Vatican II - Voice of The Church
Vatican II - Voice of The Church

The Aggiornamento of Vatican II

by Bishop B. C. Butler

Toward the end of its second session, Vatican Council II, bereft of the great Pope who had convened it, and seeming for the moment to have lost its bearings, took some of its precious and expensive time to celebrate the fourth centenary of the closing of the Council of Trent. The Council that ended in 1563, after a total life of about eighteen years, has gone down to history as the Council of the Counter-Reformation. It seems likely that Vatican II will be known in the future as the Aggiornamento Council. Aggiornamento was in fact the task proposed to it by John XXIII.

What is aggiornamento? I am no expert in Italian, but I believe the word means, etymologically, A bringing up to date. The Church was to be brought up to date. But what should this mean?

Of course, any institution that lives and means to play an active, not to say aggressive, part in the mainstream of human history must from time to time, and even continuously, be making minor adaptations to its ever changing environment. Such change was already in progress long before the Council opened. We need only to remind ourselves of the striking modifications in the law of the eucharist fast, introduced by Pius XII after World War II, or of changes in the liturgy, of which perhaps the most striking had been the restoration of the night-vigil of Easter.

Change had been going on, and there was a machinery that made possible not only the proposal of more changes, but the deliberate study and coordination of these proposals, and the enactment of them as and when their introduction might seem prudent. The Curia existed. And there was the Pope, with an authority more practically absolute, and less liable than ever to questioning and resistance, since Vatican I had formally promulgated his universal supreme, ordinary jurisdiction and—under certain conditions, it is true—the infallibility of his doctrinal pronouncements. Has any institution in human history been better equipped for strong and pliant government than the Catholic Church of the first half of the twentieth century? And since Rome had such dogmatic and practical competence, it could be asked: Why incur the trouble and expense of an ecumenical council?

Before the Council opened, on October 11, 1962, it was not even publicly known with any certainty how John XXIII himself viewed his task of aggiornamento. He had associated the Council with two other proposals: a reform of the code of canon law (which might of course mean either much or little) and a synod of the local church of Rome, of which the successor of St Peter is the diocesan bishop. The synod had been held, and its outcome had been a host of new regulations that would have made life in Rome even more difficult for Catholics if they had been observed; it was not a very hopeful augury for the ecumenical Council for which it might be considered to play the role of a pilot scheme. It is true the Pope had hinted that Catholics might look forward to the Council as to a second Pentecost. The hint was calculated to alarm rather than to encourage those who feared that the major result of Vatican II would be a firmer control of the new movements in the Church and consequent disillusionment.

Some light on the Pope's mind could be gained from the discourse with which he closed the inaugural ceremonies on October 11, although his hearers were so wearied after a long and tedious service that they were perhaps less responsive than they should have been. He spoke, said Cardinal Montini (who was to succeed to his office and to the guidance of his council), like a teacher who loved the world. So far from urging the manning of the threatened bastions, he suggested that the Council's task would not be to repeat the old dogmatic formulas but to render the eternal truth present to the men of the present day, with due regard for modern mentalities and for the progress of research. The Church must be made present to the world, whose progress does not escape God's overarching providence, but which has no need of a Council that should find no fresh way of expressing the abiding truth. Not only did the Pope thus evoke the shades of Modernism; he dared to suggest that there was room for hope even in the seventh decade of the twentieth century, and expressed his dissent from the prophets of woe who tell us that our age is worse than former ones and behave as though they had learned nothing from history; yet history is the teacher of life.

The crisis of the Council came in the first session when, after a long debate, but no significant vote, on the draft of the Constitution of the Liturgy, a secret ballot determined the demise of the draft on the sources of revelation. This vote, which showed that the Council was prepared to listen to the so-called new theology, and to the biblical scholars, was followed by a debate in which the draft Constitution on the Church (of which the first chapter was entitled "The Nature of the Church Militant") came under heavy fire. It was then that Bishop De Smedt made his celebrated attack on triumphalism, clericalism, and juridicism. By the end of the session it was obvious that we were determined to consider Aggiornamento in depth.

