Conservatives and liberals are united in their claims that the crisis of the modern church can be traced back to Vatican Council II. Conservatives claim that the crisis is due to the fact that some people in the church hijacked council documents and read them as justification for wholesale jettisoning of numerous revered catholic traditions, while liberals claim that the crisis is due to the fact that the true intent of the council fathers was thwarted by the papacies of Paul, John Paul and Benedict.
It is now 50 years since Vatican Council II closed its proceedings so now is as good a time as any to take, partial, stock of its contributions and failings. I think it has to be said that the opening to ecumenical dialog with non-Roman Catholic Christians and churches as well as other religions entirely was a major accomplishment. The step away from any traces of anti-semitism was a good thing. The apparent endorsement of democracy (as long as it is understood that sovereignty cannot rest in the “people” considered en masse…a “chosen” and schooled people maybe but not the undifferentiated mass or horde) likewise was and is a good thing. The endorsement, more implicit than explicit, of the philosophy of personalism was also a major accomplishment as it put authentic individuality on the modern international political map. John Paul II later made the endorsement of personalism more explicit. Likewise there was also an implicit endorsement of a more profound philosophy of history—one consistent with holy scripture—namely that history was not mere decline from some past golden age. Instead there was decline but also expectation of fulfillment in the Parousia. Therefore history had to be going somewhere—it was not a merely random process. Progressive improvement was possible as the great enlightenment philosophers had argued. Unlike these philosophes however the church wisely retained its sense that it is a sojourner through history-not completely at home in any one epoch. All epochs are relativized compared to the coming fulfillment. Another accomplishment of Vatican II was that it supported the efforts to make Catholics engage Holy Scripture on a daily basis…it opened up the riches of scripture to lay Catholics like never before–a trend we have to thank our Protestant brothers and sisters for it seems to me. And finally Vatican II opened the eyes of all to the plain fact that catholicism was no longer a European religion–it was now a global religion. Europe’s commitment to the Church has been decaying and Asia and Africa have been discovering the faith and that is where, (Asia and Africa along with the US), the future of Catholicism lies. So all of these things—the opening to dialog with other religions, the end to mere denigration of Judaism and thus a better understanding of the nature of post-Christian Rabbinic Judaism, the opening to learning and dialog with other world religions, endorsement of rightly understood forms of democracy, the endorsement of personalism, the new appreciate of scripture and the acknowledgement that catholicism is now a global religion etc were all great accomplishments.
But there were three great failures at Vatican II it seems to me. One was the adoption of the vernacular rite with the priest facing the congregation at the expense of the old Latin rite. Why we cannot have both the vernacular and the rite with the sacred language Latin (or Greek) is beyond me. A second failure of the council concerns human sexuality. It simply failed to address the issue probably because it would have forced the church to confront a whole host of issues it did not wish discussed including homosexuality amongst its priests and in the curia; women’s ordination, birth control and abortion. Paul VI’s post council encyclical against contraception was in my view a mistake. The peadophile scandals in church and the resultant attempts at cover-up underscore the urgent need for open theologically informed discussion of all matters pertaining to sex including the so-called sexual revolution, same sex attraction and marriage, celibacy, women’s ordination, contraception and the meaning of sex beyond its procreative function more generally. But I do not wish to discuss those issues here. Instead I want to discuss the third major failure of the council—the failure to make a definitive statement about the church and science.
The sorry history of the catholic church’s relation to science is too well known to recount here. It is tragic that the council did not take up that sad history and chart a better course and relationship with science but it did not seize the moment. In my view a huge source of the crisis in the church today is its pathetically poor theology of science. Most theologians including especially catholic theologians simply have no theology of science. The honorable exceptions have not been too successful in their efforts.
But a moment’s reflection demonstrates that the church will not be able to perform its duties in the modern world well unless it has a very highly developed theology of science. That is because such a theology would be foundational for all other theological topics.
To its credit one of the documents of Vatican II (Gaudium et Spes, 15) makes this clear when it says: “Man judges rightly that by his intellect he surpasses the material universe, for he shares in the light of the divine mind. By relentlessly employing his talents through the ages he has indeed made progress in the practical sciences and in technology and the liberal arts. In our times he has won superlative victories, especially in his probing of the material world and in subjecting it to himself. Still he has always searched for more penetrating truths, and finds them. For his intelligence is not confined to observable data alone, but can with genuine certitude attain to reality itself as knowable, though in consequence of sin that certitude is partly obscured and weakened.”
