What do you think has happened to the spirit of Vatican II? Depending on your personal view of the value of the Council, most assessments appear to either lament the rolling back of the reforms by the revisionist JP II and Benedict XVI; or to rejoice in the return to the authentic tradition before that prevailed before the supposed errors of the reformists. Ted Schmidt, editor of the Canadian “New Catholic Times sensus fidelium” has a much more encouraging view.
The Canadian church is still recovering from the shock of Bishop Leahy, who resigned suddenly after being charged with possession of child pornography. It was in the light of this scandal that Schmidt conducted a series of interviews with Canadian bishops, then shared his reflections on what these said about the state of the Canadian Catholic Church. His observations, though, are applicable to the whole church, not just to Canada. I share here some extracts – the full article is available at New Catholic Times sensus fidelium
Knowing many of these fine men I say without fear of contradiction that presently they seem to have missed a fundamental truth of modern ecclesiology, the teaching on the sensus fidelium, that the Spirit is given to the entire church and not an ordained rump of clerical celibates. They are so fixated on the idea that they are “the teachers” that they have forgotten that they must first be the listeners and learners.
That sounds familiar, but it is what follows that is important:
What these men have not grasped is that even though we are on the mere cusp of the Spirit implosion of the Second Vatican Council, the powerful reverberations of that holy moment in time, dubbed “the greatest grace of the century” by Vatican ll bishops, has changed the church forever.
Maybe the greatest change has been the extraordinary empowerment of the laity, before Vatican ll an inert, theologically backward, scripturally ignorant mass of believers who took their every cue from their shepherds, the better educated bishops and clergy. In the 60s prodded by the empowering shock waves of Lumen Gentium and Gaudium et Spes, the formerly docile sheep slowly began to stand initially on two feet, By the end of the 70s, we stood on four feet, almost awake and clear-eyed as to our co-dependent status in a church which now defined itself as equal members of the People of God and adult members of the priesthood of all believers. It has taken decades for this to sink in: the Catholic Church is not the papacy, the bishop is not the church and the priest is not the pope in his parish.
I don’t think we fully realise quite how far this is true. Even where we lament the activism of the Catholic right-wing, seeking to overturn the reforms, we should realise and celebrate the simple fact that in their very activism, they are in fact embodying the empowerment of the laity. If they truly reflected the old style church, they would simply accept the reforms as having come from above – just as the protesters outside our Soho Masses would have meekly accepted these Masses because they were initiated by the Cardinal, with Vatican knowledge and implied approval.
Theologates in the 70s exploded with lay students. At the same time, some of the most adventurous and forward thinking priests left the ordained ministry and a new pope arrived with little respect for the changes of Vatican ll, in particular for its great democratizing principles inherent in the sacrament of baptism. He was a Holy Orders man and he personally set out to reverse the growing lay influence. ……….
John Paul ll filled the episcopacy with Johnny One Notes, conservative carbon copies whose sole job was to enforce the monochromatic line which emanated from the Vatican.It has proved to be a disaster. It would be these unimaginative men who would preside over the greatest scandal of the post-Reformation church: the pedophilia crisis and the cover up bishops’ crisis of the early 2000’s.
But you can’t put the toothpaste back in the tube, no matter how hard you try. Lay students were not only studying theology, but also began teaching it. (yesterday, I noted John Maguire’s observations on the importance of the emerging woman theologians). Although Schmidt does not say so, I also think it is important to note that many of those who left the priesthood, voluntarily or otherwise, did not simply abandon ministry or theology. Many continued to serve, and to write or teach, without the possibility of official censorship. Their voices too are increasingly influential. No matter how much the Vatican would like to silence the thinkers outside the active priesthood, they simply lack the power to do so.
In Canada I know of no diocese which has sponsored any type of serious renewal which has taken into consideration the explosion of lay theological literacy, which has understood that the voice of women and the place of women flagged by Pope John XXlll in 1963 was an authentic “sign of the times”, new wisdom inbreaking in history. Other “signs” such as the voice of the earth and deeper understandings of human sexuality also needed to be integrated within a church which had described itself as “semper reformanda”, (always in a process of renewal).
Privately many of these bishops are deeply embarrassed by the misogyny of the present church but in my judgment they are caught between loyalty to Roman benefactors and a truth so obvious as to be beyond discusssion. Any bishop who deviates from the backward Roman line here will be dismissed immediately. And so the silence, the circling of the wagons and the fear of consulting the laity.
This abnormal fear of listening to lay experience has resulted in what one theologian calls “creeping infallibilism,” reserving teaching simply to the Petrine office because one fears the result of deep listening. Pope Paul VI was shattered by the non-acceptance of the birth control encyclical Humanae Vitae (1968) and then confused by the lukewarm support of bishops’ conferences that he never wrote another encyclical. In response, John Paul II traveled the world sucking oxygen from local dioceses and demanding that national conferences only speak with one unambiguous voice, his and those he appointed. The real experts in area of sexuality, the laity were never consulted. As Fr. Richard McBrien, the former chair of Notre Dame’s theology department has said has said,”These men listen to a constituency of one—Rome.”
Fundamentalism has many disfigured faces in our suffering world today. Sadly within the oldest Christian communion of all, the Roman Catholic Church, it persists in an almost adamantine feudal fashion, to deny that the Holy Spirit moves through all and all must be consulted. There are church mechanisms in place to enter into this necessary conversation but frightened bishops as of now, refuse to use them. Maybe because they are terrified of what they might hear.
I suspect that Schmidt is right, that we are witnessing is indeed a circling of the wagons in a last ditch attempt to shore up clerical power, while the Holy Spirit meanwhile is renewing the face of the Church. You cannot exercise the power that you no longer possess, a monopoly of theological knowedge. In the modern world, theological literacy is accessible to an increasing number of people, by an increasing number of means – of which the internet is becoming an important part. We no longer need to accept the pronouncements from on high as necessarily true, but have the means to contest and debate them – and to either agree, or to show up the flaws in the arguments. We have not just the opportunity, not just the right, but an obligation to do so.