May I try to explain what I mean by aggiornamento in depth? The Curia was able and willing to carry out surface adaptations in the life and administrations of the Church, and had in fact, as already indicated, been doing so. But the Council, it seemed, was ready to study the desirability of something more than this.

Perhaps an illustration from biology will not be too misleading.

Plant and animal species are found to include a number of varieties within themselves; they have modified a basic structure, common to all the varieties of a single species, to meet slightly differing concrete situations. But a time may come when the survival and welfare of the species' biological inheritance requires some more radical change. A species is conceived by Bernard Lonergan as "an intelligible solution to a problem of living in a given environment".[1] When the environment changes beyond a certain limit, the species ceases to be a solution to it, and the alternatives now are extinction or evolution. If evolution occurs, the resultant species is a new solution to the new problem of living. It "rises upon and takes into account, as it were", the earlier solution, and is "the sort of thing that insight hits upon and not the sort that results from accumulated, observable differences".[2]

The Catholic Church is of course not a species with varieties and specimens. It is a communion of human beings, and man, being not only intelligible but intelligent, is "not just a higher system but a source of higher systems".[3] The closest analogy in human history to the emergence of a new species was the Incarnation, when God the Son assumed a particular human nature into hypostatic union with the divine nature. This was certainly an entirely novel solution of the human problem of living, but it did not make man less but more himself. It was novel; it was also unique and final, within the limits of history. Yet although the Church cannot evolve into something other and higher than herself, the fact that she is a communion of human beings means that, grace aiding, she can achieve ever new solutions of the sort that "insight hits upon, and not the sort that result from accumulated observable differences".

Such new solutions will have a radical quality and will entail a searching discrimination between what is, after all, of the immutable essence of the Church, and all in her contingent existence that, however venerable, is yet—at least in principle—expendable. The Curia would have operated by gradual accumulation of observable differences. The Council contemplated the possibility of a complex of radical solutions. John XXIII had, as we have seen, hinted at a new Pentecost.

If it be asked whether aggiornamento in depth was really necessary, our answer may be to refer to the changed environment in which the Church has to live and function. Of this, the Constitution on the Church in the Modern World goes so far as to say (Art. 4): "Today, the human race is passing through a new age of its history. Profound and rapid changes are spreading by degrees around the whole world. Triggered by the intelligence and creative energies of man, these changes recoil upon him, upon his decisions and desires both individual and collective, and upon his manner of thinking and acting with respect to things and people. Hence we can already speak of a true social and cultural transformation, one which has repercussions on man's religious life as well". We are faced with a crisis of development.[4]

What, now, of the pre-Conciliar Church? Like a stratified rock to the geologist, she was a fascinating object for the historian, not to say the antiquarian. She trailed strange clouds of glory from a past growing ever more remote and irrelevant—like the three crowns of the papal tiara. Her law was articulated on principles, not to say in a spirit, which were ultimately those of the Roman civil law. Her central administration was redolent of the familia of the Roman Emperors, as her ceremonial reflected that of a Byzantine court. It needed a critical eye to discern, in the action and theory of the papal primacy, what came from the gospel and what from Caesar. She had never recovered from the estrangement between Eastern and Western Catholicism, which was symbolised in the mutual excommunications of Rome and Constantinople. Lacking the counterpoise of the Eastern churches, the West had come practically to identify its local tradition with the universal tradition, so much so that the miniature Eastern churches actually in communion with the Holy See were treated as quaint appendages and exceptions to a general rule. The koinonia of ante-Nicene times had become the Latin societas, and that society, having been first imperialised, had been feudalised in the Middle Ages. Still, in the middle of the twentieth century, she seemed to be trembling from the shock of the Protestant Reformation, and following her reaction against the new theology of the sixteenth century she had reacted also against the whole general stream of progress in that area of the world's surface where she was geographically, but no longer spiritually, at home. The tremendous dynamic movement that had flung her upon the Graeco-Roman world of the early Christian centuries seemed to have taken shape in a parabolic curve, carrying her now ever further from the living, moving centre of human affairs.

