Another “Call to Action”

No, not the Call to Action convened by the US bishops in 1976, which then took on a life of its own and became distanced from the hierarchy. This one took place this week in London. Organizers expected a few dozen to come to a gathering around concern for the direction the Catholic Church is going, The Tablet reports, but nearly 400 showed up and a larger meeting place had to be found at the last moment. Frequent Pray Tell reader and commenter Chris McDonnell addressed the gathering with these remarks.

In the mid-1960s, Martin Luther King made a speech at the end of the people’s march on Washington DC, delivered 28 August 1963, at the foot of the Lincoln Memorial. It became an iconic statement of the Civil Rights movement. It became known by just four words: “I have a dream”. It stirred a generation.

Rephrasing those words and referring them to the Vatican Council we could now justifiably say “ We had a dream,” for many hopes and dreams have not been fulfilled.

It is sometimes difficult, with the passing of many years, to remember with any clarity the Church of my childhood. There was a degree of certainty, of accepted norms, of being somehow different as Catholics and, of course, there was the dominance of prayer in Latin, a language we became very good at pronouncing but were somewhat less adept in translating.

With the arrival of the 60s, the drab austerity of the post-War 50s began to recede. We came to live with the reality of the Cold War, which so nearly early in the new decade came close to nuclear conflict. In October 1962, during the tense days of the Cuban missile crisis, Kennedy faced Khrushchev and the world held its collective breath. At the same time as this potentially suicidal face-off between East and West, the Second Council of the Vatican opened on October 11. Called by Pope John XXIII, following the death of Pius XII in October 1958, the Council was to become a springboard for renewal in the Church.

This quiet, avuncular prelate, Angelo Roncalli, who had been the Patriarch of Venice, set in motion a gathering that would reinvigorate the Christian Church.

The Council would come to have a profound effect on the Church I grew up in as documents were drafted and re-drafted until accepted by the Fathers. A clearer vision of hope and joy in the Christian faith emerged.

And how that was needed in the turbulent decade of the Sixties!

Within a year of Cuba, Kennedy was assassinated and the seeds of conflict in South East Asia were sown. Vietnam was later to become the touch-stone for youth, both in protest and music. The greyness of the previous decade was replaced with a riot of color in clothing, music and life. As with anything that has been constrained, this sudden release produced excess. In the midst of laughter and the sexual mores of the time, together with the emerging drug culture, there was often confusion and doubt.

Surety had gone out of the window with the rule book and uncertainty knocked at the door.

There was a real feeling of expectation and hope, the expectation of challenge that the Council documents demanded and the hope they instilled.

But within three years came the first significant disappointment, for in July 1968 Paul VI published Humanae Vitae. In spite of the overwhelming majority view of the commission set up to examine the issue in favor of change, this encyclical upheld the traditional teaching on contraception.

It challenged many, both priests and laity, and caused a significant stir in the national press. I can still remember the full page of letters published in the aftermath in the London Times. A number of priests felt unable to accede to its teaching and were suspended by their bishops. The church lost their ministry. At that time I asked a good friend of mine, ordained in 1954, what he intended to do. His reply? “If I leave, who is there to help and support the people?” And so he stayed.

To this day the teaching remains a matter of contention, where, for so many, conscience has become the final arbiter rather than acceptance of the encyclical.

Two major issues that gave vitality to those post-conciliar years remain with us: collegiality and the use of the vernacular in the celebration of the Eucharist. It was the use of English that was, for most of us, the significant change, for it affected our lives in a very particular and regular way, and we welcomed it.

Contrast that to a comment made to me in 1963 when, as a student teacher, I helped arrange what we called then a “Dialogue Mass” where students read the Epistle and Psalm in English. I was told afterwards by a lady in her sixties that “I feel as though I have been to a Protestant service.” Thank goodness we have moved beyond that narrow view.

Yet for some there appears to be this urgent need to find refuge in a holy comfort zone that is history.

Remember Sydney Carter’s words in one his songs? “So shut your bibles up and show me how, the Christ you talk about is living now.”

That doesn’t say ignore Scripture, far from it, but it does say be realistic, this is where society is, the Church has to be a pilgrim church in the times we find ourselves.

