Among the many accusations aimed at the post-Vatican II Church by radical traditionalists, the accusation of “difference” stands out. Traditionalists claim that the post-Vatican II Church is “different”; they claim that the liturgy, spirituality, and pastoral practice of the modern Church are marked by a radical break with the centuries-old traditions of Church history. To them, the inference is obvious; if the modern Church has deviated from the thought and practice of the past, then the modern Church must be out of line. According to such traditionalists, our modern problems can only be corrected by returning to earlier forms of worship, spirituality, and practice. 

While the practices of the post-Vatican II Church are certainly different, traditionalists tend to overstate both the level of difference displayed by the modern Church as well as the level of uniformity that existed in the past. The Church has always contained diverse traditions and has always changed over time. For instance, there is no “Mass of the Ages”; the history of the liturgy is marked by a diversity of local practice and by frequent changes over time. Catholic spirituality has always accommodated many different schools, from which the faithful are free to pick and choose. Even in theological matters, the Church has always tolerated a certain diversity of perspectives. 

Different, Not Opposed 

Yet, the traditionalist argument does contain a kernel of truth: in some important ways, the post-Vatican II Church is different from the post-Tridentine Church. But the question really is, “Are such differences problematic?” Radical traditionalists claim that they are indeed problematic because they represent a contradiction of earlier practices and teachings and are in fact in strict opposition to them. 

It should be obvious, however, that difference does not necessarily entail contradiction. For instance, while the mathematical statements 2+2=4 and 4-2=2 are different, they are certainly not contradictory! In fact, they complement one another and yield a greater understanding of the same reality. The Catholic Faith is full of such complementary truths. We believe that Christ is God and man, that God is both Three and One, that both faith and works are essential to the Christian life. 

Throughout history, the Church has emphasized different aspects of the Faith at different times. So long as no aspect is denied or denigrated, such shifts of emphasis can actually be beneficial. They allow the Church to effectively preach the Gospel in every time and place, to people of different education levels, sensibilities, and experiences. The contemporary Church is confronted with a situation totally unlike that faced by the Tridentine reformers or the medieval scholastics. Changing circumstances really do require different responses. 

That doesn’t mean that the past is irrelevant; far from it. It does, however, highlight the importance of inculturation and of reading the signs of the times–two important themes from Vatican II. Traditionalists tend to be suspicious of such dialogue with the times. In part, this is because it has sometimes been used as a cover for a mere surrender to the times. But such suspicion also reflects a subtly anti-incarnational mentality that can affect traditionalist thought. Claiming that traditionalists are anti-incarnational might seem to be overly harsh. Inculturation, however, is a direct consequence of the Incarnation, and in rejecting it traditionalists run the risk of rejecting the humanity of Christ himself. The Incarnation was a stupendous act of humility in which God entered into human history. Part of this humility consisted in Christ’s acceptance of the changing, contingent nature of history. In a similar way, the Church proclaims eternal, unchanging truths; but since she exists within the historical realities of change and development, such truths are inevitably “clothed” in mutable language that is informed by particular social contexts. 

Some Things Really Are More Important

Every truth matters. As Christ said, every jot and tittle of the law will be accomplished. Still, from a theoretical point of view, some truths really are more important than others. Unitatis Redintegratio, the Vatican II decree on ecumenism, teaches that “in Catholic doctrine there exists a “hierarchy” of truths, since they vary in their relation to the fundamental Christian faith.” (Unitatis Redintegratio 11)

Traditionalists sometimes reject this teaching, claiming that it is a modern innovation. They argue that every teaching (promulgated before 1962!) is equally important simply because every teaching has been taught by an infallible Church. This isn’t a truly “traditional” position, however. The pre-Vatican II Church made abundant use of “theological notes” to indicate the different levels of certainty and authority associated with particular doctrines.

Further, even among doctrines that are equally certain and equally important, not all are equally foundational. Protestants reject many important teachings of the Catholic Church. In contrast with groups such as the Mormons and the Jehovah’s Witnesses, however, they still share our Christian faith, as illustrated by their common profession of the Nicene Creed. We see them as fellow Christians because they assent to the foundational doctrines of Christianity.

Finally, certain truths are uniquely Christian. All truth comes from God, but some truths are directly accessible to human reason, while other truths are only accessible by special revelation. The existence of God can be deduced from creation, while the Trinitarian nature of God is only known through revelation. 

