Ireland's ambivalent relationship with the Second Vatican Council


The Irish church was out of touch, but all this was to change utterly, writes PÁDRAIC CONWAY

IT’S A daunting task to encompass in 1,000 words the content and impact of the Second Vatican Council. As I reflect on their combined efforts to convey the message from Rome – my respect for journalists has never been higher.

There can be no doubt that in 1962 the Irish church leadership was anything but ready for a council of the kind embarked upon. A senior Maynooth professor declared that nine of the 10 Commandments were grand, but that a real debate was needed on the question of servile work on Sundays.

Combine this statement with that of John Charles McQuaid after the council, that “no change will worry the tranquility of your Christian lives”, and it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that the Irish church leadership was out of touch with more than the latest trends in European theology.

Well, all that was about to change, change utterly. Whether it liked it or not, the Irish church was to have the scales removed from its eyes, like Bartimaeus, the man famously cured of blindness by Jesus.

Vatican II constituted a great opening of the Catholic Church. The first manifestation of this was the arrival of the vernacular Mass: Mass would now be said in the native tongue of the congregation rather than the Latin, which had previously perpetuated a false idea of universality.

Almost as significant as this change, and one on which every architect in Ireland had an opinion, was the turning of the priest to face the people. The ancien regime saw the priest huddled over the bread and wine, whispering the Te Igitur – the predecessor of today’s Eucharistic Prayers – while the people read their prayer books. This, in theory, created a heightened sense of mystery. In practice, it served to deepen the divide between clergy and laity to crevasse-like proportions.

The growing feeling among Irish people that “this will just not do!” led to the church gaining an increased sense of itself as the entire “people of God”. It no longer saw itself as a caste-based system where a tiny – in numeric terms – clerical caste ruled all. The words “We, the people” suddenly became an Irish ecclesiastical reference point.

With this came a huge transformation of the ecumenical movement. In fact, you might say that with this came the ecumenical movement, as prior to Vatican II all too few were prepared to utter “that ‘which’ for ‘who’/And risk eternal doom”, in the words of Austin Clarke in Burial of an Irish President. The poem recounts how the Catholic members of government, obeying directions from their clergy, declined to enter St Patrick’s Cathedral for the funeral of former president Douglas Hyde.

It is often a measure of the success of an idea that one finds the preceding state of affairs difficult to envisage. It is indeed difficult to imagine an Ireland where the vast majority of the population agonised over their relationship with their separated brethren, not to mention non-Christians.

Yet two documents of the Second Vatican Council changed all that or, more accurately, served to crystallise a process of change that had been ongoing. Unitatis Redintegratio (the council’s decree on ecumenism) and Nostra Aetate (on the relation of the Catholic Church to non-Christian religions) marked a sea-change – for the better, especially when you consider the shameful history of anti-Semitism – in Irish Catholic attitudes towards Protestant traditions and non-Christian religions.

But perhaps the most significant change, though sadly it has not always endured, is the spirit of joy which the convenor of the Second Vatican Council brought to that role. The document Pope John XXIII used to open the council was Gaudet Mater Ecclesia – “Mother Church Rejoices”.

The great concluding document was Gaudium et Spes – “Joy and Hope”. Writing almost a century earlier, John Henry Newman expressed dismay about the circumstances in which the First Vatican Council (1870) was convened: “Only a weak, fearful organisation, which has lost confidence in what it stands for, shuts down exploration and silences debate . . . As Jesus warns us, it is the faithless anxious servant who keeps his master’s money safe by burying it in the ground.”

Finally, we should remember that Vatican II was part of the 1960s when, globally, the attitude towards authority changed: the default position became one of questioning, as opposed to deference.

It is arguable that the great failure of Vatican II was the inability of progressive forces to recognise this. Ironic too perhaps that, in hindsight, the most powerful positive forces of dissemination in Ireland were journalists such as John Horgan, Seán Mac Réamoinn and Louis McRedmond. But then again, maybe not so ironic at all.

Dr Pádraic Conway is director of the UCD International Centre for Newman Studies and a vice-president of UCD. The Newman centre is organising the one-day conference, “Vatican II: 50 Years On”, on Thursday, October 11th to mark the 50th anniversary of the opening of the council.