Half a century after Vatican II, little has changed


THE SECOND VATICAN Ecumenical Council, customarily known as Vatican II, was opened by Pope John XXIII 50 years ago this week. Ecumenical, meaning universal or worldwide, was manifested by the attendance of 2,500 bishops from 116 countries at St Peter’s Basilica in Rome for four three-month sessions between 1962 and 1965.

During that time the council produced only 16 documents. Some of these were of major importance. If their decisions had been implemented, they would have made a revolutionary change in how Catholics understand the nature of their church.

But, after half a century, the only noticeable change in the everyday life of the church has been the introduction into the liturgy of the words, but not the phraseology or the rhythm, of vernacular languages.

Some Catholics think the council started a rot that could ruin the church if it is not clamped down on. Others believe the council exposed grave weaknesses in the church, which will self-destruct if the council’s remedies are not applied. A third group, probably the majority of Catholics, stands on the sideline waiting for a swing one way or the other.

But if the present stalemate goes on for another half-century there could be no Catholic Church of any significance in Europe or North America. By then the centre of gravity could have moved south of the equator, where two-thirds of the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics already live.

What has happened? Why has there been so little change? Where does the Catholic Church go from here? These questions can’t be answered fully here, but unless people-in- the-pew Catholics get some grasp of them, the deadlock that has split the Catholic Church for the past 50 years will persist.

What was it for?

From the beginning the council was controversial. Pope John summoned it after he had been only three months in office and without consulting his cardinals. He said the idea “came to us in the first instance in a sudden flash of inspiration”.

Without having any idea about what it might do, most lay Catholics seemed to welcome it. But the cardinals received the news in stony silence. Their opposition continued right through the council, and it endures.

In the 400 years preceding Vatican II only two ecumenical councils, Trent (1554-63) and Vatican I (1869-70), had been held.

Trent was summoned to reform a church that was undergoing one of the greatest crises in history. All kinds of corruption was rife. Despite there having been many good popes, others had lived lives of luxury and debauchery. Several were guilty of simony, selling church offices and indulgences on a huge scale; seven consecutive popes had refused to live in Rome; there was a 39-year, so-called Western Schism between two papacies; and the Reformation had divided Christian Europe into two opposing camps.

Trent resulted in the tightly disciplined, defensive, anti-intellectual Counter-Reformation church that has lasted to this day. Its structure is a pyramid, with the Pope at the top over levels of clerics of descending importance and a bottom layer of laypersons with no defined role except, as a council bishop would later complain, “to pray, to obey and to pay”. Bishops are regarded as appointees and local agents of the pope. Other Christian churches are kept at arm’s length. The world is evil and its insights are to be ignored.

Three hundred years after Trent, Vatican I (1869-70) proclaimed the dogma of papal infallibility and further distanced the pope from the rest of the church. The declaration had the collateral effect of strengthening the powers of the Roman Curia, the papal equivalent of the Civil Service. A process that theologians have dubbed “creeping infallibility” has allowed its members to act as if they too shared the papal prerogative.

Between them the first two councils produced the church that Pope John considered incapable of meeting the needs of the 20th century and of the future. He issued a wake-up call and told it to study the “signs of the times” and to generate an aggiornamento, or updating, that would produce a “new Pentecost”.

What did the council conclude?

The church the council fathers voted for is very different from the Tridentine one. It discards the pyramid format based on authority and replaces it with one based on shared service. It is described as a “communion” of all followers of Christ, each with a different but equally important task in a common purpose: changing the world into what God wants it to be.

It sees the bishops not as the pope’s agents but as “vicars and ambassadors of Christ”. They hold their office by divine right as successors of the apostles and, as a body, with the pope at its head, sharing full and supreme power over the universal church.

This Vatican II church regards the separated brethren of the other Christian churches not as rivals and heretics but as colleagues sharing together the task of becoming “one”, as Christ had prayed for.

In a hugely significant but little-noticed initiative, Catholics no longer claim that the Catholic Church is Christ’s church. Instead, it states that it “subsists” in Christ’s Church, indicating that other Christian churches are recognised as also belonging. This wipes out the long-held claim that “outside the [Catholic] Church there is no redemption”. And, in direct contrast to the introverted Tridentine Church, it regards modern theories on science, philosophy, sociology and even Scripture not as heresies to be condemned but as insights to be explored.

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.

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

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