Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Post-Council confusion: it's an age-old tradition

One item in the Catholic news as of late involves discussions between the Vatican and the Society of St. Pius X (SSPX).

Bishop Bernard Fellay, Superior General of the SSPX
Here's a quick look at what's going on: The SSPX is a smallish breakaway group which has, since 1988, been in a position of strained communion with the Church. The founder of the SSPX, the late Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre, founded the group in 1970 within the Church (the SSPX was originally founded as an official Church-sanctioned institute) to organize opposition to many of the changes in the Catholic Church after the Second Vatican Council. In 1988, Archbishop Lefebvre consecrated four SSPX priests as bishops, without the permission of the Holy See - an act which is viewed by canon law as "schismatic." From that point on, the society has had strained relations with the Church and, for all intents and purposes, has been in many ways separate from the Church.

In 2009, Pope Benedict XVI, in a very generous gesture, lifted the automatic excommunication that was incurred by the four living bishops in the SSPX (Lefebvre died in 1991 - his excommunication was also posthumously lifted by Pope Benedict). Soon after this, the pope re-established communications with the society to work out their differences with the Holy See and he has made no secret his desire that the SSPX be "regularized" within the Church and that the society's members return to full communion with the Church. But to be regularized, the society has to agree to certain doctrinal principles. At this point, we are waiting to hear the outcome of talks that the society's leaders have had with members of the Holy See.

Unity is good and holy and, as is evident from Scripture, Christ's will. So we should all pray that unity be restored so that we can welcome the members of the society back into full communion with the Church and with the Holy See.

The Council at the core 

Most of the disagreements that the SSPX has had with the Church over the past few decades has revolved around the documents of the Second Vatican Council and how those documents are to be properly interpreted and implemented. As we've mentioned before on this blog, this year (2012) marks the 50th anniversary of the start of the Second Vatican Council, which was held, in successive sessions, between 1962 and 1965. It was started and completed before many of us were even born so it seems like "water under the bridge" and, at times, we assume that all is completely settled about Vatican II.

Second Vatican Council in session
But while it has been five decades since Pope Bl. John XXIII officially opened Vatican II, it goes without saying that the impact of this, the twenty-first ecumenical (i.e. "worldwide"), council of the Church's bishops is still unsettled.

Anyone who's been paying even the minimal amount of attention to the Catholic Church over the past few decades realizes that there has been a current of change within the Church. Some of the changes in the Church since Vatican II have been very positive and others - let's be honest here - have been, shall we say, less positive than originally intended (the key word here is intent).

A quick glance over the past fifty years would lend strong credence to the argument that in the areas where the Council's decisions were implemented hastily and (seemingly) haphazardly, confusion and disillusionment resulted. Yet where the decisions of the Council were implemented more purposefully, with a keen eye towards an organic connection to the Church's Tradition, the results have been more clear-cut and positive. I'll let you decide which of the Council's decisions were implemented more hastily and which more measured.

So while it seems clear that the fathers of the Second Vatican Council intended to enact change in some aspects of the Church (which can be very good), change for the sake of change was not their intent. The Church is, after all, in many ways, a living organism and living beings grow and change over time. But in order for change to be healthy for the organism and for it to positively affect the being's continued growth and vitality the change must have two qualities: 1) it must be slow and measured and 2) it must be organic.

This, you see, is why we still - fifty years on - live in an age where the Second Vatican Council is in many ways unsettled. The documents produced by this council (sixteen in number) are still - fifty years later - being digested, as it were, by the Church at-large. They're still being studied, considered and implemented in a myriad of ways. This slow absorption is, my friends, very healthy for the Church and can only lead her to the most level-headed and positive decisions.

Ecumenical councils take decades, nay, centuries to bear fruit in the ways Christ intends within the Church universal. And this is the very reason why we've had so few councils throughout the millennia: because the words and documents of any given Church council have been studied, considered and implemented for many, many years after the end of the council. Let's take a quick look at some of the more memorable of the Church's past ecumenical councils, and just how long it took for teachings of these councils to be completely digested by the Church:

First Council of Nicaea (325)

First Council of Nicaea, 325
This was the very first ecumenical council. There were local and regional councils before this, but in 325 the Roman Emperor Constantine called all of the world's roughly 1,800 bishops to meet together at his villa southeast of Constantinople. For various reasons, only about 300 bishops were able to attend. The council was called to address two main issues which were threatening the unity of the Church: 1) the date on which Easter should be celebrated each year and 2) the teachings of an Alexandrian priest named Arius, who taught that Jesus was less than fully divine.

