His has been a severe-grace, but also a beneficent-grace
By Thomas G. Weinandy, OFM, Capuchin
Recently, Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganó and others have expressed their concerns about the present state of the Church. This has often taken the form of critiquing the Second Vatican Council, and laying the blame for many of the present ecclesial difficulties at its feet.
Anthony Esolen has even suggested that Vatican II should be “dethroned,” for its time has passed.
I sympathize with many of the concerns expressed and acknowledge some of the stated problematic theological and doctrinal issues enumerated. I am, however, uncomfortable with the conclusion that Vatican II is, in some way, the direct source and cause of the present disheartening state of the Church.
In this brief essay, I want to address the Spirit’s twofold interrelated work in the Church subsequent to Vatican II, for only in discerning properly the Spirit’s work can one rightly judge the work of the Council.
First, in the aftermath of Vatican II, many distressing things occurred within the Church. Some of these are still taking place, and others have newly arisen. They are well known — many priests abandoned the priesthood; men and women religious sought dispensation from their vows, thus leaving their orders decimated; almost the entire Catholic population of some countries discontinued the practice of the faith, Holland and Belgium being the first evident examples; Catholic theologians trumpeted dubious and erroneous theological opinions, with entire theological faculties becoming bastions of dissent against Catholic doctrine and morals. This list could be enlarged, but the above is such a well-rehearsed scenario that it has become trite.
The present problem is that all of the above evils that afflicted the Church after Vatican II, and continue to do so in various ways, are said to find their cause within Vatican II itself, or more so within the so-called “spirit of Vatican II” — the liberal hermeneutic that declared that what is important about the Council is not so much what it said, but more so the new liberating spirit that it engendered.
Nonetheless, the conclusion is often drawn that if it were not for the Council, the Church would have continued to thrive as it seemingly was doing prior to the Council. This, I claim, is an erroneous judgment.
It is naïve to think that so many priests, prior to the Council, were men of deep faith, and then, overnight, after the Council, were corrupted by the Council or the spirit of the Council, and so jettisoned their faith and left the priesthood. Monasteries, friaries, and convents could not have been filled with ardent religious who then subsequent to and because of the Council so swiftly lost their vowed fervor that they traipsed off into the world, leaving a remnant who were themselves often theologically confused and spiritually adrift. Catholic universities and theology faculties could not have been staffed by men and women who were alive in the faith and who enthusiastically communicated that faith to their students, yet who, upon the close of the Council, so eagerly, though often with the best of intentions, fed their students the latest theological fads and authored books that appeared to be the most theologically insightful and creative. In reality, they often turned out to be colorfully camouflaged versions of various antique and already disgraced heresies.
The same is true of Catholic populations in various countries, such as Holland and Belgium. They could not have been steadfast in their faith prior to the Council and then, after it, immediately walked out of the church doors, never to return.
My point is obvious. The spirit of the Council may have provided the occasion for all the present Church’s difficulties to come to light, but they were already there, deeply embedded within the Church, prior to the Council. Such evils cannot then be attributed to the Council itself.
However, I now want to declare what I will call the Spirit’s “severe-grace.”
While the Council is not their cause, the false, so-called spirit of the Council did allow the Spirit of truth to reveal to the Church, and to the world, just how feeble in faith, how anemic in life, the Church really was and had been.
This severe-grace continues to be at work and is intensifying.
The apostasy taking place within the German Catholic Church is now the most concentrated expression of this severe-grace, for it is being engineered not only by many of the German hierarchy, but also, at points, seemingly countenanced by the present pontificate.
These post-Vatican II graces are severe, for to behold them is be repulsed by what they reveal. One gazes upon them with fear and trembling.
Until recently, many among the episcopate have refused to acknowledge the Spirit’s severe-grace, pretending that affairs within the Church were really not that bad. Only a few vocal extremists would think otherwise.
Now, with the pederasty abuse scandal, and other sexual scandals, both heterosexual and homosexual, and the cover-up that has come to light in so many places, bishops have been forced to admit the Spirit’s severe-grace.
However, only in beholding this severe-grace, only in acknowledging the decadence within the Church, can the Church properly address the sickness that lies within it. Only if the Spirit allowed evil’s darkness to become manifestly apparent could he, and the Church, convict it of sin and condemn it.
Ultimately, we should be grateful for the Spirit’s severe-grace, for it calls us to repentance and newness of life.
My second point has to do with the fruit that Vatican II has produced, particularly bearing on the evils described above. This fruit could be called the Spirit’s “beneficent-grace.”
The principle is that where sin abounds, grace abounds even more. The following are a few examples.
Without Vatican II, it would be hard to imagine Karol Wojtyla being elected Pope. Vatican II rightly created a climate wherein Cardinals, and the Church as a whole, could think outside of the “Italian” box and elect a Pole, and more so, a man of such intellectual vitality and spiritual maturity.
Moreover, John Paul, through his great encyclicals addressed forcefully, clearly, and imaginatively the doctrinal and moral evils that were and continue to beset the Church.
Likewise, he, by force of his authentic charismatic personality, took up personally the task of the new evangelization, especially among the youth – the proclamation of the Gospel to tepid-in-faith and indifferent-in-spirit Catholics.
In the midst of the Spirit’s severe-grace, the Spirit raised up John Paul II as a beneficent-grace, a grace that will mature and ripen as the Church strives to renew itself.
