People viewing first the synod, and then l’affaire Douthat, from afar may wonder how we got to this point. What is the source of these stark divisions–in the church, the synod, the theological discipline, and the laity–that cause this kind of hostility?
The answer is actually fairly simple.
One side understands that the work of the council was to produce 16 documents reorienting the eternal and unchanging teachings of the church for the modern world. This what Pope Benedict meant by a “hermeneutic of continuity.” The teachings are in perfect continuity with the teachings of the church. The council addressed praxis.
The other side practices a “hermeneutic of rupture,” which approaches the council as a kind of ongoing event, initiated in the 1960s, of ever-evolving church teachings wrapped in the fluffy gauze of the Spirit of Vatican II. This side is, of course wrong, and the precise scope of its error is encapsulated in the following quote from John O’Malley’s What Happened at Vatican II.
Apparently, what happened was not debate between liberal and conservative wings resulting in 16 documents, but a series of seismic changes…
…from commands to invitations, from laws to ideals, from definition to mystery, from threats to persuasion, from coercion to conscience, from monologue to dialogue, from ruling to serving, from withdrawn to integrated, from vertical to horizontal, from exclusion to inclusion, from hostility to friendship, from rivalry to partnership, from suspicion to trust, from static to on-going, from passive acceptance to active engagement, from fault-finding to active appreciation, from prescriptive to principled, from behavior modification to inner appropriation.
This is madness. It’s actually embarrassing that a professor at a leading university could produce such raw nonsense. And yet this is the way a certain school of theology and church history actually sees the council, and thus their role as banner-carriers for the Spirit of Vatican II, fighting threats, coercion, legalism, exclusion, hostility, suspicion, and lack of principle. (Psss, I think they mean us, Ross.)
The mind that conceives such a paragraph not only doesn’t grasp the true history of the council (for this list is so obviously wrong and biased that only a True Believer could produce it), but has cast himself as hero of a conflict playing out in his own mind. It establishes a clear set of conflicts between us (The good progressives! Yay!) and them (The bad reactionaries! Boo!). The Other (eg, Ross Douthat, and other Catholics who take a traditional line along with St. John Paul II, Pope Benedict, and others) is an obvious enemy to be mocked and crushed.
And thus it was no surprise to find the first name on the list of signatories to the petition seeking the removal of Ross Douthat from the New York Times was …
…yeah, you guessed it: “John O’Malley, SJ (Georgetown University).”
Does that clarify things a bit?