“At the heart of this reform (as expressed by Pope Francis in Evangelii Gaudium) are synodality (the entire Church walking, discerning and evangelizing together), episcopal collegiality (shared governing responsibility between pope and bishops) and subsidiarity (decentralization of decision-making authority) — to name just three core principles the exhortation says are needed in order to renew the church.“
Robert Mickens, NCR 31 August 2015.
I quote this because our current discussion On our way out? has, among several other suggestions, cited Vatican II as a factor in our current difficulties. Mickens goes on to say, and with some emphasis, that unless Pope Francis is able to achieve structural reform and in particular reform of the Curia, his objectives will be baulked – perhaps indefinitely. Some of our contributors may be delighted, others may not.
So here are two arguments to consider. They are deliberately polarised and simplified but I hope they will provide a useful start point for discussion.
The first view is that the Council was a response to the strong modernist culture which followed World War II. There were many voices within the Church calling for reforms which would make the Church relevant to these new conditions. Although the Curia sprang to the defence of tradition, the assembled bishops untypically resisted. The results were disastrous. Discipline became slack, many clergy went haywire, ‘conscience’ somehow justified everything, our great Latin liturgy became an anachronism, ecumenism led to a slackness of doctrine and endangered our understanding of the Church’s unique foundation by Christ.
Leaving aside the chaos of the immediate aftermath (which included explicit permission for Catholics to reject the grave teaching of Humanae Vitae) successive popes have attempted to keep the lid on the pot – with mixed results. They have had strong support from the Curia – which has only yielded to change in a minimalist way. The current situation is inevitably messy. The Church has largely lost its own identity and, not surprisingly, many Catholics have fallen away. While the world sees Pope Francis as a breath of fresh air, the truth is that he is pursuing goals which can only worsen outcomes.
The second view is that Vatican II was a recognition that an authoritarian, monarchical Church was an historical aberration. Circumstances in the Middle Ages (the schism of the Eastern Church, the poor quality of the clergy etc) called for a top down society – which was then common in the secular world. This was to be reinforced by the threats of the Reformation. Vatican I confirmed this by defining the ultimate powers of the pope.
Vatican II was a recognition that the world had changed. Its objectives are well defined by Pope Francis in the Mickens quote above. Yes, the upsets noted in the first view cannot be denied. But they are the upsets which often follow a revolution – peaceful or otherwise. So far, the outcomes of the Council have often been disappointing, but this is largely because the old guard have fought strenuously to maintain the medieval hegemony. The Curia, still unreformed despite the Council’s requirements, continues to rule the roost. The episcopal synods which were intended to broaden collegiate authority were deliberately muzzled from the start. The choice of new bishops is still exclusive to the Papacy. The Holy Office continues with a legal system which owes more to the Inquisition than any modern understanding of justice. Pope Francis shows every intention of leading the Church towards the Council’s objectives. But he may fail, or be succeeded by someone unsympathetic to these intentions. This would be the worst result of all. We would end up with a small, inward-looking collection of people – more like a sect than the Church of God.
Now you may lean to one side or the other, or indeed disagree with both. But I am suggesting that we consider particularly the history of the Church since John XXIII opened the window to let some light in. Vatican II was styled as a pastoral council. Its aim was not to define doctrine but to review how the Church was doing its work to bring people to salvation. Did it succeed or fail in that objective? How would the Church look today if it had not occurred? Is some of our messiness simply because it takes time for reform to work its way through? How will the Church look in future if we abandon the Council’s intentions and behave as if John XXIII had never opened the window without foreseeing what might be blown in by the wind of modernism?