Is the Church Yet To Understand Vatican II?

Saint John Paul IIIs the Church yet to understand Vatican II? This question is either preposterous or entirely relevant. It would seem tempting to dismiss the question as preposterous, but the state of the Church today suggests that it is entirely relevant. After all, there is a divergence of opinions on what exactly took place at Vatican II. These interpretative deviations imply that it might in fact be the case that Vatican II is yet to be properly understood by the Church at large.

Consider this passage from Cardinal Robert Sarah’s book, God or Nothing (emphasis added):

“Indeed, on the subject of Vatican Council II, we will never be able to thank Pope Benedict XVI enough for his hermeneutical work on his authentic interpretation of the will of the Council Fathers. The fact that I refer to his analysis goes to show that the intention of the Council has not been understood fully.

Joseph Ratzinger grasped quite accurately the fact that John XXIII wanted first of all to respond to a major challenge for the modern world: receiving God as he manifested himself in Jesus Christ. Here are the words of Pope John at the opening of Vatican II: ‘The serious problems confronting the world almost after two thousand years remain unchanged. Jesus Christ is ever resplendent as the center of history and of life. Men are either with Him and His Church, and then they enjoy light, goodness, order, and peace. Or else they are without Him, or against Him, and deliberately opposed to His Church, and then they experience confusion, bitterness in human relations, and the danger of fratricidal war.’

From the start of Vatican II, although concerned about aggiornamento, the renewal of the Church, the reunion of Christians, the pope had strongly emphasized that the Council’s chief task was to reveal God to the world, to defend and promote doctrine. That is why the Church, while rejoicing in the admirable inventions of human genius and in the progress of science and technology, had to remind mankind that beyond the visible aspect of things the primordial duty remains to turn to God. For John XXIII, the Council was first of all an encounter with God in prayer, with Mary, like the apostles in the upper room on the eve of Pentecost.

As he announced in that same opening speech, the Holy Father also wanted to determine what place was still reserved for God in the hearts of men and to ‘examine more fully and in greater depth the modern conditions of faith and religious practice and of Christian and Catholic vitality’.

At the end of the Council, on December 7, 1965, Paul VI also declared: ‘And so this council can be summed up in its ultimate religious meaning, which is none other than a pressing and friendly invitation to mankind of today to rediscover in fraternal love the God ‘to turn away from whom is to fall, to turn to whom is to rise again, to remain in whom is to be secure…to return to whom is to be born again, in whom to dwell is to live.’

God therefore came first in all the conciliar reflection. This view of the Council remained central to the concerns of Benedict XVI until the final days of his pontificate. On February 14, 2013, he presented to the clergy of Rome a lectio divina (spiritual reading) that will always be one of the fundamental documents of his theological and pastoral legacy. In it he distinguished the true Council of the Fathers from that of the journalists and media. Now what does it mean to implement the Council if not to show that the Church’s first preoccupation was to restore God’s primacy in the hearts of men and of societies? Benedict’s first encyclical, Deus caritas est, has no other explanation than that.”

These paragraphs are illuminating. As Cardinal Sarah indicates, there seems to be a “media” motivated interpretation of the Council and a counter-interpretation offered not only by Pope Benedict XVI, but also Pope St. John Paul II. Indeed, prior to Benedict XVI, John Paul II held the line of continuity against those looking to deviate from the dynamic orthodoxy of the Church’s living tradition. Given the extended duration of John Paul II’s pontificate, understanding his theology and philosophy provides an important interpretative key into the documents of Vatican II.

This lengthy reference from Rocco Buttiglione’s book, Karol Wojtyla: The Thought of the Man Who Became John Paul II, provides valuable insights into understanding the theological and philosophical content of the Council documents:

“The Acting Person reformulates the problem of the relations between conscience and truth as Vatican II requires. In his work, Wojtyla shows how conscience is subordinated to the will, which is in turn orientated – through self-knowledge – to the truth. This entire process is in turn reflected in consciousness, which entails that the search for and the possession of truth are not simply part of an intellectual enterprise, but an adventure which man lives with his whole being. Consequently, the truth enters the very interiority of the process through which the person determines himself and achieves a human act, that is, an act which engages the person as such. In this way, the duty of the person to seek the truth and to conform himself to the known truth, by subordinating his own passions to it, arises from his own interiority. By introducing the structure of self-knowledge into the formation of the person – showing the essentially reflexive function of consciousness – Wojtyla breaks the vicious circle of the philosophy of consciousness which recognize no truth outside of consciousness and, consequently, no duty for consciousness to conform itself to an objective truth outside of it.

