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We reprint this radio discussion on Vatican II from the Australian Broadcasting Company, October 15, 2002.

Revisiting Vatican II

Stephen Crittenden: Do you think the present Pope has a conflicted relationship with Vatican II?

Joseph Komonchak: Well, I think so.

Read on…

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Revisiting Vatican II

Summary:

On October 11 1962, Pope John XXIII opened the Second Vatican Council, a three-year process of institutional soul-searching, in which the Catholic Church opened itself to the modern world. Or did it? For the past 40 years, conservatives have argued that Vatican II went too far and undermined the essence of Catholicism. But liberal critics say that it didn't go far enough, and that its few genuine reforms have been attacked by reactionary Church leaders ever since - leaders that include the present Pope, John Paul II. This week we examine the legacy of the Second Vatican Council.

Stephen Crittenden: Welcome to the program.

And this week we mark the 40th anniversary of the Second Vatican Council.

BELL TOLLS/CHOIR/PAPAL ADDRESS

Stephen Crittenden: The voice of one of the most loved figures of the 20th century, Pope John XXIII and his opening address to the Second Vatican Council on 11th October, 1962, 40 years ago this month, in St Peter’s in Rome.

Vatican II was a great revolutionary moment in the history of the Catholic Church, when the windows were thrown open and the modern world let in. With sessions running between October 1962 and December 1965, it brought together around 3,000 bishops from all corners of the world, and changed every aspect of church life – including a new emphasis on the role of the laity, and a new spirit of dialogue with other churches and with the secular world.

To look back on the Second Vatican Council, we’re joined today by one of its most respected historians, Father Joseph Komonchak. He’s Professor in the Faculty of Religious Education at the Catholic University of America in Washington D.C., and he’s co-author of the History of Vatican II, now up to its third volume. He was in Australia a few weeks back as the guest speaker of a conference on Vatican II organised by the lay Catholic organisation, Catalyst for Renewal.

He’s also joined by leading Australian bible scholar, Professor Frank Moloney, who also teaches at the Catholic University of America, and I began asking Frank Moloney about the influence of German or Northern European theologians on Vatican II.

Frank Moloney: There was a sense in which German scholarship, based in the strong Catholic University tradition, did feed into the Council, but there was also a strong French influence. I would agree however, that it was a very European influence. I think the Council and the documents that come out of the Council, do reflect that burgeoning and exciting European turn to Catholic existentialism, to a deeper reflection on our patristic tradition, the renewal of the Scriptures and also of course one of the most stimulating elements that formed the Council was a renewal in the liturgical life of the church. And all of this was going on prior to the Council, but in direct answer to your question, I think there was a very strong European influence, not necessarily Northern German, but the German theological mindset certainly had a lot to do with the actual documents as they came through, which in the end were the work of the advisers to the bishops who worked in sub-committees and then the bishops of course worked on them in plenaries.

Stephen Crittenden: Joseph Komonchak, can you tell us something about the actual proceedings, because one of the things I have in my mind is that there was an attempt to derail the proceedings, or to at least derail the reforming zeal that John XXIII had in mind, almost right from the outset, and that that was in a way, foiled.

Joseph Komonchak: Yes it certainly was foiled. If I could just describe a bit how the Council was prepared: there was a questionnaire sent out to all the bishops of the world asking for their advice on what kind of an agenda there should be for the Council, and they received back something like 9,000 proposals. And then these were sent to a series of ten preparatory commissions, to prepare documents that then would be there when the bishops finally assembled in Rome – and, I would say, with an expectation that they would quickly approve them. Most of the disciplinary documents that were prepared were sort of tinkering with canon law, they really weren’t up to a serious review of the church’s situation in the modern world, and the texts prepared by the doctrinal commission basically simply repeated the emphases and approaches of the last 150 years. So many bishops found those quite inadequate. And they were stimulated to do something about it by Pope John XXIII’s opening speech, in which he made it clear he did not want the Council to be a series of condemnations, he wanted it to make a positive presentation of the faith. He distinguished between the substance of the ancient faith and the manner in which it’s presented. He declared himself to be opposed to prophets of doom who see nothing in the modern world except prevarication and ruin. So anyone who has read the documents prepared for the bishops, and then read the Pope’s opening speech, has to come to the conclusion that the Pope was in effect saying to the bishops “I’m not too pleased with what’s been prepared for you, and now it’s up to you to give your judgement about it”. Then, when they had an opportunity to do so, they declared themselves strongly in favour of pastoral renewal, and unwilling to put out the kind of defensive, suspicious texts that the doctrinal commission had prepared for them.