A species, when no longer adapted to its actual environment, can evolve, or it can perish. The Church cannot perish. But there is a third possibility. Sometimes a species succeeds in taking refuge in a backwater of existence, where—in diminished numbers and with no further relevance except to historians of past evolution—it prolongs an insignificant story. As we look back on the Church before 1962, do we not sometimes seem to be catching a glimpse of what might have become a monumental irrelevance?

It may indeed be asked: Should the Church, ought the Church, to adapt herself to the changing fashion of the world? Did not Pius IX condemn the proposition that "the Roman Pontiff can and ought to come to terms with Progress, Liberalism, and the New Civilisation"? Well, according to Newman, the value of the Syllabus of Errors, from which this proposition is taken, lies in its references, and Newman finds no formal condemnation of this pronouncement in the Allocution from which it is excerpted; what the Pope did say was, in effect, that the mid-nineteenth- century champions of Progress, Liberalism and the New Civilisation made use of their cause "so seriously to the injury of the Faith and the Church, that it was both out of the power and contrary to the duty, of the Pope to come to terms with them."[5] But the deeper answer to our question is simply that the Church has a mission and a message, and divine help, for all mankind; to fulfil her function she must be not only chronologically but spiritually the contemporary of those to whom she addresses herself. Aggiornamento in depth is thus seen to be a pastoral necessity.

The word "pastoral" has taken us to the heart of the Council. It is an old-fashioned word, but to the Council it signified something that must urgently be modern. The commission to the apostles is: to make disciples of all nations, teaching them to observe all that Christ had commanded them. We used to be warned in the first session of the Council that the Church's prime duty was to protect the faith of her actual children. But it should be observed that in the text of St Matthew's Gospel (XXVIII 19f) to which I have just referred, the making of disciples is mentioned before the teaching of the commandments. Proclamation (kerygma) precedes instruction (didache). Unless the work of evangelisation comes first, there is no one to instruct, none with a faith to be protected.

The Church is therefore necessarily outward-looking, not primarily introspective and conservative, but primarily an indomitable adventurer into new fields. What else could she be, since she is, as St Augustine taught us, the incorporation of Christian love or charity? Charity is the least introspective of virtues, calling us always to transcend the self and its immediate horizon, not feeding on itself but projecting itself thither where previously there has been a lack of love. Charity has the audacity of the great military geniuses, who know by instinct that a strategy of defence can never in the end win a campaign.

Perhaps it is not altogether fantastic to seek for this motive of pastoral charity behind a number of interests which gave the Council its characteristic colour. The widening of horizons, an inevitable consequence of the meeting of over two thousand prelates from almost every part of the world, was still further extended by the presence throughout the Council of the observers from the churches and ecclesial communities of our separated brethren. It was as though the Council became conscious, as it looked beyond the walls of the city set on a hill, of friends, brothers, fellow disciples of the world's Saviour, just outside those walls. The Church, in these separated brethren, seemed visibly to transcend its own limits. From this transcendence there springs a set of theological problems, which have left their mark not only on the Decree on Ecumenism but on Lumen Gentium itself. The Council had to turn back behind Bellarmine with his Counter-Reformation ecclesiology, behind St Thomas himself and the Fathers, to the biblical theology which governs the first two chapters of the Constitution on the Church.

Then, beyond the baptised and unbaptised disciples of our Lord, there was the people of the Jews, who before us had obtained the divine adoption, the visible presence and the covenant, the Torah and the Prophets: who could claim the patriarchs for their own, and of whom came the Messiah in his human nature (cf. Rom IX 4f). Here we owe a great debt to the German Cardinal Bea and the German hierarchy, whose successful determination to obtain a pronouncement against anti-Semitism by and for the whole Church was a blessed outcome of unhappy events in their own country in this century.

And beyond the Jews there were Islam and the great Eastern religions. It was a triumph of charity that, surely for the first time in history, an ecumenical council came to pronounce on these great faiths with practically exclusive reference to their positive values, and with unqualified respect.

