The pontificate of Benedict XVI has come to an end with a sigh and the preparations for the Conclave are proceeding in a listless manner. None of the papabili inspire any enthusiasm, nor is there any sign of a stirring of creative thought that might augur a new era with the new pope. Instead all the usual chatter about bookies, the prophecies of St Malachy, the white and black smoke, the influence of the Spirit on the papal electors, floods the airwaves as in 2005 and twice in 1978. This is a good time to remember Vatican II, and especially its effort to propote episcopal collegiality. What has most stood in the way of building a collegial church is the mystique surrounding the figure of the pope, a mystique one yould be tempted to call anachronistic were it not that John Paul II gave it a new lease of life by conjoining it with a modern media cult of personality. Benedict’s courageous gran rifiuto has struck a blow against this mystification, permitting a more sober understanding of the role of the bishop of Rome.
Vatican II stands in judgment over the state of the church today. If the council meant anything, it subsists as a set of imperatives that have still to be realized, especially with regard to episcopal collegiality, the role of the laity, ecumenism, and the eschatological mission of the church to the world. But Vatican II by its incompletion also stands in judgment on itself. It pointed forward to a collegial church with massive lay participation, a church would have produced organs commensurate with its vibrant existence, including perhaps another council. The failure of these hopes means that there can be no joyous and triumphant celebration of the fiftieth anniversary of the council’s opening. Inconsistencies, weakness, and vagueness in the ‘letter’ of its texts force us to elicit its ‘spirit,’ or its dialectically necessary continuation. To remember Vatican II is to hear, with guilt, the voice of something struggling to be born, and to hope, against hope, that this something, the ‘new order of human relationships’ promised by John XXIII in his opening speech (‘Gaudet mater ecclesia’), can still be saved.
An Era of Restoration
The ‘Catholic restoration’ that has been afoot since 1978 ensures that the church of today and tomorrow will resemble the preconciliar church to a degree few would have expected in the wake of Vatican II. This can be seen for each of the themes handled by the council. In the field of liturgy, we have seen the revival of the 1962 rite, with the expectation that this will encourage a reshaping of the Novus Ordo along more traditional lines. A new emphasis on traditional liturgical vestments and on literal translations of Latin originals militates against expectations of creative inculturation and pluralism in Catholic worship. In ecclesiology, the structures of governance are more centralized, with more emphasis on the figure of the pope, than ever before, and organs for the expression of episcopal collegiality or for consulting the laity have not flourished. In ministry, women’s ordination has been excluded by a decree categorized by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith as ‘infallible,’ and the discipline of celibacy is upheld by importing priests from abroad to fill pastoral needs in countries unable to produce a celibate clergy, in the expectation that a revival of more traditional seminary formation will reverse recent trends. In theology, the old methods of censorship and punishment are very widely applied.
In the dialogue with the modern world, which was the central innovation of the council, the voices that condemn a ‘culture of death,’ a ‘tyranny of relativism,’ a ‘tsunami of secularization,’ are now more audible than those embracing modern values such as democracy, human rights, freedom of conscience, the progress of peoples, intercultural and interreligious understanding, environmental responsibility, and the struggle for world peace. Phenomena of scandal, crisis, and decline are sending church leaders back to a defensive posture, with talk of ‘a smaller, purer church.’ The phrase ‘liberation theology’ now seems obsolete, and the new ways of envisaging and enacting the church’s social mission that liberation theology articulated, and that claimed to follow the spirit of the council, are now rejected as based on a false interpretation of the council. Again, the ecumenical and interreligious breakthroughs of the council have run up against a counter-current stressing doctrinal barriers and emphasizing the necessity of the Catholic Church for salvation. Dialogue with Jews, Muslims, and even with other Christians has become fraught and testy, when it has not lapsed altogether.
This restorationist picture is surely not a complete one, though it has a strong grip on the imagination of discontented liberals and militant conservatives alike. The changes and challenges of the council no doubt continue to ferment throughout the church. Conservative groups seem to be in the ascendant, and they see themselves as reversing the damage done by the council or by the breakdown in discipline and theology that the council unleashed. Whether the church as a whole is following the lead of these groups, or whether their current ascendancy will long endure, is far from clear. Renewal may come from a different direction entirely, a direction more akin to the breakthroughs achieved or promised by Vatican II. Insofar as anyone wants to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the opening of the council on 11 October 1962, the best reason to do so is to draw out the positive hopes of the council, often lost from view in its subsequent reception or non-reception, or ineffectually expressed in the council texts themselves. These hopes may now seem as flimsy as the dreams of adolescence revisited in old age. Or they may be ready to flare into new life as the failures of restorationism become apparent.
The New Mental Habit
In celebrating the council, we invest anew in its mentality, or the much-decried ‘spirit of the council’ (a phrase used frequently by Paul VI). This remains a bedrock reference and a powerful resource for overcoming any developments that fail to respect it, any modes of thinking that fall short of the broad, biblically grounded vision that the council opened up. The new ‘habit of mind’ that the council brought seems obvious common sense to those who have made it their own. The council’s theological method, rooted in a new attention to Scripture and to history has not been replaced by anything better. As Massimo Faggioli says in La Stampa, 4 October 2012:
"Vatican II is to be celebrated as a mode of understanding insofar as it has helped the church to better encounter the modern world. The council has left as a legacy the best theology since the Tridentine period, not only as regards conclusions on specific questions but particularly as concerns theological method. The theological method of the council—attention to history, valuation of experience—cannot be renounced. On the plane of lived faith, Catholics worldwide live Vatican II every day, albeit sometimes unconsciously. To choose to celebrate the council fifty years after its opening implies the possibility of becoming more conscious of our own theological praxis, and also of the questions left unresolved by the council and which await a response."
There is no hermeneutic of the texts of Vatican II that can eliminate their spirit, which is a spirit of innovation. The event marked by the emergence of the new doctrinal and pastoral emphases greeted and enacted with moral unanimity by the Council fathers has not been checked or matched by any subsequent counter-event that can convincingly be pitted against it. To quote Faggioli’s article again:
"I believe that the category of event is the most apt for understanding the Council, because “event” points not only to the discontinuity introduced by the Council in regard to the Church of the early twentieth century but also to the epochal consequences of the Council in the global Church. In the history of the Church incidents are many, but events charged with consequences such as Vatican II are few, and Vatican II is certainly a unique event in the last four centuries of the history of the Church."
