Looked at from outside, Catholic life in the decade and a half between 1945 and 1960 seemed in the main healthy and strong, and the Church's prospects rather splendid.
The United States, the most powerful country in the world, had a growing population of apparently fervent and faithful Catholics. Indeed it looked as if the Catholics would soon turn the United States into a Catholic country simply by having more babies and outvoting their fellow citizens at the polls. The Americans, Germans, Irish, Dutch gave money liberally and along with the Italians sent abroad large numbers of missionaries. France, Germany and Italy, for generations ruled by politicians hostile to the Church, had suddenly produced a clutch of exceptionally able statesmen or parliamentarians and Catholic parties with majorities or near majorities. Spain and Portugal were in the control of capable Catholic autocrats. Sunday Mass was still mainly well attended. In spite of losses, Rome seemed to be holding on to her members better than the mainline Protestant churches.
The Church had also experienced a remarkable if limited recovery of intellectual prestige, and for several generations had been attracting a stream of notable converts; writers, thinkers, men of science. These converts contributed to the recovery, as well as being the fruit of it. Nobody of course believed that everything was perfect. There are no perfect periods in the Church's history. But there seemed reason for looking to the future with confidence, and for most people the Council did not immediately shake these rosy expectations.
Then in July 1968, Pope Paul VI issued Humana Vitae, and deeper and quite different realities were laid bare.
Contradicting what they had solemnly taught only four years before in the Council's document on the Church, Lumen Gentium — namely that "religious submission of mind and will must be shown in a special way to the authentic teaching and authority of the Roman pontiff even when he is not speaking ex cathedra", and what they had equally explicitly said about contraception in the document Gaudium et Spes — most Western hierarchies and a few elsewhere now repudiated the Pope's encyclical in a series of joint statements, some rejecting the teaching openly, others with circumlocutions. 1
Meanwhile rebellious priests and lay people were crowding into the radio and television studios, assuring their listeners how compassionate and well-informed they were, and urging their fellow Catholics not to listen to the Pope. There was now a higher authority in the Church: "the mature Catholic conscience".
The violence of the explosion is usually blamed on the length of time Pope Paul took to make up his mind, and that would certainly seem to have been a factor. The delay gave the impression that the teaching was certain to be changed. Many Catholic couples had therefore started practising contraception, and bishops tacitly allowed it. Now the bishops were faced with having to tell their flocks that they had led them astray, and that they must give up what had become a habit.
On the other hand, if Pope Paul had not had the subject thoroughly studied, he would have been blamed for acting impetuously.
But Humanae Vitae was not the only problem. It quickly became clear there was much else in Catholic teaching that many of the clergy and laity could no longer stomach.
What had gone wrong? I do not want to give support to the many caricatures of Catholic life before the Council that have been spread abroad in recent years. But, behind the grand-looking facade of religious practice, there must have been something amiss, something in need of reform. Catholics do not suddenly abandon large numbers of their beliefs and moral principles if they have been serving God as they ought.
I will begin with the shepherds. For a Catholic, the bishop is "Christ in the diocese". He is the chief sanctifier of his flock. But he is also human like the rest of us. If he is not in every respect the shepherd he should be, he is not going to stand firm when the wolf looks out of the wood.
One of the things the world took for granted before the Council was that Catholic bishops always gave the same teaching as the Pope. Since many of them were suddenly defying the Pope, did this mean that all the orthodoxy and fidelity to the Holy See which had been so conspicuous in the reign of Pius XII was a sham? No. But much of it may have sprung from natural as much as from supernatural motives. Bishops at that time had strong natural reasons for remaining faithful. In the world's eyes, a bishop is a success, and since all favours flowed from Rome, continued success depended on doing what Rome wanted. It was not just a matter of cold calculation. Most of us are kept on the straight and narrow by social pressure as much as by virtue. If natural motives for loyalty are removed, only grace and the supernatural virtues will keep a bishop in union with and obedient to the successor of St. Peter. It is then that bishops are most exposed to the temptation which is, as it were, built into the episcopal office; the temptation to resent the Pope's higher office and authority, and his unique gift which they do not share. The Council's teaching about episcopal collegiality has greatly enhanced the possibilities of temptation in this area.