And so on to secularist humanism and to atheism. Once the question was posed, it was indeed difficult for the Council not to "reprobate" atheism, since in itself it is the professed denial of the ultimate basis of religion. But even here, in the words of Archbishop Garrone, the desire behind the Counciliar treatment of this subject (in the Constitution on the Church in the Modern World) was "to give a description of atheism of which an atheist would say: This is no caricature—here I recognise myself".

Charity is both cause and effect of intercommunication, or, to use our modern word, of dialogue. Throughout the Council's treatment of the themes just mentioned there is the underlying motif of dialogue; implying a respect for the interlocutor, too sincere to allow us to make compromises of truth, yet tireless in seeking points of contact, agreement and common concern.

Christian love is a love of respect, because it is an affair of interpersonal communication and communion. It therefore carries us on to another basic characteristic of the spirit and work of Vatican II. The Archbishop of Turin, in one of his notable contributions to the debates of the fourth session, said that he thought there was something valuable in modern subjectivism, properly conceived. The remark was sufficiently unusual, particularly as coming from an Italian prelate, to challenge attention. It might be said that the very hallmark of modern Catholicism has been its insistence on the order of objective truths, values and laws. In fact, this preoccupation with the objective is one reason why our manuals of moral theology have conveyed to some minds the impression of a positively algebraic irrelevance to the real drama of man's moral life. Yet it is at least arguable that precisely the ferment of the gospel has been the creative source of our contemporary concern with personal freedom and responsibility, if not of the agonies of modern existentialism. Charity, after all, being supernatural love, is always orientated toward the living person of our fellowman, and therefore to his needs and problems as they come alive in his personal subjectivity. And charity respects this person and this person's viewpoint. It respects him, and it warns us of our limited understanding of him. It is charity that says: Judge not, and you shall not be judged: who art thou, to pass judgment on another's servant? (Rom XIV 4). If it is a principle of law to presume that those who infringe its prescriptions are morally to blame, it is a principle of charity to presume that those who differ from us—including those who differ from the defined dogmas of the faith—are nevertheless "men of good will".

Such was the presumption governing what Lumen Gentium and the Decree on Ecumenism, as also the Declaration on the Relationship of the Church to Non-Christian Religions, had to say about non-Catholics. Such too is the presumption of the Constitution on the Church in the Modern World, when it addresses itself to all men of good will irrespective of their creeds, their ideologies or their professed agnosticism. The same presumption really lies behind the Declaration on Religious Freedom, though the grounds there stated for this freedom go deeper than presumed good will to the inherent rights of the human person even in error, and even in guilt. And this presumption triumphed once again, though with some difficulty, in the modest suggestion in the chapter on peace and war that civil law might make provision for conscientious objectors.

The pastoral aim, the instinct of a charity that goes beyond all boundaries, the sense of mission not so much to human nature or the abstract human species, but to human persons and the actually existing human family, demanded that our aggiornamento should be conceived of in depth. The consequent need to discriminate between what the Church must always be, what the gospel forever is, and the contingent elements in which, at any given moment, the Church presents herself in history, was driving the Council to some criterion. And this drive took her gaze ever backwards, behind the counterrevolutionary Church, behind the Counter-Reformation, behind the medieval synthesis, back to the Church before the estrangement of East and West, to the Church before the confrontation with Greek culture and philosophy, to the primal source: to Christ in Palestine. As Cardinal Montini said, in his speech near the end of the first session, the Church by herself is nothing. She is not so much a society founded by Christ as Christ himself using us as his instruments to bring salvation to mankind.[6] Christ himself is the fullness of the divine revelation, and the content of the sacred tradition is just revelation, the word of God made flesh. The Church's teaching authority, embodied in the ecumenical Council, is not above the word of God but the servant of that word, teaching only that which has been transmitted (Constitution on Divine Revelation, 10).

