O’Malley on V2 in NYT

Fr. John O’Malley SJ on Vatican II in the New York Times: “Opening the Church to the World.”


The bishops at Vatican II felt that more than a century of centralization needed to be tempered. But in their euphoria, they failed to reckon sufficiently with the resistance of entrenched bureaucracies — jealous of their authority and fearful of disorder — to change. A more participatory mode of church life took hold for 15 years or so after the council, but from on high it began to be more and more restricted, to the point that central control is now tighter than ever.


The post-Vatican II church was not a different church. But if you take the long view, it seems to me incontestable that the turn was big, even if failures in implementation have made it less big in certain areas than the council intended.


  1. When it comes to governance of the Church, this seems to be a “clericalism” mentality that the vast majority in most parishes are unconcerned. They want meaning and purpose to life, an experience of God’s grace in worship and in the Church and direction for living holy lives. Governance in the Church is low on their list of priorities. For the laity caught up in governance, we’ve created a “laitism” similar to “clericalism” that often is more severe for rank and file parishioners and priests.

    I prefer what the Holy Father had to say this morning at his Mass on the anniversary of Vatican II an excerpt of which is:

    … “I have often insisted on the need to return, as it were, to the “letter” of the Council – that is to its texts – also to draw from them its authentic spirit, and why I have repeated that the true legacy of Vatican II is to be found in them”.

    “The Council did not formulate anything new in matters of faith, nor did it wish to replace what was ancient. Rather, it concerned itself with seeing that the same faith might continue to be lived in the present day, that it might remain a living faith in a world of change. … The Council Fathers wished to present the faith in a meaningful way; and if they opened themselves trustingly to dialogue with the modern world it is because they were certain of their faith, of the solid rock on which they stood.

    In the years following, however, many embraced uncritically the dominant mentality, placing in doubt the very foundations of the deposit of faith, which they sadly no longer felt able to accept as truths.

    1. @Fr. Allan J. McDonald – comment #1:
      Would rather not get *waylaid* by the sexual abuse scandals. Let’s take B16’s words today and compare to John XXIII fifty years ago to the day:


      Highlights from Fr. K’s analysis:
      – “The pope’s repudiation of the “prophets of doom” who can see nothing but prevarication and ruin in modern times, who think things are getting worse and worse,…Such people, he said, tend to idealize the past as if it were always favorable to the Church and to ignore the restrictions on the Church’s freedom”
      – “…two-fold task, to be undertaken simultaneously, that the Council at once be faithful to the heritage of truth and be alert to the contemporary world”
      – “He did not want the Council simply to repeat what everyone already knew. He wanted a new and deeper comprehension of the faith and he wanted the ancient faith presented in a manner intelligible to contemporaries”

      Wonder if some will misinterpret B16’s words – he wants to return to texts (yes) but also the spirit. Text without context is like reading the bible without exegesis, biblical criticism methodology, etc. The texts are not a “tabula rasa” that can be manipulated into whatever hermeneutic you want.

    2. @Fr. Allan J. McDonald – comment #1:
      For the laity caught up in governance, we’ve created a “laitism” similar to “clericalism” that often is more severe for rank and file parishioners and priests.

      Could you expand your thought, what laity are you talking about? Caught up in governance? Laitism?

      1. @Mike Burns – comment #15:
        When there isn’t strong leadership from the pastor, then others fill in the void and then there is all kinds of division amongst those vying for power or empowerment, etc. That doesn’t mean though that a good, strong pastor doesn’t have a good strong pastoral council, stewardship council, finance council and all the committees that are possible and regular elections for new blood, but when empowerment and power plays become the preoccupation for a relatively small group of laity, no matter how well meaning they may be, authoritarian anarchy can reign. And yes, I’ve seen on both parish and diocesan levels more clericalism sometimes for the laity who are “in charge” than from the clergy themselves.

    3. @Fr. Allan J. McDonald – comment #1:
      NOTE TO AL: you might want to read the full statement from B16 (rather than the *abridged* version mentioned by Allan in which he picks and chooses to fit his hobby horses (as Fr. Ruff says)


      Some lines that were overlooked:

      “…….“letter” of the Council – that is to its texts – also to draw from them its authentic spirit, and why I have repeated that the true legacy of Vatican II is to be found in them. Reference to the documents saves us from extremes of anachronistic nostalgia and running too far ahead, and allows what is new to be welcomed in a context of continuity.”

      Note B16’s stress on….the documents save us from extremes such as *anachronistic nostalgia* and *allows what is new to be welcomed*.

      As they say: *follow the money* and always *go to the source*.
      Guessing that some picking and choosing is closer to the *hermeneutic of rupture*.

      1. @Bill deHaas – comment #17:
        Bill, of the quote you provided, Fr. Allan mentioned the first half. The second half (“Reference to the documents…”) was omitted by Fr. Allan for whatever reason; how do we know he overlooked it? I also don’t see what in that second sentence is antithetical to Fr. Allan’s “hobby horses”.

