In his conversation with the editors of Jesuit journals in Europe last June, Pope Francis recalled the acute hostility of some conservative Catholics towards the Second Vatican Council during its aftermath, even among the Jesuits themselves.[1] Some Jesuits tried to derail the efforts of Pedro Arrupe, Superior General from 1965 to 1984, to take the Council to heart and see the promotion of justice as “an absolute requirement” of the service of faith, and to reframe the Society’s mission accordingly. Francis remembered one Jesuit ranting bitterly against Arrupe and his General Assistant, Jean-Yves Calvez, saying, “The happiest day of my life will be when I see them hanging from the gallows in St Peter’s Square.”

Why was Pope Francis making so much of this? Because, he said, “the non-acceptance of the Council” has once again become a critical problem for the Church. “Restorationism has come to gag the Council,” he remarked, the “restorers” being traditionalists, many of whom see their partial or total rejection of Vatican II and their deep dislike of Francis as emblems of their fidelity to a Church that will not and cannot change. According to their understanding, it is not only the formal teachings of the Church that are unchangeable, but also an array of longstanding perspectives, judgments, and practices that, taken together, constitute a normative Catholic stance, and – despite the best efforts of rogue popes and bishops – the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.

What is on show here is what Bernard Lonergan SJ characterized as a “classicist worldview.”[2] It stresses the fixed identity of human nature rather than its contingent elements. Its method is to move from the eternal and the universal to the temporal and the specific. For traditionalists with this worldview, human history is mostly a sorry tale of departure from an original ideal, of deviation from the straight path of the past; it began with a fall, and the temporal order (literally, the “secular”) has borne the mark of Adam ever since. It is for the Church then to defend the unchangeable against the constant pressure to change, a pressure which, since the Reformation at least, could be expected to come from outside. And what is needed for this defense is strong centralized government and a magisterial culture of censure and condemnation.

But Vatican II, according to this narrative, changed everything. It was when the Church decided to negotiate with the enemy rather than continue to fight the good fight against it. A new view of things in the Church began to take shape at the Council, but this was nothing but a masquerade, traditionalists believe, a veil of churchy language draped over a body of secular pieties. What the Council did, they say, is little more than appropriate the values of the 18th century Enlightenment and the revolutionary era which followed – appropriate, that is, the very tenets it had railed against for over 150 years: liberté, égalité, fraternité, and the other “simple and incontestable principles” of the French Declaration of Human Rights. How could these have been false then but true now? Truth, if it is truth at all, is unchanging. But at Vatican II, so this narrative goes, the secularising modernists won, and the Church, as St Paul said of his fellow-worker Demas, fell in love with the present world. The Council fathers sought the approval of the secular culture around them, so no surprise if the new spirit they introduced bore the mark of the immanentist ideologies that emerged from the age of reason – liberalism, Marxism, positivism, relativism, and the like.

There is, however, another way to read the history of the modern Church. It corresponds in good part to the worldview that Lonergan posed as classicism’s opposite. He called it “historical consciousness” or “historical mindedness.”[3] It means recognizing that apart from immutable human nature there is also variable human historicity, and what this brings to our endeavors is a need for “changing forms, structures, methods.” According to this understanding, existence in history is not an incidental aspect of our nature – or indeed of the life of the Church. It is constitutive. And our historical situatedness, with all the limitations it sets on our capacity to apprehend eternal truths, presents us with a sense of tradition as culturally and linguistically mediated, and as always in need of interrogation in the light of new realities. Truth, of course, is not relative, but our apprehension of it most certainly is.

Lonergan’s distinction between classicism and historical mindedness should not be applied too rigidly, but it does hold a definite heuristic value. It helps to identify where the fault line lies in the Church these days – the line that distinguishes those who are perturbed to a greater or lesser extent by rumors of change in the Church from those who are not. It should be noted, though, that these worldviews are not, in the first place, drawn from theology, whatever their exponents might claim. They are standpoints that are fixed by a set of undergirding principles and presuppositions which themselves need to be examined and justified. There is work to be done here by Catholics of both stripes if they are ever to find themselves on the same page: each needs to pay respectful attention to the other’s examination and justification of their own standpoint. This is where fruitful disputation may take place.

If traditionalists are to take serious issue with the judgments or changes introduced by the Council or the Pope, it is imperative that they give close attention to the principles and presuppositions which underlie them. It has happened many times in the history of the Church that the received understanding of a doctrine has shown itself to be inadequate to the task of making sense of emerging concrete circumstances. At such times the Church must revisit the doctrine in the light of the foundational truths of revelation. There have been dramatic shifts in the Church’s understanding of, for example, the necessity of the Church for salvation, the nature of sin, pardon and penance, the relationship between Christ and his Church and the Eucharist, the fate of unbaptized infants, freedom of conscience and religion, and so on, precisely because new political, intellectual or pastoral situations required a re-think about the meaning or consequences of more “determinative” doctrines – doctrines such as the universal salvific will, God’s infinite justice and mercy, or the dignity of the human person. This, you could say, is traditionally how the Church has understood tradition – not as, in the phrase of Yves Congar, “the mechanical transmission of a passive deposit”[4] but as the dynamic reception of revelation by living subjects who live in history, a history that responds to the questions of time. Present-day traditionalism, by contrast, is a novelty.

