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Online Edition: June-July 2011

Vol. XVII, No. 4

Continuity and Change

by Russell Shaw

Continuity and change are complementary principles in the Catholic Church, just as they are generally. In a living entity, it’s impossible to have one without the other.

Continuity is a principle of identity. It’s what keeps a person or thing the same person or thing in the face of passing time and shifting circumstance. Change is a principle of vitality, required to ensure that the bearer of identity is still dynamic, still alive. “To live is to change”, John Henry Cardinal Newman famously said, “and to live long is to have changed often”.

What is true of continuity and change in general is eminently true in the Church. Although the two principles exist in tension, each needs the other. Continuity without change is the stillness of death; change without continuity is motion without substance.

In many respects, the continuing argument about the meaning of the Second Vatican Council — at bottom, an argument about the nature of the Church — turns on conflicting assessments of continuity and change. Having begun almost before Vatican II was over, it goes on today, with no sign of ending any time soon.

As it pertains to the Council, there are various ways of stating the crux of the dispute. One way is along these lines: Is the real meaning of Vatican II present in what it decided and taught — in its 16 documents, that is — or does it reside in an essentially open-ended process of change to which the Council gave powerful impetus?

A few years ago, this argument was sharpened by Pope Benedict XVI. In his important Christmas 2005 address to the Roman Curia, he spoke of two competing hermeneutics or systems for the interpretation of Vatican II: on the one hand, a “hermeneutic of discontinuity and rupture”, and on the other, a “hermeneutic of reform ... renewal in the continuity of one subject-Church”. Benedict left no doubt that he favors the second hermeneutic and holds that the Council’s primary meaning can be found in its texts.

Strange to say, exponents of the hermeneutic of discontinuity and rupture in the Church exist today on both the extreme right and the extreme left. On the right, consider the reaction of Bishop Bernard Fellay, leader of the breakaway Society of St. Pius X, to the pope’s invitation to world religious leaders to attend another interfaith gathering for peace in Assisi in October: “Assisi will be full of devils.… Now where is continuity? Where is rupture?”

Yes, where indeed?

On the left we have the disciples of the so-called Bologna School, whose leading figure, the late Giuseppe Alberigo, derides an interpretation of Vatican II based on “understanding of and commentary upon the official documents” in his memoiristic A Brief History of Vatican II (Orbis).

According to Alberigo, the true significance of Vatican II is found not in what it said but in “the abandonment of the Counter-Reformation and the Constantinian age”, with all the attitudinal and behavioral ruptures that entails. This, needless to say, is the controlling vision of the five-volume History of Vatican II edited by Alberigo (also published by Orbis, with Father Joseph Komonchak as editor of the English version).

Not long ago, I came across a radical statement of this point of view in The American Catholic Revolution (Oxford 2010) by the Reverend Mark Massa, SJ, dean of the school of theology and ministry at Boston College. If you want to know how deep the problem with these people really goes, read Father Massa — he’ll curl your hair.

Conservatives, he writes, waste their time in emphasizing the continuity between Vatican II and its predecessors. On the contrary,

No matter what the (essentially conservative) intentions of the person who originally called the Council (Good Pope John XXIII), or of the overwhelming majority of Catholic bishops who approved the reforms of the Council ... the unsettling new historical consciousness unleashed by the Council’s reforms could not be stopped by anything so simple as an appeal to the intentions of the Council’s participants, or to some purported “law of continuity” within the tradition.

Another way of putting that is: Heads we win, tails you lose.

Believers in open-ended, ongoing change as the fundamental reality of the Church are right to situate Vatican II at a particular point in a historical process that, faith tells us, will continue to the end of time. But it is at least as important that Catholics believe the doctrinal pronouncements and disciplinary decisions of ecumenical councils acting in union with the pope to possess real normative force: The teaching must be assented to, the legislation obeyed, by people who want to be in communion with the Church.

It is significant that Father Massa, like others of his persuasion, approvingly quotes Cardinal Newman’s aphorism about change, while at the same time keeping mum about the cardinal’s theory of development in which continuity has a central place. Yet continuity is essential to a viable vision of the Church because of the presence of the Holy Spirit in this teaching, legislating body.

Perhaps Bishop Fellay and Father Massa can put their heads together and declare their agreement on the primacy of change as the explanation for what’s happened since Vatican II (although on precious little else). In the meantime, the rest of us need to get on with life in an ecclesial community in which both continuity and change figure so largely.

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Russell Shaw is a noted journalist and author of many books. This article was published in the online Crisis Magazine (crisismagazine.com), and appears here with the author’s kind permission.

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