Thus the very need for accommodating the Church to the world of today and tomorrow, if it was not lead to compromise with the world, must throw us back to our source. The Decree on the Appropriate Renewal of the Religious Life has its own rendering of the word aggiornamento: it speaks of "an accommodated renewal". The word "accommodated" here refers to contemporary adaptation. The word "renewal", however, as the text of the decree shows, does not mean "innovation" but "recovery of the initial inspiration". The more immediate source of a religious order is the "spirit and special projects" of its founder, together with "healthy traditions". But the source of the Church is the Spirit and gospel of Jesus of Nazareth, ever living in the Church he founded, but needing always to be rediscovered and relived.

Modern man has a profound sense of his involvement in the time process. For good or ill, he seems less interested in the fact that the definition of his species is animal rationale than that he is an existing person, caught in the trammels and the challenge of duration and therefore of change. In the realm of natural science, he is fascinated by the concept and the story of evolution. And within the general scheme of evolution he frames the history of the human race, which he studies also scientifically. If philosophy was the basic discipline of the medieval schools, history is today a basic discipline among all those that deal with man. For modern man, the return to Jesus of Nazareth must mean, at least among other things, the scientific, historical quest of Jesus. And this brings us to the Conciliar dialectic of scholasticism and biblical scholarship. Speaking as one who has taken an amateur interest in biblical studies for the greater part of my life, I rejoice that the Council's Constitution on Divine Revelation can be viewed as containing at least the first sketch of a charter of open biblical research. That there was much nervousness about biblical criticism in the Council cannot be denied. And perhaps we lacked the voice of some great Council orator to remind us of the already great achievements of New Testament scholarship in allowing us to penetrate, tentatively and inchoatively, behind even the primitive postresurrection formulations of the gospel to the words and person and spirit of him who spoke with authority and not as the scribes. The spirit of Jesus was not the spirit of unqualified conservatism. He took his stand within the Great Tradition of the holy community of Israel, centred in the Torah and the temple priesthood. But, in strong contrast to the Dead Sea sectarians, he subordinated law to charity and gave the impulse that was to change a predominantly national religion into one that was universal and catholic. It is that spirit which provokes audacious change in order to preserve, at a higher level and from a superior viewpoint, inherited values, which is the Spirit that animates the mystical body of Christ. In "the name of" that Spirit, Vatican II was called together and congregated. I am less doubtful than I once was that it was gathered for a second Pentecost.

My purpose here is not retrospective. If I look back upon the Council, it is not in order to contemplate it as an end achieved, but to understand it as a step toward the future. The great Council of Trent dominated the centuries that followed it, not merely by what it did but by the application made of its work by St Charles Borromeo and those who, like him, were determined that it should not remain a dead letter. Vatican II is at once a first step and, I venture to suggest, a new orientation. Fascinated, it may be, by theological rationalisations of Church history, or under the spell of Newman's theory of development, we have been too much inclined to suppose that as the Church has moved in but one direction over the past thousand years. therefore she could only so have moved, and must continue on the same line. But in fact the Church is a fountainhead of unpredictable freedom. The static element in her complex totality, the sacraments and especially the sacramental ministry, is subordinate to the dynamic moment whose immediate source is the charisms, the grace-gifts, of the Spirit of Christ, given—as Lumen Gentium reminds us—as and to whom God chooses, whether to pope or humble layman or woman—or, we may add, to a bushman to whom the gospel has never been proclaimed by human lips. The Spirit bloweth where it listeth, and it is impossible to foretell, from the present state and condition of the Church, what her history in the coming generations will be. But at least for the moment, without rejecting or denying her past, without any surrender of her patrimony, she appears to have changed her course.

To attempt to define this change would be hazardous, but I nevertheless would point to two moments in the Council's life and work which, between them, seem to me to be suggestive.

The first is the reaffirmation, in Lumen Gentium, of a genuine sacramental episcopal collegiality, which had been thrown somewhat into the background by the work of the prematurely ended Vatican I. This seems to afford the basis for a recovery of the principle that the papacy—and now we must add the episcopate—is not the source of the actual life of the Church, but the coordinator of that life's various and peripheral spontaneities. This principle of subsidiarity is carried through to the point at which the lay Catholic is seen as a genuine creative force in the life of the People of God; and to the further point where it is realised that the whole human family, insofar as good will prevails, is a theatre of the operations of the grace-gifts of the Holy Spirit, and is cooperating in the building up of Christ's kingdom.