There is a feeling abroad that there is now a concerted attempt to undo much of the vision of the Council. Recently the keynote presentation at a symposium on the Council given by Professor Tracey Rowland in Leeds was critical of theologians working at that time. The Tablet quoted her as saying that she was particularly critical of Schillibeeckx and his followers for “correlating faith with modernity.”  Arguments such as these seek to undermine our confidence in the work of the Council and call in to question much that has been achieved in the subsequent years. When we read in Proverbs that “where there is no vision, the people perish,” we should be aware that a blurred vision is dangerous, for it leads to confusion and contention. To quote Kevin Kelly, Vatican II was not an event but a continuing process.

Hans Küng was invited earlier this year to attend a celebration of fifty years since the opening of the Council at the German Katholikentag in Mannheim. Four days before the congress was due to open, Küng responded, declining the invitation. In my opinion there is no reason for a festive council gala but rather for an honest service of penance or a funeral service.”

There is also the perception of distance between the experience of the laity who come to church week by week and the hierarchy of our community. Where did we see in print an appreciation from the bishops that for many the new translation of the missal was proving to be a significant stumbling block? We urgently need a reconnection and a recognition that faith is a shared experience that we all contribute to. Too often have I heard people in recent years, young and not so young, talk of the hypocrisy of the church over issues relating to the option of married priests, the acceptance of gay people, together with a whole range of societal issues that we now know so much about yet teach from a historical archive. Cardinal Martini in his last interview referred to the church being 200 years out of date.

Maybe the time is fast approaching when we need to take stock once again and ask whether we should begin to make preparations for a further council. We would be failing our grandchildren if we allowed the fruits of the Second Council of the Vatican to fade through our lack of concern. We do indeed have a duty to make the case, in faith, for the Church as it is today and for what it might become tomorrow. How do we make our church the church of our children?




  1. One speaker at the conference was quoted by the Tablet, “[Elderly men] … have no idea how you are suffering as lay people. It’s a tragedy. We have to fix it.” Her comment struck me as ironic given the typical demographic of CTA members.
    As to Chris’ talk, while it is true that some have an unrealized dream as to what they wish the council meant, their dream may have always been more of a fantasy than anything else and it evidently was never the dream of the majority of council fathers or the 1985 Synod or even the majority of practicing Catholics then or now. In those denominations, dioceses and religious orders where the “dream” Chris speaks of had been implemented most thoroughly it has developed into a bit of a pastoral and demographic nightmare. One evidence of the latter point is the recent revelation that the US is no longer a majority Protestant nation ( The mainline denominations having embraced progressivism years ago have failed pastorally and declined in their number of adherants. Russian Orthodox bishop Hilarion Alfeyev said that “liberal Christianity will not survive long and political correctness within the Christian environment is destined to die (2008).” His observation is relevant given that his Church suffered under a socialist regime for so many years. To the question of accomodation to the secular zeitgeist, so prevalent among progressives, we see Chris write “…be realistic, this is where society is (today)…”. In response, Bishop Alfeyev would echo our own Catholic bishops and say “where is the prophetic voice of Christians (in your accomodation to the zeitgeist)” (2008)?

    1. @Shane Maher – comment #2:
      You state: “….while it is true that some have an unrealized dream as to what they wish the council meant, their dream may have always been more of a fantasy than anything else and it evidently was never the dream of the majority of council fathers or the 1985 Synod or even the majority of practicing Catholics then or now. In those denominations, dioceses and religious orders where the “dream” this group speaks of had been implemented most thoroughly it has developed into a bit of a pastoral and demographic nightmare.”

      Again, you repeat your meme. So, now anyone who lived through and experienced the council projected a *fantasy world*. Really? And you know this because you posit that well articulated feelings are either a fantasy or have led to a pastoral/demographic nightmare. Really? And you know what most bishops thought during the council (per what source of internal revelation – Davies? Interesting read but not exactly someone that the mainstream professionals see as historically or even hermeneutically accurate. Raises questions but peer review, etc. wouldn’t put him on the same level as O’Malley, Komonchak, or the Bologna school)

      And what will save us – why the *new* reform of the reform.

      Pay attention to other facts – the second largest US group in terms of religion are catholics who have left or inactive in the church. And, have you see the USCCB or even *most* US bishops address this departure? Rather, they focus on single issues, cultural wars, etc. or, in some instances, spend a majority of their time dealing with the abuse scandal, or consolidating parishes, etc. Somehow, this is all blamed on the *VII progressives”?