Stephen Crittenden: I was looking at the papers that came out of Vatican I at the end of the 19th century; it’s amazing to compare the kind of language, and how it’s different. Vatican I is a list of anathemas, it’s like a firing squad; anyone who doesn’t agree with any of these things on this list is anathema. The language of Vatican II is so different, isn’t it?

Joseph Komonchak: Yes it is, and deliberately so. Pope John, when he said he did not want condemnations, made it clear that this was not going to follow that pattern. There’s a story told that he looked at one of the prepared documents, it was one on moral theology, and had a ruler, and he measured a paragraph and then said “here we have 10 centimetres of condemnations”, and he was not pleased with that.

Stephen Crittenden: One of the great phrases that came out of Vatican II – and perhaps I could get both of you, beginning with you, Frank, to talk about what this means to you – is the formulation of the church as the People of God. That was a completely revolutionary thing, wasn’t it?

Frank Moloney: Well it was at the time – and this is where we would need to go back to where the Council came from – I mean, to speak about a community of believers as a “people of God” was not something that was invented at the Vatican Council. This is a term very dear to Israel, when it speaks of itself as a Chosen People, and has this genuine sense of being a people of God, and it’s something that then moves quite easily into the language of the early church. And so when we talk about what happened prior to the Council, these were the sorts of notions that were becoming mainstream notions within the Biblical renewal, the liturgy was no longer the priest doing something while everybody watched on. We were a praying people, we were a celebrating people. These were notions that were quite solidly on the ground.

Stephen Crittenden: What did it mean for the pyramidal structures of the church and for the kind of democratisation of the church? I mean, all of that was coded in that phrase, wasn’t it?

Frank Moloney: Sure. I think this Council took a direction which radically questioned that pyramid structure of the church. Now don’t get me wrong on this: depending on how one understands the Petrine Texts within the New Testament – and depending on the way in which one understands the historical, and we would say divinely guided emerging church – the Catholic Church is, of its nature, episcopal. So therefore there is a sense of a hierarchical structure in our church. But what the Council called to attention is there’s a way in which this church has to function, even as a hierarchical body, that reflects itself as a people of God, and not just a series of chiefs telling all the Indians what to do.

Stephen Crittenden: Joseph Komonchak, would you agree, though, that the very collegiality in terms of say, the relationship of bishops in the church to the Pope, it was the very thing that wasn’t finally worked out.

Joseph Komonchak: OK. Let me just make a comment about this business of the people of God. First, they deliberately chose to put a chapter entitled The People of God in the constitution on the church before they got into differentiations within the church as between the hierarchy and the laity and religious, in order precisely to make it clear that the word ‘church’ refers to the whole body of believers. It does not refer to the hierarchy as was often thought before. And that, therefore, if you’re going to talk about the presence of the church in the world, you really have to talk as well about lay people and their activities. So in that respect it was a call for the same type of co-operation, co-responsibility, that on the level of the episcopate was described at the Council in terms of collegiality. That word means that the whole body of bishops, in union with the Pope also, has authority for the whole church. And it was a hotly debated problem at the Council, precisely because Vatican I had so stressed the unique prerogatives of the Pope, and had said very little about bishops. This was designed to balance that off, but there were many people very nervous that as soon as you made an assertion in favour of episcopal authority, whether of the whole college or of an individual bishop or of a bishop’s conference, that you were somehow qualifying the absolute supreme authority of the Pope.

In the end, as you suggested, they decided that they couldn’t come to any kind of theoretical reconciliation of these, and that what the role of the Council would be would be to assert the terms of the problem, which is an assertion of the unique role as a Minister of the universal unity, which the Pope possesses on the one hand. And on the other hand, that the bishops exist in the church by the will of Christ, and that therefore they must have themselves some responsibility, and to leave it up to the future. But that has caused some problems since, because every generation I think has the problem of the tensions between these two holders of authority in the church. And you can’t, for that reason, go back and find a clear kind of principle that’s going to settle all of our problems, in the text of the Council. They clearly are compromised texts, conciliatory texts.

Stephen Crittenden: Let me quote you something, Joe, that you told the conference in Sydney just the other day, that Vatican II tried to overcome the pyramid structure of the church but that “greater centralisation of authority exists in Rome today than there was before the Second Vatican Council. Synods of bishops have become a farce, to the extent that bishops are told what they may recommend to the Pope”. I mean, would it be right to say that the church at the beginning of the 21st century is governed a bit like the former Soviet Union – in a sense, we’ve almost got a Stalinist papacy?

