I           Introduction

              THE CATHOLIC CHURCH, which after 2000 years has come to nurture the life in the Spirit of well over a billion members, even today 50 years after Vatican II wrestles with a commonplace but powerful word, HISTORY. We are referring to the recognition of a non-exact but still scientific and reliable source of human knowledge that shored up by its ancillary disciplines, archaeology, biblical and cultural linguistics, sociology, has and continues to invigorate a momentous process of change in the Church.
  Although the origins of many Church practices and beliefs pervaded most of the questions among the non-official Church theologians prior to the Council (1962-1965), (link to Schloesser, pp. 122-133) they surfaced as a single theological conundrum in the Ecumenical Council Vatican II where the Papacy, a proud institution claiming to be the mediator of eternal truths, was being forced by the march of history to venture into a process of seriously questioning its institutional memory. Under the banner of a return to its origins referred to as ressourcement the council discovered itself embarking on a bold and complete about-face in one of the longest lasting, most powerful, and unfortunately most ossified  institutions in the Western world. In a sincere deference to hesitant conservative religious thinking history was a relatively new scientific discipline that had been closed to Christian Church leadership for centuries beginning as soon as the person-to-person communicating excitement of Jesus’ earliest followers had been stilled by time.

2          Background

 When the Papacy called the Vatican Council I in 1870 it appeared almost a frantic attempt by Pope Pius 9 to re-exert in Europe its millennial influence after the loss to the unification of Italy in 1850 of the Papal States, the locus of its temporal power. The modern tourist in Rome examines in wonderment the glories of the Eternal City chiseled in the ubiquitous lintels of past monuments that commemorate their contemporary builders with the title of Pontifex Maximus, the Great Mediator, (Number One of course). During centuries the Pope had exercised control over the moral, religious, and even scientific decision making of the collective European mind.

One key component of the papal claim to power consisted in its right and duty to pass on the eternal truth of God’s revelation to mankind. Included in this awesome function was the power of the sword over the consciences of men, the power of death to dissenters. In the years following his humiliating military defeat by Garibaldi’s forces, Pius’ very human reaction was to cover himself and the Papacy with the mantle of a victim, declaring himself a prisoner in his Roman enclave.  He had been stripped of what he considered a divinely bestowed right and duty. The smarting and seemingly spiteful Pius abandoned the mission of bringing Christ to all mankind and turned the Church into a museum where its power, now only a precious legacy, would be put out of reach of a seemingly geometric blossoming of new areas of knowledge in a rapidly evolving modern world.

This voluntary rejection of the march of history where political imperatives had trumped the waning power of a sacerdotal-imperial state ruled by the Bishop of Rome lasted for three more Popes and 60 years until finally in 1929 Italy recognized the Vatican as an independent city state. During that period and the 35 years of 2 more Popes the Church waged war on behalf of its rapidly growing flock against almost anything new, science, inventions and even political upheavals (link to modernism), generated by the humankind it was called to save. According to the historian, Stephen Schloesser, “…that was the official face of the Church from at least 1831 until 1958.”(p. 126).

 The war meant recourse to fear and repression of new ideas, the truly efficacious weapons of the powerful, like the index of forbidden books for the laity, oaths against Modernism as a prerequisite for joining the ranks of the clergy, taking central control over the appointment of lesser hierarchical authorities, and severe, repressive thought control for even the most respected theologians throughout its vast institutional infrastructure.  All these measures charged with the indirect threats of human and religious consequences, were supposed to end, officially anyway, with the closure of the Ecumenical Vatican Council II in 1965. However, up to the present year 2015 and the current Pope Francis the powerful Vatican bureaucracy has continued under the direction of the Popes or at least their acquiescence to shore up through similar tactics its power base that held sway for centuries as a defense against change. (link to manifestations of the Francis effect).

3          Witnesses to The Role of History

We have singled out the “role of history” as a key factor working in the processes of change in the Catholic Church because its acceptance by the deliberations of Vatican II as a science of an inexact but reliable source of human knowledge has opened up vital but previously closed dimensions in the interpretation of the early church and the traditions it has handed down. And as might be expected as this scientific discipline grew and gradually became of age it matured along with it potential platforms for serious ventures into unchartered worldviews, the possibility of finding meaning for the new world scene.  A few quotes of participants and later specialists in studies of the council demonstrate the profound impact of historical research on the dynamic of the Church. However, before turning to the experts a quote from a representative for reactionary Catholic thought after the French Revolution provides us viewed through a strongly contrasting light the fear of the boundless extent history’s profound changes could introduce. Julien Louis Geoffrey wrote in the year 1800:

Not only does human reason not perfect itself with time, but this perfection is impossible. It would be necessary to discover new relationships among men, new duties, new moral truths—something that cannot take place in the wake of the Gospel….Nothing beyond Christian morality has been discovered. It is evident that it is the non plus ultra of true philosophy, that it is beyond the capacity of human faculties to go farther. If anything, concluded Geoffrey, history taught that the notion of human perfectibility was a ‘fatal chimera’ that had ‘covered the earth in blood and crimes.’ (after the above quote: Schloesser summarizes:) “Social cohesion depended on clinging to inherited customs, traditions, and beliefs….This fear of modernity, exemplified most fully in the fear of historicism, shaped ultramontanist Catholicism—a ‘supernaturalist eternalism’—that was the official face of the Church from at least 1831 until 1958.” (quoted in Schloesser, pp. 125-126).

Our first witness the young Joseph Ratzinger, a rising theological star and later to become the ultra- conservative Pope Benedict 16, gave reluctant testimony to history as an input into theology in his THEOLOGICAL HIGHLIGHTS OF VATICAN II published in 1966 and reproduced in a Kindle edition:

“The debate on revelation took up again-this time in a somewhat calmer atmosphere-a problem which in 1962 had set off a most violent controversy: the problem of the historical dimension in theology which underlay the problems of revealed truth, scripture and tradition….The method of historical criticism, which saw the bible in an entirely new light, had won its first victories. The sacred books, believed to be the work of a very few authors to whom God had directly dictated his words, suddenly appeared as a work expressive of an entire human history, which had grown layer by layer throughout millennia, a history deeply interwoven with the religious history of surrounding peoples.

“No less dramatic was the awakening that took place in regard to the idea of tradition. Liturgical forms and customs, dogmatic formulations thought to have arisen with the apostles, now appeared as products of complicated processes of growth within the womb of history. And the very human factors in this growth were becoming increasingly evident. Here arose an enormous danger for the faith. In Protestantism this led to the temporary victory of a liberal theology in which the substance of faith was reduced to a belief in the fatherhood of the Supreme Being and the consequent brotherhood of man. Pius X took drastic measures to suppress similar developments within Catholic theology…” (Kindle Locations 1097-1100).

In a dissimilar testimony the universally respected theologian, Richard Gaillardetz, not only acknowledges the new and weighty influence of history adopted in the Council, he attributes key doctrinal changes to history. He writes in the Preface to his book, BY WHAT AUTHORITY (Liturgical Press, 2003):

  “Once viewed with suspicion, now the council called for a new respect for modern      science and un unprecedented openness to the fruits of historical scholarship.”(p. xii).

Gaillardetz explains how “…divine revelation is a good example of the council’s determination to ‘return to the sources.’ The Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation, Dei Verbum, offered a biblically informed presentation of divine revelation as nothing less than God’s self-gift to humankind in love.”(p. 3). He relates revelation to “…the use of the Hebrew word dabar (‘word’).” as ‘dynamic and effective’ as exemplified by the phrase in Isaiah:

“Giving seed to him who sows,

    and bread to him who eats,

       So shall my word be

that goes forth from my mouth:

                  It shall not return to me void,

                        but shall do my will

achieving the end for which I sent it.”( Isaiah 55: 10-11)

For the biblical author, to speak of God’s word was to speak of God’s effective action in   history….Consequently, in Dei Verbum, the council affirmed that revelation was not just a set of statements to be comprehended, memorized and spouted back to others.                         Divine revelation is presented as a divine invitation into relationship.”(pp. 4-5). And, of course, although our Christian God is three in one, where the One predominates, relationships for us will be as varied as the persons or institutions involved. (Link to Michael Crosby’s book).

 Stephen Schloesser, S.J.,  a professional historian, portrays the Church grappling with history in his essay,  Chapter 3: Against Forgetting: Memory, History, Vatican II  in  the book, VATICAN II DID ANYTHING HAPPEN (ed. By David Schultenover: Continuum, New York, 2008).

For Schloesser from the point  of view of the march of history, Vatican II and its openness to look at current problems with a close eye on how they developed was not only timely but a moral and ethical necessity for the Church. He asks how could a millennial institution called to interpret God’s relationship with mankind could evade the obligation of confronting the new and challenging world fashioned by the scope and weight of global events leading up to and reaching a climax in the 20th century.

“The Council was largely framed by the traumatic events of 1956 and 1968: the repression of popular uprisings by Russian tanks in Budapest and Prague. Implicit in the cold war tapestry were events that are now largely unknown to a youthful generation precisely because they are in the settled past. Hitler’s aggression and the Holocaust; the Soviet empire whose seeds lay in the blood of Stalingrad; the Atomic Age that was born in Hiroshima; the postwar division of the world into two mutually exclusive ideologies and superpowers; and the ever-present threat of nuclear annihilation…(p. 93)…the council was a response to cataclysmic shifts in the mid-20th century…the Jewish Holocaust, of a global war that claimed between 50 and 60 million lives, of the invention of the atomic bomb and the possibility of human annihilation…of decolonization and the end of Western hegemony—“(p.96).

