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

How are The Catholic Church, and Pope John's Council Faring?

Introduction, Commentary and Conclusion: by Arthur Wells


At the beginning of the New Decade, we asked several questions around the central theme: How is Pope John's Council faring? Is the papacy failing Vatican II, failing the Church and the whole people?' We rounded-off with the low-key: 'What are the losses and gains since the Council?' Many responses have been posted. The overwhelming view was that our assessment of serious failure (assessments made over years) and certainly of more loss than gain was not overstated. But it was inappropriate to continue through Lent and Easter without pausing for reflection on the essential meaning of Our Lord's death and resurrection. We now resume our enquiry and the responses.

Multiple Crises in the Catholic Church

I entered the 1930s as a newly confirmed member of the Church and shortly afterwards left my convent preparatory school for a state grammar school. Certainly not in my memory have there seemed to be so many crises in the Church one on top of another. In history, crises in the Church—great or minor—have tended to flare and die: over the centuries they may have been theological, organisational or disciplinary. Some problems have resulted in religious wars. Perhaps the longest and saddest rupture was that between the Eastern and Western Churches, both of Apostolic Succession, which became fixed in 1054 AD. The western, Latin Church coped late and inadequately with the Reformation, but kept up the fiction of the Catholic Church as the Perfect Society. Many of us were brought up to be ultramontane to the core. WW II forced one to study further, to think - and to query rigidity. Thought was reinforced by The Knife Edge of Experience the title of one of Rosemary Haughton's many books, of whom more below.

The Catholic Sex Abuse Crisis

Since we paused from Vatican II issues on this website to reflect on Easter, the explosion of the sex abuse scandal has occurred. Its awfulness has created more public attention than some 'church' issues which demand equal, if not greater attention. We shall only briefly touch in website postings on this sex abuse explosion except in so far as it affects our over-arching purpose in recalling the teachings of the Second Vatican Council. UK bishops at last are recognising that the Vatican's initial response that statistics show that 'we' are no worse than others was appalling. 'Petty gossip' stirred by the media it was not and an English Bishop said so. Before leaving the many disgraceful and shaming early official responses, we wish to put the experience of ourselves and many regarding the priesthood on record. It is sad that many of our priests are not imbued with Vatican II, but they do an honest job in line with a doubtful formation. There are, however men in the priesthood who are fully imbued both with Vatican II and who fulfil their celibate priestly calling to live and to promote the Gospel in a manner that is little less than heroic. They have their own spirituality and may, perhaps, be sustained by the values of the Council. An English Council father described Vatican II as 'this miraculous Council'. The sex abuse crisis has acquired multiple facets including homosexuality as a main cause. Vatican spokesmen have been almost incoherent in dealing with the human fact of homosexuality. However orientated, must our sexuality not derive from God? In contradiction to at least one senior member of the Roman Curia, Fr. Timothy Radcliffe OP said that some of the best priests he has known, in his exceptionally broad ministry, have been homosexual. Experience of our fellow Christians and their pastors is no different. Others will unravel who knew what or when in the Vatican, or in national hierarchies on the sex-abuse matter. Responsibilities for regressions from Vatican II teachings are clearer, are gravely damaging to the whole Church and must be considered in depth. Can we avoid the conclusion that the damage originated and continues in the Roman Curia?

The Crisis of the Neglected Reforms of Vatican II

Horrendous though the sex abuse scandal is, must we not ask whether it arises at least partly from the bigger scandal of the anti-reform party in the Catholic Church promoted largely in Rome itself? Is the sex scandal and much else wrong in the Church principally, or substantially a symptom of the failure by the Vatican to implement vital elements of teaching in the Second Vatican Council? The Council's decisions produced the most solemn teaching in the Catholic Church and this is a theme to which the website must return regularly. This is only partly because most of the remedies currently aired (tentatively) for our present crises were formulated, at least in embryo in the teachings of the Council. Rarely mentioned is the fact that each bishop in communion with the Bishop of Rome is himself a 'Vicar of Christ'. Always with the pope, the world's bishops are responsible for governing the Church (collegiality). They are not his district managers. It is encouraging that we are joining with and can welcome a group with a near-identical purpose (see The whole issue of sex and marriage is but one issue—now in sharp focus—needing attention and could fall into place given the wider reforms proposed by the Council. Responsibilities for the distortions of Vatican II must come under scrutiny.

