Thursday, April 3, 2014

John XXIII, Really....Really?

The New Liturgical Movement has an interesting piece on the "real" John XXIII. Make of it what you will.

It seems only reasonable that, among those retaining communion with the bishop of Rome, there will be attempts to frame John XXIII in a more conservative or traditional light. Especially so given that since his death he has been the poster boy for liberal or progressive factions within the Roman Church.

The accuracy of such attempts is questionable. The conservative re-reading of John XXIII suffers from many of the same flaws inherent in the progressive mythology of the man. Namely, an extremely narrow body of texts, speeches or actions are used to frame the narrative and contrary data is excluded from the tabulation. Yet, for conservatives or traditionalists in the Roman Church, particularly among those who seem attached to the previous Roman pontiff, much rides upon successfully incorporating John XXIII into their own narrative. The likes of Hans Kung can cite John XXIII as the papal impetus or inspiration for just about every proposed deconstruction of the last vestiges of Latin Christianity. As such, there is an urgency, in some respects, to demonstrate John XXIII's affinity for a more conservative cause.

Of course, it is difficult to see how John XXIII readily fits into any contemporary Roman Catholic paradigm. Catholicism was a different animal in his day. There was a more unifying matrix of practice, prayer, and belief that held the very delicate edifice of Roman Catholicism together. As such, John XXIII could make the claim, as he did upon convoking the Second Vatican Council, that doctrine was everywhere, in the Catholic matrix, upheld and believed. I dare say none of his successors have had such confidence!

Which is not to say the Roman Church was perfect or that Catholicism was vibrant; Western Christianity was on a long road of decline and whether its original genius can ever be "rediscovered" or successfully reintegrated outside of the monastic context (the monasteries still offer the wayfaring soul some reprieve) is uncertain. Yet, the Roman Church today bares little resemblance to the Church governed by John XXIII, for better or worse. In this respect, attempts to frame him in the context of contemporary Roman Catholicism miss the point. John XXIII's MO only works in that particular context or in the context of a Roman Catholicism baring more marks of continuity with his particular context. Within the context of a Church that has marginalized its own liturgical tradition and its history of prayer, of a Church with influential members of the its hierarchy reaching to find ways to accommodate the worst excesses of contemporary Western society, of a Church whose theologians have not only abandoned Thomism and scholasticism, but indeed the Patristic theology upon which Christian Theology rests, within such a Church the figure and mission of John XXIII makes little sense. So to, within the context of a Church which increasingly finds the bulk of its base outside of Western Culture, within such a Church where the new body of liturgical prayer has become (to a greater or lesser degree) the rule of faith in areas in which the religion is expanding, in such Church where Greek Christianity has the ability to exercise an influence upon the Latin West, in such a Church the figure and mission of John XXIII is also out of place. Again, for better or worse, the context has changed and profoundly so.

The "battle" for the person of John XXIII has high symbolic value. Pragmatically, John XXIII may well be irrelevant to contemporary Roman Catholicism. Yet, much is at stake in how he is finally remembered in Roman Catholicism. The leading charge is to see him as the liberal counter weight to the conservative John Paul II, with whom he is being canonized. If a more conservative reading comes to the fore, then it would be a major victory for those parties that feel the immediate aftermath of the Second Vatican Council (and the publications of various aging theologians) are little more than a moment of institution wide lunacy.

Again, both readings would miss the point. It is hard to claim, with much credibility, that the Roman Church of today has much continuity with the Roman Church governed by John XXIII. Portrayals of him as the original progressive rebel are embarrassingly juvenile. Conversely, trumpeting a hermeneutic of continuity only serves to demonstrate how much discontinuity exists - there is little need for an interpretive method if continuity is readily demonstrable.

Yet, de-contextualizing John XXIII, further obscuring the "real" John  XXIII, is inevitable. The impending canonization of John XXIII with John Paul II is intended to defend a council and its living legacy, both of which, although much disputed, are unlikely to be forfeited by any succeeding Bishop of Rome. The crucial point of John XXIII is that he offers not only legitimacy, but indeed veracity to the Roman Church's recent history. This is not done in the conspiratorial terms likely rumored among various sede-trad groups. It is, rather, much more understandable, more mundane. Few would doubt the decades which have followed John XXIII's passing have been dramatic in the history of the Roman Church. For any religious body, such times occassion the need for cultic affirmation of the deity's presence in recent history. The recent history could be considered good (such as the expansion of Catholicism in Africa) or bad (such as its decline in the West). In any event, the magnitude of success or failure constitutes significant upheaval that must be situated in the religion's own narrative or mythology. The narrative of recent history is still being written, the Roman Church is still in the process of acquiring some perspective on itself.

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