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The Vision of Vatican II

Ingrid Shafer

The Second Vatican Council shows the power of courageous individuals in tune with the signs of the times and open to the Spirit to make history.  Pope John XXIII convoked this universal synod -- the largest and first ever truly global ecumenical council -- and became its beacon.  But the Council might still have turned into little more than 2500 bishops agreeing on the agenda and routinely rubber-stamping documents sent down from above -- prepared in advance and circulated by various Commissions -- if it had not been for Achille Cardinal Lienart's courageous wake-up call at the very beginning of  the first working session. The French Cardinal, seconded by Joseph Cardinal Frings of Cologne, challenged the assembled fathers to take personal control of the proceedings and claim the Council authentically for themselves -- to elect representatives from national groups, to write their own documents, to forge coalitions and learn to engage in dialogue -- in sum, to work ground-up from the episcopal grass roots and give the democratic process a chance.

Hence, at the Council's very inception implicitly there was already the call which would transform the self-image of the church as constituted not solely or even primarily by the Roman pontiff and the magisterium but as incarnated initially in the voting bishops and ultimately in the sensus fidelium of all the People of God -- including but not limited to ordained bishops, priests, and pope: We are the church, and it is up to us to receive the Council's teachings in earnest engagement, not as "bumps in the pews" by unreflective, automatic assent but by following the spirit that inspired the Council fathers -- the spirit of the dynamic pilgrim church -- our ecclesia semper reformanda. Almost four decades after the conclusion of the Council, to what extent have we, the People-Who-Are-Church, done our part to actualize that Vision of Vatican II? To what extent are we open to the Spirit of Surprise and Transformation? The Spirit of Dialogue, Compassion, and Love?  The Storm of Pentecost that wreaks havoc before renewal can occur?   Are we ready to grasp the opportunities offered by world-wide upheavals in the Catholic Church as excessively rigid legalism -- our double inheritance from Jewish and Roman roots -- self-destructs?  Is there cause for gaudium et spes? I argue that there is, and that the cynics, the nay-sayers, are wrong.

Toward the end of January, 1997, the U.S. Jesuit magazine America published an article by sociologist David R. Carlin, Jr. with the ominous title "Half a Loaf" in which Carlin paints a sweeping portrait of the Catholic Church of the 1990s as a battle between liberals and conservatives and advises Catholic liberals to settle as quickly as possible before they lose the war. The question is, settle for what? He uses the analogy of a loaf, and speaks of half, and finally a quarter of a loaf. But what precisely is that loaf? If it is a dynamic church of generosity and compassion in which the rights of individuals are respected and people are encouraged to be accountable and to think for themselves, then he leaves us with no more than crumbs.

Far more pertinent, however, is the fact that his battleground scenario is a false analogy, at once misleading and potentially dangerous, precisely because it is seductive, and has been deeply embedded in the Christian consciousness ever since Saint Augustine's not quite ex-Manichean two city cosmology. The current age is finally giving us an opportunity to transcend this kind of "either/or" antagonism and draw strength from another, non-adversarial, and even more ancient Christian tradition: the Catholic tendency to think in terms of the fluid, permeable boundaries of the incarnational "both-and" paradigm. The polarization model of Catholics is a figment of the alarmist imagination. WE (that is, Catholic liberals) are not the ones who are "historically uninformed and sociologically naive," as Carlin claims. I am tempted to return that charge to sender.

Carlin's initial definition of "Catholic liberals or progressives" and "Catholic conservatives" is right on the mark. The former, he writes, adhere "to much, though perhaps not all, of the following agenda: married priests, female priests, semi popular election of bishops, democratization of church authority, relative autonomy for national churches, a down-grading of papal authority, frequent ecumenical councils or synods, greater tolerance for theological dissent, total repeal of the contraceptive ban and a more flexible moral code with regard to abortion, homosexuality, and premarital sex. The liberal point of view can be found in print once a week in the pages of the National Catholic Reporter."

