Fidelity to Tradition: Bl. John XXIII and the Second Vatican Council

On Sunday, April 27, along with John Paul II, Pope Francis will canonize the beloved John XXIII, having quickly advanced him through the arduous process of saint-creation. One is tempted to call it the undercard of the match, or perhaps Pope Francis wanted some Italian presence in St. Peter’s square to offset the busloads of Poles descending on the eternal city. In any case, John XXIII was certainly no undercard in his lifetime. He was known as a congenial, pastoral, saintly, and affable man. The son of peasants, he was approachable and relatable in the way that Pius XII was not. This parallel may be instructive today in the apparent disconnect between Benedict and Francis. Like today, the press then made much more of a distinction between Pius and John than was warranted. Like our current Holy Fathers — there’s a Catholic mouthful — they were of one mind in their governance and love of the Church. We must not let the secular press set the narrative, as it has done so often over the last fifty years.

Indeed, if anyone takes care to study the pontificates of Pius and John, he will be struck by two salient facts. In the first place, both were saints. While John’s was of an amenable variety that appealed to the world, Pius’ saintly reserve, austerity, and dedication to the Church were no less holy. Second, and perhaps most surprisingly, Pius XII was somewhat avant-garde, particularly in areas like liturgical development, the Church’s relation to science, and biblical studies. Were that word not so loaded today, one would even call John XXIII a ‘Traditionalist’, especially when compared to Pius. John was wholly dedicated to the corpus of doctrine of the Church. His idea for Vatican II was to make that tradition operative in the life of the world. Far from being a liberal, John did such things as censure theologians, affirm the necessity of heterosexual orientation for seminary study, and solemnly reaffirm the centrality of the Latin language on the eve of the eve of the Council’s convocation.

Blessed John XXIII

Blessed John XXIII

Pope Benedict repeatedly reminded us that the normative way for Catholics to analyze the documents of the past (particularly those of the conciliar age) is in the context of a hermeneutic of continuity. This means reading John XXIII and Vatican II as signposts of tradition. Their teachings are to be affirmed in continuity with the past, and read through the constant tradition of the Church. There is no rupture, no new Church “sung into being” at the Council. The aggiornamento (updating) called for by John XXIII was no revolutionary call — for the revolutionary spirit is anti-Christian at its root. Rather it was born of the necessity to present the eternal teachings of Christ, embedded in and undergirded by tradition, to modern people hungry for transcendence.

This Catholic worldview was readily apparent in John’s teaching on human life. While it is true that John died before the tendencies of the sexual revolution had wholly matured, nonetheless he was aware of developments, such as the corrosion of Christian consensus on birth control and the perennial dangers to marriage and family life. John was content to abide by the ancient tradition of Catholicism, serving as a prophetic voice calling men and women back to the truth about themselves, for the sake of authentic love. His pro-life passage in Mater et Magistra 193 (1961) deserves quotation in full:

We solemnly proclaim that human life is handed on and transmitted by the work of the family, which depends on marriage, one and indissoluble, raised for Christians to the dignity of a Sacrament. And since the transmission of human life is entrusted by nature to a personal and conscious act, as such, it is subject to the most holy, most unshakeable, most inviolable laws of God, that are to be recognized and observed. Therefore, it is not permissible to use means and follow methods that can be licit when considering the extension of plant or animal life.

In fact, human life must be held sacred by all, since from its very inception the creative action of God is required. So by withdrawing from those things constituted by God Himself, Divine Majesty is offended (NOTE: literally rendered, “one commits treason against God”), the individuals themselves and humanity are disgraced, and the human community itself of which they are members is enfeebled. (Translation mine)

One could not imagine stronger language from “the smiling pope”. Here is a short catechism of the Catholic teaching on Life. Human life, for its own good and dignity, is only licitly transmitted by the family, rooted solely in Christian sacramental marriage. This is God’s teaching, not the Church’s. She but safeguards it and tends it. She cannot change it. He reproves the moral equation of plant and animal life with human life. What is licit for them as part of our care for creation is not fit for rational and immortal beings. He reaffirms constant solicitude for human life from the moment of its origin. The language closing the paragraph speaks for itself. It is a theological and sociological mini-masterpiece (later to be unpacked by Paul VI in Humanae vitae).

It is sometimes alleged that Pope John “opened the door” for artificial contraception with his convocation of the “Birth Control Commission.” One has to set this in proper context. John was faced with a new situation: the development of oral contraceptives (i.e. “the pill”). To some it appeared that the marital act was not vitiated by merely medicinal means in this case and so they proposed that the Church should make some statement regarding it. The liceity of other methods which impeded conception was never under review, they were always and everywhere wrong. John convoked a rather informal advisory group (which later ballooned under Paul VI) to discuss the matter. Much like later developments in medicine that have to be analyzed by moral theologians and bioethicists, this was another case of the Church’s solicitude for truth and respect for science. John also did not wish the new Council to take up the issue before the Church undertook mature meditation on the subject. Yet it was always impossible — despite press distortions — that artificial contraception would ever be approved by the Catholic Church.

