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Faith in the future as an act of re-membering the past


We live in a time of outsourced memory. No longer do we need to remember the many intricate passwords we are required to enter before enjoying yet another convenience or necessity in our daily lives. Computers do the work for us, leaving us free to divert our attention elsewhere. While I am deeply grateful not to have to memorise such increasingly hard-to-remember passwords, I must admit that I seem to be losing a certain memory muscle. It’s not just the onset of middle age, I think (I hope not!).

Yet in this age of the convenient outsourcing of memory we suddenly find ourselves easily forgetting not just the small things, but also losing a greater appreciation for the larger story behind events. History is becoming increasingly irrelevant under the ever-more demanding pressures of the ‘now’, and our growing anxieties about the future. With such concerns in front of us, history seems antiquated, even irrelevant.

Let me give an example. In my professional life as an academic theologian, I encounter an analogous loss of memory regarding what was perhaps the most significant event in recent Catholic cultural memory, the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965). When I mention that I am the director of a research centre devoted to studying this Council, I have experienced two very opposite reactions. The first is one of visible and audible despair that ‘Vatican Two’ represented an unmitigated disaster; the Catholic Church, I am told, turned its back sixty years ago on all that was good, true and beautiful. This loss of an aesthetic sense of Catholic tradition is then articulated back to me as the need for a ‘reform of the reform’. We should only ever have had one Vatican Council, the first one, held from 1869 to 1870. In fact, sometimes the nostalgia for a lost past is so strong that it stretches all the way back to the Council of Trent (held between 1545 and 1563). But how would going back even further in time alleviate our dissatisfaction with events of only 60 years ago?

The second, opposite, reaction comes from people who feel that the Second Vatican Council did not go far enough. Yes, maybe it was relevant for its time, but how much of its vision for a Church engaged in the modern world was actually successfully implemented? Instead, how many hopes of that generation, particularly of women and lay people, were eventually dashed in the decades that followed? If the Second Vatican Council was not the answer, holding a third one today would fail to capture the imagination of those that remain.

Both groups of people, coming from opposite ends of the spectrum, and who normally disagree on most things, would actually in this case both agree that the Second Vatican Council is of little relevance today. What I miss, however, from both views is a proper historical appreciation of the Council. Both views are usually emotive responses, admittedly uttered in conversation without sufficient nuance, but nonetheless reflecting popular perceptions. My own dismay is that awareness of the careful historical work that has gone into situating the Council, and the long drafting process of its documents, is almost always lacking from such gut reactions.

But, while I could spend this time pleading for greater awareness of the careful historical studies of the Council, perhaps I can add a personal dimension to my plea for a greater appreciation of history, certainly when it comes to remembering the Second Vatican Council. My connection to this Council is neither direct nor immediate. To be honest, it was my late parents who fully experienced the theological, liturgical, and practical changes of the Council’s implementation. This wasn’t simply about whether the priest faced the congregation or not. Instead, before meeting each other they had both contemplated a more committed religious life. The option before them was a consecrated life either as a priest or nun. This would still be the case today, but the Second Vatican Council also made it possible for them to pursue further studies in academic theology as lay people, something that was not common before the Council. This resulted in the sense of validation that one could live a more committed religious life as lay people. The issue here is not whether they were pious Church-going Catholics. More fundamentally, they remained committed to faith. So strong was this commitment that it took hold in their children.

My own journey into academic theology flows directly from their commitment. So, even though I do not owe, nor have, a direct link back to the Second Vatican Council, nonetheless my parents’ commitment to religiosity in an increasingly secular and complex world, can in fact be traced back to the vision of those who worked tirelessly at the Council. One of my colleagues correctly refers to the Council as an ‘event’, meaning it cannot be reduced to one point in time, or just the documents. It was a whole process. In fact, it is a process that continues to this day. As a child of Singaporean parents yet born in Belgium and married to a Lithuanian wife, I reflect the global, multicultural, community that the Catholic Church embraced as it lived into the vision of the Council, a church very much in and of the modern world. Only last year, the Catholic Church appointed the first Singaporean cardinal. Imagine what it means for people like me to see the Catholic Church gradually begin to reflect back in its hierarchy the global church that is present in the pews.