This uniqueness is misrecognized by those who would see Vatican II as a blip on the radar screen of history or who emphasize its continuity with the past to a point that its event-quality is erased. Faggioli speaks of efforts, once the specialty of the Lefebvrites, to present the council as a total rupture with the past, and thus to devalue it and even to put its legitimacy in question.
Vatican II has elements of continuity with the great tradition of the church and elements of discontinuity—both: so the opposition of continuity to discontinuity has no meaning, and in fact the Pope in his discourse of December 2005 spoke of a ‘hermeneutics of reform’... To deny the discontinuities or to accuse the discontinuities of having damaged the church is equivalent to rejecting the value of the council and to miss the fact that the reception of every council of the church with epochal value is measured in generations and not in years. That said, the basic acquisitions of the council have already permeated Catholic theology and the passage of years confirms their validity. To turn back is the dream of some, which threatens to become a nightmare, especially for non-European Catholics.
The theological method of Vatican II, so illuminating, and so undeniable, growing in power and clarity the more it is practiced, is a long-term warrant for trust in the renewal of the church. It is bound to undergo constant development as it is deployed in every field. The great pioneers of this way of thinking—Congar, Rahner, Schillebeeckx, Küng—offer not a settled body of doctrine but a practice of rethinking truths of faith in exposure to contemporary questioning and the insights of other philosophical and religious traditions. Like Vatican II itself, such theology has the quality of an event or an encounter. It launches a vast conversation, which is still going on throughout the Catholic world today, even if insufficiently encouraged at the level of official theology and hierarchical utterance.
Within that ongoing conversation, the heritage of the council is taken up and cherished in a very different style from that of those who anxiously overstress continuity with tradition. The council’s positive emphases, watchwords for a renewed Catholicism, have been the seeds of new thinking that has transformed the theological landscape in ways that the official church has not yet fully recognized. Revisiting those watchwords—people of God, Kingdom, dialogue, communion, collegiality—we find in them a revolutionary potency that is far from spent. They impose themselves on our mind as strictly necessary features of a living church, and they impose themselves on our consciences as realities to be more fully achieved in practice.
The Nature of the Church
One of the council’s most original achievements was its meditation on the nature of the church, an unprecedented effort to clarify the notion of church in a profound and exact way (as Paul VI remarked at the opening of the second session of the council). The scriptural aspect of the council’s method was in evidence in this venture. The appeal to experience was less in evidence, nor were the human sciences drawn upon. The church as such is an elusive object of thought, and theologians have preferred to deal with specific sub-topics that lend themselves to more concrete analysis and juicier controversy, such as the sacraments, authority, the questions of Church and State. The history of ecclesiological thought rarely becomes as exciting as that of christological or trinitarian theology. It sometimes seems as if all one can hope to acquire from trawls through ecclesiology and its history is a few salutary and wholesome insights that can help build up the Christian community today—and these tend to remain in the theological clouds, as in the case of collegiality or the notion of the people of God or the sensus fidelium. These ideas shed a mild influence over church rhetoric in the palmy days of the Vatican II period, then they became weapons for rather ineffectual polemic, and now they seem to have been overused and lost their cutting edge. These ideas carried weight at the council because it was sustained by a deep faith in ‘the mystery of the church.’ In what form can we retrieve that faith today?
A novelty in Vatican II’s discourse on the church was the great effort to lay biblical foundations. This is carried out in a rather slapdash way in Lumen Gentium, in an outpouring of scriptural quotes with little strong argumentative framing. The barrage of scriptural quotations presents the church in the most grandiose light. Reading this self-confident text fifty years later, when disappointment with the church and awareness of the dark side of its history have reached a high level, the temptation is great to dismiss the glorification of the church as so much empty noise. For all its good intentions, the document is likely to be seen as triumphalist and clericalist. How can we reassert faith in the church as a divinely instituted instrument of salvation in a period of acute criticism of the church as it has actually existed? Perhaps the answer may be found by following up on the remarks the conciliar document makes about the eschatological dimension of the church’s existence. It is as a concrete people, struggling in history, but full of eschatological hope, that the church lives its incarnate existence. It is when the council slogans are brought down from the clouds and translated into the terms of what communities experience in their prayer, reflection, and action, that their true power is glimpsed.
The council should have made a greater effort to consult the experience of other Christian churches, which could have provided a refreshing perspective on the scriptural images of churchhood and a sharper profile of what being church in the midst of history means. Protestant theologians tend to be critical of the church, or at least of what Luther called its ‘Babylonian captivity.’ The phrase ecclesia semper reformanda winged its way through the Catholic world at the time of the council, but it was imagined that the ongoing reformation or purification of the church was to proceed within securely defined structures. In Protestant theology the church tends to be a more ambivalent phenomenon, as when Barth identified the Jews of Romans 9-11 with the church, always closing its ears to the Gospel and setting itself up as an obstacle to it, yet never abandoned by the God who called it into being. In his later, more church-friendly, Church Dogmatics, the church does not come into secure focus as a substantive object of reflection. The church is a communal event rather than a solid institution with defined functions. To be sure, it is the milieu in which the Word of God is heard and in which dogma is fashioned and reformed (CD I), but do the treatises on God (CD II), Creation (CD III) and Christology (CD IV) have a strong ecclesiological component? Schleiermacher devotes the middle section of the second half of his masterwork to the church (II, 207-440), but only a small part deals with the phenomenology of the Spirit-filled community (248-73) and a contrast of the visible and invisible church (384-408); the rest deals with election and predestination, Scripture, baptism, the Eucharist, the power of the keys, the second coming of Christ. It would be interesting to examine to what degree Luther and Calvin brought the church into defined focus. Anglicanism developed perhaps the richest ecclesiological reflections, with Richard Hooker’s Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity. Churchhood loomed larger in the Anglican mind than doctrines of predestination, justification, or sanctification, perhaps because the origins of the English Reformation had to do directly with the identity of the church and only incidentally concerned doctrine. Conciliarism was popular in England in the 1530s but was overborne by Henry VII’s ‘royal supremacy’ (Valliere, 163), and conciliar institutions were never firmly established in the Protestant world; the current synodal culture of Anglicanism stems only from the nineteenth century. Despite these limitations, there is much in Anglican reflection on the church that is more biblical and more patristic than the Tridentine ecclesiology. The refusal to identify any exclusive or absolutistic source of authority, be it Scripture or the papacy, made Anglican thought a kind of reflective wisdom, a broad platform that could hold together a spectrum of theological sensibilities. Newman brought some of this rich legacy into the Roman Catholic Church, but he had already narrowed it during his Tractarian years.
