Wednesday, December 02, 2009

A Pastoral Magisterium: Bp. Nickless' pastoral letter (part 3)

This is part three of a ten-part series on the recent pastoral letter of Bishop R. Walker Nickless for the diocese of Sioux City, Iowa.  I will be providing the full text of this letter (slightly edited for formatting) with emphasis and commentary.

In this post, we will look at Section II, The Second Vatican Council and the New Evangelization:
As is well known, Blessed Pope John XXIII convened the Second Vatican Council to be the moment of renewal for the Church in the modern world. The world had changed a great deal since the Protestant Reformation, the Catholic Counter-Reformation, the so-called Enlightenment, and the secular revolutions of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The Church now found herself beset on all sides by a world that could no longer understand her, and from within by an unfortunate tendency to isolation, fearing engagement with the rapidly changing world.

In opening the Council, Blessed John stated that the “greatest concern of the Ecumenical Council” was twofold: “that the sacred deposit of Christian doctrine should be [both] guarded and taught more efficaciously.” (Pope John XXIII, Oct 11, 1962) Later in the speech, he elaborated on this: “The substance of the ancient doctrine of the deposit of faith is one thing, and the way in which it is presented is another.” (Ibid.) The teachings of the Church, our identity and culture as Catholics, must be loved and guarded, yet brought forth and taught in a way understandable to the modern world.
The opening speech of Bl. Pope John XXIII is perhaps not as widely read as it should be.  It provides the clear context for the Council's goals, work, and documents.  The Council was not called to change teaching but to safeguard that teaching and present it more effectively to the world.  As Bishop Nickless wrote in the preceding paragraph, the Church's inward gaze was becoming insufficient in the face of a rapidly progressing world:  the Church needed to look with loving, motherly concern to the world and engage the world.

But in the midst of this outward gaze (to present the doctrine), perhaps the necessary inward reflection (to safeguard the doctrine) was weakened or passed over.  Bishop Nickless will address the state of catechesis and knowledge of the faith later in his letter.
Pope Paul VI and Pope John Paul the Great constantly preached the same thing in calling for a “New Evangelization” of the faithful, our separated brothers and sisters in Christ, and all those who do not know Jesus Christ or the Church. This New Evangelization was to be “new not in content but in ardor, methods, and expression.” (Address to the Assembly of CELAM (March 9, 1983), III; cf. Ecclesia in America 6)
The "new evangelization" is a direct response (in theory, at least) to the safeguarding of the Church's doctrine and the need to present that doctrine, unaltered in substance and meaning, to the modern world.  To allay fears, this does not mean we can no longer speak of transubstantiation, but rather that we must explain this doctrine in a way that can be grasped by faith and reason.  We cannot change what it means, or introduce words which do not mean the same thing, as some tried in the 1960's with transignification and transfinalization (cf. Mysterium Fidei 11).

Not only non-Christians, but Catholics and other Christians must be evangelized again today, with great zeal and fervor.  This is not because God has changed, for "Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever" (Heb. 13:8), but because we are changing and losing sight of Who God is and what He calls us to.
It is readily apparent from his teaching and ministry that for Pope John Paul the Great, the New Evangelization was the true fruit of the Second Vatican Council. Indeed, the Council was the beginning and blueprint for evangelization in the modern world. He explicitly stated this as his particular mission at the time of his election, and he lived it to the end. (e.g. Inaugural Address of Pope John Paul II, October 22, 1978)  He spent his entire pontificate interpreting and implementing the Council’s documents according to the light of the Holy Spirit, given in virtue of his office, amid the changing circumstances of the Church and the world.
You will find in the rest of this document that Bishop Nickless is firmly grounding himself and this letter in the recent papal magisterium of the Church:  Bl. John XXIII, Paul VI, John Paul II, and Benedict XVI.
We now find ourselves forty-four years since the close of the Council. Many questions still need to be asked and answered. Have we understood the Council within the context of the entire history of the Church? Have we understood the documents well? Have we truly appropriated and implemented them? Is the current state of the Church what the Council intended? What went right? What went wrong? Where is the promised “New Pentecost”?
These are very important questions to ask, and none of them can be tossed aside as frivolous or academic.  Asking these questions and seeking their answers are necessary for the Church's continued vitality and mission.  Without asking them, we move forward without direction or reflection.  Without answering them within the Church's tradition, we risk scrapping the first 1900 years of the Church and starting over with a blank slate, which would have destructive results for the Church and the whole world.

