Successes and failures of Vatican II could help shape better Vatican III

Tue, Oct 9, 2012, 01:00

RITE & REASON:It is right we celebrate the last Vatican council but there were significant failings also, writes GERARD MOLONEY

NEXT THURSDAY marks a momentous anniversary for the Roman Catholic Church as 50 years ago, October 11th, 1962, the opening session of the Second Vatican Council began.

Bishops gathered to consider the great issues affecting the church. Nothing would be quite the same again. It is still difficult to credit the impact and scale of the council’s achievements.

To have lived through that period of change and hope must have been extraordinarily exciting. It was a good time to be alive and to be Catholic.

The council’s successes were numerous. For many Catholics the changes in the liturgy were the most immediate and striking. There was the truly profound change in the understanding of Baptism; that by virtue of the sacrament all the people of God share a common responsibility to preach the Gospel.

There was the opening up of the church to the world. Just as at Mass the priest now turned to face the people, so now a confident church turned to face and embrace all of humanity. It led to a new relationship with other Christian churches and with other religions, a recognition that salvation was possible outside the Catholic Church, as well as to a new emphasis on scripture.

The model of church changed also – from a pyramid model with the pope on top and the laity at the bottom, to a circular model, with a more interdependent set of relationships. So parish councils and conferences of bishops and synods of bishops were put in place. The old church triumphant redesignated itself as a pilgrim church, journeying on the way.

Fifty years on, it is right that we celebrate the many insights and achievements of Vatican II but it is clear that there were significant failings also. The council didn’t address adequately major issues around sexual morality, especially contraception, second unions and homosexuality, which have become a source of increasing division within the church.

It failed to address the problem of clericalism and clerical culture, now brought into sharp relief by the sex abuse scandals.

The church failed to put into practice the principle of subsidiarity – in other words, to devolve power to local churches and not centralise everything in Rome. And so there was a failure of collegiality and a failure to give any real voice or authority, not only to lay people and clergy, but also even to local conferences of bishops.

Significant too has been the push back from the spirit and reforms of the council. Those who opposed or resented the council and its teachings have been busy conducting a “reform of the reform”. So we are witnessing an increasing Latinisation of the liturgy. The new translation of the missal is a move in that direction. As is the accommodation of those who support the Tridentine Mass, and the increasing obsession of certain clerics with silken garments and pompous rituals.

Perhaps even more disturbing has been the trend among some clergymen to turn inward. Just as they now revert, or want to revert, to saying Mass with backs turned to the people, so also they envisage a smaller, purer church that has its back turned firmly on the world, engaging with it only in opposition.

Bishops meet in Rome again this month for a general assembly to discuss “new evangelisation”.

It will be a sombre affair. The landscape of the church is very different from that of 1962. The shortage of priests, the collapse in church attendance and religious vocations, the abuse crisis, the disconnection between official teaching on marriage and sexuality and what many Catholics believe, the alienation of many women and young people from the church, are problems that are becoming ever more acute.

Some would say only a new council can address how the church is governed, how the priest shortage can be met and how the church’s teachings and rituals can speak meaningfully to the secular culture of today.

Fr Gerard Moloney is editor at Redemptorist Communications, including Reality magazine.

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