In the first year of his pontificate, Pope Benedict XVI famously recalled the Second Vatican Council, which had ended 40 years previously. Benedict, with the steely-eyed realism that has marked his whole life, posed hard and honest questions, among them, “Why has the implementation of the Council, in large parts of the Church, thus far been so difficult?”
For Benedict, it all depended “on the correct interpretation of the Council or…on its proper hermeneutics, the correct key to its interpretation and application.” According to Benedict, the “problems in its implementation arose from the fact that two contrary hermeneutics came face to face and quarreled with each other. One caused confusion, the other, silently but more and more visibly, bore and is bearing fruit.” Benedict continued:
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.
The hermeneutic of discontinuity risks ending in a split between the pre-conciliar Church and the post-conciliar Church.
With the intensified crisis in the Church in recent years, many have begun to doubt Benedict’s assessment. For them, Benedict’s attempts at rescuing the Council, while perhaps noble, are no better than putting lipstick on the ecclesiastical pig. While this may seem hyperbolic, it is not. From the newly-minted position of Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò to the more nuanced criticisms of Bishop Athanasius Schneider, to the recently issued petition of bloggers, commentators, and some scholars, the Second Vatican Council and its documents are seen increasingly as the problem. It was a rupture from what went before. Its ambiguities must be repudiated; its innovations scrapped. It has opened a festering and expanding wound in the Church and the best we can do is declare this pastoral council anathema and engage in the proper restoration of the old ways.
How are contemporary lay Catholics to negotiate these debates? How can they make sense of the questions? How can they attempt, with Benedict, to see the Second Vatican Council, not as a rupture with what went before but a deepening of the riches of the Church’s Tradition?
Undoubtedly there are many resources that can help. Certainly, Fr. Aidan Nichols’ succinct Conciliar Octet offers a helpful guide to reading the eight major texts of the Council in continuity with what came before. The late Fr. Matthew Lamb and Professor Matthew Levering edited two important scholarly books on the topic, Vatican II: Renewal Within Tradition and The Reception of Vatican II. One could doubtless think of many other resources.
As someone who thinks the liturgical reforms after the Council were largely a disaster, pastorally and anthropologically, but whose theological ballast is found in the works of John Paul II, Hans Urs von Balthasar, Henri de Lubac, and Joseph Ratzinger, I have reflected often in these recent months as to what resource can best help the troubled layman negotiate the Vatican II debates. As I’ve done so, I have kept returning to a book published nearly five years ago but lamentably overlooked, Robert Royal’s A Deeper Vision: The Catholic Intellectual Tradition in the Twentieth Century (Ignatius Press, 2015). Indeed, I think there is no better book to help put the Council in context than Royal’s tour-de-force. Unfortunately, perhaps owing to Royal’s stature as a polemicist and a critic of Pope Francis on EWTN’s “Papal Posse,” the book has been unfairly neglected. Now is an opportune time for people to pick it up.
While A Deeper Vision is not about the Second Vatican Council per se, it situates the Second Vatican Council in the living tradition. In other words, it helps place the Second Vatican Council within the larger context of the real intellectual gains and missteps of modern Catholicism. The span of the book is vast. Royal covers philosophy, theology, scriptural studies, poetry, history, and literature. And in Royal’s sweeping overview the “one subject-Church,” about which Pope Benedict spoke, comes into a clearer focus. And in reading this book, one can begin to see the Second Vatican Council not as a rupture, as so many traditionalists and progressives do, but as a deepening of themes and currents that were already very much alive prior to 1962.
Philosophy and theology
Part One of A Deeper Vision is titled “Faith and Reason.” In several hundred pages, Royal gives a detailed overview of the developments and debates in philosophy, theology, and scriptural studies during the 20th century. Royal begins with chapters on the Thomist Revival and Catholic philosophy’s response to modernity.