One determinative doctrine of the Church in particular helped to set the program of reform and renewal in the Council. It is the doctrine of the imago Dei, the revelation that every person bears the stamp of God’s image and has the infinite dignity that goes with that. Also, that human personhood is essentially relational, given that the God in whose image we are made is in fact a dynamic community of persons – a Trinity. Our selfhood is therefore constitutively implicated in the lives of other selves. We exist to be in solidarity with them. What this insight gave the Council, to put it in hermeneutical terms, was a horizon of assumptions and values which shaped its concrete insights and judgments about the world. A new worldview, precisely.

The opening pages of Henri de Lubac’s magisterial book Catholicism (first published in 1938) effectively prefigures all of this.[5] Drawing heavily on the Fathers of the Church, de Lubac emphasizes that the supernatural dignity of baptized Christians rests on the natural dignity of all of humankind. Also, that the unity of the Church supposes a prior unity of the whole human race. You can’t have one without the other. And both rest on the doctrine, which first appears in Genesis and is never far from the pages of either Scripture or the early Fathers, that all persons were made “in the one image of the one God” and that “the divine image does not differ from one individual to another.”

This is immensely consequential. In a sense, all the main doctrines of the Council concerning the Church itself can be traced back to the equal dignity of its baptized members, and all the main doctrines concerning the Church in the world can be traced back to the equal natural dignity of all people. Hence, the ecclesiology of the constitution of the Church, Lumen Gentium, begins with the unity of all members in the body of Christ and the participation of each one of them in Christ’s three-fold office of priest, prophet, and king. Only after this affirmation can differentiations of office or vocation be made.[6] Much follows from this: the doctrine of the common priesthood of the faithful; the need for the active participation of the laity in the liturgy; the recognition of the lay state as a vocation; the emphasis on authority in the Church as service; the role of collegiality; the nuancing of the distinction between the teaching and the learning Church; the role of the sensus fidei (the instinct of faith of every believer); and so on.

And so too with the Council’s teachings concerning the world at large. They reflect the Church’s conviction of the natural dignity of every human being and the unity of the human race. Gaudium et Spes, the constitution on the Church in the modern world, is the stand-out document in this regard.[7] It sees the imago Dei as the basis for the unity of all humankind as a “single people,” and as the basis of human dignity, equality, and freedom. Again, much follows: the importance of the human stewardship of creation; the need for justice in the socio-economic world; the fundamental value of dialogue; and the primacy of the common good. The other council documents add to this litany. Restoring unity among Christians, establishing fellowship with people of all religions, sharing in the concerns of the whole world, respecting the inviolability of conscience – all of these values are couched in the background understanding of every person as a bearer of God’s image. Through these documents, the Council confirmed the tradition of Catholic social teaching and clearly established that it is an integral constituent of Church doctrine. “The love of God,” says Gaudium et Spes, “cannot be separated from love of neighbor.”[8]

But for many traditionalists – and this is one reason why they seek to “gag the Council” – the social teaching of the Church is merely peripheral to the Gospel. The real Catholic business is the life of the sacraments, of piety, and of a certain understanding of doctrinal orthodoxy. Justice, solidarity, and human freedom come a distant second and are as likely as not to be the concerns of those who are more on the side of the world than on that of God. Pope Francis categorically disagrees. “Everything is interconnected,” he wrote repeatedly in Laudato Si,”[9] and it has been a mainstay of his teaching throughout his pontificate. He resolutely defends the affirmative, integral vision that Vatican II advanced.

Of course, this vision of the Council did indeed mark a decisive break from the negative ecclesiology that dominated during the previous centuries – the supposition that the Church of its nature is contra mundum, pitched in enmity against the world beyond its bounds, and committed to hierarchy and strong authority against the democratizing principle which prevailed elsewhere. But that darker vision of the Church and the world was for the greater part merely a product of post-Reformation polemics and later of the Catholic Counter-Enlightenment. In many respects, it was a departure from the ancient theological anthropology that the Council retrieved, one that saw as foundational the fraternity and solidarity of the whole human race. And it is the Council’s vision that has enabled the Church of recent decades to make what Jürgen Habermas has called the “semantic potential”[10] of its discourse available to the public sphere beyond its confines. There are considerable grounds for hope here.