As a trained biblical scholar, I have found that the Second Vatican Council offers an anchor to my work in academic theology. For instance, the Council’s document on revelation, Dei Verbum, always reminds me that I am more than just a biblical historian. I have a theological responsibility to bring the fruits of my research back to my faith community and help nourish their faith needs.

In addition, the Second Vatican Council has made it possible for lay academics like me to be involved in important theological encounters. I am honoured to be involved in ecumenical dialogue as a member of the Anglican Roman Catholic International Commission by appointment from the Vatican. Then there is my interfaith work, in Jewish-Christian and Christian-Muslim relations, which flows directly from the Council’s document, Nostra Aetate, a document that considers dialogue with other religions as a theological necessity.

 I would therefore like to suggest that we can bypass the seeming impasse of competing and opposite views of the Council by concentrating on the personal reasons and connections that link us back indirectly, and yet vitally, to that momentous event in recent Catholic history. In remembering the past, our involvement in that act of remembering matters. We re-member the past. It is we who keep the ongoing legacy of the Second Vatican Council alive. We cannot outsource memories of the Council to perceptions borrowed from others. We owe it to ourselves, if we are to remain committed as people of faith, to recognise that it is we who give meaning to that faith. It is a collaborative process in every much the same way that the Second Vatican Council was a collaborative process in its time. It wasn’t simply left to the Pope (for there were two popes who presided) or the Council fathers, or the theologian consultors. It was all of us. So too is the task that lies ahead of us today. It is we, all of us, and not simply the hierarchy of the Catholic Church, who are entrusted with the task of weaving further the great story of faith that precedes us. And together we will help to map the future that lies ahead of us.




Dr Emmanuel Nathan is Director of the Research Centre for Studies of the Second Vatican Council at the Faculty of Theology and Philosophy, Australian Catholic University. He is based in Sydney.

Main image: 9 September 1963: H H Pope Paul VI (Giovanni Battista Montini) opened the second session of the Ecumenical Council at the Vatican. (Keystone/Getty Images)

Topic tags: Emmanuel Nathan, Memory, Remembering, Vatican II, Vatican Council



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Vatican II has been a central topic in my Faith life. A Nun in fist class, told me that it was happening and would be very important to me.
We studied it in the Seminary and now as a lay person I have participated in two different parishes, in group discussions, lasting months. First looking at Visions of Vatican II by Ormond Rush and second a study of Lumen Gentium.
I think it is extremely relevant to us today.
Thanks for your article.

Martin Nicol | 20 July 2023  

I had the great good fortune of being in the Juvenate and then the Novitiate of the Christian Brothers in 1965 and 1966 - the final year of the Council and year one of what I experienced as the resurrection of the body. The Christies were early adopters of the Council, and in both institutions the focal point of that process was the new liturgy. For me the beating heart of the resurrection was the music that was written for it. The first sung Mass in English written by Richard Connolly and the hymns of the Living Parish Hymn Book still reverberate in my memory. In classrooms we inhaled the documents of the Council and were astonished in the best possible way by access to Biblical scholarship, mostly at that time by Protestant scholars - which raises the other big issue: ecumenism. OMG! The thrill of talking to Protestants as equals was to know that the mould which had shaped us as an exclusive cult had been broken. Inclusiveness had arrived - not only in the church but in the whole of the Western world. The Post WWII response to the Holocaust and Decolonisation saw the systematic and comprehensive questioning every assumption and certainty we have ever held and the gradual redefinition of our values and commitments. The core of that process is the spirit of inclusiveness against which a significant minority is railing. Opposition to the Second Vatican Council is motivated by the same atavistic instinct as the denigration of ‘Woke’ commitments in civil society.

Paul Smith | 21 July 2023  

Although I consider myself theologically literate, I am slightly wary of academic theologians. In that I mirror Kierkegaard, who is on record as saying 'The theologian is the Antichrist.' The thing about religion is that it needs to be living and this harks back to Ezekiel and his vision of the Valley of Dry Bones. The late Father Bob Maguire was very much a Second Vatican Council man. His church was always full and his social work wonderful. His cup ran over. I hope one day he will be recognized as a saint. I remember dimly, in the aftermath of the Raj in India, the last European Archbishop of Bombay, Thomas Roberts, resigning and handing over to the first Indian Archbishop, because our time was really up. The Catholic Church mirrors Australia's multiracialism. The Catholics, even in the 1950s and 1960s, were always more ethnically diverse than the Anglicans and Protestants. We need to move beyond theological dialogue and its adjuncts to something deeper. Until then, it's just all talk.