With respect to Thomism, Royal begins with Pope Leo XIII’s 1879 encyclical Aeterni Patris, the match that ignited a renewal in Thomistic studies. Royal notes that since the Second Vatican Council, “the revival of Thomism…has frequently been viewed as a narrow and restrictive movement identified with the most reactionary and rigid elements in the Church.” As is his wont in this balanced volume, Royal states that this “myth contains a kernel of truth” especially with respect to the training in European seminaries in the “first half of the twentieth century.” But such a view “cannot survive the slightest acquaintance with what was actually achieved by the many and diverse thinkers who belonged to a vigorous and creative current in Catholic thought that has continued well into the twenty-first century.” In discussing this current, Royal engages personages as diverse as Maurice Blondel, Réginald Garrigou-Lagrange, Henri Bergson, Jacques Maritain, Ives Simon, Joseph Maréchal, Bernard Lonergan, Étienne Gilson, and Josef Pieper.
In Chapter Two, “Catholic Philosophy in a Time of Turmoil,” Royal discusses phenomenology, by peeking at the work of a young Fr. Karol Wojtyła and that of the martyr-saint Edith Stein, the singularly unique work of Alasdair MacIntyre, and Charles Taylor’s attempts to wrestle with modernity. In engaging this wide range of philosophers, Royal shows off a mind equal parts supple and subtle. His accounts are by necessity summaries but are never superficial, and the sources cited by Royal provide significant opportunity to dig deeper. (Those citations are also dangerous for those who need little excuse to buy more books.)
After setting the table with an overview of the currents within Catholic philosophy in the 20th Century, Royal turns to theology. Royal, first in a fair but critical reading of Pope St. Pius X, demonstrates how Pius X, despite his good intentions, may have primed the Catholic theological world for some of its excesses in the latter half of the 20th century. Royal describes Pius X’s encyclical Pascendi Dominic Gregis as seeing “only danger in change or growth of any kind and, therefore,” seeming “to propose a static Church that proudly ignores engagement with the modern world—that is, the world in which Catholics and the Church live.” This was compounded by the Anti-Modernist Oath of 1910. Royal states that the “goal of fidelity was the right one, but it would be difficult to say that the means proposed and the ways of formulating them were equally right.” Indeed, under Royal’s telling, “the explicit disavowal of trying to speak in a way so as to be heard in contemporary culture prepared the way for an explosion.” In other words, some of the seeds of the chaos of the second half of the 20th century were sown with the well-intentioned Anti-Modernist Oath.
This is not to say that Royal is unable to see the genuine insights and gifts of a Thomist of the Strict Observance such as Fr. Réginald Garrigou-Lagrange. Indeed, he describes Garrigou-Lagrange as someone who, in Fr. Nichols’ phrase, can help us to “reason with piety.” The “main purpose” of such Thomists “was to use the metaphysical, epistemological, and moral resources available in the tradition as a means of opposing and refuting the anti-metaphysical, skeptical, and relativist currents to be found in Catholic modernism.” And they offered a robust approach to dealing with various contemporary problems.
But it was also here before the Council that Catholic theology reclaimed old themes that had lain dormant for too long. Royal writes Catholicism “moved from a tightly disciplined and rigidly conceptualized philosophical and theological stance—most notably informed by the Neoscholastic revival that looked back to Saint Thomas Aquinas as a model for how think about the truths of the faith—to a fluid, multifaceted, unsystematic way of reflecting on God and man.” This broader approach can be termed “nuptial mysticism” where the “passionate love of God for his people is best expressed as an analogy: by the passionate love between a man and a woman.”
A prime example of a transitional theologian is Fr. Romano Guardini. Royal discusses Guardini’s contribution to the liturgical reform movement and the manner in which he straddled different theological worlds. As Royal contends, “Guardini was regarded by many as an inspiration and precursor of the Second Vatican Council. But the conciliar optimism about modern culture contrasts quite sharply with his realism.” Indeed, Royal argues that “[m]uch of the chaos, disorder, unrest, heartache, and outright wordliness that ensued” after the Council “might have been avoided if Guardini had been better assimilated.”
Royal describes Dominican Marie-Dominique Chenu as another “significant” figure who “began the move away from adherence to strict Thomism.” Royal writes that Chenu “used historical studies to try to open up the text of Thomas, as Thomas himself was open to examining various objections, and to give greater weight to biblical elements and the human side of the great thinker.” While Chenu recognized the importance of the strict Thomists’ defense of “timeless metaphysical principles,” he also showed how this defense “needed to be balanced with truths about God’s acting in history, persons, actions, and ‘becoming.’” Royal also recognizes similar gifts in Chenu’s Dominican confrere Yves Congar. According to Royal, it was Congar who was “largely responsible for the heightened sense of the role of the laity in the Church.”
