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ON THE PASTORAL NATURE OF VATICAN II: AN EVALUATION

(by Brunero Gherardini)


[Abstract]: Msgr. Gherardini discerns four levels of teaching in the Second Vatican Council, which is an authentic council (level I), expression of the solemn, but not dogmatic teaching of the Church (level II), dogmatic inasmuch as it reasserts the dogms of the previous 20 councils (level III), innovative; but its innovations cannot be dogmatic if they collide with the perennial Tradition of the Church (level IV). In the proclaimed but never defined pastoral character of Vatican II - its documents mention activities, necessities, studies, aids, sensitivity, methods, actions, questions, all pastoral - Msgr. Gherardini recognizes the rationalism begotten by Enlightenment and revamped by Romantic enthusiasm for the timeless flow of history, and a zest for life germane to human nature and turned into an instrument of salvation.

[This lecture is available in Italian on youtube: Vaticano II. Un concilio pastorale Video filmed at the conference Concilio Ecumenico Vaticano II, Rome, 16-18 December 2010. The proceedings have been published as, Concilio Vaticano II, un concilio pastorale. Analisi storico-filosofico-teologica, eds. Stefano Manelli, FI and Serafino Lanzetta, FI (Frigento: Casa Mariana Editrice, 2011) ISBN 9788890561122]
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Once upon a time, there was the Arabian Phoenix. Everyone talked about her - but noone had ever seen her. And today there is an updated version, also much talked about, but nobody can tell what it may be. Its name is Pastoral.

(1) The word - One thing should be crystal clear: the word itself is no problem, for its derivation from the Latin pascere (to feed, graze) is obvious. The Latin verb was born from pabulum (pasture, feed) that gives life to a family not very large, but easily distinguishable in its components: to pasture, in the sense of herding and feeding, pastum (which in Italian becomes "pasto", a meal), which can also be translated as "food"; Latin pastor (shepherd), the person who leads to pabulum, provides food and guards herds and flocks. Pastor becomes in turn the father of pastoricia ars (Italian: "pastorizia"), the art of tending animals; of Italian "pastura" (pasture, pasture-land); and of "pastoral," already present in late Latin to describe the clothes, food, customs, language of a shepherd. Pasteurization (the process to preserve liquid substances, such as milk), however, is not derived from pastor, but from the French pastoriser, in turn derived from the inventor Louis Pasteur (1822-1895).

"Pastoral" soon became part of the ecclesiastical jargon to characterize three of the letters of Saint Paul, or the activity and teaching of evangelizers, or episcopal insignia such as ring, crosier, letters. More recent (but not modern) is the use of the word "pastoral" in reference to theology and with a non-dogmatic meaning; in fact, originally "pastoral" meant anti-dogmatic. Apart from the ecclesiastical jargon, however, any educated person will easily relate "pastoral" to the nymphs of Arcadian poetry, to love poetry of Provençal origin, to Aminta (a pastoral drama) of Torquato Tasso, and to music of a simple and tender kind, whose specific characterization is the Sixth Symphony of Beethoven.

(2) The word "pastoral" in Vatican II - After such a broad semantic spectrum, any allusion to the unknown and unseen Arabian Phoenix may appear unsustainable because of evident contradiction. Yet, the hypothetical "may" is neutralized by the absence from the conciliar documents of a sufficient reason adequate to justify it. I say "sufficient reason," because if I said that in the Council documents the word "pastoral" is not present, I would display crass and unforgivable ignorance of Vatican II. Not only is the word there, but it's there in abundance; indeed, it characterizes Vatican II in its specificity of ecumenical Concil against the other twenty that precede it. Vatican II does in fact speak of pastoral action in general and, in a more direct way, of pastoral activities; it identifies various pastoral necessities and advocates the institution of, and the mutual cooperation among, various pastoral subsidies in order to obviate such necessities; it duly lists among such subsidies the planning and organization of "courses, conferences, centers with their libraries specifically designed for pastoral studies, to be entrusted to eminently qualified persons." For the purpose of radiating pastoral sensitivity and any required knowledge within the widest possible radius, Vatican II makes it an obligation for the bishops to study on their own or at an inter-diocesan level the best system "to ensure that presbyters, particularly after several years since their ordination," pursue the required in-depth study of pastoral methods. And, given that a strong contribution to the apostolic action of the Church can also come from the lay ranks, the Council invites the bishops to choose "priests endowed with the necessary qualities and sufficiently formed," who may in turn provide lay persons with an adequate formation and eventually entrust them with special pastoral action tasks. And so that "the unity of intent among priests and Bishops may render their pastoral action ever more fruitful," the clergy is urged to hold periodical meetings that should be extended to other members of church organizations "in order to deal with pastoral issues."

