Vatican II - Voice of The Church
Vatican II - Voice of The Church

The Meaning of Renewal -
The Dynamic Nature of the Church

by B. C. Butler

So swift is the march of time today that the Second Vatican Council, considered as an event, is already receding into the distance. The field of discussion in the Church now appears to be divided between reactionaries who have never given more than formal assent to the Council and wish to contain its influence within the limits of pre-conciliar theory and practice, and experimenters in thought and action who rarely seem to heed the guiding lines which the Council undoubtedly gave. It is time for those who lived the Council passionately, and who believe that it offers us the key to the Christian and human future, to make their voices heard.

Just how much do we believe in the Council? Perhaps I had better show my hand at the outset. And first, the general setting.

The Council was summoned by John XXIII, who was acclaimed by all the world before he died, and again in the afterglow of his death, as a man of God the like of whom our century had not seen before. He himself was inclined to attribute his idea of convening an Ecumenical Council to an inspiration of the Holy Spirit. And he dared to invite us to look forward to it as to a new Pentecost, a second effusion of the Holy Spirit who bears witness to Christ and His gospel. Magnus ab integro saeclorum nascitur ordo.

Few Councils in history were so genuinely a meeting together of the whole Catholic episcopate as this one was. The number of those qualified to attend (including some non-episcopal prelates) was of course quite without precedent; and rarely was a decisive vote taken without the participation of nearly two thousand members. It is quite remarkable that attendance at the debates remained at so high a level through four sessions of very varied, sometimes boring, work.

From the beginning, moreover, the whole human family shared in the drama of the Council in unprecedented ways. Non-Catholic Churches made their presence felt through official observers, who had ample access to conciliar documentation, together with regular opportunities to express their opinions in influential quarters. These observers gave an extra dimension to conciliar thinking. Alongside of them, as the Council went on, there grew up a representation of the Catholic laity, both men and women. And perseveringly the reporters of the world press followed the Council day by day and made it known to the outside world.

The Council, for its part, was not content to discuss only matters of domestic interest to the Catholic Church. Among such domestic matters, it is true, were some of enormous importance: the collegial structure of the Church, the priesthood of the whole People of God, the relation of Marian doctrine and devotion to the wholeness of the gospel and the Church, the nature of the Christian revelation and of sacred tradition. But as one session gave way to another, the Council's attention was drawn more and more to the world in which the Church's mission is set, the world in which the Church is and which is in the Church. Not only Christian ecumenism, but the values inherent in Judaism and in the great non-biblical faiths and in Islam, the human right to responsible freedom in matters of religious belief and behaviour, the basis of society in the dignity of the person, the personal foundations of marriage and the family, the grand problems of world poverty and of world peace, were themes which merited and received close consideration from the conciliar fathers.

For one who believes in God, for a Christian, above all for a Catholic, it seems hard to resist the conviction that a Council so convoked, so constituted, so observed, and so concerned, must have been willed and actuated by God himself for high ends of human interest. We believe in divine providence. Was not the Council itself one of those 'signs of the times' about which the Bible and the Council speak? Religion dwells and lives primarily in the hearts of individual persons: it is 'what a man does with his solitariness.' But it also finds expression in great historical phenomena and great historical institutions. If God's 'angel,' His spirit, His Christ is 'amongst them' when two or three are gathered together 'in Christ's name,' is there not some presumption that the same heavenly presence was active to guide the immensely earnest efforts of those prelates gathered together in the four years of the Council to deliberate and decide on the future of the greatest religious fellowship the world has ever known?

A personal testimony may be not without value. I went to the first session of the Council with very human, very sombre, forebodings. I shared in its drama from the first day to the last. I observed the flux and reflux of debate, and was at length admitted behind the public scene to the inner workings of the important doctrinal commission and of the joint commission which had to compose the Constitution on the Church in the World of Today. And I came to feel that the sublunar history of the Council was most readily explained if one supposed that the deliberations of those two thousand men, so fallible and so imperfect, were being directed, above their consciousness, by the spirit of God to tremendous ends of mercy, redemption and new life. To reject such a feeling might have merited the scriptural reproof: Have you no perception? Are your minds closed? Have you 'eyes that do not see, ears that do not hear'?

