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Is Vatican II Ancient History?

There was a most interesting debate in America (Feb. 24, 2003) on the meaning of the Second Vatican Council between Avery Cardinal Dulles of Fordham University and John W. O’Malley of the Weston Jesuit School of Theology in Cambridge, Mass. Cardinal Dulles stressed the letter of Vatican II and how it is to be interpreted in continuity with Catholic Tradition. Fr. O’Malley, on the other hand, spoke of the “radical nature” of Vatican II, meaning that the “style” and “spirit” of the Council were designed “to make some fundamental changes in the way the church operates….” How so? Vatican II essentially abandoned the “punitive language of previous councils. Believe this, or else!” O’Malley also points to significant changes with regard to ecumenism and Church-state relations, and to the vocabulary of Vatican II, “words like ‘development,’ ‘progress,’ and even ‘evolution.'” His basic point: “What this implies, of course, is further change in the future,” though he is not specific about what those changes would be.

Of course we side with Cardinal Dulles, but a letter from Joseph F. Kelly of Cleveland (March 17) put the debate in a new light: “After reading Cardinal Avery Dulles’s article about how traditional the Second Vatican Council really was, one cannot help but be struck by how much the reality of Catholic life, at least in this country, has already changed since the council. The council may not have legitimized dissent from noninfallible teachings [as Dulles says], but one need only go to a meeting of a scholarly religious society to learn that dissent is flourishing…. The council may have reaffirmed traditional teaching on contraception, but surveys show the vast majority of American Catholic women have used it…. The council may have reaffirmed the pope’s authority, but authority has little value if people ignore it…. For better or worse, many of the council’s positions are becoming history in American Catholic life” (or shall we say ancient history).

It’s as if the Third Vatican Council, which liberals have been yearning for, has already happened. It came by stealth, and nobody quite noticed.

If Cardinal Dulles, whose views reflect those of Pope John Paul II and Cardinal Ratzinger, is right, how is it that Fr. O’Malley’s take on Vatican II seems to have carried the day? And what is being done about it?

In this context, one can better understand the laments Rod Dreher has been making lately. His first cri de couer came in The Wall Street Journal (Aug. 20, 2002), where he asked: “Why does such a great and good man [John Paul II]…. allow so many American bishops, nearly all of whom he has appointed, to eviscerate the liturgical, catechetical and pastoral life of the Church to the point where we are now living in an undeclared schism?” Dreher pointed out that the chief duties of a pope are to “teach, sanctify and govern,” adding that John Paul has “taught and sanctified zealously,” but has “failed to govern the Church.” Moreover, John Paul “has explicitly recognized the crisis, given clear direction for its correction — and done nothing when his orders were ignored or undercut….”

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