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Reaping the Harvest: Fifty Years after Vatican II

19 July, 2012

reapingA great divide has come upon the Catholic Church in the years since Vatican II. When Pope John XXIII called the Council in 1959  and during the years when the Council was in session (1962-5) there was a great sense of hope, of a fresh wind blowing. The hope was that the Catholic church is not simply an enclosed enclave condemning the trends of thought of the wider world. With the Council people saw the church taking its place on the world stage. While it critiqued negative trends, it recognised the positive, able to learn from the world’s richness and variety through dialogue. More recently the official church seems to have drawn back from that even-handed evaluation of the world and returned to a largely negative denunciation of what it calls secularism.

Looking back from the vantage point of fifty years onward, the authors of this book look at the positive insights that came from the Council such as the theme of the church as primarily the people of God sent to be a light to the nations (Lumen gentium) and a new openness to world trends that came with Gaudium et Spes . But the central theme of the book is how the church became divided between those who look back on the Council as bringing something new and so has a discontinuity with much of what went before and those who maintain that essentially the Council did not make bring anything new but is essentially in continuity with more entrenched positions that had been traditionally held.

The authors in general see this retrenchment as a failure of nerve and that much still remains to be done and can be done. Despite disappointments they encourage fidelity to outspokenness especially among those who have been victims of abuse, commitment to dialogue with the world, with other religions and other churches and ecclesial communities, as well as proclamation of the perennially valid gospel and not forgetting Catholic Social Teaching – and that not just for those outside, but also for those within the Church itself.

Dr. James Corkery SJ is Associate Professor of Systematic Theology at the Milltown Institute of Theology and Philosophy. Dr. Suzanne Mulligan is a Visiting Lecturer in the Department of Moral Theology, Maynooth. Dr. Gerry O’Hanlon SJ is a staff member of the Jesuit Centre for Faith and Justice and author ofthe recent A New Vision for the Catholic Church: A view from Ireland.


About the Contributors

‘Our Own Hope Had Been …'(Luke 24:21):
The Promise of Vatican II — Reality or Illusion?
Jim Corkery SJ

The Church in the World: A Light for the Nations?
Suzanne Mulligan

The People of God: Towards a Renewed Church?
Gerry O’Hanlon SJ

90 pp. The Columba Press. To purchase this book online, go to www.columba.ie


Angelo Roncalli was elected Pope in 1958. Many saw his election as a convenient compromise; he was old and was unlikely to have a lengthy pontificate, and this would allow time to think of a more long-term successor. John XXIII’s pontificate was indeed short. But anyone who thought that he would simply sit quietly by and cause no fuss would be sorely mistaken. In addition to the two notable social encyclicals that he issued (Mater et Magistra and Pacem in Terris), John also called the Second Vatican Council. This Council took place from 1962 to 1965, and is arguably the most important ecclesial event to have occurred in modern church history. The Council reflected Pope John’s hopes and aspirations for the Catholic Church. He wanted to update the church and bring its teachings more in line with the modern world. The aggiornamento that he called for was not simply a cosmetic altering of church teaching or policies. John wanted a vibrant, imaginative and energetic re-thinking of the Church ad intra as well as a fresh understanding of its role in the modern world. For all his optimism Pope John was acutely aware of the global problems that beset the world. But he believed that the church should play a positive and constructive role in attempting to resolve the injustices of the day.

The church of the nineteenth and early part of the twentieth century was defensive and suspicious of the world it inhabited. But Pope John’s vision, and the spirit that is reflected in the documents of Vatican II, represented a move towards a more inclusive and dialogical model of ecclesial engagement with the world. This deep re-imagining of the church in the world is seen through the documents that the Council Fathers issued. Some dealt more with the life of the church itself – the church ad intra. Major changes were made to the liturgy in the Constitution on the Liturgy, for example. Lumen gentium outlined a new vision of Church as the People of God, with greater recognition for the role of the laity. But the Council Fathers (particularly those from poorer countries) were adamant that Vatican II should address the life of the church ad extra too. In the debates surrounding the publication of Gaudium et sees, Archbishop Dom Helder Camara of Brazil asked, ‘Are we to spend our whole time discussing internal church problems while two-thirds of humankind is dying of hunger?” The Council Fathers did in fact turn their attention to the ‘signs of the times’ in several documents, including Gaudium et spes. The Declaration on Religious Freedom rectified an outdated approach to church-state relations and confirmed the right to freedom of conscience in religious matters. The Decree on Ecumenism and the Declaration on the Relation of the Church to non-Christian Religious vastly improved the Catholic Church’s relationship with other faiths. Gone were slogans such as ‘error has no rights’, and ‘outside the church there is no salvation’. In many respects we see a maturing of the church’s understanding of itself and its place in the world. And with that came a greater sense of humility. Through many of these documents, the church acknowledged that it had much to learn from other faiths and from secular organisations and groups.

It was not all plain sailing of course. Lively debates engulfed the various Council sessions. As one might expect, not everyone was happy with the drafts that were presented and much editing and reformulating occurred. Some felt that the Council had not gone far enough in what it said, while others lamented that it had gone too far. For a small few, the Council represented a betrayal of the church they knew and loved. In the case of Marcel Lefebvre, reception of the Council’s teachings was simply impossible. Thankfully, not all took the drastic measures that Lefebvre adopted, and for the most part the Council was both welcomed and celebrated.

