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Kobler's Key to the Council
Catholic Family News ^ | December, 2007 | Paul Zarowny

Posted on 12/20/2007 6:13:51 PM PST by Dajjal

Kobler’s Key to the Council


Kobler, John F., C.P.
  Vatican II, Theophany and the Phenomenon of Man: The Council's Pastoral Servant Leader Theology for the Third Millennium.  (American University Studies, Series 7, vol. 100)  New York: Peter Lang, 1991.  0820414921, 9780820414928  $51.95

by Paul Zarowny, Ph.D.

    Passionist priest Fr. John F. Kobler’s Vatican II, Theophany and the Phenomenon of Man (1991) is a follow-up to his Vatican II and Phenomenology (1985).  In that book Kobler concentrated on explaining what phenomenology is and how the Council fathers had applied Edmund Husserl’s phenomenological method to the documents of the Council.  Here he provides a deeper phenomenological analysis of Lumen Gentium and Gaudium et Spes, and an expanded discourse on the anthropological goals of the Council.  He was working on a third book when he passed away in 2005.

 Pastoral advice of an ecumenical council is not protected by the guarantee of infallibility. It may be questioned, re-examined, and, if found wanting, abandoned.

    Kobler agrees with traditionalists that Vatican II was a pastoral council.  He affirms that it was called because of Cold War paranoia that the United States and Soviet Union might erupt into a nuclear world war at any moment, combined with distress over the economic imbalance between the developed First World and impoverished Third World, as well as concern for the post-industrial rise of materialistic consumerism and atheism.

     Pope John XXIII (or later Paul VI) and the bishops gathered in Rome not to define any doctrine, but to search out what the Catholic Church could contribute to resolving these global crises in order to stave off nuclear self-destruction, and ease political and economic tensions. Most of the European-educated bishops had been schooled in Husserl’s "phenomenological reduction" or epoche, so they naturally applied that method to the questions at hand.

    Put very simply, the phenomenological method is to "suspend" all of one’s knowledge about a thing, and then to look at the thing "from every possible angle" until one intuits the thing’s true essence, after which one can restore all of the previously suspended information, incorporating the past knowledge into the new understanding.[2]

     According to Kobler, the bishops set to the side all that they had previously known about the Catholic Church and looked at it as an experienced phenomenon -- that is, as an object of sense perception.  Previously the Church had usually been thought of as the Mystical Body of Christ, the Bride of Christ or the Kingdom.  But these concepts were otherworldly, triumphal, and not perceivable as sense phenomena.  Hence the bishops, adopting a suggestion made by Dom Anscar Vonier, O.S.B. in 1937,[3] decided that what one can objectively say about the Church is that it is a group of People who are united by their belief and worship of God -- a People of God.

     Lumen Gentium describes the phenomenological nature of this People of God: bishops in apostolic succession, united under the bishop of Rome and assisted by priests and religious, preaching the Gospel which Christ had taught the apostles and bringing the grace-giving sacraments Christ had established to the laity of the world, worshipping God as Christ had taught and honoring the exemplary saints who had lived the Gospel message, especially the Blessed Virgin Mary.

    There is a gestalt-shift in Lumen Gentium, from the Church focusing on the salvation of souls, preparing them for an eternal after-life, to the Church focusing on spreading the social aspects of the Gospel within this world, now.

    The phenomenologist Max Scheler held that people need "ideal model persons" after whom they can pattern their value systems and whose actions they can imitate.  For Scheler, the model may be a pleasure-seeker, a hero, a genius or a saint -- for sensual, societal, intellectual or spiritual values, respectively.  In Chapters 7 and 8 of Lumen Gentium, the Council fathers posit the communion of saints and the Blessed Virgin Mary as phenomenological value models for Catholics to emulate as they adopt the gestalt-shift of seeing the Church as the People of God.

    In Gaudium et Spes the goals of the People of God are outlined: the Church must work to promote social justice, economic equity, political freedom and international peace.  Saint Paul calls us to put off the "Old Man" and to become a "New Man."[5]  Using Husserl's epoche, the Council fathers interpreted that as a call for a new kind of human being, one modeled after the Good Samaritan.

    Kobler identifies the long-term objective of the Council as being the formulation of a theological anthropology.  The documents provide the basis for a theophanized anthropogony consisting of "fully mature spiritual persons"[7] who would, through the grace of the sacraments, strive to imitate the communion of saints and the Blessed Virgin Mary by doing the will of God on Earth as it is in Heaven, thus bringing about a Peaceable Kingdom -- or at least one peaceable enough to avoid nuclear warfare.

