At a Crossroads: Irish Catholicism Fifty Years after Vatican II
It is a great blessing, on this 50th anniversary, to recall the gift of the Holy Spirit given to the Catholic Church, all Christians and the world, by the Second Vatican Council. The Council reaffirmed the good news that the Church was called to be the ‘light of the world’, to reveal the love of God for all human kind and to share all human hopes and fears. The mood was hopeful and even joyous.
In the years after the Council real change did occur, in Ireland and world-wide. One thinks, for example, of liturgy in the vernacular, the heightened visibility of the role of the non-ordained in the church, the increasing ease and warmth of ecumenical relations. And yet the prevailing mood now is rather a sense of disappointment, of hopes unfulfilled. The retired Bishop of Clogher, Joseph Duffy, expressed it succinctly in saying that his big regret was that our Church ‘has not embraced the great reform that was brought about by Vatican II’.
The cost of this failure of nerve, this loss of faith even, has been enormous. The scandal of clerical child sexual abuse – due, in part at least, to the lack of ‘a vigorous immune system’ within our church, because of its excessively hierarchical and centralized organization and culture- has revealed wider and deeper fault lines. We have a teaching authority that is increasingly ignored on important existential issues, a laity that feels disempowered, an anachronistic attitude to women, a lack of effective collegiality and communio that contradicts the Church’s own professed position, and a silencing of so-called dissident voices. We speak of the ‘Year of Faith’, of the ‘New Evangelisation’, but we are in poor shape to take up the real challenges offered by secularisation. Cardinal Martini put is well in the interview he gave shortly before his death: ‘The Church is tired in affluent Europe and America. Our culture has grown old, our Churches are big, our religious houses are empty, the bureaucracy of our Churches grows out of proportion, our liturgies and our vestments are pompous…the church is 200 years behind the times’.
There is, then, a lot of gloom and discontent about. Archbishop Diarmuid Martin has repeatedly drawn attention to the scale of the crisis facing us here in Ireland, and, in reference to Dublin in particular, has said that he believes that the period up to 2020 ‘will be the most challenging years that the diocese has had to face since Catholic Emancipation’. He believes that there is a real danger that the Irish Church will survive only as a ‘culturally irrelevant minority’.
We are, then, at a crossroads – not just in Ireland, but more universally. There is a sense of mutual bewilderment, an impasse, and what little dialogue that occurs often seems like a dialogue of the deaf. I want to offer some reflections which may help to point to a way forward.
A la carte Catholicism? – the question of truth
One of the great stumbling blocks along the way is mutual incomprehension about questions of truth and Church teaching. When some Catholics question official Church teaching on various issues, others ask why can they not simply obey, or, if that’s not possible, why don’t they simply join another Christian community more congenial to their beliefs? Both sides, we may assume, are sincere. How may we live together in the one church, or must one side simply cede to the other?
It may be a help to recall that theologically questions of truth and teaching are understood within a differentiated and sophisticated framework that challenges any simplistic account. As Vatican II taught, there is a hierarchy of truths (UR 11), so that some (for example, the resurrection) are more foundational to our faith than others (for example, the existence and role of angels). This objective hierarchy of truths was reinforced in the theology of Karl Rahner by the notion of a subjective or ‘existential’ hierarchy, according to which the faithful might choose to exercise a legitimate non-emphasis, ‘a failing to notice’ at least for a time, with respect to certain less fundamental truths which they experience as burdensome and cannot for the moment accept with integrity.
There are also degrees of certainty with which truths are proposed for our acceptance. Formerly this was treated under the rubric of ‘theological notes’, by which a particular grade was assigned to each truth – for example, at the top end, ‘defined faith’, then towards the middle ‘Catholic doctrine’, and towards the end of the scale, the delightfully entitled ‘scandalous to pious ears’ (piis auribus offensivus). The latter points to a further refinement necessary in modern times – in the past it was possible to imagine that theologians could have a certain freedom to speculate on contentious Church teaching in the privacy of academic journals and conferences. Now, however, with the global communications revolution, there is a democratization of information which quickly allows specialized knowledge to become accessible to all.
In addition, theology notes the importance of ‘reception’ for the recognition and acceptance of authentic truth – in other words there is a ‘sense of the faithful’ which shares in the charism of ecclesial infallibility (LG, 12) so that there is theological weight to be given to the conscientious response of good Catholic faithful to the truths proposed to them. This ‘sense of the faithful’ ought, of course, also be a source or reference point of authentic truth.
If one adds to this already considerable list the need to be faithful to Scripture, to the received tradition, to be consistent with basic human rights and the natural law, then one begins to understand why truth may not lightly be reduced to some simple ‘command and obey’ model. This is reinforced by the need to balance the authoritative Magisterium of the college of bishops, with the pope at their head, with the mission of theologians also to teach, so that the former must listen carefully not just to the ‘sense of the faithful’ but also to the voices of theology.