Edward Fido | 21 July 2023  

Vatican II was democracy in action. But after all the arguments and discussions, it is the final documents, voted on and promulgated by the Pope, that trump all the earlier arguments and discussions, and become part of the Magisterium.

This democracy was rejected by ultra-traditionalists like Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre, and diehard progressives like Rev Francis Murphy: "More important than the documents, the Council has consecrated a new spirit." Russel Shaw, Secretary of the US Conference of Catholic Bishops noted: "For progressives, the beauty of the spirit of Vatican II was that it permitted them to dismiss the council's teachings while at the same time claiming to champion the council."

After decades of decline, the only growth congregations are Latin Mass ones, which the Vatican has now restricted by emotively asserting they are dismissive of Vatican II. Couldn't attendees be attracted to the beauty of an ancient rite that inspired Mozart, Beethoven, and Michelangelo?

Recently, the Vatican defended its invitation to photographer Andres Serano, celebrated for his work "Piss Christ", with Bishop Paul Tighe stating the artist was resorting "to strong measures to waken us up." Does the Vatican really think faith will be awakened by seeing a crucifix in urine?

Ross Howard | 22 July 2023  

I wonder if I get what Emmanuel is saying. If we say, being Christians, that the highest form of truth must be the truth as God perceives it, and God lives in an eternal present, then, we must "remember" only if our minds capture that thing of the past as it is.

The Church's highest form of worship is the Mass. It's officially called the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass and, in it, we are all spiritually transported to the Crucifixion as it is happening in an act of "re-membering". (One wonders why the Church doesn't call its highest form of worship the Holy Celebration of the Resurrection in which we are all transported to the garden in front of an open grave. And whether this implies that the monument on the wall behind and dominating the altar should be Christ-on-the-Cross, not Christ Resurrected. Perhaps these are for another day.)

s martin | 24 July 2023  

It's almost 60 years since the Second Vatican Council and much water has flowed under the bridge since then. Professional theologians, clerical or lay, have had much time to debate its effects and opinions are sharply divided. My own opinion, as a non-theologian, theological literate is that the results are mixed. Some liturgical innovations and some modern hymns seem banal to me. I am all for worship which is sublime and which raises you up. The liturgy and music in some of our great cathedrals - Sydney and Brisbane for example - does that. I wish more of the old Anglican hymns, such as those by St John Henry Newman, were taken on board. There is wonderful, orthodox biblical scholarship by such as Tom Wright, former Anglican Bishop of Durham, which is about as good as it gets. What I don't like and what the Catholic Church needs to beware of is the nonsense talked by the current Archbishop of York, no real scholar, about the Lord's Prayer. This to me represents a sort of ecclesiastical Nihilism. We need to be wary of this.

Edward Fido | 26 July 2023  

Is it a factual truth that if a claimed factual truth is secure, it can be disputed as many times as there are disputants, and it will remain unrebutted, and be set stronger in its place after each rebuttal?

Surely, a Christian has to accept as factual truth that God only makes something a factual truth if it will always remain so. Perhaps, disputation is good, being the fire that tests the gold.

Is the Lord a "Father"? Surely, God is not a "Father" simply because he says so. He must have good rational reasons accessible to the non-religious mind which, by definition, is a mind which is waiting to be converted. Otherwise, he is a God of caprice, not reason.

How is a "father" conceptually different from a "mother"? God created two sexes and their accompanying genders because, if God is a god of reason, humans ought to have two sexes. That condition doesn't exist just because it exists; it exists because that's the way it ought to exist. Or God is caprice instead of reason.

How do we show that God as a "father" is not a convention, like the universally accepted but false Mercator projection?

s martin | 28 July 2023  

I think there is a time, S Martin, when you either have to take something on Faith because of who taught it and their authenticity or reject it and go your own way. The Bible (Matt.6:13) tells us Jesus taught the Lord's Prayer in which he referred to Almighty God as 'Our Father.' Jesus' life authenticates that for me. I see neither the Catholic nor Orthodox Church rejecting that prayer.