Further Responses to our New Decade Queries

We return to this scrutiny with a further batch of responses to our 'New Decade' query. While we did not disclose names of previous respondents for concern about extremist '˜attacks' it seems that that concern has not been warranted to date, so the contributions below carry by-lines. We do not know Mr. Brendan Farrow, but recognise the accuracy of his statement. Mrs Haughton and Prof. Lash are established authors and public figures in their different spheres. Rosemary Haughton's letter first appeared in The Tablet (13th February 2010) and is reproduced here with permission. Prof. Lash's contribution has been long in formulation. Its sentiments precede—perhaps by years—the more recent concerns caused by regression from the Council. The US Catholic press, for example recently published a critical article The New Spin on Vatican II (National Catholic Reporter 5 March 2010).

From Mrs Rosemary Haughton: Now, living in England and at 82 as passionately committed as ever to the Catholic vision I learned and tried to live, it seems ever harder to find an embodiment of that vision, as so much that we believed in and tried to realise is undermined. It seems that the papacy has painted itself into a corner, since the claim to infallibility creates a situation in which it is impossible to admit past error and therefore impossible to change and grow as life demands. Things that don't change are dead and the fear of change is lethal. I, with so many, am enraged and grieving at what is happening to our church. Whether it is about the plan to latinize liturgy, or the refusal even to reflect on women's ordination or clerical celibacy, or the amazing limpet-like clinging to a Vatican-defined concept of 'natural law' in regard to contraception or homosexuality, we see a draining away of the sense of a common enterprise to which all God's people were called to be engaged. Are we back to the days when Catholic laity were expected to 'pray, pay and obey'? I believe that the fundamental vitality of our immensely varied tradition will not be so easily squelched. I hope that the mounting evidence of the attempt to do so will rouse the resistance it deserves from the many who are finding ways to live as Catholics in touch with Catholicism's real history and the winds of God that sweep through the windows Pope John opened. I watch and pray for the signs of that renewed faith.
From Mr. Brendan Farrow: Of the erosions of freedom since the Council, for me the gravest is that of the Church not being true to itself. So obvious as to go almost unrecognized as untruth, is the frequently expressed claim by 'authority' to be implementing the Council's provisions when in fact reducing them or abandoning them. Most grievously for the impact on the Church—which we too are—is the emasculation of the diocesan bishops – in both their selection and in their responsibility to govern their sees. This is accompanied by the simultaneous extension of assumed papal powers to whoever, in whatever Vatican office, can claim to act in the pope's name.
Perhaps only those present in Rome when Angelo Giuseppe Roncalli was elected pope and as John XXIII visited the sick and those in prison can know from that wonderfully refreshing experience what he meant by throwing open the windows of the Church to the fresh air of the Holy Spirit. In great contrast, were actions like the public humiliation of a priest politician in Central South America by a subsequent pope who was one of the most political in history.
Other contrasts have been 'Holy Mother' Church's unique concern for its own reputation while totally neglecting the appalling damage done to helpless child victims of priests' sexual abuse, the blank refusal to accept that in Christ there's no difference between men and women, that God's gift of sex to humanity is good and priests do not have to be male, celibate pedestalled icons of papal power and authority. All these contrasts and failings must surely at some time turn mitred heads and the minds of Sunday Mass faithful away from utter subordination to a man in Rome towards that mind for justice, love and truth which was in Christ Jesus. For that we all need something of the spirit of St Paul who confronted the errors in Peter's own conduct; and that means we must stop wanting 'authority' to decide everything for us. We all need to recover our own confidence in Truth, the Word of God.
From Prof. Nicholas Lash: A few weeks after writing this piece I shall celebrate my seventy-sixth birthday. Since the invention of the custom that bishops tender their resignation on reaching seventy-five (a custom from which the bishops of Rome seem curiously exempt), I am therefore older than almost all the active bishops in the Catholic Church. There are, therefore, very few bishops still in office who were adults during Vatican II. For almost all of them, Vatican II is, like Nicea and Trent, merely an historical event – an event of which they read in books. It follows that, if the programme of renewal and reform which the Council initiated is to be prosecuted with success, it is of paramount importance that what it did and aimed to do is accurately remembered. And here we have a problem.
Between 1995 and 2006, the English edition appeared of the five volume History of Vatican II, edited by the late Giuseppe Alberigo of Bologna, and written by an outstanding team of twenty-seven scholars, including Roger Aubert, Henry Chadwick, Cardinal Avery Dulles, Cardinal Roberto Tucci and Joseph Komonchak. It has been generally agreed to be an outstanding work of sound historical scholarship.
Agreed: except by the Roman Curia. A curial official named Agostino Marchetto has made it his business to discredit and denounce the Alberigo History as 'ideological' and as purporting to claim (in a lecture which he gave in 2007) that the Council marked the emergence of a 'new Church', a transition to another Catholicism, 'un altro cattolicesimo'. Marchetto's book-length attempt to destroy the reputation of the Alberigo volumes - The Second Vatican Ecumenical Council: A Counterpoint for the History of the Council – was launched in Rome in 2005 in the presence of Cardinal Ruini, the Vicar General of Rome. A news agency present at the launch described the book as giving 'the Holy See's point of view on that milestone event' (for details, see my Theology for Pilgrims, pp. 245-263).
'The Holy See's point of view'. From the moment that John XXIII first announced his calling of a Council, throughout the years of its duration, and in its aftermath, the handful of Catholic bishops strenuously resisting the conciliar programme of reform has been led by, and largely consisted of, officials of the Roman Curia. To describe the Curia's resolute opposition to the conciliar programme as 'the Holy See's point of view' may cloak it with apparent papal approval, but this does nothing to improve its thoroughly 'ideological' lack of historical justification.
The struggle for the decentralisation of power in the Church, for the restoration of appropriate authority to bishops and to bishops' conferences, for liturgical reform, for lay ministries, and for so much else is, amongst other things, a struggle for the memory of what was said and done and dreamed between 1962 and 1965.


