ROME -- Even in Roman circles most sympathetic to Pope Benedict XVI’s overall reading of the Second Vatican Council, it would seem, there’s a bit of anxiety percolating about what it might mean to bring the council’s biggest critics, the traditionalist Society of St. Pius X, back into the fold.
At the very least, some of the pope’s defenders appear to believe a clear signal of adherence to Vatican II ought to be the price of admission.
Most recently, that impression surfaced during a May 3-4 conference on the 50th anniversary of Vatican II at Rome’s Opus Dei-run University of the Holy Cross.
In the wake of Vatican II, the traditionalist society – popularly known as the “Lefebvrites” after the founder, the late French Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre – split from Rome over changes in the liturgy, as well protests over the council’s teaching on ecumenism, inter-faith dialogue and religious freedom.
In mid-April, however, the society signed off on a doctrinal preamble submitted by the Vatican as a precondition for reunion. That could clear the way for ending the only formal schism after Vatican II, perhaps in the form of a personal prelature or other church structure to allow the Lefebvrites some measure of autonomy.
The conference at Holy Cross, titled "Vatican II: The Permanent Value of a Reform for the New Evangelization," was, for the most part, a gathering of thinkers vigorously committed to Pope Benedict XVI’s “hermeneutic of reform … in continuity” for interpreting the council, which he famously outlined in a December 2005 speech to the Roman Curia.
Like the pope, several speakers distanced themselves from rival readings which, in their eyes, put too much emphasis on Vatican II as having set aside, or overturned, previous Catholic teaching or practice.
Yet as those broad themes unfolded, suggestions of anxiety over the Lefebvrites also bubbled to the surface. They were indirect, and certainly never took the form of overt opposition to reunion, but they seemed unmistakable.
Opus Dei Fr. Johannes Grohe, a church historian at Santa Croce, surveyed various efforts both during and after Vatican II to bring the council’s authority into doubt, from some progressive theologians who argued it was not truly “ecumenical” because the Orthodox and Protestants weren’t represented, from traditionalist critics who styled it as merely “pastoral” and thus not binding on matters of faith.
In broad strokes, Grohe defended Vatican II’s authority, insisting that its teaching is “binding” and “must be accepted by those who want to enter into communion with the Catholic church.”
Grohe ended his talk with a call for a “profession of faith”, pointedly including the teachings of Vatican II, for anyone who wants to join the church.
“In the dialogue with those who would like to enter into the Catholic church, it’s impossible not to request ‘an adherence of theological faith to the affirmations of Vatican II which recall truths of the faith’,” Grohe said, citing a phrase from another Opus Dei cleric, Monsignor Fernando Ocariz, who was part of the Vatican’s negotiating team with the Lefebvrites.
The Lefebvrites, of course, are the highest profile group currently involved in a dialogue about entering the church.
Grohe argued that a “profession of faith,” a time-honored way to encapsulate core beliefs one must uphold to be considered Catholic, could be updated with a reference to Vatican II.
“A profession of faith which embraces the conciliar tradition from Nicea up to Vatican II would make clear that the teaching of the last council is inserted in the long and fruitful history of the magisterium of the church,” Grohe said.
An even blunter call to defend part of Vatican II’s legacy came from Franciscan Fr. David Maria Jaeger, speaking on the council’s document Nostra Aetate, concerning non-Christian religions.
A veteran of Vatican negotiations with Israel over the tax and juridical status of church properties, Jaeger today serves as a judge on the Roman Rota, the Vatican’s primary court.
Jaeger recalled the document’s teaching on Judaism, including its sharp rejection of anti-Semitism. That, too, has been a point of contention with the Lefebrvites; when Benedict XVI lifted the excommunications of four traditionalist bishops in January 2009, it was accompanied by a global cause célèbre related to comments made by one of those bishops questioning the reality of the Holocaust.
Jaeger told the Holy Cross conference that one “real and worrying” problem with the reception of Nosta Aetate has been “a tendency, here and there within Catholicism, to look with indulgence on marginal groups with an exaggerated media profile who truly denounce the doctrine of the council,” Jaeger said.
Though Jaeger did not single out the Lefebrvites, he expressed concern about the conditions under which anyone with doubts about Vatican II might find their way back into the church.
“It’s obligatory here to express the lively hope that such indulgence will always be firmly rejected,” he said, “and that we won’t settle for quasi-adherence which is only a sham, accompanied by obvious verbal and mental reservations to the teaching of Vatican II generally and that of Nostra Aetate specifically.”
In the rest of his talk, Jaeger rejected several readings of Nostra Aetate popular among progressive Catholic theologians – for instance, that it recognized revelation in other religions as “parallel or complementary” to Christianity, or that it styled Judaism as a “parallel means of salvation for Jews,” while Christianity is just for “the Gentiles.”
Spreading such ideas, Jaeger argued, makes it inevitable that whenever church leaders recall official doctrine on those points, many Jews see it as a “rollback” on Nostra Aetate – which, he insisted, it’s not, because in his view the document never intended to propound these two points.
Given that context, the Santa Croce event suggests it’s not just the usual suspects, meaning broad critics of the Vatican or of Benedict’s papacy, who wonder about the price that could be paid to get the Lefebvrites back. It would also seem to include some of Benedict’s friends.