A BIRD'S-EYE VIEW
When people ask, as I imagine they sometimes still do, "What on earth is going on in the Catholic Church?" the best answer, I believe, is "Two contradictory things at once", One can then go on to show, according to the time at one's disposal, how they are related, which is one of the purposes of this book.
In the 1960s, one will explain, a lawful General Council, a gathering of the world's Catholic bishops with and under the Pope to discuss the affairs of the Church (the twenty-first such Council in her history and the second to be held at the Vatican in just under a hundred years) launched the Church on a major programme of reforms. Summoned by Pope John XXIII (1958-1963), the assembly met for two months in four successive autumns, 1962, 1963, 1964, 1965. Between these general assemblies, the work was carried on by committees and commissions. Pope Paul VI, who succeeded Pope John in 1963, presided over the second, third and fourth sessions.
However, the Council was hardly over before a great rebellion against
the Church's teaching and authority broke out, carried on for the most part in the name of the Council.
As with all true calls for reform, at the heart of the Council's teaching is a call for Catholics to return to greater personal holiness. This is religious reform in the most fundamental sense. If Catholics were holier, such seems to have been Pope John's initial idea, the separated Christians would be drawn back into the Church by her sheer attractive power, and all could then go out and convert the modern world.
But it is not necessary to gather more than 2000 bishops in Rome for four consecutive autumns in order to make such an elementary demand. Those who took the lead at the Council had more specialised concerns.
Most Catholics before the Council lived in countries that had long been publicly Christian, their attitudes and outlook being formed accordingly. In such countries a certain religious easy-goingness prevails. It is like family life. There is no one to impress. No one is shocked by what has come to be called "the gap between faith and life", i.e. the way people lived too often barely or not sufficiently corresponding with what they professed to believe. Believe they did. Practice fell too much behind.
Another characteristic of Christian countries of long standing, was the assumption that there was no-one, or hardly anyone immediately at hand to convert. In theory at least, everyone was already a Christian, so the missionary spirit tended to atrophy. Converting other people, it was felt, could safely be left to those with a special call to spread the Gospel to the heathen.
But the number of countries which could still in any true sense be called Christian was rapidly diminishing. Christians were everywhere becoming a minority, a situation where their faults, as far as the mission of the Church is concerned, become of much greater consequence. A minority, just because it is a minority, will always be looked at to some degree critically, and if it is a religious minority, its behaviour will be taken as the measure of the truth of its beliefs.
lf, therefore, the Church was to continue to fulfil its mission, and even in certain countries to survive, the faithful must at all cost be moved out of living mentally and spiritually in a Christendom that no longer existed. They must be brought to realise that they are called to preach Christ by example as well as by word, and must learn to see themselves as missionaries, like the early Christians.
However, such a change of outlook cannot be worked by a simple word of command and without some hard thinking. It presupposed on the part of the Church something similar to the fresh look a man takes at himself, his life and beliefs when he goes on retreat. In the Second Vatican Council, the Church in a sense "went into retreat" (even if, as we shall shortly see, a troubled one), and the outcome was a reflection on its own nature, as well as on its mission and relation to the world, leading to a reform of theology or its manner of presenting its beliefs. For those concerned with these questions, a reform of Catholic theology was a prerequisite for a reform of Catholic life. If the beliefs of the faithful did not make the impact on them they should, that was because those beliefs were inadequately presented. They did not sufficiently understand all their implications. There were "black holes" in their understanding. The "black holes" were responsible for the gap between faith and life.
A reform of theology does not mean new beliefs. But the conciliar decrees do contain important shifts of emphasis and perspective (they are usually referred to as the "new orientations"), and the beginnings of some theological developments (the drawing out of the implications of aspects of the faith not explicitly expressed in the original "deposit") whose purpose is not only to make Catholics more fervent and apostolic, but to make the faith more easily understood by our contemporaries by removing unnecessary causes of misunderstanding and giving what is intended to be a fuller, better-balanced. and if possible more attractive presentation of the faith.
For the Church, the purpose of the shifts of emphasis was not to exclude what had previously received most attention, but to give greater prominence to what it was felt had hitherto not received enough in order to correct an imbalance.