Joseph Komonchak: Well I really resist that comparison, which I also heard in Sydney, because I think in some respects it’s an insult to the victims of Stalin to compare it. As John Wilkins said in Sydney, you’re always free to leave the church. So I think that’s a bit of hyperbole. But I do think that, especially with modern means of communication, and faxes and emails and jet planes, that the probability of indulging in the micro-managing of the church from Rome is not being resisted by many people. And so, in that respect, I do think that it is at least as centralised now as it was before the Council, and perhaps more so. I do think that the Synod of bishops have not lived up to expectations, and I don’t understand how grown men being gathered from around the world to come to discuss problems of this sort, should not be trusted to recommend what they want. But in fact, they often are told what they may recommend to the Pope and what they may not. For me, it’s absurd to have a consultative body if you’re not willing to listen to what they may have to say to you.

Stephen Crittenden: Do you think the present Pope has a conflicted relationship with Vatican II?

Joseph Komonchak: Well, I think so. The present Pope, John Paul II, is very difficult to interpret. He’s done some extraordinary things, not only by his activities, which I do believe helped to bring down the Soviet empire, and he has himself said that this is the most significant religious event in Catholic consciousness of the 20th century. And he feels himself to be a son of the Council, and to be implementing it. I think in many respects he did. He has gone far beyond what the Council said about religious freedom, for example. He has done wonderful things with regard to contacts with Jewish leaders, with leaders of other religions. And so in that respect he, in a way, has taken Vatican II much further than it itself could go, back in the 1960s. On the other hand, it seems to me that the Pope, precisely as a pilgrim of peace, going all over the world, has in many respects left the administrative tasks to his curia at Rome, to his bureaucracy, and I think that they have assumed a great deal more authority than they really should. And the thing that troubles me most is that they appear to think that they have more authority than local bishops do.

Stephen Crittenden: Frank, you’ve been one of the leading figures in the revival of Catholic Bible studies, but was a central part of the drama at Vatican II, but you’ve now, 40 years later, written an article recently suggesting that all of that’s under attack. Is that too strong a word, “under attack”?

Frank Moloney: “Under attack” would be too strong a word. I’d say we’re gradually being sidelined, I’d put it that way.

Stephen Crittenden: Why?

Frank Moloney: Well, one of the great first-generation scholars was a man by the name of Raymond Brown. And I always remember a comment that Raymond Brown had in a wonderful little book that he wrote way back in the 60s, called Jesus, God and Man. And in his preface, he was delighting in the fact that biblical scholarship was now right at the centre of the thinking church, and even of the development of the Magisterium etc. And he was rejoicing in the fact that once upon a time, biblical scholars were allowed to stay in their playpen and fool around with their literary forms, and all that sort of stuff, as long as they didn’t get outside the playpen and mess up the tidiness of the church at large. But Ray Brown said “now we are out, and we are now being very formative” etc. Well, my feeling is, we’re back in the playpen.

Joseph Komonchak: I think there’s something to that. In the history of the church there have always been moments in which there are some people, especially leaders, who think that the church can get by simply on the inertial force of institutional relationships.

Stephen Crittenden: I’m about as old as Vatican II; I was born in 63. As a very small child, I was aware that there was a lot of excitement in the air, and I also saw the way in which that excitement turned to disillusionment, remarkably early. I guess we need to bring in the infamous encyclical Humanae Vitae here, possibly, released in 1968. There just suddenly seemed to be a tap turned off, there were priests leaving, that group became a flood by the mid-70s. Was it the attractiveness of the sexual revolution going on all around them in the outside world, was it despair about Humanae Vitae? What turned that amazing excitement around Vatican II to disillusionment so quickly that so many people gave up and walked away?

Joseph Komonchak: I think that the troubles, if you want to call them that, began before Humanae Vitae, although that would be a principal moment, and I’ll get back to that. But if you start looking at “when did the flood of priests and nuns leaving the ministry occur?”, it really is already well under way by 1965 or ’66. I could cite you many, many titles of books written in ’65, ’66, ’67, talking about “the decomposition of Catholicism”, “the church is in panic”, “has the Catholic church gone mad?”, titles like that. But you can evaluate what I think you can call the revolution in the Catholic church, by reflecting on the fact that Humanae Vitae came out in 1968, almost exactly ten years after the death of Pope Pius XII in October of 1958. Now in ten years, the church changed remarkably. No one during the reign of Pius XII could have anticipated the kind of reaction that Humanae Vitae received, but only three years after the close of the Council, it did receive it.

