Just Good Company
A Letter from the Editor
We wanted this third issue to focus on the Second Vatican Ecumenical Council because, we believe, the Council is now under open assault. After a weekday Mass earlier this summer at St. Angela’s Parish in Monterey, California, I was introduced to the congregation as a journalist who had covered Vatican II for Time magazine. After Mass, two nice ladies confronted me. “We’re against Vatican II,” they said. Then they proceeded to criticize the Church liberals who had taken away their Latin Mass. I said to one of them, “Loqueris Latine?” She said, “Huh?” She didn’t speak Latin, you see, or understand it. For her, I suspect, Latin was a symbol of the kind of Church she lost or thought she lost because of Vatican II.
I walked away, muttering to myself, “So, it’s come to this? Well, no wonder.” I was thinking of all the efforts that John Paul II and his followers have been making over the past 25 years to negate the major thrust of Vatican II. (I try to make my case for this thesis in a 14,000-word piece in this issue of Just Good Company.)
I know: many old-line Catholics believe Vatican II ruined the Church. George Weigel, John Paul II’s almost-official biographer, is one of them. His post-conciliar report card may have reflected the pope’s own point of view:
Some 100,000 priests and nuns had left their ministries since Vatican II. In the free world, the clergy was becoming grayer and nuns were disappearing… Although the Council had challenged Catholics to convert modern culture from within, even the most enthusiastic proponents of the Council would be hard put to make the argument that Catholic influence in the cultural and political life of the West was greater in 1985 than it had been in 1965. The institution of the Church was in the greatest turmoil since the Reformation.
I disagree with Weigel’s implicit assumption – that turmoil inside the institution was bad for the Church. The Council wasn’t intended to enhance the power of the institutional Church. And I disagree with Weigel’s assertion that John Paul’s 17 synods had declared “tacitly but decisively” out of bounds “certain interpretations of the letter and the spirit of Vatican II.” But it doesn’t really matter what I think. In fact, John Paul II’s synod of 1985, called to “reinterpret” Vatican II, helped to weaken the power of national bishops conferences. And it led to the pope’s ordering up a Catechism of the Catholic Church – a suggestion first made by Cardinal Bernard Law. That turned back the clock a century, back to the days when we expected the Church to give our U.S. immigrant Catholics what they needed most: definitive answers to everything.
When it comes to writing about the Council today, the official Catholic press isn’t much help here. Diocesan newspapers still think they exist to exalt the Ordinary, often printing a half dozen pictures of their bishop in every issue. They fill the paper with news briefs on the latest pronouncements from the Vatican, features on the retirement of Monsignors McGurk and Minetti -- and an occasional column written by a local priest telling them the Church is still one, holy, catholic and apostolic -- that is, unchanging. But most Catholics do not read their own diocesan newspapers. They rely on the general press. But many religion reporters are not equipped to write about the Council in terms their readers could understand. (Faced with the challenge of reporting the priest-sex-abuse crisis of 2002, they have improved.)
Reporters who are still called upon to do a story about Vatican II generally focus on a few externals and go to Dumbsville on the rest. In the year 2000, a typical wire story out of Rome was still supplying readers with a shorthand summary about Vatican II: the Council turned the altars around and put Mass in the vernacular. The larger meaning behind those changes (and many other changes) either escaped the wire services, or was so controverted that the super-objective reporters for AP and Reuters had to avoid the larger meaning. When they did stories about the Church at all, nine times out of ten they wrote about sex – i.e., stories about the laity’s alleged disobedience on things like birth control, or about celibacy (and then, usually, when it was honored in the breach), or about the ordination of women.
In the spirit of the Council, power should have passed to the people. No more triumphalism, no more juridicism, no more clericalism. But the Fathers of the Council were men too gentle to live among wolves. The Council gave power to the people. John Paul II tried to take it back. Those who objected were shown the letter of the law, right there in the conciliar texts – and never mind the legislative history of the Council’s entire four years. Thus, John Paul could give lip service to the Council, but then run the Church pretty much as he pleased.
