Half a century after Vatican II, little has changed
There is a major change with regard to the position and role of the laity. Instead of being the passive nonentities in the pews, lay members of the church share in “the common priesthood of Christ” and are allotted the most active commission of all.
The council says of them that, living as they do “in the ordinary circumstances of family and social life . . . they may work for the sanctification of the world from within as a leaven”. They do this by working in their homes, their factories and offices, farms and shops to show others an example of a Christian life.
Understandably, such changes were anathema to popes and to a Curia obsessed with protecting the status quo and averting any threat to the tight control over the church it had maintained for 400 years. The Curia’s leading council watchdog, Cardinal Ottaviani, head of the then Holy Office, was quoted as remarking: “I pray to God that I die before the end of the council; in that way I can die a Catholic.”
Four issues that the council bishops wanted to debate – artificial contraception, the role of bishops, clerical celibacy and women priests – were withdrawn from the agenda by the pope. The first he reserved to himself for decision, the outcome being his 1968 encyclical Humanae Vitae repeating the existing ban. On the last two he ruled out further discussion.
As to the role of bishops, by giving the new synod only advisory powers, he dashed hopes of a new regime in which bishops would participate in ruling the universal church and the Curia would have only an administrative function.
At the end of the council Paul VI, who had succeeded John XXIII after the first session, confirmed all the council’s decisions and warned the Curia, despite their opposition, to accept them. However, the postcouncil popes, with the exception of John Paul I, who ruled for only 33 days, have played for time by making no move to implement the council’s decisions.
The result is that the church has been denied the “reform and renewal” that Pope Paul set as its first and main aim when he decided to continue it after Pope John’s death.
Why did so little change?
Instead of implementing the council’s decision, Pope Benedict XVI and his Curia are using inconsistencies in the council texts and abstruse theological arguments to justify inaction. The clearest example of this policy is the current pope’s frequent condemnations of what he calls the “hermeneutics of discontinuity and rupture”. The phrase is his theologian’s way of saying that some interpretations of council documents may conflict with church tradition and would be ipso facto false.
Benedict’s point is that the people who are pressing for implementation of the council’s teachings are refusing to abide by the actual council texts. They base their case on the claim that the texts do not reflect the real intentions of the council fathers. Instead, they regard them not as consensus decisions but as last-minute compromises forced on them by deliberate Curia delaying tactics. The real meaning, or what they call “the spirit of Vatican II”, as expressed by huge council majorities, is, they say, to be found by reading between the lines.
The pope says this approach would leave too wide a gap for people to interpret the council texts any way they liked. This risked a breach or discontinuity with sacred tradition, which, alongside scripture, is regarded as one of the ways God talks directly to his church. If pursued, he warned, it could lead to schism. The only way forward, in his view, is to hold to the “hermeneutic of continuity” and stick to the texts. The difficulty in this is that the texts, redacted mainly by the Curia, are unsatisfactory. Every time an apparent advance is made, it is countered by a restriction. The laity is given a specific responsibility but it is made “subject to their pastors”.
In addition, the pope’s primacy of powers over all other members of the church, and priests, is exhaustively emphasised all over the different texts. The College of Bishops shares the pope’s powers over the church. But it does so only when acting as a body and only when the pope agrees.
On the other hand, he can act on his own, and his ex-cathedra decisions on matters of faith and morals are infallible and mandatory. And the hierarchical ladder that gives a Curia precedence over the bishop, a successor of the apostles, is retained.
As Ireland’s own recent dealings with the Vatican have shown, the Roman Curia is still no less arrogant than it was in 1963 when Cardinal Frings of Cologne told the council that “the Holy Office does not fit the needs of our time. It does great harm to the faithful and is the cause of scandal throughout the world.”
What is the Pope’s position?
The real reason for Pope Benedict’s foot-dragging is probably less complex than it appears. As Fr Josef Ratzinger he was the theological adviser to Cardinal Josef Frings, who, as his attack on the Holy Office demonstrates, was one of the most forthright and progressive bishops at the council. The cardinal would hardly have chosen an adviser with opposite views to his own.