Another danger for bishops is to take as their model the contemporary man of influence and power.
There have been armoured bishops wielding maces, princely renaissance bishops with splendid households and great art collections; history has also known leisurely land-owning bishops devoted mostly to hunting and shooting. Now the man of power is the company president or grand administrator. So the temptation today is very great for a bishop with a large diocese, and a great deal of temporal and purely administrative work, to slide into being an efficient businessman more than a bishop. The apostle vanishes inside the executive, and the transformation is unnoticed, above all by the subject of it.
Now an administrator exists to keep the company running. It does not much matter to him what the company is producing or selling, providing it continues in existence and works smoothly. That is the characteristic administrator's point of view.
Under Pius XII, the bishop administrator or businessman at least knew what the boss in Rome wanted. The corporation was producing orthodoxy in faith and morals and no public scandals or dissensions. Very well, if that was what the boss wanted, he should have it. No doubt the businessman-bishop of those days wanted them too. His faith had not yet been frayed at the edges. So he produced the goods and did it efficiently. That kind of efficiency was then rewarded in Rome.
But what would happen when the businessman-bishop found he had a more powerful boss and one nearer home than the boss in the Vatican? St. Thomas Aquinas says a man may desire to be a bishop if he is prepared to be a holocaust; he must be ready to suffer for his sheep. That does not necessarily mean having to die for them. After the Council it began to mean a range of lesser unpleasantnesses: being misrepresented and lied about in Rome, snubbed by his brother bishops at episcopal conferences, sneered at by theologians, attacked in the Catholic press, tricked by his diocesan officials, bullied by his parish priests, insulted by some sharp-tongued reverend mother wearing trousers and earrings and running a revolutionary workshop. Love of God and love for his flock will raise a man above fear of such things, and that the faithful bishop has.
But the bishop businessman or executive, even while still believing, will not want to be a holocaust. (No one naturally wants to be; only grace makes it possible). Not loving his sheep with a deep supernatural love, he will not be prepared to suffer even the minor trials just outlined. Men do not have to be threatened with physical violence before they abandon their duty — a truth well known to governments. The threat of discomfort or unpopularity is enough, especially with men over fifty.
So when the businessman-bishop found that standing up to his rebellious clergy was more disagreeable than defying the Pope, his orthodoxy and loyalty began to evaporate.
Another weakness could be faith and piety without an adequate depth and breadth of theological understanding or of current theological speculation and problems. That a bishop should be orthodox and devout is a primary requirement, certainly. But a bishop is above all a teacher, a "doctor". If his theological knowledge is underdeveloped he is like a university professor with a high-school grasp of his subject. He may get along all right with the docile pupils. But he will be lost when challenged by the brighter rebellious ones. In the past it was enough to tell the bright and rebellious to keep quiet. But when the style of ecclesiastical government changed, he found himself having to justify his commands with reasons and references, which he was ill-equipped to provide.
He was just as ill-equipped, it seems, to meet the flood of new ideas which he met for the first time at the Council. Shaken in his old certainties, his tendency was to surrender to them wholesale or swim with the tide. This is why, in many places, theologians have become the primary teachers in the Church, bishops merely their echoes. 2
Another figure from the past, the bishop autocrat, also turned out to have feet of clay. Although he looked rock-like, he did not prove so. He knew how to command obedience, but not how to win men's hearts. He has been partly responsible for the present outcry against legalism and authoritarianism. Too many, it seems, were not proper fathers to their priests.
That there were many good and holy bishops before the Council is not in doubt. In all this I have been talking about types, temptations and tendencies, not individuals. But that such tendencies were embodied in not a few individuals seems to be confirmed by the Council's insistence that bishops be more pastoral and see themselves as servants.