He liked that phrase – “run the Church.” Returning from a pilgrimage to Fatima, Portugal, where he beatified two of the three children who had had a vision there of the Blessed Virgin in 1917, Archbishop John Foley, president of the Pontifical Council on Social Communications, conveyed a polite question to the pope from one of the members of the press on the papal plane: “The Holy Father seemed a little slow on his feet today.”
The pope told Foley, “I don’t run the Church with my feet, you know.”
John Paul’s 17 synods best exemplify how he has run the Church. Each of the synods began with a show of democracy: bishops of every nation elect one or more bishops to represent them at the synod, and they come to Rome feeling something like delegates to the Democratic National Convention. But then the pope brought in a hundred ringers – most frequently his own pet bishops from Poland, and bishops of Polish extraction from Detroit -- to help him ram his own pre-fabricated conclusions down their throats. As originally conceived by Paul VI, the synods were supposed to bring a new kind of collegiality (read: democracy) to the Church. The synods should have helped bury Ultramontanism, but, thanks to the Restoration of John Paul II, the Church found itself under a regime that looked much like that of Pius IX. The only thing left was to beatify him, and that is exactly what John Paul did on September 3, 2000. Vatican watchers can say that that event symbolized what Weigel calls “the end of an era” – that is, the end of the spirit of Vatican II. (To confuse the present pundits and the future historians, the pope beatified John XXIII on the same day.)
The centralizers in the Church, members of the party of Pio Nono, assure us now that “more conservative interpreters have won on the Vatican II legacy,” as Cardinal Avery Dulles told an audience at Georgetown recently. “Liberal interpretations” of the Council, said Dulles, seem to be “dying down.” What did he mean? Well, he explained, recent enactments by Cardinal Ratzinger’s Holy Office helped to pinpoint “the greatest post-Vatican II misunderstanding” -- that the Church gave up its claim to be the only way to salvation and that popes are not the final authority. "The primacy of the pope, as it had been defined by Vatican I [in 1870], remains intact," he said. Non-Catholic groups are respected as churches with ministries, "but there is no reason to reckon them as constituent parts of the one true Church, which is Roman and Catholic.” I can’t prove this, but I dare say that a majority of American Catholics holds quite the opposite view. They think the separated brethren from the Lutheran and the Anglican communions, for example, are also part of the Church as defined by Vatican II. And I don’t know a single American – and this includes my friends George Weigel and Michael Novak – who believes in the primacy of the pope as defined by Vatican I – that the pope’s infallible decisions are “irreformable from himself and not from a consensus of the Church.” Ex sese, non autem ex consensu ecclesiae are the exact words.
Even so, Michael Novak has repudiated some of the beautiful things he wrote about the Council in his book The Open Church (Macmillan 1964). In an article in “First Things” in 2001, Novak confessed his shame for some of the things he had written in The Open Church. He said he expected a long, painful purgatory “in humiliating contemplation of my past words and deeds.”
Now I find even some bishops openly dissing the Council. The archbishop of Sydney, Australia, George Pell, bucking for a Red Hat, is one of the most egregious revisionists. On May 30, according to the Sydney Herald, he slammed Vatican II for its "excessive optimism" and "over-confidence." The Council, said Pell, had directly contributed to declining church attendance, the collapse of priestly vocations and the "spread of doctrinal and moral confusion.” Pell called on Catholics to reject “the mischievous doctrine of the primacy of conscience,” which he said was being used to justify many un-Catholic teachings, from denying the divinity of Christ to legitimizing abortion and euthanasia.
I find very little in the Catholic press reporting the words of those who
have taken reasoned exception to all this nonsense. I’d like to think
that those who do find it disturbing can find a hearing in Just Good
Company. And that we can help trigger some creative discussions. This issue
is only the beginning of what I hope will be a continuing conversation. Maybe
you’d like to add some reflections of your own in the light of what you
see happening in the Church today, and send it on to us at
Robert Blair Kaiser