Since some truths are more important, it stands to reason that the Church should emphasize those aspects of the Faith that are fundamental, certain, and unique to Christianity. These are the ones most in danger of being forgotten or misunderstood. Also, a focus on fundamentals helps to “clear the air” and can keep us from becoming trapped in petty disputes or blind alleys. For instance, a focus on God’s grace can serve to put both works and faith in their proper place, while the belief in the importance of baptism is more important than particular understandings of original sin. Ultimately, Christ himself is more important than the institution of the Church. When examined carefully, the post-Vatican II differences may be viewed as differences of emphasis in which more central l doctrines are given their rightful place in relation to less fundamental ones. 

Christocentrism as an Essential Difference

Perhaps the most revolutionary aspect of the post-Vatican II Church is its renewed Christocentrism. Too often, the Church has focused on itself, on refining her liturgical or theological expressions to counter outside challenges, rather than on the person of Jesus Christ. Writing in Church Life Journal, Fr. Robert Imbelli highlights what should be obvious: without Christ, the Church is meaningless! He presents the Second Vatican Council as an essentially Christocentric council:

[The] Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation, Dei Verbum…helped set the tone for all the documents of the Council. In interpreting the Council, in establishing an appropriate “hermeneutic,” the four “Constitutions” play a decisive role. They are, of course, Sacrosanctum concilium, Lumen gentium, Dei Verbum, and Gaudium et spes. However, in many ways it is the Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation, Dei Verbum, which holds a primacy among them.

For if God does not truly reveal himself, there is no foundation for the Church. It becomes only a human association and organization. Furthermore, if God has not given himself definitively in Christ, there is no basis for the liturgy. It becomes a merely human gathering, bereft of transcendent reference.

Distinctive to Dei Verbum’s presentation of revelation is that it is explicitly Christocentric. Though it celebrates God’s revelation in the course of the history of the people of Israel, it confesses that God’s revelation attains its fullness in the person of Jesus Christ. It is this Christ-centered understanding of God’s revelation and promise that permeates the documents of Vatican II—prominent not only in Sacrosanctum Concilium and Lumen Gentium, but also in Gaudium et Spes. It is this Christological “depth grammar” which belies any facile separation of “doctrinal” and “pastoral.” Nor can the Council be read as promoting a “pastoral paradigm” in opposition to a “doctrinal paradigm.”…

Vatican’s II’s ressourcement sought to know Christ in a new way: to re-discover the Person of Jesus Christ—not only through propositions about him, but by inviting and fostering a personal encounter with him. An encounter that leads not merely to an assent of the mind, but a consent of the heart, and, hence, to transformation of life. And it sought to bring that renewed sense of Christ’s reality and primacy into all facets of the Church’s life and its relation to the world. Indeed, to proclaim Christ as Lumen Gentium. For, as Gaudium et Spes confesses, with lyric exultation: “The Lord is the goal of human history, the point on which the desires of history and civilization turn, the center of the human race, the joy of all hearts and the fulfillment of all desires.”

This central emphasis on the Person of Jesus Christ makes many other aspects of the modern Church more understandable. For instance, with the focus placed squarely on Christ rather than on defending the Church, Catholics can afford to engage in dialogue with critics. This is particularly true of ecumenical conversations with other Christian groups; a focus on Christ helps to bring us all together. Even in dialogue with the wider world, however, an emphasis on Christ can lead to a more productive conversation. When the focus remains on protecting the reputation and standing of the Church as an institution, Catholics cannot engage as meaningfully with the world. Under the last few Popes, the Church has begun to drop its triumphalist tone and admit its past errors and mistakes; this humility, stemming from a renewed focus on Christ, helps us better communicate who and what we believe ourselves to be. 

This Christocentric focus is particularly noticeable in the liturgy. Traditionalists frequently complain that the Mass of Paul VI puts too much emphasis on the Resurrection; they claim that the newer rite no longer references the Passion and downplays the sacrificial nature of the liturgy. Of course, this claim is badly exaggerated; the newer rite contains plenty of sacrificial symbolism. But it is true that the Mass of Paul VI emphasizes the Paschal Mystery in its entirety. Isn’t this as it should be? As St. Paul said, if Christ has not risen, our Faith is in vain, and we are the most pitiable of men. (cf. 1 Corinthians 15:14-19) By rising from the dead, Jesus proved himself to be the Christ, the Eternal Son of God. To quote again from Fr. Imbelli’s essay:

Thus, it is imperative to highlight a neglected aspect of Vatican II’s achievement. Its employment of the term “paschal mystery.” The term has become so commonplace we fail to attend sufficiently to its innovative appearance and usage at the Council…

A salient text is Sacrosanctum Concilium, section 5, where the Council teaches that “the work of human redemption and of the perfect glorification of God” was accomplished by Christ the Lord “especially through the paschal mystery of his blessed passion, his resurrection from the dead and his glorious ascension, by which, dying, he destroyed our death and, rising, he restored our life.” Thus the “paschal mystery” is both the culmination of Jesus’s life and ministry and the cause of our salvation: his dying destroyed our death, his rising restored our life.