The narrow but well-defined vision of the church expressed in the Council of Trent, in such triumphalist theologians as Bellarmine and Bossuet, and in the ultramontanist thinkers of the nineteenth century Catholic restoration inspired a mystical loyalty, down to the end of the pontificate of Pius XII. Like the sangha in Buddhism, the church was for all Catholics a sure refuge, even a Mother. By 1958 this Tridentine church had come to seem hollow and oppressive to many. Some said that if Vatican II had not happened the church would have shrivelled to a fundamentalist sect—and other would say that this danger still threatens today. Thus theologians, above all Yves Congar, reached back to an older world, and especially to the Fathers, to find a broader, more wholesome sense of the ‘splendor of the church’ (de Lubac). Bishops embraced the new vision at the council. They tried to reconnect with the rich, glowing account of the church as community, pilgrim people, sacrament of salvation, projected above all by St Augustine, in his anti-Donatist tracts and in The City of God. It is perhaps because the modern experience of churchhood has been relatively pallid that reflection on the church cannot find the focus, the grip, the joyful self-confidence of Augustine’s vision, and that even the language of Lumen Gentium, so novel at the time, seems drab and jaded now.
Throughout the 1960s, the conciliar vision seemed liberating, even intoxicating, especially in rhetoric that played it off against the pyramidal, authoritarian church of Trent, in which sacraments were confected and administrated without full, active participation of the people. Now a new generation look back to the Tridentine church as a magic city from which they have been led astray into a desolate wilderness. The actual church of today is little loved, and little trusted as a refuge. Those who emphatically speak of ‘Holy Church’ or ‘Mother Church’ or the Mystical Body are not really expressing love of the church today, but a polemic against it in the name of nostalgia for things past, indeed often for a past that never was. Even the biblical and patristic images revived at Vatican II, and the notion that the church is the ‘sacrament of salvation,’ the Ursakrament, are scarcely found inspiring. The church seems to be reduced to its most naturalistic status, as a vast collection of individuals, with numerous sub-collections, managed by a clerical personnel, who have shed their aura of sacred persons and are judged as coolly as civil servants or politicians are, and found wanting in professionalism. Enthusiasm for Vatican II is also often factitious, a polemical ploy directed against the current church marked by restorationist policies and entrenched conservative ideology.
Newman’s dying Gerontius cries: ‘And I hold in veneration/ For the love of Him alone,/Holy Church as His creation/ And her teachings as His own.’ How can we rediscover the church as a refuge? Consider what the Buddhist words, ‘I take refuge in the sangha,’ suggest. Not a sentimental resort to a reassuring mother-image, but an identification with a creative community engaged in wholesome practice. Individual faith is widened, deepened, made more secure, when it embraces the faith of the community, when ‘I believe’ becomes ‘We believe.’ This is more than obedient subscription to official teaching; it is sharing in a vast life of faith that traverses the ages. The doubt and confusion of the individual who broods alone on religious questions is healed and resolved when lifted up into the clear light of the community’s faith. This can be troubled by fetishization of particular points of doctrine. But in a functioning community of worship such issues recede as the core shared gospel vision finds expression anew.
Debates about authority, as in the conciliarist controversy or the debate about papal infallibility, provided a fetish or McGuffin about which theologians could happily debate until the cows came home. Both papal primacy and episcopal collegiality are regarded as having scriptural foundation and as being divinely established. The picture of the early churches in the Pauline letters and the account of conciliar debates in Acts 15 provide a model and inspiration to future reflection on church governance, but it has proved difficult to translate this into well-defined principles in canon law. Petrine primacy also has scriptural warrant, not only in Matthew 16 and John 21 but in the entire New Testament picture of Peter’s role. The relationship between episcopal collegiality and papal primacy has been a vexed issue since at least the 12th century, when the decretalists found contradictions among their sources. Vatican I defined the primacy lucidly, but in doing so sharpened the tension between primacy and collegiality, so much so that some theologians began to regard the task of reconciling the two as one of those exquisite theological paradoxes, like the tension between freedom and predestination, that one must sustain in an act of trusting faith, without itching for a solution. That is highly unsatisfactory to canon lawyers, whose discipline, if it must bow to such mysteries, is exposed to the suspicion of being theology rather than law.
Former Irish President Mary McAleese, a professor of law and a student of canon law, tackles these ancient questions on fresh ground, in showing precisely how they affect the 1983 Code of Canon Law. Her book shows that what Irish Taoiseach Enda Kenny disparaged as ‘the gimlet eye of canon law’ can have sharp practical bearing and a quite liberating upshot. Her analysis of Vatican II’s failure to define episcopal collegiality and its relationship to papal primacy, leaving the composers of the new Code with an impossible task, brings to light a deep structural flaw that lies at the base of so much confusion and anguish in church life today. This flaw has permitted the Curia to increase its control over the church; ‘the Curia authorities working in conjunction with the Pope have appropriated the tasks of the episcopal college. It is they who now carry out almost all of them’ (Cardinal König, quoted, McAleese, 135).