"By a Catholic conservative or traditionalist," Carlin continues, "I mean someone who is the antithesis of the liberal. He or she is a staunch ultramontane, is convinced that bishops are local extensions of the pope, is opposed to the idea of married priests, is even more opposed to the idea of female priests and is anything but eager for a new ecumenical council. The conservative thinks that Vatican II was a good thing but a good thing that was criminally exploited and misrepresented by liberals. . . . The conservative is strongly and openly opposed to abortion, euthanasia, homosexuality, and the 'contraceptive mentality.' He or she will have no truck with theological dissent. If you want to pass yourself off as a Catholic theologian, then teach what the church teaches, i.e., what the Vatican says the church teaches. The conservative point of view can be found on display on Mother Angelica's television network or, for the more bookish, in the pages of Crisis magazine."

Carlin's argument begins to fall apart as soon as he presents those two perspectives as inspiring armies on opposing sides of a religious war. There is simply no need to assume that those differences are symptomatic of an Armageddon in which Catholic liberals are locked in a showdown fight with their conservative foes. Carlin's entire case evaporates once we define the two camps as complementary segments of the Catholic analogical universe instead of antithetical forces bent on mutual destruction.

"Ultimate battle" language is the method used by Identity Christians to whip up paranoia among potential followers. Carlin constructs a straw war for the burning. His entire article is based on a misreading of the situation, and he even disregards reams of powerful sociological evidence that would have undermined his model from the beginning. In that sense he is a contemporary descendant of one of Pope John XXIII's "prophets of doom." For the vast majority of Catholics, in their homes and parishes, there is no battle to the death. Instead, there is business as usual and even steady and continuous progress toward Pope John XXIII's anticipated "new order."

Of course, noisy fanatics clamor at both extremes (especially on the internet), but their shouting matches are posturing more than anything else. In fact, it is a sign of the vast reach of the Catholic canopy. As Andrew Greeley has demonstrated in forty years of sociological research, and reaffirms in his 1995 book, Religion as Poetry, Catholicism has an abiding tradition of being more flexible than Protestantism: "Church like instead of sect like, Catholicism has often been able to include within its boundaries a substantial pluralism and a wide variety of adherents, especially in practice and despite the solemn warnings of Church leaders."

Carlin's "conservatives will fight rather than switch" argument can be turned around and used to demonstrate that there is no reason for not heeding the signs of the times and working toward a more democratic church. Precisely because all but the most extreme conservatives will remain in the church no matter what, there are today great opportunities for transforming the church from within, and for being the kind of leaven that will literally dissolve the fortress walls of those who still remain in the Tridentine garrison mentality. Carlin offers no evidence for his claim that Catholic liberals are more likely to leave the church or imagine themselves leaving the church than Catholic conservatives. After Vatican II, ultra conservatives did, in fact, depart with Archbishop Lefebvre. No parallel exodus is on record for liberals. Catholic cats of either stripe tend to stick to their alley. In addition, calling liberal Catholics potential defectors is an insupportable ad hominem argument.

From a purely statistical perspective, Carlin is correct in his description of the contemporary institutional church as run by a male, celibate, and largely conservative hierarchy; he is probably also correct in his estimation of the low probability of seeing a liberal or even moderate pope elected during the next conclave. Pope John Paul II has clearly left his mark on the hierarchy, but his tendency toward blatant disregard for the wishes of local communities in his bishops' appointments in dioceses such as Chur, Switzerland, has also undermined the very position of the papacy. In addition, when I read Pope John XXIII's spiritual diary, I see no early signs of the storm he was about to unleash. We should never underestimate the power of the Holy Spirit and the kairos of the age.

Carlin's understanding of the priesthood and priestly celibacy is simplistic and historically naive. While by definition, celibacy involves remaining unmarried, this does not mean that priests must give up all family ties, and even more importantly, it surely cannot constitute renunciation of sexuality. A celibate is not a sexual neuter; he (or she) is just as much a sexual being as the non-celibate.

