October 11, 2019
For observers of Christian history, and especially for Christians in the Catholic tradition, October 11th is an important date.
Fifty-seven years ago today the Second Vatican Council opened in St. Peter’s Basilica In Vatican City. Between 2,000 and 2,500 bishops and thousands of observers, auditors, women religious, laymen, and laywomen gathered at St. Peter’s between 1962 and 1965. Pope John XXIII opened the Catholic Church’s windows for what was called “aggiornamento”: bringing the Catholic Church up to date. At the time, I was in my second year of college in Detroit and one of my professors, with a bit of dry humor, observed “the old pope is opening the windows and the winds of change will shake-up everything.”
The winds of change actually preceded Vatican II, starting in the 1940s and 1950s with a non-hierarchical theological movement called la nouvelle théologie – the “new theology.” For some people the term was a negative put-down. Nevertheless, the nouvelle théologie theologians we’re truly prophetic. One of them, Edward Schillebeeckx, ended up being my professor at the Catholic University of Nijmegen in the late 1960s. He had a profound impact on my life and thinking.
The nouvelle théologie arose especially among certain groups of French, Belgian, and German theologians. Their shared objective was a fundamental reform of how the Catholic Church was approaching theology. The movement reacted against the dominance of nineteenth century neo-scholasticism which insisted on a rigid adherence to the thought, methods, and principles of the 13th-century thinker Thomas Aquinas.
The new theology advocated an historical-critical understanding of the written “sources” of Christian belief, and a methodological approach known by its French name ressourcement “return to the sources”). It rejected, for example, the then official Catholic teaching that Moses wrote the first five books of the Hebrew Scriptures. The new scholarly consensus had affirmed that the Pentateuch had multiple authors and that its composition took place over centuries, starting in the late 7th or 6th century BCE. It pointedly observed that Moses died around 1592 BCE. (Some contemporary scholars understand Moses as a legendary figure and not an historical person; but I don’t care to get into that today!)
The new theology also advocated a genuine openness to “the signs of the times” and to dialogue with the contemporary world on issues of human meaning and Christian belief and understanding. That dialogue of course must be ever ongoing.
Today, on this anniversary day, it is appropriate that we all commemorate and NOT forget the prophetic message of la nouvelle théologie, the opened windows of the Second Vatican Council, and the message of its life-giving theology.
Vatican II stressed that humanity and the human condition progress through time. Cultural understandings and the ways in which we think and express ourselves change. The “signs of the times” deserve in depth reflection and concrete action rooted in that reflection. Yesterday’s understanding of the human condition is not necessarily today’s and may not be tomorrow’s. Church teaching, like all theology, is time-bound. Healthy theology dares to ask questions and dares to formulate answers that echo the tradition and resonate with the experiences of contemporary believers.
Pope John XXIII smiled at the world and opened the windows. Today there are some – like the red-hat critics of Pope Francis — who dream of a fantasy-land glorious past and want to slam the windows shut, and keep them tightly closed. They are constitutionally unable to function in fresh air and with fresh ideas. Well, perhaps we need to open even more old windows….
Post-Vatican II, we have our own contemporary theological challenges: How do we speak today about our experiences of the Divine? Who is God for contemporary believers? Two thousand years after he walked the earth, who is Jesus of Nazareth, raised from the dead, whom we proclaim Lord and Christ? And what does it mean to be a human person? And how do we develop and live a system of values that respects that humanity in all its cultural, historic, religious, ethnic, sexual, and gender varieties? And how do Christian believers collaborate to turn back the contemporary tide of racism, xenophobia, and authoritarian political leadership?
These are our contemporary issues. With faith and fortitude, we can meet the challenge.
As Vatican II said (using an inclusive language translation of the Latin text) in its Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World: “The joys and the hopes, the griefs and the anxieties of the men and women of this age, especially those who are poor or in any way afflicted, these are the joys and hopes, the griefs, and anxieties of the followers of Christ. Indeed, nothing genuinely human fails to raise an echo in their hearts….”
The windows are open…..
HAPPY BIRTHDAY VATICAN II