All the responses in this and previous postings have been complementary to each other concerning the theme of loss and each is individually poignant: the dashing of hope is high on everybody's list.

Prof. Lash focuses on the memory of the Council and on collegiality. Mr. Farrow refers, powerfully, to the position of the bishops – collegiality again. From its beginning, recalling the Council was the main purpose of the 2002 Symposium at Heythrop College in London and its evolution in 2004 into this website. The gestation for this process began two, even three decades earlier via studies of the Council documents (of course) and of writers who had been at the Council and had formed its teachings as council 'fathers'. Principal among these for any Anglophone was the former Abbot of Downside: Dom Christopher Butler OSB – ordained bishop in 1966. His writings are the essence of insight and of clarity; the result of deep scholarship by a great mind. Much other research had taken place mainly by the two website editors. Perhaps without quite realising at the time that this was what they were doing, they, with the other volunteer promoter of the website joined what Lash describes as the struggle for the memory of the Council, as well as for its letter and the spirit of openness and the moral unanimity in which it had been founded. Roughly three years ago when the regression in Rome began accelerating, the Home Page was entirely re-written to draw attention to this alarming development in the Vatican.

The sexual scandals are bad enough, but the reactions from the Vatican to the scandals have been pathetically and embarrassingly worse. Even worse again is the clear evidence of cover up, whoever may eventually be shown to be responsible. But might it not yet again be worse and of a higher order (in terms of Christianity, truth and the credibility of the whole Church: i.e. us) that the present oligarchy in the Vatican is distorting the teachings of the Catholic Church's most recent general and highest authority: The Second Vatican Council? In some cases this seems to involve clear and inauthentic '˜adjustments'. Vatican II is universally considered to have been the beginning of the beginning. Must we not return to that beginning and begin to act? Our principal guide and Vatican II 'father', Bishop BC Butler OSB, noted that there is a Gospel promise that the Church would continue to exist, but no promise as to whether the final form of existence would have any significant relevance. Must we not ask also with the utmost seriousness, whether that process is accelerating – and who is responsible?