Continuity and Change

Continuity and change are complementary principles in the Catholic Church, just as they are generally. In a living entity, it’s impossible to have one without the other.

Continuity is a principle of identity. It’s what keeps a person or thing the same person or thing in the face of passing time and shifting circumstance. Change is a principle of vitality, required to ensure that the bearer of identity is still dynamic, still alive. “To live is to change,” John Henry Cardinal Newman famously said, “and to live long is to have changed often.”

What is true of continuity and change in general is eminently true in the Church. Although the two principles exist in tension, each needs the other. Continuity without change is the stillness of death; change without continuity is motion without substance.

In many respects, the continuing argument about the meaning of the Second Vatican Council — at bottom, an argument about the nature of the Church — turns on conflicting assessments of continuity and change. Having begun almost before Vatican II was over, it goes on today, with no sign of ending any time soon.

As it pertains to the council, there are various ways of stating the crux of the dispute. One way is along these lines: Is the real meaning of Vatican II present in what it decided and taught — in its 16 documents, that is — or does it reside in an essentially open-ended process of change to which the council gave powerful impetus?

A few years ago, this argument was sharpened by Pope Benedict XVI. In his important Christmas 2005 address to the Roman Curia, he spoke of two competing hermeneutics or systems for the interpretation of Vatican II: on the one hand, a “hermeneutic of discontinuity and rupture,” and on the other, a “hermeneutic of reform . . . renewal in the continuity of one subject-Church.” Benedict left no doubt that he favors the second hermeneutic and holds that the council’s primary meaning can be found in its texts.

Strange to say, exponents of the hermeneutic of discontinuity and rupture in the Church exist today on both the extreme right and the extreme left. On the right, consider the reaction of Bishop Bernard Fellay, leader of the breakaway Society of St. Pius X, to the pope’s invitation to world religious leaders to attend another interfaith gathering for peace in Assisi in October: “Assisi will be full of devils . . . . Now where is continuity? Where is rupture?” Yes, where indeed?


On the left we have the disciples of the so-called Bologna School, whose leading figure, the late Giuseppe Alberigo, derides an interpretation of Vatican II based on “understanding of and commentary upon the official documents” in his memoiristic A Brief History of Vatican II (Orbis).

According to Alberigo, the true significance of Vatican II is found not in what it said but in “the abandonment of the Counter-Reformation and the Constantinian age,” with all the attitudinal and behavioral ruptures that entails. This, needless to say, is the controlling vision of the five-volume History of Vatican II edited by Alberigo (also published by Orbis, with Rev. Joseph Komonchak as editor of the English version).

Not long ago, I came across a radical statement of this point of view in The American Catholic Revolution (Oxford 2010) by Rev. Mark Massa, S.J., dean of the school of theology and ministry at Boston College. If you want to know how deep the problem with these people really goes, read Father Massa — he’ll curl your hair.

Conservatives, he writes, waste their time in emphasizing the continuity between Vatican II and its predecessors. On the contrary:

No matter what the (essentially conservative) intentions of the person who originally called the council (Good Pope John XXIII), or of the overwhelming majority of Catholic bishops who approved the reforms of the council . . .the unsettling new historical consciousness unleashed by the council’s reforms could not be stopped by anything so simple as an appeal to the intentions of the council’s participants, or to some purported “law of continuity” within the tradition.

Another way of putting that is: Heads we win, tails you lose.

Believers in open-ended, ongoing change as the fundamental reality of the Church are right to situate Vatican II at a particular point in a historical process that, faith tells us, will continue to the end of time. But it is at least as important that Catholics believe the doctrinal pronouncements and disciplinary decisions of ecumenical councils acting in union with the pope to possess real normative force: The teaching must be assented to, the legislation obeyed, by people who want to be in communion with the Church.

It is significant that Father Massa, like others of his persuasion, approvingly quotes Cardinal Newman’s aphorism about change, while at the same time keeping mum about the cardinal’s theory of development in which continuity has a central place. Yet continuity is essential to a viable vision of the Church because of the presence of the Holy Spirit in this teaching, legislating body.

Perhaps Bishop Fellay and Father Massa can put their heads together and declare their agreement on the primacy of change as the explanation for what’s happened since Vatican II (although on precious little else). In the meantime, the rest of us need to get on with life in an ecclesial community in which both continuity and change figure so largely.

Russell Shaw


Russell Shaw is the author of Catholic Laity in the Mission of the Church (Requiem Press), Nothing to Hide: Secrecy, Communication, and Communion in the Catholic Church (Ignatius Press), and other works.