Royal conducts a careful analysis of Henri de Lubac, S.J. He highlights the importance of de Lubac’s book Catholicism—a prime example of the nuptial mysticism that typifies the real insights Royal sees in 20th century Catholicism. According to Royal, Catholicism’s “organizing thesis…is that the early Church, patristic sources, and great figures such as Augustine and Aquinas all speak of salvation, not in the exclusively individual terms that sometimes marked Catholic piety in the first half of the 20th century, but in social terms that recognized the Church as the Mystical Body of Christ. On its way towards its promised end.” Royal argues that a truly “careful reading of de Lubac shows that he is not at all trying to deny the properly individual side of the spiritual life, but merely to situate it and add to it—as it seems we must—in the larger life of the Church and salvation history.” Royal also fairly describes the more controversial aspects of de Lubac’s work on nature and grace without being a partisan for either side of the debate.
The Council and After
After describing the philosophical and theological ferment of the first two-thirds of the 20th century, Royal discusses the Second Vatican Council itself and its aftermath. Royal is candid about the shift that occurred around the Council. Whereas during the first two-thirds of the century “efforts by Church authorities to preserve revealed truths often took the form of nervous defensiveness toward much that was, and is, threatening to faith in the modern world,” Royal states that during the “last third…Catholic intellectual life—by then, for the most part, radically independent of Church authority—seemed to run to the opposite extreme.” It often embraced “the world and modern ideas with uncertain relationship to the revealed truths of Catholicism.” According to Royal, the “single most important factor in that massive change” was the Council.
Here, Royal sees a failure not of the Council teaching but the failure of the Church herself “to instruct her own people about the Council and implement it in an orderly way.” She allowed the dominant political narrative to take over rather than helping her flock “focus on the perennial religious search for the One who is good, true, and beautiful.” “Once the earlier, rather rigid authoritarian stance was relaxed, many Catholics assumed everything was up for grabs.” In Royal’s reading, “there is nothing whatever in any document approved by the Council Fathers that countenance[d] [the] radical departures” that followed the Council. Royal backs up his claims by a survey of the key documents. And, like Fr. Nichols’ recent study, Conciliar Octet, mentioned above, he concludes that the Council was not the Copernican Revolution of the Church, but reform in continuity.
Nor was everything bad or fruitless after the Council. Royal writes that “despite the appearance of chaos, the postconciliar period was also a period of considerable theological ferment in the Catholic Church.” To demonstrate his claim, Royal focuses on four key theologians: Karl Rahner, Hans Urs von Balthasar, Karol Wojtyła, and Joseph Ratzinger.
It is in his reading of Rahner that Royal demonstrates again the subtlety and care of his analysis. Even in conservative theological circles—as opposed to traditionalist circles—Rahner is often seen as a dangerous and heterodox theologian. Royal writes that “read fairly, Rahner—successful or not—must be seen as, at bottom, sincerely engaged in exploring how to offer modern theological arguments for Christian truths.” While Royal notes that “there are many ways in which” Rahner’s “contributions are tied to a specific moment in the twentieth century,” he argues that “[n]o fair reader of Rahner…can help being impressed with his boldness in engaging the modern world with a universal vision and his equally relentless embrace of the Christian mystery in the person of Jesus.”
Royal also devotes a significant number of pages to the great Swiss theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar. In Balthasar, Royal writes, “high culture was combined with an immense capacity for work and dazzling creativity.” For Balthasar theology begins from the recognition of the sheer gratuity of being itself. Royal writes, “[R]eflection must begin from our discovery of ourselves as contingent and finite beings in a contingent and finite world. Everything that exists in our world could just as easily not exist.” And yet “both we and the world are somehow also open to the infinite and eternal.” Royal’s assessment of Balthasar is a theologian who is both rigorous and creative.
And Royal takes head-on the accusation that Balthasar was some sort of crypto-modernist. Royal argues that Balthasar was a thoroughly Christocentric theologian who “worked within the Church and sought to keep the strictly theological and the spiritual always together.” And Royal offers a 1965 quotation from Balthasar that puts to lie such notions:
The Church, they say, to appear credible, must be in tune with the times. If taken seriously, that would mean that Christ was in tune with the times when he carried out his mission and died on the Cross, a scandal to the Jews and folly to the Gentiles. Of course, the scandal took place in tune with the times—at the favorable times of the Father, in the fullness of time, just when Israel was ripe, like fruit ready to burst, and the Gentiles were ready to receive it on their own soil. Modern is something Christ never was, and God willing, never will be.
