Thomas Aquinas at the Council | Thomas G. Guarino
Jhe aftermath of the Second Vatican Council, which opened sixty years ago on October 11, 1962, has not been an easy time for the Catholic Church.
Benedict XVI, describing the tumultuous effects of the council, conceded that the implementation of Vatican II had indeed been difficult. He attributes the difficulty to a “hermeneutic of discontinuity and rupture” which he opposes to a “hermeneutic of reform” – understood as renewal and change in a fundamental continuity. In other words, some have failed to point out the profound continuity that exists between the pre-conciliar and post-conciliar Church.
I believe that an overlooked element of this continuity is Vatican II’s reliance on St. Thomas Aquinas. Some might be surprised. But shortly after the end of the great synod, the distinguished theologian and ecumenist Yves Congar, one of the main architects of Vatican II, said: “It could be demonstrated. . . that Saint Thomas, the doctor communis, provided the writers of the dogmatic texts of Vatican II with the basis and structure of their thought. We have no doubt that they themselves would make this admission.
How does the thought of Thomas Aquinas structure the texts of the council? I am convinced that Congar refers to the principles of participation and analogical reasoning, at the heart of the Catholic tradition, which underlie many of the Council’s major documents.
An example: Vatican II wanted to maintain the importance of the priesthood of the faithful – a concept supported by the Bible and highlighted by Martin Luther and other reformers – but without undermining the ministerial priesthood. The council achieved this by invoking two crucial Thomistic themes, participation and analogy. Jesus Christ possesses the priesthood in its fullness; he is, as Thomas Aquinas calls him, the verus sacerdos, the true priest. But the Christian faithful and the ordained ministers of the Church participate in the priesthood of Christ – formally share his priestly role – in cognate (analogous) relationships., but in essentially different ways. The designer of Lumen gentiumthe Belgian theologian Gérard Philips, will say on this subject, “once again, we come back to an explanation by analogy”.
Another example: the termmediatorapplied to the Blessed Virgin Mary. All Christians know that the Bible states that there is a mediator between God and mankind, Jesus Christ (I Timothy 2:5). How, then, can Vatican II use the title mediator for the Mother of God without contradicting immaculate biblical truth and undermining Christ’s unique mediating role?
To explain this theologically, Philips turned again to the themes of participation and analogy which he had employed when discussing the priesthood. Just as the priesthood belongs par excellence to Christ and secondarily to others, so “the unique mediation of the Redeemer does not exclude but arouses a multiple cooperation which is only a participation in this unique source” (Lumen gentium). In other words, just as Christ is the example of the priesthood, he is also par excellence the unique mediator between God and humanity. But his unparalleled status does not prevent others from participating in his mediation work. A third example: the termsubsist in.“A first draft of Lumen gentium declared that the Church of Christ “is” the Catholic Church while the final document states that the Church of Christ “exists in” the Catholic Church. Why the change from an unvarnished equivalence to a term that has sparked endless debate?
The reason is clear: the bishops and theologians of Vatican II wished to maintain the unique status of Catholicism while simultaneously affirming the many elements of grace and truth found in other Christian churches. The task was to show how other churches participate truly and formally, if to some extent imperfectly, in the Church of Christ. While Orthodox and Protestant Christians are separated from the Catholic Church, they are united with Jesus through baptism. As such they are members of the body of Christ.
The council considers that if the Church of Christ exists “in all its fullness” in Catholicism, other Churches participate in the Church of Christ with different degrees of intensity according to the ecclesial elements maintained within them (Bible, creeds and sacraments). Just as Jesus Christ is only a priest, others participate in his priesthood, so the Catholic Church is only the Church of Christ, while other churches participate formally. If the council had used the term “is,” indicating a simple equivalence, there would have been no consistent way to assert how other churches are truly part of the Church of Christ.
Although no one expects Orthodox or Protestant Christians to accept this view without objection, this approach has been a significant step forward for Catholicism – a theologically sophisticated way of talking about other Christian churches, not so schismatic and heretics (terms often used before Vatican II), but as fraternally and analogically related to the Catholic Church.
Let us take a final example, taken from the Declaration on non-Christian religions (Nostra Aetate), the council’s groundbreaking document on other religious denominations, primarily Judaism. The statement presents Christianity as the fullness of divine revelation, with Jesus Christ recognized as “the way, the truth and the life” through whom all are saved. But as was the case with other Churches, Judaism and other religions are now evaluated from the point of view of their proportional similarity and their intensive participation in the truth proclaimed by the Catholic Church. Other religions are not decried as outcrops of error. They are presented as embodying elements of grace and truth – with varying levels of intensity – and as such linked to Catholicism. Instead of emphasizing the differences between Christianity and other religions, Vatican II insists on the analogical similarity between Christianity and other religions.
While the conciliar documents speak positively even of Hinduism and Buddhism, they speak at much greater length of the strong ties that unite Christianity and Judaism. Along with St. Paul, Vatican II affirms that to the Jews belong “filiation and glory and covenants and law and worship and promises; to them belong the fathers and from them is Christ after the flesh” (Romans 9:4-5). The council further recalls “that the apostles, the pillar and the pillars of the Church, as well as most of the first disciples who proclaimed the Gospel of Christ to the world, came from the Jewish people”. Taking divine revelation in its entirety, Vatican II maintains that Judaism, while still remaining the fons and origo of Christianity, participates in the revelation found fully in the light of Christ. By invoking analogy, Vatican II was able to affirm “similarity in difference,” a bond of unity with others, even in the absence of full congruence.
Traditional Thomistic language cannot be found in the Vatican II documents because John XXIII was convinced that the conceptual arsenal of the thirteenth century would not advance ecumenical dialogue or resonate with the lives of contemporary Christians. But while new ways of speaking were needed, Thomistic ideas underlie several texts. Indeed, analogical reasoning so saturates the conciliar documents that if one wants to speak of a “spirit of Vatican II”, then analogical thought has strong claims in this respect. Indeed, I think that one can speak of analogy as the philosophical style underlying the conciliatory rhetorical style of Vatican II.
Sixty years later, the conciliar documents have proven to be flexible and resilient guides, and still appear alive and relevant. It is important to note that the thought of Thomas Aquinas helped Vatican II to express the closeness of others – other Christians, those of other faiths, even those who seek truth and justice – to Jesus Christ and to the Catholic Church.
Rev. Msgr. Thomas G. Guarino is Emeritus Professor of Systematic Theology at Seton Hall University and author of The Contested Teachings of Vatican II: Continuity and Reversal in Catholic Doctrine.
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