To say that my ‘intelligence is not confined to observable data alone, but can with genuine certitude attain to reality itself as knowable’ is to say what the Church has always held that reason and faith do not contradict one another and that reason in its most developed form (i.e. science) must be a foundational source for theological work.
But in what way is science a foundational source for theology? Can we say that scientists are inspired by the Holy Spirit when they do their work? With respect to scripture most theologians endorse the incoherent view that neither the individual, nor the community can be the loci of inspiration. The individual cannot be the focus of inspiration because most books of the canon were and are amalgams of several writers or compilations of long and anonymous oral traditions. Same with scientific tradition, and the scientists working within those traditions. A scientist always builds on the work of others even when he or she is tackling some new subject not previously investigated by others. In that case the scientist borrows paradigms and tools from other disciplines and imports these into the new area in order to begin to probe its mysteries. Similarly with respect to scared scripture, the ‘communities’ or associated traditions could not be the foci of inspiration because they do not exist in any material form to receive inspiration. Again it must be the same with scientific communities and traditions: they are not the loci for inspiration. Instead inspiration is always the experience of a lone individual working within and often against a community. This was true of the scriptural writers and it is certainly true of scientific workers.
To inspire an individual whether he is a scientist or prophet, God does not suspend the free will or intellectual faculties of the individual. Respect for the freedom and dignity of the individual rules out mechanical/instrumental views of inspiration where the author is merely an instrument of the spirit’s Will or where the individual merely takes dictation from the Spirit. The motto in science is that scientific breakthroughs are 99% perspiration and 1% inspiration. Insight comes to those who are ‘prepared’ to receive it. Inspiration is the product of two wills and two Minds: God and individual. It can never be the product of a group or a community. Instead God illuminates the Mind of the individual to the extent that the individual cooperates with such illumination. Of course in special cases God can and will illuminate a Mind regardless of the readiness of the individual to receive such illumination. But even in these cases God does it in such a way as to not harm the individual or to violate the individual’s freedom. When that illumination reaches a certain level of intensity and the individual translates that illumination into service for others then that individual is inspired by the Holy Spirit.
By the criteria of inspiration summarized above we can say that some scientists are inspired when they do their work and that therefore scientific knowledge should be treated as a foundational element for Catholic theology. Again that conclusion is consistent with the treatment of the relation of faith and reason by the council fathers in Gaudium et Spes and by more recent Papal encyclicals such as Fides et Ratio by John Paul II. In Section Two paragraph 57 of Gaudium et Spes the Council Fathers based themselves on other foundational elements of theology such as previous councils and reinforced this teaching on faith and reason by solemnly proclaiming: “This Sacred Synod, therefore, recalling the teaching of the first Vatican Council, declares that there are “two orders of knowledge” which are distinct, namely faith and reason; and that the Church does not forbid that “the human arts and disciplines use their own principles and their proper method, each in its own domain”; therefore “acknowledging this just liberty,” this Sacred Synod affirms the legitimate autonomy of human culture and especially of the sciences…All this supposes that, within the limits of morality and the common utility, man can freely search for the truth, express his opinion and publish it; that he can practice any art he chooses; that finally, he can avail himself of true information concerning events of a public nature.”
To say that there are two orders of knowledge—faith and reason—and that these orders are autonomous but not opposed to on another is to say also that each can inform the other and that the book of nature must inform theology. It cannot be otherwise as to do theology while ignoring the physical nature of Man is to invite Gnostic style errors into our theological reflections. Men are not angels. Instead we are created in the image of God and thus possess reason and freedom and these capacities establish a dignity that requires a linking up to theology and sacred doctrine. As Gaudium et Spes (12) put it “For Sacred Scripture teaches that man was created “to the image of God,” is capable of knowing and loving his Creator, and was appointed by Him as master of all earthly creatures(1) that he might subdue them and use them to God’s glory.(2) “What is man that you should care for him? You have made him little less than the angels, and crowned him with glory and honor. You have given him rule over the works of your hands, putting all things under his feet” (Ps. 8:5-7).” Note here that the Council Fathers based their assessment of the nature of man on the foundational element of holy scripture but they could have equally well have derived man’s capacity for ‘knowing’ the truth from that other foundational element of catholic theology: the sciences.