On the other hand, it is precisely in order to direct himself toward truth in the way which is proper to him that the person needs to be free, unbound by any external pressure. Indeed, a true human act is constituted neither by conformity to external violence nor by obedience to individual passions which are not oriented to the truth and not judged by self-knowledge. One might ask whether this analysis does not run the risk of disengaging persons from the truth. In other words, is there not a risk of giving primacy to a subjective authenticity which belongs to the emotional component? Is there not the danger that the person will forego mastering his own immediate impression and fail to direct himself toward the objective truth?

Wojtyla’s answer to these questions would be decisively negative. The freedom of man is never, as we have already seen, a pure arbitrium indifferentiae, liberty of indifference, as in certain philosophical traditions. Freedom is always attracted by value, not only in the emotional sphere, but already in some way in the natural, instinctual sphere. Consequently, it is in the nature of man both to direct himself towards the good and to desire that the good toward which he directs himself be an objectively true good. The person is obliged, in the face of his own conscience, to seek the good and to adhere to the known good. The recognition of the liberty of conscience as a fundamental human right and indeed as the most fundamental right of all, far from denying this obligation, secures the conditions for its satisfaction. From the traditionalist point of view, however, another objection would still be possible. By tolerating error of conscience, in every case, we allow an evil and we tolerate a violation of the natural order and the moral order. A perfection which belongs in some way to the world by right is subtracted from it. Wojtyla’s observations on the difference between the personalist value and the moral value of action, examined in the preceding chapter, here come to our aid. The fact that the person realizes himself through a free act is more important than the content of the act itself. That a man acts as a man, guided by his intelligence and following the impulse of his will, is more important and of greater value than the objective modification itself which his at introduces into the world. By acting freely, in fact, man inserts himself into the personalist order, which is his proper order. The personalist value of the action precedes the moral value in the sense that only an action of the person can have moral value. Without this presupposition, there are no human actions but only acts of man, deprived of any ethical value. By imposing the observance of the order of nature with force, one excludes the principle of the personalist order and therefore deprives reality of a much higher value than the value which is impaired by the fact that man sometimes makes mistakes in the use of his freedom. The traditionalist doctrine uses an equivocal concept of nature and by this equivocation runs the risk of losing sight of the difference between the personalist order (grounded on the particular spiritual nature of man and therefore on freedom) and the order characteristic of the rest of nature (in which nature in the ontological sense coincides with nature in the phenomenal/ naturalistic sense or at least differs from it in a less drastic way than in the case of the person.)

Obviously, the personalist order does not lack its own precise rule, and this, among other things, binds man, who is also a physical being belonging to nature, to conform himself to nature’s laws and ends in the use of his instinctual and emotional energies. So, for instance, in the exercise of sexuality, man must take into account the natural end of sex, which is procreation. However, that can happen only through a response conscious of the freedom of the person enlightened by reason.

The integration of the philosophy of being and the philosophy of consciousness into a complete anthropology of the person seems to be, in the perspective which we have briefly delineated, the only way to recognize in depth the novelty of the conciliar teaching and at the same times its solid anchorhold in the tradition (which is not the same as traditionalism). Such a rethinking is necessary if one is to avoid the two opposite risks of minimizing the conciliar novelty and of yielding unconditionally to the philosophy of consciousness which impairs the fundamental objectivity and certainty of truth. It is likely that a great number of postconciliar errors can be explained by the fact that, apart from certain luminous examples, this new philosophical reflection was lacking here in the West.

The philosophical originality of the Council was not understood, therefore, and the postconciliar period transformed into a fight between integrists and modernists, regulated by a wavering center stretched out in continuous and always vain attempts at compromise. The fact that the Council could not be understood according to the dominant categories in the preceding phases of the history of the Church induced many hastily to discard Thomism and to imagine that Christianity could easily be brought into agreement with any philosophy. Some thought it permissible to elaborate a Christian theology on the basis of any philosophy of modernity, chosen not on the ground of its objective truth but rather on the basis of its presumed “capacity for speaking to the modern world,” that is, its more or less ephemeral popularity.

As we have seen, Wojtyla has chosen the opposite path. The Council for him necessitates a patient development of hidden possibilities contained in the philosophia perennis, but not sufficiently developed in traditional thought. Such a development is facilitated and nourished by an encounter with modern thought and, in this case in particular, by the dialogue with Scheler and the adoption of the phenomenological method, which is used, however, in a special way, so as to form a new phenomenological philosophy.