Furthermore, any priest who renounces, as Carlin puts it, "the circumstances of an ordinary human life for the sake of an institution" [emphasis mine] is bringing this sacrifice for the wrong reason. He ought to be doing it for the love of God and humanity and the freedom to be of service. He ought to be doing it despite St. Paul's clear statement that the apostles have the right to marry though he is called to a single life. In practice, at least before the Council of Trent, most parish priests (as well as many bishops and popes) had informal wives and children. The church even raised money by charging them a tax for the woman and each child.

Carlin's model maligns the many priests who are deeply committed to a not yet fully realized vision of a church in which power is in the service of love, who reject authoritarian clericalism, whose fundamental loyalty is to their community, who have a strong sense of the common priesthood of the faithful, and who see their role as encouraging dialogue with God and each other. To argue that the majority of priests and bishops will not support change because they have too much of a psychological investment in the institutional "Church" as it is currently organized disregards the Vatican II era, when reform was led by the clergy.

Carlin's cavalier dismissal of liberal theologians as having "gadfly" posts rather than "command" posts is another example of his lack of historical sense. The paradigmatic gadfly Socrates was infinitely more important for the future of the human community than the powers that condemned and executed him, and so was Yeshua, the Jew . . . The Second Vatican Council was largely the victory of theologians, and especially of Jesuits whose work had been previously marginalized and even condemned, such as John Courtney Murray, Henri de Lubac, Teilhard de Chardin, and Karl Rahner.

Carlin accuses progressive Catholics of making three "miscalculations":

(1) They underestimate the indispensability of the clerical order priests and bishops to the survival of two things, the institutional church and Christian orthodoxy.

(2) They underestimate the loyalty of the rank and file laity to the clerical order, even when or perhaps especially when this order remains all male, unmarried, and centralized.

(3) They overestimate the viability of their remade church. Essentially what they want is a transformation of the Catholic church, so it will come to bear a strong resemblance to mainline Protestant denominations.

I will now address each of these points separately:

(1) They underestimate the indispensability of the clerical order priests and bishops to the survival of two things, the institutional church and Christian orthodoxy.

No valid proof is offered for any of these claims. Carlin tries to support the first point by arguing that the church could not have survived the vicissitudes of the past five centuries without a rigid, authoritarian, non democratic structure. Among forces hostile to Catholicism he offers an uneven shopping list containing Protestantism, absolutism, the Enlightenment, the French Revolution, nationalism, anticlericalism, agnosticism, Communism, fascism, consumerism, and the sexual revolution.

Alas, intellectual history is never simple, and the forces Carlin mentions are profoundly ambivalent. Luther wanted to purify the Renaissance church from moral laxity, ran into uncompromising papal rigidity, and unintentionally started a movement that turned into self replicating intolerant splinters of the intolerant maternal trunk. At their best, both the Enlightenment and the French Revolution were deeply rooted in Catholic soil and represented a distillation of the Christian message of universal compassion: the call to liberation, equality, and brotherly love which was ironically also used to justify vicious attacks on Catholics.

Anticlericalism and agnosticism can be seen as important steps toward the accountability of church officials and the emergence of a mature church that encourages honest dialogue and liberty of thought and conscience. Consumerism is a facile catch phrase used by Pope John Paul II and left leaning critics of contemporary Western society; it is far too general to be of genuine value. Finally, given the staggering illegitimacy, infanticide, and child abandonment rates in medieval and early modern Catholic countries, our so called sexual revolution is little more than honesty in reporting!