    The Council's idea was that if Catholics renewed their lives by taking a fresh phenomenological look at the Gospel message they would set such an example of love and understanding that non-Catholics throughout the world would be amazed, think "Why don't we act more like those Catholics?" and follow their lead.  Then the Cold War would cease, the nuclear arms race would end, the gap between the haves and have-nots would narrow, materialism would wane, and humanity would be transformed.  Mankind’s evolution would be advanced -- not by biology, but by social action.[10]

     In order to bring about this anthropological ascent, the Council fathers needed to alter the Life-World (Lebenswelt) of Catholics radically.  According to Husserl, a Life-World is a perceptual horizon shared by a number of people.  This intersubjectivity or transpersonal psychology is called "communio" in the Council documents.

     In Edmund Husserl's final book, The Crisis of the European Sciences and Transcendental Phenomenology (1936),[11] he deplored the dissociation of modern society, and said that the solution would need to be a new, spiritual Life-World as the foundation for a renewal of civilization.  Whether inspired by Husserl, or simply thinking along a parallel path, the Council fathers carried out the program which Husserl had proposed, using Catholicism as the basis for a worldwide, cross-cultural, ecumenical spiritual renewal.

The nuclear Cold War motivated the Church to volunteer and offer its solution to the danger of mutually assured destruction.

    The Council fathers believed that the Catholic Church could actually achieve this goal because the Church is, according to Lumen Gentium, the Sacrament of Christ, the sign of Christ-in-the-world, and is thus the means of conferring God's supernatural grace upon mankind.  This grace would first transform the People of God to live kinder, gentler lives -- once they had been properly trained in the teachings of Vatican II -- and by their example, as Servant Leaders (spoudaioi), they would guide all others into a New Civilization of Love and Harmony.

     In this way, the Church would truly be the Humanae Salutis -- the salvation of humanity from nuclear self-annihilation.  The Council fathers believed that only the Catholic Church had the people, the organization, the intellectual heritage, the perfect message from the perfect teacher, and the access to supernatural grace necessary for the task.

    The project depends upon phenomenology replacing scholasticism as the "thought of the Church."  Or, to be more precise: subjective, phenomenological versions of scholasticism, such as transcendental Thomism, have replaced the traditional, objective versions of scholasticism.[15]  This paradigm shift had its roots in the 1932 meeting of the Société Thomiste in Juvisy, where the guest speakers were phenomenologists who explained and took questions on the philosophies of Husserl and Heidegger.[16]

    The project also required that Biblical studies and liturgical rites make phenomenological turns in the documents Dei Verbum and Sacrosanctum Concilium.[17]  Using Husserl's epoche, the two-fold Rule of Faith -- Scripture and Tradition -- became three-fold, with the addition of a "Living Magisterium" which interprets the first two, thus emphasizing the human experience over objective facts.  The Liturgical Commission applied the epoche to the Mass, and intuited its essence as a participatory celebration, a memorial meal subject to cultural variations and adaptations.

     It is frequently opined by traditionalists that the documents of Vatican II contain ambiguities, and are an admixture of tradition and modernism.  But following Kobler’s insight, I believe the Council documents are completely consistent.

The phenomenological method assimilates past knowledge into its new outlook on a subject.  During the epoche, all received wisdom must be set aside, but after the fresh new outlook has been intuited, all past wisdom must be reinstated in a manner supporting the new perspective.

    Kobler does have a serious apprehension that too few bishops, priests, religious, theologians and laymen understand the larger agenda of Vatican II.  He believes that they are caught up in analyzing and implementing minutiae of the Council’s aims, and are not concentrating on the end game of creating a new type of existentially mature human being capable of ushering in an era of global peace and justice.[19]

An evangelical zeal permeates Kobler’s text, as he urges his fellow Catholics on toward that lofty utopian goal.

    But -- and this is quite important for traditionalists -- he admits that Vatican II was a pastoral experiment, and that if the Council’s gestalt-shift does not advance the cause toward attaining a new civilization of global harmony, then the enterprise should be re-evaluated and its failing formulae should be discarded.

Kobler, not surprisingly, casts this prospect as an opportunity to use phenomenology again to formulate a better, more successful plan which can overcome stubborn obstacles.[23] 

    Additionally, Kobler warns of the danger of religious enthusiasm metastasizing into gnosticism.

While Kobler believes wholeheartedly in the vision of the Council, he is by no means confident that the Church will collectively be able to achieve the Council fathers’ goals of peace and harmony.