Vatican I, in Pastor Aeternus, did try to present the papacy as a ministry of unity, not a power above the bishops and alien to them but that of the first among brothers, and it insisted that the immediate and universal power of the Pope could not undercut the power of the bishops. That council was cut short before the role of the episcopacy could be further clarified. Thus, ‘the culture of strict primatial authority articulated at Vatican I has a considerable head start over the new concept of conciliar episcopal collegiality, left hanging, ambiguous and uncoordinated after Vatican II’ (McAleese, 136). Vatican II, it now appears, failed in turn to provide the necessary clarification of the age-old problem. ‘The council sent a mixed message, promoting a springtime of collegiality in the church but failing to make the judicial changes that would place Roman Catholic polity on a more conciliar foundation’ (Valliere, 15). ‘The pope can stand apart from, not among his fellow bishops. The synthesis sought by the council’s majority, by which the pope’s power would be constitutionally defined as flowing from his headship of the college of bishops, is split apart’ (Wilkins, 18). Back in the time of Paul VI, some already complained that the vision of the Council had found no institutional embodiment (Küng, Rahner). Cardinal Suenens in particular ‘resisted Peter to his face,’ when Humanae Vitae was issued without a shred of episcopal input’ (ib.). Today this issue is coming into clearer view and the urgency of structural reform that would give substance to the ideal of collegiality is ever more widely recognized. Such reform would be a major innovation, but one called for by the unresolved tradition in Vatican II and in centuries of church tradition, and one that could be achieved without any threat to the doctrinal foundations of church structure.
‘Currently the church lacks an obvious idea of where it is going in terms of collegial governance’ (McAleese, 155). McAleese is surprised that a 2,000 year old institution still has not defined its basic structures of governance clearly (159-60); she refers to ‘the ill-fitting jigsaw puzzle which is church governance and episcopal collegiality’ (131). But perhaps that not so surprising in view of the great variety of shapes that the Church has taken throughout history, and the degree to which church structures are makeshift arrangements to give expression to the life of the people of God, and their organic communion. Canon law is at the service of theological vision, and it insists on sharp and strong definitions of structures of sacramental power and teaching and governing authority not in order to satisfy a legal ideal but in order to ensure the effective functioning of the community of salvation. It can best free the church from dysfunctionality if it modestly avows the largely functional nature of its own prescriptions.
The idea of episcopal collegiality came in from the cold fifty years ago, when the bishops processed into St Peter’s to express their collegiality in its highest form, in a general council. Some had viewed collegiality with suspicion, as a sleeping giant it would be dangerous to awaken, something like the Estates General in prerevolutionary France. Vatican I had anathematized the view of 15th century Conciliarism and 18th century Gallicanism and Febronianism, that the authority of bishops gathered in an ecumenical council was above that of the pope. Despite this, the conciliarist ideal continues to haunt the Catholic imagination and was revived by several writers in the 1960s. There was also a lot of intense reflection on the tension between primacy and collegiality in that decade, for instance in several works published in the series ‘Unam Sanctam’ (Editions du Cerf). Vatican II itself did not look back sufficiently to the collegial structures of the past. ‘The modern practices of representation and consent that characterise secular constitutional government are not alien to the tradition of the church. And if in the future the church should choose to adapt such practices to meet its own needs in a changing world that would not be a revolutionary departure but a recovery of a lost part of the church’s own early tradition’ (Brian Tierney, quoted, McAleese, 44).
More urgent than this theoretical reflection was the imperative to give practical embodiment to Vatican II’s vision. Episcopal collegiality was supposed to be concretized by the triennial synod in Rome. But as Archbishop John R. Quinn remarked in 1999: ‘The Synods has not met the original expectations of its establishment and in reality the Curia sees itself as exercising oversight and authority over the College of Bishops and worse still as subordinate to the Pope but superior to the College of Bishops’ (quoted, McAleese, 123-4). Proceedings are shaped by the ethos of a court, with much more attention given to prominent hierarchs than to lesser ones. Bishops who speak out of line, for instance by questioning Humanae Vitae, would be taken aside by the Prefect of the CDF and recalled to order. Despite being lauded by John Paul II as enactments of collegiality, their authority is strictly circumscribed: ‘Pope Benedict XVI has said that in the event of any deliberative powers ever being conferred on the Synod they would “inevitably… be delegated papal authority, not authority proper to the Synod”’ (McAleese, 123). ‘The Synod is a papal creation. It reports to the Pope not the College of Bishops nor does it report on behalf of the College’ (125). In short, the Synod is a curial concession to the idea of episcopal collegial governance, and it may actually tend to lame collegiality rather than boost it. One scholar, James Coriden, ‘sees its existence as a betrayal of the Council’ (McAleese, 127). Many, such as Nicholas Lash, pin their hopes on a new pope, who would summon leading bishops and ask them to help him inaugurate a more synodal form of church government. Behind these problems lie the events of the ‘black week’ toward the end of the third session of the council in November 1964, when Paul VI gave several demonstrations of papal authority in a way that was seen as overriding the council, notably by adding an interpretative note to Lumen Gentium that sought to limit the scope of episcopal collegiality.
A second hope for a concrete enactment of episcopal collegiality was the role of episcopal conferences, which the council saw as expressing the sentiment of collegiality. ‘They were made compulsory and given added impetus and status… but they were also taken in hand’ (McAleese, 143). The reception of Humanae Vitae by the episcopal conferences in 1968 was not greeted by the Vatican as an excellent enactment of episcopal collegiality. It seems rather to have raised the specter of autonomous national churches arrogating authority to themselves and introducing a confusing pluralism into Catholic teaching. In the wake of these events, influential voices (Ratzinger, de Lubac) stressed that the episcopal conferences had no properly theological status, but were little more than a useful practical arrangement. The authority of episcopal conferences has been undercut step by step in a series of Vatican documents and interventions. John Paul II’s Apostolos Suos (1998) ‘purports to settle the juridic status of Episcopal Conferences which the Vatican Council Commission and the Council fathers had been unable to resolve,’ by reducing their status to that of ‘a pragmatic construct of convenience’ and by emphatic denial that they can take on ‘the collegial nature proper to the actions of the order of bishops as such’ (n. 12) (McAleese, 141). Here theological scruple risks leaving the church unable to give concrete contemporary form to the collegiality essential to its identity and its life. If episcopal collegiality is essential to the divinely established structure of the Church, it must be given strong juridical and practical form. If neither the synods nor the episcopal conferences can ensure this, and in the absence of any project to convene another ecumenical council, bishops are forced to conceive of their collegial role as simply one of spiritual unity around the pope and docile transmission of papal teaching.