        You provide abridged versions of articles and essays here all the time; you provide “money quotes”. Should someone start calling you out on the lines you “overlook”?

  2. “In the years following, however, many embraced uncritically the dominant mentality, placing in doubt the very foundations of the deposit of faith, which they sadly no longer felt able to accept as truths”

    The nost notable negative witness of postconciliar Catholicism has been the bishops, willing to sacrifice the sexual innocence of youth on some phantom altar of saving the rest of us from scandal.

    It’s not entirely clear to me, for example, how many faithful married couples have been ejected from the Church by the gay couple down the street. But it seems clear that a substantial percentage of bishops have repeatedly set aside basic sexual morality to “save” a clerical culture that has serious issues. Significantly more believers perceive the bishops have left us. This is the legacy of postconciliar timidity on the part of bishops. That, and the petty and jealousy-soaked agenda against women religious.

    1. @Todd Flowerday – comment #2:
      In terms of decentralization, I think we can say that the sex abuse scandal was magnified because there was not a centralized “national” or “international” policy concerning it until the media and others made an outcry for it forcing the issue on bishops who preferred decentralization and making their own policies as it concerned clergy and Rome was willing to allow it. Our former bishop came up with rather strict diocesan policies in 1987 that is somewhat similar to the 2002 charter! But he was one of the very few although there were some other bishops. So if everyone thinks that decentralization is a wonderful thing, it might be in some cases, but not in other cases, and the sex abuse scandal in terms of no coherent national policy until 2002 or international policy is a case in point.

      1. @Fr. Allan J. McDonald – comment #3:
        One would think that basic moral teachings would not need central control. All bishops should have behaved in an open, virtuous, and unambiguous way from the start.

        When you refer to those who made an outcry, please list victims and survivors first. The media did play an important role in shaming the bishops into moral action.

        This is less about the scandal of misbehaving clergy (as bad as that was) and more about the scandals of cover-up and obfuscation. That is why the bishops here and in other countries remain in hot water.

      2. @Todd Flowerday – comment #4:
        Don’t disagree with you at all but the cover-up was due in large part from a lack of protocol, either locally, nationally or internationally. It also has a lack of accountability even to Rome and this is what decentralization does and there are victims of it, the worst obviously those of sex abuse and you are right to list them first but also in lesser things such as liturgical abuse, doctrinal abuse, etc and the victims being the faithful who are led astray or taken advantage of by it and the lack of accountability to either the local bishop, the national conference or to Rome. We can really go on and on with the problems of decentralization and leaving it up to each diocese and bishop to decide policies and accountability procedures as well as inculturation.

  3. I would disagree that the cover-up was a protocol problem. My premise is that it signifies a moral failure across much of the episcopacy, a failure–or sin, if you will–very much with us yet.

  4. Agreed – can it only be coincidence that the worst of the crisis took place during a time of increasing decentralization and a certain rethinbking of Christian mores on the part of some?
    O’Malley writes about the contemporary Church as one in which “Priests and parishioners feel that their voices are not heard.” Truth be told is that it is only “some” priests and “some” laity who feel that way. Still further is the fact that these voices have been heard time and time again, including on the pages of the NY Times but their perspective has been found to be pastorally unhelpful.

    1. @Shane Maher – comment #8:

      Sorry but Mr. Maher’s comments reveal either deep bias or ignorance of the clerical abuse scandal. His statement about *coincidence,etc…….* is a cover up in itself. Even a casual reading of the John Jay Reports would indicate that these comments have no connection to fact or truth. (JJ Reports aren’t complete given than they are based upon diocesan self reports (notoriously underreporting and that at least 50% of all abused do not report).
      Here is a brief paper that outlines the data from 1960 onwards:


      Money quote:
      “The data so far assembled from all sources indicates that the 25-year- period between 1960 and 1985 represents a 9 percent abuse rate by priests in the United States. This the most probable base line to calculate the percentage of abusing bishops and priests. (Cf. the John Jay report 2/ 27/04 and note how adding deacons increased the denominator.)

      First reported clerical abusers peaked in the late 1960s and again in mid-1980s when the press began to report it publically. It has no connection to some imagined *de-centralization* conspirarcy. What we do know is that taking authority and accountability away from regional conferences of bishops left every bishop on their own and dealing with Rome directly. Almost all recognized studies indicate that Rome was only interested in the institution and not victims:

      “The Vatican was aware in detail of the sex abuse problems in the U.S. from 1985 onwards yet chose to remain aloof and when they did respond publicly it was to minimize the problem or shift the blame. The popes have been primarily interested is defending the ecclesiastical status quo and in recovering from the massive loss of trust and esteem.”

      (Note – by 1985 JPII had been in power for 7 years and had nothing to do with de-centralization – he centralized ignoring the problem or covering it up. Think Maciel)

  5. Fr. John O’ Malley (from his aforementioned NYT article): “Before the council, Catholics were not only forbidden to pray with those of other faiths but also indoctrinated into a disdain or even contempt for them.

