- Roberto de Mattei - https://www.robertodemattei.it/en -

Meltdown of the Church

Most of those who have distanced themselves from the articles by Alessandro Gnocchi and Mario Palmaro published in “Il Foglio” have limited themselves to a condemnation in principle, but they avoid going deeper into the matters touched on by the two Catholic writers. And yet the issues raised by Gnocchi and Palmaro, do not only express the discomfort of many, but highlight a series of problems that go beyond the person of Pope Francis and invest the past fifty years in the life of the Church.

The same writers brought these problems to light in a book which did not receive the attention it deserved: La Bella addormentata. [Sleeping Beauty. Why the Church went into crisis after Vatican II. Why She will awaken.]. The “Sleeping Beauty” is the Bride of Christ, which in Her Divine aspect maintains Her beauty, unaltered, but seems to be immersed in a deep sleep. In Her human aspect, Her countenance is disfigured by a disease which would appear mortal, if we did not know that immortality has been promised to Her.

The illness that the Church is suffering from has its beginnings in the distant past and exploded at the Second Vatican Council, whose 50th anniversary is being commemorated this year. Vatican II, which opened on October 11, 1963, was a pastoral Council, devoid, by explicit declaration, of voluntas definiendi, i.e. the intention of defining dogmatic truths in a formal manner.

Nonetheless, this pastoral aspect, had an anomalous quality, as the philosopher Paolo Pasqualucci outlines in a book recently published (Cattolici in alto i cuori! Battiamoci senza paura per la rinascita della Chiesa[Catholics lift up your hearts! Let us fight without fear for the rebirth of the Church], Fede e Cultura, Verona 2013). In fact, Vatican II did not limit [itself] to expressing traditional doctrine in a “new way” , but in some points, wanted also to teach “new things”. None of these novelties, were given the seal of dogmatic definition, but overall they constitute a true and real magisterium, which was presented as an alternative to the traditional one.

In the name of Vatican II, the innovators expected to reform ab imis the whole Church. In order to achieve this goal, they moved, above all, along the lines of praxis, in other words, of pastoral application, and, by activating it, made it into doctrine. It is not by chance, that Giuseppe Alberigo and his disciples from the “ School of Bologna ” see in “the pastoral” , the constitutional dimension of Vatican II. In the name of “the spirit of the Council”, sent forth by its pastoral aspect, the “Bolognesi” were opposed to “the reform in continuity” advocated by Benedict XVI and now today they welcome with enthusiasm the ministry of Pope Francis.

Benedict XVI exposed the heart of his thesis in two discourses which open and close his pontificate and offer a guiding thread: the first to the Roman Curia on December 22, 2005 and the other to the Roman Clergy on February 14, 2013, three days after he announced his resignation. This last discourse, articulate and ample, was given “off the cuff” , ex abundantia cordis, and represents perhaps, Benedict XVI ‘s doctrinal testament. The Pope acknowledges the existence of a crisis in the Church, connected to Vatican II, but he attributes the cause to a “virtual” Council, which had superimposed the real one.

The virtual Council is the one imposed by the instruments of communication and of certain theological environments, which in the name of a misunderstood “spirit” of Vatican II, had distorted the intentions of the Council Fathers. Abusive post-council praxis, had betrayed the truth of the Council, expressed by its theological documents, and it is to these same texts that we should return in order to find its authenticity: the problem of the Council for Pope Benedict, is hermeneutic, before being historical or theological: the problem of a false hermeneutic which opposes the authentic interpretation, not only of the texts, but of the concliar event itself.

Pope Ratzinger’s thesis is not new. It is the basic idea of those theologians who, in 1972, after having participated at the birth of the magazine “Concilium” together with Karl Rahner, Hans Kung and Edward Schillebeeckx, abandoned it to give life to the “Communio” magazine. Father Henri de Lubac, in a famous interview given to the then Monsignor Angelo Scola (Viaggio nel postconcilio (A Post-Council Journey), Edit, Milano 1985, pp, 32-47), coined the expression “para-council” to indicate the movement that had deformed the teaching of the Council through a tendentious interpretation of the event. Other theologians use the name “meta-council” and Joseph Ratzinger himself, in the famous Rapporto sulla fede of 1985, anticipated the thesis of the virtual Council, and afterwards formulated this many times during his pontificate.

The discourse in 2013 is however the sorrowful confession of the crisis of the hermeneutic of the “reform in continuity.” The awareness of this failure certainly weighed on Pope Bendect’s renunciation in February 2013. Why could the “Benedictine” line of interpretation not be enforced, and was defeated by the theses from the “school of Bologna” which spread unopposed in Catholic universities and seminaries?