      Actually, historical records indicate that episcopal statements at the 1985 Synod were largely ignored. Statements that called for internal metanoia; called to address current issues and needs e.g. Quinn – but the curial centralization had taken over Synods – rewriting agenda, talks, notes and eventually taking over the power to name who attends, who participates, etc.

      Again, studies indicate that the departure from denominations is across the board and can not be isolated to progressives only – every group (if that is what you are into) has decreased. But, then, memes ignore facts.

      Here is a bishop who just spoke at the synod on *new evangelization* –

      Guess this bishop missed your talking points.

      Money quotes:
      “Specifically, Dunn endorsed:
      • The creation of pastoral groups composed of priests and laity
      • Official recognition of lay ecclesial ministry
      • A “deliberate and systematic involvement of women, giving them positions of leadership at every level of ecclesial life”
      • Permitting women to be officially recognized as readers and acolytes
      • Instituting a “ministry of catechesis”

      He also was the first to directly talk about the damage of sexual abuse cover-ups by Rome and bishops in terms of credibility and efforts at new evangalization. (later echoed by B16 yesterday mentioning bad apples)

      Such reforms, Dunn argued, would mean “our faith will be transmitted more effectively” and “our witness will seem more authentic in our contemporary world.”

      Why this need by some commenters to always have to immediately *label* folks?

  2. Chris McDonnell: There is also the perception of distance between the experience of the laity who come to church week by week and the hierarchy of our community.

    This distance, which has gradually alienated me and undoubtedly many other Catholics, could easily be remedied to a degree. Perhaps the Church should return to the earlier tradition of lay and comprehensive clerical suffrage in the election of bishops. The cathedral chapter, the clergy of the diocese, and one or two lay representatives elected by the entirety of each parish’s assembly would collaborate in the discovery and election of episcopal candidates. The consultative body would select two or three candidates by a series of votes. These candidates’ names would then be forwarded to the Vatican for the final selection and “papal assent”. This process is not unlike the method for episcopal election in the Episcopal Church and perhaps other Anglican provinces, save that in this case the diocesan electors do not have the final say.

    Unlike in a constitutional monarchy, where the king or queen almost always assents to the prerogative of parliament, an autocratic pope would still be able to override the diocesan candidates and place his selections in dioceses without consequence. One would hope that a future pope would respect the desires of dioceses almost all the time. Perhaps the demonstrated success of this approach would convince pontiffs to infrequently intervene against the will of diocesan communities.

    Certainly, the clergy and laity of a diocese would be much better suited to select the shepherd best for them. And yet, all Catholics must grapple with the reality that the Church is still very much a temporal institution. While I would suppose that many Catholics would be eager to choose a personable, pastoral, and compassionate bishop, such qualities sometimes do not coincide with the policy goals of episcopal conferences.

    1. @Jordan Zarembo – comment #4:
      You seem to be neglecting the possibility that the bishops (or hierarchy as you prefer to name them) are acting on behalf of the lay faithful. You seen to equate the wishes of the laity at large with the goals of a particular party in the Church. The truth is that the decentralized bureaucracy that once controlled eccesiastical life in many quarters of the Church also marginalized a great number of lay faithful.

      1. @Shane Maher – comment #5:

        Shane: The truth is that the decentralized bureaucracy that once controlled eccesiastical life in many quarters of the Church also marginalized a great number of lay faithful.

        I’m not exactly sure what you mean by this statement. Let me suggest the following. Direct temporal control over the Church is de facto or de jure forbidden in most postmodern democracies. Even states with established state churches respect the freedom of Catholic religious assembly and expression. I do not foresee a return to lay investiture, prince-archbishops, or Gallicanism in western Europe or North America, for instance. Even current Vatican policy forbids a cleric from holding political office unless he elects to leave active ministry. Given these protections, I am fairly confident that laypersons will not experience a violation of civil rights, including the right to free religious expression, if a more democratic process of episcopal election were introduced. If anything, a more democratic process ensures a greater level of religious expression for clergy and layperson alike.

        Perhaps unrelated but also critical is the question of “purity tests”. One would certainly hope prelates, episcopal conferences, and even the Vatican would absolutely respect parish-level election of representatives. Representation must not be reserved for “the holy” only, as if works-righteousness “earns” a layperson the “right” to speak in assembly and help build the local church. The local church and the Church writ large is a composite of fallible, sinful, but striving people. Indeed, those who are often marginalized by self-anointed “orthodox” Catholics are often the very persons who possess a fresh perspective on the way in which the local church might best minister to its members.