This new realization of the decisive importance of the paschal mystery finds striking reflection in the new liturgical books and celebrations stemming from the Council’s ressourcement. Jeremy Driscoll asserts: “there can be no question that one of the great theological achievements of the Missal of Paul VI is the way in which the paschal mystery emerges with clarity as the center of the liturgical year and, indeed, as the center of every celebration of the Eucharist… In the Missal of Paul VI the word paschal in various of its forms occurs in 120 texts, many of which are repeated numerous times. In the pre-conciliar missal of 1962 it occurs in 17 texts.”

Another difference in the reformed Missal of Paul VI is the emphasis on the reception of Communion as the central aspect of the celebration of the Mass. Traditionalists are suspicious of this emphasis; they would prefer the liturgical symbolism to emphasize the sacrifice rather than the meal. As I explained in an article on the topic, however, such a stance misses the whole point of the liturgy. The sacrifice of Christ was indeed a sacrifice, but a sacrifice of a particular kind. It was a fulfillment of the Passover sacrifices, which were integrally connected to a ritual meal. Without the meal, the sacrificial ritual was not complete. And so, according to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, the Liturgy is “wholly directed toward the intimate union of the faithful with Christ through communion”(CCC 1382). This renewed spirituality of the liturgy, with its emphasis on the eucharistic union of Christ with his Body through the reception of Holy Communion, is yet another aspect of a renewed Christocentrism in the Church. 

In a way, such an emphasis is also part of a larger shift within the modern Church: a renewed focus on the role of the laity. This is true both in regard to lay participation at Mass and in the life of the Church more broadly. A focus on the Church rather than on Christ led to a focus on the clergy rather than the laity, since the clergy makes up the visible structure of the Church. The Christocentric emphasis of the modern Church, however, leads us to a focus on the common priesthood of all the believers, rooted in baptism, since Christ lives in all of his members, not just in the clergy. 

This doesn’t mean that the “ministerial”, hierarchical priesthood is unimportant; far from it. Rather, the ministerial priesthood is at the service of the priesthood of all the faithful, according to the Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC 1547).

While the ministerial priesthood is anointed and “set apart”, we can also see this distinction as serving to show forth and represent the inherent dignity of every Christian. This is the true meaning of anything that is sacred or “set apart” in the Christian scheme of things; we set certain people and things apart to represent the fundamentally sacred nature of all reality.

A final instance of the differences in the modern Church is an emphasis on mercy rather than on justice. Obviously, the two can’t be separated. Still, it is fitting that the Church should emphasize mercy. Concepts of justice and retribution are not uniquely Christian; such concepts can easily be understood by human reason. In fact, all societies have some concept of the moral law, and many of them have some notion of retribution for those who break moral precepts. By contrast, the coming of Christ to redeem us is a uniquely Christian concept. He did not come to judge, but rather to save; the Church is called to continue this saving mission. Christ will come again in glory to judge on the last day; until that day, we are under the dispensation of mercy. 

Seeing Differences as Renewal & Reform

Since the differences that characterize the Church in the Vatican II era result from a renewed emphasis on the fundamentals of the faith, they should not be seen as ruptures with the Tradition. Rather, they represent the renewal and continued development of the Tradition.

I am speaking here, of course, of authentic Church teaching and practice; the consistent teachings of the post-conciliar magisterium, rather than some kind of nebulous modern “spirit”. The modern Church contains plenty of dubious characters, both progressives and reactionaries, who pit their own private judgments and agendas against the mind of the Church—and in doing so, become “enemies of the Cross of Christ”. As Fr. Imbelli puts it:

I characterize this declension from the robust Christological vision of Vatican II as the case of “the decapitated Body.”

Among other symptoms of this malady I have pointed to a unitarianism of the Spirit in which the names of “Jesus” and “Father” are expurgated; the not so benign neglect accorded Dei Verbum’s affirmation of Christ as both “mediator and fullness of revelation” (DV §2); the soteriological relativism that places a hesitant question mark after the Council’s bold confession of “no other name” (GS §10); the widespread “liturgical horizontalism” (decried by Benedict XVI) in which almost exclusive focus is placed on the community celebrating—often expressed in the reductive slogan: “what’s important is who is around the altar!…

Recently, this concern at the loss of the Christic center spurred the 2021 Lenten sermons of the Preacher of the Papal Household, Cardinal Raniero Cantalamessa. He lamented that consideration of the Church often transpires “etsi Christus non daretur!” [as if Christ did not exist] I leave to the reader’s own discernment this diagnosis of Christological deficit in Church and theology, and the identification of further instances of its corrosive spread.