(2) They underestimate the loyalty of the rank and file laity to the clerical order, even when or perhaps especially when this order remains all male, unmarried, and centralized.
The "loyalty" of the laity should not be interpreted as focused on the clergy and approval of the status quo; it is the result of the human tendency toward inertia and not wishing to rock the boat including St. Peter's Barque. It is not the same as docility, and it is also giving way to active involvement of the laity in precipitating changes in the church, such as the numerous referendum initiatives that are circling the globe. Sociologist Teresa A. Sullivan's comment that "there is something American Catholics find in Catholicism that is deep and nurturing and doesn't have very much to do with the Vatican and the bishops and all the rest" applies equally to Austrians and Canadians and Germans and Italians. In addition, in the developed world, most of Carlin's "loyal" Catholics follow their conscience whenever they don't trust the official party line. The vast majority of sexually active Catholics of childbearing age use artificial contraceptives. The opinion polls Carlin dismisses give us a far more realistic notion of the sensus fidelium than Carlin would admit. In a 1992 Gallup poll 90% of American Catholics said that a person could dissent from church doctrine and remain a good Catholic, and only 26% considered belief in papal infallibility necessary.

Carlin shows his true colors when he argues that "loyalty to the church is inseparable from loyalty to priests, bishops, and pope" because the traditional, rigid, clerical structure is needed "to protect the church against a modernity that would have destroyed it many times over" and to keep "the church from disintegration and a variety of departures from orthodoxy." His entire article is an exercise in begging the question! In addition, it is wrong to demonize modernity. Except for the two world wars, and especially the dreadful aberration of the Holocaust (born from the marriage of modern technology to medieval Christian prejudices and primitive barbarism), post Enlightenment western modernity has been a period of increasing sensitivity to the relational nature of reality, the virtue of humaneness, appreciation of diversity, respect and concern for others, and the value of the human person.

At least now there are responsible people in many parts of the world who are genuinely concerned with finding modes of peaceful collaboration. The separation of church and state liberated both and made possible the dawning of a global civilization in which cultures of disparate ideologies and religions will be able to live in harmony without having to attempt to convert one another.

(3) They overestimate the viability of their remade church. Essentially what they want is a transformation of the Catholic Church, so it will come to bear a strong resemblance to mainline Protestant denominations.

The charge that liberal Catholics want to transform the church into something akin to mainline Protestant denominations, especially the Anglican communion, is flawed on several levels, quite apart from its patronizing Catholic triumphalism. First, no proof is offered for the assertion. Second, theologically speaking, the Anglican communion is no more Protestant than the Orthodox Church. Third, and most importantly, the flexibility and pluralism Carlin finds so disturbing is in fact a return of the Anglicans to their pre Reformation Catholic roots, minus, of course, the feudal aspects of the medieval institution.

As Carlin himself pointed out at the beginning of the article, "dissident" Protestants tend to go out and start a new denomination rather than live with ambiguity. Splitting is not the Catholic way. Adaptability and respect for pluralism in practice, if not in theory, is. Anglicans are here showing their Catholic core. Reform minded Catholics are doing the same. Carlin seems to assumes that the church has always been the post Reformation fortress church; he does not realize that Tridentine Catholicism was a temporary aberration, a hard scab that formed to protect the wound caused by the amputation of Protestant limbs. The wound has now healed; new skin has grown; it is safe for the church to go back to the best of its pre Reformation roots and connect them to the best the contemporary world has to offer -- ecumenical dialogue, freedom of thought and conscience, openness to diversity, respect for the other, democratic models of governance. Apparently this has already happened in Ireland where, according to survey research in the 1990s, the Irish turn out to be “the most tolerant of the English speaking peoples of diversity among neighbors and the most likely to approve of homosexual marriage ceremonies.” (www.agreeley.com/articles/relirel.html).

