Deciphering Vatican II: A new book especially helpful for evangelicals
The recent book by Thomas G. Guarino, The Disputed Teachings of Vatican II. Continuity and Reversal in Catholic Doctrine, is particularly helpful for evangelicals for at least two reasons.
02 MAY 2019 · 10:35 CET
Reading Vatican II has often been a maze experience for evangelicals. They find there a restatement of traditional Roman Catholic teaching alongside something that appears contradictory to it. The chief example of this evangelical puzzlement is David Wells’ book Revolution in Rome (1972), which tries to make sense of Vatican II’s nuanced, juxtaposing, and cumulative way of theologizing. After carefully reading its documents, Wells concludes that Vatican II on some strategic points (e.g. authority, ecumenism, religious freedom, the presence of the church in the world) seems to endorse “mutually incompatible theologies”. One theology is conservative, the other progressive; one is restating tradition, the other pushing beyond tradition. “How do we interpret?” is the question that reflects evangelical perplexity in coming to terms with the complexity of the Roman Catholic mindset presented at Vatican II.
Scores of books have been written about Vatican II, the discussions behind its texts, the documents that were produced, and the controversial attempts to implement it. Its legacy is still a fiercely disputed matter in Catholic circles, too. This is to say that each new addition to the library on Vatican II is welcome to try to navigate the deep waters of the Council. The recent book by Thomas G. Guarino, The Disputed Teachings of Vatican II. Continuity and Reversal in Catholic Doctrine (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2018), is particularly helpful for evangelicals for at least two reasons. First, since 2009 the author has been co-chairing the US-based “Evangelicals and Catholics Together” initiative and is therefore used to dialogue with evangelicals. Second, while he never quotes David Wells, Guarino discusses some of the evangelical perplexities contained in his book with the intention of suggesting a Roman Catholic way to handle them.
Vatican II as “Profectus Fidei”?
The church has always had to grapple with the issue of change in her understanding of the truth and her accounting of it in teaching, preaching, evangelizing, etc. This is why Guarino looks back to the 5th century and Vincent of Lérins’ distinction between change as profectus (i.e. the development of doctrine that preserves the core) and change as permutatio (i.e. a mutation that alters the core). Without denying the significant changes in language, style, and tone that are evident at the Council, Guarino argues that “Vatican II was in the main a homogenous profectus of the earlier tradition” (21), i.e. an advancement and expansion of previous tradition that nonetheless maintained its fundamental landmarks.
The main thesis of the book is that “Vatican II is in clear congruence with the prior Catholic tradition – even while homogeneously developing it on certain points” (10). Each word is here important: “congruence” means compatibility with the past, but no mere repetition of it; “development” means organic growth with points of relative distancing from previous formulations, while remaining faithful to the doctrinal whole. The elastic yet firm combination of continuity and discontinuity at different levels is what characterizes Guarino’s appraisal of Vatican II. In borrowing Benedict XVI’s terms, instead of a “hermeneutic of rupture” one needs to come to terms with the meaning of Vatican II by using a “hermeneutic of reform” (21). The Council witnessed to an “organic, homogeneous, architectonic growth” (5)– the kind of change occuring within the parameters of a coherent development that des not betray the well-established heritage of the church.
This reading of the Council is fascinating and in line with a typically Catholic et-et (both-and) hermeneutical approach. However, its overall plausibility is difficult to accept wholesale when, for example, one analyzes the evidence as far as the issue of religious freedom is concerned. After centuries of strong opposition to religious freedom and freedom of conscience by Roman Catholic magisterial authorities, after multiple papal encyclicals consistently condemning it (which Guarino fairly makes reference to on pp. 184-188), how is it possible to see in Vatican II’s approval of it an “organic” change that simply “developed” what had been previously taught? Why not simply say that Rome was wrong when it condemned religious freedom and then came to change its mind at Vatican II? Is it because the institutional church is believed to be indefectible (i.e. not erring or making mistakes)? The fact that the Roman Catholic Church made a U-turn on religious freedom is a clear example that the willingness to preserve Rome’s continuity goes against the factual evidence. Guarino’s overall interpretation of Vatican II as simple “perfectus fidei” seems to squeeze the dynamics of the Roman Church into one-size-fits-all type of approach, instead of accounting for its complexity. Isn’t it too simplistic and a way to protect the unsustainable claims of indefectibility the Roman Church?
Three Key Words
Back to the central thesis of the book, there are three key words that one needs to become acquainted with: “development”, “ressourcement”, and “aggiornamento”. These words form the vocabulary that is needed to try to make sense of Vatican II from within. Here is the way in which Guarino helpsto clarify their meaning.
