Was Vatican II All Bad? An Eastern Comment

Today marks the 50th anniversary of the close of the Second Vatican Council. To “commemorate” this event, Professor Peter Kwasniewski posted two closing addresses from the Council, the first by Pope Paul VI and the second by Archbishop Pericle Felici. The naïve optimism expressed in both should give any soberminded Catholic reason to pause. Still, at the risk of sounding like a heretic to many traditional Catholics, can it really be said that all of Vatican II was a wash? And here I am not just referring to passages in Lumen Gentium or Sacrosantum Concillium which merely reaffirm longstanding Catholic doctrine and praxis. What I mean to precisely ask is did Vatican II not give something positive to the Church which, over the last half-century, has borne good fruit? Without claiming to cover the Council’s whole terrain, let me suggest that there is at least one document from Vatican II which deserves honest appreciation (if not praise) even if falls a bit short in certain areas: Orientalium Ecclesiarum (OE).

Prior to OE (and in some instances for decades after), most of the sui iuris Eastern Catholic churches had undergone various processes of Latinization regarding their liturgy, theology, and governance structure. One of the principal effects of Latinization was to reduce Eastern Catholicism to a ritual form, thus obscuring the reality that the Eastern churches are true particular churches in full communion with Rome. OE, in continuity with calls from popes such as Leo XIII and St. Pius X, pushes back against Latinizations in the Eastern churches, particularly in the area of liturgy and the sacraments. Unlike the Roman Church, Eastern Christians have long administered all of the sacraments of initiation (Baptism, Chrismation/Confirmation, and the Eucharist) at the same time and to infants. Moreover, Eastern disciplinary practices regarding fasting, holy days, and liturgical norms have their own logic and history to them which were not always respected by neighboring Latin Catholic bishops and priests. OE helps remind the universal Church of the full integrity of Eastern Christianity and helps stem the tide of Latin chauvinism which has washed over the Eastern Catholic churches for centuries.

Another important feature of OE is its openness to reconciliation with the separated Eastern churches (Oriental and Eastern Orthodox). While some traditional Catholics have expressed dissatisfaction with the document’s positive (but tempered) tone toward communicatio in sacris, it’s important to note that OE is only restating and affirming the centuries-old reality of Catholics and Orthodox ministering to each other’s flocks, particularly in areas such as the Middle East where all Christians were and remain subject to Muslim persecution. Contrary to the claims of some hysterical traditionalists, nowhere does OE claim that the Oriental and Eastern Orthodox should stay separated from the Catholic Church. What OE does state, however, is that the Eastern churches should remain true to themselves. The goal of Catholic unity is not to impose a monolithic rite upon all of Christendom or discard practices which do not align perfectly with Latin disciplines, but to dwell together as one flock under one shepherd who is Jesus Christ, the Lord and Savior of the world.

Now, none of this is to say that OE is a perfect document. From the Orthodox perspective delivered by Fr. Alexander Schmemann, OE is still subject to an overly Latinized ecclesiological and theological framework—an observation shared by a number of Eastern Catholics as well. Further, it is arguable that OE did not go far enough in granting to the Eastern Catholic patriarchs and metropolitans the autonomy they and their respective churches deserve by right. A simple, but telling, example is the ongoing “need” for the Pope to officially canonize Eastern saints—a process that flies in the face of ancient Eastern (or, for that matter, Western) praxis. Additionally, the continuing existence of the Congregation for Oriental Churches coupled with Rome’s all-too-frequent interventions into Eastern Christian affairs highlights the fact that there is still a long way to go before the Catholic Church will truly breathe with both lungs.

7 comments

  1. Unfortunately, OE is even now neglected. Many, if not most, Latin bishops are still prejudiced against Eastern Catholics, as shown by Prof. Geoffrey Hull in his book “The Banished Heart.” The Maronite liturgy is basically the Pauline Mass with some Eastern elements, and it looks like some other Eastern liturgies are going that way.

    1. I agree that OE’s vision has not been fully realized, though some of the blame rests with the Eastern churches themselves. It just seems like there is no strong movement within the Maronite communion to recover their liturgical patrimony. However, I think it’s important to look at some of the positive developments that have occurred within the Ukrainien and Melkite churches (though these developments seem to be more felt abroad than here in the West).

