“The real problem with popes,” a friend once said to me, “is that they die.”
What he meant was that no matter how consequential a particular papacy might be, it is still at the mercy of the next pope, who might have a radically different ecclesial agenda and a whole different set of emphases, theological and pastoral. And given the fact that the memory is a faculty which both remembers and forgets, with the forgetting often leading to a creative “misremembering” (theologian Cyril O’Regan’s famous term) of the now past papacy, the door is left wide open for the revisionists to ply their trade in the interests of discrediting previous papacies in order to promote the agenda of the new guy in Rome.
This has not actually happened that often in the Church since popes usually like to preserve the dignity and respect owed to the Office of Peter by at least attempting to remain in continuity with the magisterial precedent of previous popes. There have been a few repudiations of previous popes by a later pope, but those were almost always the result of the previous pope being a theological idiot or a scoundrel. And Pope Francis, to his credit, is no exception as can be seen in his frequent statements of admiration for his immediate predecessors and for trying to place his own magisterial documents in continuity with theirs, however successful or unsuccessful he has been in that regard.
However, that is not the case with some Pope Francis’s staunchest supporters, who seem intent on “misremembering” the previous two popes as being Vatican II obstructionists, despite one having been a bishop at the Council and the other an influential peritus. The narrative is that the Council set in motion reforms that Paul VI began, but which were then held back and even contradicted by John Paul II and Benedict XVI. The accusation is that they represented transitional, almost tragic figures, with one foot in the present moment but the other foot still firmly planted in the past, and thus were willing to embrace some aspects of modern Liberalism like human rights and a democratic civil order, while, sadly, rejecting those same realities for the internal life of the Church herself. The narrative. therefore, is one of a “Council interrupted” by the recrudescence of a Romantic/poetic-rhapsodic triumphalism in John Paul and an Augustinian pessimism about the world in Benedict.
This narrative of misremembering has, it seems to me, two interrelated goals. First, the discrediting of the Communio/ressourcement theological retrieval of the Council through a systematic misrepresentation of its project as an allegedly ahistorical metaphysical form of theology devoid of pastoral sensitivity and riddled with a forensic, rule-based dogmatism. And insofar as Popes John Paul and Benedict were the chief proponents of this “rigid” theology, then so much the worse for them. Second, to establish that the progressive theological retrieval of the Council that had reigned supreme in the late sixties and into the early eighties was the proper one and should be retrieved again since we now seem to have a Pope who is willing (finally!) to implement the Council “properly”.
The proponents of the misremembering rarely put it so bluntly, speaking speak instead in the soothing dulcet tones of “development of doctrine”. But it is a smokescreen, although a rather diaphanous one, since it is not hard to see through its coded, progressive, dog-whistle words to the deeper agenda that is at stake.
Therefore, I think it is an urgent task for theologians of the ressourcement/Communio school, such as myself, to kick back against the misremembering of Vatican II and its interpretation in the previous two papacies. To that end, over the next few weeks, I will be writing a series of essays on selected topics related to Vatican II which will take up a defense of Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI, as well as the ressourcement theology they espoused.
And I am going to begin with the Council’s frequent use of the phrase “the People of God” as a description of the Church, and how this phrase has had its theological meaning hollowed out and replaced with a preponderantly sociological one by the progressive wing of the Church. For example, the indefatigable (at least on Twitter) progressive historian Massimo Faggiol has stated in his 2012 book Vatican II: The Battle for Meaning that at the Extraordinary synod of Bishops in 1985 Pope John Paul II had “revised” and “reinterpreted” the until then accepted meaning of Vatican II, causing the phrase “the People of God” to lose the “momentum” it had developed in the twenty years after the Council. Most interesting in this assertion is that Faggioli has done the heavy lifting for me by specifically identifying the interpretive milieu he wishes to privilege in interpreting interpret the People of God image. And that milieu is the time of 1965-1985, with 1985 marking the terminal point of the conciliar reform “momentum” since through the Extraordinary Synod John Paul II allegedly put the kibosh on such noble ambitions.
But is this an accurate accounting of things? If we look at Henri de Lubac’s analysis of Lumen Gentium, we see that he agrees that the People of God image for the Church was both something novel in terms of recent Church usage, but also something one does find in the patristic sources. Used by the Fathers primarily to designate the people of the Old Covenant, the image does find a resonance in the desire of many Fathers, especially in the West, to nuance the “Body of Christ” image for the Church by making sure that there is a proper distinction between the Head (Christ) and the members, since the latter remain sinners and remain within time and history as pilgrim sojourners awaiting the Lord’s return. As de Lubac states in The Church: Paradox and Mystery: “There can be no doubt at all that viewing the Church as the People of God is implicit at the base of the dynamic, historical, ‘pilgrim’ perspective that was habitual to the Fathers”.
Furthermore, if we look at the preparatory schema for what later became Lumen Gentium, we see that it wanted to emphasize the “Body of Christ” motif in a manner, so typical of post-Tridentine Catholic theology, that emphasized the Divine origin of the Church to the relative exclusion of the human, historical, and sinful elements. The tone was both triumphalist and defensive, which is why a majority of the conciliar bishops rejected it. And their adoption, therefore, of the preferred People of God motif was deliberate and designed to emphasize, as with the Fathers, the “pilgrim” status of the Church in time and history. The Divine origin of the Church was affirmed, of course, but there was an stress on the human side of things as well. As de Lubac concludes, “The choice was to emphasize the human traits of the Church.”