Despite the decision of the council Fathers that Arius' teachings on Christ were not of the Apostolic faith, Arianism persisted for quite a while after the Council - as in for centuries. Even after the Council's decision, many bishops and priest in the eastern provinces of the Roman Empire continued to promote Arianism. It wasn't until 56 years later, after a second ecumenical council, that the majority of bishops within the Empire fully embraced the teachings of Nicaea. But, in the mean time, Arian missionaries had begun work among the Germanic tribes outside the Empire and some of the tribes became thoroughly Arian. And as these tribes moved into the western provinces of the Roman Empire in the succeeding centuries, they brought their Arian beliefs with them. Arianism was not definitively stamped out in Christian Europe until the 8th century - over four hundred years after the close of Nicaea Council I.

First Council of Constantinople (381)

First Council of Constantinople, 381
By the time the Emperor Theodosius I took the throne of the Roman Empire in 380, nearly the entire Church in the eastern provinces was Arian. In 381, he called the bishops of the Church to a second ecumenical council at the new imperial capital of Constantinople, to resolve (finally, it was hoped) the Arian dispute and to definitively define the role of the Holy Spirit in Christian belief. This council produced a new version of the now-famed Nicene Creed. In the original version of the Creed, adopted at the First Council of Nicaea, it ended after the words: "...And in the Holy Spirit." This Council further defined the role of the Holy Spirit, by adding the words, after the mention of the Holy Spirit: "...the Lord and giver of life who proceeds from the Father, who with the Father and the Son is adored and glorified. He has spoken through the prophets," and all the remaining words of what we now know as the Nicene Creed as well.

But aside from the important theological definitions it produced, the Council of Constantinople also produced a number of other "canons," or rulings dealing with Church discipline. For this reason, the canons of the First Council of Constantinople remained under discussion and dispute for centuries after the Council's close. In fact, this Council's declarations regarding the primacy of the See of Rome is still a major bone of contention between the Catholic and Orthodox Churches - over 1,600 years after the conclusion of the Council.

Council of Ephesus (431)

Ruins of the ancient Church of St. Mary in Ephesus - site of
the proceedings of the Council of Ephesus in 431.
In the year 431, a man named Nestorius was the Patriarch (i.e. bishop) of Constantinople. At his request, the Emperor Theodosius II called this, the third ecumenical council of the Churchm, to clarify the Church's stance on Nestorius' teachings on the nature of Christ: specifically, Nestorius' teaching that the divine and human natures of Christ were not united, but separate. He took umbrage with the traditional title of Mary as being Theotokos or "Mother of God." "Mary is rightly called the Mother of Christ," said Nestorius, "not the Mother of God." Even though Nestorius himself requested the council be called, in hopes that his position would be vindicated, the roughly 250 bishops who attended and comprised the Council Fathers disagreed with Nestorius. The Fathers actually repudiated his teaching as heresy and not in line with the Apostolic faith. "Mary," they said, "is rightly called the Mother of God,"for the divine and human natures of Christ are distinct but intimately united and inseparable.

Unfortunately, the eventual outcome of this Council was not complete unity within the Church, but, instead, the first widespread schism in Church history. In fact, when many of the churches which adhered to Nestorius' teachings broke away from the Catholic Church in the decades after the Council of Ephesus, they created a rift which, over 1,500 years later, has still not healed. Today, the Assyrian Church of the East (the heir of the Apostolic churches in ancient Persia and Mesopotamia) still remains separated from the Catholic Church.

Post-council confusion is nothing new

The years after any of the other of the Church's ecumenical councils have been no less tumultuous than these examples. History proves that, as ecumenical councils are rare in the Church's history, their settled impact is not at all immediate. In fact, there is always a period of uncertainty and restlessness that lasts for decades - or longer. But inevitably, the ancient tradition of the Church is the great settling factor serving as a kind of anchor for any new developments of thought from any given council: helping to keep each council firmly and organically moored to the Church's ancient and Apostolic roots.

So, if nothing else, I hope that these three examples richly illustrate the fact that the Church's councils do not effect their lasting impression on the Church in short order. While fifty years back may sound like a lifetime away from 2012, in the timeline of the Church's history nearly 2,000 year history, this golden jubilee marks nothing more than a date that is in very close proximity to the event itself. It will be many, many more decades (perhaps centuries) - long after we have all joined the ranks of the eternal - before the true impact of Vatican II will be known with any certitude. I hate to break it to you, but all of us are going to live our allotted time upon this earth in an age that will almost certainly be viewed as one which was in upheaval. Not unlike those who lived in the years immediately after any of the other of the Church's ecumenical councils, we will only know a Catholicism in a particular state of flux, a time of "settling" after the relative upheavals of a council.

But it won't always be this way. Tradition will win out - it always does. The dust will eventually settle and necessary steps will be taken to ensure that the beautiful and inspiring documents of this latest council find themselves implemented in a way that is harmonious to the Church's ancient patrimony. God-willing, this time will come sooner, rather than later.

Please pray for our pope, who is already being lauded as "the pope of Christian unity." Please pray for the leaders and members of the SSPX and all our separated brothers and sisters - especially those who sadly see Vatican II as a stumbling block to unity at this time.