But - and here is the vital point at which the Council becomes a challenge to us all - the Acts of the Council are, in and by themselves, historical documents already dead when the conciliar fathers were at last dismissed. If the Council was, and I argue that it was indeed, potentially a new Pentecost, it will only prove to have been actually such if the Church now goes on to live the Council. This, of course, it has begun to do; but how insufficiently up to this date. The very texts of the documents have, so far, been only very imperfectly communicated, expounded, understood and assimilated. But there is more, much more, to the Second Vatican Council than the letter of the texts subscribed by its members. The Council substituted the dynamic for the static as the appropriate category for Christian thinking and acting. By its own spirit, it should be leading us on first to digest and practise, but then to outstrip and transcend. the letter of its own enactments. One way to bury the Council would be to turn its decisions into a fresh chapter of canon law.

To view the Church as dynamic is to align oneself with Newman: 'In a higher world it is otherwise, but here below to live is to change, and to be perfect is to have changed often.' And to introduce the notion of change is to be faced, in our turn and from a Christian standpoint, with the great issues which dominated Greek philosophy from Thales through Heraclitus to Aristotle. Newman himself does not forget the 'higher world' in which change finds no place, nor the persistent Christian boast that the Church is semper eadem: 'Change she cannot, if we listen to St. Athanasius or St Leo; change she never will, if we believe the controversialist or alarmist of the present day.'

John XXIII was prepared for changes; he set before his Council the task of aggiornamento, the bringing-up-to-date of the Church. There were some who wished to confine the changes to surface matters; but the Council, already in its first session when a large majority of the fathers cast their vote against the draft Constitution on the Sources of Revelation, showed its preference for radical change.

The best exposition of the Council's own notion of aggiornamento is found in one of the more peripheral of its Acts, the decree on the accommodated renewal of the religious life. 'Accommodated renewal,' accommodata renovatio: it is a more or less elegant Latinisation of the Italian aggiornamento. It embraces simultaneously both 'a continuous return to the sources of all Christian life and to the original inspiration of its institutional structures' and also 'the fitting of these structures to the changed conditions of the age.' It will be noted that, in this exposition, 'renewal' does not mean 'change' (change is involved in accommodata) but a return to the sources. Some reactionaries want neither renewal nor adaptation. Some fringe experimenters pursue adaptation with too little attention to renewal. The Council asks for both.

'Back to the fountainhead' was St Cyprian's slogan against his Christian opponents in the third century. For him this seems to have meant reference back to the words of Christ in the Gospels. For the Council it means something subtly different. The religious institutes are exhorted to 'recognise and observe the spirit and special purposes' of their respective founders; and we have just seen that the Council speaks of renewal as meaning 'a return to the original inspiration' of Christian institutional structures. Renewal. then, means 'back to Christ.' And as the founders of religious orders were 'charismatic men,' men (or women) inspired by the Holy Spirit for the building up of the Church, so Christ was 'full of the Holy Spirit,' inspired to found the Church. 'Back to Christ' means 'back to the spirit and special purposes of Christ.'

'Back to Christ' was also the aim of the Protestant Reformation. This should remind us that it is not an easy principle to apply. Every heresy, every schism, has claimed to be a return to Christ. Modern biblical scholars reach most divergent conclusions on the meaning of Christ, and some have doubted whether historical science can find its way back to Christ in any significant sense at all. There would be truth in the statement that every Christian Church, with its separate tradition, represents a development of the gospel. How are we to choose? You cannot be a 'mere Christian': you have to be some particular sort of Christian.

The Council had no doubt that 'the sacred tradition,' which is Christ sacramentally made actual to every age and all men, lives at its focal point in the 'perfect communion' (i.e. complete communion: it is not alleged that it is morally perfect) which is the Catholic Church, itself unified by the apostolic-episcopal college with its head, the successor of St Peter. In this communion the Church founded by Christ 'subsists.' The sacred tradition lives in the lives of the whole People of God. Witness is born to its content by the 'ordinary magisterium' of the episcopal college throughout the world, and by the definitions of faith of the 'extraordinary magisterium,' i.e. of Ecumenical Councils or of Popes speaking ex cathedra. It is in the sacred tradition, witnessed and in part articulated by the magisterium, that the Church possesses the antitype of the 'sound traditions' peculiar to the several religious orders. What has to be constantly borne in mind is that the witness of the magisterium is subordinate to Christ and His gospel (by which I do not mean 'the Gospels'). The explicit statements of the magisterium never cover the whole field of the sacred tradition, and are themselves in need of theological interpretation. Slick answers to every doctrinal conundrum are not available. But the Catholic, whether educated or not, lives his life of thought and action within the general life of the Church, believing (explicitly or implicitly) what she believes, and assenting to the final teaching of the magisterium as a child assents to formulae which he cannot always understand.