The second suggestive moment is the direction of the Constitution on the Church in the Modern World not only to Catholics, or only to Christians, but to all men of good will. Human good will is the liaison between the total human family and the visible Church. Father Fernandez, Prior General of the Order of Preachers, reminded the Council Fathers in a notable speech that by their common humanity the members of the human race were all bound by ties of duty to the whole of mankind, and that this link was prior to the bonds that bind us to more local groupings. In this fact there is found a moral constituent of human unity that supervenes upon and perfects our biological unity. Mankind ought to be morally united, to form a single spiritual communion. The signs of our aspiration to such unity are plain to see in past and present history. That the obligation and the aspiration are real gives meaning to the Council's address to all men of good will. But the past and present history show us also how halting and imperfect are the steps that man can take in his own strength to achieve that unity without which his own future is now more than ever clouded over with menace. Our faith, as Christians, is that Christ came for a purpose of reconciliation: reconciling man with God, but thereby also reconciling man with man. The Church, the People of God, in which all hierarchy exists for the sake of service or ministry, is the Spirit-animated mystical body of Christ and makes ever contemporary the reality of his presence and the saving truth of his gospel; she is the sign and the instrument of the unity of the whole human race.

We, then, who believe these things, must study the Council's acts. But we must do more; we must catch and embody the Council's spirit. We must be members and representations of Christ in and to the world. And we have to show that we remember that the heart of Christ and the heart of his gospel were directed ultimately by adoration beyond humanity to God.

Epilogue: Joy in Believing 1966

Faith is the basis of everything in the fully Christian life, and faith's certainty is intrinsic to itself; it does not rest on external supports. Faith, says de Caussade, has no wish for proofs: those who live by faith accept the proofs of faith not as proofs but as ordained by God.

But Christians are part and parcel of a humanity only partially converted to Christ. And even within each of us there is an unconverted residue which feels the need of the support of "proofs". Indeed, faith itself teaches us that to be a believer is the only fully reasonable way of being human: to this extent, then, even faith requires that "proofs" should be available to "justify" before the bar of reason the life of faith. The proofs are "ordained by God".

If we lived in a completely Christianised world, the proofs of faith would be fully coincident with our experience, as normal as air and sunlight. But to live fully today in the whole human environment is to live in a pluralist, and largely post-Christian world, where the proofs are hardly come by without some personal effort and are kept alive and apt only by continuing effort.

Still, they are available. Wonder, the raw material of philosophy, laughs at the horizons of sense experience and demands a metaphysical ource of finite reality. Love, even before it has become reflexively the love of God, has a rational abhorrence of the absurd. Conscience brings us face to face with an absolute requirement which, in order to be absolute, must be one with the source of finite reality, quod omnes vocant Deum. What, then, is the meaning of this human experience itself, this "world" in which God has placed us and through which he discloses himself to us? How, in and through it, does one respond positively and concretely to the love and the will of God? Has God himself provided any indications of the way in which he wants man, individually and socially, to find and follow him in this world?

There are religious traditions in history which claim to rest on such divine indications. They are grouped round and appear to find their culmination in the Christian gospel. From that point the road is easy enough. In his brilliant short account of his own conversion, Evelyn Waugh contrasts (in true patristic fashion) "the local, temporary character of the heresies and schisms and the universal, eternal character of the Church". "It was self-evident to me", he says, "that no heresy or schism could be right and the Church wrong".[7] One could generalise:if there is a true religion, it is quite obviously the religion which calls itself Catholic and is known by that name wherever cornmonsense is not obscured by the need to defend a cause.

Thus the "proofs" of faith reach their full concreteness and their practical cogency in the "moral miracle" of the Catholic Church herself, in her existential reality—as the First Vatican Council affirmed. The years go by, experience is broadened and deepened, and the force of these proofs, this proof, increases rather than diminishes.