Now I think, in part, the problem was that here, the whole Catholic church had gone through an experience at Vatican II of seeing the whole church represented by the bishops, and participating in the elaboration of their texts, and of the forming of judgements – now, suddenly with that encyclical, you seem to be back to the figure of the lonely Pope deciding things all on his own. The preparation of that text was in such marked contrast to what we had seen at Vatican II that people were very upset by that.

Stephen Crittenden: And so was it the fact that such an important document for the lives of ordinary people, had been released very much not in the spirit of Vatican II, that was the factor?

Joseph Komonchak: Yes, I certainly do. Plus a good number of people had been led to expect that there would be a change, and there was no change on that matter. They were very distressed by that as well. Andrew Greeley, for example, is of the view that that is the defining moment, that really brought the reforming movement of Vatican II to an end. I don’t want to exaggerate it, though. I don’t agree with the people who think that Vatican II has failed, or that it’s disappeared. I think that Vatican II has succeeded so well that people of your generation, for example, and younger people, simply take for granted the church which has emerged since Vatican II, so that when I teach my course on the Council, I have to go back and reconstruct what the church was like beforehand.

Stephen Crittenden: Joe, I think the most immediately visible aspect of Vatican II, for Catholics and for non-Catholics alike, was the way in which the liturgy changed. But did that come at some cost? Did we throw out 2,000 years of liturgy and embrace banality?

Joseph Komonchak: That’s a very good point, because for me it was no great improvement to go from the splendours of Gregorian chant and polyphony that we knew back in the church, to some of the banalities of the music that we have. The same thing is true of some of the translations that have been used in the liturgy. It’s almost impossible to read them publicly, because they read like a Hallmark card, and instead of the grandeur of even Elizabethan English, you compare some of these translations with the translations in the Book of Common Prayer, and we should shrink with embarrassment.

Stephen Crittenden: Could I ask both of you, in closing: I think 30-odd bishops – mostly from Latin America, I think mostly from Brazil – have signed a letter calling for a Third Vatican Council. I know the National Catholic Reporter newspaper in America has canvassed the kinds of things that might be discussed at a Third Vatican Council recently. What do you think, do you think there needs to be a Third Vatican Council, and indeed what would it be like?

Joseph Komonchak: Well, I am of two minds on this. For me, the real challenge today is to give local churches greater autonomy than they have now, to determine their own futures. Think of something like the church in East Timor say, newly independent. Well, the East Timorese are likely to be the ones who most know what they’re supposed to do as a church there, and it’s not something that can be managed from Rome. So I think that that’s the primary responsibility. That could happen with a new Pope, for example; a new Pope could come in and quite change things. If he doesn’t, if he were to call a Council, it may be that you have to have another Ecumenical Council, precisely in order to empower the local churches – but I think the main provenant we have is that you can’t micro-manage a church as huge and diverse as is the Catholic church, from central headquarters, whether the central headquarters are a Pope or an Ecumenical Council.

Frank Moloney: Yes, I would tend to agree with that Stephen, and I would add something that Joe’s already mentioned: to allow the synods of bishops to be really synods of bishops. I think once we got that going for ourselves, then I’d put a Third Vatican Council on the long finger at this stage, until we got synods of bishops and the ability of the local church to make some fundamental decisions concerning their own future at a local level.

Stephen Crittenden: Professor Frank Moloney and Professor Joseph Komonchak, fellow priests and colleagues at the Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C.

Susan Connelly is a Sister of St Joseph, well known for her work on behalf of the people of East Timor, and through the Mary McKillop Institute of East Timorese Studies.

She is also well known for her tub-thumping speeches at protest rallies, so we asked Susan to write a new speech for this occasion so we can broadcast it over the radio. What has the Second Vatican Council meant to her?

Susan Connelly.

Susan Connelly: Pope John XXIII said that the Second Vatican Council was to open the windows in the Catholic Church. The way that the religious of the church were to do that was to return to the source of all Christian life, that is, the Gospel. At the same time, religious were required by the Council to adjust themselves to the changed conditions of the times.

Some people view the Council as an unmitigated disaster in the church. Profound attitudinal changes cut away from the church’s image as a rigorous repository of legalism which it had developed over centuries. But the immediate result was a slackening off in religious practice and an attrition rate of thousands upon thousands of priests and members of religious orders. Opening the windows caused a rush for the doors.

