Vatican II: Of Happy Memory - and Hope?
This article is reproduced with the kind permission of the author and publishers. It is a chapter in a new book: Theology for Pilgrims by Nicholas Lash published by Darton, Longman and Todd, 21 April 2008; £14.95. Available from www.dltbooks.com and most religious and online booksellers.
Commentary and Context
by Arthur Wells
Professor Lash’s first citation is to Bishop Christopher Butler: “What matters in the end is the successful achievement of the Council’s intentions.” The visitor can hardly fail to note that the whole tone of this website is set by the Council documents themselves and by the work of the Benedictine Dom Christopher Butler.
It is a happy circumstance that the author of “Theology for Pilgrims” knew Butler well and there is a quotation from Abbot, later Bishop Butler appropriate for almost any piece about Vatican II. In a short paragraph from a Butler letter which follows, there are key concepts relevant to Vatican II of Happy Memory - and Hope? and which complement it. That, however, is the title of just one chapter of Lash’s latest book, which is published at this critical juncture in the Church’s history and its importance can hardly be over-emphasised. Bishop Butler’s letter is relevant because it refers to necessary ‘dialogue’ on matters which are not de Fide (matters of defined faith). Butler suggests the need for consultation, as against ‘repression’ exercised – sometimes unreasonably - by arbitrary authority. The intransigence from Rome - as though the Vatican were the only part of the whole Church which matters - continues and in many ways it is a worsening development. Moreover, Lash underlines that in its present form it is a relatively new phenomenon in the life of the Church. Worse again, it is contrary to the full collegiality and subsidiarity, so recently enunciated and for which the Council justifies us in continuing to hope. Nearly forty years ago and almost four years after The Council closed Butler wrote to his brother:
“I’m still very unhappy about the way in which Rome is behaving at present. We have just had a letter from the Secretariat of State which is very intransigent about clerical celibacy. I hold that whatever the correct answer might turn out to be, there must be open dialogue amongst us today. A Moscow-type repression just won’t work – especially as we have no tanks to back it up.” [To his brother Hilary, an Anglican priest then ministering in British Columbia, dtd, 3 Mar. 1969. Written while the ‘Cold War’ was still chillingly in place.]
Without privileged access to much private correspondence between Bishop Butler and some of his intimate correspondents, this layman – remote from any inner academic circle - might hesitate to comment on a piece from the Norris-Hulse professor emeritus of Divinity at Cambridge University. Lash held that chair from 1978 to 1999 . The website is therefore privileged to have permission to reproduce this one chapter from “Theology for Pilgrims” and there is little doubt that the whole book will grip the reader. Nor is there doubt of the value of this authoritative account of Vatican II being available to contemporary readers. The book concludes with a quartet of probing articles, of which we publish one. The quartet is grouped as: “The Struggle for the Council.” Lash, with many of us who lived through and relished the hopes raised by Vatican II, believe that the Council points to the good of the world and to the good of the Church. The Second Vatican Council has been variously described as “the most important event in Christianity in the twentieth century,,,,,..” or : “…….since the 16th century Reformation” or again as Christopher Butler held : “To me the Council is potentially one of the biggest things which has happened in the Church since 1054”. [the date of the great schism between East and West] (Letter from Rome to his sister Mary, 26 October 1965).
It is evident that Professor Lash’s view of the Council was more than underpinned 40 years ago by the most respected English-speaking theologian who was present at and helped formulate the teachings of Vatican II : Bishop Christopher Butler.