Edward Fido | 29 July 2023  
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". . . you either have to take something on faith because of who taught it and their authenticity or reject it. . ." Your thinking here echoes the line of Aquinas' hymn, Edward: "Truth himself speaks truly, or there's nothing true."

John RD | 02 August 2023  

The biblical reference in my last post should read Matt 6: 9-13. My apologies.

Edward Fido | 29 July 2023  

With many broadsides fired at Vatican II & the modernity it ushered in, Edward Fido needs to consider another side to the coin.

In vacating the see of Bombay, the still youthful Tom Roberts SJ, took time off to consider his Jesuit ministry, which he faithfully delivered to seamen around the world. While doing this he dwelt in great detail on the challenge that family-size posed for the people of India, currently set to overtake China's population within the decade.

His writerly & pastoral skills meant that when invited to attend the 1964 International Eucharistic Congress in Bombay, presided over by Paul VI, he was assiduously ignored by his successor, Cardinal Gracias, by all accounts a bishop unworthy of his predecessor.

Roberts went on to edit two impeccably well-argued theological tomes on various problems associated with the urgency with which the Church needed to address the social & cultural forces impelling millions of people to seek a containment of a population problem that now threatens, by +Francis' own admission, to destroy the globe.

For this Tom was pilloried & made to accompany his nuncio, Archbishop O'Hara, to Rome to be interrogated. With O'Hara dropping dead on the tarmac, 'causa finita'!

Michael Furtado | 02 August 2023  

Given Vatican II's "Dogmatic Constitution on the Church" 's affirmation of the Eucharist as being "the source and summit of the Christian life" (Lumen Gentium II, 11), I find curious indeed Dr Nathan's suggestion that being "committed to faith" is a separate and more fundamental issue than "Church-going", not least for its playing down of the necessity and significance of the sacrament that celebrates the salvific death of Christ and enables communion with him; and, in him, with fellow believers, now and in eternity.

John RD | 02 August 2023  
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John RD is undoubtedly correct. For Catholics regular participation in the celebration of the Eucharistic mysteries is at the core of our membership of the Body of Christ. In this sense I see no necessary challenge or contradiction to such a view issued by Dr Nathan in an illuminating discussion in which he seeks to also draw attention to the other side of John's precious and indivisible coin. This is surely to emphasise the commitment we also undertake to carry out when we take Christ out into the World as part of our post-Communal thanksgiving.

Michael Furtado | 03 August 2023  

VATICAN II, if nothing else, certainly produced a modicum of controversy. I have always considered controversy as the engine room of argument and there is no doubt that much argument has followed Vat II. Argument is a double-edged sword producing either good or bad outcomes. When properly predicated, however, argument is the essential machinery of progress. We have seen the decline rather than the progress of the Catholic Church in the wake of Vatican II which suggests that perhaps not all of the argument has been properly predicated. So much argument has revolved around human demands (eg lay power and influence in the Church, contraception, women's rights, etc) rather than the well recorded nature of Christ's Church in the scriptures. It is a divine not a human construct and its about time we started to predicate our arguments on that concept rather than on the selfish demands of the human. The we might in the wake of properly predicated argument begin to see progress rather than decline.

John Frawley | 03 August 2023  
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John is undoubtedly right to critique the false dichotomy that infects and poisons discussion on major aspects of the impact of Vatican II. Doubtless such confected disagreements have turned a great many off practice.

John is therefore right to warn against the major penalty that debate, no matter how well-intentioned, exacts in terms of jaundice spread in response to the degree of toxicity that some on both sides employ in order to drive home their point of view.

One way of healing this somewhat artificial and unnecessary breach is to consider that, while the Scriptures do indeed provide our primary source of information about Jesus, it is also the case that hermeneutical reflection has contributed to assisting in our understanding of Him and His witness as well as their application within the context of our lived experience through the ages.

Accordingly, faith itself becomes a complex discourse, allowing, nay encouraging, the relating of Jesus' many parables, and no one-sided explanations of which can be reduced to a matter of accepting a static truth.

That is why spirituality has blessed us with inspired writers, like Diarmid O Murchu, who employs the social sciences as applied to our experience, to deepen understanding.