The main reason is in the reality that history is not made by theological debate, and even less so by that of hermeneutic. The hermeneutic debate places accent on the interpretation of a fact, more than the fact itself. But as soon as different hermeneutics are compared, the objectivity of the fact is removed, superimposing subjective interpretations of the event, reducing it to opinions.

With the existence of this plurality of opinions, a decisive word could be pronounced by a supreme authority who would define, without a shadow of equivocation, the truth that is to be believed. But in his speeches Benedict, like the Popes before him, never wanted to attribute a magisterial character to his interpretative theses. In the hermeneutic debate which [still] continues, the criteria of the ultimate judgment rests therefore in the objectivity of the facts. And the undeniable fact is that there was a virtual Council and it was not less real that that which is enclosed in its documents.

The texts of Vatican II were put in a drawer, while its “spirit”, with arrogance, entered history. It was a human spirit – not very holy, expressed through lobbyism, political pressures and the media, which directed the unfolding of the events. And because the language was deliberately ambiguous and indefinite, the virtual Council offered the authentic key to the reading of the final documents. The Council of the texts, cannot be separated from history, and the school of Bologna is not wrong when it emphasizes the revolutionary novelty of the event. It is wrong when it wants to give a “theological place” to this event, making it the supreme criteria in judging history.

The hermeneutic of Benedict XVI did not manage to explain history, that is to say, what happened from 1965 to the present day. The conciliar texts were crushed by post conciliar praxis, a reality that cannot be questioned if you want to contest it with only one hermeneutic. Besides, if Vatican II cannot be criticized, but only interpreted in a different manner, what is the difference between theories of discontinuity and those of the reform of continuity? For both, the Council is an event that is irreversible and cannot be judged, as [it] itself has become the final criteria for doctrine and behavior. Whoever denies the possibility of debate on the Second Vatican Council, in the name of the Holy Spirit which guarantees it, makes the event infallible and turns it into a super-dogma, an immanent fact in history.

For the Christian, history is instead the result of an intricacy of ideas and facts that have their roots in the tangle of human passions and the powers of supernatural and preternatural action which are in perennial conflict. Theology must make itself a theology of history in order to understand and dominate human vicissitudes; otherwise it is absorbed into history, which becomes the supreme measure of judging the things of the world. Immanentism is nothing other than the loss of a transcendent principle, which judges history without itself being judged. Under this aspect, the intentions of the Council Fathers and the texts that they produced are only a part of reality. Vatican II is, like the French Revolution or the Protestant one, an event that can be analyzed at different levels, but it constitutes an unicum, with its own specification and, as such, represents a moment of un-doubtable, and in certain terms, apocalyptic, historical discontinuity.

The “school of Bologna’s victory was sealed by the election of Pope Francis, who, speaks little of the Council because he is not interested in theological discussions but in the reality of the facts and it is in the praxis that he wants to show that he is the true accomplisher of Vatican II. Under this aspect, it could be said, he incarnates the essence of Vatican II, and makes it doctrine, by fulfilling its pastoral dimension. Theological discussion belongs to modernity and Pope Francis presents himself as a post-hermeneutic pope and thus post-modern. The battle of ideas belongs to a phase in the history of the Church which he wants to go beyond. Francis will be a conservative or a progressive, according to the historical and political demands of the moment.

The “pastoral revolution” is, according to Alberto Melloni, the primary characteristic of Francis’ pontificate. “Pastoral” – the Bolognese historian writes – is a key word in understanding Pope Francis’ ministry. Not because he was a teacher of pastoral theology, but because when he interprets it, Francis evokes with amazing naturalness the pulsing heart of the Gospel at the crossroads of receiving (or refusing) Vatican II. “Pastoral” comes from the language of Pope John: it was thus that he wanted “his” Council, – a pastoral Council – and Vatican II was just that.” (L’estasi pastorale di papa Francesco disseminata di riferimenti teologici, in “Corriere della Sera”, 29 marzo 2013).

Melloni, as always, forces reality, but basically he is not wrong. The pontificate of Pope Francis is the most authentically conciliar one, in which praxis is turned into doctrine, and which attempts to change the image and reality of the Church. Today the hermeneutic of Benedict has been archived and out of the new Pope’s pastorale(praxis) new surprises must await us. The director of “Il Foglio”, in carrying Gnocchi and Palmaro’s articles, sensed it, by instinct, that this case is both theological and journalistic. But one more question needs to be asked. Why do the most relentless defenders of Vatican II and the most severe critics of Gnocchi and Palmaro come from the cultural area of Communion and Liberation?