Despite these magnificent endorsements of the scientific enterprise that one finds in Guadium et Spes we do not find an explicit discussion in any of the Vatican II council documents of the potential contributions of science to theology and church. This despite the fact that the Council was considered to be pastoral in nature. For example the council Fathers announced at the beginning of Gaudium et Spes that they wished to address themselves to the world in order to tell the world how the Church sees man’s predicament, man’s condition and man’s path to salvation. The sciences should have been discussed as part of that picture as they enter crucially into man’s predicament, man’s condition and the common effort to improve man’s condition.
That Vatican II missed the chance to integrate the natural sciences and theology is confirmed by perusal of the 15 other official council documents. There is a brief mention of the need to include science in the education of a catholic mind in Gravissimum Educationis, the declaration on Christian education. In paragraph 10 on catholic colleges and universities, the Fathers write: “The Church is concerned also with schools of a higher level, especially colleges and universities. In those schools dependent on her she intends that by their very constitution individual subjects be pursued according to their own principles, method, and liberty of scientific inquiry, in such a way that an ever deeper understanding in these fields may be obtained and that, as questions that are new and current are raised and investigations carefully made according to the example of the doctors of the Church and especially of St. Thomas Aquinas, there may be a deeper realization of the harmony of faith and science. Thus there is accomplished a public, enduring and pervasive influence of the Christian mind in the furtherance of culture and the students of these institutions are molded into men truly outstanding in their training, ready to undertake weighty responsibilities in society and witness to the faith in the world.”
A little further in this section of Gravissimum Educationis 10, the fathers argue that “Since science advances by means of the investigations peculiar to higher scientific studies, special attention should be given in Catholic universities and colleges to institutes that serve primarily the development of scientific research.” Note however that while these brief mentions of science reinforce the traditional teaching of the Church that there is a harmony between faith and reason, there is absolutely no reflection on the implications for theology and for the church of that fundamental truth. Nowhere do the fathers appear to treat science as a foundational element for Catholic theology-despite the fact that the early church Fathers did so, the mediaeval Fathers did so, and the renaissance and Tridentine fathers did so.
Science is mentioned in one other Vatican II document but not in a positive way. In Apostolicam Actuositatem-the decree on the apostolate of the laity, the fathers missed another chance to discuss science as a vocation. To treat science as a vocation, as an apostolate, is absolutely crucial to bringing in more scientists to the church. Most scientists in fact see their work as a calling. These are men and women who have a devotion to truth as revealed in the book of nature and the talent to pursue that truth. If there is a harmony between faith and reason these scientists have a right and duty to expect to come to the beginings of revealed truth if they faithfully pursue the path of reason. Catholic faithful with vocations to science however are not addressed in Apostolicam Actuositatem. Instead the council fathers in Apostolicam Actuositatem 7 warn of the dangers associated with deformations of the scientific vocation: “In the course of history, the use of temporal things has been marred by serious vices. Affected by original sin, men have frequently fallen into many errors concerning the true God, the nature of man, and the principles of the moral law. This has led to the corruption of morals and human institutions and not rarely to contempt for the human person himself. In our own time, moreover, those who have trusted excessively in the progress of the natural sciences and the technical arts have fallen into an idolatry of temporal things and have become their slaves rather than their masters.” While it is certainly of utmost importance to warn against the dangers of slavish dependence on science and technology, this statement leaves out the enormous contributions science has made to human welfare (thus concretely fulfilling the explicit charge of the council fathers for the apostolates to serve suffering humanity). And again this document on the apostolates of the laity says absolutely nothing of the scientific vocation-never mind of the relation of that vocation to Catholic theology.
Despite the ringing endorsements of reason as integral to the theological enterprise that we find in Gaudium et Spes that claim is nowhere followed up on in any of the other council documents. None of the contributions of science to the issue of the Liturgies of the Church are found in Lumen Gentium (on the mystery of the Church), Sacrosanctum Concilium, (on reform of the Roman rites) and Orientalium Ecclesiarum (on the Eastern rites). It is clear that the science of ritual and of liturgies in particular just did not enter the consciousness of the Council Fathers. These latter three documents are centered on reflections on the nature of the central Christian rites such as the Eucharist. It is reasonable then to ask: In our human attempts to receive, comprehend and faithfully perform the great rite given to us by the savior does it not behoove us to consult the relevant sciences? There is after all a science of ritual and a psychology of ritual and so forth. Are the results of these scienecs relevant to an understanding of and performance of the Eucharist? Clearly the council fathers did not think so as they nowhere discuss empirical studies of ritual.
