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Back-pedalling on Vatican II


'Vatican 2' by Chris JohnstonAs my recently deceased spiritual guide, Peter Steele, would never tire of saying: 'There are only two conditions in the spiritual life — you're either growing or you're dying.'

What makes for spiritual growth? In my childhood and adolescence, it was all about going to Sunday Mass, confessing your sins once a month at least, going to Mass through the week or even attending Sunday benediction, an active interest in cultivating a devotional life fostered by the many movements that still thrived till the 1960s. These were the emblems of a thriving Catholic faith.

Mass attendance was four times what it is today, members of pious societies filling the pews at their designated Masses. Clerics in collars and soutanes and, when called on, bishops and 'experts' in particular devotions, fed the faithful with the treasures of these traditions of piety. There was always an 'authority' who could explain the mysteries and put anxious minds and hearts at rest. Authority was a big factor in Church and society.

Also, the religion of Catholics was of a piece with the self-perception that had carried generations of them through hard times on the margins of Australian economic, social and cultural life. Most Catholics only had their status as 'sons and daughters of the one true faith' to comfort them.

Enter Vatican II and the change to the ground rules of Catholicism: the Church isn't the hierarchy, the priests and religious, but the people of God; the point of being a Catholic isn't best exemplified by the ordained or vowed members of the community, but by the calling of all the baptised.

The treacle of devotional piety melted under the renewed discovery of the New Testament as the fountainhead of faith. A perceived obsession with sin and death was named as sick. Bad theology had combined with human limitation to create a Church whose stunted culture needed the vacuum cleaner.

But the drive for reform and its associated energies and activities were only half implemented. Over the last 30 years, the momentum that had driven a fresh wind through the Church for 20 years was reined in. The focus turned to shoring up 'the firm wall of religion' against threatening forces unleashed by a world that had grown tired of religion in general and the Catholic Church in particular.

Some, such as the present Pope Benedict XVI, agree with the leading 20th Century theologian Karl Rahner, who in the 1960s predicted a minority status for Christianity in Europe.

But whereas for Rahner, Christians of the future will be either mystics or nothing, for Benedict, the future lies with the Old Testament concept of the 'faithful remnant', a distinctly marked, garbed and confessing group tied together in their adherence to doctrine, sacramental practice and a structure of authority in the Church. The Pope's plan seems to be an intellectualised version of the ghetto that Vatican II sought to break down.

The ghetto mentality does not diminish the things that Vatican II suggested were the way forward for the Church — among them, a robust engagement with the wider world on its terms, an embrace of the multi-denominational and multi-faith world we live in, a recognition that faith and its celebration needs to relate more obviously to our lives, a recognition that we had got some things wrong over the centuries such as clerical power and our approach to ideas we found uncongenial, and an acknowledgement that we don't have all the answers.

And Vatican II was an implicit recognition that the bonds of fear at a personal level — which seemed to authorise capricious exercises of authority, a culture of unworthiness and the celebration of a pattern of conformity that masked human needs and shrivelled the personalities of many in authority in the Church's institutions — were no way to nurture a free embrace of faith.

But Rahner's way forward is a narrow gate and a straight path. It is an interior path that engages a believer with his and her Creator as the point of departure for faith. And when you look at the deployment of the Church's resources to sustain that journey, you can see how ill equipped we are to meet its requirements.

Public displays and events, immense investments in education, training, the intellectual life and the corporal works of mercy — health, aged care and social welfare: these are the strong points of Australian Catholicism.

Will they meet the challenge that a new age in the Church's life needs, one that nourishes the capacities for believers to grow deeper in their lives of faith and walk the mystic road? 

Michael KellyFr Michael Kelly SJ was founding publisher of Eureka Street and is now executive director of the Bangkok-based UCAN Catholic news agency. 