For many the 1960s represented a high point for the Catholic Church. But the 1960s and 1970s also saw the start of the decline in vocations to religious life, a change in sexual attitudes,and a fall in the daily practice of Catholics. The sexual, physical, and psychological abuse of children which had begun much earlier continued throughout this time and well beyond. Consequently, today we are witnessing a crisis in the Catholic Church, both in Ireland and universally. While some cry out for a Vatican III, others more cautiously call for the proper, more complete implementation of Vatican II. In any case, what this does show is the need to continually engage with the teachings of the Council, critique them and ask to what extent they are still relevant for our church and world today. If we are to be true to the spirit of the Council then we must be sincere in our efforts to understand the riches that Vatican II gave us.

With that in mind, this book commemorates the fiftieth anniversary of the opening of the Second Vatican Council. It explores some of the documents and themes that emerged during those years and considers their continued relevance today. In doing so it is hoped that this book will contribute to an ongoing debate about the life of the church and its place in the world.

In chapter one, Jim Corkery asks to what extent the promise of Vatican II has been realised. Did the achievements of those years become a reality or does the promise of the Council remain largely unfulfilled? Did we expect too much from the Council? Debates have emerged in the years since the Council about the continuity and discontinuity in church teaching. Did Vatican II really change some official teachings, and if so what are the implications? Two schools of thought have emerged, and Corkery looks at this in detail. He is also critical of the way in which the church has become increasingly insular post-Vatican II and although some positive steps have been taken, he argues that much more needs to be done if we are to truly fulfil the promise of the Council. Furthermore, he offers constructive suggestions as to possible ways forward for the Irish church today.

Chapter two examines The Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World, Gaudium et spes. This was one of the major documents to be issued at Vatican II and covers a host of issues such as development, war, human rights, and the dignity of conscience. In this document the Council Fathers offered a more hopeful and positive vision of the church in the world. The previous hundred years or so saw the emergence of a defensive church, highly suspicious of the world around it. It condemned the philosophical ideals of the enlightenment, and saw little of value in secular society. In Gaudium et spes, we find not simply an understanding of the world’s problems but a recognition of the riches that it has to offer. In chapter two, Suzanne Mulligan considers many of the key points dealt with in the Pastoral Constitution and offers some insights as to how they relate to the injustices currently seen in the world.

While Gaudium et spes was largely concerned with the Church ad extra, the Council spent much time examining realities concerned with the church ad intra. Lumen gentium was one such document and it is the focus of chapter three. In this chapter, Gerry O’Hanlon asks to what extent the model of church found in Lumen gentium has been fully realised. Has the promise of collegiality been fulfilled, or has the church become more insular in the decades following the Council? What would a renewed church look like? He speaks of personal as well as structural renewal and explores the idea of a spirituality of change in the latter part of the chapter. O’Hanlon also offers some practical insights as to how such renewal might take place, largely with the Irish church in mind.

This book is intended to be informative and forward-looking. Its primary intention is to present a clear and concise look at key documents and themes. However, it is more than simply looking back at the Council, recalling important debates or explaining certain documents. We are celebrating fifty years since Vatican II first opened, and we certainly look to the many treasures that it offered us. But we also wish to look forward, to evaluate its teaching and consider its relevance for today’s church. In doing so the authors explore the ways in which the Council’s teachings might continue to be a source of hope and inspiration. Like every age, we are called to read the ‘signs of the times’, to better understand and appropriate church teaching into our lives. This, of course, is an ongoing task, one which can only happen through dialogue and collaboration. This book is intended to be a small part of the ongoing conversation that not only celebrates the Second Vatican Council but also looks forward to a renewed church as we try to emerge from this time of crisis.


‘Our Own Hope Had Been.. .'(Lk 24:21):
The Promise of Vatican II – Reality or Illusion?

Jim Corkery SJ

Apparently one of my school-reports as a child testified to the fact that ‘the boy shows promise’. My parents were neither ecstatic nor miserable. Clearly, there was something to be hoped for, nevertheless, it was all in the future! The word ‘promise’, as used of the Second Vatican Council in the title of this chapter, refers to the time (1962-65) when this memorable event in the life of the Catholic Church took place. And in its closing ceremonies, on 8 December 1965, Pope Paul VI, referring to people everywhere looking to the Council and asking it, ‘Have you not a word for us?’ indicated its promise by responding: ‘These pleading voices will not remain unheeded’ (1).

The question this year, as we celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the opening of the Council, must be: has its promise been fulfilled? Did the achievements of those three years and four Council sessions from October 1962 to December 1965 become a reality in the life of the church (and the world) or has the promise of the Council remained unfulfilled — proved to be an illusion? This question is difficult to answer — for different people Vatican II held different promises, as we shall see — and yet we are in a position to begin answering it now because the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965) began fifty years ago and we are at a sufficient distance from it, at this stage, to be able to take stock and to begin to offer something of an initial assessment of how faith and church have fared in the meantime.