The intellectual problem underlying the rejection of the Council is a failure to properly understand the Council’s mission. Progressives and reactionaries alike can agree on one thing, and one thing only: that the Council was a rupture in the Church. Conservatives, meanwhile, try to present a “moderate” view: that the Council should be viewed with a “hermeneutic of continuity.” What this often means in practice is that the truly radical aspects of the Council’s message are ignored. This can lead to viewing it as “no big deal,” another pastoral council doomed to fade into the oblivion of Church history and of little relevance today. Conservatives sometimes claim that their “hermeneutic of continuity” is based on the thought of Pope Benedict XVI, but this self-serving claim relies upon a misconception of his thought and teaching. 

Benedict XVI was fundamentally a “man of the Council”—of the Council rightly understood. He certainly saw the Council as being in continuity with the tradition of the Church, but he saw this continuity as being of a particular and paradoxical kind: the continuity of reform. A reform implies that something has gotten out of shape, and needs to be put back into shape. In this case,  Such a reshaping involves a certain discontinuity; there will be a change of shape. A true reformation, however, implies a return to the proper shape; it isn’t a mere free-for-all. In an important address to the Roman Curia, Pope Benedict carefully explained the proper way to view such developments in what he called the “hermeneutic of reform”:

On the one hand, there is an interpretation that I would call “a hermeneutic of discontinuity and rupture”; it has frequently availed itself of the sympathies of the mass media, and also one trend of modern theology. On the other, there is the “hermeneutic of reform”, of renewal in the continuity of the one subject-Church which the Lord has given to us. She is a subject which increases in time and develops, yet always remaining the same, the one subject of the journeying People of God.

After considering some of the major themes of the Council, he went on to say:

It is clear that in all these sectors, which all together form a single problem, some kind of discontinuity might emerge. Indeed, a discontinuity had been revealed but in which, after the various distinctions between concrete historical situations and their requirements had been made, the continuity of principles proved not to have been abandoned. It is easy to miss this fact at a first glance.

It is precisely in this combination of continuity and discontinuity at different levels that the very nature of true reform consists. In this process of innovation in continuity we must learn to understand more practically than before that the Church’s decisions on contingent matters – for example, certain practical forms of liberalism or a free interpretation of the Bible – should necessarily be contingent themselves, precisely because they refer to a specific reality that is changeable in itself. It was necessary to learn to recognize that in these decisions it is only the principles that express the permanent aspect, since they remain as an undercurrent, motivating decisions from within. 

The most important principle of the Church is Christ himself. In this light, we can understand a Christocentric hermeneutic of reform in line with the Second Vatican Council. Without Christ, nothing else matters. And so a renewed focus on his presence in the Church he founded should be a cause for celebration. Yet it has not been so. Neither was it so when Christ first entered our world. He came to fulfill the Law in every jot and tittle, and for this reason, he came as a great renewer and reformer. Inevitably, his teaching contained a mixture of continuity and discontinuity, of the same kind that characterizes the reforms of the Second Vatican Council. For many, the discontinuity in Christ’s teaching proved to be a stumbling block. The process of reform and development was too painful, and so Jesus was rejected by the leaders of his own people. 

As I wrote in my first article for WPI, the Second Vatican Council will only fail if we fail to implement it. In the deepest sense, the proper implementation of the Council is not about liturgical rubrics or the fine points of theology; it is about returning to the Lord with all our hearts. This is, as Christ told St. Faustina, a time of mercy. Now is the acceptable time! Now is the day of salvation! Let us seize the opportunity that our merciful God has given to us.

I want to thank Dr. Larry Chapp; I learned of Fr. Imbelli’s essay through Dr. Chapp’s blog, Gaudium et Spes 22, and this essay was inspired in part by topics covered in some of his recent blog posts. 

Image: Divine liturgy celebrated at the Second Vatican Council, with Paul VI and bishops concelebrating. CNS Photo.

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Malcolm Schluenderfritz hosts Happy Are You Poor, a blog and podcast dedicated to discussing radical Christian community as a means of evangelization. He works as a graphic design assistant and a horticulturalist in Littleton, CO.

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