Episcopal Conferences of individual nations are warmly encouraged to take to heart and foster the pastoral training of the clergy by means of "Pastoral Institutes in cooperation with purposely chosen parishes, periodical conferences, appropriate workshops." Not to be omitted, a call to "the competent territorial ecclesiastical authority" to establish an Institute "for liturgical pastoral care" with "experts in liturgy, music, sacred art, and pastoral care." These data prove that the Arabian Phoenix is at home in Vatican II, but Vatican II does not say who or what she may be.

Those who "rule and nurture the people of God" are exhorted to incarnate the Good Shepherd who gives his life for his sheep (John 10:11) and to follow "the example of those priests who, even in our own time, did not hesitate to sacrifice their own lives for their flock." Briefly, while exhorting the clergy to become, day after day, the instrument of an increasingly effectual service to the people of God, Vatican II declares explicitly that its pastoral goals aim at "the internal renewal of the Church, the dissemination of the gospel throughout the whole world, and the establishment of a relationship based on dialogue with it." Such goals evidently respond to an underlying principle, a notion (rudimentary at least) of a barely sketched pastoral care; a relationship based on dialogue with the world by a Church renewed in her methods of evangelization and apostolate. At this point, though a bit vaguely, the Arabian Phoenix begins to give herself away.

Such insistence (and so much of it) is not surprising. To the contrary,it attests to docility and fidelity to the guidelines that Pope Roncalli, on the 11th of October, 1962, presented to the Council fathers at the official opening of the great conciliar Assembly: though doctrine ranked first among the Council's tasks, Pope John diversified its methodology as compared to the past. Previously the Church had not eschewed firm and severe condemnation. Today she prefers to strictness the medicine of mercy. According to Pope Roncalli, then, the Church ought to show the good, benevolent, patient countenance of a Mother, most of all to a mankind fettered by so many hardships. She ought to foster human progress by expanding the scope of charity, to spread love, concord, and peace. In this way the contours of the Arabian Phoenix, though they remain hazy, merge with those of the good and patient Mother.

As if to confirm Roncalli's orientation, Paul VI in his homily of the 7th of December, 1965, for the Ninth Session of the Council, declared that the Church takes to heart, along with the kingdom of heaven, mankind and the world; indeed, the Church exists in function of mankind and the world, for the bond between Catholic religion and human life is an intrinsic one, to the point that Catholic religion can be called the very life of man and mankind thanks to her sublime doctrine, to her maternal care with which she accompanies man towards his last end, to the means she gives him to achieve such an end. An umpteenth declaration of pastoral intent that, since it remains within the boundaries of generic statements, does not yet unveil the countenance or the features of the Arabian Phoenix.

On the pastoral character of the Council, however, no doubts and no questions. Vatican II was not - only because it did not want to be - a dogmatic Council and, all things considered, not even a disciplinary one. It only wanted to be pastoral. Yet, in spite of many interventions by in- and outsiders, the true significance of its declared pastoral character is still lost in the fog.

(3) An undefined concept - A few lines back I indicated the multifaceted pastoral role of the Council. "Pastoral" as a qualifying adjective orin connexion with a noun really occurs dozens and dozens of times. Yet, not one single occurrence gives, if not a definition, at least a hint of an explanation. I realize that, through a critical analysis of various declarations, one can get the general idea; this idea, however, could not be a direct expression of the Council's teachings.

