Half a century after Vatican II, little has changed
In fact Fr Ratzinger was very much in the progressive camp. In a small book he wrote on the council he supported the council’s decisions on bishops, agreeing they held their position by divine right and not through conferring by the pope. The College of Bishops shared with the pope full and supreme power over the universal church. Papal primacy was an obstacle to Christian unity, and it was the role of the bishop, not the pope, to decide on liturgy matters in his own diocese. He said that the decentralisation of decision-making was a fundamental innovation.
When the declaration on religious liberty was approved, he wrote that it marked “the end of the Middle Ages, the end even of the Constantinian age”.
He was still the progressive theologian after the council when his then friend Hans Küng recommended him for a post at Tübingen University. It was the events there that turned him into the cautious, reserved temporiser he is today. Tübingen, like the Sorbonne, was one of the European universities that experienced the violent 1968 student riots. Marxist and Red Army Faction terrorist influences poisoned the atmosphere for him, and, to his alarm, his own students mocked him. The following year he left, saying, “The Marxist idea has conquered the world.”
Now, as Pope Benedict XVI, he seems caught in a dilemma. He still often speaks in support of Vatican II decisions or liberal viewpoints on matters such as the church’s relationship with other religions; religious liberty; and the friction between faith and reason. As recently as the end of August, in a speech in Romania, he said the church “needs a mature and committed laity, able to make its specific contribution to the mission of the church’. He went even as far as insisting that “the laity should not be considered ‘collaborators’ of the clergy, but people who truly are co-responsible for the being and action of the church”.
But such liberal statements are not accompanied by corresponding action. His justification is that decisions on these matters require more deep thought. An alternative explanation may be that Pope Benedict, like Pope John before him, feels he is shackled by concerted Curia restraints.
Where does the church go now?
Given this paralysis at the centre, the Curia appears to have embarked on the risky step of clamping down tightly on all signs of departure from the status quo. The silencing of Irish priests, the refusal to take the blame for any part in the clerical child-abuse scandal, the heavy-handed threat to the central organisation of US nuns, the appointment of uncompromising, conservative archbishops to three main US cities to lead opposition to the Obama administration’s healthcare proposals, the ongoing confrontation with the Austrian priests’ association: all suggest a recourse to Tridentine Church control tactics.
The aim seems to be to maintain the policy of inaction in the belief that time will erode memory of and, therefore, support for the remarkable changes Vatican II proposed.
The other possibility is that the schism Pope Benedict warned about will take place but informally, as, to some extent, is already happening. Some Catholics, acting in what they consider to be good conscience, will ignore papal and curial pronouncements as happened after Paul VI’s 1968 encyclical Humanae Vitae, which reaffirmed the ban on artificial contraception. Their justification was that if the encyclical, as stated by the Vatican, is not infallible, then it is fallible and their own consciences should guide them.
In these circumstances, a resolution of the present discord in the Catholic Church is remote. The Curia, whose motto is said to be qui pensiamo in seculi – here we think in terms of centuries – will not change. At the same time, support for the Vatican II church is increasing throughout the world faster than the trend to abandon the church altogether.
Barring a schism, the solution lies in finding a way to bring about changes in the church without appearing to infringe traditional teaching.
This was the view of the late Bishop Christopher Butler, former abbot president of the English Benedictine order and one of the few UK prelates to distinguish themselves at Vatican II. He said that the council would probably not be accepted until it was understood to be a development in the history of the church and not a break with its past.
That is an assignment for theologians and another ecumenical council. And so, the ball is back at the pope’s foot, as popes alone are permitted to call such a gathering. Meantime, the matter rests.
Desmond Fisher covered the Second Vatican Council for the London Catholic Herald, of which he was editor of from 1962 to 1966