A glance back to the Council itself
What Happened at Vatican II, is what US historian John O’Malley tells us in his recent book bearing that same title. However, he is telling us for a reason: and the reason is, more and more, what happened after Vatican II. O’Malley is seeking to recover the best of the Council in the awareness that some of its concerns, and in particular its way of being church, have been lost sight of in the time since the Council. Our first question is, therefore: what happened after Vatican II? From the promise, the excitement, the euphoria even, of the Council itself … what followed in the decades since? This question is important (a) because the church is in crisis today and (b) because nobody is happy with how things have turned out. If we can speak of Catholics of a more liberal-progressive inclination, on the one hand, and of those of a more conservative-traditional disposition, on the other — I am aware that these ‘labels’ have their limitations — it is evident that neither side is happy. So we must ask: what happened after Vatican II to contribute to this dissatisfaction?

Let me take you back to the Council itself and its immediate aftermath. For some, as an event itself of the church, it was extraordinarily promising. For John Wilkins, a twenty-eight year-old Anglican at the time, it was the Council — and the Pope who called it — that made him a Catholic (2).
Wilkins, who was received into the church in 1965 and later spent over twenty years as editor of The Tablet, remembers an event that was ‘revolutionary, because it went to the roots of the faith with radical results'(3).

Following the lead of Pope John XXIII, it adopted a new style — ‘more humble and pastoral’ — and Wilkins and his friends ‘watched as the council rang down the curtain on the disapproving church of the “long nineteenth century” (4).

There was promise galore from this event experienced at the time as ‘what the Catholic Church at its best can do’ (5): the promise of a shift from papal monarchy to a more collegial exercise of authority in the church; the promise of a vibrant Synod of Bishops (as an important expression of this shift); an emphasis on the whole church as the people of God, the community of all the baptised, with its character as hierarchically structured placed after this (6).

Following on from that emphasis, the universal call to holiness — and to the laity to assume responsibility in the church; ecumenical and pastoral promises — these were John XXIII’s catchwords for how the Council was to be — with a vibrant concern for Christian unity and social justice now set to receive energetic endorsement from the post-conciliar church; a sense that the church could learn from, as well as teach, the world (be discens as well as docens), having a positive rather than suspicious relationship with what lay beyond its own confines: democracy; the achievements of culture, science and technology; and the other great religions (7).

I could go on! But that is enough to recall, for most people, the promises that were in the air from the Council — and shared, really, by the majority of its members (as the votes on its texts show). There was a sense that the church had come out of the past, out of the trenches, away from its finger-wagging attitude and was ready and willing to reach out to men and women everywhere in an embrace both generous and large-hearted. If this were not so, and if the expectation from the Council were not that it would s-t-r-e-t-c-h towards all men and women in this way, then how could Pope Paul VI have referred, in that closing address that I quoted, to people everywhere asking: ‘Have you not a word for us?’ Everybody had expectations from the Council. All saw that it was a church event of absolutely epic proportions. No one spoke in muted terms about it. Joseph Ratzinger did not shy away, even before it actually began (he recalls), from speaking about how ‘one could feel the imminence of an event of historic significance’ (8).

Expectations were in the air, no doubt about it, before the Council started, while it was taking place, and following its closure on December 8, 1965.

Expectations and their fate: What actually happened afterwards?
Afterwards was interesting! Some continued to be filled with a sense of possibility; others quickly developed a sense of the promises having to carry too much weight and of too much being expected of them too quickly; a third group thought nothing much would (Archbishop McQuaid) — or should (Archbishop Lefebvre) — happen afterwards (9).

I will not dwell here on these last. The story of the French Archbishop (now deceased) and his St Pius X Society (very much not deceased) is ongoing, as their dialogue with Pope Benedict indicates. Archbishop McQuaid accepted the Council but did not rush to suggest it should revolutionise things. In fact, on alighting from the plane at Dublin Airport after returning from Rome, he reassured his flock that nothing would disturb the tranquillity of their Catholic lives (not having inquired, of course, whether they wished to be disturbed in them or not!).

Of the other two groups, I think it is fair to say that they have ‘hardened’ today into two sets of interpreters who are in dispute concerning what is the best ‘lens’ through which it is appropriate to interpret the Council. For some, it is the lens of discontinuity that is deemed the better. After all, with the Council, it is said, the church really changed and countless new ideas and practices were in evidence in its wake that would have been unthinkable beforehand: vernacular liturgies; lay men and women distributing communion; attendance by Catholics at the weddings and funerals of their non-Catholic Christian friends and neighbours; separation of church and state and a setting-aside of the view that Catholicism should be the established religion of every nation (10).

And all of these are only particulars; there was a revolution in the church’s whole way of being — its how — that went far deeper and that this group of interpreters does not wish to see lost (11).

The other set of interpreters deems continuity the appropriate lens of interpretation, since the faith of the church is always, fundamentally, the same and could not, therefore, admit of any changes that would affect its essential nature. Thus the Council must always be seen in terms of its continuity with the faith of previous generations and with the councils of an earlier age. Any differences, in so far as these are there at all, must surely have to do with expressions of the same faith in circumstances that are no longer the same and that, therefore, will cause the ever-ancient faith to sound new, because it is being articulated in new ways according as changed cultural circumstances require this (12).