The mysteries revealed by God, like the facts of nature are a harmony of parts many of which appear to us as complementary opposites. Just as in nature there is light and dark, joy and sorrow, change and stability, so in the Christian mysteries God is One and Three, Christ is divine and human, king and servant, the Mass is the sacrifice of Calvary made present without bloodshed, and a sacred meal. The human mind cannot keep the whole faith in view at any one time in all its details. But it should have a vision of the whole based on a properly balanced presentation of fundamentals. This overall vision is what the world-wide teaching of the faith, Sunday by Sunday, through the liturgy, from the pulpit, and via other forms of instruction, is meant to produce. But its faithfulness depends on the proper distribution of the weight of emphasis. Not only must all the salient features be present; they must be shown in the right relationship both to each other and the whole. If the balance is not right, understanding of the sense and import of the whole will be to some extent affected. Plenty of examples will be mentioned along the way.
The fuller, better-balanced presentation of the faith which the conciliar teachings are intended to provide has been the theoretical basis for the practical changes: altered liturgy, revised canon law, ecumenical initiatives, simplified rules for religious orders, new administrative and consultative bodies like the triennial episcopal synods in Rome, national episcopal conferences, diocesan commissions, priests' senates, parish councils, and so on. The conciliar decrees, however, only gave guidelines about the shape the reforms ought to have. The practical changes have been the work of the Pope and bishops together, or the reigning Pope alone, since the Council. In many cases they go considerably beyond what the decrees suggest or positively require.1
Making Catholics more fervent and apostolic, and the faith better understood by outsiders, would also, it was believed, be advanced by the process Pope John called aggiornamento, translated into English as "updating" or "renewal".
Aggiornamento was the Council's second major undertaking. People frequently talk about aggiornamento or updating as though it were identical with reform. However there is a difference. Aggiornamento is not in the strict sense reform at all.
Reform in the strict sense means bringing back to its original shape something that has been partially knocked out of shape or deformed. In religion it may be morals, spirituality, modes of worship, ecclesiastical institutions, styles of government, or, as we have just seen, prevailing ways of presenting the faith. This will often involve restoring good things which in the course of history have been cast aside or neglected, or removing accidental accretions that prevent the original beauty or effectiveness of what is being reformed from being seen.
Aggiornamento or updating, on the other hand, is the weighing up by the Church of new ideas and practices in a surrounding culture, the sifting of the wheat from the chaff, and then the "baptising" or taking into her thinking and practice of whatever it is judged lawfully can be "baptised" so that she will not impede her mission by opposing what is naturally good, and will make her teaching as understandable as possible to whatever people she has to preach to. At the level of ideas it means showing the relationship between natural and revealed knowledge.
A monastery is reformed for example if the monks have given up communal prayer and a strong-minded abbot gets them out of bed and back into Church again in the morning. It is updated if, for good reasons, he decides to install a telephone, or includes some talks on modern psychology in the moral theology courses for his novices.
The process now called "inculturation" (what the missionary does when, with ecclesiastical permission, he uses certain local artistic styles in church architecture and decoration, certain local customs in the liturgy, or certain local modes of expression and behaviour in teaching or living the faith) is just aggiornamento or updating applied to new places instead of new times.
Since the history of Christianity has been a continual meeting with new cultures, both things, aggiornamento and inculturation have always gone on in the Church.
The Church was engaged in aggiornamento and inculturation when she first took the measure of Graeco-Roman civilisation and then adjusted herself to its collapse: when she started to extract and appropriate the gold in Greek philosophy and imperial law; when she mitigated the severity of her penances to make it easier for the lapsed to return after periods of persecution; when, listening to the voice of contemporary science, she accepted for practical purposes, not as part of her faith, the reigning Ptolemaic cosmology; when in the west she switched from Greek to Latin in her liturgy after the majority of the faithful ceased to be Greek-speaking; when with the decline of the empire she moved increasingly out of the towns to convert the country people; when she took to anointing kings, fostered the spirit of chivalry, instituted the truce of God, excluded the turbulent Roman nobility and populace from the election of popes and confined it to the college of cardinals, made the copying of manuscripts one of the chief works of her monks, gave birth to the universities, put Aristotelian and Arabian philosophy under the microscope, embraced what was worthwhile in renaissance humanism (and temporarily some things that were not), introduced seminary training for her priests so that they could talk on an equality with educated laymen, and in the 17th century started to come to terms with the new scientific learning.