    I take Kobler to be a "friendly witness" for the traditionalists’ case regarding the problems of Vatican II.  I think he is correct in his interpretation of the Council documents.  His identification of the role Husserl’s phenomenological reduction played in the writing of the documents provides a Rosetta Stone for deciphering the supposed "ambiguities" in the texts.  His presumption that the Council was convened as a reaction to the Cold War places it in its proper historical context.  His explanation of the Council’s long-term objective being the genesis of a theophanized anthropogony raises the issue of the wisdom and practicality of the Council’s goals.

     Pastoral advice of an ecumenical council is not protected by the guarantee of infallibility.  It may be questioned, re-examined, and, if found wanting, abandoned.  We no longer accept the pastoral advice of Lateran IV that non-Catholics should be made to wear distinctive clothing.

     If Kobler is correct, then I think the very use of phenomenology either to replace or to supplement scholasticism needs to be addressed, along with the resulting pastoral gestalt-shift from a Christ-centered perspective to a man-centered perspective.  If Kobler is correct, and the Church is currently engaged in the pursuit of causing an evolutionary advance of the human species, I believe the Catholic in the pew has a right to be told this in plain and simple language, and that the continuation of this project should be open to debate.

     It has been over forty years since the bishops met at Vatican II, and much has changed in the world.  The Cold War has ended, the Berlin Wall has fallen, and Marxism has allegedly been consigned to the dustbin.  Antagonism with the communist Soviet bloc and Maoist China, poised to lead mankind in world revolution, has transmogrified into economic competition with capitalistic Russia and Mainland China, vying for natural resources, market dominance and political hegemony.  A rising ideological threat is that of militant Islamic extremists, who will not likely be impressed by any number of Good Samaritan "infidels."  Yet the Catholic Church is in many ways mired in a naïve idealism of the 1960s.  Fr. Kobler’s writings can help clarify what has happened to the Church, and provide a basis for reconsidering the teachings of the Second Vatican Council.

Paul Zarowny holds a Ph.D. in Theology from Fordham University.  He is currently doing research for a book on Fr. Kobler, phenomenology, and Vatican II.

Copyright 2007 by Paul Zarowny


[1] Kobler, John F.  Vatican II, Theophany and the Phenomenon of Man.  New York, Peter Lang, 1991, p. 247.

[2] For Husserl, there are two kinds of people: trained phenomenologists who use the epoche to think about something, and unenlightened people whose thoughts are confined to the "natural attitude."

[3] Vonier, Anscar.  The People of God.  London: Burns, Oates & Washbourne, 1937.

[4] Kobler, op. cit., p. 309.

[5] Eph. 4:24, Col. 3:10.

[6] Kobler, op. cit., p. 5.

[7] Ibid., p. 203.

[8] Ibid., p. 83.

[9] Ibid., pp. 137-138.

[10] Ibid., p. 253.

[11] Husserl, Edmund.  Die Krisis der europa¨ischen Wissenschaften und die transcendentale Pha¨nomenologie: eine Einleitung in die pha¨nomenologische Philosophie.  Phe´nome´nologie, Me´langes.  Belgrad, 1936. 

[12] Kobler, op. cit., pp. 25-26.

[13] Ibid., p. 49.

[14] Ibid., pp. 199-200.

[15] Husserl held that using the epoche allowed one to know things in themselves, rejecting the Aristotelian principle that one must know a thing through its causes.

[16] Kobler, op. cit., pp. 166-167.

[17] Ibid., pp. 240-243.

[18] Ibid., p. 249.

[19] Ibid., p. 203.

[20] Ibid., p. 242.

[21] Ibid., p. 223.

[22] Ibid., p. 37.

[23] Ibid., pp. 37, 300-309.

[24] Ibid., p. 301.  Kobler is referring to Alfred Rosenberg, whose book Der Mythus des 20. Jahrhunderts (1930) promulgated the Nazi intersubjective "Life-World" of an "Aryan master race."


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From the December 2007 issue of
Catholic Family News
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TOPICS: Catholic; Current Events; History; Theology
KEYWORDS: 1960s; 60s; catholic; coldwar; husserl; kobler; liturgy; mass; novusordo; phenomenology; pope; thomism; tlm; traditionalmass; tridentinemass; vatican; vatican2; vaticanii

1 posted on 12/20/2007 6:13:55 PM PST by Dajjal
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2 posted on 12/20/2007 6:21:49 PM PST by Dajjal
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