Pope Benedict XVI reflected on these important questions in an address to the Roman Curia in December, 2005:
The question arises: Why has the implementation of the Council, in large parts of the Church, thus far been so difficult? Well, it all depends on the correct interpretation of the Council or - as we would say today - on its proper hermeneutics, the correct key to its interpretation and application. 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.

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. It asserts that the texts of the Council as such do not yet express the true spirit of the Council.

Pope Benedict asks similar questions and begins by pointing out that there are two approaches to the Council, one which inevitably leads to the wrong answers, and one which leads to the right answers.  If the Council is perceived to be a split from tradition, from the past, from our heritage, we will reap only confusion, discord, and obstacles to holiness and the mission of Church.  If, on the other hand, we recognize the sense of continuity and reform, we will be better equipped to determine how well we have met the goals of the Council, what is left to be implemented, and what has been poorly or wrongly implemented.

And, of course, we must remember that the spirit of the Council is not "trapped" in its letter, waiting to burst free and progress wildly beyond the intentions of the Council Fathers.
Notice, first, Pope Benedict’s honest acknowledgment that the implementation of the Council has been difficult and is not complete. Notice also his clear-sighted grasp of how two rival interpretations have led to different “camps” within the Church. This division has weakened our identity and mission.
In drawing attention to the division which is a produce of these two hermeneutics, Bishop Nickless returns to the two gazes of the Church:  inward (identity) and outward (mission).  When the Church is divided, there are perceived to be two identities and two missions (at least); such lack of unity cannot be an effective witness of faith to each other nor to the world.
It is crucial that we all grasp that the hermeneutic or interpretation of discontinuity or rupture, which many think is the settled and even official position, is not the true meaning of the Council. This interpretation sees the pre-conciliar and post-conciliar Church almost as two different churches. It sees the Second Vatican Council as a radical break with the past.
The Bishop states decisively that this interpretation of rupture cannot be recognized as the true approach to the Council, despite popular opinion.  This was not the interpretation used at previous Councils, and it is not the one to use now.  Separating the Church now from the Church then is a dangerous proposition which would lead to a Church without roots, without a trajectory to maintain.
There can be no split, however, between the Church and her faith before and after the Council. We must stop speaking of the “Pre-Vatican II” and “Post-Vatican II” Church, and stop seeing various characteristics of the Church as “pre” and “post” Vatican II. Instead, we must evaluate them according to their intrinsic value and pastoral effectiveness in this day and age.
I hear in these words a faint echo of Pope Benedict's words in the letter which accompanied Summorum Pontificum:  "There is no contradiction between the two editions of the Roman Missal. In the history of the liturgy there is growth and progress, but no rupture. What earlier generations held as sacred, remains sacred and great for us too, and it cannot be all of a sudden entirely forbidden or even considered harmful. It behooves all of us to preserve the riches which have developed in the Church's faith and prayer, and to give them their proper place."
Therefore, we must heed the Holy Father’s point that one interpretation, the “hermeneutic of reform,” is valid, and has borne and is bearing fruit. This hermeneutic of reform, as described above, takes seriously and keeps together the two poles of (1) identity (the ancient deposit of faith and life) and (2) engagement with the world (teaching it more efficaciously).
Yet again the Bishop mentions the inward concern ("identity") and the outward concern ("engagement with the world") in relation to the proper hermeneutics of interpreting and implementing the Council.  Remember, as we progress through this document, these constant themes:  inward concern ("identity", "pursuit of holiness") and outward concern ("mission", "engagement", "fidelity to [our] mission").
Lastly, the Holy Father, going into greater detail later in the address, explains that the “spirit of Vatican II” must be found only in the letter of the documents themselves. The so-called “spirit” of the Council has no authoritative interpretation. It is a ghost or demon that must be exorcised if we are to proceed with the Lord’s work.
Those are bold and blunt words from a bishop!  Praise be to God that he has the courage to write them to the members of his flock, let alone think or say them.

The next post will deal with the current context of the implementation of Council.

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