However, what the Council means by service is not quite what people today with a hang-up about authority think it means.
In every day speech "a servant" means someone who does the will of another, not his own. Our service of God is always of this kind. We try to make his will ours. Between men, on the other hand, service should mean first and foremost attending to the good and needs of others, not primarily to doing their will, because men do not always will, or perhaps know, what is good. Service between men, therefore, can and often must consist in not giving people, or some people, what they want, if only because in the end they would be losers by it. This is the kind of service given by parents, doctors, and rulers. And still more is it required of Catholic bishops.
As guardian of God's idea and plan for man, a Catholic bishop's first and supreme service to his flock is to remain faithful to that idea and plan, even when it conflicts with the wishes or whims of a part of his flock. So in talking about bishops as servants, the Council was simply reminding them that their position was not for their personal aggrandisement, and that they must keep in mind the dignity and humanity of their flock when exercising authority over them. It did not mean that bishops are meant to serve in the same way as waiters or shop assistants.
Misconceptions about the right way of being a servant have unfortunately resulted in the autocrat too often being replaced by the bishop who wants to be loved. The bishop who wants to be loved is frightened of losing his reputation for being "caring" and "compassionate" by doing something unpopular even when this is what real love demands. Or he tries to "serve" like a politician. When his flock goes into apostasy and heresy, he keeps it together by saying contradictory things to please all shades of opinion, or when the going gets tough, hides behind his diocesan bureaucracy. Or he becomes a kind of religious salesman. If he wants to attract communist voters, he makes the faith sound as much as possible like Marxist Leninism. If, on the contrary he is aiming at prosperous or hedonistically inclined sheep, he will refrain from speaking too harshly or too much about vice.
All this is symptomatic of a slow slide from the level of supernatural faith to the level of natural religious belief. When this happens, the shepherd is tempted to feel that, provided people can be persuaded to believe in God, come to Church on Sunday, pray and keep the commandments (at any rate those that forbid murder and theft), his most important work has been done. He may not consciously doubt any truths of the faith, but they are gradually coming to seem a not absolutely essential extra. 3
If preaching the truth fails to fill churches, three conclusions can be drawn. There is something wrong with the preacher; there is something wrong with the audience; or there is something wrong with the message. Since it is much easier to alter the message than to alter the preacher or audience, adapting the message will be the method of renewing the Church that will appeal where a supernatural outlook is in decline. But you do not correct past defects by embracing those of an opposite kind.
• • •
Turning to the rest of the clergy, some of the temptations for priests were the same as for bishops.
If he was not truly a man of prayer, the president of a great Catholic university, the superior or provincial of a major religious order, or the monsignor in charge of a large parish with half a dozen curates under him, could easily turn into a businessman or autocrat too. When the crunch came, how many of them would care what was taught in their university, province or parish?
But there were also, as there always are, difficulties and temptations which were peculiarly the priest's own. These chiefly affected priests who were not in worldly terms "a success"; those with the smaller unimportant parishes. Apart from strictly priestly duties, such priests had much less that they absolutely had to do. It was therefore harder to hide from themselves the real nature of their vocation under a pile of office work. They were, as they still can be, faced with a stark alternative: being priests or suffering boredom.
But being a priest means dealing with mainly invisible realities: offering the God-Man present under the appearance of bread and wine in sacrifice for sin; teaching mysteries for whose truth we only have God's word; applying the intangible, insensible gift of grace to mcn's souls in the sacraments. To believe in the reality and importance of such things requires faith — for a priest living in an isolated parish, or one where few people came to Mass, a lot of faith.
On the other hand, a priest whose parishioners were mostly comfortable and prosperous perhaps needed even more faith. Unless his faith was strong, supernatural things began to seem unreal to him too. Did they really do much good? Lots of people seemed to get on quite well without religion. The priest glances at the local doctor or lawyer. Weren't their lives more useful? No, of course not. The priest still believed. But all the same . . .