However, there is an important level of thought, more superficial than that of the fundamental proof, at which the state of things has been somewhat different. Of F. H. Bradley it was said that he maintained that this world in which we actually exist is the best of all possible worlds; and that everything which it contains is a necessary evil. Something similar could have been said of the Church before John XXIII: it was the best of all possible religions, and everything in it an intellectual scandal. This is an exaggeration, of course, but let us take a few examples.

The Catholic religion, firm in its proclamation that God has actually intervened in history, points to its canon of inspired literature as to a record of this intervention. The attitude of Church authority to the Bible was one of the biggest difficulties that I experienced in the last stage of my conversion. Inspiration it was said, meant material inerrancy; and when critical scholarship developed in the Church at the end of the last century, and in the first decade of this century, it was forcibly suppressed. A better climate began to spread with the publication of Divino Afflante a quarter of a century ago; but even just before the Council opened an obscurantist campaign was being launched in Rome itself.

Again, with its realistic claim to be true, Christianity had early come face to face with Greek philosophy, and when Justinian closed the schools at Athens it could seem to have won the day. But, as had happened before, Greece in her defeat had taken her victor captive, and already in the patristic age there was a tendency to see the Christian revelation as a sort of divine appendix to the discoveries of human reason. In modern times Thomist scholasticism had been almost canonised by Church authority; and it was inevitably a debased Thomism that actually dominated in the seminaries, because philosophy—like theology—cannot live healthily in a backwater, and modern man was no longer thinking scholastically.

An intellectual backwater was, in fact, just where the Church was living. It was as though the treasures she had amassed in her early years, when she appropriated the wisdom of the Greeks and the imperial genius and laws of Rome, had become too heavy a burden to allow her to keep up with the progress of human thinking and to assimilate the new vistas of experience. Her first reactions to the advances of modern science had always been negative: witness the affaire Galileo; witness the fact that when I was a young Catholic it was still doubted whether it was orthodox to believe in the evolution of man from a sub-human form of life. And of course there was the same negative reflex in the face of critical historical scholarship. I have already spoken of this as regards the Bible; but it had also been true in the sphere of hagiography—and still, after the Council, we were reading the Roman Martyrology.

A society which turns its back on actual life tends to harden and intensify its own more reactionary features. The Church's reaction to modern advances was not only the Syllabus of Errors. It was the proclamation of papal primacy and infallibility (both of them, of course, absolutely true; which does not settle the question of their opportuneness, nor of the mode in which they were practically and theoretically interpreted). It was a growing centralisation and absolutism, which were draining the life away from local Catholicism and threatening to leave us with a totalitarian bureaucracy operating in a vacuum.

All this, it might be said, is very accidental to religion itself. What then, of religion itself? Take the liturgy. This, as we knew it in the preconciliar Western rite, was a public worship conducted by priests for a passive lay audience, in a dead language with which even the more educated minority of the faithful were rapidly losing all contact. Of course this worship was venerable; and of course it was beautiful—in the few places where it was properly performed. It was even devotional, if devotion means an aura of mystery which deliberately obscures the very signs of the transcendent Mystery incarnate for our salvation. Yet, curiously enough, the conservatism of modern Catholicism had been such that you could still read, in the liturgical texts themselves, evidence that the liturgy had been created with a quite different orientation.

There was one region of rapid religious change: that of devotion to our Lady. This was almost the only field in which Newman's doctrine of development was being allowed a free, indeed uncritical, course. But development here was going on in a world apart from the total life of theology. It was taking shape in such phenomena as the Fatima cult and was reaching forward for further "luxury" definitions of doctrine. If I may borrow again from Evelyn Waugh, it began to seem that the Catholicism of the future would approximate more and more to the condition of an Italian tribal cult.

And this Romanised, Latinised, Italianised anachronism was being exported by missionaries to the non-White world, where it had made great strides under cover of the colonial powers but was surely doomed as the old Afro-Asian cultures reasserted themselves. It showed little aptitude for assimilating these cultures in the way in which the early Church had assimilated the Græco-Roman culture. In India, where an ancient tradition of contemplation and metaphysical reflection was maintained by the Brahmin leaders of culture, the modern Church had gone, as if by instinct, not to these leaders but to the outcasts, and had presented itself not as the divine answer to man's metaphysical hunger but as a provider of schools and hospitals.