Development. Recalling J.H. Newman’s famous book An Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine (1894), Guarino acknowledges its profound influence on Vatican II. Development means “an unfolding of something that is already present implicitly or in germ” (57). According to Newman and Guarino, doctrine is inherently involved in an organic process of growth. The problem with this Roman Catholic view of development is always the same: what are the biblical boundaries of such “development”? For example, can the Church develop its Mariology to the point of elevating two Marian dogmas (like the 1854 dogma on Mary’s immaculate conception and the 1950 dogma of Mary’s bodily assumption) without any biblical support? In other words, “development” without the biblical principle of Sola Scriptura (i.e. the Bible as the supreme authority for the church) safeguarding and guiding it can become a self-referential principle at the service of the institutional church. If the church can “develop” her own traditionseven outside of the perimeter of the written Word of God, is it not a questionable development?
Ressourcement. This French word is another key term to enter the theological universe of Vatican II. It means “taking account of the entire theological tradition of the church” (59), be it the apostles, the fathers, the councils, the liturgy, and the witness of the Christian people. Vatican II is known for having paid more attention to the biblical sources of the faith, as well as to patristic and liturgical sources. The “ressourcement” principle is important, provided that the examination of the sources and their “weight” is put under the authority of the Word of God as the supreme source. Vatican II contained more biblical references than previous Catholic documents, but it also stood in continuity with previous magisterial texts that had little Scripture and were primarily based on other sources (e.g. as is the case with the Marian dogmas). Vatican II’s ressourcement added sources but did not subtract any, even in areas where Rome had developed its theology and practice outside of the Bible. It expanded the ability of the Roman Church to absorb new emphases without purifying it from the spurious ones which had been previously embraced.
Aggiornamento. The final word that Guarino expounds comes from the Italian language and was used by Pope John XXIII.“ Aggiornamento” means “bringing up to date” (66) the communication of the church by means of appropriating a different style and tone, and making it more attuned with the modern mindset. “Aggiornamento” can give the impression that Rome really and substantially changed at Vatican II, but it is closer to reality to say that the Roman Church went through a season of updating her language and attitude, without relinquishing any of what was previously believed and pronounced. For example, the “anathemas” (i.e. curses) of the Council of Trent against the Protestants have been “updated” at Vatican II with a friendly and brotherly language, but they were never renounced (and this means that they can be resuscitated at any moment). The previous layer has been updated without being removed.
Guarino’s book does an admirable service to the evangelical reader in explaining the Vatican II vocabulary of “change”. Too often, evangelicals may have a superficial view of Roman Catholic “change”. They can be impressed by the emphasis on biblical passages that they find in post-Vatican II documents without properly understanding the fact that these biblical sources supplement but do not change the already established Roman Catholic sources which have shaped its teaching. Evangelicals may rightly appreciate the friendly tone of present-day Catholic theological language without necessarily knowing that “aggiornamento” adds a new style on top of what Rome has said and done in the past, without cutting its roots. In other words, the vocabulary of Vatican II should not be taken as implying that Rome is now open to a biblical reformation. It simply means that the Catholic Church, as Guarino argues,“was in continuity with the prior doctrinal landmarks” (read: the Council of Trent, the Marian dogmans, the dogma of papal infallibility) even as “true development” (199) makes it more palatable to outsiders. The past is never renounced. It can be updated, but it remains untouched at the core of what the Roman Church is and believes.
A Paradigm Change
Beyond the already mentioned contributions of Guarino’s book to the understanding of Vatican II, this work has another strength, perhaps its most important one. In order to assess the theology of Vatican II, its “theological principles” need to be grappled with, and the book helpfully summarizes them. Yes, the “style” of the Council is important (as suggested by J. O’Malley); yes, the key words of the Council are foundational (“development”, “ressourcement”, “aggiornamento”); but what about its theological vision? Where did Vatican II derive its principles from? And what were they?
Guarino’s contention is that “analogical and participatory thinking are crucial, though generally overlooked, themes at Vatican II” (25). In his view, analogical and participatory categories form the backbone of the Council. Analogical thinking means that similarities are stressed (rather than differences); everything is analogous to something else and therefore close, similar, next to it. Participatory thinking means that everything participates in one way or another with everything else; therefore, mutual indwelling and inter-relationships are underlined (rather than distance and separation). If pre-Vatican II Roman Catholicism operated with a “univocal” approach (i.e. defining reality in one way only) followed by dialectical thinking (i.e. distancing itself from what was not aligned with its univocal definition), Vatican II Rome learns to reframe its whole theological vision according to what is in common with everything else and what unites it with the rest of the world. “Dialectical difference was not the style of the Council – analogical similarity was” (73). Antinomies were replaced by analogies (75).
It is true that Vatican II does not use traditional terms such as “primary and secondary analogates and intrinsic and extrinsic attribution” (27), but analogical and participatory thinking undergirds whatever Vatican II says. The Church of Rome is never called the “primary analogate” and the non-Catholic churches are never addressed as the “secondary analogates”; yet it is clear that Vatican II stresses what is in common between the two because they are analogous to each other. The same is true as far as participatory categories are concerned. When Vatican II speaks of the modern world in friendly terms, wanting to affirm and embrace it, it does so assuming that “all human beings participate in the same created human nature, the ultimate ground of similarity among people” (26-27). The notion of a “diversified participation in a perfection” (80) undergirds modern Roman Catholic thought.