As religion became more and more lacklustre, the danger for such a priest was to turn into a kind of spiritual technician. He serviced the souls of his people to keep them on the road. But he looked elsewhere for his real interest in life; some hobby, or repairing the presbytery, or perhaps the golf course. The curate in the big city parish was exposed to these temptations when the parish priest was not the father he should have been.
If a priest was reasonably well-trained and self-disciplined and also in awe of his bishop all this took place without his parishioners noticing very much. But it was a seed-bed for disaster. The bored, unhappy or de-supernaturalised priests of thirty or forty years ago were quickest to abandon belief and plunge into promoting the new, less demanding beliefs in order to make life vivid and interesting.
With members of religious orders, when faith was no longer something vital, there were two special temptations.
The first was to make a fetish of rules and regulations.
Rules are not to be despised. According to the great teachers (male and female) of the spiritual life, faithful observance of the order's rule is for religious a first step on the path to sanctity. Rules make the common life possible. Properly applied they give stability of mind and heart, help to curb self-will, promote unity, and enable those subject to them to love God more intensely by releasing them from having to make a multitude of minor decisions.
But they are only a first step. Some people get a purely natural satisfaction out of keeping rules. If rules loom too large, those for whom they have no natural appeal will find them stifling rather than stabilising and liberating. No longer accepted for love of God, they can end by generating weariness of spirit or dull dislike.
That a preoccupation with minutiae was weighing down the life of many religious orders is indicated by the number of men and women religious who, when not abandoning their monasteries and convents altogether, have interpreted the Council's decree on religious life as meaning they could live more or less without rules — the fewer the better.
The second temptation for the bored religious is to use scholarship as a distraction. The danger here lies in scholarship's being a presentable activity. If the members of a religious order are living in luxury or acting immorally everyone can see they are going off the rails. But no one can see the decline of faith, hope and charity in the soul of a religious sitting behind a pile of learned books. A well-known biblical scholar has described how he started studying Scripture because he found his fellow religious too boring to talk to. But in this frame of mind, what is the use of studying Scripture which is so largely about loving one's brothers, boring or not? But here I am touching on the subject of the next chapter.
Notes to Chapter Five
1. At the request of the Council. Pope Paul had set up a commission to see if the teaching about contraception could be modified. After a first report he enlarged the commission. Both times, the majority recommended a change. The deliberations lasted four years. The final report was leaked to the press. With great courage, the Pope upheld the perennial teaching against his experts' advice and in the face of a hostile world press campaign. It is not possible to go into all the grounds for the Church's decision here. Ample philosophical, theological, sociological and other reasons can be found in the writings of Pope John Paul II. (See his general audience addresses 1979-1984, published as The Theology of the Body: Human Love in the Divine Plan, Pauline Books.Boston, 1997.) However, it is, I think, much easier than it was before the "sexual revolution" to see the link between contraception and the collapse of marriage and the family with all its disastrous consequences. Contraception creates a climate in which children, no matter how much wanted, come to be seen as accidental to marriage instead of its main meaning. If, on the other hand, the main meaning is love, one can fall out of love, so why bother with marriage? It is also easier to see the link between contraception and unnatural sex. If sex is just another pleasurable physical activity, liking eating, drinking or swimming — "recreational sex", as it is now called — why shouldn't unnatural sex be socially acceptable? There is no argument against unnatural sex, if sex has no deeper meaning than the pleasure of the participants.
2. This reversal of roles was lamented by Fr. Rosmini as far back as 1846. In his passionate plea for certain reforms, The Five Wounds of the Church, he repeatedly recalls that in the first six centuries most of the greatest theologians were bishops.
3. The influence of deism in the 18th century had had similar consequences. Daniel-Rops quotes a French bishop who survived the revolution. "May God forgive us." he is reported to have said. "We almost never spoke about Our Lord Jesus Christ in the pulpit. We only talked about the Supreme Being".
Copyright © Philip Trower 2003, 2017