Unfortunately, in carrying out this very necessary work, the Church will frequently be hampered by the fact that a number of her children will be carrying on an impassioned love affair with "the times" —— the feudal and renaissance periods provide some notable examples whose consequences will later take holy churchmen much time and effort to undo. Those of the 21st century are plainly going to have a big job of this sort. Often too she has to tolerate things she disapproves of but cannot for the time remedy. The best she may be able to do is mitigate the more serious evils.
These meetings with new times and places, however, no more cause the Church to change her beliefs than theological reform does, though the need to answer objections may lead her to clarify certain aspects, define them more precisely, organise them systematically or explain their consequences. In other words they can be the catalyst for theological or doctrinal development.
So much for aggiornamento in the past. That there should have been a special need for it in recent times is easily understood when one considers the tremendous changes over the last 150 years in the way people live and the cataract of new ideas and ideologies they have been exposed to.
For the Church they present a mixture of opportunities and obstacles to her mission which, even in the most favourable circumstances, would make some kind of stock-taking appropriate.
In spite of this, making the faithful holier and more apostolic remains the first consideration. The purpose of everything else — reform, aggiomamento, inculturation — is to reshape the faithful's inner dispositions, and revive or release their spiritual energies, hitherto partially blocked or thought to have been, by bad habits, the spirit of routine, an inadequate grasp of the implications of their beliefs, inefficient or no longer effective ways of conducting Church affairs, or failure to take advantage of new opportunities.
But why this sudden interest in change on the part of ecclesiastical authority around 1960?
In fact it was not sudden. There had long been a movement in the Church for both the kinds of "reform" I have mentioned (its origins go back to the early 19th century), and a great deal had already been achieved in the ninety-odd years between the First and Second Vatican Councils.
However, during the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s there began to take shape a party of mainly French, and German, theologians and scholars wanting more radical shifts of emphasis, bolder adaptations and the "baptism" of a greater number of contemporary ideas. The resulting presentation of the faith, which they offered the Church for its approval, has come to be called "the new theology" (la nouvelle théologie).
During the pontificate of Pius XII (1939-1958), Pope John's immediate predecessor, the new theologians had been out of favour, the Pope and his advisers considering a number of their ideas too extreme. The encyclical Humani Genesis (1950) singled out what the Pope took exception to. Some of them were forbidden to teach or write for a time. However Pope John decided they should be allowed to have their say. Most of the leading representatives attended the Council. Some were invited to work on the commissions which drafted the documents for discussion. Others were present as theological advisers to individual bishops.
The term "new theology", originally with a pejorative meaning, is said to have been coined by the French theologian Fr. Garrigou-Lagrange O.P., a leader of the rival, quasi-official neo-scholastic theology.2
The confrontation between the neo-scholastics and the new theologians underlay many of the conflicts at the Council. It was not unlike the dispute between the theological schools of Antioch and Alexandria beginning around A.D. 400 about the relationship between Our Lord's divine and human natures, which was fought out over three hundred years and half a dozen general councils. The difference today is that the new theology is a newcomer, while the schools of Antioch and Alexandria were rivals of almost equal age.
In France, the leading "new theologians" were: Fr. Henri de Lubac, based at the Jesuit house at Fourvière in Lyons, and his fellow Jesuit Fr. Jean Danielou, and the Dominicans Fr. Yves Congar and his teacher and friend Fr. Marie-Dominique Chenu, both teachers for the greater part of their lives at the Dominican house of higher studies at Le Saulchoir in Belgium, later moved to the outskirts of Paris. Fr. Teilhard de Chardin, the Jesuit palaeontologist, a key figure as an influence in the background, had died in 1955, seven years before the Council opened.
The Jesuit Fr. Karl Rahner was the chief representative of the new tendencies in Germany, and the Dominican Fr. Edward Schillebeeckx in the Low Countries. The Swiss theologian, Fr. Hans von Balthasar did not attend the Council. He had left the Jesuits some years before to found a small community of his own, but was a close friend of Fr. de Lubac, whose pupil he had been, and was in sympathy with most of his views. Jacques Maritain, a layman and leading neo-scholastic, did not belong to the circle of new theologians. But they mostly approved his social and political ideas, which, along with those of his disciple Emmanuel Mounier, had a profound influence on the Council's social teaching.
