Friday, 15 January 2010

Vatican II: a language of "intention"

In an article on the STANDUP4VATICAN2 website, Nicholas Lash writes "In Memory of Vatican II". At one point, he writes: is of paramount importance that what it did and aimed to do is accurately remembered.
I have emphasised the "aimed to do", as it reflects also a language of "intention of the Council" that can be found in other commentaries on Vatican II. One useful such commentary is the site Vatican II - Voice of the Church, useful because a significant amount of what is posted on the site can be described as original documentation of the Council and of the experiences of those who took part. The home page of this site uses the language of the "intentions" of the Council, or the "intentions of the Council Fathers", at least as much if not rather more so than the language of the "spirit of Vatican II". It makes an interesting reference to a contrasting tendency to "interpret the Council solely through the texts":
The Symposium of 2002 [entitled, I think, "Abbot Butler and the Council"]  is a major section of the website. It marked the twin anniversaries of the centenary of Butler’s birth and the fortieth anniversary of the opening of The Council. The Symposium papers were delivered well before the development of a tendency to interpret the Council solely through the texts. The Symposium papers are open, scholarly accounts particularly informed by the rare privilege that two surviving Council Fathers were present and gave invaluable papers.
When one reads the historical accounts of the Council - whether it is Wiltgen's The Rhine flows into the Tiber, O,Malley's What happend at Vatican II or the magisterial five volumes of Alberigo's History of Vatican II - one gains a very clear glimpse of that aspect of the Church's nature that can be described as its human aspect. Interventions on the floor of the Council not infrequently urged contrary positions with regard to the texts under discussion; and one can see clear points where the resulting promulgated text represents, in their human aspect, a compromise or balancing of different views. The risk involved in developing an interpretation of the Council based on the "intentions of the Council" is that (i) at the level of interventions on a particular topic, different Bishops said a range of different things, so that one can identify a range of intentions in terms of how they might have spoken - and voted - in the Council; (ii) even in voting overwhelmingly for a final form of a document, the elements of compromise (in human terms) in the document could easily mean that Bishops of one inclination might have voted for it with an intention to support X when others had more of an intention to support the balancing cautions included in the document; and consequently (iii) it is very easy to adopt the intentions of one particular Bishop, or of one particular influence at the Council, as if those intentions represent the intentions of the whole, whereas to gain any balanced view of a single "intention" one should really look at each and every intervention and develop some sort of synthesis of the variety of views expressed therein. At this human level, one should perhaps acknowledge that different contributors approached the questions asked of them at the Council with different intentions - but, one trusts, with a recogntion of the operation of the Holy Spirit through their own actions and the actions of other participants in the Council.

It is also necessary to avoid an unhepful promulgation of an overall "intention of the Council" that over-rides the specific provisions of the Council documents themselves - this is to use the  word "intention" in just the same way that the (apparently) discarded term "spirit" has been used to justify turning away from the content of the texts themselves and to ignore the plurality of intentions existing at the human level. Whilst one can rightly formulate an overarching aim or intention - perhaps from the remarks of Pope John XXIII in his statements about the Council, or from an overview of the documents of the Council as a whole - we need to remember that that intention is articulated in the specific provisions of the Council itself.
In the end, I think one has to be willing to discuss the individual provisions of the Council's teaching, and to do that one has to return to the promulgated texts themselves.

A good example of this is the iconic question of the relative places of Latin and the vernacular in the Church's liturgy. Implicit in this, too, is the question of the relative competences of the Holy See and the local territorial ecclesiastical authority (the Bishop's conference). An account of the debates, with their wide range of different contributions, both in drafting and in debate, can be found in O'Malley pp.129ff  and in Wiltgen pp.24ff. The resulting text from Sacrosanctum Concilium n.36 is:
The use of the Latin language, with due respect to particular law, is to be preserved in the Latin rites. But since the use of the vernacular, whether in the Mass, the administration of the sacraments, or in other parts of the liturgy, may frequently be of great advantage to the people, a wider use may be made of it, especially in readings, directives and in some prayers and chants. Regulations governing this will be given separately in subsequent chapters. These norms being observed, it is for the competent territorial ecclesiastical authority .. to decide whether, and to what extent, the vernacular language is to be used. Its decrees have to be approved, that is, confirmed, by the Apostolic See.

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