The Second Vatican Council began its work on October 11, 1962. The Ecumenical Council not only affirmed the Church’s life and doctrinal patrimony, but also opened the windows of the Church to let in some fresh air, fresh perspectives, and critical views on the life and mission of the Catholic Church. In Pope John XXIII’s words, “Our duty is not only to guard this precious treasure, as if we were concerned only with antiquity, but to dedicate ourselves with an earnest will and without fear to that work which our era demands of us….” 1
From the start, Pope John tried to balance the old and the new, the gift of tradition and the challenges of the present time. Sixty years later, we are invited to consider the same balance between honoring the gifts of tradition with a thoughtful critique of the Church’s present practice and teachings. Is it possible for us to be faithful members of the institutional Church and its official liturgies even as we turn a critical eye on both?
In our present context, suspicion of institutions, be they religious, political or social, has become a reality for us. Too often the rejection of institutions relies on a one-sided bias towards personal autonomy. Yet persons are intrinsically social and social structures are necessary to carry the achievements and contributions of the past into the present and the future. They can be distorted and oppressive; they need not always be.
We need to balance a positive evaluation of the Church with a responsible critique of that same Church. As Richard Gaillardetz says in a recent article in Worship magazine:
And that task…requires holding in a reflective equilibrium two necessary interpretive stances toward our religious tradition: first, an affirmative hermeneutic of trust that remains confident in the tradition’s ability to faithfully mediate the Gospel of Jesus Christ and the path to authentic discipleship; second, a critical hermeneutic of suspicion that exposes our tradition’s biases, blind spots, and distortions. 2
We do not have to choose between tradition or its critique; we must hold them in balance.
Let us look at a liturgical example of this approach. First, there is an intimate connection between the Church and its liturgy. Any of the Church’s liturgical rites are the Church in “performance” or in action. How we gather, in a circle
or in rows, where the ministers are in relationship to the assembly, who touches what with what, who says what, etc. are all expressions of how we understand ourselves and our relationships. A new ecclesiology needs a new liturgy.
Because of this correlation, Pope Francis has recently limited the celebration of the older Tridentine Mass. Reflecting an older ecclesiology, the Tridentine liturgy had no reference to the role of the assembly. There were no dialogues to which the assembly responded; the readings were read in Latin with the priest facing the wall; communion of the people was considered an interruption of the flow of the Mass, etc. Vatican II ecclesiology has a very active role for all the baptized in the life of the Church which is reflected in the revised rites. The post-Vatican II Mass of Paul VI explicitly involves the assembly at every moment of the celebration including readings and prayers in the vernacular that all may understand; and, the highpoint of the celebration – the communion of the whole assembly – priest and people together.
Yet even this post Vatican II Rite is not above critique. In light of the relative social acceptance and theological support of the full humanity of women, why are some roles still limited to men? If the charism of preaching is given to some lay women and men of the community, why may only a priest preach at the Eucharist? If language is truly a sign of recognition of another individual’s personhood, why is inclusive language not part of the translation of biblical and Mass texts? More could be said, but these few items make the point.
In sum, with an affirmative hermeneutic of trust, we are invited to acknowledge the Roman Catholic tradition as a true extension of the life and mission of Jesus Christ. That being said, the Church and its liturgies are not beyond reproach. We are also invited to engage in a critical hermeneutic of suspicion and keep these two interpretations in balance. The Church as an institution is graced and flawed, and the liturgies of the Church are graced and flawed. So too are we when we voice our critiques of past and present realities in light of contemporary challenges.
1. John XXIII, “Opening Speech at the Council.” 2. Richard Gaillardetz, “Loving and Reforming a Holy but Broken Church,” (Worship 97 January 2023), 72.