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Thursday, May 20, 2004

The perils of over-optimism.

The following link is to a very worthwhile essay by James Hitchcock entitled The End of Gaudium Et Spes? The basic thesis is that the fathers of the Second Vatican Council were a little too exuberantly optimistic about the condition of the world and the Church, which has led to a lot of the post-conciliar hangover today. An excerpt, but you owe it to yourself to read the entire article:

Why Pope John summoned the Council remains even today somewhat mysterious. The Pope spoke of a "new Pentecost" and indicated that, since the teachings of the Church were firm and beyond doubt, the Council would not concern itself with doctrine but would be primarily a "pastoral" council. In all likelihood John XXIII's great dream was that, since the Church was generally in a healthy state, the time had come to put aside the defensiveness which had characterized the conduct of Church policy for over 400 years, and to begin reaching out to the world, bringing Christ to the nations and preparing for the world's conversion. The goals of the Council would be "the renewal of the spirit of the Gospel in the hearts of people everywhere and the adjustment of Christian discipline to modern-day living."

This outlook was made possible by the apparently flourishing state of the Church during Pope John's pontificate. While not without problems, the Church was freer than she had been earlier in the modern period and, in contrast with what would come later, her members were unusually serious, devout, and moral. Such a Church could be criticized mainly as fostering routine formalism and an overly narrow piety, and it is likely that Pope John thought that a new Pentecost could build on this foundation to reach a higher level of apostolic zeal, spiritual depth, and social concern.

* * *

In many ways the promise of the Council has not been fulfilled, as the immediate effect of the Council--still powerful after four decades--was to plunge the Church into an internal crisis more severe than any in her history. The crisis was provoked by the fact that, almost immediately at the Councils end, there occurred the world-wide cultural phenomenon now popularly known as "the Sixties," amounting to nothing less than a frontal assault on all forms of authority. The cultural map itself changed rapidly, so that many of the assumptions found in the conciliar decrees were soon rendered obsolete. The Council fathers apparently had no inkling of that coming crisis; the task of "reading the signs of the times" was apparently far more difficult than was imagined in the euphoric days of the early l960s.

The conciliar decrees built upon that euphoria and in effect imposed a compulsory optimism on Catholics. Although Pope Paul VI famously spoke of the "smoke of Satan" as having entered the Church, it has generally been the custom of Vatican officials and diocesan bishops, in the years since the Council, to minimize the problems of the post-conciliar period and to speak of "renewal" as a stunning success. Insofar as Gaudium et Spes was revolutionary, it was in its failure to acknowledge the full power of evil in the world, particularly the reality of evil motives in human affairs. In talking about "human aspirations," the Council implied that even error springs from good intentions and can be corrected by deeper understanding. It took little notice of a human reality often proclaimed in Scripture: hatred of truth and goodness, love of evil for its own sake.

The pervasive good will expressed in Gaudium et Spes unintentionally helped to erode the crucial distinction between hope and optimism, which in Christian terms are often polar opposites. Genuine hope, as a theological virtue, believes in the redemption, in the ultimate triumph of good over evil. It is a theological virtue precisely because historical experience, more often than not, shows evil triumphing over good. Conflating hope with optimism actually denies hope by minimizing the power of evil and insisting that good is triumphing despite all evidence to the contrary. The Council documents themselves not only failed to foresee the coming crisis, they assumed by their silence that it could not occur. While certain errors were pointed out in the documents, the governing assumption was that, as Catholics were encouraged to take new responsibility for living their faith, a dramatic new spring would break out. The documents themselves provided little help in understanding how that renewal could have gone awry, bringing about the disasters that we now see around us: the loss of missionary zeal, the collapse of religious life, the sacrilegious liturgies, the general public acceptance of the sexual revolution.

The Council understood modernity primarily as scientific and technological change, without an equivalent spiritual development--a perspective which had the effect of deflecting attention away from the spiritual roots of modernity, which in their extreme are a kind of willful metaphysical nihilism only obliquely related to science and technology. Concentrating on science and technology, with the implication that their deficiencies could be overcome by good will, enabled the Council to sustain its optimistic view of the modern world, ignoring the question whether modernity is at its heart a denial of even the possibility of eternal truth.

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