The Code of Canon Law of 1917 gave the pope the authority to appoint bishops worldwide, a novel claim, in line with the one-sided stress on papal primacy that resulted from the interruption of Vatican I in 1870 before it got around to the theme of collegiality. John Paul II undercut privileges of various European dioceses in this regard, and initiated a period in which bishops were appointed in function of their fidelity to ‘litmus test’ issues such as the teachings on contraception and women’s ordination, with less and less attention being paid to local recommendations. Hence the lack of critical or independent episcopal voices within the church.
If developments are blocked or frozen at the level of the hierarchy, the spirit of collegiality has found expression elsewhere in the church. ‘The broader view of conciliar collegiality has developed most coherently within religious institutes, where… in the process of reception of the novus habitus mentis of the Council, there has been a clear move away from autocratic governance structures towards (the recovery of historically normative) collegially participative, even democratic structures’ (McAleese, 30). Such language is also found in the Code of Canon Law, but when it comes to episcopal collegiality ‘that logic is routinely avoided, circumvented or ignored while the word collegiality is liberally used to describe ecclesial structures which would not pass the test of collegiality set down by the General Norms’ enunciated in the Code (McAleese, 149).
Church and Kingdom
The eschatological relationship between the Church and the Kingdom of God is mentioned early in Lumen Gentium: ‘the Church, equipped with the gifts of its Founder and faithfully guarding His precepts of charity, humility and self-sacrifice, receives the mission to proclaim and to spread among all peoples the Kingdom of Christ and of God and to be, on earth, the initial budding forth of that kingdom. While it slowly grows, the Church strains toward the completed Kingdom’ (par. 5). Perhaps it would be better to have said, ‘struggling to guard his precepts’ as this would concord more with the empirical experience of the Church as a struggling human community. In general the language of the conciliar document, and its heavy reliance on quotations, fails to convey the existential reality of the church’s life and seems caught in a circle of theological clichés—though in the council years the biblical references may have seemed an exciting correction to frozen images of churchhood.
The section of Lumen Gentium on ‘the eschatological nature of the pilgrim church’ calls the church back to its original identity as a community inspired by the teachings and presence of Christ and striving toward their eschatological fulfilment. The presentation of the eschaton is rather flat, however, with drab strings of scriptural quotations:
"At that time the human race as well as the entire world, which is intimately related to man and attains to its end through him, will be perfectly reestablished in Christ…The promised restoration which we are awaiting has already begun in Christ, is carried forward in the mission of the Holy Spirit and through Him continues in the Church in which we learn the meaning of our terrestrial life through our faith… The pilgrim Church in her sacraments and institutions, which pertain to this present time, has the appearance of this world which is passing and she herself dwells among creatures who groan and travail in pain until now and await the revelation of the sons of God." (LG 48)
The eschatological mission of the church is not strongly enough connected here with Jesus’ preaching of the Kingdom, and with the prophetic tradition of Israel, nor is it sufficiently linked with justice and peace and the task of building up the Kingdom in the earthly city. Generally speaking, the prolix council documents content themselves with sketching an ideal, using biblical rather than contemporary terms, and do not address at all the forces the militate against the ideal, for instance, the tension between charism and power signaled by Leonardo Boff and many others. The prolixity of Gaudium et Spes in particular ensures that it is little read. Here the ‘letter’ of Vatican II has diminishing returns, whereas the stance represented by this document, issued on the last day of the Council, is one we should take up, developing its ‘spirit.’ To reduce the Council to its texts would be to close the window that John XXIII promised to open.
The Pilgrim People of God
Although the image of God’s people on their way sets the church and its history in perspective and does equal justice to its human and divine dimensions, it, too, has remained rather vague and has not found convincing concrete embodiment. Thomas O’Loughlin remarks: ‘I think we may have missed the boat in thinking of renewal in terms of the church or the people of God—we tried that in the 60s and 70s and nothing much happened—stymied by inertia long before the reactionary backlash. I think now the only way forward for Christian faith is by way of discipleship and building small communities from the bottom up—and the whole ecclesia empowering and resourcing these gatherings of disciples’ (personal communication).
Moreover, there has been a tendency to undercut Vatican II’s eschatological opening by closely identifying Christ, Church, and Kingdom. Henri de Lubac, followed by Benedict XVI in Jesus of Nazareth, makes much of Origen’s statement that Christ is himself the Kingdom, the autobasileia. The people of God is not seen in naturalistic terms as a historical community but rather as a mystical entity, the mystical body of Christ. The emphasis on striving toward a future Kingdom is replaced by one on preserving the mystery of the Kingdom present in the world in the form of the Church. In all this, the concrete face of the church as a people is overshadowed by a symbolic image of the church as mystery, as bride of Christ, as temple of God. All these images have their power and beauty, but they lack reality if dissociated from the actual life of the people and their struggles in history.
Critics of lay movements in the church tendentiously reduce their plea for reform to a bid for power, and chide them for using big words like ‘collegiality’ as if it entailed that they are in flight from ‘co-responsibility.’ This encourages bishops, already battered and dispirited, to perceive such laity as hostile. The naïve desire of the laity that the bishops come to listen to and join in their discussions, ready to be converted, overestimates the positive powers of bishops and underestimates their fragility; though it is true that bishops and the Vatican retain a considerable power to block stirrings of new life. The Congregation of Bishops warned in 1997 that diocesan synods should not be placed in opposition to the bishop on the grounds of representing the people of God; McAleese remarks: ‘The assumption that a forum which represented the People of God would necessarily be in opposition to the bishop would be worthy of serious analysis’ (148). The Irish church has held no diocesan synods since the council, and though the idea of a national synod was mooted in the 1970s, nothing came of it, again perhaps from fear of losing control. A national synod in Britain in 1980 ruffled some feathers by a declaration against Humanae Vitae, and there was little follow-up. The agendas of lay movements do sound like a laundry list of complaints rather than a concrete plan for action, and when the abolition of celibacy and the ordination of women head the list, bishops are all too likely to protest, as Archbishop Diarmuid Martin did recently, that everything cannot be ‘up for grabs.’ Laity who see themselves as enacting the council’s imperative of full participatory communion are seen as sinning against communion by struggling to wrest control from the hands of their pastors. The unprecedented discontent among laity and lower clergy ‘at the lack of transparency, accountability and opportunities for participation in church governance’ threatens to create a ‘perfect storm’ (McAleese, 150), with unpredictable consequences.
