Sunday, October 13, 2002

A week ago Sunday, Gerard Serafin over at A Catholic Blog for Lovers posted the following remarks which he attributed to Hans Urs von Balthasar: The difference between Trent and Vatican II is this: Trent took a Church that was in chaos and disrepair, and put it in good order and renewed holiness. Vatican II took a Church in good order and put it into chaos and disrepair. The difference being that Trent was implemented by saints; while Vatican II was implemented by bureaucrats. I think that the quote makes a wonderful sound byte but it greatly simplifies things. I think that it is far more likely that Vatican 2 was implemented by men who, living in a state of Christian order, were naive in their approach to evil. I think that they were well-intended...and essentially correct in recognizing a need for Catholic renewal.

On Friday, I tried to paint a picture of pre-Conciliar Catholic life. In doing so, I raised the question "Should they have done more?" I think this question lies at the heart of the Second Vatican Council. The Church looked not only at the role of the laity but also at the role of the religious orders. As I've tried to illustrate, the faithful laity were applying traditional Catholic answers to their lives. They practiced personal piety, maintained strong family affiliations and supported the missionary and charitable works of the Church. Like prior generations, many hoped to see their children in her service. They prayed for vocations. The religious, for their part, served the Church faithfully either in the contemplative orders or in service to God's people. As did their predecessors, they feed the hungry, clothed the naked, educated the ignorant and ministered to the infirm. They brought the Gospel and their good works to all the corners of the globe. It was a charity centered more on providing 'fish' than on teaching one 'how to fish'. Mother Theresa exemplifies this traditional form of service to the poor and the desperate.

I think that it is easy to see the beauty and magnificence in this great 'corporate' work where each 'limb' of the Body of Christ performed it's essential service and, in doing so shared, in the salvational works of the whole. Yet the question remains "could the Church, this great Mystical Body, do more?" Like it or not, the answer provided by the Vatican Council was "Yes, we can and yes, we must".

Today, we live in the chaos and disrepair of the post-Vatican Church. We look back on the Council as the time when everything changed and everything started to go wrong. One moment there was the glory and the power of the pre-Vatican Church; in the blink of an eye, we have chaos and discord and perversion. We have broken lives and broken families and broken institutions. We want desperately to rebuild... yet still, and despite all of this, there remains the demand that the Council set before us. We can and should do more. However, glorious the past, it remains inadequate to the future. The Vatican Council was a necessary response to a world suddenly made complex by modern technology. However, painful our present state might be, it is a necessary moment of transition to a Catholic tomorrow. A return to the past is insufficient. The Church demands more of us.

The sixties were a heady time in the recent history of man. It may be impossible to overstate the enthusiasm of that age. People believed that all things were possible to man. Every problem had a solution. Every one -young and old - imagined that all the world might live the good life that could found in our own back yard. We would use all the new tools of our human understanding as well as all of our vast resources and scientific knowledge to create a 'great society', We would apply our knowledge both at home and abroad. Our particular problem was complacency, the solution was enthusiasm.

This belief was the prevailing myth of that age. It was one that people were willing to make tremendous sacrifices to achieve. With a hopeless romanticism, people imagined that we might re-fashion the whole of the earth as a land of milk and honey. For practicing Christians, there were added incentives. Couldn't we in good faith, join hands with our secularist neighbors in so noble an endeavor? As Christians, weren't we called upon to do more than they? Wouldn't our actions serve as a sign and a proof of the relevance of God?

Underlying this hubris was an unexamined belief in the inherent goodness of man. The story of the Fall was re-told, and in some circles is still being retold, as the story of man's ascension into consciousness and the acquisition of the knowledge of good and evil. It was argued that this was the evolutionary moment when ape became man. I suspect that it was this assumption of innocence that gave rise to the chaos that we now experience as every day life. If man is created good and human nature is untarnished by original sin, then the natural and unschooled impulses of individuals were to be encouraged as authentic humanist living. The evil resident in the world was seen as structural. There was an assumption that children must be 'carefully taught' in order that they might participate in sin. Absent this influence, a new world of loving adulthood was just within our reach.

Hard to believe now but the sixties were an "age of innocence" completely ignorant of the foundation on which the 'just society' must rest. How does that song go? ..."you don't know what you've got till it's gone." In the years since then, I have often wonder where one draws the line between naivete and stupidity. It seems impossible that the Human Potential Movement could have developed in the face of the Holocaust. Yet it did develop, and it captured the imagination of an entire generation.

When you combine this presumption of innate goodness, with a sense of ordained calling to transform the world into a secular heaven, you are bound to come up with interesting results. Add to this, the prevailing wisdom that, if God was not yet dead, he most certainly was keeping a hands-off approach to His creation. Suddenly, in addition to the ordinary problems that man might be expected to resolve, he had the additional responsibility of 'filling in' for an absent God. We were faced with global problems that required global solutions. World hunger was a global issue of human proportions. Population control was a necessary usurpation of "divine authority." One way or another, though, we could, and we would, build the perfect world for the perfect beings that God and nature had intended us to be.

Now, throw in a touch of perfectionism that rejects what is good in preference for what is perfect. Add music, hit the black lights and up pops the 'woodstock generation'. Apparently there is truth in the pope's argument that "Man can build a world without God, but this world will end by turning against him."

Yet, Pope John Paul II also assures us that "The world and history are not at the mercy of chance, chaos or blind necessity. They are governed by a mysterious God, who desires that humanity live in stability, through just and authentic relations."

The $64,000 question is: How do we get from here to there?

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