From an unknown source come the words of Bishop De Kesel of Bruges about the Second Vatican Council.

Let’s have a look:

“The renewal that the Council had heralded so promising, has not come to pass, at least not to the scale that people had imagined. The Council pleaded for a greater openness to modern culture. And rightly so. But modern culture unavoidably means a secular culture and a secular culture equally unavoidably means a non-Christian culture. That is something that the Council and the following post-conciliar renewal has insufficiently recognised. On the contrary, it sooner thought that openness to modern culture would lead to a return to an admittedly modern, but yet also Christian culture. Which did not happen. Which obviously did not happen. A much more fundamental process of change in western culture was what it was about. It was not, and still is not only about a Church which was to adapt to the new culture. It was about this culture, as a culture, bidding farewell to Christianity. And for Christianity this does not mean the end, but the end of a status that it had had here for centuries: that of a cultural religion, the religion that grounded culture and held it together and was therefore universally recognised and accepted. The Council itself could do nothing about this process of change, which was not on the agenda of the Council. It is a process of change that started long before the Council and which continued after the Council. The question remains not so much how the Church should continue to adapt to modern culture, but what it means to be Church in a modern and therefore thoroughly secular, non-Christian world.

We continue to think that, if the Church would reach out to modern culture, that that culture would once again stand up for her. We are still searching for the adapted liturgy of the new language which would finally solve the problem of the loss of relevance of Christianity. But it remains to be seen if we will ever find it. In that way we keep on suffering from a fundamental and unspoken frustration in our pastoral work, our way of being Church and of Church renewal.

It is not right that a Church which consistently modernises would again convince everyone. It is hard and painful to accept that the Gospel is no longer considered relevant for everyone. A Church that is more consistently adapted to modernity will not lead to a return to the past. It will never again be like the past. In a lengthy process of which Vaticanum II was merely a symptom, the west had not only bid farewell to a certain unadapted form of Christian, but has Christianity steadily ceased to be the cultural religion of western civilisation.”

The  piece sounds a bit defeatist to my ears. I agree with the bishop’s claim that constant renewal and adaptation will not lead to a new flourishing of the Church (in whatever form the proponents of constant renewal imagine). The Church is what she is, and although far from inflexible, her teachings and faith make her what she is. Changing these would mean changing the very essence of the Catholic Church founded by Jesus Christ.

Bishop De Kesel is also right in his statements that there no longer exists a cultural Christianity in the west. But I don’t think that that is what the Second Vatican Council aimed for in the Constitution Gaudium et Spes. This proposed an openness to the world, not an adaptation to the world. Gaudium et Spes put into words the reality of the Church in the world, without losing sight of her identity of purpose:

While helping the world and receiving many benefits from it, the Church has a single intention: that God’s kingdom may come, and that the salvation of the whole human race may come to pass. For every benefit which the People of God during its earthly pilgrimage can offer to the human family stems from the fact that the Church is “the universal sacrament of salvation”, simultaneously manifesting and exercising the mystery of God’s love. [45]

The Church and the Christian faith have been reduced to themselves, Bishop De Kesel seems to say, and that is just how it is. We can’t reclaim the past and we can’t (shouldn’t) adapt to merge with modernity. I think that the bishop has addressed the heart of the matter in these words: the adaptations that have taken place in the name of the ‘spirit of Vatican II’ to get the Church more in line with the world have led to nothing. But I also think that the issue is more complicated than pictured here. The renewal of the Council is yet to be completed, not according to the framework given by modern culture, but by that of Tradition. And in that sense, we, the members of the Church, still need to learn to adapt.

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