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

At the start of a New Decade (2010)

How is Pope John's Council Faring?

By Arthur Wells

An acute crisis in the Roman Catholic Church?

More than an institution, the Church is comprised of other essential elements and the whole constitutes "The People of God" as the followers of Christ, which in the widest sense we call the Church. Vatican II gave us back so much that had been lost over the centuries. But a growing number of people - Catholics and others, believe that the failure of the 'Institutional Church' to implement key elements of Vatican II teaching is reaching grave proportions. Whether the failures in implementation amount to an actual reversal of the Council's acts and teachings is unsure, but that is the way it seems to many committed members of the Catholic Church, clergy and laity. Collegiality and the reality that the Church consists of the whole people are but two examples of failure in implementation. A senior theologian and a specialist historian of the Council comment to the effect that in the Vatican there seems to be a refusal to admit the impulse that the Second Vatican Council gave to the Church together with a refusal to admit the epoch-making significance of its occurrence. How this can be the case must be the subject of a separate study.

The calling of the Council

On 25 January 1959 - at the conclusion of the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity - Pope John XXIII announced his intention to call a General Council of the Roman Catholic Church. The fifty-first anniversary of this event may seem to have little significance, except for what failed to happen, and what did in fact happen a year ago on the fiftieth anniversary on 25 January 2009. Many say Pope John's calling of a general council was the most important event in the Christian Church since the sixteenth century Reformation. Some consider it the most important event since the split in Christianity between the apostolic Churches of East and West in 1059 AD.

The failure on the part of the Vatican to make significant mention of that 50th anniversary caused deep concern.

But worse than the lack of formal mention, Pope Benedict XVI chose that day to announce that certain formal sanctions were lifted from four schismatic bishops and by implication, from the whole of the Society of Saint Pius X (SSPX). This Society's major objective seems to be a root and branch opposition to the whole of Vatican II.

This article is an introduction to a series of articles and comments to be published on the website in 2010.

Status of Our Contributing Authors

The status of members of the hierarchy is well known. Contributors to the website to date have been both in orders and lay. Respondents to the present enquiry referred to below are mostly lay - anxious and determined to remain loyal members of the Church. The concern of the website is to hold a moderate position and retain common sense and a balance in the face of a complex world situation. Adherence to the teachings of Vatican II is of the essence.

If the ecclesiology employed ignores "The People of God", the status of a layperson is of the bottom rank. There is always a need to avoid creating division and polarisation, but if lay folk, who are free, do not speak out, then who will? Happily, many have spoken and will perhaps do so increasingly. Unhappily, others leave, perhaps not realizing that they can and even have a duty to express a reasonable opinion. (Lumen Gentium, The Constitution on The Church para. 37; Gaudium et Spes, The Church in the World Today para. 43; Canon Law also refers.)

Today, most of the men who formed the Council - "the fathers" - that is the full members, are forgotten. During the Council, the then Fr. Joseph Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict, was not a member but a theological adviser (peritus) to Cardinal Frings of Cologne, who was a 'father' of the Council, as was our guide Abbot Butler.

Other contributors to the forthcoming series may introduce themselves. My background is only marginally relevant. By several years I am the elder brother by baptism in the Catholic Church to His Holiness Pope Benedict XVI. He is a theologian whose life, even as Prefect of the CDF, has been substantially academic rather than practical or pastoral. I am an engineer with a career in industry and construction at home and abroad. More relevant is that I have been an avid student of the Council since its inception. Because of its effects on the futures of my grandchildren, and of much else, I share the anxious concerns of many, which centre on whether the direction in which our Church is being taken is sound. Is it the direction indicated by the whole Church leadership teaching through the Second Vatican Council, as promulgated by Pope Paul VI?

After FORTY years –
Can we say that the "Papacy" is failing Vatican II and the People?