At home, meanwhile, the Church seemed to have renounced any pretension to speak to the leaders of culture and to learn from them, or to be a ferment in social and political life. Called to a mission universal in depth as well as breadth, it reckoned its successes by the statistics of individual conversions, which ran, in a good year, at a rate of about one to every three thousand of the population. Its real effort was concentrated on preserving the faith and practice of those who were already its acknowledged members. Millions of pounds were being spent on this attempt, and there seemed little understanding that a strategy limited to defence is doomed to failure in the end.

Of course, there is a real sense in which the Church cannot fail. The gates of hell will not prevail against her. But we have no divine guarantee that her destiny will not be that of the coelocanthus, surviving with diminished numbers through having taken refuge from the main current of onward-moving life. The Samaritans still survive in Palestine.

For what was happening in the world outside the Church? Perhaps the most tremendous forward move since the coming of Christianity itself. Change-in-duration was not only the practical order of the day: it was the category in which men were learning to think. There was, it is true, a defect here. What was needed, in the field of thought, was a metaphysical underpinning. But the kind of metaphysics offered by the current Catholic textbooks could not supply this need, since they neither faced the modern questions nor spoke a language (I am not referring to Latin as against the vernaculars) which modern man could understand.

I have, of course, been exaggerating, and there were more hopeful omens than those which I have mentioned here, in the pre-conciliar Church. But there is not space here for a treatise, so I must be content with a caricature.

The juggestion for these reflections was provoked by an impromptu remark, made in public, to the effect that, as a result of the Council, I was more passionately convinced than ever of the truth of Catholicism. I must, of course, explain that I did utterly believe in the truth before the Council, as I do still. But the intellectual relief with which I contemplate the Council and its acts is nevertheless immense. And it is due to the activity of some two thousand elderly gentlemen who had usually qualifled for membership of the Council less by the vigour of their intellectual life and interests than by their canonical and administrative acumen and ability and their devotion to a pastorate somewhat narrowly conceived.

During the First Vatican Council, Pius IX is said to have remarked that the action of the Holy Ghost would be found not outside but within the Council chamber. How else can the achievements of the Second Vatican Council be explained than as the effects of a powerful intervention of God's saving Spirit? For in virtually every one of the areas so hastily outlined above, the Council has brought about a tremendous change for the better. It all adds up, it is true, to no more than a first step. And there will surely be much suffering ahead for all of us. But Adam was a first step. The first Christian Pentecost was a first step. Conversion, for the individual, is a first step. It seems to me that the Church, the People of God, has now been invited by Providence to move forward into a great Christian Renaissance.


[1] Insight: A Study of Human Understanding (London, Longmans, 1957) p. 265.

[2] Ibid. p. 265

[3] Ibid. P. 267

[4] Cf. F. Houtart, L'Eglise et le Monde, 18: "The rhythm of the development of man's potentialities is extraordinary. His mastery over nature is growing day by day and an almost unimaginable future is opening up before him. Man is becoming the basic value for contemporary philosophies and social systems, however halting their efforts may be. Men are becoming aware of great collective tasks ahead of them, involving increased interdependence, socialization and cooperation. Never has there been a more powerful consciousness of humanity's engagement in a common adventure, driving it as with irresistible force to the achieving of a goal which will mean, perhaps, man's willingness to transcend himself." Houtart was one of the "experts" of the Joint Conciliar Commission responsible for the Constitution on the Church in the Modern World. His influence is manifest in the passage of the Constitution cited above.

[5] "Open Letter to the Duke of Norfolk", in Difficulties of Anglicans II 283, 286.

[6] Xavier Rynne, Letters from Vatican City (London: Faber, 1963) p. 227.

[7] Cf. John A. O'Brien, ed. The Road to Damascus.