Carlin is correct when he argues that the "gentrified" upper middle class western segment of the global Catholic Church is a tiny faction of world Catholicism. This does not mean that the liberal ideals he himself identifies (and ultimately rejects) are any less worthy of pursuit. Consider Carlin's characterization of the liberal agenda: women priests, married priests, semi popular election of bishops, democratization of church authority, relative autonomy for national churches, reduction of papal authority, frequent ecumenical councils or synods, tolerance for theological dissent, repeal of the contraceptive ban, and a flexible approach to abortion, homosexuality, and pre marital sex. Most of these approaches were at least separately practiced by the church at some point in the past, and more importantly, with the overall emphasis on pluralism and flexibility, they prepare the church for effective response to diverse local conditions. Married priests, for example, are appropriate to Africa, a celibate clergy is suitable to Buddhist countries, democratic modes of church governance and women priests should first be introduced in the western world, and so forth.

In addition, a democratized church can become a major force for liberating people all over the globe not only for the hereafter but by becoming part of a vital faith community in the here and now. This is precisely the reason the Association for the Rights of Catholics in the Church is working toward the goal of developing a Catholic Constitution to ensure fairness and due process for all Catholics, regardless of status, age, and gender (Cf. Leonard Swidler, Toward a Catholic Constitution [New York: Crossroad, 1996]). A Constitution would also help address an crucial liberal agenda item that Carlin never mentions the complex question of divorced and remarried Catholics in light of the right of believers to the sacraments. Would Carlin lump in the German bishops Saier, Lehmann, Kasper, and Kamphaus with the liberals? Carlin points to the decline in numbers within the Anglican community and mainline Protestant churches in general and argues (again without proof) that the decline is caused by increased liberalism. Even if he were right, this only means that many people prefer the safety of absolute rules and need to be coaxed and challenged to internalize the Good News of the passionately loving, all accepting Father who expects us to take risks and dare use our God given minds. It only means that we must work harder to share God's love and justice.

In November 1996, 91 year old Franz Cardinal König and I were among lecturers in Vienna at a two day conference on the future of faith in the next millennium. I asked the Cardinal what he considered the greatest accomplishment of Vatican II. (He knew of my connection with ARCC and the fact that I occasionally write for the National Catholic Reporter During mass that evening at St. Stephen's Cathedral, he was assisted by two girl servers.) He responded that he considered the greatest accomplishment of Vatican II the empowerment of the laity and the corresponding reduction in the relative power of the clergy and the magisterium. "Sie sind die Kirche," he said emphatically, "You are the church," pointing his index finger straight at my chest.

The original version of this essay was completed on 25 January 1997, the 38th anniversary of the day Pope John XXI announced his intention to call an ecumenical council. 


Ingrid Shafer, a native of Innsbruck, Austria, holds graduate degrees in literature, human relations, and philosophy. She is Professor of Philosophy and Religion and Mary Jo Ragan Professor of Interdisciplinary Studies at the University of Science and Arts of Oklahoma where she has taught since 1968. In 2002, she was the recipient of the Medal of Excellence for University Teaching in the State of Oklahoma by the Oklahoma Foundation for Excellence, the greatest honor a higher education faculty member can receive in the State of Oklahoma.

She is a board member of the Association for the Rights of Catholics in the Church (ARCC), the Association for Communal Harmony in Asia, and the Global Dialogue Institute, and national area chair for religion and culture of the Popular Culture Association. She has published five books. Her most recent is Religions in Dialogue: From Theocracy to Democracy, co-edited with Alan Race.

Dr. Shafer has published more than seventy articles, book chapters, and poems. Since 1986, she has been a regular contributor to Good News Homily Service. Her article, "From Noosphere to Theosphere: Cyclotrons, Cyberspace, and Teilhard's Vision of Cosmic Love," appeared in Zygon: Journal of Religion and Science in December 2002. Dr. Shafer has lectured in America, Europe, Africa and Asia. She was an invited speaker on Science and Religion at the 1999 Parliament of World Religions and she offered workshops on Peace and Dialogue in Japan in May and August 2002.

She designs, publishes, and maintains numerous websites dedicated to developing a global ethic and building bridges between diverse academic, ideological, religious, and cultural worlds, and has taken on the design of Just Good Company. Her main domain with links to most of her web projects is http://ecumene.org.