Still under the spell of Vatican I, the Council accorded ‘infallibility’ not only to the Pope but to the bishops and the laity: ‘The entire body of the faithful, anointed as they are by the Holy One, cannot err in matters of belief. They manifest this special property by means of the whole people’s supernatural discernment in matters of faith when “from the Bishops down to the last of the lay faithful” they show universal agreement in matters of faith and morals. That discernment in matters of faith is aroused and sustained by the Spirit of truth. It is exercised under the guidance of the sacred teaching authority’ (Lumen Gentium 12). Here the prophetic role of the laity is reduced to the discernment of dogmatic truth: the assurance that ‘they cannot err in matters of belief’ is on the same plane as the rigid view of scriptural inerrancy, which Dei Verbum could not overcome. The cult of ‘universal agreement’ suggests a noetic paradise where all minds magically accord. A heritage of certitudes about the nature of the church, carried over from the Tridentine period, or expanded by the addition of the Roman scholastic doctrine of the infallibility of the universal magisterium (LG 25), is amalgamated with the biblical vision with no effort to problematize critically the pluralism of ecclesiological ideas over the centuries. ‘The governance structure of the church has never been carved in stone but has taken many different shapes over the centuries’ (McAleese, 44). The privilege of infallibility, though so rarely exercised by a pope, is now extended to all bishops, and defining faith and morals is presented as the chief activity of bishops. Whatever their underlying meaning, the terms ‘infallibility’ and (biblical) ‘inerrancy’ convey to the modern ear a misleading view of theological truth. The council could have made an act of radical trust by sticking with the term ‘indefectibility,’ the indefectibility of the Holy Spirit which has little to do with foolproof automatic guarantees.
If such language has any concrete consequences, it would seem to promise a united, vocal church, speaking with a clear voice, in harmony with its pastors, and conveying the message of the Gospel, a message of justice and peace, love and hope, faith and contemplation, to the listening world. For some years after the council it seemed that this dream could come true. There are parish communities throughout the world where something like this ideal is achieved, and these may harbor the seeds of a vibrant future church. While the Council envisaged primarily a lay apostolate in the secular sphere, the collapse in vocations to ordained ministry has had the effect of drawing laity into ministerial roles, such as presiding at funerals, more and more. Theological qualifications are now found among lay people to an unprecedented degree, which the theological competence of the clergy is diminished. These new lay responsibilities should be expressed in structural reforms, for instance in giving the laity a voice in the choice of priests and bishops.
If bishops need to courageously claim and express their collegial dignity, their equal co-exercise of the power of teaching and governing with the bishops of Rome, so do lay people need to claim their charisms and give them full expression. They can do this most intensively in small communities and in properly functioning parishes. I know a parish where every Sunday one can hear a well-prepared and engaging sermon, where the music (organist, choir, congregation) is of high quality in terms of piety, theology, and musical quality, where the congregation report on their works of charity and are empowered to continue them, where bible study groups and book groups abound, where new or visiting worshipers make themselves known and are welcomed with a round of applause, where over coffee the togetherness of the service is continued, where members make long journeys to be present and former member revisit with gratitude and nostalgia, where the Eucharist is celebrated reverently and in appropriate language. The reader may have guessed that I am speaking of an Anglican church (St Alban’s, Tokyo). Of course there are also very many vibrant and happy Roman Catholic parishes, but I strongly believe we should be consulting our fellow-Christians about the dynamics of worship. It is together with them that we advance on the pilgrim path to the Kingdom.
The Ambiguities of Communion
Joseph Ratzinger’s doctoral thesis dealt with the church as people of God in Augustine. But contrary to the expectation of his mentor, Gottlieb Söhngen, he found that the dominant image of the Church in Augustine was not the people of God but communion. Today the ecclesiology of communion is heavily promoted, often at the expense of the future-oriented ecclesiology of the people of God. Communion is an idea that has little reference to dynamic advance toward the future; indeed it tends to morph into the ideology of communion with the past, proven by seamless continuity.
"The Extraordinary Assembly of the Synod of Bishops in 1985 saw in the concept of an ‘ecclesiology of communion’ the central and fundamental idea of the documents of the Second Vatican Council. The Church is called during her earthly pilgrimage to maintain and promote communion with the Triune God and communion among the faithful. For this purpose she possesses the word and the sacraments, particularly the Eucharist, by which she ‘constantly lives and grows’ and in which she expresses her very nature. It is not by chance that the term communion has become one of the names given to this sublime sacrament." (Ecclesia de Eucharistia, n. 34)
Such language is often used to counter a common perception that the central ecclesiological idea of Vatican II was that of ‘the people of God.’ The title of the review Communio could be read as a reproach to the title of its rival Concilium—as opposing filial communion with the Pope to conciliarist arrogance. Communion is also played off against collegiality. John Paul II’s document Pastor Bonus (1988) ‘exudes a strong sense of primatialism, with communio, unity and service the updated language for describing the subsidiary and subordinate role played at universal governance level by the episcopal college’ (McAleese, 134). ‘It looks as if communio is believed to thrive through passive obedience and silence on any subject of controversy. Yet many commentators think the opposite, that the church is being weakened by the absence of healthy flows upwards and downwards of information and opinion’ (McAleese, 156).