Topic tags: Michael Kelly, Vatican II



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I have been wondering how our 'Catholic populist' media would approach the fiftieth anniversary of the opening of the Council and this article from Fr Michael Kelly and the one in the CathNews Perspectives by Geraldine Doogue are great openers. I'm hoping for many of our Catholics in the pews that this time will encourage them to look back and look forward. One small contribution I'd like to make is a little known news report about the Synod taking place in Rome on the New Evangelisation. Among all the reps from the Catholic Church - clerical as well as lay, there will be a woman Bishop, Sarah Davis, representing the worldwide Methodist Church. Vatican II is great on principle for all in the Church, but, for those wanting an un-principled Church, they'll always be disappointed.

Fr Mick Mac Andew | 08 October 2012  

Thanks for that interesting analysis. But there is a consciousness growing in some peple and places that a dimension of spirituality that includes a response to God's first book, that is, nature, is absolutely vital to a mature religious life. And that a nuturing of this spirituality, and the hope which such effort provides, are not going to be found in the Church. Today, this nature-consciousness is not just a take-it-leave option, but as so many profound thinkers of our generation are pointing out, it's an essential guide for understanding the ecological collapse facing humanity and the rest of Creation. It's readily perceived that Church community life has been deeply anthropocentric for too many decades and is not even on the wave-length of this growing consciousness. Andrew's 'strong points' of the historical Church in Australia simply confirm the prevailing blindness to Creation's deepest threats, so the question arises, 'why would a person bother to meet the challenge in the terms he proposes?'

Len Puglisi | 08 October 2012  

My apologies to Michael Kelly - Andrew should read Michael.

Len Puglis | 08 October 2012  

Fascinating article, thank you, Michael. One of the great things the Catholic Church in this country provided was a religious structure, with all the support facilities, such as schools and hospitals, which was centred on an institution not based in the Anglophone world, but in a place which was the birthplace of Western European culture. Western Europe was very much the centre of the particular sort of mysticism Karl Rahner was speaking of. That sort of mysticism was not very well known in Australia when I was growing up in the 1950s and 60s. True enough, it was always part of the heritage of certain religious orders, but it was not widely known outside them. This is something to be regretted because genuine Christian mysticism lies at the heart of Catholic Christianity. St Francis of Assisi; St Ignatius of Loyola; St Theresa of Avila and St John of the Cross all had deep, intense, genuinely Christian mystical experiences. Their great work would not have been accomplished without this inner experience. For a Church the ignorance or loss of this inner tradition poses enormous peril, because, without it, you are often merely observing form for form's sake. The ecological dimension of religious faith, which Len Puglisi writes of, is part of a perceived wholeness, not the wholeness itself. The Celtic saints - rather apt in Australia - were very aware of this wholeness. How does one recover this inner dimension, spoken of by Rahner, which, if rediscovered, might renew the outer structure, which is something the current Pope is very intent on preserving? Are Rahner and the Pope at odds, or are they talking of the two sides of the same coin? I suspect they are. Vatican II, if correctly understood, was an attempt at immense spiritual renewal to the Church. There have been good and bad things coming out of the attempt to apply the spirit of Vatican II. Overall, I think the results have been good. It has been very similar to renovating and extending, rather than demolishing, a basically sound home to make it suitable for modern living without going overboard. As with so many things, it is a matter of balance.

Edward F | 08 October 2012  

As early as the 70s Ted Kennedy was speaking about the 'backlash against Vatican ll'. Naively, I wondered what he meant. Now, unfortunately, it's obvious. To the massive institution that the Church is any deviation from the status quo is potentially a massive threat. The persecution of theologians underJohn Paul ll, culminating in the attempted destruction of Tissa Balisuriya, the denial of natural justice to Bishops Geoffrey Robertson and Bishop Morris of Toowoomba show to what disregard of morality defending the discipline of an institution can drive men who hold power in it. But the real threat that these men perceive, and the issue that those who value Vatican ll's liberation of the spirit must pursue, is the critique of the doctrinal formulations that have been held to be essential to Catholicism. What does it mean to say Jesus is God? What has to follow the rejection of the doctrine of Original Sin? How is the idea of the Trinity based on Jesus' words to be understood? What of the traditional thinking about Sin, Grace and the Sacraments? These questions seem to men of the institution to threaten the institution radically - and it is to stop them being faced that the discipline of the institution must be invoked. Rather, it is this fear that radically threatens the institution.