How we arrived at this impasse, or stand-off, between these two lines of interpretation (strongly competing today) is worthy of greater reflection here; and this means plunging more deeply now into the immediate aftermath of the Council especially and asking squarely: well, what did happen after Vatican II?

Wearing lenses more attuned to ‘discontinuities’
A theology professor, now in his eighties, recalled for me recently the sense of hope and possibility that pervaded the atmosphere immediately after the Council. ‘We felt,’ he said — and he referred here to another colleague also — ‘as if we were on the threshold of great possibilities for faith and church.’ He saw the church as being in touch with the world again, and in touch also with Christians of other churches (‘we were allowed to call them churches then!’) and aware that the time of the laity had arrived. For him, there followed a career in teaching, writing and editing that did great justice to the ‘signs of the times’ in a spate of publishing that spanned the post-conciliar decades and that was distinguished, greatly, for its emphasis on lay concerns, with the concerns and contributions of women being especially to the fore. However, despite all his effort, commitment and solid work, he felt, today, that we had been robbed – and were being increasingly robbed – of the bright future that was on offer at that time.

Something similar can be said in relation to the encyclical Humanae Vitae, issued by Paul VI in 1968 on a topic that, because of its controversial nature, he had (uncollegially) removed from the Council’s agenda while it was meeting. In the intervening period, the minority, mostly Curial (‘Cardinal Ottaviani and his men’), stung by the many progressive moves made on them by the Council, got to the Pope, aided by the minority report submitted by just a few members of the commission that Paul VI had formed to advise him on birth control and, pressuring him ever more, became ‘victors as early as 1968’ through the publication of the encyclical Humanae Vitae (13).

It was not only that this Papal text – contrary to expectation – outlawed all artificial methods of birth regulation; it was also the manner in which the decision was made: centrally, un-consultatively and un-collegially. The hijacking already during the Council of its impetus towards collegiality by means of the surreptitious forcing onto its agenda, without so much as a vote by its members, of an ‘explanatory note’ tilting the interpretation of what was being said about collegiality in a papalist direction (14) was now bearing its fruit in an exercise of papal authority that was a distant cry from ‘the Pope together with the bishops, the bishops together with and under the Pope’ approach that had been the desire of a majority of the Council Fathers (15).

But some of these last were not daunted – and the spirit of the Council lived on. A year after Humanae Vitae was issued, Time magazine reported on how an attempt by Pope Paul VI, in calling the second Synod of Bishops (1969) in the hope of gauging – and controlling -the growing resentment against his absolute rule,’ witnessed his hopes somewhat dashed by the ‘feistiness’ of the assembled prelates:

Instead, after last week’s discussions in the Vatican’s Hall of Broken Heads reformists out to curb the Pontiff’s power were clearly in command. The 144 assembled prelates, in fact, had taken a groping first step toward something resembling parliamentary government in the Roman Catholic Church (16).

If Time magazine’s writer was reporting correctly, there was still hope for a more collegial, less centralised form of government in the church that was more consistent with the Council’s attempts at greater collegiality, although running counter, in 1969, to moves immediately following it. Such proposals emerged from the bishops as the following: that the pope should consult the bishops before issuing statements like Humanae Vitae; that the Synod of Bishops should meet regularly, deciding its own agenda, rather than meet at the pope’s behest, to deal with his agenda, that in Rome there would be a permanent committee representing the bishops in order to ensure that their views could be more directly put to the Vatican; and that the principle of subsidiarity should be strengthened (17).

To read this list of proposed reforms now is a bittersweet exercise: it shows that the bishops four years after the Council still had energy and hope to push for some of its as yet unfulfilled promises, but, from where we stand today, particularly in the light of the highly-centralised papacies of John Paul II and of Benedict XVI, it shows also that, as the years went by, the uncurbed (and, it seems, uncurbable) Roman Curia beat the reformists in the end (18). None of the reforms pushed for at that time was achieved. John Wilkins remarked in his reflections:

In the aftermath of the council, the government of the Catholic Church has become by degrees not more diverse, but more centralist than ever before. ‘They treat us like altar boys here,’ Cardinal Bernardin, Archbishop of Chicago, said to me years later when I was visiting him at the North American College on the Janiculum Hill near the Vatican during one of the synods of bishops. It is this regression that would give me pause if I were contemplating the Catholic Church today (19).

The remarks of Wilkins are telling because it is fashionable to point out today that Catholic religious orders attract in so far as they are de-secularised and traditional; that people are attracted to Catholicism — many Anglicans, for example — because its teachings remain firm (the ban on the ordination of women, various positions on sexual ethics, the recent translation of the missal into a language that is a step back in time); and that the church of the future will be purer anyway, with vibrant communities of faith replacing lukewarm, amorphous masses not knowing what it is that they hold (20).

Wilkins is not in any of these new cohorts that is said to be attracted to Catholicism. Nor is Olivia O’Leary, the thoughtful Irish journalist whose recent departure from the church saddened many, including herself; but the church’s attitude to women became the final straw (21).

German Catholics, prominent at the time of Pope Benedict’s recent state visit to his own country, are, many of them, teetering on the brink and discouraged by Benedict’s failure to even mention structural change and dialogue — even the constructive dialogue recently set in motion by the Catholic bishops in that country (22).