Gaudium et spes [GS] is the most cogent example. It is even characterized as "pastoral constitution" being, all of it, an ideal and positive ferment in favour of man, of his freedom and dignity, of his presence in the family, in society, in cultural endeavours, and in the world, for the purpose of conferring upon private and public life breath and dimensions to measure of man. The association of the word "pastoral" with "constitution" in the heading is the most novel of all novelties in the whole Vatican II; and so was it perceived by the Council Fathers themwelves, who, before giving their approval, discussed several other definitions. The only justification for associating those words is found in the note that follows the title of this unusual document called "pastoral" both because "on the basis of doctrinal principles, it aims at expounding the attitude of the Church towards the world and the people of today", and because attitude and doctrinal principles intersect and complement each other. The inference should be that such an attitude is always the application and the practical expression of doctrinal principles. To understand which ones, however, is still a problem: sociological, political, economical principles, perhaps, but not - or at least not directly - evangelic ones.

The reference to man and the world recalls the intrinsic limitations of both entities, their being created, and their living in time; their dynamic qualities, their unceasing evolution threatened, as if by Damocles's sword, by an always possible regression. All this highlights their variable and contingent condition but also the problems inherent in the practical application of those doctrinal principles that are for the most part absolute and irreformable. The 'Note', too, acknowledges such perplexities and points them out, but does not solve them. It even complicates matters when it establishes that "the Constitution shall be interpreted according to the general norms of theological hermeneutics, taking into consideration the changing circumstances and their intrinsic links with the matters in question." Truly, should pastoral care consist of this merry-g-round of yes-and-no, any definition of it would be impossible. It is stated that the unquestionability of doctrine is to be applied to contingent situations; but should it make doctrine contingent, or should it render the contingent unquestionable and absolute, such an application would turn both elements upside down:"yes" arm-in-arm with "no." I understand why, from the Council halls on, GS was the most debated and the most hindered text. Its submission to committees and subcommittees was of little avail, and likewise its passage through as many as four successive formulations: the difficulty,bordering on hybris, lies in the simultaneous assertion of "yes" and "no."

Perhaps this unresolved perplexity is at the root of the problematicalness that still, after roughly half a century of post-Conciliar age, accompanies every discourse on the Council's pastoral role. In practice such perplexity is employed to legitimize just about everything and its opposite. Both conciliar hermeneutics, often analyzed by the Holy Father - the one, which considers Vatican II a new way of being Church, and the other that, to the contrary, links the Council to the living Tradition of the Church, are legitimized by this unsolved difficulty. In both hermeneutics, in fact:

(a) At the doctrinal level - Vatican II acquires all the values and the appearance of a dogmatic council: the former interpretation turns it into a super-Council, the latter into a doctrinal summary of all previous councils.
(b) At the pastoral level - Vatican II appears as a container, mixed because of the very fact of its pastoral nature, a sort of free hitter who, for pastoral reasons, is allowed to say simultaneously "yes" and "no."

At this point, it becomes imperative to provide an objective and unprejudiced assessment of the overall quality of Vatican II, a council that was hastily and naively limited to the pastoral sector.

(4) The four levels of Vatican II - Those familiar not only with GS, but with all sixteen conciliar documents, are well aware that the variety of its topics and their respective methodologies situate Vatican II on four qualitatively distinct levels:

(1) The generic level of ecumenical council as ecumenical council.
(2) The specific level of its pastoral role.
(3) The level of appeal to other councils.
(4) The level of innovations.

At the first and generic level Vatican II meets all the requirements to be an authentic Council of the Catholic Church, the twenty-first in a series. It follows that its magisterium is a conciliar one, that is to say: solemn and supreme, a fact that does not, in and of itself, testify to its dogmaticalness and infallibility; to the contrary, it does not even include these characteristics, because they were removed from the start from the Council's horizon.