Nevertheless their own statements on the central rite of the Church make it clear that they should have brought in scientific findings on ritual in order to deepen the Church’s capacity to receive, perform and pass on the revelation entrusted to them. Take for example Sacrosanctum Concilium’s proclamations on the sacred liturgy. In the opening pargraph1the council fathers declared that “This sacred Council has several aims in view: it desires to impart an ever increasing vigor to the Christian life of the faithful; to adapt more suitably to the needs of our own times those institutions which are subject to change; to foster whatever can promote union among all who believe in Christ; to strengthen whatever can help to call the whole of mankind into the household of the Church. The Council therefore sees particularly cogent reasons for undertaking the reform and promotion of the liturgy.”
All of these are eminently practical, pastoral aims. The fathers could have been immensely helped by consultation with experts on ritual. Some of the reforms suggested by the fathers have been interpreted by subsequent generations to de-emphasize the sacrificial language and theology traditionally associated with the Eucharist and instead emphasize the rites associated with the communal meal of the early Christian communities. This move has created decades of conflict in the church as some have seen the de-emphasis on sacrificial aspects of the mass as a move toward Protestantism and a decreased awareness of sin and the need for the atonement. The theology of the atonement itself has since come under severe attack. But much of this conflict might have been avoided if the council fathers had used distinctions in the scientific literature on ritual that allowed one to distinguish an array or variety of ritual forms each associated with varying functions. The ritual of blood sacrifice for example is associated in most cultures with purification and then communion with the deity, while rituals of communal meals are most often associated with celebration and thanksgiving. Clearly the catholic mass contains a variety of ritual forms and theological discussions of these ritual forms in counciliar documents might have forestalled deformations in the reform of the liturgy and then the ‘reform of the reform’.
The council fathers seem to have approached this strategy of distinguishing among ritual forms in some areas of the document. In paragraph 6 and 7 the council fathers wrote: “His purpose also was that they might accomplish the work of salvation which they had proclaimed, by means of sacrifice and sacraments, around which the entire liturgical life revolves. Thus by baptism men are plunged into the paschal mystery of Christ: they die with Him, are buried with Him, and rise with Him ; they receive the spirit of adoption as sons “in which we cry: Abba, Father” ( Rom. 8 :15), and thus become true adorers whom the Father seeks . In like manner, as often as they eat the supper of the Lord they proclaim the death of the Lord until He comes . For that reason, on the very day of Pentecost, when the Church appeared before the world, “those who received the word” of Peter “were baptized.” And “they continued steadfastly in the teaching of the apostles and in the communion of the breaking of bread and in prayers . . . praising God and being in favor with all the people” (Acts 2:41-47). 7. To accomplish so great a work, Christ is always present in His Church, especially in her liturgical celebrations. He is present in the sacrifice of the Mass, not only in the person of His minister, “the same now offering, through the ministry of priests, who formerly offered himself on the cross” , but especially under the Eucharistic species.”
It is clear that in these passages the fathers distinguish between baptismal rites and other sacraments and further distinguish rites within the mass itself. For example there is the sacrifice of Christ with Christ himself as the priest offering the divine victim and then there is the ‘eating the supper’ which functions to ‘proclaim the death of the Lord…”
But nowhere is the dearth of scientific knowledge concerning ritual performance more detrimental than when the council fathers make the claim in paragraph 11 (nowhere supported by facts as far as I could tell from study of the documents and its footnotes) to the effect that: “But in order that the liturgy may be able to produce its full effects, it is necessary that the faithful come to it with proper dispositions, that their minds should be attuned to their voices, and that they should cooperate with divine grace lest they receive it in vain.” So far so good. The faithful should not receive the Eucharist in a state of sin or in a state of community discord as St Paul argued. But then the fathers go on to argue in paragraph 14 that this means that the faithful must actively participate in the mass! “Mother Church earnestly desires that all the faithful should be led to that fully conscious, and active participation in liturgical celebrations which is demanded by the very nature of the liturgy. Such participation by the Christian people as “a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a redeemed people (1 Pet. 2:9; cf. 2:4-5), is their right and duty by reason of their baptism. In the restoration and promotion of the sacred liturgy, this full and active participation by all the people is the aim to be considered before all else; for it is the primary and indispensable source from which the faithful are to derive the true Christian spirit; and therefore pastors of souls must zealously strive to achieve it, by means of the necessary instruction, in all their pastoral work.”