Other Germans have already left the church because of failures on the part of its leadership with regard to the scandals of clerical child sexual abuse. All of these people, leaving or thinking of leaving, are lessening the church’s numbers, not augmenting them, because of how the church is today. However, they are not bothered about this in the ecclesial circles that one would expect to be more concerned.

So far, I have been writing of promise unfulfilled, although always with examples of efforts to bring about just the very opposite. With its impetus to justice, Gaudium et spes (about which I shall say nothing here because it will be explored in the next chapter by Suzanne Mulligan) found expression in the synod of bishops’ Justice in the World document (1971) and further echo, six years later, in one of the best pastoral letters ever to come from the Irish bishops: The Work of Justice (1977). In 1975, the Society of Jesus, at its thirty-second General Congregation, aligned itself with this evangelical impulse. And all over the world, the reading of the signs of the times (Gaudium et spes, 4), especially where this was done in circumstances of grave poverty and structural injustice, led to new insights and actions based on a Catholic faith that knew itself to be truncated if it ignored that promotion of justice which it had come to discern as being integral to itself. All of this was another positive fruit of the Council, as chapter two of this book will show, but we know of a darker side to this story also: the Vatican’s (John Paul’s and the CDF’s) pursuit of liberation theology and its theologians in a manner that many remember, still today, to have been unnecessarily harsh and un-dialogical (23).

The years of which I have been speaking dealt mainly with the first two decades following the Council, and predominantly with the earlier years. It is evident that there were many initiatives that sought to further some of the more imaginative and novel impulses of the Council, but that these increasingly ran aground over time, not least, I would say, following the election of Pope John Paul II on 16 October 1978 and the taking over, in February 1982, by Munich Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, of the Prefectship of the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. These two, working in tandem until John Paul’s death in 2005, with the Cardinal Ratzinger becoming Pope after that, did much to re-interpret the Council almost entirely along the lines of continuity, denying any ‘rupture’ between the pre- and post-conciliar years, seeing to it that appointed bishops would be those who held this view too, re-setting theological course not least through fourteen encyclicals of the John Paul II papacy (on which there is evidence that they both cooperated) and re-centralising the church in Rome (aided by jet air travel and electronic media) to a degree that would have brought shouts of joy from nineteenth-century Ultramontanists (24).

Just as the Ratzinger-John Paul II era swung into gear, Karl Rahner, aged seventy-five, published an article entitled ‘Towards a Fundamental Theological Interpretation of Vatican ll” (25). That year, on 8 April, Rahner had delivered an address at the Weston Jesuit School of Theology in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and his words marked – without he, or indeed anyone, really being fully aware of it – the beginning of the end of an era in which his type of understanding of the Second Vatican Council prevailed (and which, by the mid-1980s, was certainly being eclipsed) (26).

Rahner spoke of Vatican II as marking the beginning of the church’s tentative realisation of itself as a world-church and, speaking at Weston in the light of this viewpoint, suggested that the importance of the Council came from the fact that it proclaimed ‘a transition from the western church to the world-church similar in character to the transition which occurred for the first and only time when the church ceased to be the church of the Jews and became the church of the Gentiles’ (27).

Note the word ‘transition’. It suggests a change, discontinuity, some kind of rupture – but by no means a negative thing. Like that first transition to which Rahner refers, it was life for the church, it was incarnation in a new ‘place’, it was mission going well; and Rahner saw hope that, under Providence and the guidance of the Holy Spirit, God was giving such increase again. Optimistic, yes? Credible for faith? Well, I shall let the reader be the judge of that!

Wearing lenses more attuned to ‘continuities’
I have spoken about promises thwarted, while showing that there remained impulses and energy in the direction of furthering them. But there was increasing energy in another direction also and a ‘take’ on Vatican II, discernible already in the Council’s immediate aftermath, that gathered strength over the years and, certainly by the mid-1980s, began to take control of the landscape of interpretation. I shall say a little about this in what follows.

Already when the Council minority, favourably received by Paul VI, ‘who believed too much in the papacy,'(28) managed to manoeuvre on to the floor of the Council the nota explicative praevia that tilted the interpretation of the notion of collegiality in a ‘primatialist’ direction, forces were clearly in action that opposed a broadening of the collegial impulse of which the majority of Council Fathers were in favour. And while Joseph Ratzinger was critical of what had happened, he fell short of a negative assessment of the note itself. Writing a year later, he said:

Therefore, it must be said that the bitter taste of this note was not really so much in its content (though that was not too balanced either), but rather in the circumstances under which it appeared (29).

This is an odd statement! If the content of the note ‘was not too balanced either’, then why did the bitter taste not extend to it also – unless, perhaps, the writer of these words found that he had a certain sympathy for its ‘primatialist’ tendencies himself. When it comes to authority in the church – papal and curial authority especially – Ratzinger’s tendency is not to buck it, even when he is known to have misgivings. In the fourth session of the Council, when the proposed new synod of bishops was discussed and the pope’s motu proprio giving legal form to it was read out, it was not (Ratzinger reports) received with enthusiasm because it subordinated the synod entirely to the Pope’s authority, giving him alone the power to convene it and also to determine where it would meet. The point was made at the session that there was a profound difference between how the Council conceived the synod and how the pope set it up. The Council (in its Decree on the Pastoral Office of Bishops in the Church) had seen it as essentially coming ‘from below’ but, in the papal motu proprio, it was envisaged as coming essentially ‘from above’. Joseph Ratzinger, writing just one year after the Council, opined (of this difference) that it ‘is only relative, and it logically follows from the different points of departure of the two documents’ (30).