    When I lived in the patched-up ruins of the Tridentine fortress, I thought that I had found the liturgy and Church which could not, would not, and must not change. “Traditional Catholic” culture both swaddled my mind in a sedating but false intellectual security and constricted my ability to question authority. Fr. O’Malley’s observation that Catholics before the Council were (and perhaps traditionalist Catholics today are) “indoctrinated into a disdain or even contempt” resonates with my previous life as an indult Catholic. Perhaps this “disdain or even contempt” stretches beyond an avoidance of ecumenism and interreligious dialogue towards an inability to critically evaluate liturgy and ecclesiology.

    Certainly, paralysis in the face of authority has consciously or unconsciously abetted grave crimes such as child abuse. Even on a less grave level, the call to respect human conscience found in Dignitatis Humanae strongly asserts that a blind obedience is not the path to a strengthened faith. For some, including myself, the conclusive destruction of the Tridentine fortress has removed a scaffold of unexamined self-righteousness. The challenge of post-conciliar life is a responsible and reasoned faith which stretches beyond supposed metrics of “orthodoxy”.

    I miss the Sacramentary translation of pro multis as “for all”, as this translation amplifies the meeting of human conscience and God. The mighty “all” of the Eucharist is not just an assurance that the eternal sacrifice is shed for all persons, encompasses all human understanding of time, and redeems humanity unconditionally. The “all” is also a challenge to remain faithful despite ostracization from inside and outside of the assembly. It is in moments of doubt, exclusion, and even agnosticism where one often realizes that the Mass is not imposed on us but given for us.

  6. Regarding a ” … coincidence that the worst of the crisis took place during a time of increasing decentralization and a certain rethinking of Christian mores on the part of some?” I don’t think so.

    We’ve seen a dramatic amassing of power in the curia over the past fifteen if not thirty years, we’ve had the national charter supposedly implemented for the past ten, and we’ve still seen high profile bishops in Kansas City, Chicago, Philadelphia, and Santa Rosa, among other dioceses, engage in immoral and illegal activity.

    It all boils down to something basic: does a bishop need Rome to tell him that child sexual abuse is illegal and immoral? To a parent, this is a no-brainer. To a bishop? Looks like a loss of a sense of sin to me. Rome seems to be no help.

  7. The central problem in American churches today, Catholic and Protestant, is that they and especially their managements are simply too worldly: too interested in money, too interested in status, too interested in power. These are the things that brought about the sexual abuse scandal and its cover-up in Catholicism.

    Seventy percent of the unaffiliated say that churches are too concerned about power and money, but so do 47% of the affiliated.

    Sixty seven percent of the unaffiliated say that churches focus too much on rules but so do 47% of the affiliated.

    Sixty seven percent of the unaffiliated say that churches are too involved in politics but so do 41% of the affiliated.

    If you read the Pew Research on the rise of the “Nones” or “Religiously Unaffiliated” it is very clear that it is clergy and their love of money, status, and power that has alienated many people already from the churches.

    It is also clear that they will likely continue to alienate people from the churches since there are many people in the pews who agree with these criticisms.

    The first people who need to open their hearts to the Gospel and repent of their love of money, status and power are our bishops.

  8. JP – I provide the links to the articles quoted and then money quotes – that is a different approach than what I observed in comment #1. Would also suggest that my money quotes are FULL quotes versus taking a paragraph, for example, and deleting sentences from it to fit your own bias.

    But, plow ahead on your self-appointed task as *policeman*. Would suggest that – *Should someone start calling you out on the lines you “overlook”?* – that you already fulfill that role.

    And your *omitted by Fr. Allan for whatever reasons* is rich with irony or was it an attempt at *wit?. *How do we know he overlooked it* – exactly my point but thanks for making it again.

    Keep in mind – the original post was about *centralization* and then Allan quotes from B16. Guess it was meant as humor.

    1. @Bill deHaas – comment #19:
      Bill, if you haven’t noticed, my participation on this blog has waned in recent weeks. I’ve posted a couple dozen comments in the last two months, paling in comparison with Fr. Allan, Todd, Jack, yourself, and Paul. I’m not policing PTB as I once did.

      I haven’t been calling you out on lines you omit. I do admit (how could I deny it?) that last week I made a comparison between a remark of yours to Fr. Allan and a remark of his to Brigid; and that I was puzzled about your statement that Benedict didn’t use the term “discontinuity”. But I wouldn’t consider that being a policeman.

      As for my comment above, I was attempting neither irony nor wit. All I said was that Fr. Allan omitted that particular sentence from his quote. Why? I don’t know, we’d have to ask him. I won’t assume a motive. I personally doubt he overlooked it because I assume he read the whole piece, rather than skimmed it; but I may be wrong in that assumption. I see that Fr. Allan did not provide a link to the article he quoted, as you often do. But there have also been times you quote an article or essay at length without any link or attribution. So go easy on the poor guy.

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