John Paul II gave the following diagnosis:
"In some places the practice of Eucharistic adoration has been almost completely abandoned. In various parts of the Church abuses have occurred, leading to confusion with regard to sound faith and Catholic doctrine concerning this wonderful sacrament. At times one encounters an extremely reductive understanding of the Eucharistic mystery. Stripped of its sacrificial meaning, it is celebrated as if it were simply a fraternal banquet. Furthermore, the necessity of the ministerial priesthood, grounded in apostolic succession, is at times obscured and the sacramental nature of the Eucharist is reduced to its mere effectiveness as a form of proclamation. This has led here and there to ecumenical initiatives which, albeit well-intentioned, indulge in Eucharistic practices contrary to the discipline by which the Church expresses her faith. How can we not express profound grief at all this? The Eucharist is too great a gift to tolerate ambiguity and depreciation." (Ecclesia de Eucharistia, 2003, n. 10)
This may miss the real depth of our eucharistic crisis, which has less to do with theology than with the lack of vitality, meaning, and a true sense of community in our liturgies. The alleged ambiguities of intercommunion are as nothing in comparison with the ambiguities of a celebration in which language and body-language negate real communication and community. More than 80% of the footnotes to this encyclical are to Vatican documents, particularly those composed by John Paul II himself. Such self-referentiality undercuts the persuasiveness of these documents, giving the impression that the author wants to draw his hearers into his own circle of ideas with not enough effort to open up to ideas coming from other sources.
Communio also describes the group-feeling of the new Catholic movements, who look only to the pope as the embodiment of authority. However, the church has failed to provide a broad tent under which lay movements of many kinds could flourish, in a truly pluralistic fellowship or koinōnia. Of the new movements promoted by Rome, such as Opus Dei, the Focolare, Comunione e liberazione, Faggioli writes: ‘The post-Vatican II, anti-modern anguish embodied by the movements has contributed to the failure of the conciliar and synodal institutions in the Church and to the suppression of subsidiarity in the relations between Rome and the local Churches, in favor of a modernistic presidential style of leadership that is not traditional and not Catholic’ (2008). Communion thus becomes a code-word for a short-circuiting of the true flow of teaching and governance in the church, which is marked by participation, dialogue, and collegiality, ancient Catholic virtues that at the same time express John XXIII’s ‘new order of human relationships.’ Paul VI made ‘dialogue’ the key word in his 1963 encyclical Ecclesiam Suam and in his guidance of the second session of the council. The widespread perception of a great lack of dialogue in the church today suggests that the rhetoric of communion has not been matched by a vibrant collegial enactment.
The basic texture of Christian life, communion in the broadest and best sense, must be recovered before the meaning of Eucharist and ministry becomes perspicuous again. The Bible, especially in Genesis, begins not with institutional structures, but with the texture of ordinary human community, friendships, family, earthly society. It is on this foundation that it then expounds the idea of a holy people, the people of the Mosaic Covenant, the people renewed and inspired by the message of the Prophets. The primary concern of church renewal should be the authenticity of human relationships in the Church. Parishes should, of course, always be places of warmth, welcome, sharing, and the upper echelons of church bureaucracy should be at the service of this, and should bathe in its glow. The texture of human community centers not on animal warmth but on free and intelligent communication, and nothing brings more joy to a Christian community than successful events of communication within its ranks or of respectful debate with those outside them. Here models of community developed in the modern world have much to teach the church. There should not be a painful mismatch between the eucharistic community and what is liberating and enriching in contemporary, democratic experience of community. If the church community is to be a model for warmer, more just, and more inclusive relationships in society at large, it must speak a language of community that makes sense outside its precincts.
Clutching at Control
The Catholic Church is the largest and oldest organization in the world, and cannot be run without thorough discipline. The excessive concentration of power and responsibility at the very top, however, is not a guarantee of discipline but could actually encourage its breakdown. The lessons of modern democracies on the art of governance must be taken to heart. Top-down government tends to have a bad influence on the life of the church at every level, for instance when reflected in the relationships of priest and parishioner. Authorities that are complied with rather than obeyed, without a warm relationship of listening (ob-audire) and willing cooperation, will fail to win real respect, which means that a breakdown of discipline has already begun.
The compulsion of control has had a stifling effect on all movements from below within the church. Consider the fate of Catholic Pentecostalism, renamed the Charismatic Renewal. This was at first biblically based with little reference to the teachings of the Roman Catholic magisterium. It was enacted in ecumenical gatherings at places like the Quaker meeting room in Eustace St., Dublin. Catholics, thinking the movement achieved the New Pentecost that John XXIII has promised as a fruit of the Council, were delighted when priests and bishops joined and when the Vatican showed interest, expecting a charismatic transformation of the clergy. In reality the movement was brought under clerical control, and withered away; it was simultaneously eaten away by biblical fundamentalism and magisterial fundamentalism among its members. A brief moment in which Catholics could pray happily with Protestants and learn from them thus faded away without trace. Potential for liturgical renewal also faded and the churches returned to routine Masses, celebrated without joy or conviction. It seems unimaginable to church authorities that anything could flourish in the church which is not under their direct control. But the Spirit blows were it wills, and one cannot dictate to it to ‘blow here!’ or ‘blow there!’ The one who seeks to control the Spirit, quenches it.
Such nervousness may have a certain rationality, for the danger of a bust-up of the church is not an unreal one. The urge to tighten the reins is irresistible. But it is a reflex based on fear, or panic. Often the desire to control appeals to a very high theological motive: the defense of orthodoxy. Since the fathers of the church devoted a huge amount of their energy to defending the faith against heretics, it can hardly be denied that the defense of sound teaching is a valid form of serving the Church. But let us not forget that it also led to the worst scandal in church history, namely, the medieval, Spanish, and Roman inquisitions. Zeal for orthodoxy can be destructive, not only when it fails to respect the consciences of the erring, but when it is exercised through structural channels that are too narrow. The defense of Christian truth is a task for the whole people of God, and it can only be achieved in a wholesome way when it takes place in a climate of discussion and free exchange of thought.