This remark misses – or refuses to acknowledge – the gravity of what had been done: the synod had been emptied of any real substance of its own and turned into a papal tool. Nevertheless, Ratzinger went on in his musings to highlight its positive aspects. I quote just one remark that he made about it:

Whether it makes its first appearance under the aegis of collegiality or as an aid to the primatial office will be of very little importance. The primatial office will in any case take on a new aspect, if the pope’s brother-bishops are included in his own ministry. Thus, even if anonymously, collegiality will become part of the picture of the primacy (31).

When I argue that, from the beginning in the aftermath of the Council, there were impulses towards muting – even suppressing – its promise, evidence for this will surely be all the more credible if we see that, even at the Council itself, such impulses were present and effective. People speak of Fr Ratzinger as becoming cautious during the student riots of 1968, or only when he became bishop in 1977, but one sees it already here in 1966. In the same year, at the Katholikentag that took place in Bamberg, Ratzinger gave a talk, ‘Catholicism after the Council,’ in which he made it clear that he was not happy with how things were progressing after the Council. He spoke of liturgy, of the church’s relationship to the world, and of ecumenism, finding that expectations with regard to all of these were riding too high in the wake of Council euphoria and amid the reality of a return to ‘humdrum’ existence (32).

He made the point that things would not, could not, move as quickly as people might expect – in any of the three areas that he had mentioned – and he had a word of caution both for those who thought the Council had done too little and for those who thought it had delivered the church up ‘to the evil spirit of our time’ (33).

Here was Ratzinger’s (Augustinian?) penchant for’opposites’, but were there in fact many groups of either ‘extreme’ present at the time? He spoke of the prevalence of ‘a certain air of dissatisfaction, an atmosphere of depression and even of disappointment, such as often follows on festive moments of great joy and exaltation and, as the talk progresses, one is conscious that this dark mood might have been his own, just as a similar mood would be evident twenty years later in his publication of the famous Ratzinger Report. In the talk, the great reformer, Saint Teresa of Avila, is extolled for rejecting aggiornamento and creating ‘a reform which had nothing of concession in it’ and one wonders where that leaves him with regard to Pope John XXIII’s emphasis on aggiornamento before and during the Council. In all this, it is evident that there was no post-conciliar euphoria in Joseph Ratzinger — quite the opposite — and that a hermeneutic of ‘discontinuity’ was not to the fore in his thinking either. He was worried already about discontinuity — too much desire for it, too much concession to it!

So you can see (although I have only mentioned a few things): there were eyes on the Council in the years after it, that saw developments as excessive and felt that the baby was being thrown out with the bathwater. This even led to a split among theologians, one group eventually founding a theological journal that they claimed was in the authentic line of Vatican II because they viewed another group’s journal as going beyond the Council — stretching its (nebulous) ‘spirit’ — to set the wheels in motion for Vatican III (34).

Readers will have noticed my mention already of how the US Jesuit, John O’Malley, has been working hard to recall the decisions and the atmosphere of Vatican II — and to highlight its new way of being church vis a vis the centuries (since Trent) that preceded it. They will know too that he is doing this recalling because he believes the Council is being forgotten, and with a certain deliberateness. But many think differently. Consider these words from another North American, Richard John Neuhaus, a former Lutheran pastor turned Catholic priest, and an unflagging admirer of John Paul II and Ratzinger, when reviewing O’Malley’s book:

The confusions in the aftermath of Vatican II are beyond denying. O’Malley says he wants to treat the ‘before and after’ of the council, but in fact he limits himself to the before and at the Council. Slight attention is paid to the consequences of the changes that he celebrates. Theologians openly dissented from church teaching and did so with impunity, indeed often being rewarded by the guild of academic theology for their putative courage. Tens of thousands of priests abandoned their ministries, convents were emptied as sisters embraced the vaunted freedoms of the secular world, Gregorian chant was replaced by Kumbaya, the number of seminarians preparing for priesthood plummeted, and not a few of the priests who remained decided on their own that celibacy is optional.

Not incidentally, a majority of Catholics stopped going to Mass every week and decided, or were given to understand by progressive priests, that moral truths taught from the beginning are, at most, advisory in nature. What happened after the council, if not because of the council, is a familiar and mainly depressing story, perhaps too familiar and too depressing in its telling. One wishes Fr O’Malley had addressed the after in ‘before and after’, since there were also constructive changes usually ignored in conservative accounts (35).

Neuhaus does not quite say ‘after the Council, because of the Council,’ but he does raise the possibility. And he does say that John O’Malley’s book ‘has about it the feel of a last-ditch effort to defend the story line of the post-Vatican II church vs the pre-Vatican II church that was popularised by Xavier Rynne all those many years ago’ (36).

