Friday, 19 September 2008

more apples

The then Fr. Patrick Barry, our RI (= religious instruction, sic) teacher, came into class one bright January day just less than 50 years ago and asked us whether we knew what an Ecumenical Council was. Of course, aged 15, none of us had a clue. "Well," he said, "the Pope has just called one." And so began my acquaintance with Vatican II.

There are two schools of thought: did it represent a rupture with the past? Or should it just be seen as an act in the continuing tradition of the Church? I think it's worth copying to a wider (?) public the larger part of a letter to the Editor of this week's Tablet by an Dublin-based Jesuit, Fr. Brendan Staunton.

"May I suggest," he asks, "a small parable as a possible way out of this dualistic impasse? Consider Cézanne, “the father of modern art”, who, having been converted to Impressionism, became dissatisfied with its immediacy and asked himself the question: “How can I create depth without resorting to the traditional means?” By traditional means he meant perspective, a method grounded in projective geometry, the discovery of which had transformed the history of European painting. Now there is depth in a Cézanne, but it is not the same as in a Raphael. Something new has emerged, and Picasso would see the latent Cubism in Cézanne, and push the new out further. Yet Picasso and Matisse are often referred to as “traditional modernists”.

Matisse said he wanted to be a “modern Giotto”, the bridge between the two being light, albeit two different kinds of light. So, could the story of art illuminate the intellectual debates around the interpretation of the Second Vatican Council? Discontinuity or continuity, rupture or reform of tradition. Event or text?

Modern art embodies these notions and this debate and suggests a way out. This could become even more likely to provoke good arguments as we approach the fiftieth anniversary of the announcing of the Council, which Pope John XXIII insisted be called Vatican II, implying that he was not interested in continuing the work begun but halted by the Franco-Prussian war at Vatican I. He wanted Vatican II to be new. Which view is more in tune with this, Alberigo or Pope Benedict XVI? Can both be true?

The novelist John Updike wrote:

“Cézanne, grave man,
pondered the scene,
and saw it with passion
as orange and green,
and weighted his strokes
with days of decision,
and founded on apples,
theologies of vision.”

The apples in today's photograph are from the smallest tree we inherited - an orange-flavoured variety, but we don't know exactly which.


Martin Davis said...

A school contemporary, Norman Tanner S.J. writes: "The article is OK but it's
irritating to find Vat II constantly reduced nowadays to a question of
continuity or rupture - the riches of the council are almost lost, just
forced into a somewhat false dichotomy. Perhaps it's symptomatic of today's
tendency to reduce complexities to false simplicities, the result of mental

Norman is author of The Church in The Later Middle Ages, just published by I.B. Taurus - see

Martin Davis said...

A fellow-parishioner writes: "Your blog is full of interest and encouraging, as I often feel it is only me who has interest in not seeing Vatican ll overlooked. I was in France when Pope B visited: ...I heard a priest on the tv coverage comment that taking communion in the hand was the tradition of the church, not the tongue: ‘make of your hand a throne for your Lord’. The passage is in my French daily prayer/mass book for Oct. 5th. It's from St Cyril of Jerusalem."