"Let books be your dining table, / And you shall be full of delights. / Let them be your
And you shall sleep restful nights" (St. Ephraim the Syrian).

Thursday, October 25, 2012

The Problem of History in Ecclesiology: Further Thoughts on Congar

In my initial discussion of Yves Congar's wonderful My Journal of the Council, I noted that anyone with an interest in so many events and personages in twentieth-century Catholicism, and Christianity writ large, would find these diaries fascinating. I am pleased that an historian of the stature of John O'Malley has recently come out calling Congar "the council’s single most important theologian." Congar's journal (also available in a Kindle edition), which I continue to savor, records several themes, but perhaps none is so clear in this book, as in Congar's larger oeuvre, of the problem of history in ecclesiology and the lack of real, wide-spread awareness of what actually happened in Christian history in general, and in East-West relations in particular. The Orthodox theologian David Bentley Hart is absolutely right when he says that too much of Christian division, East-West division above all, is the result of bad history. 

Much of what gives an Eastern Christian pause in reading Congar has to do with the attitude he records on the part of many Latins who seemed to regard their own tradition as the only valid one. This "soteriological exclusivism," as it has been called, was, of course, by no means limited to the Latin Church: some Orthodox apologists also adopted it, as did not a few Protestants. But none seemed so convinced of it as certain Roman Catholics, often viewed as the "minority" at Vatican II: people who argued for an "ecumenism of return," who exalted the pope in absurdly ultramontane terms, and who, in general, wanted the council to do nothing so much as flatly restate, in baldly propositional terms, dogmatic claims to which all the world would be summoned, under pain of eternal damnation, to make their simple and unquestioning submission. 

I am not running down this minority. In some respects, I side very closely with them, especially in the views of some of them on what happened to the Latin liturgy in the aftermath of the council. I also think they are correct in recognizing--in a way that few others want to do--the uncomfortable and disconcerting hermeneutical and historical problems raised by a council that accepted and praised (often, we now realize, with undue enthusiasm) what popes, scarcely a century before, had condemned in the most hair-raising terms: relations between Church and state (including the question of "religious freedom"), relations with non-Catholics, and the vexed questions of relations with Jews and Muslims, inter alia. Anyone who wants to be taken seriously today simply must admit that there are very serious, real, and obvious hermeneutical problems in reconciling past Catholic teaching with what the council condoned: the famous problem of a "hermeneutic of continuity" vs. a "hermeneutic of rupture." Apologists for the council insist on the former, but have, in my estimation, done an extremely poor job of demonstrating that continuity in ways that do not do violence to history. I also think that such apologists paint themselves unnecessarily into a corner by trying to demonstrate continuity when, on its face, none exists. Why not adopt the vastly simpler and certainly more honest course of frankly admitting that on certain questions, the Church (or at least the papacy, which is not the same thing) has simply changed her mind? This is not suggesting a change in major dogma, but instead a recognition that on more practical and political questions (e.g., democracy, human rights, relations with Jews and Muslims), views have changed, and there is nothing wrong with that. The skandalon consists not in doing this, but precisely in refusing to do so.

Congar had no problem in admitting when his confreres got it wrong, or adopted positions demonstrably unsupported by the facts of history. Time and again he skewers those guilty of what another great historian, Robert Taft, would call the substitution of "confessional propaganda" for real history. Congar knew too much to let a lot of this nonsense pass by without comment. But it seems to me, fifty years after the beginning of the council, the problem remains with us, and we have work ahead of us. Still today history is used and abused for present felt purposes--as Congar and Taft, and more recently Bernard Lewis and Margaret MacMillan, have shown. We are, then, once more indebted to Congar for raising these difficult questions, and for refusing to allow us to get away with facile sloganeering in the place of deep understanding not only of the bare "facts" of history, but also of the difficult relationship between changing and contingent historical forms, and the eternal and changeless truths they are supposed to convey. 

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