Saturday, 21 April 2012

Dismantling Vatican II

Confessions of an Ex-Priest (2)

In a piece I published here about a year ago, Confessions of an Ex-Priest (1), I attempted to formulate my complex relationship with the Roman Catholic Church, particularly in relation to my own personal history. I gave that post a number, because I confidently expected to come back to the subject before long. In the event, it has taken me a year to get around to this (though I have touched on other aspects regarding God, Christianity and religious belief in the interim).

Towards the end of that post I wrote about a tendency I perceive within the Catholic Church since the end of the 70s “away from openness, dialogue and courage.” I want to come back to this now.

Around fifty years ago, a new Zeitgeist seemed to be sweeping across the world. Its roots were many and complex, going back to the end of World War II and the bi-polar post-war settlement, but also involving a growth of prosperity, the beginning of the dismantling of political colonialism, the threat of imminent nuclear annihilation, the growth of the Youth Culture, the spread of TV, the Kennedy-Camelot, the emergence of rock and roll and the Beatles. It all led to an atmosphere, almost impossible to describe, but immediately recognisable to all of us – the Sixties.

“Come mothers and fathers
Throughout the land
And don't criticize
What you can't understand
Your sons and your daughters
Are beyond your command
Your old road is
Rapidly agin'
Please get out of the new one
If you can't lend your hand
For the times they are a-changin'.”

Pope John XXIII
Bob Dylan wrote these words in October 1963. Amazingly, the one group of the older generation who had seemed to have heard the message he was preaching were the bishops of the Roman Catholic Church. Under the leadership of Pope John XXIII, who declared that it was time to open the windows of the church and let in some fresh air, they had gathered in Council in the Vatican from 1962 onwards, and were in the process of thoroughly shaking up a worldwide institution which had seemed completely impervious to change for hundreds of years.

It was an amazing phenomenon. In the first session of the Council the bishops basically threw out all the careful plans which had been made by the professional Vatican bureaucrats – designed to produce a lot of sonorous discussions resulting in practically no real change whatsoever – and made it quite clear that everything was on the agenda. In an unparalleled atmosphere of courage and hope, they proceeded to initiate a vast programme of reform, from the liturgy to the structures of church government and the making of decisions.

But beyond all of this was something more; something essential, something intangible. If I were still a believer, I would describe it as a sense of the movement of the Holy Spirit; a creative wind tossing ossified, petrified structures up into the air, letting wonderful new patterns form, like the shaking of a kaleidoscope. It is what has been called “the Spirit of the Council” ever since.

It is something which is now being systematically stifled and liquidated by the official organs of the Catholic Church. This process began quietly and tentatively soon after the Council ended, grew in strength and confidence during the pontificate of John Paul II, and has become comprehensive during the reign of Benedict XVI.

The official line taken by the conservative neo-traditionalists who are now in firm control of nearly all the positions of power in the Church is that many of the changes implemented in the wake of the council were never formally approved and nearly all of the changes still demanded by many Catholics were never intended by the fathers of the Council. They go on to argue that Vatican II was a purely “pastoral” council and never understood itself as in any way having a mandate to deliberate and make decisions on “issues of doctrine.”

Such a line of argument is disingenuous, to say the least. It is true that the Council did not concern itself with such doctrinal issues as the internal relations between the three persons of the Trinity, the understanding of the two natures – human and divine – in the person of Christ, or the relationship between faith and good works in the economy of salvation. But Vatican II did have a very specific doctrinal aspect, one that was as far-reaching as it was practical. For the main theme of the Council was the Church; and it put forward a theological vision of the Church which was open, hopeful, tolerant and visionary – and one with many practical consequences.

I’m not going to go into further theological specifics here – though I am sure, even as a former believer, that I can back up any of my analysis with sound (orthodox) Catholic theological argument (I did, after all, spend quite a number of years studying theology). Suffice it to say that the ideas presented in Lumen Gentium, the Constitution on the Church which was the first formal document produced by the Council – concepts such as that of the Church as the People of God, collegiality, the common priesthood of the faithful (laity), as well as what it has to say about non-Catholic Christians and non-believers – have vast theological consequences, as well as organisational ones.

And this is where the nub of the problem lies. The teaching of Lumen Gentium, even taken on its own, but particularly when read together with Gaudium et Spes (the Constitution of the Church in the Modern World) in the context of the open, hopeful, positive “Spirit of the Council,” is incompatible with an exclusivist, top-down, authoritarian model of power and unity in the Church. This is something which the majority of committed Catholics recognised immediately. The first area in which it was acted on was that of liturgy. Following the lead of the Council, which removed the requirement for the mass to be celebrated in Latin and emphasised a broader, richer view of the Eucharist beyond the sacrificial, the laity (by and large) eagerly empowered themselves in a continuing, creative, living celebration of liturgy, making it rich and meaningful in hundreds of different cultural situations.

I will admit that in some of these processes there were incidents where enthusiasm overcame taste, particularly in the heady early years, where lack of experience with the new liturgical freedom led to some shallow phenomena perhaps best described (misquoting REM) as “shiny happy Christians holding hands.” But, in general, this settled down pretty quickly with most parishes and local church groups finding tasteful, meaningful ways of celebrating liturgy – at least in those church communities where ministers and laity worked on it together.

However the liturgy is only the final expression of a living, vibrant church. And that vibrancy comes from a church where all its members can identify with a church as their church, where they have accepted the teaching of the council that they are the church.