At the second and specific level the pastoral role justifies the Council's extraordinarily broad interests that often exceed the boundaries of Faith and theology, e.g. the mass media, technology, the value attached to efficiency in contemporary society, politics, peace, war, socioeconomic life. This level also belongs to the conciliar teaching and is therefore solemn and supreme, but cannot claim - because of the matters dealt with and the non-dogmatic fashion in which they are treated - a validity in and of itself infallible and irreformable.

The appeal to some teachings of previous councils constitutes the third level. On occasion this appeal is direct and explicit (LG 1, praecedentium Conciliorum argumento instans [urging on with the argument of previous councils]; LG 18, Concilii Vaticani I vestigia premens [pressing on the tracks of the First Vatican Council]; DV 1, Conciliorum Tridentini et Vaticani I inhaerens vestigiis [treading in the footsteps of the Tridentine Council and Vatican I]), at times it is indirect and implicit and re-states already defined truths, such as the nature of the Church, her hierarchical structure, the apostolic succession, the universal jurisdictionof the Pope, the incarnation of the Word, redemption, the infallibility of the Church and her magisterium, eternal life for the good and eternal damnation for the wicked. In this respect Vatican II is endowed with unquestionable dogmatic validity, yet this fact does not make it a dogmatic council, because its dogmaticalness is a reflection of the dogmatic character of the conciliar texts cited above.

Innovations constitute the fourth level. If one looks at the spirit that guided the Council, one could say that the whole Council was fourth-level, moved as it was by a radically innovative spirit, even when and where it attempted to strike root in Tradition. Some innovations, however, are specific: Collegiality of bishops, the absorption of Tradition in Holy Writ, the limitation of biblical inspiration and inerrancy, the strange relations with the jewish and Islamic world, the strain on the so-called religious freedom. It is all too plain that, if there is a level where the dogmatic character cannot be perceived at all, it is precisely that of conciliar novelties.

(5) Conclusion - Adherence to Vatican II is, for the reasons stated above, qualitatively articulated. Inasmuch as all four described levels express conciliar teaching, all four require of individual believers and Catholic-Christian communities the duty of an adherence that shall not necessarily be always "of Faith." Such adhesion only goes to the truths of the third level, and only inasmuch as they derive from other assuredly dogmatic Councils. A religious and respectful reception is due to the other three levels, as long as some of their assertions do not collide with the perpetual reality of Tradition by reason of an obvious break of some of their formal variants with the eodem sensu eademque sententia [with the same sentiments and the same consensus]. In such a case dissent, especially if calm and reasoned, determines neither heresy nor error.

As regards the second, pastoral level, one must truly think that the Council Fathers were not aware of the mortgage paid by themselves to Enlightenment by opening up the Council to a pastoral role that from the very beginning, according to the Enlightenment mentalitè from which it sprang, had given a trip to God in order to replace Him with man and even, at times, to identify God with man. Indeed, eighteenth-century pastoral care bypassed the motivations, sources, contents, and methods of dogmatic theology and opened wide the gates of the theological fortress to the primacy of anything natural, rational, temporal, sociological.

By saying this, I do not mean at all that the pastoral model of Vatican II is the same as the pastoral model of the eighteenth century. But anyone who, in order to deny their identity, denied any relationship between the two, would be naive or disinformed. In Vatican II the pastoral model remained rooted in Enlightenment, albeit with different expressions and motivations. It was Paul VI who rescued it from the quicksands of Enlightenment when, at the opening of the second post-conciliar period, he transferred that model to a Romantic sphere in order to make it "a bridge to the contemporary world" that would convey to it "its inner vitality...as a life-giving event and an instrument of salvation for the world itself." Thus the Arabian Phoenix became a bridge, a coefficient of life, an instrument of salvation; yet without losing its relationship with Enlightenment as its source through the Neo-Modernistic inspiration of its proponents. Not by chance secularization, which subsequently celebrated its triumph in the present post-conciliar stage, moved from a pastoral theology thus understood. And if an uncertain notion of its pastoral nature derives from ignorance of its precedents, the absurdity of the dogmaticalness of a self-styled merely pastoral council must needs derive from its original relationship with them. Thus, the Arabian Phoenix unveils her true features. All things considered, it would have been better to keep them secret still.