Moreover, when traditional religious orders were in freefall, new religious orders, especially women’s religious orders, came to life. They have attracted, and continue to attract, many young women. Such a blossoming within religious life would have been unthinkable prior to Vatican II.
Similarly, Vatican II created a climate wherein new renewal movements and communities were able to come to birth.
The Charismatic Renewal within the Catholic Church has no human founder, but was the sole work of the Holy Spirit. Such a phenomenon would never have entered the mind of any Catholic man or woman, ecclesial (especially) or lay in the 1940’s and 50’s, much less among the post-Vatican II liberal elite.
Many of these movements have not only brought a vibrant faith and life to its members, but they also are on the front lines of evangelization.
Yes, there have been growing pains, but even my Capuchin Order was almost suppressed by the Pope shortly after its founding, its early Minister General having become a Protestant.
The decline of seminarians after the Council was, and to some degree still is, troublesome. Yet, the new generation of seminarians brings hope.
Notably, dioceses that have a bishop who is solid in the faith regarding doctrine and morals are more likely to attract promising young men.
That the bishop now makes a difference as to the vibrancy of his diocese is also the fruit of Vatican II. Prior to Vatican II, one bishop was often just like another, and one diocese was similar to another. Now, the pastoral vibrancy of a diocese and the spiritual fruit of a diocese can often be directly attributed to the enthusiastic Spirit-filled faith of the bishop.
Similarly, in the wake of the sexual scandals, diocesan seminaries have ardently worked to ensure that their seminarians receive training that is academically faithful to the Church’s doctrinal and moral teaching. Seminarians are also provided a more intense spiritual regimen, one that fosters holiness of life and human development. Would that the same could be enthusiastically confirmed in all seminaries sponsored by religious orders! Nonetheless, the new vibrancy within seminaries is a beneficent-grace of the Holy Spirit, a grace that counteracts the severe-grace that manifests the failings of many previous priests.
Lastly, in the midst of a less than robust, and often questionable, post-Vatican II theology within much of the Catholic academic community, I rejoice that I am witnessing an authentic theological revival, one that I never thought I would see in my lifetime.
I have academic friends and colleagues all over the world who unabashedly and fearlessly teach the faith both in the classroom and in their writings.
Such a renewal would not have taken place prior to Vatican II, for prior to it, theologians were basically satisfied and comfortable in their trade. There were some rumblings concerning a theological renewal, but they were often met with suspicion and disdain.
However, founded upon the teaching of Vatican II itself and taking into account the sad contemporary theological climate that had overtaken the academy, a new generation of theologians has risen phoenix-like from the ashes. To be noted, teaching theology, prior to Vatican II, was almost exclusively the domain of clerics. Now, many of the best and most promising theologians are lay men and women.
The renewal of theology is manifold.
Scripture has ever more become, as Vatican II called it to be, the soul of theology.
Study of the Fathers of the Church is no longer considered an antiquarian pursuit, but one that is relevant for today’s theological needs.
Similarly, dogmatic or systematic theologians have pulled Thomas Aquinas’ writings out of the dustbin and have imaginatively employed them to address contemporary theological issues, thus making Aquinas accessible to a whole new generation of young people.
Bonaventure studies are also on the rise, and so a good old rivalry is once more in place – a “friendly” rivalry that will bear good fruit for all involved.
Moreover, Vatican II called for a renewal of Catholic moral theology, a theology that would be more scriptural in orientation, and one that promoted the rightful dignity of every human person.
Because of innovative, faithful, Catholic moral theologians, the post-Vatican II Church is now able to defend confidently, and profess more clearly, its authentic and traditional moral teaching on an array of controverted moral issues, as well as address new moral concerns that the advancement of technology and science has brought to the fore.
The above is the beneficent-grace that the Holy Spirit has poured out upon the post-Vatican II Church, a Church that was in dire need of theological renewal.
I have attempted to demonstrate that, while many pastoral, theological, and moral troubles have beset the Church in the wake of Vatican II, hardships that continue to make their presence readily known, yet these did not flow from nor were they caused by Vatican II itself.
Rather, they were the very issues that the Council was attempting to address in order to renew the Church.
That the Holy Spirit has permitted such a sad plight to plague the Church is his severe-grace – his making clear beyond all doubt how much the Church needs to be revitalized.
The Spirit of truth, however, is not just the Spirit of condemnation; he is also the Spirit of life and love, and so simultaneously he has poured out his beneficent-grace of renewal, and we can witness, as I have attempted to show, its fruit being born in our day.
Although some bits and pieces of what Vatican II taught may need revision, yet it has borne authentic fruit, fruit that is yet to come to full maturity.
The good fight of faith must still be waged, and pursued with the confidence that faith will win the day.
Fr. Thomas Weinandy, O.F.M, Cap. earned a Doctorate in Historical Theology at King’s College, University of London in 1975. He has taught in a number of Catholic universities in the United States and for 12 years was the Warden of Greyfriars, Oxford, and taught History and Doctrine within the Faculty of Theology at the University of Oxford. An author or editor of 20 books and numerous articles, his specialties are Christology, Trinity, Soteriology and philosophical notions of God in the Fathers, Thomas Aquinas and contemporary theology. He is a former member of the International Theological Commission. Pope Benedict conferred upon him the Pro Ecclesia et Pontefice Award in 2013.