The new theologians, backed by a minority of influential bishops, were the driving force behind the "reform party" at the Council.
By "reform party" I mean the much wider body of men who supported most of the new theologians' initiatives without necessarily subscribing to all their ideas, or always grasping all their implications.
In addition there were, throughout the Church, numbers of clergy and laity anxious for changes of one kind or another without having a comprehensive programme. The philosopher Dietrich von Hildebrand, who later protested vehemently against liturgical and other abuses, wanted the teaching of philosophy broadened to include the German phenomenological method, and, in its immediate aftermath, spoke of the "greatness of the Second Vatican Council", while the teaching of the founder of Opus Dei, the Spanish St. Josemaría Escrivá de Balaguer, is recognised as having anticipated the Council's teaching on the laity, in particular its teaching on the universal call to holiness and the place of human work in God's creative plan.3
To conclude this chapter, three other points about the Council should be mentioned.
Pope John, who called the Council, said it was to be "pastoral", that is to say chiefly concerned with getting the Church's teachings to "tell" more in the faithful's minds and lives. There were to be no solemn definitions, or anathemas (condemnations). From this, not a few Catholics have concluded that its doctrinal teachings are of little consequence, that they can ignore what is seemingly novel, or, according to taste, not novel enough. But this is a misunderstanding. Popes, like other men, may propose, but in the end God disposes. No solemn definitions or anathemas there may have been, but the two primary documents (on the Church and on the sources of revelation) are entitled "dogmatic constitutions", and throughout the decrees as a whole there is a wealth of doctrinal material of the greatest value, for which it would be unfair not to give the new theologians and the reform party most of the credit.
How the passage was to be understood and applied became one of the key issues at the Council and has been the cause of many of the problems since. Was the fresh presentation to involve a change of words and style only, or also of concepts? And can you change concepts without changing the meaning?
A glance at the nursery rhyme about Jack and Jill will highlight the difficulties of the undertaking. "Jack and Jill went up the hill to fetch a pail of water". Now substitute the word "liquid" for "water". You haven't explicitly altered the meaning. But it is less precise. It is now possible to suggest that what they were carrying was a pail of white wine or arsenic.
It is largely by taking advantage of the Council's often looser terminology that, since the Council, theologians in rebellion against the Church have been able to introduce changes of meaning under cover of the Council's authority.
The third point is that the influence of the Conciliar teaching and reforms has not been confined to the Catholic Church. Most other Christian bodies have had their practices and certainties to some degree stirred or disturbed by it.
Was Pope John's decision to call a Council an inspiration from God, as he believed, or not? In other words, was it a work of God's active or permissive will? No one can know. But even if only the latter, that does not rule out God's having used the Council to put across some important messages.
3. "Your ideal is truly great. From its very beginnings it anticipated the theology of the laity that was later to characterise the Church after the Council." John Paul II’s homily to members of Opus Dei, 19th Aug. 1997. For the reasons why St. Josemaría Escrivá declined two invitations to participate directly in the Council as head of a religious institute or peritus, see Alvaro Portillo, Immersed in God, Scepter, Princeton, 1992, pp. 9-14.
4. The first English translation of the Council documents (Abbott-Gallagher) omits the crucial phrase,"always with the same sense and meaning". and it was later claimed that Pope John never used it; it is said to have been smuggled into the official printed text by unprincipled Vatican officials after the speech was given. The claim was effectively refuted by Professor John Finis of Oxford in the correspondence columns of The Tablet (Jan.-Feb. 1992). The main point is, why would Catholics be anxious for the Pope not to have said "always with the same sense and meaning" unless they did want a change of meaning?
5. Pope John was beatified by John Paul II on 3 September 2000. becoming Bl. John XXIII. He was can canonized on 27th April 2014 in St Peter’s Square, Vatican City, Rome by Pope Francis. I leave the reader to draw his own conclusions.
Copyright © Philip Trower 2003, 2017
Version: 7th March 2017
This book was originally published by Family Publications which has now ceased trading. The copyright has reverted to the author, Philip Trower who has given permission for this book to be placed on this website.