Saturday, August 26, 2017

Sammons and Lawler: why we pretend nothing went wrong after Vatican II

Three articles were published recently revisiting the confusion following Vatican II and suggesting how to make sense of it: The last article by Lawler draws the three together by summarizing points made by Mosebach and Sammons. Mosebach's and Sammons' articles, however, should not be neglected, because they make excellent points in their own right that do not make it into Lawler's summary -- particularly some of the details about "soft censorship" of bad news by the Church and Catholic media, and their promotion, almost exclusively, of good news (the "Everything is Awesome" view). A good example of the latter is George Weigel's recent article, "Motown and the Turbocharged Church," First Things (August 16, 2017), which speaks to the positive aspirations of key Church leaders in Detroit, but ignores the long-entrenched aberrations of others.

Sammons identifies three reasons why inconvenient truths are often suppressed by Catholic media. Bad theology ("Many believe that since Ecumenical Councils are guided by the Holy Spirit, nothing erroneous or even harmful can come from them"); institutional bias ("The Church and its supporting institutions have heavily invested themselves on the idea that Vatican II was beneficial to the Church"); and financial support ("If an orthodox organization questioned Vatican II, its speaking engagements and invitations from parishes and dioceses would disappear"). It is safe to assume that George Weigel's speaking engagements and invitations will not disappear any time soon.

But Lawler offers the most convenient summary. He writes:
Something went wrong—seriously wrong—in the Catholic Church in the years after Vatican II. Can we all agree on that much? Leave aside, for now, the familiar debate about the causes of the problem; let’s begin with the agreement that there is, or at least certainly was, a problem.

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.
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 evangelization [my emphasis], because it thwarts serious discussions about the current state of the Church. Evangelization means bringing people to the truth, he reasons, and that process “cannot thrive in a censored environment.” ...

... Did the problems that arose after Vatican II come solely because the Council’s teachings were ignored, or improperly applied? Or were there difficulties with the documents themselves? Were there enough ambiguities in the Council’s teaching to create confusion? If so, were the ambiguities intentional—the result of compromises by the Council fathers?

Suggesting that there could be difficulties with some Vatican II documents does not mean denying the authority of the Council’s teaching. No document drafted by human hands will ever be perfect. There may be a need for clarification, elucidation, explanation, even correction.

More to the point, while it is certainly true that the “spirit of Vatican II” that is often cited in support of radical changes cannot be reconciled with the actual teachings of the Council, it is also true that the proponents of change can cite specific passages from Council documents in support of their plans. So are those passages being misinterpreted. Are they taken out of context? Or are there troublesome elements of the Council’s teaching, with which we should now grapple honestly? One thing is certain: we will not solve the problem by pretending that it does not exist.
Related: John T. Elson, "The Catholic Church Battles Its Old Guard," LIFE Magazine (October 18, 1963), pp. 114ff.

[Hat tip to E.P. and J.M.]

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