The Antiquated Church of “Year 0”


I am in need of great amounts of penance, because I am so sinful.  I say this by way of explanation for the fact that I watched a Youtube video of a speech by Cardinal Pietro Parolin, the Vatican Secretary of State, to the USCCB, given at the Catholic University of America recently.  (Trust me, I got my money’s worth penance-wise.)  Why, besides working out my salvation with fear and trembling, would I do such a thing?  Well, for starters, Cardinal Parolin is one of Pope Francis’ right hand men, and someone who is being spoken of to become the next pope.   I thought it prudent to find out what the man’s mind is like, since he is so close to the current pope.

What did I find out? About Parolin, I’m not sure.  He reportedly has excellent diplomatic skills, which is one reason why Francis favors him.  He is, if what I have read of him is true, someone who is part of the “old guard” in the Vatican, a member of the curial bureaucracy which Francis was supposedly elected to reform but has done little toward that end, preferring to muddy doctrinal waters instead.  In other words, he’s an ecclesial bureaucrat, someone who is moderate, not terribly imaginative and good at handling the day to day drudgery of the Vatican, a Wolsey to Francis’ Henry VIII.  His speech bore this out:  most of it consisted of his citations of other thinkers.  If he has any thoughts of his own, he didn’t reveal them–whether through diplomatic nicety (he was there to celebrate the US episcopal conference, after all, and the speech must have flattered them in that regard, as well shall see) or through sheer lack of imagination I cannot tell.  The two are not mutually exclusive, of course.

But I did learn something about how he and presumably the Pope views the Church.  The theme of the talk was the “prophetic” nature of Vatican II.  I won’t bore you with the details, but sufficed to say the rhetoric of the speech came down squarely on the side of what Benedict XVI called “the hermeneutic of rupture.”  To be sure, it quoted from John Paul II and from Benedict XVI, but only as a means of validating the idea that the council was the fons et origo of the Church now, almost a new public revelation replacing the old.  Early in his speech, Parolin cited, approvingly, a quotation from the theologian Joseph Doré that after the Second Vatican Council “absolutely nothing will be as it was before.”  Parolin seconded this idea, adding that everything that comes after it must be considered as being “Post-conciliar.”  Parolin went on to mention a whole host of items–the role of the laity, vernacular liturgy, “synodality” in the life of the Church, the “People of God,” and the “sensus fidelium” all without every really defining them in any detail.  But that was the point, I take it: we don’t need to know what they are specifically, because the way they will be present in the life of the Church will be completely new.  Everything else is mere details.  If there is no such as word as “concilialatry,” it needs to be invented, for it sounded almost as if, for Parolin at least, the Second Vatican Council is some kind of idol to be worshiped.  One thing that particularly stood out to me in this regard was his insistence that there must be episcopal conferences “in every country” and these were now to be a permanent part of the Church’s life.  He never gives any reason for this, but seemed to associate it with the “revolution” that was putatively set in motion by the council.

If you are wondering why such bureaucratic organizations, which have no roots in the Apostolic tradition, and are no older than the 20th century (the USCCB was founded during WWI), are now sacrosanct, you are not alone.  My point is that this assertion, and much of what the Church had done since the 60s, is almost never justified by anything more than this rhetoric of novelty and the mere assertion that such things are now irreversible.  This is not peculiar to the current pontiff, either; it goes back at least to the time of the Council.  As Cardinal Parolin pointed out in his speech, it was John XXIII who hoped the Council would be a “second Pentecost” for the Church.  This kind of talk has been common among churchmen of every stripe, save for the Traditionalists, for the past fifty years.  One serious problem with this rhetoric is that many seem to take literally what was almost certainly meant metaphorically by John XXIII and others–the idea that Vatican II was a literal second Pentecost is impossible and absurd, but clergy and theologians who repeat such slogans today assume that the Church really was re-founded in 1962, similar to the way that revolutionary political regimes re-write a nation’s calendar from “year 0” to mark a break with the old regime.  This was probably aided by political atmosphere of the 1960s:  much of it was revolutionary and utopian, with many hoping to remake Western society on more egalitarian terms, whether they were Marxist, liberal, or what have you.  It was also populist in the sense that the youth movements of the 60s opposed themselves to what they saw as a corrupt, sclerotic and illegitimate “establishment.”  This explains why the whole talk of the “People of God” so passionately appeals to prelates as different as St. John Paul II and Pope Francis:  their appeals to the “people” against corrupt establishments meant rather different things to both of them, I imagine, but they must sound the same to many in that generation.  This also explains why Pope Francis speaks so harshly of priests he sees as excessively traditional, rule bound or “rigid”:  he sees them largely in a political light, as siding with the corrupt “establishment” (i.e., the institutional Church) rather than the “people of God” (the “real” Church, as it were).  As Austen Ivereigh, one of his biggest English speaking defenders has observed, Francis is very much a “political pope” (his phrase), in that regard; he learned his theology amid the turmoil of Argentine political life.

Whatever its exact origins, this idea that Vatican II is “ever ancient, ever new” will likely not outlast the generation that spawned it.  Parolin is in his 70s, and I don’t imagine there are many priests in the pipeline who share these sorts of enthusiasms.  Certainly, most of the laity I know do not.  It is too dated, too directly tied to a passing era to be any sort of unifying sentiment, which is what I think Parolin and most of the bishops who still cling to it believe.  The decrees of Vatican II will take their place in the Tradition of the Church, no doubt, but this facile belief that it was some sort “revolutionary” event will pass from view at some point, however dominant it may be for the time being.  Indeed, its time has already passed, even if its votaries have not.






~ by Alypius on December 31, 2017.

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