Joe Castley | 08 October 2012  

Does there need to a be a dichotomy between mysticism and the 'faithful remnant'? Aren't they complementary? I was born long after VII, (80s) and my generation seem to know almost nothing of either mysticism or doctrine. Those who do know something, or care enough to learn, may become a 'faithful remnant' by default. Hopefully they will keep the teachings and the rites infused with the interior life, and let the interior life be informed by those same teachings and rites.

Zac | 08 October 2012  

I think Fr Kelly is missing the point about the modern age. Perhaps a consideration of how things are organised in this age of modern communications will give us more heart to accept the growth of people movements of a kind different to the centrally managed sodalities of the past. These days we can indeed organise without organisations. This forum it is but one of many where Catholics and other Christians can communicate thoughts well outside the conventional structures. Have faith; the technology is with us.Ken Fuller

Ken FULLER | 08 October 2012  

Technology is not Prayer.

CONTRA KEN FULLER | 08 October 2012  

The early 16th century brought to a head many of the restless questions about faith and the church that the people of God had been working through in previous time. The division of the church Then was over issues that, unsurprisingly, were to be centre stage in the 20th century Catholic Church, the very same arguments about faith and church. For those who parted with Rome in the 16th century, issues of liturgy, authority, scripture, all the things Michael writes about here, were resolved in differing ways, outside the jurisdiction of Rome. There is great pathos in watching the Catholic Church today grievously arguing over the correct English usage in the liturgy, unable to find ways around or through its fixed hierarchical world (such a stumbling block to forward thinking and prayer), and still finding that it privileges doctrine over gospel. The people have walked away and the bishops either cling to their power or suffer because they cannot use it effectively in ministry. Many Catholics are fearful of the ‘faithful remnant’ scenario because it contradicts what they were taught growing up about the Catholic Church's authority and absolute certainty. A good place to start our thinking about the spirit is to ask what true catholicity is actually about. It is not about approval from Rome, but about engagement with all of humanity, and by that I mean not just the non-Catholics but the non-Christians. That is the real message of the Resurrection.

THE PATIENCE OF THE SPIRIT | 08 October 2012  

I only hope all those who believed and lived either side of Vatican 11 and gone before us are in a good place with no regrets.. Neither helped the way faithful have been treated this side of heaven, including clergy, good or bad.

L Newington | 08 October 2012  

Well done, Michael! Someone really needed to say something about how things are unfolding in the Vatican. Hopefully, there will be some kind of justice for Bishops robertson & Morris, and some consideration for some priests (still around) who don't agree with has been going on. The future looks rather scary if Benedict is given free rein. Hope to hear more from you, Michael!

Nathalie | 08 October 2012  

This opens the dialogue we all need to have. So much has gone the way of indulgences, Although facing disturbing image of church train wreckage, there lurks a new sense of mysticism, a new dynamic of Spirit movement. The Great Spirit embedded in Nature has long been the conviction of many since St Francis of Assisi, Thomas Berry, Teilhard de Chardin and more recently, Brendan Purcell in his recent book, “From Big Band to Big Mystery, to name just a few. While many biblical stories have gone the way of indulgencies, a totally new sense of genesis, or People-Nature reality, has emerged for our engagement. A new cosmology invites scientists, anthropologists, philosophers and theologians for its translation. It builds on the transformative reality of spirit-matter unity, the notion that the world is a sacred place. Exploration and discovery of that reality remains the new and now overdue challenge. Such challenge confronts all religious faiths; it requires cross-cultural understanding. Ironically, right here in Australia, Aboriginal traditions embodied a sense of total unity in their sense of People-Country inter-dependence, a total cosmology. Discovery of that relevance to the wider Australia community opens new doors to a re-birth of Spirit in the life of Catholics and beyond. That discussion is directly relevant to Michael Kelly’s inspirational dialogue.

