Saturday, May 29, 2010

All for the best in the best of all possible councils

Our pastor's bulletin column for Pentecost includes remarks on Vatican II.
When Blessed John XXIII called the Vatican Council together, he spoke often of a NEW Pentecost. His hope was that the spirit of renewal might sweep through the church. He hoped that "closed windows of minds and practice" might be opened to a new grace-filled age.
One example of Blessed John so saying is reported in this Prayer for the Ecumenical Council. That it has not worked as hoped might be symbolized by post-conciliar church architecture; what windows there now are cannot be opened at all.
Some say that spirit has been lost today, and others say there are those who would want to deny the work of the Council guided by the Holy Spirit. I say that even if there are "set backs," the work of the Holy Spirit will prevail. That is why Pentecost is not just a historical commemoration but a recognition of the Holy Spirit at work today. We pray "Come Holy Spirit, Come."
Even at our self-described progressive parish, I have heard decades-old reform defended on the basis that any other course would have been "even worse". That is the sound of a dispirited progressivism.

One can believe the Holy Spirit was at work in the Council, is at work today, will ultimately prevail, and still believe the Council was not a success. Of course, I am assuming we are free to believe, for example, that the Council of Florence (1438-1445) failed when it did not reunite the Catholic and Orthodox Churches. Or that we are free to believe that the the Fifth Lateran Council (1512-1517) failed to meet the schismatic challenges of the time.

The Second Vatican Council has been burdened by the spins put on it. Reading The General Councils of the Church (1959), by John L. Murphy, I was struck by how the author made a point of noting how many past councils were more concerned with reform than with doctrine. The then-upcoming Council was thus another in a long line of reform councils. By contrast, when I taught Church history to eighth graders in our parish Christian Formation program, the chapter on Vatican II called it "A different kind of council". Given the track record of reform councils, maybe the Holy Spirit was trying at Vatican II to tell us an ecumenical council is not an effective means for reform.

Or the Holy Spirit might have been trying to tell us, or remind us, of some even more basic things. All the previous councils involved hundreds of bishops. The number was within what is now generally thought the desirable limit to the size of a deliberative body. As A.A. Gill wrote in this New York Times op-ed,
The [House of] Commons isn’t much better [than the Lords]; it has some 650 elected members. Everyone agrees that’s too many.
When Blessed John announced he was calling a council of all the bishops, no one thought to raise the question whether a council could just be scaled-up that way. A meeting of 2,100 to 2,300 attendees is a convention.

That Vatican II was a bishops' convention might explain why, as I hear it, the book-length Vatican II documents alone are half the size of the documents of the previous twenty councils put together. It might further explain why they tend to be referred to in general terms, much like the reference to "the platform" produced by a political convention. Much like a political platform, they are generally left unread, and it's common to hear that little or no weight should be given to specific provisions when found inconvenient.

So I, for one, am hoping for some inspired tweaking before a decision to call the next ecumenical council.

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