Paul Collins, Catholic writer


Vatican II as an Ongoing Event

5 November 2012
Originally published in the Broken Bay Institute’s E-News



In his recently translated Council Journal Yves Congar says that he felt that historically Vatican II came twenty-five years ‘too early’, that only the youngest bishops had imbibed the renewed theological, historical and scriptural studies that underpinned the conciliar documents. From today’s perspective it is also significant that Congar thought the Council ‘had stopped half-way on many questions. It began a task that is not completed.’ In other words Vatican II – or at least its interpretation – is an unfinished, on-going event. For us to continue that process we need to look critically at the Council and its aftermath and to analyse forensically its successes and failures.

Clearly its overwhelming success was to give Catholics a renewed, dynamic vision of church in which everyone is called to share in ministry. But lurking within the council documents themselves were disjunctions that have become increasingly problematic over the last fifty years. It is these disjunctions with which we will have to deal if we are to participate creatively in this on-going interpretation.

An example is Lumen gentium which presents two images of the church: the first two chapters envisage it as a community of believers called together by the Spirit to represent Christ in the world. In contrast, the third chapter presents the church as a hierarchical self-enclosed institution. These are mutually incompatible images that have become increasingly corrosive. The result is that many Catholics experience a real disjunction between their interiorised vision of the church as a community and their ecclesial experience at the institutional level.

One also sees this in the decree on the priesthood. Christian Duquoc correctly says that there is an inherent conflict between the post-Tridentine theology of a cultic priesthood outlined in the decree and the same decree’s emphasis that priestly ministry consists in a ‘profound involvement in everyday life ... [and] service of the poor.’ Duquoc says that this places the priest in an irreconcilable bind between the demands of modern ministry and an outdated theology and spirituality. He believes this tension underlies all the problems related to the contemporary priesthood. This is another example of the Council stopping ‘half way’ as Congar puts it.

One area where the Council was unequivocally successful was the liturgy. Liturgists were fully prepared for the Council and discussion of and experimentation with worship had been going on for decades in France, Belgium, Germany and the US. It has taken reactionaries fifty years to roll-back some of the liturgical reforms of Vatican II and impose a Latinised form of pseudo-sacred English on Catholics. (I have outlined the history of this roll-back in my pamphlet And Also With You).

Secondly, let’s now turn to problems in implementation. During the Council the Holy Office was directly attacked for its inquisitorial methods by prominent bishops including Cardinal Josef Frings who staged a dramatic confrontation with Cardinal Alfredo Ottaviani. During the Council there were many calls for reform of the Curia, but after 1965 nothing really happened. A desultory attempt was made to reform the Curia in the Apostolic Constitution Regimini Ecclesiae Universae (1976). There was tinkering at the edges; for instance when the polymath Belgian Monsignor Charles Moeller was brought in as secretary of the Holy Office. But he got nowhere and muttered that ‘It was like asking the Mafia to reform the Mafia’ as he left to return to Belgium. A whole new set of secretariats and other bodies were tacked onto the Curia and the Secretariat of State became a kind of curia within the curia. Guiseppe Alberigo comments that during the decade after 1967 the restructuring of the curia was abandoned and the new curial offices in fact brought more aspects of church life under Vatican scrutiny and control.

The Synod of Bishops might have become a real point of direct dialogue between the world’s bishops and the papacy. Established by Paul VI in the last session of the Council for ‘consultation and collaboration’, it quickly became another papal rubber-stamp. The pope called it, presided over it, determined its agenda and formulated and communicated its conclusions.

Then in August 1978 John Paul II was elected. The second longest papacy in history began. In many ways John Paul’s exercise of the papal role was unprecedented in church history. There is a sense in which he cast himself as a kind of ‘bishop of the world’ with his travels creating the sense of an omnipresent papacy. Medieval popes like Innocent III may have thought of themselves as lords of the world, but Pope Wojtyla used modern communications media effectively to make himself bishop of the whole church.

This also sidelined the doctrine of collegiality. Instead of the role of bishop being enhanced as the local leader of the church with co-responsibility for the universal church, bishops were reduced to ciphers whose primary line of responsibility was to the pope, not to their dioceses. The process of episcopal appointment lacked transparency as more and more ‘company men’ were appointed. The result was that by the end of the Wojtyla papacy if a council or even a gathering of the world’s bishops were to be held there would be none of the vitality and leadership that appeared from the very first day of Vatican II. It would be a gathering of ‘yes men’.

In conclusion I would argue that, as Congar says, if we are to continue the incomplete task of Vatican II we must face-up to these difficult issues and not get caught up in debates about the false dichotomy between so-called ‘hermeneutics of continuity and rupture’. While we celebrate the Council’s achievements, we also need to be realistic that even the greatest achievements can be watered-down and even lost. Vatican II remains an on-going event.

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