UPDATE: Just read a part in Congar’s Journal about birth control. He wrote that he hoped the Pope would take a moral approach to the issue; that people were approaching the whole matter in a materialistic way as if they could get some “thingumabob” that could free them from having to be virtuous.
Since I am still reading Yves Congar’s Journal of the Council, I googled his name to see where he stood on Humanae Vitae, because there are some hints in his diary he was open to birth control. Among the results of my search, this 2006 article in Crisis Magazine.
When judging postconciliar developments like these, it is necessary to consider a fundamental question: Was the Second Vatican Council really the sharp break with the Church’s past that the “spirit of Vatican II” rhetoric claimed?
Rev. Yves Congar, O.P., for one, thought not. Father Congar, a French Dominican, was one of the most prominent theologians in the years before the council, with the added cachet of having been silenced by the Holy Office (the predecessor of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith). His ideas helped to shape Vatican H’s positions on ecumenism, the laity, and much else. John Paul II named him a cardinal shortly before his death in 1995.
In 1979 Father Congar deplored the “rather simplistic practice” of interpreting the council as if it had been “an absolute new beginning, the point of departure for a completely new Church.” Against claims of a revolutionary break with the past, the eminent theologian declared he was “anxious to stress the continuity of tradition.” Vatican II, he said, was “one moment and neither the first nor the last moment in that tradition.”
To grasp the significance of that point, remember that the Second Vatican Council has often been called “Newman’s council.” The reference is to John Henry Cardinal Newman (1801-1890), the convert from Anglicanism whom many consider the most distinguished Catholic theologian of modern times. Newman’s contribution to Vatican II is his theory of “development,” set out and meticulously documented in his book An Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine.
This seminal work explains how the Church’s understanding of the deposit of Faith expands and matures over time, without substantial change in the deposit itself. “From the necessity…of the case, from the history of all sects and parties in religion, and from the analogy and example of Scripture,” Newman writes, “we may fairly conclude that Christian doctrine admits of formal, legitimate, and true developments, that is, of developments contemplated by its Divine Author.” Upon finishing the Essay late in 1845, the author of those words went over to Rome.
The theory of development provides theological underpinning to support doctrinal insights introduced by Vatican II on ecclesiology, ecumenism, religious liberty, and much else. The council was not jettisoning the tradition but developing it. Seen in this light, the notion of Vatican II as a revolutionary break, whether urged by Catholic progressives or Lefebvrists, is a coarse caricature of Newman’s finely wrought account.