church. It is rather a recurrent feature of the heresies, rooted in Gnosticism, that force Christianity into a prejudicially dialectical relation to worldly orderings and interpret the Church as a countervailing force to the powers, institutions and cultural contexts established in the world.
Seeing the world as evil, and hence worldly States and orderings as structures to be overturned, is a characteristic common to all the currents rooted in Gnosticism.
In relations between the Church and the modern world the following temptation has at times resurfaced: the impulse to conceive of the Church as a force antagonistic to the political and cultural order that was no more a Christian order after the French Revolution.
On this point, on relations between Christians and the temporal order, there is astonishing relevance in the criterion proposed by Saint Augustine as outlined in the book by the young Joseph Ratzinger: The unity of nations. Between Origen, tempted by Gnostic opposition to worldly ordinance, and Eusebius who sanctified it, thus laying the foundations for all caesaropapism, Ratzinger describes the fruitfulness of Augustine’s perspective, which neither sanctifies nor opposes secular institutions a priori, but respects them in their autonomous consistence and in respecting them relativizes them, recognizing their utility to the worldly situation, always keeping distinct that situation and that utility from the messianic-eschatological perspective. According to Ratzinger, in De Civitate Dei Augustine “aims neither at ecclesialization of the State, nor statalization of the Church, but in the midst of the orderings of this world, that remain and must remain worldly orderings, aims to make present the new power of faith in the unity of men in the Body of Christ, as an element of transformation, whose full form will be created by God Himself, once history has reached its end”.

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