  • Null

    Very interesting points. One of the things that I have found interesting is that my mother and people in her generation were taught things like the Mass were immutable. Then when the Second Vatican Council came along and people threw out the baby with the bath water in the sense of replacing continuity with change, people like my mother and those before her were aghast at how quickly everything they were taught as steady and true appeared not to be so, because it all seemed to change or in some cases was simply replaced with ceaseless change. So, people like my mom felt and feel rootless because their comfort zone was so radically shifted and in some cases disappeared. So on its face, everything my mother was taught by the good sisters seemed to no longer be true. What’s interesting to me is how much more balance between continuity and change there actually is in the documents of Vatican II. So, the problems are in interpretation and implementation.

    I think this article dovetails nicely with the author’s previous article on the loss of Catholic subculture. I would argue that, putting both articles together, shows the grand failure of catechesis in the United States on a far larger scale and for a much longer time. I say this because if so many people’s faith can be shifted and lost because say Friday abstinence is recommended but no longer required, for example, then how solid was that “Baltimore Catechism” faith really? I was a child during the 70s and early 80s, with all those innovations, shoddy catechesis, and squishy theology so often decried on sites like this one. Yet, somehow, people like me found a way to balance the continuity and change, making the best of whateve situation and make it as good as possible for our parish communities. I’ve seen great liturgies, bad ones, and all manner of abuses and non abuses alike. I’ve never seen but have heard about quickly said half-hour traditional Latin Masses and gotten the impression that the well-celebrated and reverent Latin Masses of today were not the norm for the overwhelming majority of people when the Tridentine rite was in use. I’ve never seen a clown Mass either(though I don’t doubt for a moment that they occur), but I have seen ideas implemented that did not agree with the community’s sensus fidelium. I’ve seen “my way or the highway” stuff pulled by traditionalists and progressives, from priests, to liturgists, to Joe and Jane parishioner.

    I see a lot of mourning for some past glory time that I don’t think ever really existed. I see lots of condemnation and criticism of some sort of liturgical and church wasteland that I lived during that also never really existed to the level the critics want us to believe either. What I have seen is lots of people trying to make the best of what they were given, understand it and try to live it out in their lives.

    So, as someone who reads widely and has seen all manner of things, traditionalist and progressive being imposed on the several parishes I have called home in my lifetime, I can tell you it’s neither as bad nor as good as various proponents on either side of the continuity and change divide would have us believe. I think instead of striving for even further change or trying to reset the clock to the idealized and nonexistent glory days of yore, we focus on empowering all Catholics with the intellectual meat of our faith, so as to stop the constantly shifting sands that pummel our communities and church based on emotion rather than reason and that we strive to balance change and continuity with what we have already. All this “reform of the reform” and Thermador kind of thinking I see in places like this one is no better than the negativity and view that the Vatican II “reform” is still not enough that passes for progressivism at sites like the National Catholic Reporter’s is no better. There is a balance, and we need to take care of that first. As a parent, these are the kinds of things I teach my children, because faith needs to be more solid and rooted in Christ rather than the shifting sands that seem to continually pummel the church, fed by emotion rather than reason.

  • Todd M. Aglialoro

    Yes, David Carlin makes that point in Decline and Fall of the Catholic Church in America: perhaps above all else the Council destroyed the Church’s aura of immutability (even if, upon sophisticated inspection, only in appearance), leaving the people confused about what was changeable and what was not; and it let down the “Tridentine ramparts” protecting it from the anti-Catholic world.

  • X

    Mr Shaw, your point about bishop Fellay would actually make sense if you could explain how the abomination known as the “Assisi peace gathering” is not a rupture with the past and with the Faith. We were taught that to pray with and to say prayers of other religions was a violation of the 1st commandment, now all of the sudden its the vogue thing for popes to do as long as its done in the name of ecumenism.

  • digdigby

    “I see a lot of mourning for some past glory time that I don’t think ever really existed.”

    IT DID, my dear, oh but IT DID!

  • Margaret

    Null, that was one of the most intelligent posts I’ve read in a long time. I too tire of the narrow, black and white thinking that plagues too many. Recently some moron not worthy of licking my son’s feet told me my 14yo son was “sneering in ignorance” because he not only read Homer, but a modern parody of The Odyssey by Margaret Atwood, and he was disappointed that Odysseus remained a perpetual adolescent. That view was apparently “verboten” by said moron. Far from sneering or being ignorant, my unusually well-read son, a Davidson Young Scholar, found good and bad in both works and felt he gained all sorts of insights from seeing the two in juxtaposition. We limit ourselves terribly when we assume one narrow area is all good, while another is all bad. I also try to teach my children to transcend emotion and prejudice and to do their best to embrace what is good, true, and Christ-like. The tribal thinking that is so prevalent really limits what people can learn and share.