(At another place and time, the term papacy needs further consideration)

Many are too young to think of Vatican II except as history, rather than as the living voice of the Church, which it is and was meant to be. On his deathbed Blessed Pope John is reported as saying (24 May 1963):

Today more than ever ... we are called to serve man as such, and not merely Catholics; to defend above all and everywhere the rights of the human person, and not merely those of the Catholic Church. Today's world, the needs made plain in the last fifty years and a deeper understanding of doctrine have brought us to a new situation ... It is not that the Gospel has changed, it is that we have begun to understand it better. Those who have lived as long as I have ...were enabled to compare different cultures and traditions, and know that the moment has come to discern the signs of the times, to seize the opportunity and to look far ahead.

Many others, beginning with the men who made the Council, did a vast amount to teach, authentically develop and disseminate Council teaching. When these men passed on and the teaching seemed to flag, it seemed clear that conservative obstruction was a major factor. Because knowledge of the Council was waning, at the turn of the millennium, a small team of lay-people developed this website to make available Council documents and teachings via the technology of the web. Our principal, but not our only guide from among 'Council fathers' is Abbot, later Bishop B C Butler OSB. In his book The Theology of Vatican II Butler records that at the time of the announcement of a Council he was sceptical of the possibilities of worthwhile renewal. However, arriving in Rome for the first session, he was surprised to find so many like-minded men among the assembled cardinals and bishops. His mission later was to explain what he had come to regard as 'this miraculous Council'. Recalling the beginnings of Vatican II, Christopher Butler wrote:

So there was to be a Second Vatican Council. What would be its business? Nothing in particular, it would appear; or perhaps it would be truer to say: everything. ... Christian unity was the Pope's distant goal, no doubt, but his immediate aim was 'to let some fresh air into the Church'.

Butler ended the Council as an international figure - the principal Anglophone contributor. There is a menu item on the site About Butler.

There was vast hope during and in the wake of the Council, but now, the Vatican windows are being closed and those who recall the Council well, are fearful that the official, institutional Church is reversing the renewal process. Is clericalism actually being promoted again and is the ancient concept of the Church as The People of God once again ignored?

Pope Paul VI

The Council was intended to be the beginning of a reform, a renewal or an aggiornamento (updating) and not an end. This renewal was ratified by Pope John's successor Cardinal Giovanni Battista Montini - Pope Paul VI. It is indisputable that Vatican II teachings represent the mind of The Catholic Church. Pope Paul VI's substantial achievement was to steer the Council to a closure albeit with some uncertainties, but eventually with overwhelmingly favourable votes and a moral unanimity despite the small minority opposition. There can be little doubt that Pope Paul was aware of residual opposition, which, as he knew well enough was led by sections of the Roman Curia. He clearly felt it necessary to address the Roman Curia in uncompromising terms:

Whatever were our opinions about the Council's various doctrines before its conclusions were promulgated, today our adherence to the decisions of the Council must be whole-hearted and without reserve; it must be willing and prepared to give them the service of our thought, action and conduct. The Council was something very new: not all were prepared to understand and accept it. But now the conciliar doctrine must be seen as belonging to the magisterium of the Church and, indeed, be attributed to the breath of the Holy Spirit. (Paul VI to the Roman Curia, 23 April, 1966)

It is not hard to form an opinion as to where the responsibility for the renewed, backward-looking trend lies, and the study of curial influence will be continued in the website, but a major concern will be to avoid polarization and to stress the moral unanimity achieved at the Council. An enquiry launched what it is hoped will be a fruitful dialogue.

A Private Enquiry about events subsequent to the close of Vatican II in 1965 asked: What is the Loss or what is the Gain?

Knowing the previous great hope in the Council of many, it seemed prudent to check with 'superiors' and other contacts, given the uncertainties of a private individual with no official status. My question was simple and brief:

Would you please be prepared to offer for website publication between 300 and 500 words (or more) of your views about the Loss and Gain in relation to Council teaching since it closed. It is a tall order, but perhaps you might include your view on the most important actions to be taken by individuals, priests, religious and hierarchies in effecting the renewal of the Church envisaged by the Council as the People of God.

The notes above will serve to introduce the forthcoming series about the state of the Roman Catholic Church some fifty years after the Second Vatican Council was called. Watch the sidebar on our home page for announcements of the publication of the responses we have received to the above question and for relevant articles.