This morning I awoke to several messages from Rome regarding the address given to the Synodal Assembly today by the Australian theologian Fr. Ormond Rush. It took me some time to track it down on YouTube, but I found it (it begins shortly after the 38:25 mark on this video:

Fr. Rush’s talk explores the lessons that the synod can learn from the Second Vatican Council. The story he tells to begin his speech gave me an immediate sense of deja vu. He describes how in 1962 the draft text (or “schema”) of the Council’s document on “the sources of revelation” was proposed. Fr. Rush described the document as “styled in the categories of neo-scholasticism, which spoke of revelation, faith, scripture and tradition in a mostly one-dimensional way: in terms only of propositional doctrinal statements.” It was rejected by the bishops almost immediately, and Pope John XXIII agreed that they needed a new text. Fr. Rush then quotes what the young theologian Fr. Joseph Ratzinger wrote at that time:

The real question behind the discussion could be put this way: Was the intellectual position of “anti-Modernism” — the old policy of exclusiveness, condemnation and defense leading to an almost neurotic denial of all that was new — to be continued? Or would the Church, after it had taken all the necessary precautions to protect the faith, turn over a new leaf and move on into a new and positive encounter with its own origins, with its [fellow human beings] and with the world of today? Since a clear majority of the fathers opted for the second alternative, we may even speak of the Council as a new beginning. We may also say that with this decision there was a major advance over Vatican Council I. Both Trent and Vatican Council I set up bulwarks for the faith to assure it and to protect it; Vatican Council II turned itself to a new task, building on the work of the two previous Councils.

The story was immediately familiar because Sr. Gabriela wrote about the exact same events one week ago in the latest installment of her “Union and Communion” series of articles. (Dashing my hopes that Fr. Rush is a WPI reader and based his address on her article, Sr. Gabriela later informed me that she is an admirer of Fr. Rush’s work, which influenced her article.)

In it, she describes the lecture Ratzinger gave to the German-speaking bishops on the eve of the first session of the Council in October 1962. Until reading her article, I had no idea of the influence Ratzinger had on the change in direction that led to the Council’s Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation, Dei Verbum. She notes that his criticism of the original schema didn’t even spare its name, quoting his assertion, “The title itself, On the Sources of Revelation, immediately raises problems.”

What was the problem with the title? He goes on to explain, “Scripture and tradition are not the sources of revelation, but instead revelation, God’s speaking and his manifesting of himself, is the unus fons [one source], from which then the two streams of Scripture and tradition flow out. This is the true way of speaking of tradition, which Trent used and took for granted.”

In the past, I have credited Pope Benedict’s personalist understanding of Revelation with deeply enriching my own faith. His teachings on faith as an encounter with a person and as friendship with Jesus (on which everything else depends) profoundly changed my understanding of what it means to be a Christian. And it seems that I have underestimated the extent to which this message has impacted the entire Church.

In her article, Sr. Gabriela explores some of the main points of that address on divine revelation, adding,

Prof. Ratzinger makes the essential distinction between revelation and the expressions of revelation that are Scripture and tradition. “Scripture and tradition are for us sources from which we know revelation, but they are not in themselves its sources, for revelation is itself the source of Scripture and tradition.”[18] He goes back beyond the period of historicism and shows that both Bonaventure and Thomas Aquinas “know well that revelation is always more than its material principle, the Scripture, namely, that it is life living on in the Church in a way that makes Scripture a living reality and illumines its hidden depths.”[19] He then draws this conclusion: “This means, to be sure, that the three realities, Scripture, Tradition, and the Church’s Magisterium are not static entities placed beside each other, but have to be seen as one living organism of the work of God, which from Christ lives on in the Church.”

In his address this morning, Fr. Rush shared Ratzinger’s vision of “a dynamic understanding of tradition.” Quoting Ratzinger, he reminded us that “Not everything that exists in the Church must for that reason be also a legitimate tradition; in other words, not every tradition that arises in the Church is a true celebration and keeping present of the mystery of Christ. There is a distorting, as well as a legitimate, tradition.”

In a sense, the traditionalist critics of the synod are not entirely wrong that certain things they don’t want to change are changing. But this is not new. Since beginning of the Second Vatican Council, the Church has been undergoing a reassessment of whether certain traditions are valuable to our evangelizing mission. As Pope Francis wrote in Evangelii Gaudium, “In her ongoing discernment, the Church can also come to see that certain customs not directly connected to the heart of the Gospel, even some which have deep historical roots, are no longer properly understood and appreciated. Some of these customs may be beautiful, but they no longer serve as means of communicating the Gospel. We should not be afraid to re-examine them” (EG 43).

On this same point, Rush — still quoting Ratzinger — continued, “Tradition must not be considered only affirmatively, but also critically; we have Scripture as a criterion for this indispensable criticism of tradition, and tradition must therefore always be related back to it and measured by it.”

In his conclusion, Rush said,

Discernment of the signs of the times in the present seeks to determine what God is urging us to see—with the eyes of Jesus—in new times; but also urging us to be attentive to the traps—where we could be being drawn into ways of thinking that are not “of God”. These traps could lie in being anchored exclusively in the past, or exclusively in the present, or not being open to the future fulness of divine truth to which the Spirit of Truth is leading the church.

It always astounds me how much Pope Francis sounds like Pope Benedict at times. Both of them have a rich perspective on Revelation as it unfolds throughout history and the Church’s need to renew itself in every era. In our own lives, a deeper historical perspective can better help us appreciate the threads of continuity across generations and develop a dynamic understanding of Christian tradition.

Image: Vatican News.

Discuss this article!

Keep the conversation going in our SmartCatholics Group! You can also find us on Facebook and Twitter.

Liked this post? Take a second to support Where Peter Is on Patreon!
Become a patron at Patreon!

Mike Lewis is the founding managing editor of Where Peter Is. He and Jeannie Gaffigan co-host Field Hospital, a U.S. Catholic podcast.

Share via
Copy link