Part of our problem today is that the Papal and Episcopal Magisterium has become inflated to such a degree that in the popular mind all Episcopal, and especially papal and Vatican utterances, become identified in a undifferentiated way with ‘church teaching’ to be accepted without question. Yves Congar spoke of the dangers of ‘creeping infallibility’ and of the ‘incredible inflation’ of the papal teaching office.
The Magisterium itself must share some of the blame for this development. As Karl Rahner pointed out some time ago , they have done little to qualify or limit the expectations of the faithful in proposing Church teaching. But there is a deeper issue. This is the reality that we – both leaders and faithful- expect too much certainty from Church teaching and then must tie ourselves in knots trying to explain how the church can sometimes get it wrong, or risk losing all respect for the notion that authentic teaching is a charism promised by the Spirit to the Church. So, for example, with the Declaration on Religious Freedom of Vatican II, strong papal and ecclesial positions about error having no rights, about the desirability of a confessional State and the evils of Church-State separation, were put aside. This was part of what Joseph Ratzinger referred to as the ‘counter-syllabus’ of Vatican II, correcting the imbalances found in the Syllabus of Errors of Pius IX (1864) as well as the more general Catholic overreaction to Modernism. As Benedict XVI Joseph Ratzinger would go on to explain this kind of significant shift in teaching in terms of a ‘continuity of principles’, with a real discontinuity in terms of concrete historical situations and their requirements. The distinction remains moot – campaigners for religious freedom in the 19th century were in no doubt that they were being opposed on grounds of principle.
A different approach is the one adopted by the German Bishops in a 1967 Letter where they pointed out that it is a fact that there has been error in non-defined magisterial teaching. Hence, it would be intolerable if on all contemporary issues they were expected to speak out with absolute certitude, and if the only alternatives were to speak authoritatively in an absolute way or to keep silence. They argued that this would interfere with their duty to give guidance on topical issues, and so they made clear that on contemporary issues they aim to speak authoritatively but with a certain provisionality.
Over time issues mature and reach definitive status – witness our development in sensibility about the morality of slavery, witness the almost universal acceptance by Catholics of the Creed and defined teaching. In the meantime we must rest content with a wisdom which is open to correction, and is helped towards maturity by public debate and discussion. Historian and cultural commentator Michael Lacy puts this well – we are part of a culture now which values freedom highly and will not accept truths solely on the say-so of authorities, but which expects persuasive evidence of appropriate consultation and respect individual conscience. This of course is due not least to the chastening experience of Europeans in the 20th century of the dangers of blind obedience. In this context, Lacy argues, it is better to speak of ‘selective Catholicism’ than the more pejorative ‘a la carte Catholicism’.
It would help, then, if the papal Magisterium showed itself to be more explicitly attentive to these differentiations in its utterances, and showed more evidence of encouragement of and attention to the input of other actors. One thinks, for example, of a more constructively critical input from Bishops and their Conferences, so that one could speak with more confidence about the trustworthiness of the ‘ordinary Magisterium’ and the ‘universal ordinary Magisterium’, knowing that local bishops were making more than a simply deferential contribution. And one thinks above all of the structured input of the faithful, through the likes of regular synods, so that there is a real and transparent valuing of the ‘sense of the faithful’.
There is a loss of credibility when too much is taken on by the centre so that the experience of the periphery is not recognized. This over-stretching is counter-productive, leading to the ‘anti-Roman affect’ that von Balthasar decried. And the situation is not helped by relying solely on the observation that people don’t understand, it must be explained better to them – might it not also be the case that non-reception should give pause for thought, for re-examination, as it did, according to Newman, in the Arian debates of the 4th century, when the laity were on the correct side of the argument against many of their bishops? In this context the words of Joseph Ratzinger are apt: ‘Criticism of Papal pronouncements will be possible and even necessary, to the degree that they lack support in the Scripture and the Creed, that is, in the faith of the whole Church. When neither consensus of the whole Church is had, nor clear evidence from the sources is available, a definitive decision is not possible. Were one formally to take place, while conditions for such were lacking, the question would have to be raised concerning its legitimacy’. I think as well of the wise saying at Vatican II of the Melkite Patriarch Maximos Saigh: ‘Repressed truth turns poisonous’.
