Rewriting History

By Komonchak, Joseph A. | Commonweal, January 30, 2009 | Go to article overview

Rewriting History


Komonchak, Joseph A., Commonweal


Vatican II

Renewal within Tradition

Edited by Matthew L. Lamb and Matthew Levering

Oxford University Press, $29.95, 488 pp.

This book is intended as an illustration of the fruitfulness of interpreting the Second Vatican Council as an instance of "renewal within tradition." That phrase is used in contrast to the "hermeneutics of rupture or discontinuity," which then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger criticized in a December 2002 speech to the Roman curia (the text of which is provided as a kind of preface to the volume). The editors describe the hermeneutics of rupture as overemphasizing what was new at the council, to the extent that the deeper elements of continuity with the church's tradition are overlooked or dismissed as compromises needed to win votes for conciliar texts and foreign to "the spirit of the council"--that is, its "impulses towards the new."

The volume is placed in service of Pope Benedict XVI's views on how to interpret the council, yet neither its editors nor its authors offer a close reading of his remarks on the subject. The editors make little effort to explain the "hermeneutics of reform" espoused by the pope, even though the majority of his talk was devoted to the subject. For Benedict, "the very nature of true reform consists" in a "combination of continuity and discontinuity at different levels." To illustrate his point, the pope showed why the church had to come up with new definitions of the relationship between faith and modern science, between the church and the modern state, and between Christianity and the world religions, particularly Judaism. According to Benedict, Vatican II's Declaration on Religious Freedom recognized "an essential principle of the modern state," expressed a "fundamental 'yes' to the modern era"--a decision that was in full harmony with the teaching of Jesus and with "the church of the martyrs of all time." In all three of those areas, Pope Benedict said, the council "reviewed or even corrected certain historical decisions, but in this apparent discontinuity it has actually preserved and deepened [the church's] inmost nature and true identity."

Instead of learning from the pope's lecture, the editors offer a superficial and repetitive description of two millennia of Christian tradition: the first thousand years were supposedly characterized by wisdom and holiness, which gave way to the Enlightenment in the second millennium, destroying the grand Christian vision of the whole. The book contains nothing that suggests there was anything of value in the modern era, anything the church might have had to learn, any new relationships it might have had to forge, anything it might have had to correct. No effort is made to explain what made the council and its aftermath such a dramatic moment in modern Catholic history. This was the sort of thing Karl Rahner meant when he spoke of the council as signaling the emergence of a "global church," or that Bernard Lonergan was getting at when he said that the conciliar and postconciliar drama represented less a crisis of faith that a crisis of culture--the transition from classicism to historical consciousness.

In one of the best essays in the book, Methodist theologian Geoffrey Wainwright notes that a council can be studied in two equally important, and inseparable, ways. It can be approached "as an event located within a preparatory history, where it then occurs in its own way and finally has effects in the ecclesial body. Alternatively, it may be more narrowly examined for its own deliverances, which are authoritatively promulgated in textual form." This volume has taken the narrower path. It largely emphasizes the final conciliar texts; just a few authors show interest in the documents' redactional history. Most of the essays ignore the three sets of official acta. None of the essays refers to From Trent to Vatican II (Oxford, 2006), which examines continuities and discontinuities in the two great reform councils. …

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