      The Eastern Catholic churches are always going to have a difficult go of it outside of their native territories. Just as conservative and traditional Latin parishes feel a great deal of pressure to conform to the liturgical banalities that have been with us for 40 years, so do the Eastern churches. What’s really needed is more education of the laity on the East’s liturgical heritage and a bottom-up movement to restore the liturgy in the way we’ve seen with the Roman Rite since 2007 or so. I think the younger generation sees and appreciates this, or at least that’s been my takeaway.

      1. Gabriel, I really do not know if “more education” is going to be the key at all. I remember a conversation with the wife of a Greek Catholic priest several years ago about a conference on the “eastern” tradition they had attended. The mostly lay attendees really would not attend services unless it was the Mass, unless they received something on a spoon, they were not interested. Vespers and Matins were dead in the water. And this woman actually heard some complaints about a daily Byzantine liturgy, that would it not be better to offer the novus ordo Roman rite as the daily rite “since it is shorter.” Her take was that eastern rite Roman Catholics were fundamentally no different than their Roman brethren, only slightly more ethnic.

    2. The general direction throughout all liturgical history is toward matching up with larger regional liturgies. The latinization of liturgy in the Eastern churches in union with Rome is of a piece with the union of liturgies within the West at Trent, and among those throughout the West well prior to the turn of the millennium, as well. The same is true in the East where the Byzantine rite came to dominate, even in areas outside of imperial control. In fact, as there were more ancient and apostolic churches in the East, and greater longstanding cultural diversity in the East, there were even more unique liturgical traditions. Not all or most of those traditions were subsumed by force, either. The homogenization of liturgy was a rather neutral affair within East and West, not as much between East and West.

      1. We could say the same thing about the obliteration of the 10 Tribes, or for that matter, the course of human history up through Babel.

        Didn’t make them positive developments, though; and in both cases, God eventually re-diversified us.

      2. Yes, but the situation in the East is more complicated. While we cannot go back in time, the truth is that Latin Catholics (mainly Jesuits) made intentional incursions into Eastern Catholic territory and with the use of various “tricks” (for lack of a better term) imposed, or at least greatly influenced, Eastern Catholics to adopt Latin practices. Part of this was due to poor clergy formation among the Greek Catholics prior to the late 18th Century. Like a number of Orthodox clergy, Eastern Catholic priests, if they received any good training at all, did so in Latin-run schools. Without getting into the messy history of the so-called “Latin captivity” among the Orthodox, I think it’s safe to say that Russian liturgical conservatism — both before and after the Nikonian reforms — probably saved their form of the Byzantine Rite from too many self-conscious Latinizations (though certainly Moghila’s reforms introduced some, at least at the theological and sacramental level).

        It’s important not to dismiss politics here as well. Arguably, the process of de-Latinization within the Ruthenian and Ukrainian churches began in the 19th Century, though worries of “Russophilism” (i.e., drawing too close to Russia and the Russian Orthodox Church) roadblocked otherwise well-meaning reforms. Also, there were a number of naive ideas floating around among both the Greek Catholics and Orthodox concerning the origins and formation of their liturgical rites, with both sides accusing the other of introducing “corruptions” or “innovations.” (Admittedly, it was typically the Greek Catholics who had introduced them by trying to conform their services to certain styles found within the Roman Rite.)

        Although I believe there is a case to be made that certain para-liturgical devotions such as the Rosary and Stations of the Cross made their way into the Eastern churches organically, I think that’s a separate issue from the gutting of otherwise extant Eastern liturgical services. It’s worth noting that St. Pius X, at the formation of the Russian Greek Catholic Church, specifically mandated that the Russian Catholics not alter or mix their rites with the Latin Rite. Moreover, because a number of Old Believer parishes joined the nascent Russian Catholic Church, Pius X went a step forward in stating that Old Believer form of the Byzantine Rite be left intact and not blended with post-Nikonian elements.

  2. You’ll notice that the council called to address contemporary issues has nothing to say at all about Communism and the systematic slaughter of tens of millions in mostly Eastern provenance. Curious, no?

    The Russian Orthodox leaders secured the council’s silence on the most deadly enemy of Christ and His Church ever in exchange for their mere presence during the proceedings. This says more about the cowardice of the Second Vatican Council and it’s irrelevance to anything contemporary than anything else.

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