The Church faces great intellectual challenges in every age. In the early Church, the main problem was in dealing with philosophical problems like Gnosticism, which held that the material world is evil and that it was absurd for God to become man and to consist of three persons. The Church happily submitted to such philosophical and theological scrutiny, taking nearly five centuries to respond, by learning to express the faith in technical philosophical terms like homoousios and hypostasis.
In the Middle Ages, one big challenge was synthesizing the Church Fathers while simultaneously engaging Muslim scholars wielding Aristotelian philosophy, who argued that the Catholic faith was incompatible with the world as science could observe and categorize it. St. Thomas Aquinas became famous answering that one—greatly expanding the Church’s understanding in the process.
In the modern age, the main challenge has been not from philosophy so much as it has been from history. The basic criticism of the Church by the Eastern Orthodox, for example, has been “the Church in the age of the Fathers is the real Church and the Catholic Church has become a corruption of that.” Protestants took this criticism one step further, saying in effect “the Church in the biblical age is the real Church and the Catholic Church is a corruption.” Rationalist Enlightenment scholars brought the complaint to its conclusion: “The Jesus of history is the ‘real’ Jesus, and what the Church wrote in the New Testament is a corruption.”
How has the Church chosen to answer the multifaceted historical criticism that it faces? For centuries the answer was mostly found in sharply worded magisterial statements, both from the Popes and various Church councils. These helped to instill discipline in the Church and to more clearly define the Church’s teaching on the issues. However, it was obvious that very few Orthodox or Protestants were coming back to the Church as a result.
Meanwhile, armed with a treasure trove of archeological findings and a newfound mastery of ancient languages, rationalist critics of traditional Christian assumptions about the Bible were growing increasingly sophisticated and effective in their attacks. Their elaborate criticisms did not lend themselves well to being answered with papal encyclicals or Holy Office decrees. If the Church maintained a defensive posture forever in the face of historical attacks, she would be seen to be opposed to the progress of knowledge—even if she could accurately protest that most of the research was being carried on under Protestant and rationalist presuppositions.
In my opinion, then, the return to history was the major intellectual thrust behind Vatican II. Instead of drawing more lines in the sand, the question posed to non-Catholic Christians and indeed the world became rather, “Why don’t we all return to the sources of history together—especially the Bible and the writings of the Fathers—and see what we find? Don’t expect that we’ll disprove any Catholic dogmas in the process, because we won’t. Rather, we will confirm them. We will accept your challenge and show you how the Church today really did develop organically from the early Church, which in turn grew from the Church in biblical times, which in turn is based on the historic ministry of Jesus Christ.” The return to history is part of the Church’s grand plan to reunify Christians and to open the doors of Christianity to all the world.
The renewed attention to history led the western Church at Vatican II to restore the sacred liturgy based on more primitive sources, such as the model of Pope St. Gregory the Great (c. A.D. 590). Similarly, the Council encouraged biblical scholars to use literary and historical tools to help foster a fully understanding of God’s Word. And we have seen a surge of interest in the Church Fathers, when the writings of St. Thomas and the theology manuals carried the day before 1950. Even the Catechism is full of references to Scripture and the Church Fathers in support of its teaching—more so than any Catechism in history. The term for this was resourcement.
I’m convinced that one of the problems after the Council was that the rationale of resourcement was not well explained to most Catholics. Even those who have understood have too frequently assumed that accepting the modern debate means a total surrender to everything that is bad about modernity. It doesn’t! Delving into history, moreover, can be messy, and any attempt to unearth its treasures will kick up a lot of dust in the air and leave clay under the fingernails.
But it’s not all dirt. Perhaps in future posts I’ll share with you my grounds for optimism that Vatican II was really the right medicine for the Church at the right time.