So Neuhaus, writing in 2008 (just a year before his death) not only reveals his disagreement with the O’Malley/Rynne line (as he likes to think of it), but shows also that he believes that the two interpretation-trajectories, manifestly in evidence today, have in fact been around since the Council itself and make all the difference.

What is at stake with these two trajectories of interpretation?
The dispute about continuity and discontinuity is not academic; it pertains, rather, to questions about how the church — the believing people of God — is to be shaped today for tomorrow — to be shaped, indeed, in what have now become, in Ireland, circumstances of the greatest difficulty. In all this, the interpreters of the Council have become somewhat more subtle and nuanced (37).

To understand completely what they are at, it is necessary to recall a specific event that occurred twenty years after the Council, just around the time I left off my earlier account. This event was the Extraordinary Synod of Bishops that Pope John Paul II had called in 1985 in order to reflect on the fruits of the two decades following the Council. Father (later Cardinal) Avery Dulles, writing on this Synod some years later, spoke of those attending as, broadly speaking, making up two groups: one that thought the changes wrought after Vatican II had gone too far and had brought the church, in many respects, into discontinuity with its previous tradition, and another that held that the Council had not yet been adequately implemented, with the result that the promise of the Council remained, in large measure, still to be realised — which meant that the church was now actually out of continuity with its most recent tradition.

Avery Dulles classified the two groups according to how they tended to envision the church’s relationship with the world. Thus the Council’s unique and controversial document, Gaudium et spes (The Church in the Modern World), came to serve, to some extent, as that text, attitudes to which were decisive for determining whether a person was to be classified as belonging in one group of interpreters or in the other. Dulles spoke of the group that had grown sceptical of a rapprochement between the church and the world — thus distancing themselves (at least implicitly) from Gaudium et spes — as ‘neo-Augustinians’, while those who favoured and still had hopes for a collaboration between the church and the world he referred to as ‘humanistic and communitarian’ (38). To the former he went on to ascribe ‘sacralism’ and to the latter ‘secular optimism’ (39).

Dulles was both perceptive and courageous in highlighting the orientations represented by the two kinds of prelate attending the Extraordinary Synod; nor did he fail to recognise that not everyone ‘could be neatly fitted into one or the other of these two orientations’ (40).

Reflecting on each group’s attitude to Gaudium et spes seems to me a fruitful trajectory for understanding their particular concerns. The neo-Augustinians, while not unhappy to accept it as a document of the Council, were convinced nonetheless that, in the years following that event, it had been interpreted far too much in a way that fostered, indeed encouraged, very serious discontinuities with the tradition that had preceded it; and so their emphasis fell on a hermeneutic of continuity. The communitarians continued to rejoice in Gaudium et spes, with its desire to keep the church in contact and in relationship with the world, and were convinced that the post-Vatican II developments were consistent with it, but had not gone far enough. Their recognition that there had been born, in the meantime, restorationist impulses to return behind the document led them to emphasise that it had committed the church to something new, in continuity with Pope John XXIII and in discontinuity with the anti-world stance that had preceded his pontificate, and that was emerging again. It was necessary therefore, in interpreting the Council, not to lose sight of its newness — indeed even its discontinuities — with the mentality that had preceded it.



1. Cited in Richard R. Gaillardetz and Catherine E. Clifford, Keys to the Council: Unlocking the Teaching of Vatican II(Collegeville, Minnesota: Liturgical Press, 2012), 90.

