Mission creep

Aggiornamento was the pretty Italian word used by Pope St John XXIII, to describe the purpose of the Ecumenical Council he projected in 1959. Englishmen, of course, do not understand Italian, but the word flowers in their ears all the same. It sounds like some happy journey into spring. But while it was in vogue through the 1960s, people everywhere came to understand it meant, “bringing up to date.”

At first, the sainted pope used the word quite specifically, with reference to canon law, which had been assembled and harmonized in a uniform, official, single-volume Code of Canon Law for the first time, in 1917. A revised, second edition of that seemed to be called for.

Cardinal Burke would know more about this, but from my limited understanding, the canon law that went into effect at Pentecost, 1918, had been a major undertaking. It had involved many scholars and broad-ranging research, under the direction of the formidable Pietro Gasparri, a Vatican secretary of state with a reputation for getting things done, regardless of whether they were possible.

Yet, this was not so impressive as a previous assembly of a Corpus Juris Canonici, at Bologna in the mid-twelfth century. This had been done by a single man, the brilliant Camaldolese monk, Johannes Gratian, about whom I’ve always wanted to know more. His Decretum (as it came also to be called) is a stupendous thing — not merely explaining what Church law must be, in the canones, but expounding its principles in scinitillating maxims and dicta. Gratian had pulled together into this self-consistent corpus every significant ruling from Moses forward to the recently concluded Second Lateran Council, in light of Roman law through Justinian, and with sidelong glances at Celtic, Saxon, and Visigothic legal orders. I am told that lawyers have gone to their graves in a state of bliss, just contemplating it.

Which is not to demean the great Burchard of Worms, who had attempted something similar a century before; nor the many other fine legal minds who had flourished in the first millennium of the Church; nor the many more who flourished after. Nor is it to suggest that the Decretum Gratiani was the only, or even the final word on anything. It is merely to insinuate that Gratian “wrote the book” on Catholic law, in a way similar to that in which Thomas Aquinas wrote the Summa on Catholic theology.

Many other documents had since been added to the mix — thousands — but Gratian’s Decretum (with later notes) had continued to provide a sheet anchor. And the further beauty was, that it had no formal authority in the Church, whatever. It was, in effect, unwritten law in a written form. The mark of a great and noble institution — and what is Holy Church if not that? — may be seen in such arrangements. She does not rest her Positive Law upon neat programmatic formulae — like a revolutionary constitution, arbitrarily imposed — but on a distillation of human and divine wisdom, acquired over thousands of years. She is spacious: her distinctions are subtle but exact; her truths ordered to accommodate each other, assembling themselves hierarchically in the interstices of reason and revelation, as light dappled through the leaves. They are not “invented” but “discovered” (in the modern senses of both terms). When she needs something, she invariably finds it is already there. She requires only servants with the depth of mind to retrieve it, excavating where necessary down to the Natural Law at the centre of the Earth.

The intention behind that Codex Iuris Canonici (the Code of 1917) was good, unquestionably, the project having been launched by Pope St Pius X, and brought to fruition by Benedict XV. It cut a highway through the overgrown thicket, abrogating all trees in the way, thus making the law more accessible to persons of mediocre intelligence: in effect, the modern, buzzsaw approach to gardening, followed up in the liturgy half a century later. I myself would have been totally opposed to the whole project, but people consulted me even less before I was born. The revision foreseen by Pope St John XXIII was not completed until 1983, when Pope St John-Paul II signed off on it, bringing the “reform of the reform” of canon law into force for Advent in that year. In the meantime, Vatican II itself had created much additional turbulence for the smoothing, slowing the process down.

But I return to this little-known, or little-remembered fact: that the aggiornamento began with the fairly modest ambition of revising the text of the Code of Canon Law. Within a couple of years Pope St John himself, a man of energy and enthusiasm and what I might almost call overbearing goodwill, was speaking of a much grander enterprise, and using the same word to refer poetically to an aggiornamento of the entire Church — as if to clean out the cobwebs of two thousand years from every pipe of every organ. Nothing specific was foreseen, however; it was only a poetical flourish.

The one actual change upon which Pope St John insisted, he had already proclaimed: removing the word perfidius (“faithless”) from the Good Friday liturgy, where it had been used to qualify the word “Jews.” This genuine saint, who had done so much to rescue, hide, and save so many Jewish men, women, and children from the Holocaust during the War, rightly saw that any hint of anti-Semitism must be washed out of the Church’s thoughts — acting dramatically from the Sanctuary in 1959 to have the prayer for the conversion of the Jews repeated without the offending word. (Deo gratias!)

Compare: the omission of one word, with schemes to revise and rewrite everything in sight. And note: the popular idea that Vatican II was required to achieve that tiny but crucial alteration. Like most subsequent ideas about Vatican II, it is false, ignorant, and on closer inspection, mendacious.

Now, there’s a point to all this, and perhaps I will get to it tomorrow.