  3. Thanks, Chris and Fr. Ruff – have enough trouble with the CDF – guess I need a spot on the *nuns on the bus* – last seat or maybe just under the bus.

    To follow up Jordan’s careful but good analysis on – “The truth is that the decentralized bureaucracy that once controlled eccesiastical life in many quarters of the Church also marginalized a great number of lay faithful.”

    Sorry, this is an unhelpful and inaccurate statement. Even Rome manipulates the *centralized versus decentralized* debate. Fact – the church structure and episcopal authority is such that every bishop is ordained as another *Peter* and the Roman bishop is acknowledged as the bishop of bishops. That being said (and it is a complicated subject), by canon law, tradition, and theology, every bishop is the teacher, sanctifier, etc. over his diocese. Theologically, it is described as a community of bishops, not a business hierarchy (thus, not centralized). Yet, Rome has acted and continues to act as a centralized repository of authority when it chooses e.g. Bishop Wilson in Australia and yet ignores that Bishop Finn in US has a criminal record involving abuse. Help me understand how this is not hypocritical.
    Thus, am confused when the decentralization meme is used to somehow justify whatever the commenter may not like in his biased views. “…Marginalized a great number of people” – guessing this refers to Paul VI’s decisons to ratify liturgical reform based upon the overwhelming approval of the fathers of the last council. This statement is inaccurate when it chooses words such as *great* in relationship to that issue. A small minoirty (and this is overwhelmingly documented) opposed or felt like the decentralized hierarchy *imposed* liturgical reform on them. Actually, it was an overwhelmningly unified centralized and decentralized actions – including conferences of bishops which today have been sidelined by the centralized papacy.

    1. @Bill deHaas – comment #11:

      Bill, I think you have answered Shane’s question much better than I have. You’re right on about the contrast between the important role of the bishop as “teacher [and] sanctifier” for his particular diocese versus the bureaucratic intrigue which has unfortunately characterized not a few recent Vatican episcopal appointments. This tendency to concentrate power into a strongly hierarchical format certainly contains great perils, as most Catholics have witnessed with the sexual abuse crises and the desire of some bishops to influence national politics. Perhaps an important topic for the next meeting of the Church in council should be a re-evaluation of papal infallibility and episcopal collegiality. I am convinced that the principles of hierarchy can be clarified and further developed without a rejection of the institutional Church’s doctrines of governance.

  4. Thanks, Jordan – didn’t catch it but my initial reference was to the Bishop Wm. Morris case not Bishop Wilson? sorry.

    Would also re-echo that most folks surface the VII collegiality as something that was left to the curia/papacy to implement and that, instead, it was walked back. One element of reform and ressourcement that is still unfulfilled. Paul Inwood consistently underlines with Fr. Ruff that many of the recent centralized liturgical decisions fly in the face of VII’s desire to have bishops and conferences of bishops determine local liturgical decisions.

  5. Is it just possible that since the historical unfolding of Vatican II has not fulfilled the ‘dream’ that this or that person/group had that the Holy Spirit has, nonetheless spoken? Other people, too, have alternate ‘dreams’. How is the burden of the topic here not just more of the all-too-familiar trope that the Holy Spirit is only said to have FINALLY been heard if MY cherished dreams have been fulfilled?
    Additionally, history is not over, and its unfolding never ceases to reveal surprises that we did not expect or ‘dream of’. In this sense, the French revolution is not over, nor the American one, nor have we heard or understood the last of Beethoven or Michaelangelo or Shakespeare. Be patient and stop complaining. Dreams other than yours are part of the equation. From our multiple dreams will God’s will manifest more than we could ever have dreamed of.

  6. I’m a man of few words. “Abstract thought” is how I think; and there is one sentence that I think encompasses everything, in terms of both church-reformation and lay-contribution to a necessarily dynamic Church. 4th-paragraph fro the end:

    “To quote Kevin Kelly, Vatican II was not an event but a continuing process.”

    Vatican II was (past) an event to use (present) in making a future (future) for our beautifully vibrant Catholic Church. That’s my abstract take of the article. AND IT’S MY PROFOUND MISSION.

    Join me, won’t you? God bless.

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