by Andrew Simmons Friday, Oct 25
“I define postmodern as incredulity toward meta-narratives” –Jean-François Lyotard
As a convert to Catholicism, it became apparent that I was not entirely prepared to discover the whole conflict over Vatican II. In fact, I learned about it the most abrupt and not-so-subtle way which actually put me into a slight existential crisis mere months after being baptized. But that is another story altogether. One particular topic concerning the whole discourse is the notion of modernity and what it means for the Church. Modernity is simply defined as the pursuit of being “modern”. In conciliar discourses that can span from Nicea, Trent, to Vatican II, the notion of modernity becomes slightly more strenuous given that each essentially dealt with its own notion of “the modern”. My general question is whether or not the notion of modernity has been lost amidst anachronisms, nostalgia, and naïve progressivism. While certainly this topic can be revisited, this is a contemplation on what really connotes the modern condition in the wake of Vatican II. The definition of modernity needs to come to terms with post-modernity.
Frequently, when I hear Vatican I being contrasted to Vatican II, the notion of modernity (especially in regards to Vatican I’s statements concerning modernity) seems anachronistic or misappropriated. It generally leaves me wondering whether or not the meaning of modernity has been lost in translation. Considering the context of Vatican I, the notion of modernity revolves entirely around the assertion that the Church (and revelation in general) is to be confined to the Ancien Regime. The philosophical currents at that time were concerned with the pursuit of truth by materialistic and idealistic means. It did not entail the abandonment of the concept of objective truth. Certainly, Marx viewed his metanarrative of the proletariat utopia as objective; Hegel viewed the liberation of the Geist as certain; Spinoza thought that all material reality was simply a mask for the divine in his pantheism. Faith was viewed as old-fashioned in light of reason. Man was no longer viewed as needing the light of revelation to inspire the intellect, but could simply come to absolute knowledge via his own ideals and natural reasoning. What Vatican I condemns is the notion that one can come to knowledge of the truth in its totality without God. It attacks the division of faith and reason. Also, like every council throughout the Church’s history, Vatican I did not preemptively condemn notions that were beyond its current predicament. Nicea did not condemn Apollinarius, the First Council of Constantinople did not discuss Nestorianism, and Vatican I certainly did not speak about the post-modern condition.
Postmodernity bases itself on the rejection of all meta-narratives. It is not the assertion that there is a truth beyond the confines of the Church, but that there really is no greater truth to ascend to. While immersed in the Enlightenment, Nietzsche looked at the modernist condition and warned that it could only lead to nihilism. Much like his rendition of Zarathustra, Nietzsche was ahead of his time and the modernist world continued on without fully realizing Nietzsche’s “most gruesome of all guests” (Nietzsche 3). The world is now fixated on the post-modern condition (I refuse to call post-modernity the new “modern” because it appears so contradictory). Sartre wrote on the relativity of one’s essence. Heidegger was uncertain about the meaning of being. The topic of theology has also been affected. Slavoj Zizek asserts that Christ was the nihilistic union that brought an end to the divine and human nature in God in Pain: Inversions of Apocalypse. Gianni Vattimo proposes that the death of Christ saves one from the burden of objectivity in his A Farewell to Truth and After Christianity. If anything, the Church has been tasked with the responsibility of resisting the current issue of nihilism. It needs to be a bastion of truth in a world that frankly rejects it. It is the generation following Vatican II that acts as an opponent of the catatonic ennui within the phrase “that is your opinion”.
The post-modern condition needs to be assessed before the word “modernity” is liberally used in Church discourses. Vatican I and its struggles with modernity were punctuated by an assertion that the Church was not made irrelevant by the powers of rationalism. The world that emerged around and proceeding Vatican II is far different than its modernist predecessor. Meta-narrative has been lost amidst the existential pursuit of expression and relativity. Doubtlessly, this topic will be brought up again, but the main goal of this entry was to provide the importance of contextual information. A council does not preemptively deal with fallacies that are beyond its time. As history continues on, the Church might find itself, once again, convening in order to deal with a great and present concern. What that might be is certainly beyond the scope of Vatican I and Vatican II, but that neither invalidates the preceding councils nor makes any future one’s unnecessary.
Nietzsche, Friedrich, The Will to Power. (New York: Barnes and Nobles 2006)
Andrew Simmons is currently a senior at Aquinas College. He is working on a double major in History and Theology with a minor in Catholic Studies. In 2010, during his freshman year, he converted to Catholicism. He has been an existentialist suffering from a Catholic crisis ever since.