Jim Bowler | 08 October 2012  

Raised a Roman Catholic for many years , it was by accident that the Fourth Commandment came to my notice . A further thirty years were to pass before I discovered the churches actions in doing away with the Sabbath. Since then it has been a path of discovery to find our what constitutes Christianity . Why did the church not lead me to the never failing water of Christ's grace ? I no longer have any part in churches but communicate in prayer to my Lord .

Michael Ansted | 08 October 2012  

Room here for a shuffling of images: the faithful remnant (Benedict XVI), a narrow gate and a straight path (Rahner) which is suggestive of the Gospel's "little flock" which Benedict espoused long ago. I prefer Juan Luis Segundo's analysis based on majorities and minorities. As life gets tougher most drop off the pace leaving the witness to a few.

Noel McMaster | 08 October 2012  

To anyone espousing the idea and it is the right idea to engage with the world, where "somehow" the Spirit of God is already blowing, I usually add that we need a world willing to engage with the Church. But that does not always happen for a variety of reasons. it takes two to tango!

Tony | 08 October 2012  

On the Contrary Father Kelly SJ, 30 years ago a revered Council Father, Blessed Pope John Paul unleashed a postconciliar reform that changed the face of Europe[all in accord with Vatican 2 encounter with secular society, especially VAT2 doc on Human Dignity.]
"No less seasoned an observer of the world political scene than former Soviet Premiere Mikhail Gorbachev attested to the major role that John Paul played in the restructuring of the new world order:
“Everything that happened in Eastern Europe in these last few years would have been impossible without the presence of this Pope and without the important role—including the political role—that he played on the world stage.”[from DAVID WILLEY, GOD’S POLITICIAN: POPE JOHN PAUL II, THE CATHOLIC CHURCH, AND THE NEW WORLD ORDER 120 (1992).

Father John Michael George | 08 October 2012  

Apologies to Brendan Purcell. His excellent book is "From Big Bang to Big Mystery"

Jim Bowler | 08 October 2012  

A lot of good the Popes New World Order has done for Catholic children: 1992 you say, about the time we were being swamped with a worldwide sex-abuse crisis, Australia not being exempt, as in the Victorian Parliamentry Inquiry and Royal Commission called for in NSW.

L Newington | 08 October 2012  

Good to see you pushing through and around the boundaries again Mick. A well reasoned argument that needs to be further dispersed.

Tom Cranitch | 09 October 2012  

From what I know, those parishes, communities and religious orders maintaining the "treacle" of devotional piety have in general much healthier demographics than those entities who consider themselves above such things.

HH | 09 October 2012  

thank you Michael and Karl. a mystical experience of a dawn on a mountain, full moon setting and sunrising allowed me to experience eternal now... The Eucharist brings focus. No matter how much I struggle though I cannot find the same in the limiting of the world I know from pre Vatican ll. I have never worked out how to put God back in the box.

john | 11 October 2012  

I was interested in how so many of your comments and analyses resonated with a new Catholic Church reform group growing in size here in the UK. I attended a "Call to Action" gathering of some 300 priests and people in Heythrop College, London, yesterday, a report of which is on the website: www.acalltoaction.org.uk

Sue Oakley | 12 October 2012  

Joe Castley 08 Oct 2012
"What does it mean to say Jesus is God?"