In the end, it comes down to a basic human reality – though not one which the “official” Catholic Church likes to talk open and honestly about – power. This is all the more hypocritical, because the conservative neo-traditionalists show in their every action that this, in fact, is what they are really concerned about. The message of the Council was that the Church was not the administrative organisation of priests, bishops and pope, organised from the top down in Rome – the Church was the people of God, all its members. The theological and practical consequences which flowed from this renewed vision are huge. Following it, the administration – as an instrument of organisation and unification – is a servant of the wider church. Within this context, practical questions concerning the way ministry is organised, for example, would be solved according to the needs of this wider church – and this implies a very different way of thinking about married priests, or women priests. It gives rise to new ways of understanding how power should be exercised in the church, what say the laity should have in practical decisions, how bishops are elected, etc., etc.

But all of this involves embracing a basic faith in the church, defined as all its members. I would even go farther and suggest that it involves embracing a basic faith in the presence of God, through the Holy Spirit, guiding the church.

In retrospect, it was all too good to be true. It would have meant an exclusivist elite accepting a more generous, inclusive reality and giving up power, privilege and the assurance that they were always right. It was never going to happen.

Back in the late sixties and the seventies, however, many believed that it would. Disorganised, knocked off balance by the fresh wind of the Spirit of the Council, the traditionalist conservatives took cover. The Zeitgeist was against them. But even in the sixties they saw fresh signs of hope. The Council had left the vexed question of artificial contraception to the new pope, Paul VI, generally seen as a sympathiser with moderate reform. A theological commission reported in favour of the Church allowing contraception for Catholics. But Paul lost his nerve in the face of what he saw as a too drastic change in the traditional teaching of the Church and reaffirmed the ban on contraception with Humanae Vitae in 1968.

However, it was ten years later that the atmosphere definitively changed in favour of the traditionalists. The election of Karol Wojtyla as John Paul II put a man at the helm of the Catholic Church whose understanding of the way things should be organised was deeply influenced by his Polish experience. The Catholic Church in Poland formed a counter-culture to a totalitarian communist regime. In such a situation, a diversity of views, a plurality of practices, makes you vulnerable. The Catholic Church in Poland remained strong because it presented an absolutely united front; in this manner it could protect itself. He transferred this model – and the authoritarian position which it inferred – to the global Church. There was little room, in Wojtyla’s world-view, for honest dissent in charity, for unity in diversity. Despite his charismatic, pop-star personality, he was fundamentally a traditionalist. Those who questioned, those who thought differently, would be brought into line. The old, secure discipline had been lost. It was time to bring it back.

Many of us gave up and got out. And, in doing so, we inevitably strengthened the position of a growing group of new traditionalists, who saw a life in the church as a possibility for a life governed by certainties, for a life in a secure enclave, undisturbed by the complexity of real life where things aren’t always black and white and there aren’t always clear answers to every question. A security made even easier by the identification of the enemy within; the liberals, those who challenged the newly-embraced old certainties. Those teaching – oh, how ghastly! – heresy.

John Paul II was pope for over twenty six years. This meant that practically all the cardinals voting for his successor had been appointed by him. It was no real surprise, then, when they elected Josef Ratzinger, the man who had been the Vatican’s orthodoxy watchdog for over twenty years.

Seven years of Benedict XVI have seen the closing of the last of the windows opened by John XXIII, half a century ago. It is reported that his greatest wish before his death is the reconciliation of the Society of Saint Pius X, a right-wing group which explicitly rejects the reforms of Vatican II, with Rome. Although his pontificate has been marked by continual revelations of sexual abuse of children by priests and brothers in many countries, going back far longer than fifty years, this has not led to any real heart-searching, or deep self-questioning by the conservative traditionalists who are now once more firmly in control of the Catholic Church. That Church structures, dominated by male authoritarianism, repression, secrecy, unquestioned privilege and unquestioning obedience, might have something to do with the whole ghastly phenomenon is not even considered.

The last vestiges of the “Spirit of the Council” are now being dealt with. Dissenting theologians are being silenced – this link tells of some of them. For English-speaking countries, a new translation of the Roman Missal (the basic official textbook for all major liturgy) has been mandatory for a few months now. From what I have seen of it (and read and heard about it), it seems to be deliberately obscurant, stilted, and, at times, downright incomprehensible. Getting the first (and last) areas where openness and innovation ruled back under control, or simply Rome fiddling while the world burns?

Does it matter, anyway? As someone who has also trained as a historian, I sometimes wonder whether the conservatives’ analysis may not be more correct in the long term. Perhaps that wonderful outburst of chaotic creativity, of rapprochement with modernity, of a vision of the church inspired by fearlessness, hope, and faith in the Resurrection unleashed by the Council was simply a momentary aberration in the millennial-long history of an organisation which regards everything not under its direct control with deep suspicion. Perhaps the pre-conciliar view of humanity as deeply sinful, untrustworthy, in need of constant guidance and ruling by an infallible spiritual leadership, a humanity whose unworthiness in the face of a stern but loving God could only be propitiated by the sacrifice of His Only Son on the cross, is the more enduring Catholic vision. Maybe that vision of freedom, of liberation, of the humiliation of the powerful and the exaltation of the lowly, of trust, of love – that vision inspired by a Jesus whose most frequent greeting was, “Fear not!” – which inspired me in my youth to think I could give my life to the church, was nothing more than hippy-dippy sixties thinking.

If so, then I am well out of it. Still, though I no longer believe in God, and though my ideals have taken more than a few knocks in the course of my life, I refuse to abandon a more generous vision in favour of a more niggardly one – though the grounds on which I accept it are now different, freely chosen ones. But that is another story. That the Catholic Church, or, rather, those who lead it and exercise power within it, prefer a message dominated by pessimism, fear, and control, rather than one inspired by openness, trust, and hope seems to me to show a weakness of faith in the life and message of the man/God they claim as their foundation and inspiration.


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