Interpreting the Council

Interpreting the Council

Father Stefano de Fiores SSM died last Saturday. He was 79.

A Google search uncovers only one book of his translated into English. Jesus Living in Mary is a step-by-step handbook on the Marian spirituality espoused by St Louis de Montfort. (It is not a book I have read, but that will be quickly remedied, since I’ve ordered a copy online.)

Fiores is much better known in continental Europe. He was perhaps the greatest Mariologist of the twentieth century, or at least its second half. He taught at the Gregorian, the Lateran and the Marianum, and published more than thirty books on Mary, including a definitive three-volume dictionary of Mariology.

A friend who is better acquainted with his Italian works credits him for providing a theological basis to popular devotion:

Unlike some post Vatican II theologians who would view popular piety as excessive, outdated or superstitious, Fr Stefano sought to develop, purify and build upon Marian piety and devotion in order to present Mary the mother of Jesus as an example for Christians in the contemporary age.

This is a view which was probably shared by Fiores himself. In a 2006 interview with Zenit, he presented his three-volume dictionary as a reponse to what he called “a Mariological crisis.” It reached its zenith in the 1970s, when Fiores received advice from various quarters to embrace the times and abandon Mariology. The interview is in Italian, but my aforementioned friend has kindly furnished a rough translation:

It was at that point that I intensified my study of the Mother of Jesus, working to uncover her presence in popular piety, the liturgy and contemporary theology . . . above all I commented on chapter 8 of Lumen Gentium of the Second Vatican Council. I found myself favoured when Paul VI’s Marialis Cultus (1974) and John Paul II’s Redemptoris Mater (1987) relaunched Mary in the Church and the world.

The dictionary would like to represent the mature fruit of a serious Italian Mariology, which would undo the trivialised discussion about Mary and extract the Marian cult from devotionalism or from vulgar Christianity, where it has been banished by the intelligentsia of liberal theology.

These are the sorts of developments which cause my generation to view “the Spirit of Vatican II” with suspicion, and even cynicism. There is a lot of merit in the case that the Council was greater than the documents it produced. But I do wonder at those critics who accuse successive popes of systematically betraying the Council.

The fortunes of the cult of Mary make a good example. Was marginalisaton of the cult of Mary — and, indeed, the discipline of Mariology — a legitimate manifestation of the Spirit of the Council? Were the efforts by Paul and John Paul to revive Marian devotion a betrayal of that Spirit? Or was that short-lived marginalisation an aberration, an illegitimate development which was rightly corrected by two popes?

I don’t pose these questions merely to be provocative. I ask them in good faith. Fifty years after the Council was called, and not having been alive when the Council was in session, I can see no other way to apply its teachings, except by interpreting its texts using the hermeneutic of continuity which has always informed the development of Catholic doctrine.