The adoption of certain elements of the philosophy of consciousness is always critical; the fundamental conception remains solidly realistic, and the philosophy of consciousness is recognized through an autonomous and deepened treatment of the theme of consciousness within the philosophy of the act of being. In order to use aspects and concepts of Scheler’s thought in this perspective, it was necessary for Wojtyla first to deconstruct his thought, to verify the congruity between each of its elements and the Christian view of man, to reformulate and perfect the phenomenological philosophy from the rational point of view so as to render it usable for the end to which we aim. We are not speaking about a “Christian phenomenology,” a sweetened version of phenomenology reconciled with Christianity. Wojtyla has engaged in a reform of phenomenology in order to render it closer to its original intention of “going to the things themselves” according to rigorous rules of philosophical thought; it is his conviction that the philosophy most capable of rationally explaining the Christian conception of man must also be the philosophy most rigorously founded from the point of view of reason.

Wojtyla’s procedure does not involve a form of deconstruction which uses certain aspects of the thought with which it claims to converse in an arbitrary way, outside of the conceptual connection which constitutes them, reduced to the role of code words. Before proceeding with his integration of Scheler and St. Thomas, Wojtyla endeavors to show that what in Scheler contradicts the Christian view of man also contradicts sound reason and the truth as it is accessible to the phenomenological method. In this way his reformulation of phenomenology presents itself as the only adequate interpretation of the phenomenological method according to its own rational principles and should be discussed, approved, or rejected as such. To interpret the Council is par excellence to do the work of Christian philosophy. But that does not imply an effort only of aggiornamento of Christian culture but much more progress in the general self-understanding of man, a step forward in the philosophical consciousness of all humanity. Only in this way is it possible to understand the conciliar overcoming of the opposition between modernity and Christianity. It is not a question of a political compromise which one or the other of the two factions can reconsider in order to reestablish an equilibrium more favorable to itself. It is a matter of a new synthesis in which modern elements and traditional elements are harmoniously fused and the tradition shows itself capable of developing out of itself those aspects which is was criticized for neglecting. The philosophy of consciousness ceases to be thought of as another philosophy which is situated beyond the philosophy of being, and becomes one of the articulation of a more complete and wiser philosophy of being, which is purified of the deviations which had made it a mere philosophy of entity. At the same time, the contrast between modernity and Christianity disappears.

The philosophical idea of modernity presupposed the incapacity of the philosophy of being and of Christianity to do justice to consciousness and to freedom. It is because of a new and irreducible point of departure in the understanding of man that the new age rises up against the old, and the quantitative differences between the two epochs assume a qualitative meaning. But if this opposition is superseded and rigorously shown never to have existed in reality, then from the philosophical point of view the very motivations of the idea of modernity disappear. The belief in an epochal rupture of history coinciding with the modern epoch loses its hold, the notion of “modern man” endowed with radically different characteristics compared to men of other historical epochs proves illusory, and the concept of a modern philosophy qualitatively different from classical philosophy falls, too. On the contrary, the idea of the unity and universality of philosophy and of the history of man who in every epoch is confronted, even if in different forms, with the same fundamental questions, is reconstructed.

In the years of the Council, the conviction predominated that the philosophy of the future would be a philosophy of man, capable of starting from existence and formulating the human problem in a way to open religious transcendence. This was especially evident among the theologians whose works had prepared for the Council. It was commonly thought that in the ongoing challenge between atheistic existentialism and religious existentialism the latter would get the better of the former. Beyond the different social and political factors, the postconciliar crisis must be imputed, from the cultural point of view, to the collapse of religious existentialism in the face of atheistic existentialism into Marxism. Because of this evolution, most of the “progressives” in the sixties were forced to focus on the dialogue with Marxism in order to engage with the contemporary world, often making enormous concessions. Those who reacted to this perspectives did so because in one way or another they did not accept the end of the philosophy of existence and therefore the possibility that the crisis of modernity could lead into Christianity. In any case, the acceptance of the confluence of a philosophy of existence with Marxism and the renunciation of a possible Pascalian outcome of the philosophy of existence renders unintelligible the spiritual climate in which the Council developed; it closes, moreover, the means of development of Christian philosophy which the Council tried to open.

By contrast, Wojtyla himself remains entirely within the atmosphere of the Council, although conscious of the difficulties and of the postconciliar crisis. The Acting Person reforms the philosophy of existence, tying it rightly to the philosophy of being, in a certain sense joining together St. Thomas and Pascal, thereby remedying the philosophical weakness of the philosophy of existence which prevented it, both in its atheistic and in its religious version, from being any thing more than a dramatic sign of the crisis, the contradiction, and the impotence of man in our time. It is precisely the insufficiency of the philosophy of existence which forces Sartre to take shelter in Marxism. But in this way the philosophy of existence is forced to deny all the main motives which inspired it and to commit suicide. Wojtyla, in a manner somewhat parallel to Sartre, proposes the encounter between the philosophy of existence and Thomism on the basis of a reform of Thomism which makes it able to welcome the perspectives of the philosophy of existence without denying itself. As everyone knows, the Sartrian reform of Marxism failed because Sartre tried to harmonize ideal perspectives which are intrinsically incompatible.