The Doomsayers among us wish the Council had never happened. They pine for the spiritual fleshpots of Egypt, that imaginary golden age when we all did as we were told and had serious discussions about the meat content of Vegemite to ensure that it was safe to eat on Fridays.

I, too, found the Council difficult. I entered the convent in 1963, the first year of the Council sessions, and I remember some five years later, spending the whole eight days of a retreat poring over the Council documents, trying to find proof texts which I could use against those in my own congregation whom I thought were disobedient. They were wearing veils but showing their hair, a no-no at that time. I was scandalised and wanted to put them in their place. If only I could find the proof that they were wrong and I was right. I was still in the mould of those good sisters of ours who 20 years before, in 1943, discussed at a General Chapter whether it was permissible to wear singlets without sleeves.

The narrowness and insularity which I exhibited then, is one of the pitfalls of religious life, and of religion itself, any religion. Like the story of the Abbot who always put the monastery cat outside before evening meditation. The old moggie would saunter daily around the sanctuary, a possible distraction at prayer, so Father would pick him up and heave him out the side door as the monks were coming in. Time passed, and the Abbot died and so did the cat. Earnest monks, keen to observe the old practices, then acquired a new cat so that they could put him out the side door in time for meditation.

As religious, we’ve been pretty successful in reorganising our lives externally to fit in with the changed circumstances of the world. There are countless examples of outstanding service of God and neighbour performed by religious as a result of their serious and loving obedience to the call of the Council. I am increasingly disturbed however, that I, we, are still missing the wood for the trees. I fancy that we may be replacing cat after cat. What after all, are the sources, the roots of Christian life, of religious life? There is only one source, one root, and that is Jesus Christ. He devoted himself to the alleviation of human hunger, the hunger for meaning, for hope, for companionship, for love, for God. He read the signs of his times and challenged the abuse of power in whatever form it took. He imagined and lived an alternative way of human interaction, that of siding with the poor, the different and the oppressed, living with them, eating with them. He taught by word and example that God favours the poor, that God is found among the poor.

He was murdered for his trouble. The theological implications of Jesus’ death and resurrection and their meaning for the salvation of the world, are matters of great importance. But we do Jesus a great disservice by emphasising that aspect of the salvation he offers at the expense of the immediate environment in which he brought that salvation. For that emphasis can divorce the locus of salvation to a distant time and a safer place, whereas the mystery of the cross is alive in the here and now.

The environment of the murder of Jesus has not changed one iota. Greed is still king, and power is the king’s consort. The courtiers are all the self-serving ones among us, be they politicians, national leaders, church persons, business leaders, or maybe that well-known individual we see when we look in the mirror.

In many respects, religious have heeded the call of the Council but we have not gone nearly far enough. The rich get richer and the poor get poorer for the same reasons – greed, fear, hatred, intolerance, pride, military might. If we bear Christ’s name, he requires that we meet them as he did, despite the risks.

One of the risks which need to be taken is the willingness to engage in the messy overlap between morality and political realities. For example, the current asylum-seeker question in Australia presents us with the fact that people, including children, who have not been charged with any crime, are locked up in privately-run detention centres. There has been a concerted effort by government and media to keep these people faceless and voiceless. Some whose claims for refuge were denied, returned to their home, only to be murdered soon after. Can any church keep silence about this? We have hardly begun to live the call of the Council. I hope that in my lifetime we religious of the Catholic church are found to be progressively more on the edge, a pain in the neck to politicians, friends of the downcast, the outcast, the poor, the oppressed, regardless of their religion, where they come from, or how they got here.

I hope that each day, we, I, will take more seriously the memory and the presence of Jesus Christ, who drove the sellers out of the Temple, who called the hypocrites for what they were, who lunched with the lowly and stood up to the swank. I hope we find the courage to sell what we have, give the money to the poor, and set out on the nameless road to a nameless place, totally content to do anything, say anything, be anything, so long as we can follow him.

Stephen Crittenden: Sister Susan Connelly. And a book of her protest speeches on behalf of refugees, Questions from the Asylum, has just been published by Otford Press.

That’s all this week – thanks to David Rutledge and Charlie McKune.


Guests on this program:

Joseph Komonchak
Author and Professor in Religious Education, Catholic University of America

Francis Moloney
Professor in Biblical Studies, Catholic University of America

Susan Connelly
Sister of St Joseph, author and activist

Publications:

Questions From the Asylum: An Analysis of Australia's Asylum and Detention Issues
Author: Susan Connelly
Publisher: Otford Press (Otford NSW 2002) ISBN 1 876928 22 0