The search for truth and meaning is intrinsically human, and the gift of authoritative magisterial teaching is a blessing bestowed on the Church. But it runs the risk of a kind of false absolutization if it is understood too simplistically. It is not the case that the Pope, for example, has a kind of ‘direct line’ to God that may dispense with the ordinary human and revealed means to attain truth – that close listening to human experience, that clear position of being a servant to God’s word. The Church must learn as well as teach, and its teaching comes from learning. Obedience, then, is not mindless, even while dissent should not be reckless or wilful. Catholics have far more in common with each other – and indeed with other Christians- than what divides them, and the old Patristic maxim, loosely translated, is apt: In things that are defined, unity; in things that are still open, freedom; and in everything, love (In necessariis, unitas; in dubiis, libertas; et in omnibus caritas).
Unity or anarchy? – Church governance
A second major stumbling block on the path ahead concerns genuine fears about the risk of fragmentation, of a ‘split’. Clearly there are historical precedents which ground the serious and objective natures of such fears. If Episcopal and especially papal authority is challenged, is there not a danger of a breakdown in Catholic unity? This fear has been voiced explicitly by some who reject the reforming approach of groups like the Association of Catholic Priests (ACP) in Ireland, and may be part of the thinking of many others, who nonetheless are sympathetic to the thrust for renewal espoused by the ACP. People ask does the ACP realise the risk it runs? What future does its approach offer to a Church whose leaders are not disposed to listen to its proposals or even – as was revealed in late October 2012 – to engage in dialogue with its members?
Let’s start with the nature of Church governance. The Church wants to be considered as a communion, it states that it is structured collegially, and yet when viewed from the outside and, to all intents and purposes, as experienced from the inside, it comes across more like a monarchy, perhaps the most powerful monarchy in the world. And so, while it is said that the college of bishops, together with the pope at its head, is the supreme governor and teacher in the Church, with appropriate collegial inputs from clergy, religious and laity, still it is also said that the pope on his own has universal teaching and jurisdictional authority. And it is this latter reality – aided by the Vatican Curia – which is the operative one in our Church.
Theologically and canonically what we have here is a Church that, as our former President and now theologian and canonist Mary McAleese has maintained, ‘…is in effect, arguably, constitutionally incoherent’. McAleese goes on to point out that there is a wealth of suggestions from canonists, theologians and others about possible more collegial models of governments, in a context where ‘…today’s increasingly secular structures make solitary centralised authorities look like an ebb tide’. In particular there is the considerable ecumenical debate generated by the invitation of Pope John-Paul II in 1995 for help in re-envisaging the papacy so that it might better function as a service of unity to the universal church.
The notion of learning from others, in particular from ‘the world’, is taken up by Jesuit political scientist Thomas Reese. He notes how much the present Vatican structure is based on the secular political field of Roman and later imperial and monarchical times, and says that ‘to make the church more collegial, the Vatican should once again adopt practices of the secular political world’. The tired old objection that ‘the church is not a democracy’ fails to take account of Reese’s argument that the Church has always learned from secular reality, not to mention that there are many democratic elements present in the Church from the very start (the presence of the Holy Spirit in all believers, the notion of leadership as service, the taking of decisions in collegial fashion), as times progressed (the election of bishops in the first millennium) and in the very teachings of the Second Vatican Council (the church as the People of God, with all the baptized sharing in the priestly, prophetic and royal or governing roles of Christ, the centrality of the ‘sense of the faithful’). Reese notes that ‘the contemporary papacy rules the church with powers that would be the envy of any absolute monarch: the pope holds supreme legislative, executive, and judicial authority with few checks on his power’.
Reese suggests various concrete reforms to give substance to the notion of more collegial governance, one of them being an independent judiciary (perhaps made up of retired bishops) which would obviate the abuse that allows the executive to indict, prosecute, judge and sentence a defendant – a way of operating that in secular reality would be considered a violation of basic rights and of due process. Reese goes on to maintain, as have many others, that ‘…the treatment of theologians accused of dissent by the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) is one of the scandals of the church’.
There would be something altogether shocking and shameful, for example, in the Ireland of today, if a Religious was to be accused of doctrinal error and notified of serious sanctions without any direct communication from the CDF, on notepaper that was un-headed, un-dated and un-signed, and placed under the seal of silence about the whole matter. Surely this could not happen? If it were to happen, here or elsewhere, surely we would be entitled, against a certain taboo, to suggest with moral theologian Kevin T. Kelly that this kind of leadership is inhumane and so, by definition, sinful? Surely we need the kind of culture of transparency, with respect for confidentiality when the latter is really required (for example, when the accused so requests), which would reduce the danger of these kind of abuses? Surely we need the freedom to discuss issues which have not been received in peace by the faithful? Surely, above all, we need to learn from our grievous errors in the handling of clerical child sexual abuse- Cardinal Sean Brady spoke eloquently about this when he said: ‘…I also accept that I was part of an unhelpful culture of deference and silence in society, and the Church, which thankfully now is a thing of the past’. A thing of the past, we hope, in relation to the abuse issue: but not in relation to so many other areas of Catholic Church life? We in Europe, also in Ireland, are well schooled in the dangers of a totalitarian, uno duce, una voce, approach: we must ensure that our continuing proper respect, esteem and appreciation of church leadership and teaching are without trace of the kind of servility which is inimical to true obedience and which, instead, is complicit in the abuse of power.
