In the second part of this interview, Betsy Johnson-Miller spoke with Dr. Richard R. Gaillardetz about the humility of the church as emphasized in Vatican II, and the role of Pope Francis in fulfilling the vision of this council. Read Part One of the interview.
One of your chapters is “Vatican II and the Humility of the Church.” Why is humility an important category for the church?
People often think of humility as a personal virtue—that you appropriate or I appropriate—but I suggested in my book that we think of it as a virtue that the church itself must make its own. Humility has been a very important virtue in the church’s history. It’s central to the thought of St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas. I argue that if you look at the whole vision of the Council, one way to understand it is to say it’s encouraging the Church itself to appropriate an analogous, ecclesial virtue of humility. Why is that important? Because part of Catholic teaching wants to emphasize, rightly, that the Catholic Church is not just a human, sociological reality. It is that, to be sure, but we believe that it is also a spiritual community. There is a divine element to the church, and so we say things like the church is the body of Christ, the temple of the Holy Spirit. What we are saying in each of those? We are admitting that there is a divine element. Fair enough. But that can lead to what we might call an ecclesial monophysitism.
Monophysitism was an ancient heresy of the church concerned with Christology. It had the tendency to say that there was one fundamental nature (phūsis) of Christ, and it was divine. The human had been subsumed into the divine. That was rightly condemned as a heresy. But there’s a kind of ecclesial monophysitism that wants to so emphasize the divine reality of the church that we lose sight of the human. That takes the form of what we might call triumphalism. “The Catholic Church was established by Christ. It’s the one true church. It has all the truth”…and so on and so forth. We so emphasize God’s action in the church that we downplay the humanity. One of the most important things that Vatican II did is it appropriated a humility—an ecclesial humility—that says, “We’ve got to pay more attention to the human dimension of the church.” It does this in a number of ways.
One of the most important is in chapter seven of Lumen Gentium, which is a chapter on the church itself as pilgrim. It would be fairly traditional for Catholics to say that we are all, by our baptism, pilgrims on a journey, hoping to achieve our final destiny to be in eternal communion with God for all of eternity. That’s always been a teaching of the church and it remains true now. But Vatican II didn’t just say we’re a church of pilgrims; it said we’re a pilgrim church. The church itself is on the way. It hasn’t arrived. In Lumen Gentium the Council claims that the church “will not achieve its perfection until the end of history.” The implications of that one line are immense, because it’s saying that the church is not perfect. If the church is not perfect, then there’s a need for change and reform. That admission, in turn, will allow the Council to make some remarkable assertions in its Decree on Ecumenism, Unitatis redintegratio. In that remarkable document, when the Council talks about these grievous divisions between the Catholic Church and, say, Orthodoxy—a division that was formalize in the 11th century—or with the Protestant traditions in the 16th century and afterwards, the Council will admit, for the first time in its history, that “there were errors made on both sides.” It’s the first time the Catholic Church admits that Catholicism may have contributed to these divisions.
Once you’ve admitted this, once you’ve begun to imagine a church that makes mistakes, you have the beginning of a humble church. And from there you can say what the Decree of Ecumenism says in #6: “insofar as the church is a human institution, it will always be in need of reform and renewal.” That’s a humble church, a church that is humble not just because it’s willing to be self-critical, not just because it is willing to look at its own faults and weaknesses, but also because it is about celebrating other people’s gifts.
This is another part of humility—humility isn’t just about beating yourself up. It’s also about celebrating other people’s gifts. A humble person doesn’t focus on themselves. They focus on the gifts of others. So what does the Council do? It looks at other Christian traditions and instead of focusing on their errors, it emphasizes the gifts that these other Christian traditions offer us. In the document Nostra Aetate [The Declaration on the Relation of the Church with Non-Christian Religions], the Council invites us to look at the elements of goodness and truth that can be found in these other religions. Finally, in the church’s engagement with the world, the Council calls for a humble church that doesn’t just consider what we the Church offer to the world, but invites consideration of what the world can teach us. Humility is a church willing to learn from its dialogue partners.
