Part text of an address delivered by Dr. Albert C. OWler at a reception in the Grand Hotel, Rome, given by the Panlist Fathers In honour of the Observer-Delegates and the American Hierarchy. Dr. Cinder, an observer for the World Methodist
Council, is professor of theology at Perkins School of Theology, Dallas, Tex.
NOW. OBVIOUSLY, IS THE TIME for all good men to turn
in their appraisals of Vatican II-and to try to keep from treading on each other's platitudes. Here we are, virtually at the end of the most epochal event in modern church history, already in the initial stages of a new era, on the verge of the enormous undertakings (and confusions) of the post-conciliar period. Each of us has to put all this in some sort of perspective, if only to place himself in the new situation and its involvements.
And yet, just as inevitably, our best efforts at appraisals are bound to be inadequate, for at least two reasons. One is the sheer scope of the Council far too many blind men reporting their impressions of much too large an elephant. Our other bafflement, more subtle and tantalising, is that every appraisal is already preshrunk along the bias of one's expectations of the Council, one's calculations of the gap between its possibilities (at this stage or that) and its performance (on this point or the other).
There are, as we know, those with a fine show of prophetic fervor, who complain that the Council has not ushered in the millennium, that it has not really met all the needs of a desperate world, that it has not actually accomplished the reunion of all Christians. This means, of course, that their expectations were formed of the dream-stuff that sells hair tonic.
There are others who complain, with a curious mixture of bitterness and pathos, that the Council has dared to tamper with ancient ways and notions, ratified by papal teaching and sanctified by curial administration. Obviously, their expectation of the Council was that it should confirm the status quo.
Odds against success
There are those who complain that the Council has been too "churchy", too much preoccupied with ecclesiastical housekeeping, not radically involved in the exigencies and agonies of the world that huddles under the walls of the Leonine City, and that stretches to the Pentagon, the Kremlin and the jungles of Vietnam. There are those who fear another Protestant reformation and yet others who seem to think that one is overdue as the man who, at one point in this curious affair of the indulgences, asked me if I knew where there was a handy bulletin board where he could tack up another round of theses for debate.
My own bias in this matter is historical. Thus, I keep on being astonished at how far you have to come from where you started and am still puzzled as to just how you made it. But I am certain that there is no hope at all of rightly estimating the achievements of Vatican II if you skimp its prohistory.
It was this prehistory that set the stance and policies of the Roman Catholic Church, right up to the eve of the Council. This is why the initial odds were so slight that what has happened could have happened. For one remembers that the early preparations for the Council were made inside the beleaguered fortress, by its chief defenders; the first schemata, in the summer of 1962. were plainly dominated by their siege mentality.
It was, of course, the genius of Pope John XXIII that transformed this mood and mind-set, that flung the Church into the maelstrom of the modern world with an invincible goodness that even cynics were abashed by, and with a breath-taking, simplehearted confidence that the Church would fare better in free encounter with men of goodwill, that Christian unity might become a live option if Rome were renovated.
It was this charismatic vision, this heart-lifting demonstration of the irresistible power of Christian graciousness, that brought the Council into being and gave it its distinctive character. It is in this sense that Vatican II is and always will be Pope John's Council.
But the fact is that its first session settled nothing, really. except that the Council had to he carried on. I has been the genius of Pope Paul, and others who with him had grasped the substance of the Johannine vision, to guide the Council going through the complex maze it has threaded from the confused gropings of Session One to the now nearly humdrum consensus of Session Four.
And the most truly unique aspect of this Council lies in its deliberate concern for reform within the limits of Christian community and in vital continuity with the Christian past. Vatican II has been as self-consciously a reforming Council as Constance was, or Florence, or Trent but with a decisive difference. Typical reformers value truth above community and, having the truth, they will sacrifice community with pious reluctance (as at Augsburg) or with pious exuberance (as with the anathemata of Trent).
Standard operating procedure for the other reforming councils has been to separate the sheep from the goats and then to scape the goats and fit out the sheep with halos. Vatican II is a very rare instance of historic change within a continuum of identity and consensus. One cannot miss the evident concern here for reform without schism in the soul of the Church in the face of intransigence that has sometimes seemed to reach over and beyond the call of duty.
This is what I mean by my corny title, Reformation RomanStyle. Vatican II has been a Council that has dismayed the diehards but has not alienated them. that has damped down the arsonists without quenching their fire, that has chafed the progressives and bored the unimaginative. It has been a subtle affair, in which some of the changes are only "development" and some "developments" are real changes, where much is left open to further development and/or change and where an adequate theory for this particular kind of development and/or change has yet to be developed.
This distinctive style of reformation has not been without design. Pope John's notion of aggiornarnento was meant to imply reform and has done so though not in the classical styles of Hus or Gerson or Savenarola. In accepting and modulating the Iohannine programme, Pope Paul has become the highly reflective director of an incredibly complete enterprise that is solidly conservative in doctrine and discipline, on the one hand, and vigorously progressive in polity and programme, on the other. He will have no tampering with the core of traditional doctrine; yet he has already initiated more changes in traditional papal polity and practice than any pope since Pius IX.
There are, however, many changes that have been initiated by Vatican II that may not touch the core of doctrine, but that do pose a tricky problem for the tradition of invariable traditions. The immobilisti have often been quite right when they have complained that the new formulations of collegiality, ecumenism, religious liberty, Christian-Jewish relations have altered traditional patterns that run back for centuries.
They have been wrong in their non sequitur that those formulations are improper because they entail significant change. Thus, one of the important consequences of your Reformation RomanStyle is that in it you have continued to maintain a stable community in terms of theories about that stability that now require re-examination. This, too, is an addition to your budget of unfinished business.
The main thing, however, is that thus far you have avoided many of the standard ways of mismanaging reformations. One of these has been to strike down dissent and to damn the heretics, in the name of some proprietary system of truth. Another: to bulldoze the conscientious minority (especially if it is more proud than pitiful!). A third: to rend the bonds of Christian community in the name of one version of the Gospel or in some perfectionist protest against the imperfect structures of the visible Church. A fourth way is for timid reformers (and more reformers are more timid than they appear) to give up after their first manhandling by the ecclesiastical housekeepers.
But reformation Roman-Style would seem to have its pitfalls, too. The most obvious is the illusion that a reform well-launched is somehow guaranteed a successful voyage. But it is all too plain that reforms and reformers are normally better in the sprints than in the marathon-that liberals have a distressing tendency to quit too easily or to count their chickens in the incubator.
One wonders and worries about the swiftly ebbing tide of the reform spirit in this Council in those last days. Something like this was due, but it has come sooner and is more precipitate than I expected. The consequences of this can be serious, now that the real work of actualising the Council in the Church and the world is just beginning.
The other danger, also clear and present, is the excess of the special virtue of this sort of reformation. In your laudable preference for community above polemics, for progress without schism, will you settle for anything less than your own highest possibilities? In your realistic concern to bring everybody along together, will you be careful not to hobble those who run on ahead-some of whom are your ablest and choicest spirits? The good is the enemy of the best and we have already had that spelled out in more ways than one.
One of the strongest impressions I have gained here is of an enormous pool of talent and an immense capital fund of expectant zeal, in your periti, priests and people-and 1 can't help hoping and praying that you will find ways and the will to turn this huge potential loose on the world (and in the world) in patterns that are somewhat more apostolically radical than the essentially genteel and civilised essays of Vatican II.