There was a danger in this decision, as many conciliar bishops noted, that it could lead to a diminished respect for the Divine elements in the Church and an overemphasis, in a Protestant fashion, on the Church as a mere fellowship “assembly” of believers. And such fears were not unwarranted, as post-conciliar trends have demonstrated. Nevertheless, de Lubac is quick to point out that Lumen Gentium‘s chapter on the People of God (chapter two) comes before the chapter on the hierarchy—but after chapter one, which deals with the Church as a mystery and a sacrament. And that mystery is nothing other than the mystery of the Triune life of God in which the Church participates and of which she is the sacramental presence in the world.
Therefore, the Church as a “Communio” grounded in the Divine, Trinitarian Communio, is the foundation for the Church as the pilgrim People of God. Joseph Ratzinger makes this point forcefully:
We are People of God by virtue of the crucified and risen Body of Christ and in no other way. We become it only in living association with him, and only in this context does the expression have any meaning. The Council made this connection beautifully clear by highlighting another fundamental word for the Church along with the expression “People of God”: The Church as sacrament. One remains faithful to the Council only if one always reads these two central terms for its ecclesiology – sacrament and People of God – together and always thinks of them together. (Quoted in Michael Hanby, “Synodality, Sociologism, and the Judgment of History”, Communio, Winter 2021, p. 710)
In the aftermath of the Council, however, a vulgar and jejune redefinition of the People of God took place within the progressive theological guild that severed the connection between the Church as sacrament and the Church as People of God. It was replaced instead with purely sociological and historicist understandings of the Church as a kind of democratically constructed polity of “the people” with all of the anti-establishment connotations of the cultural mood of the Sixties and Seventies. The Church, no longer viewed primarily as the sacrament of Divine life, quickly degenerates in this view into a voluntary association of like-minded spiritual seekers.
The irony in all of this is that sociologistic understandings of the Church inevitably lead to bureaucratic understandings since now “sacramental office” is functionalized and the Eucharist itself takes on an aura of Pelagian hubris – perhaps one could say even a quasi “magical” hubris – since Jesus does not become present via the agency of a sacramental priesthood but rather somehow now miraculously coagulates on the plate out of the sheer force of our common bonds of fellowship solidarity.
The entire project was a flattening-out of the Church with an exaggerated horizontalism in a populist register, with the People of God metaphor used in a raised-fist defiance against the “institutional Church”. The mantra of “We are Church!” was used as a battering ram against any emphasis on the authority of the magisterium to teach, especially in matters of human sexuality. Which only goes to demonstrate, both then and now, that the elephant in the living room is sex and gender. I doubt anyone today, for example, would be talking about a Council “interrupted” if John Paul had given two papal thumbs up to contraception, cohabitation, divorce and remarriage, LGBT “rights”, and women priests. And this would be true even if John Paul had done all of this in a heavy-handed, autocratic, “pyramidal” authority structure kind of way.
Anyone who lived through that period knows of which I speak. This is not a caricature or a straw man. It is how these people thought then and how they think now. Nor am I offering an apologia for a return to a triumphalist, clericalistic Church of the good ol’ days. What I want is the reformed Church as envisioned by Vatican II — the Church as envisioned by Saint Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI. And when in 1985 Pope John Paul II saw the same silly nonsense concerning the People of God motif that all the rest of us were also seeing, he rightly simply reminded one and all that the People of God only makes sense when embedded in the Communio of the Divine life and the Church as the sacrament of that life. But according to the current gaggle of “misrememberers” this constituted a grave violation of the “event” that was Vatican II, along with its “spirit”, its “dynamism”, and its “trajectory”.
And so this narrative of misremembering has gained steam of late and the message is that the “interrupted Council” can finally be implemented. The People of God are finally being heard in the synodal way “listening sessions” and in the questionnaires that have been sent out! Never mind that none of these things are following the proven scientific protocols for accurate poll taking, and never mind that the listening sessions will be attended by, and the questionnaires filled out by, self-selected activists of various sorts, the Holy Spirit will be discerned somehow by a few elite clerics reading through the episcopally curated and filtered results drawn from a Church of one and a half billion people scattered around the globe. And just as in the Sixties and Seventies it will suddenly be made known to us “from above” and “with authority” that most folks in the “People of God”, and by implication the Holy Spirit as well, think just like Archbishop Paglia. Go figure.
The mere fact that there are those in the Catholic academic guild today who are seriously pushing this narrative of the “interrupted Council” is troubling enough. But when you see those who are in positions of high authority in the Church parroting the same talking points, then you begin to sense that the game’s afoot. I will be paying careful attention to how the People of God image is employed in the synodal process and to whether it chooses to foreground some vague and gaseous notion of the Holy Spirit speaking through the popular opinions of the day, in some kind of neo-Montanist belief that God is “doing a new thing”, which isn’t new at all. Baptizing the Zeitgeist and calling it the Holy Spirit speaking through the People of God is not new. It is old. And it is tiresome.
If you value the news and views Catholic World Report provides, please consider donating to support our efforts. Your contribution will help us continue to make CWR available to all readers worldwide for free, without a subscription. Thank you for your generosity!