Vatican II is spoilt by its continued adherence to the language of control, as in its retention of the vocabulary of inerrancy and infallibility, with their modern associations of Cartesian certitude that suggest a clutching at epistemological control. The stress on the necessity of the church for salvation is in the same mode. The claim that Catholics alone enjoy the fullness of truth, and alone enact that truth in an integral way, surely invites deconstruction. It leads to a bullying insistence that anyone who refuses to join the church is guilty, indeed damnable: ‘Whosoever, therefore, knowing that the Catholic Church was made necessary by Christ, would refuse to enter or to remain in it, could not be saved’ (n. 14). However, leniency is shown: ‘Those also can attain to salvation who through no fault of their own do not know the Gospel of Christ or His Church, yet sincerely seek God and moved by grace strive by their deeds to do His will as it is known to them through the dictates of conscience. Nor does Divine Providence deny the helps necessary for salvation to those who, without blame on their part, have not yet arrived at an explicit knowledge of God and with His grace strive to live a good life’ (LG n. 16). Conservative Catholic theologians today still solemnly debate the conditions under which non-Catholics or atheists may be saved, suggesting for example that God may give them a final illumination in limbo after death before sending them on to purgatory. It is another mark of the lack of courage and imagination of postconciliar Catholicism, and the paralyzing effects of the urge to control, that the phrase ‘ecumenical dialogue’ is likely to conjure up not a joyous and stimulating sharing of traditions in a renewed quest for deeper understanding of the Scriptures, but rather a cautious, scruple-ridden negotiation around doctrinal niceties. Indeed, the Vatican now seem to be saying the there is no possibility of theological dialogue with religions outside the Christian fold; we can collaborate on them only on ethical and social projects.
Vatican II still clings to the idea that all people should be members of the Catholic Church: ‘This Church constituted and organized in the world as a society, subsists in the Catholic Church, which is governed by the successor of Peter and by the Bishops in communion with him, although many elements of sanctification and of truth are found outside of its visible structure. These elements, as gifts belonging to the Church of Christ, are forces impelling toward catholic unity’ (LG n. 8). The replacement of ‘is’ by ‘subsists in’ here is one of the innovations of the council, which is taken up in John Paul II’s insistence that the church of Christ is present and operative in the other Christian churches. The council teaches that the other churches are in real though imperfect communion with the Catholic Church: ‘The Church recognizes that in many ways she is linked with those who, being baptized, are honored with the name of Christian, though they do not profess the faith in its entirety or do not preserve unity of communion with the successor of Peter… We can say that in some real way they are joined with us in the Holy Spirit, for to them too He gives His gifts and graces whereby He is operative among them with His sanctifying power’ (LG, n. 15, cf. Unitatis Redintegratio n. 8). Surely this profound unity should have been concretized in richer, more vibrant ecumenical expressions.
Fear of compromising orthodoxy has kept ecumenism on a tight leash. Any idea or gesture that suggests a yielding or a laxity meets a nervous reaction. Thus Paul VI’s generous reference to the Church of England as ‘our sister church’ was disowned by a note from the CDF in 2000. The only vision of church unity that effectively operates is still one in which all Christians will offer obeisance to Roman authority and its claims. The family of Christian churches, as a pluralism of traditions, is seen as a reality de facto, but not de iure, and the fear of letting it proliferate at the expense of the de iure status of the church of Rome has meant that little of the potential for sharing and mutual instruction between the churches has been realized. Missing in all this is any sense that if the Catholic Church enters into real dialogue with the other churches, it is bound to be radically changed in the process. Dialogue entails mutuality, and parity among the discussants—which inevitably creates tensions for all claims of authority and superiority.
Control, in the Catholic Church, is directed not principally at ‘dissidents’ and liberal theologians, but at women; and it is again exercised passively, obliquely, through avoidance and dismissal rather than though direct aggressive action. The membership of Pobal Dé, an Irish lay association, and of the new Association of Catholics in Ireland consists of women in their later middle age. They talk about ‘spirituality’ in a way that is alien to the clergy. Their feminist accents and reference to such realities as maternity, divorce, are not attractive to men bred within a homosocial environment, who ‘see the world as peopled by males, noticing the women only once they are pointed out to them’ (Clifford Longley, The Tablet, 6 October 2012). Gaudium et Spes, in the English version on the Vatican website, has, by my count, 255 references to ‘man,’ 79 to ‘men,’ and only 10 to ‘woman’ or ‘women.’ No effort has been made to replace ‘men’ with ‘people’ and ‘mankind’ with ‘humankind,’ in line with current usage. The handling of power and responsibility in female groups is also alien to the male elite, as the tensions between US religious sisters and the CDF suggest.
We can hope that the next council will adopt a more radically trusting, kenotic stance, learning to let go of all these encumbrances. In doing so, it may complete and rescue Vatican II as Vatican II completed Vatican I. There is a dialectic that points forward, a tension that can be resolved only in a deeper commitment to the spirit of Vatican II, and it is becoming increasingly clear that the only alternative to this path of life is one of regression and decay. The church may seem overshadowed by phenomena of crisis and decline at this moment, but this can be seen as a temporary dysfunction. The people of God remain a sleeping giant, their human resources practically infinite, not to mention the divine resources of Scripture and the sacraments. Rather than invest in projects of restoration and control, we should put away fear and let these resources express themselves as freely as possible, in open discussion and creative innovation. This will take us far beyond anything envisaged in Vatican II, but it will give us reason to celebrate Vatican II with real joy on its 60th or 70th birthday as the council that began the process of allowing Catholicism to assume a vital, modern identity, the process of its conversion into a community more in line with the liberating, prophetic vision of the Gospel.
Faggioli, Massimo (2008). ‘The New Catholic Movements, Vatican II and Freedom in the Catholic Church.’ The Japan Mission Journal 62:75-84.
McAleese, Mary (2012). Quo Vadis? Collegiality in the Code of Canon Law. Dublin: Columba.
Schleiermacher, Friedrich (1999). Der christliche Glaube. Berlin: de Gruyter.
Valliere, Paul (2012). Conciliarism: A History of Decision-Making in the Church. Cambridge University Press.
Wilkins, John (2012). ‘Bishops or Branch Managers? Collegiality after the Council.’ Commonweal 139.17 (12 Oct):16-21.
Based on a talk given at a conference organized by the late Padraic Conway, Newman House, Dublin, October 11, 2012, published in The Japan Mission Journal 66 (2012):263-82.