Divide over Vatican II's legacy is wider than ever

FIFTY YEARS on, the legacy of Vatican II seems even less secure now than it did in the decades immediately following the council…

FIFTY YEARS on, the legacy of Vatican II seems even less secure now than it did in the decades immediately following the council. The Roman Catholic Church is deeply divided about whether and how the reforms envisaged by the council should be implemented.

Moreover, this division is particularly pronounced in relation to the church’s approach to ethical issues, especially in its teaching on sexuality. In the theological arena much of this conflict is played out in the field of ethics.

There is no doubt that there has been a radical transformation in the field of ethics since Vatican II.

Prior to the council, theological ethics was primarily a legalistic and casuistic enterprise which aimed at giving universally applicable answers to a set of predetermined questions. This approach to morals was underwritten by a starkly hierarchical model of church, with its exaggerated account of the distinctive and unequal roles of laity, clergy, bishops and pope.


Typical of this approach was Pius X’s now infamous declaration (in his 1906 encyclical Vehementer Nos) that so distinct are the categories of pastors and flock that “the one duty of the multitude is to allow themselves to be led, and, like a docile flock, to follow the pastors”.

The ethics that flowed from this hierarchical conceptualisation of church was conducted through the idiom of law: it emphasised the objective character of morality (at the expense of the subjective dimension), and stressed the absoluteness of moral norms. Indeed the “docile flock” was expected to allow itself to be led especially in matters of moral concern, with the “necessary right and authority” to teach on moral matters residing with “the pastors”.

The critical turning point was Vatican II, which utterly transformed the internal landscape of Catholicism and allowed questions concerning conscience, moral authority and the church’s moral tradition to emerge in a different register.

The understanding of church promoted by the council was one premised on mutual and reciprocal relationships. Authority was no longer to be expressed in autocratic terms, but rather was to be based on collegiality and consultation. The ethics that has emerged from this context has been highly critical of the presumed universality to which the earlier theology laid claim, and has sought to make space for the significant diversity that exists within the church on critical moral issues.

Much of the change has come about because the locations in which this theology is pursued have been transformed. Whereas previously seminaries and theological colleges were the primary forums, today theology is taught in multiple academic contexts, which may be secular, multireligious or ecumenical in ethos.

In addition, the complexion of the traditionally Catholic contexts has also changed, so that the seminaries, theological colleges and Catholic universities are no longer predominantly clerical and male.

Indeed in some respects one could say that a revolution has occurred in Catholic theological ethics, particularly in terms of the heterogeneity of those writing and teaching in the field. While overall the field may still be predominantly clerical and male, in some regions, including Europe, the US and parts of southeast Asia, the balance is quickly shifting, so that one can certainly envisage the field being predominantly composed of laity, especially women, within a generation or two.

In other regions, including Africa and Latin America, the change is not as pronounced, but it is taking place nonetheless. This new diversity within these traditional institutional settings has had a liberating effect on the discipline. It has been one of the most significant drivers of change, and has enabled theologians to engage more deeply with the ethical pluralism that characterises contemporary life.

The effects of these changes can be seen especially in the manner in which issues of sexual ethics have been debated. Much of the post-Vatican II theology has been highly critical of what it regards as the reductive and punitive character of the church’s traditional approach to the body, and of its pathologically dysfunctional attitude to sexuality.

In this context feminist theologians in particular have raised fundamental questions about the validity of a sexual ethic that has emerged from an institution that has so systematically excluded women’s voices.

Others have criticised the church’s failure to incorporate new insights from the human and social sciences in its teaching, as can be seen, for example, in the way it persists in its condemnation of homosexual sex despite significant scientific advances in our understanding of human sexuality.

Of course many Catholics still accept and defend the church’s positions on sexual matters, and in recent years catechetical and other initiatives have been introduced to explain and promote these teachings. However, whether the focus is on reproductive rights or on the rights of same-sex couples, the divergence of views on sexual ethics is now as intense and intractable within the church as it is in the wider society.

Those who are committed to implementing the reforms envisaged by Vatican II insist that the church’s moral tradition must evolve in line with changes in scientific understanding and in light of the experience of those whose voices are now audible but which were previously ignored.

Although the language of tradition tends to evoke thoughts of something that is static and unitary, in fact the church’s moral tradition is dynamic and internally diverse. Indeed, as the historian John Noonan has demonstrated, this idea of a fixed and unchanging moral tradition is a fiction.

Noonan summarises the ways in which the Church’s moral tradition has changed thus: “what was forbidden became lawful (the cases of usury and marriage); what was permissible became unlawful (the case of slavery); and what was required became forbidden (the persecution of heretics)”.

So whether one examines the Catholic church’s tradition on marriage, divorce, abortion, slavery, human rights, conscientious objection to war or religious freedom, one encounters an always evolving, often inconsistent and occasionally contradictory body of thought. Previously unquestioned positions have been abandoned, and substantial innovations have occurred.

Moreover, not only have the conclusions about the morality of certain practices changed, but the ethical frame within which many practices are evaluated has also been transformed. Of course it would be wrong to overstate the trajectory of change, since it is precisely as tradition that it has evolved. Nonetheless it is important to emphasise that the church’s moral tradition is a discursive tradition, forged through a dynamic of continuity and change.

Understood in this way it is clear to see why the stakes are so high in the debates about the legacy of Vatican II. The issue comes down to whether the church will continue to pursue the inclusive vision of Vatican II or whether it will retreat into the privileged and increasingly remote world of unaccountable power.

Regrettably on the 50th anniversary of the opening of the Vatican Council the gulf between those who are committed to its implementation and those who are not is wider than ever before.

Linda Hogan is vice-provost/chief academic officer and professor of ecumenics at Trinity College Dublin.