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Vatican II: Benedict rewrites history

On 12 May Pope Benedict XVI spoke about truth, history and the church. His backdrop was the surreal and voluptuous Gothic of the Jerónimos Monastery, overlooking the great river-mouth of the Tagus in Portugal, from which the first explorers of medieval Europe sailed to circle Africa and India and eventually to encompass the new world they called America.

It was an appropriate setting for this learned and subtle theologian to lay aside vexing stuff about sex scandals and say something about what the Catholic church is today. That turns out to be just what it always has been: no nonsense about lessons learned from the Enlightenment, still less the 16th-century Reformation. On the way, we caught a fascinating glimpse of how the pope views Iberian Europe's bloodsoaked ventures into new continents, that global enterprise which massacred Hindus and Muslims in Goa and captured countless millions of Africans for the Catholic slave-markets of Cartagena (as well as for Protestant plantations in the Caribbean and Deep South). Apparently, what the pope styled "the adventure of the discoveries" was inspired by "the Christian ideal of universality and fraternity". Not by a search for silk or sugar, then.

But the pope was at his most interesting when he jumped from the 15th to the 20th century at the culmination of his address, because he came out fighting for his own view of that most controversial and ambiguous of oecumenical councils, the second Vatican council of 1962-65 (Vatican II). For some Catholics, this revolutionised Roman Catholicism, pointing to new decentralisation, actively involving the whole congregation of the faithful in decisions, and jettisoning Tridentine triumphalism, opening the church to new humility in listening to alternative voices in the quest for the divine. To others, the council did some tinkering, reaffirming old certainties with a little adjustment of language (in more senses than one, since its one absolutely unignorable result was to turn most Catholic liturgy into the vernacular). The latter party would mostly have preferred the council not to have met at all, or at least to have stuck to a script written by Vatican bureaucrats if it did meet. These are two utterly irreconcilable views of an historical event. What would Pope Benedict say?

This. At Vatican II, "the church, on the basis of a renewed awareness of the Catholic tradition, took seriously and discerned, transformed and overcame the fundamental critiques that gave rise to the modern world, the Reformation and the Enlightenment. In this way the church herself accepted and refashioned the best of the requirements of modernity by transcending them on the one hand, and on the other by avoiding their errors and dead ends." It's difficult from this to know what the pope might count as "the best" of modernity's requirements, but apparently even those can be transcended, and plenty of errors and dead ends just get avoided – a bit like a sacralised version of Lara Croft dodging through the nasties. You could hardly get a more defensive vision of the council than this. It sounds for all the world like that most unfortunate and embarrassing of Pope Pius IX's public statements, the Syllabus of Errors of 1864, which famously culminated in the proposition that it was wrong to believe that the pope "can and ought to reconcile himself with progress, liberalism and modern civilisation".

What it does mean is that the pope has put himself at the head of the small-earthquake-in-Chile-not-many-dead view of Vatican II? This is entirely to be expected. Neither he nor his predecessor John Paul II liked the direction which Vatican II took, though a veritable industry of official Catholic historiography has assiduously promoted the view that they were all for it and its results. The reality is that soon after the Council, leading Catholic theologians like Hans Küng, Edward Schillebeeckx, Karl Rahner and Yves Congar (whose now published journals do not reveal great enthusiasm for the future Pope John Paul II), complained that the Roman curia was putting brakes on reforms envisioned by Vatican II. That process much accelerated under John Paul. He worked with the curia consistently to police reforming theologians, dictated agendas for episcopal synods, and refused to allow bishops to discuss such matters as compulsory clerical celibacy. Küng was one of the theologians disciplined in his second year as pope. John Paul made it known that he did not like communion received in the hand, refused to laicise priests (as his predecessor had done) and marginalised local bishops by his actions on his frequent worldwide journeys. He also commissioned a Catholic catechism, which neither the council nor its convenor Pope John XXIII had wanted, and revised the code of canon law (likewise not wanted at the council). The theology expressed in both documents goes in a very different direction to Vatican II. One crucial principle so prominent in the council's thinking, "collegiality" in making decisions on the future of the church, has been set aside during both John Paul II's and Benedict's pontificates.

All this has happened while the Vatican has consistently spoken of its faithfulness to the principles of Vatican II. There have been two ways of opposing those principles: one to express opposition openly as some ultra-conservatives have done, the other to rewrite Vatican II's history, as curia officials and their admirers have been doing over the last quarter-century and more. This is what Our Lady of Belém was treated to last week. Well, she's full of grace, so I expect she smiled.