While recognizing the “speculative power of Rahner and von Balthasar,” Royal argues that “in several respects Catholic theology in the last twenty years of the twentieth century was most significantly shaped by a figure who was not a professional theologian,” namely, Pope John Paul II. Royal states that Saint John Paul II “stepped forward less with a new theological system than with a desire to affirm a reading of Vatican II that was both orthodox in terms of continuity…and confident in facing new challenges from the kind of biblical, patristic, and pastoral perspectives most notable in conciliar documents.”
In particular, Royal highlights John Paul II’s important contribution to moral theology in his encyclical Veritatis Splendor. While in recent years Veritatis Splendor has become the forgotten encyclical, it was a genuine breakthrough, helping reconcile freedom with truth and showing that the two are inextricably intertwined. Indeed, it was a sterling model for the renewal of moral theology called for in the Second Vatican Council’s Decree on Priestly Training, Optatam Totius. There the Council Fathers, “pursu[ing] the work begun by the Council of Trent,” had called for the “theological disciplines [to] be renewed through a more living contact with the mystery of Christ and the history of salvation” with “[s]pecial care to be given to “moral theology.” John Paul II with his deep and powerful thinking helped to demonstrate to the world that morality is not something extrinsic to the person—imposed from the outside and opposed to freedom. Rather, it is the “very expression of what we must be to become who were intended to be by our Creator.”
The last of the 20th century theologians Royal examines is Joseph Ratzinger. Royal writes that Ratzinger has a “tremendous capacity for integrating thought and experience into a whole.” In Royal’s telling, Ratzinger’s thinking was “the polar opposite of [a] kind of nostalgia for the past.” Rather, he was “truly trying to think through what an evangelical Catholicism should mean in the conditions of modernity and postmodernity.” Benedict, both as Ratzinger and then as pope, was trying to articulate a vision of “human affairs…informed by a fuller sense of reason, a reason rooted in the Logos that is also Caritas.” In Royal’s judgment Pope Benedict “has provided a kind of summa of modern Catholic thought and given theology a set of task in the realms of both faith and reason that cannot help but be a driving force, not only within the Catholic Church but in the now-global dialogue of religious and cultures.”
In the final chapters of Part One of A Deeper Vision, Royal turns his analysis to scriptural studies. Royal argues that in the 20th century Catholic Scripture scholars tried to “recuperate and develop parts of [the] multiform tradition, which had fallen into neglect.” The Church had “never tried to read the Scriptures through a single, simple perspective.” Indeed, in the first centuries of the Church, the Fathers had read the Scriptures through multiple lenses and in multiple senses.
To show this recovery of tradition, Royal traces the history of modern biblical studies, looking at the 18th century background and the first tentative steps in the late-19th and early-20th centuries. Among those Royal discusses is Marie-Joseph Lagrange, O.P., who “introduced several changes of perspective that lessened the tension between what seemed to be the unbridgeable gap between modern historical approaches to the Bible and ideas of inerrancy going back to at least the Council of Trent by way of more recent Church documents.”
With the Second Vatican Council, the impulses begun by Lagrange were carried further—not without hiccups. Ultimately, Royal concludes that the “Church in the twentieth century began to move away from a narrow and defensive position on ‘inerrancy’ to a stance that not only gave a better theological account of the Bible and its composition, but, perhaps surprisingly…was actually well attested in the Catholic tradition as well.” In short, the Church in the 20th century reclaimed an understanding that “every page of the Sacred Scriptures is directed toward an overarching vision of God and creation” and this “must be studied and interpreted by its own standards and principles, which should include a proper role for scientific disciplines but not be limited to them.”