Note that the fathers in pursuing the aim that is ‘to be considered before all else’ do not base their argument on those foundational elements of catholic theology such as sacred tradition or past councils because this would imply that all those generations of past faithful catholics who supposedly did not actively participate in the mass were somehow deficient! Note too that they authors of this document base their argument on the claim that participation by the people at the mass is demanded “…by the very nature of the liturgy”. This is an empirical claim is it not? What in the liturgy demands the verbal participation of the faithful? It is not clear. Literalist interpreted these pronouncements to mean that the faithful must verbally participate throughout the mass. But of course there are many ways to participate at mass and verbal participation is probably the least praiseworthy. Nor does the scientific literature on ritual form support verbal participation as conducive to piety or religious sentiment. Rapaport (1999) in his monumental comparative study of ritual forms emphasizes the fact that the most powerful forms are acts done by the deity to the people and the response by the people is reverential awe and that when this primary religious feeling of awe breaks down so does the surrounding culture.
The church fathers themselves emphasize this primary religious fact in Lumen Gentium-yet they seem not to see links between the church as primary, awesome mystery and the liturgy as primary awesome mystery. In paragraph 39 the fathers proclaim: “The Church, whose mystery is being set forth by this Sacred Synod, is believed to be indefectibly holy. Indeed Christ, the Son of God, who with the Father and the Spirit is praised as “uniquely holy,” (1*) loved the Church as His bride, delivering Himself up for her. He did this that He might sanctify her.(214) He united her to Himself as His own body and brought it to perfection by the gift of the Holy Spirit for God’s glory. Therefore in the Church, everyone whether belonging to the hierarchy, or being cared for by it, is called to holiness, according to the saying of the Apostle: “For this is the will of God, your sanctification”; And in paragraph 48: “The Church, to which we are all called in Christ Jesus, and in which we acquire sanctity through the grace of God, will attain its full perfection only in the glory of heaven, when there will come the time of the restoration of all things.(237) At that time the human race as well as the entire world, which is intimately related to man and attains to its end through him, will be perfectly reestablished in Christ.(238) Christ, having been lifted up from the earth has drawn all to Himself.(239).
These sentiments are deeply mysterious, revealed divine truths. They cannot be better appreciated by verbal participation in the mass. They must be mediated upon-especially when receiving the Eucharist. In Orientalium Ecclesiarum the council fathers state their high esteem for the ancient rites of the eastern churches. It should be noted that participation by the people in these ancient rites is muted at best and that instead mysteries like the transfiguration are celebrated and mediated upon. People understand that they are participating with Christ in a sacrifice-they are not there to talk-they are there to kneel.
In summary, I have discussed Vatican II council documents in terms of the relation between science and catholic theology. I would like to make the argument that science be construed as one of the foundational elements of catholic theology—equal in dignity to tradition and the writings of the doctors of the church-though not equal in dignity to holy scripture. Nor should science or scientists take precedence over the magisterium. Instead I have argued something more modest—that science should inform catholic theology more than it presently does and that it should be considered a foundational element for catholic theology. If we can consider the arts as foundational then we can surely do so for science as well. I have shown that Gaudium et Spes in particular appears to support parts of my argument-though it must be admitted that the other council documents do not. The fathers never argued against using science to inform theology. It appears that that thought was simply not on their radar screens during Vatican II. At some point the church and catholic theology in particular must explicitly come to terms with science. Pope John Paul II’s Fides et Ratio went some way in that direction but the language in the encyclical was largely philosophical rather than scientific so more is needed. Gaudium et Spes was an advance but it was never followed up upon. In its failure to address science Vatican II failed to “modernize” the church in the only way modernization could make sense. Science is about the only valuable thing the modern world has given humanity. Most (not all) other cultural innovations are disasters and signs of decadence.
Nichols, Aidan, O.P. (1991). The Shape of Catholic Theology: An Introduction to Its Sources, Principles, and History. Collegeville, Minnesota, Liturgical Press.
Rapaport, R. (1999). Ritual and religion in the making of humanity. Cambridge UK: Cambridge University press.
Vatican II. And Trouve, M. L. (1998). The Sixteen Documents of Vatican II (Ecclesial Classics)
NY: Pauline Books & Media.
Acknowledgement: This piece is excerpted and modified from a longer work by Augustinus submitted to St Joseph’s College in 2012