What will be the outcome of Woytyla’s effort? It is too soon to say. It can be observed that the philosophy of existence and the philosophy of being are not a principle incompatible. The whole internal development of Thomism (it is enough to mention Gilson, Fabro, De Finance, etc.) is oriented toward the theme of existence. In addition, Wojtyla starts from Thomism and tries to develop in it the virtualities which correspond to the requirements emphasized by the philosophy of existence. It is not a question, therefore, of grafting together heterogeneous positions but of a development which entirely saves classical ontology and develops on its basis a phenomenological analysis of the being of man in the world which, far from contradicting it, integrates it and confers on it an existential meaningfulness. However, all of this occurs without looking for fictitious accommodations but by developing, rather, the phenomenological method with complete rectitude and making such improvements as must be made in accordance with its own principles.

In any case, the development of this philosophy is tied to the historical event from which it draws its origin. The task of the Council, according to Wojtyla, is to make faith an experience of life, to bring about its subjective appropriation, thereby creating a Christian mentality and a Christianity which is not abstractly apprehended but existentially lived. The philosophy of The Acting Person consciously seeks to assist the development of this task to provide its theoretical justification.“


– Lucas G. Westman

2 thoughts on “Is the Church Yet To Understand Vatican II?

  1. I think Woytyla’s attempt, and of the nouvelle theologie school in general, to reconcile modern philosophy with Thomism was entirely misguided as they contradict one another on points which are too fundamental. Their refusal to listen to Popes Pius IX, Leo XIII, and Pius X in their Syllabus of Errors, insistence on scholastic Thomism, condemnation of Modernism, Oath against Modernism, 24 Thomistic Theses, etc, due to their love affair with modern philosophy – plays a large part in the mess that was the Council and that is our current predicament.

    I also reject the notion that the compromise of Ratzinger and Woytyla between the “integrists and modernists” is the ideal or correct interpretation of the Council – that the Council really contains some hidden message or new method or leap forward of Christian thought & evangelisation that has been stifled by both the “integrists and modernists”. I think the fundamental problem with the Woytylan interpretation of the Council is that it is effectively humanist and pelagian; it presumes far too much on human good will and downplays far too much the effects of original & actual sin. There is a tacit concession to the arrogance of modern man that he really has somehow advanced or progressed beyond ancient and medieval man. There is the very misguided notion that speaking of the goodness of God, while barely making any mention of man’s depravity without God and his need of redemption in Christ’s Blood, is sufficient for making conversions. At the bottom of this philosophy is a kind of Catholic self-loathing where we become ashamed of our past and of our traditions and try to make amends by denying all of it in order to accommodate “modern man”. The narrative is that the Church failed to respond to the modern world by being too “closed in on itself”, too proud of its past and its traditions and institutions, and that it needs to “open up” and shed all these things in order to finally make Christ available to the modern world. When I think the truth is likely the opposite: we have been too ashamed of ourselves and our traditions, too timid to proclaim Christ boldly. We needed more Catholic “triumphalism”, not less.


    1. St. Paul: “For I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God that brings salvation to everyone who believes: first to the Jew, then to the Gentile.”

      I think one of the great plagues affecting the Church right now is that her members are ashamed of the gospel. This is what “interreligious dialogue” is about; mentioning the gospel without preaching it because we are implicitly ashamed of it. The reason we (I’m speaking especially of our prelates and Catholic theologians/philosophers) are ashamed of it is because it appears ridiculous in the eyes of the intellectually-superior and scientifically-advanced Modern Man. Instead of responding to this intellectual arrogance by ignoring it and pushing on past it, we became intimidated by it and then largely conceded to it (this was the work of the Modernists and Neo-Modernists). This Catholic shame of the gospel is exemplified when the teaching that salvation can only be found in the Church (Extra Ecclesiam Nulla Salus), is nullified or ignored in order to avoid offending the arrogant and self-satisfied sensibilities of Modern Man who considers himself above the judgement of God and certainly above that of the Roman Church, when the Church fathers and saints were extremely insistent on this very point. As Pope Pius XII said (Humani Generis): “Some reduce to a meaningless formula the necessity of belonging to the true Church in order to gain eternal salvation.”


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