 Schloesser sums up the angst that pervaded our globe at the time of the council: “…the second half of the 20th century—a time when the world faced its deepest anxieties and had no idea whether or not they would soon be realized.” (p. 94). Along with doubts and anxiety technology was rapidly turning the world into a glass window display of a global cornucopia for a burgeoning and ever poorer, hungrier world population. Where was the power of the Church and it billion plus membership?

 The specialist in the narrative of the Vatican II Council, Massimo Faggioli, in his book, VATICAN II, THE BATTLE FOR MEANING (Paulist Press, New York, 2012),  highlights the complete rejection by Cardinal  Lefebvre of the theological impact of history adopted by the council. As the Council’s most influential Ultramontanist spokesman he shrewdly perceived the rupture with the past that “historicism” the term used to refer to make room for history in the Council’s deliberations.  As reported by Faggioli:

“Nevertheless, the real issue for Lefebvre and for his followers was the relationship           between tradition and Vatican II. The council enlarged the concepts of tradition and          revelation, thus changing the Church’s understanding of human    history   as  a    source     for           theology and magisterium…Completely alien to his anti-historical approach was the notion that revelation could be revealed in the history of the people of God and that therefore history had to serve as a source of theological discourse.”(p. 32).

So completely was Lefebvre’s  rejection of the council, in large part because of its openness to history as essential to theology,  he  left the Catholic Church some years after its close to become its only public heretical heritage.

 The last of the many examples available to give testimony to the new role of history in the Catholic Church is Sister Elizabeth Johnson, a theology professor at Fordham University and renowned author of many books on theology in the United States. In her book, TRULY OUR SISTER, A THEOLOGY OF MARY IN THE COMMUNION OF SAINTS (Continuum, New York, 2011) Sr. Elizabeth chronicles a dispute over the place of Mary in the Church, what she classifies within the council as THE CLASH OF THE TITANS. At stake was the forward march of Marian piety toward a unique and constitutive role in the theology of the Church, powered by the Vatican’s willing use of its assumed divinely bestowed privilege of patronage. It was opposed by the champions of a return to the early Church and the sacred writings where Mary is recognized as unique insofar as she constitutes an essential component of Christ’s humanity.

On October 29, 1963, the vote was finally taken. It was the closest vote of the council: 1,114 in favor of incorporating marian teaching into the schema on the church, 1,074 against. The motion passed with a legitimate and sufficient majority of 40 votes, but if only twenty bishops had declared differently it would have been a tie. The vote was met with stunned silence, ‘a moment of dazed amazement.” Accustomed as they were to deciding issues with near unanimity up to that point, the bishops were terribly dismayed. How could it be that the mother of God, in whose womb the fundamental union of God and humanity was achieved, had become the source of such great division?

“Commentators on this vote note that, seen theologically, the mentality of non-historical, authoritarian orthodoxy accompanied by a piety that focused on the world to come was outvoted by the forces for renewal that called the church to enter into history and engage the social and political implications of the gospel. Seen politically, the curialist representatives of the ‘Age of Mary’ had lost to the northern European alliance, which advocated dialogue with the modern world. My own view holds that what happened was a kind of seismic upheaval in which the strained, bulging theological earth shifted back to realignment with the pattern of the first millennium. It is important to note that one year, numerous drafts and amendments, and many arguments later, the final version of the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church (Lumen Gentium) with the marian schema firmly ensconced as its last chapter was affirmed in solemn assembly with only five negative votes.”(p. 127-128).

In a coming second post on this topic we will focus in more detail how the opening to history by Vatican II produced significant shifts in doctrinally related matters.


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I am a practicing Catholic, Jesuit trained, Vatican II amateur theologian, popularizing a complex belief theme for a larger reading public. I have found great spiritual joy in the biblical and historical experts’ recovery of the long lost vision of Jesus’ passion for the Father’s commitment to his created world. This passion of Jesus is embraced in the universal Prayer, THE OUR FATHER. In recent years I have been inspired by the re-discovered spiritual approach to our God in the Ecumenical Council Vatican II.As an additional note I have enjoyed more than forty years of academic and practical experience dedicated to social, economic and political development in the poorer countries of Central and South America. Except for development work I am not a professional in any field, but have lived long enough to earn Licenciates in Philosophy and Theology as well as Masters degrees in Medieval History and Urban Planning, and an ABD (all but dissertation) in Economic and Social Development.

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