The Council itself too, following the pattern of John XXIII, was also concerned about life issues.  While some have taken the relative brevity on which it spoke about these doctrines as evidence of a shift in belief, they could not be more wrong. In the early sixties, the ramifications of the sexual revolution had not yet become manifest, and most of the Council fathers came from traditional Catholic cultures in which such problems were as yet incomprehensible. Church documents cannot be blamed for not having been written in later periods. Indeed, the relative sanity which still seemed to prevail on the surface of the West provided them a more dispassionate opportunity to revisit the perennial tradition.

The Fathers of the Council knew that life issues were critical for the family and the modern world. Such is the contention in the Pastoral Constitution Gaudium et spes 51 (1965). Once again the relevant passage is worth quoting in full. One should particularly note the strong words employed by the “Pastoral Council”.

To these problems there are those who presume to offer shameful solutions indeed, they do not recoil even from murder, but the Church calls to mind that a true contradiction cannot exist between the divine laws regarding the transmission of life and those pertaining to authentic conjugal love.

For God, the Lord of life, has confided to men the surpassing ministry of safeguarding life in a manner fitted to the dignity of man. Therefore from the moment of its conception life must be guarded with the greatest care, while abortion and infanticide are abominable crimes. The sexual characteristics of man and the human power of reproduction wonderfully exceed those found in lower forms of life. So the acts themselves which are proper to conjugal love and which are exercised in accord with genuine human dignity must be honored with great reverence. Hence when there is question of harmonizing conjugal love with the responsible transmission of life, the moral aspects of any procedure does not depend solely on sincere intentions or on an evaluation of motives, but must be determined by objective standards. These, based on the nature of the human person and his acts, preserve the full sense of mutual self-giving and human procreation in the context of true love. Such a goal cannot be achieved unless the virtue of conjugal chastity is sincerely cultivated. Relying on these principles, sons of the Church may not undertake methods of birth control which are condemned by the teaching authority of the Church in its unfolding of the divine law.

All should be convinced that human life and the office of transmitting it are not realities bound up with this world alone. Hence they cannot be measured or perceived only in terms of it, but always have a bearing on the eternal destiny of men. (my translation).

Here the continuity of Vatican II with the past shines forth. The Fathers note the condemnations of Pius XI and XII with approval in their footnotes. They are not afraid to call abortion and infanticide by their proper name. They situate human sexuality sub specie aeternitatis, that is, in the context of eternal destinies. They reprove situation ethics or the so-called “fundamental option.” Objective standards exist to which those who follow God must conform. Conjugal chastity (a term both misunderstood and understudied today, even by those who follow the Church’s teaching) is held up as the ideal.

John XXIII and the Second Vatican Council are reminders for us of the perennial teaching of the Church.  They make present eternal realities within new contexts. This is what the secular press, and indeed many Catholics themselves, cannot understand. For Christianity is embedded in the incarnation of Truth Himself. To violate this Truth would be to abandon the Bride’s fidelity to her Spouse and Head. The Church cannot and will not change these teachings. For if she did, she would not be the Church of Christ.

Donald S. Prudlo is Associate Professor of Ancient and Medieval History at Jacksonville State University in Alabama. He is also Associate Professor of Theology and Church History at Christendom. His specialty is Saints and Sainthood in the Christian Tradition, and he is the author of The Martyred Inquisitor: The Life and Cult of Peter of Verona (+1252) (Ashgate, 2008) and has recently edited The Origin, Development, and Refinement of Medieval Religious Mendicancies (Brill, 2011).
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  • Timothy Rainier

    I remember a poor Pope, one who even said this “I was born poor, I lived poor, I will die poor.” However he was quite different from what supposed poverty has wrought in the form of “pastoral” and “aggiornamento”. That poor Pope was St. Pius X, His epitaph reads thusly
    “Born poor and humble of heart,Undaunted champion of the Catholic faith,
    Zealous to restore all things in Christ,
    Crowned a holy life with a holy death.”
    How different is the poverty of St. Pius X to what passes for poverty nowadays.

  • Mitchell Kalpakgian

    Superb article! As you explain so well,the narrative cannot be framed by the secular press or academe who do not know or understand the meaning of tradition, continuity, or the unchanging nature of universal truth, moral law, or God’s Word. The world always wants the Church to conform to the spirit of the age, but the Church in her great wisdom and God in His Divine Providence insist that the world must surrender to God’s eternal laws and perennial truths that will never “pass away.”. Man is not God and cannot in his hubris dictate to the Church as the Obama administration, for example, presumes to do..

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