John W. O'Malley, S.J., a professor in the theology department at Georgetown University and author of What Happened at Vatican II (Contiinuum, 2007), is so impressed by President Obama's style and rhetorical skills, he appears to have nominated him, in the pages of America, for the position of Pope of the American Catholic Church:
That is why when I heard Obama’s two speeches I was struck by how much he spoke in accord with the spirit of Vatican II. In those two addresses, as well as in his other speeches, he called for civility, for the end of name-calling, and for a willingness to work together to deal with our common problems, including abortion, rather than a stand-off determination to impose one’s principles without reckoning what the cost to the common good might be.
President Jenkins of Notre Dame called attention to Obama’s oratorical gifts. Such gifts are consonant with the rhetorical tradition that produced the spirit of Vatican II. The council deliberately chose to speak as much as possible “in the pastoral style of the Fathers,” who were schooled from their earliest days in the rhetorical tradition. That tradition is what made them such effective preachers and leaders of their communities.
Classical theorists about rhetoric like Cicero and Quintilian described it as the art of winning consensus, the art of bringing people together for a common cause. It is an art, please note, closely related to ethics, for those same theorists described the truly successful orator as vir bonus dicendi peritus--a good man, skilled in public speaking. It is an art in which Obama excels and which, certainly unwittingly, puts him in touch with the spirit of Vatican II.
I often hear laments that the spirit of Vatican II is dead in the church. Is it not ironic that not a bishop but the President of the United States should today be the most effective spokesperson for that spirit? To judge from the enthusiastic response he received from the graduates at Notre Dame, his message captured their minds and hearts. Maybe through young Catholics like those at Notre Dame who are responding to Obama’s message the spirit of Vatican II will, almost through the back door, reenter the church. The history of the church has, after all, taken stranger turns than that.
Some readers might think there is something in the water within Georgetown's theology department. My theory is that it has actually run out of water, and we are witnessing the besetting symptoms of dehydration: fever, sweating, weakness, confusion, hallucinations, and delirium. Perhaps the dehydration is from extreme exhaustion. As Cardinal George noted in a 1999 piece for a Commonweal colloquium: "We are at a turning point in the life of the church in this century. Liberal Catholicism is an exhausted project. Essentially a critique, even a necessary critique at one point in our history, it is now parasitical on a substance that no longer exists. It has shown itself unable to pass on the faith in its integrity and is inadequate, therefore, in fostering the joyful self-surrender called for in Christian marriage, in consecrated life, in ordained priesthood." (George would later apologize for his use of the term "parasitical".)
This exhaustion, it seems, is now so thorough that liberal Catholics, as Fr. Ron Rolheiser (a well-known liberal priest and "a community-builder") admitted in 2002, "haven't been able to inspire our own children to follow us in the path of the faith and in the path of adult commitment. Former generations, whatever their faults, did this better. Whether that fault is inherent in liberal ideology itself is not the point. We haven't been able to do it and it's something we must examine ourselves on." The exhaustion is so debilitating that from 1965 to 2006, TIME magazine reported in 2006, "the number of Catholic nuns in the U.S. has declined from 179,954 to just 67,773" (that's the "spirit"!). And the average age of an American nun is around 70—except in traditional orders such as the Dominican Sisters of Mary, Mother of the Eucharist in Ann Arbor, Michigan, which "now [in 2006] have 73 members with an average age of 24. In 2006, 15 women entered as postulants. Next August, more than 20 women are scheduled to join them." ("Today's Nun Has A Veil--And A Blog", by Lisa Takeuchi Cullen and Tracy Schmidt [TIME magazine, Monday, Nov. 13, 2006]).
In fact, the "spirit of Vatican II" is really about style, something O'Malley readily admits, even lauds. His main thesis is that the style and rhetoric used by the Fathers at the Second Vatican Council are, in the end, the message. The late Fr. Richard John Neuhaus, in a review of O'Malley's book in the September 2008 issue of First Things, describes O'Malley's position in this way:
These innovations alone were supposed to represent the true spirit of the Council, and starting from and in conformity with them, it would be possible to move ahead. Precisely because the texts would only imperfectly reflect the true spirit of the Council and its newness, it would be necessary to go courageously beyond the texts and make room for the newness in which the Council's deepest intention would be expressed, even if it were still vague.
Is it any wonder that O'Malley and company are so enthralled by the often vague, usually ambiguous, and often stirring rhetoric of President Obama? The newly elected President's speeches are indeed "language-events," he has shown a lot of style, and the argument can be made that (at least so far) his style is his substance. As Fr. Neuhaus wrote a bit earlier in his review:
All of which to say: O'Malley is right when he states, "It is an art in which Obama excels and which, certainly unwittingly, puts him in touch with the spirit of Vatican II." Quite true. And what of O'Malley's other statements? Here are a few final, quick thoughts on some of them:
• "I often hear laments that the spirit of Vatican II is dead in the church." That is good news, especially since O'Malley likely runs in "spirit of Vatican II" circles. Cardinal George was correct, then, in his assessment.
• "Is it not ironic that not a bishop but the President of the United States should today be the most effective spokesperson for that spirit?" No, not "ironic." Disturbing, revealing, and even inevitable come to mind as much better words. It's not ironic since it's a given that when Catholics seek affirmation first and foremost from the world (think of the protests against Humanae Vitae, for example), they will eventually be molded in the likeness and image of the world, used and manipulated by the world, and then discarded onto the dust heaps of history. On the plus side, of course, it's very good news that O'Malley doesn't see any bishops pushing "the spirit of Vatican II."
• "To judge from the enthusiastic response he received from the graduates at Notre Dame, his message captured their minds and hearts." Yes, captured, indeed. That's an apt word. But I have to wonder: what is the real message?
• "Maybe through young Catholics like those at Notre Dame who are responding to Obama’s message the spirit of Vatican II will, almost through the back door, reenter the church." Perhaps. But, as Fr. Rolheiser noted, liberal Catholicism doesn't attract young people; rather, it assures them the Catholic Church is a nice place for an occasional social event (wedding, school function, etc.), but is otherwise irrelevant and boring. And irrelevant and boring is never attractive, especially not to young people.
By the way, an excellent book on the actual documents and teachings of the Second Vatican Council is Vatican II: Renewal Within Tradition (Oxford, 2008), edited by Matthew L. Lamb and Matthew Levering. Another highly recommended book is Joseph Ratzinger: Life in the Church and Living
Theology—Fundamentals of Ecclesiology with Reference to Lumen Gentium (Ignatius Press, 2007), by Fr. Maximilian Heinrich Heim; the introduction can be read on Ignatius Insight. Also see Dr. Tracey Rowland's essay, "Reclaiming the Tradition: John Paul II as the authentic interpreter of Vatican II," in the volume, John Paul the Great: Maker of the post-conciliar Church (Ignatius Press, 2005); read an excerpt from that book on Ignatius Insight.