You mention Pope Francis in the title of the book. Where does Francis fit into all of this—the idea of an unfinished building site, humility, the Holy Spirit, etc.? How are you assessing Francis’ pontificate in relation to these?
The interesting thing about Pope Francis is that he is the first pope since Vatican II to have had no role at Vatican II. Pope Francis wasn’t even an ordained priest until several years after Vatican II. So there’s a subtle irony here. He’s the first pope with no real ties to Vatican II, and yet—without diminishing the ways in which of each of his predecessors carried forward aspects of Vatican II, and they each did—I’m convinced that Pope Francis has more comprehensively carried forward the Council’s mission across a wide range of issues than did any of his predecessors.
In some instances, he is building on things his predecessors did. Recently the Vatican issued a wonderful statement on Christian/Jewish relations. That’s building on groundbreaking work that Pope John Paul II did. But Francis is not only building on the work of his predecessors, he’s also carrying forward elements that I’m not convinced his predecessors emphasized as much. For example, Vatican II tried to downplay—not to erase, but to downplay—the huge gulf between the ordained and the lay. Before that, you have Pope Pius X in 1906 saying quite baldly, the church is societas inequalis. It is an unequal society comprised of two ranks—the clergy, whose task is to lead, and the laity, whose task is to docilely follow. There’s a huge difference between these two.
Vatican II tried to soften this distinction between the ordained and the laity by emphasizing more our common baptism. That aspect of Vatican II’s teaching was seriously neglected under Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict. They both carried forward parts of Vatican II’s teaching, but I think they wanted to reinforce this ontological divide between the clergy and the laity. Pope Francis comes along, and he’s not denying the need for ordained ministers, but what is he talking about all of the time? Missionary discipleship. We’re all called to go into the streets. We’re all called to be a part of this field of ministry. So, in important ways, he’s carrying forward this teaching that his predecessors had neglected.
Another great example of this—Vatican II wanted to move away from an understanding of the church as overly dogmatic, instead putting church doctrine at the service of the life of the church. Pope John XXIII, in his opening address at the Council, said that in the past, the church had relied on condemnation, vigorously denouncing things, but now it was the time for the church to use “the medicine of mercy,” and to persuade people of the truth of its teaching. Pope John doesn’t deny the need for doctrine, but he thinks doctrine needs to be put in the service of the pastoral life of the church, what the French theologian Christoph Theobald refers to as the “pastorality of doctrine.” The Council is saying, of course we have to have these dogmas, these fundamental articulations of the faith—but let’s remember that they serve something more basic—the Gospel. Christ himself. So the Council is saying we need doctrine, but it needs to be in the service of the Gospel message in all its simplicity and power. These are just a couple of ways in which Pope Francis is offering us a fresh reception of what Vatican II was about. He’s doing as much—or more—than any of his predecessors did to build that dome that unites all these teachings into a coherent and compelling vision of the church as we move forward into the 21st century.
None of this is to say that I think Pope Francis is perfect. He, like every pope, has some blind spots. There are things that I’d like to see him emphasize more, but frankly, those blind spots were blind spots in Vatican II as well. For example, I wish Pope Francis would do a little more fresh reflection on the role of women in the church. He’s not done as much as I would like, but neither did Vatican II. At some point, and I don’t know that the time is right now, but at some point we are going to need to address the questions that Vatican II never addressed. Which is why, by the way, the building project of Vatican II in a way may never be finished. Because the building project is not a building project of the Council. It’s really the building project of the church, and the church is never completed. The church is always on a journey, always in the midst of a kind of construction project. It’s just that the building plans at some point have to be handed over. Right now, the building plans are taken from the sixteen documents of the Second Vatican Council. Those are still the blueprints we are working from, and there’s a lot to do. But at some point we will need some new blueprints to address new questions. Thus has it always been in the church.