Distinguished Jesuit theologian and canonist Ladislas Orsy has forensically analysed the way the church has resiled since Vatican II from its commitment to collegiality – canonically reducing the decision-making powers of the faithful, denying effective collegiality to Episcopal Conferences, and tightening up the room for theological discussion. And yet Orsy remains hopeful, even buoyant, about our possibilities, because there is something irresistible about the tsunami of energy and love released by the Holy Spirit at the Second Vatican Council, and this is a wave that we, as faithful disciples of the Lord, are called to surf in our day. One might ask, in the changed circumstances of today, who are the heirs of that majority of bishops at Vatican II who favoured a radical, not just incremental, change in our Church? Orsy suggests that ‘…by a subtle divine law, they – the faithful of today- are the legitimate heirs of the Council’.
It seems to me, then, to return to the dilemma about unity posed above, that our Church is crying out for reform and that the path of discipleship today is also a call to join in this reform. To this end the ACP has been wonderfully astute and correct in asserting its role at the faithful centre of the Church – others may and will call them dissidents, but to argue for a unity in diversity, for a more collegial church at all levels, is in reality to be faithful to the Second Vatican Council and to the mystery of the Triune God of unity in diversity in whose image we are all made. And perhaps those who now sit on the fence a little, genuinely unsure and afraid for the future, might take courage from this call to discipleship, this determination to remain at the heart of the Church, and contribute to the founding of the kind of social movement within the Church that might help our leaders to make the changes that would benefit us all. This is our church, God’s gift to us. We need to protect and treasure this gift.
The way forward is abundantly clear – we need to insist on appropriate structures and institutions (like the synods of old, present today in other Christian churches), which involve all the faithful, for more inclusive decision making and input into doctrinal formation and development. This, as our distinguished former President has equivalently said, is not rocket science.
For this to happen, however, we need to work at reducing the culture of fear within our Church, creating a more hospitable climate of trust in which ‘merry debates’ and ‘cheerful disputations’ (Orsy) may flourish. The small groups that are springing up all over Ireland are signs of hope that this may be happening. One thinks of parish and diocesan renewal and justice groups, the ACP, the newly-forming Association of Catholics in Ireland (ACI), the September National Pastoral Conference sponsored by the Irish Episcopal Conference and run by their Council for Pastoral Renewal and Adult Faith Development. It is important that these fora for a national conversation remain open to, and respectful of, voices from all ends of the broad Catholic spectrum – from the so-called right and left, with outreach also to the alienated and the young. We need to be open to learning from the wisdom of other Christians, not to mention the secular world. And, in addition to this dialogical culture so reminiscent of Vatican II, there needs also to be a respect for a more strategic and political approach which seeks to build alliances outside Ireland and universally in order –as also happened in Vatican II- to lobby successfully for change. And, as our bishops rightly insist, all this is useless unless it proceeds from deep personal faith and conversion, in a spirit of prayerful discernment.
This way forward is not a panacea for all ills. It has been pointed out that other Christian churches do have a more inclusive ecclesial structure and continue to haemorrhage membership. And the issue of secularization is not reducible to a structural solution alone. However it is clear that the present form of our church is not fit for purpose and the call to reform it will undoubtedly leave us in a stronger place to confront other, related, problems.
The way to Jerusalem followed by Jesus Christ was uncertain and without guarantee of success by any conventional calculus. I am suggesting that our discipleship today, our following along the way, involves this call to church renewal, in the hope that, according to the principle of Gamaliel (Acts 5, 35-39, its efficacy would be seen when it becomes apparent that it is indeed a ‘work of God’, that energy of the Holy Spirit unleashed in Vatican II and now once again coming to our awareness. We are at a crossroads and if we continue as we are we are surely travelling up a cul-de-sac.
A colleague, conscious of the dire straits of the Catholic Church in Ireland and elsewhere, wondered recently if perhaps the Holy Spirit had ‘gone napping’ since Vatican II. While the Book of Genesis has of course alerted us to the possibility of a divine sabbatical, nonetheless, on reflection, we decided that it was rather the case that we had gone napping. To paraphrase a little, we are now faced with the Spirit-filled invitation of Jesus: Wake up Lazarus!
Gerry O’Hanlon, S.J.
Jesuit Centre for Faith and Justice/Associate Professor of Systematic Theology at the Milltown Institute.
At a Crossroads: Irish Catholicism Fifty Years after Vatican II