1. Walter M. Abbott, SJ, General Editor, The Documents of Vatican II (London: Geoffrey Chapman, 1966), 728 (see Appendix: Closing Messages of the Council, paragraph headed, ‘Pope Paul to the Council Fathers’, 728-9)>
2. John Wilkins, ‘The Second Vatican Council: 50 Years of revolution,’ in The Tablet (31 December 2011), 8.
3. Ibid. 8.
4. Ibid. On the Council’s new style, see also John W. O’Malley, What happened at Vatican II (Cambridge, MA and LOndon, England: The Belknap Press of Harvard University University Press, 2008), 11-12 43-52 and 305-8 especially. Se O’Malley’s Lecture at the Weston Jesuit School of Theology, ‘The Relevance of Vatican II’ (Office of communications, Weston School of Theology, 2003),.
5. Ibid. 16.
6. Ibid. 8 and 10 (for these ‘promises’).
7. On the point of mutuality, of the Church not only instructing but also learning from the world, see Jim Corkery SJ, ‘Irish Catholicism: what must we do? (Acts 2:37)’ in Studies 100:398 (Summer 2011), 193-205, at 197-8.
8. Joseph Ratzinger, Theological Highlights of Vatican II (New York,, Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 2009, originally 1966), 20.
9. These three groups are similar to, but not exactly identical with, O’Malley’s three mentioned groups of interpreters of Vatican II: the first see it as making a significant break with the past, at least in that it envisaged a new way of being Church. The second emphasise its continuity with the past and, while admitting its having been a moment of celebration par excellence, prefer to think in terms of business-as-usual now. The third think the Council was an aberration (See O’Malley, ‘The Relevance of Vatican II,’ 3-4).
10. See John W. O’Malley, ‘The Relevance of Vatican II,’ 4.
11. Ibid.
12. Here I echo (in simplified form) Pope Benedict’s 2005 Christmas Address to the Roman Curia, last accessed at www.vatican.va
13. See Hans Küng, My Struggle for Freedom: Memoirs (London and New York: Continuum, 2003), 440. On the influence of Krakow’s Cardinal Karol Wojtvla on the birth control commission, see the second volume of Küng’s memoirs, Disputed Truth (London and New York: Continuum,
2008), 53.
14. See John Wilkins’s trenchant account of this in ‘The Second Vatican Council: 50 years of revolution’, 10, and Joseph Ratzinger’s far-too-sanguine account of the same in his Theological Highlights of Vatican II, 172.
15. See J. Wilkins, ‘The Second Vatican Council: 50 years of revolution,’ 10.
16. Time (31 October 1969), 50.
17. Ibid.
18. See James Corkery, ‘John Paul II: Universal Pastor in a Global Age,’ in The Papacy Since 1500: From Italian Prince to Universal Pastor. Edited by James Corkery and Thomas Worcester (Cambridge, UK and New York, USA: Cambridge University Press, 2010), 223-42, at 231, 235, 239 and 241 especially.
19. J. Wilkins, ‘The Second Vatican Council: 50 years of revolution,’ 16.
20. On Ratzinger/Benedict’s penchant for a sparer, essentials-of-the-faith, ‘pure ideal’ approach, see David Gibson, The Rule of Benedict: Pope Benedict XVI and His Battle with the Modern World (USA: HarperSanFrancisco, 2006), 216.
21. O’Leary gives, as her central reason, the Church’s non-acceptance of women’s equality with men as this is made manifest in women’s exclusion from ordination. See ‘Top broadcaster reveals why she quit Church’ in The Tablet (31 December 2011), 37.
22. See Pope Benedict’s address to Catholics in Freiburg (www.thetablet.co.uk/page/germany-Catholics-active-society, last accessed on 3 November 2011). There is a tradition of constructively-critical reflection and attempts at dialogue with Rome on the part of the German bishops that it would be fruitful to follow up here, but that would, in fact, require an article of its own (there is always more to be done!).
23. See James Corkery SJ, Joseph Ratzinger’s Theological Ideas: Wise Cautions and Legitimate Hopes (Dublin: Dominican Publications and New York/Mahwah NJ: Paulist Press, 2009), 74-80. See also Corkery’s article, ‘Joseph Ratzinger on Liberation Theology: What Did He Say? Why Did He Say It? What Can Be Said About It?’ in Liberation Theology: Movement or Moment?, edited by Patrick Claffey and Joe Egan (Bern: Peter Lang, 2009), 183-202.
24. See James Corkery SJ, ‘John Paul II: Universal Pastor in a Global Age,’ 239-40.
25. ‘Towards a Fundamental Theological Interpretation of Vatican II,’ in Theological Studies 40 (1979), 716-28.
26. See Tracey Rowland, Ratzinger’s Faith: The Theology of Pope Benedict XV1 (UK: Oxford University Press, 2008), 31.
27. Robert Manning, SJ. ‘President’s Letter’ in: John W. O’Malley, ‘The Relevance of Vatican II,’ 1, reporting on Rahner’s 1979 visit to the Weston Jesuit School of Theology.
28. J. Wilkins, ‘The Second Vatican Council: 50 years of revolution,’ 10.
29. Joseph Ratzinger, Theological Highlights of Vatican II, 172.
30. Ibid, 203 (for all this, see 202-4).
31. Ibid. 204.
32. See Joseph Ratzinger, ‘Catholicism after the Council,’ in The Furrow (1967): 3-23, at 4.
33. Ibid. 5.
34. The reference here is to the journals Communio and Concilium, both of which still flourish today, each with its own distinctive style (and cache of writers) reflecting, still, the respective journals’ stories of origin.
35. Richard John Neuhaus, ‘What Really Happened at Vatican II?, Joint review of O’Malley’s What Happened at Vatican II and of Matthew Lamb and Matthew Levering’s Vatican II: Renewal Within Tradition in: First Things, (October 2008), 3.
36. R. J. Neuhaus, ‘What Really Happened at Vatican ll?’, 7.
37. Those who formerly stressed discontinuity are now saving that, while there are evident discontinuities between the pre-Vatican II and post-Vatican II Church, they are of course aware – they are not fools! – that no council fails to stand in substantial continuity with its predecessors. Those who formerly stressed continuity have nuanced their tune also, allowing that there were of course changes, discontinuities, but that these occurred to ensure that, at a more fundamental level, an ever-greater continuity remained. It is accurate to say now, I think, that the first group simply asks that discontinuity be just one lens through which the Council be interpreted, and that the second group speaks of a lens (or hermeneutic) of reform that allows for discontinuities on the level of history but insists on fundamental continuity on the level of principles. It will not surprise anyone to know that membership of the first group consists, in the main, of historians and theologians, while those in the second group are mostly prelates.
38. See ‘The Extraordinary Synod of 1985’ in Avery Dulles, The Reshaping of Catholicism: Current Challenges in the Theology of Church (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1988), 184-206, at 191-2.
39. Ibid. 193.
40. Ibid. 192.

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