It means following an interpretation put on Jesus by those Gentile who became Followers of THE WAY. Their convertion is traced in Acts 11:19,and 11:26, when they first became called Christians. A note(l) in the Jerusalem Bible says "The nickname shows that the pagans of Antioch took the title "Christ" as a proper name". This shows their misunderstanding of the origin of The Way. The Way had an enormous impact on millions of people and lasted for hundreds od years. The Gentiles, on learning that it grew from the 'sayings' assembled in the preaching of Jesus (although not originated by him), and followed their custom of deifying anyone of renown- as when deifying Paul and Barnabas(Acts 14:11). The converted Gentiles inserted into the stories brought to them by the first Jewish 'Followers',- the infancy stories, and the miracles attributed to Jesus, taking them from their old pagan religions, evidently to 'boost' the status of 'Christianity'. The Gospels were written by these converted Greek-speaking Gentiles, not being finalised until the 4th C. The Trinitatian formula Mt 26, did not originate till then.

Robert Liddy | 12 October 2012  

As a Protestant theological college student I read with great interest about Vatican II around the same time I read liberation theology. At least the Roman Catholic communion has had a Vatican II. Protestants by and large are still enmeshed within a ghetto mentality. They worship their cultural icons with noise and chaos. Where is the Protestant version of Vatican II. Sorely needed!

Andrew Curtis | 12 October 2012  

One of the problems with talking about mysticism in the contemporary Catholic Church is that it is easy to forget that the great mystics of the Church: St Ignatius of Loyola; St Francis of Assisi and similar all seem to have arisen at times when the Church needed radical revival in its spiritual life and in the way it dealt with the situation in the contemporary world. The Franciscan emphasis on Love and Charity and the Jesuit emphasis on Spirituality and Education were their legacies. Both the saints I mention had quite remarkable God-given spiritual experiences, which enabled them both to gain the remarkable insight into the essence of Christianity they had and to do something practical which would revive the Church and enhance its life and mission. The experience, mystical insight and its practical application live on in the charism of the religious orders they founded and the lives they influence. The problem is that the clergy within these orders and those associated with their spiritualities are becoming older and often not being replaced in sufficient quantity to carry on the work as it needs to be. The late Michel Quoist thought in the last century that it was necessary to develop a spirituality for contemporary married people. This may be something which needs doing.

Edward F | 13 October 2012  

To EDWARD F, I would argue that in the spirit Vatican II, the church is empowering lay people and stating that scarcity of clergy is no excuse for not encouraging spiritual charisms. I would even argue that the spirituality of Inigo Loyola was developed for lay people rather than the celibate orders. (Also read the VII documents about The Church in the Modern World par 16 and 43)

AURELIUS | 16 October 2012  

If you read my posts carefully, Aurelius, you might perceive that the spiritual graces I discuss which were given to certain saints, which enabled their mystic insights and work of renewal, were carried on in their orders as a result of this charism. The charism is a God-given grace which cannot be presumed on: it is a free gift given for the betterment of the Church and humanity. It sometimes took the Church a while to recognise the genuineness of the gifts imparted to St Francis and St Ignatius. This can be seen as natural caution. There were/are many people, both clerical and lay, claiming great charismatic gifts recently. It is wise, both for the Church and individuals, to exercise due care with these claims.

Edward F | 16 October 2012  

Hmm, interesting. So in order to attain this mysterious mystical charism or spiritual grace, one must first be celibate and preferably male? I think religious bureaucracy has already reached its limits and you won't see too many true mystics brave enough to take any leaps of faith. They'd be cut down or crucified. True spiritual leadership seems to be coming from the most unheard of places in this generation - from the atheist movement (not because of its rejection of God - but because its stripping back the lies and superstitious and fear - and once again making people "free" to contemplate what God should look like)

AURELIUS | 16 October 2012  

Thank you Michael, I enjoyed your article!

Jacques Duraud S.J. | 16 October 2012  

The Vatican says Vatican II did not invalidate past doctrines. "What was, still is." -Pope Paul VI (pope during Vatican II) http://www.vatican.va/roman_curia/congregations/cfaith/documents/rc_con_cfaith_doc_20070629_responsa-quaestiones_en.html#_ftn4

Jojo | 30 November 2012  

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