This is the theological background that allows Vatican II to talk about mutuality, friendship, partnership, and cooperation with Protestants, Jews, Muslims, peoples of other religions, people of good will, the whole world. The Council promotes a “conciliatory approach – emphasizing unity with, rather than difference from, all others” (26). Again in Guarino’s words, “the ‘others’ formally participate in the unique attributes of Catholicism and are therefore intensively related to it” (28). This is not the fruit of a generic kindness, but the result of a particular theological project based on analogical and participatory categories. This does not mean that the traditional claims of Rome being the only church, the perfect society, etc., are obliterated. They are no longer seen in exclusive and oppositional forms, but in analogous and participatory ways. It is no longer a matter of being “in” or “out”, inside or outside, but it is a matter of participating at various degrees in the same reality. “Without losing Catholic exceptionalism … the conciliar accent was placed on Catholicism’s similarity” (29) with other faiths. They are now considered to be “partially similar to the Catholic faith and analogically related to it” (201). Elsewhere, Guarino argues that “Catholicism did not change its self-understanding – but it did stress its close proximity to others” (131). Vatican II presents the view whereby Rome has the fullness of grace, but those who do not belong to it still participate in it at various levels of intensity. According to Guarino, all this happened and is happening “without betraying the material continuity of the faith” (44, i.e. the Roman Catholic faith). We are back to the Catholic dynamics of “development”, “ressourcement”, and “aggiornamento”, i.e. change without alteration, renewal without reformation, addition without purification.
Not Away from Thomism but Deeper into It
In pointing to the importance of this “paradigm change” (31) in the present-day Roman Catholic Church, Guarino stands on the shoulders ofthe giants of 20th century Catholic theology such as Gérard Philips, Karl Rahner, Yves Congar, and Joseph Ratzinger (30-31). His is not an isolated, fancy interpretation of Vatican II, but the mainstream reading of the theological principles at work in the Roman Catholic Church since the last Council.
Following Congar, Guarino further argues that the real theological mind behind Vatican II is not a modern theologian, but Thomas Aquinas himself. It was Aquinas who “furnished the writers of the dogmatic texts of Vatican II with the bases and structure (les assises et la structure) of their thought (25, 74, 200). Thomas’ doctrine of analogy and his reinterpretation of the neo-platonic doctrine of participation form the foundational axes of the theology of Vatican II. While the Council avoided “the language of scholasticism”, it did make use of seminal “scholastic ideas” (74); again, “while Thomistic language was absent at Vatican II, Thomist ideas were in plain sight” (201) . While Vatican II practiced an eclectic type of “ressourcement”, it was Thomas Aquinas who was the main source behind it. A modernized form of Thomism, perhaps away from the rigidity of 19th century Neo-Thomism but always within the same tradition expanded in the dialogue with the modern world, was and is the framework that provides “the bases and the structure” of Rome.
What are the implications of such a “paradigm change” occurring at Vatican II for evangelicals? Massive! Here are three tentative ones.
1. For the time being, Rome will not have an “oppositional” posture in relating to non-Catholics but will always try to find commonalities, underline unity, stress fellowship, and embrace evangelicals as much as possible. Evangelicals need to be aware that if they want to be faithful to the gospel, they need to be “counter-cultural” and talk of gospel distinctives, biblical separation, and convenantal allegiance to the Triune God over idols. Biblical truth always needs to confront and refute error, even when it comes from a traditional institution like the Roman Catholic Church.
2. Even after Vatican II, Rome is not commited to the biblical gospel but is dedicated to the all-embracing gospel of “analogy” and “participation” that is translated into Rome’s ecumenism, mariology, ecclesiology, inter-religious dialogue, mission, etc. Pope Francis may not even use the language of “analogy” and “participation”, but his message of “unity” and “mercy” is steeped in it. Evangelicals need to become more acquainted with the ground motives of present-day Roman Catholicism if they want to understand where Rome stands. The words used may be the same (gospel, grace, faith, conversion, etc.), but their meaning is different because Rome uses them within the theological framework of Thomistic “analogy” and “participation”.
3. Rome changes according to her pattern, which implies degrees of renewal always in the context of substantial continuity with its well-established self-understanding. Evangelicals need to learn to understand the Roman Catholic dynamics of change if they want to account for both continuity and discontinuity in present-day Rome. The Catholic Church may even talk about the need for a “reformation”, but it will always be below the standards of biblical reformation and always in a way that protects the institution.
For all these reasons, Guarino’s book on Vatican II is particularly helpful for evangelical readers.
Leonardo De Chirico is an evangelical pastor in Rome (Italy). He is a theologian and an expert in Roman Catholicism.