Vatican II took place within living memory of two horrendous world wars and right in the middle of the Cold War. It was perhaps the first time in human history when fears of the complete destruction of civilization were not implausible. In “Fall 1961”[11] the American poet Robert Lowell registered the terror of those years:

All autumn, the chafe and jar
of nuclear war;
we have talked our extinction to death (…)
Our end drifts nearer (…)

And one year after Lowell wrote this, just five days after the first session of the Vatican Council began, U.S. reconnaissance photos confirmed that the Soviets had deployed ballistic missiles to Cuba, sparking off the Cuban Missile Crisis. A much more dangerous phase of the Cold War had begun. Is it any wonder that the assembled bishops would look for an articulation of the Church’s teaching and tradition that would promise light in the darkest of times? They found it, in effect, in the doctrine of the imago Dei. Freedom, equality, dignity, solidarity – these all had their roots deep in the Judeo-Christian tradition, in the fundamental affirmation that God, who has “fatherly concern for everyone,” wills that “all men should constitute one family and treat one another in a spirit of brotherhood.”[12]

Setting the Church’s teaching on this footing would of course involve both affirming many of the longstanding teachings of the Church and drawing heavily on Scripture and the early fathers. But it would also mean a great deal of reform – reform that many traditionalists now see as nothing more than illicit change. For Pope Benedict XVI, however, it is not so at all. It is, in fact, precisely how the Church ought to stay faithful to tradition. In his landmark Christmas address to the Roman Curia in 2005,[13] he rejected a “hermeneutic of discontinuity and rupture,” positing in its place a “hermeneutic of reform” which contains a “combination of continuity and discontinuity at different levels.” That means preserving continuity in respect to “permanent principles,” but also allowing “innovation,” distinguishing between essential and contingent aspects of Church teaching, and reviewing and even correcting certain historical decisions of the Church. It was in this way, Benedict declared, that the Church in the Council “actually preserved and deepened her inmost nature and true identity.”

This is why Francis is so concerned about efforts to silence or even erase the Council. Vatican II articulates an expansive worldview that is the authentic expression of the teaching Church in our time. In the light of what Benedict called “the deepest patrimony of the Church,” it reformed earlier doctrinal, disciplinary, and pastoral formulations, just as some of its own articulations may need to be revisited and reformed when the times and human experience necessitate it. This is how the Church has always been. Semper reformanda. What remains constant is the Church’s vocation to find ways to bring Christ, the light of nations, the lumen gentium, to the dark expanses of our world.


[1] Antonio Spadaro SJ, “Pope Francis in conversation with the editors of European Jesuit journals,” 14 June, 2022 <https://www.laciviltacattolica.com/pope-francis-in-conversation-european-jesuit-journals/>.

[2] See especially Bernard Lonergan, The collected works of Bernard Lonergan, vol. 13, A Second Collection, 2nd edition (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2016), Chapter 1, “The transition from a classicist worldview to historical mindedness,” pp. 3-10. Also see Lonergan, Method in theology (London: Darton, Longman & Todd Ltd., 1972), Chapter 12, “Doctrines.”

[3] Lonergan, Second collection, Chapter 1; Lonergan, Method in theology, Chapter 12.

[4] Yves Congar, The meaning of tradition, English edition, trans. A.N. Woodrow (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2004), Chapter 3, “The content of tradition: Tradition and scripture.”

[5] Henri de Lubac, Catholicism: Christ and the common destiny of man, trans. Lancelot C. Sheppard and Sr. Elizabeth Englund OCD (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1988), Chapter 1, “Dogma,” especially p. 25-27.

[6] Lumen gentium

[7] Gaudium et spes, especially the preface (#1-3)

[8] Ibid, #24

[9] Laudato Si’, #70, 138, 240.

[10] See for example, Jürgen Habermas, “Religion in the Public Sphere,” published in Between naturalism and religion: Philosophical essays, trans. Ciaran Cronin (Cambridge, England: Polity Press, 2008). Also see Habermas’s reply to contributors in An awareness of what is missing: Faith and reason in a post-secular age, trans. Ciaran Cronin (Cambridge, UK: Polity Press, 2010), Chapter 7; and Habermas’s speech on 14 October 2001 at his reception of the Peace Prize of the German Book Trade, published as “Faith and knowledge” in Habermas, The future of human nature, English translation (Cambridge, UK: Polity Press, 2003).

[11] Robert Lowell, For the Union dead (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1964). See here: <https://www.blueridgejournal.com/poems/rl-fall.htm>

[12] Gaudium et spes, #24.

[13] “Address of his Holiness Pope Benedict XVI to the Roman Curia offering them his Christmas greetings,” 22 December 2005 <https://www.vatican.va/content/benedict-xvi/en/speeches/2005/december/documents/hf_ben_xvi_spe_20051222_roman-curia.html>


Image: Vatican II in session/wikimedia. By Catholic Press Photo – www.veritecatholique.composlezavtra.forum2x2.com, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=113054810

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!

Dermot Roantree works for the Irish Jesuit province and is editor of the cultural journal Studies: An Irish Quarterly Review.

Share via
Copy link