It is not difficult to answer if one remembers the origins of CL and the roots of its founder ‘s ( Don Luigi Giussani) thought. The CL horizon was, and has remained that of the progressive “nouvelle thèologie”. In a famous article which appeared in 1946 with the title La nouvelle théologie” où va-t.-lle, the Dominican, Garrigou-Lagrange, one of the greatest theologians of the 20th century, indicated as characteristic of the “nouvelle théologie” the reduction of truth to “religious experience.” “ The truth – he wrote- is no longer the conformity of judgment with objective reality and its immutable laws, but the conformity of judgment with the demands of action and human life, which is continually evolving. The philosophy of being or ontology is substituted by the philosophy of action, which defines the Truth no longer according to being, but according to action.”

Again we find this characteristic in the language and practice of many CL members. It is sufficient to remember their continuous reference to the faith as “an encounter” and “experience” with the consequent reduction of principles to mere instruments. In fact, it is true that there is no Christianity if it is not lived, but a faith cannot be lived if it is not known, unless one retains, as modernism and the nouvelle théologie do, that the faith gushes forth from the vital experience of the subject.

An “experience” that would be possible in all religions and which would reduce Christianity to pseudo-mysticism or purely moral praxis. The historian, Cristina Siccardi, in another very good book just published (L’inverno della Chiesa dopo il Concilio Vaticano II. I mutamenti e le cause, [The Winter of the Church after the Second Vatican Council. The Changes and Causes] Sugarco, Milano 2013) analyzes in detail the consequences of this pastoral of “experience”, recalling the words of another great Dominican theologian of the twentieth century, Padre Roger-Thomas Calmel: “Doctrines, rites and the interior life are submitted to a liquefying process so radical and so perfected, that you can no longer distinguish between Catholic and non-Catholics. Since a yes and a no, the definite and definitive are all considered old-fashioned (outdated), we ask ourselves what is there to impede the other non-Christian religions of being part of the new universal Church, continuously updated by ecumenical interpretations.” (Breve apologia della Chiesa di sempre, Editrice Ichtys, Albano Laziale 2007, pp. 10-11).

Paraphrasing Marx’s affirmation, according to which it is in the praxis that the philosopher shows the truth of his doctrine, we could recognize in the post-conciliar theology the principle by which it is in the “religious experience” that the believer shows the truth of his faith. It is, in nuce, the predominance of the praxis in modern secularist philosophy. This philosophy of religious practice was theorized by the most radical sects of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, such as the Anabaptists and Socinians. For them faith is measured by its intensity: what is important is not the purity and integrality of the truth which is believed, but the intensity of the act with which you believe. The faith, then has its measure, not in the doctrine believed, but in the “life” and action of the believer: it becomes religious experience freed from any objective regula fidei whatever. We find these tendencies again in the progressive theology which prepared, guided and in part, actualized the Second Vatican Council.

The progressive “nouvelle théologie” had its main exponents in the Dominican, Marie-Dominique Chenu and in the Jesuit Henri de Lubac. It is not by chance that Chenu was Giuseppe Alberigo’s mentor and that de Lubac was the point of reference for the disciples of Don Giussani. And it is not by chance, that among the first official texts from Communion and Liberation, at the beginning of the ‘70s , the study entitled La questione di cristianesimo e rivoluzione, by the theologian Giuseppe Ruggieri emerges. Ruggieri, who at that time directed the theological collection at Jaca Book, today directs “Christianity in History” and is, with Alberto Melloni, the leading exponent of the “ School of Bologna ” . There is no incoherence in his intellectual itinerary presented by Melloni himself, in the volume Tutto è grazia (Jaca Book, Milano 2010), as is there is no incoherence in the positions of yesterday and today in some (not all) of the exponents of Communion and Liberation. What unites the theology of CL with that of the School of Bologna is the “theory of the event”, the primacy of praxis above doctrine, of the experience of truth, which CL situates in the encounter with Christ and the School of Bologna in the encounter with history.

Giuseppe Ruggieri was the theologian of Communion and Liberation and today he is the theologian of the School of Bologna. And today the CL and the Bolognese meet once again in demonizing Gnocchi and Palmaro, not as critics of Pope Francis and Vatican II, but as “ethical” Christians who re-propose the primacy of the Truth and the Law. And yet, Jesus said, “ those who love me keep my commandments” (John 14, 15-12). There is no love of God outside the observance of the natural and divine law. The observance of this truth and this law is the measure of Christian love.