A Bit on Beauty
And that is simply the first part of this immensely readable and learned book. In the final third, Royal discusses the 20th century’s distinguished Catholic historians, poets, novelists, and other assorted writers. While a detailed account of the portion of the book would make this already-too-long review longer, Royal deftly introduces his readers to the culture and beauty generated in the 20th century by the encounter with Christ in the Church. Among the figures to whom Royal introduces his readers are: Christopher Dawson, who challenged the notion that “for humanism to emerge, Christianity had to recede”; Hilaire Belloc, the Catholic Dr. Johnson; G.K. Chesterton, a Dickensian Catholic; Sigrid Undset, who could bring the Middle Ages alive by showing the “universal human experiences” present within that age; Charles Péguy, a man whose “life and…work form a unified witness to integrity and catholicity”; Paul Claudel, who saw the Catholic’s vocation as one of striving to “‘enlarge the world’ and embrace it in its totality”; François Mauriac, who used passion and sin to show man’s universal desire for the Infinite; Evelyn Waugh, who brilliantly skewered society to show the fleeting nature of its pleasures and the call to the Infinite; and Czesław Miłosz, the “most culturally sophisticated and wide-ranging” Catholic writer in the latter part of the 20th century. While the entirety of Royal’s discussion of the cultural achievements of 20th Century Catholicism is worth reading, it is with the French writers, in particular, that Royal, is at his most engaging. About Péguy, for instance, he writes that he “is rare among modern Catholic figures in that he faces squarely the de-Christianizations of Europe without blaming it on external forces.” Rather than primarily blaming the Church’s diminution on outside attacks Péguy recognized the Church’s own “massive internal failure.” These writers and poets lived the theological truths that Royal discusses for much of A Deeper Vision in a creatively concrete way.
As Royal closes the book, he writes that the “Catholic intellectual tradition carried out important labors in the twentieth century, even as it bequeathed many ongoing questions—not to say outright problems—to our own time.” Royal does an incredibly fine job making this case and synthesizing the varied intellectual threads that make up 20th century Catholicism. To make the heady and abstruse exciting, as Royal does, is no small feat. To take the breadth of material covered here and make it so accessible to the layman is a stunning achievement. Those are reasons enough to read it.
But, now, with Vatican II in the dock, Royal’s book takes on increased importance. He helps put the Council in context and to see the trends that were already at work in the Church prior to the Council and that continued after it closed. In particular, his highlighting of the emphasis on nuptial mysticism—a “theme” that “had long existed in the tradition”—prior to the Council is a key insight. His description of the advances—and hiccups—in biblical studies is another. Still another insight is that pre-Conciliar Catholicism was much more disparate than many want to admit. And many of the Conciliar themes were simply the fleshing out of work that predated the Council. Certainly, after reading Royal’s careful study of 20th century Catholicism, one could not claim that “what the Council produced was not remotely in continuity with the past” or that after the Council there was not “the faintest desire to carry on the Catholic religion as existed before,” as one recent commentator on the Vatican II debates recently put it.
Indeed, to accept the thesis that the Council should be rejected requires a rejection not just of the Council itself, but the work of figures such as Guardini, Chenu, Congar, de Lubac, Ratzinger, and Balthasar. Many traditionalists seem to be fine with this move but they should be clear that they are not asking simply for the Council to be declared anathema but much (or most?) of the 20th century Catholic intellectual tradition to be declared anathema as well. This raises the question of to which date the clock should be reset. 1950? 1940? 1910? Earlier?
While still a cardinal, Joseph Ratzinger wrote, “Not every valid council in the history of the Church has been a fruitful one; in the last analysis, many of them have been just a waste of time.” He continued that, “[d]espite all the good to be found in the texts it produced, the last word about the historical value of the Vatican Council II has yet to be spoken. If, in the end, it will be numbered among the highlights of Church history depends on those who will transform its words into the life of the Church.”
Royal’s book gives the troubled layman the tools to transform the Council and the 20th century Catholic intellectual tradition into real fruit. With Royal, we can reclaim the Second Vatican Council from those on polar extremes of the Church who see it as a rupture and break from what came before. If the Second Vatican Council is to be fruitful, it will be the work of men like Royal who help us to appropriate its genuine insights and generate a living Catholicism that can bring men and women back to Christ and his Church, so that their deepest longings can be satisfied and their greatest questions can be answered. While Royal’s impressive book is not going to answer all the thorny questions regarding Vatican II that have been raised in recent months, A Deeper Vision, unfairly neglected in the last five years, offers the single best resource to put the Council in context.
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