Michael Furtado | 09 August 2023  

The abuse crisis, still in damage control by the Australian church, predates Vatican II. If we look at all public accusations of abuse in Australia of the 4,392 clergy members analyzed in the report, 1,021 of the incidents were reported to the police. Of these 1,021 accused clergy members, 252 or roughly 25% were criminally convicted, were ordained before Vatican II. Roughly 80% of these cases involved teenage boys.

The numbers were higher in Canada and USA . (40%).

Before Vatican II, schools were set up across this developing Continent and across the ditch, (largely manned by orders of Irish Catholics). Since the RC, the Church has had to pay huge compensation, including NZ and Australia, for systemic abuses that occurred in these schools and orphanages. (source Catholic Bridge).

Vatican II may have been a feel good monumental event presided over by trained theologians, but in retrospect it was a dismal failure in the protection of children in the schools and orphanages run by the major orders. Who also siphoned off millions of dollars in educational and State grants to feather their nests.
Important theological encounters apparently don't mean much when it comes to child protection.

Francis Armstrong | 03 August 2023  

Indian Catholics are now a persecuted minority in Modi's India, Michael Furtado. Would currently limiting their families do them much good in the resurgent sea of Hindus? Thomas Roberts SJ was a good man, but it is not necessary to follow him in all things. Certainly, those who followed him as Archbishops of Bombay were conservative, but I wonder what future a watered-down Catholicism would have in India?

Edward Fido | 03 August 2023  

"Faith?" said Pilate. "What is that?" There's no record that Pilate said as such, but who knows what the record will turn up. Could he have said such a thing, perhaps later in the day over dinner, when his wife asked him why he didn't have faith in her concern? Believe that her dream was more than a dream because he'd always known her to be a sensible person not given to groundless fears?

When is it the time that you take something on Faith because of who said it? When you believe there is a reason beyond the person asserting it, that human minds are designed to remain restless unless they rest in reason, otherwise Reason wouldn't feel obligated to explain everything at the General Judgement?

Until that judgement, we pray, as if everything depends on God, that the answers will come, while, as if everything depends on us, data-mining Scripture and Tradition for evidence of plausibility of Faith?

An example of this would be to ask that if every soul is loved by God as if no other soul existed (a faith rather than a materially empirical assertion), how is "overpopulation" a rational idea within Christian cosmology.

s martin | 04 August 2023  
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I take S Martin's final question to be rhetorical since we have it on the most reliable authority that there are sufficient mansions in heaven to accommodate all who love God and their neighbour.

John RD | 04 August 2023  

If so, has Faith another consequence?

Do these steps follow?

1. If we suppose that God loves a soul as if no other soul exists, must we also suppose that God must also anticipate with delight the advent of that soul?

2. Does this make artificial contraception worse than abortion? Abortion removes the physical housing but leaves God a soul to love. Does contraception produce bereavement, interfering with God's joy, as like a grandparent who is refused grandchildren?

3. Natural contraception, too, when used to evade marriage's genitive purpose, as the Pharisees used korban to evade a valuable item from being used for the poor?

A ouija board isn't always a mysterious artefact discovered cinematically in the woods. Mostly, it's a mundane toy, cardboard and plastic, produced in a factory by ordinary people with ordinary concerns. But its ordinariness belies its seriousness. So too a nondescript tablet produced under ordinary circumstances?

If, as first principle, Faith believes that God loves you with a singular intensity as if no other soul exists, must it also, consistently with first principle, believe that contraception is a claim of sovereignty over a soul, unlike abortion which is a claim of sovereignty over a flesh?

s martin | 08 August 2023  

There is a problem with 'Christian cosmology' if it can't accept that plague numbers of homo-sapiens can be as destructive to their environment as plague numbers of rabbits, locusts, cane toads, carp, etc.!

Ginger Meggs | 08 August 2023  

Useful response to consider.

What is a plague? From the Greek plaga (to strike) or Latin plaga (stroke, wound), where on the planet is it being struck or wounded the most by human presence? In the "Third World" where infrastructure is the most fragile, where chaos and pollution is the most evident? Is that where neutron bombs should be detonated, removing the hapless suffering masses but keeping the infrastructure?

When a body is sick, is it sick all over or only in parts?

Is there a human plague in Australia, Canada, New Zealand?

How about Africa, India and China (4.2 billion)? Like neoliberal budget-cutters, should we be satisfied with a planet of 4.4 billion? There's plenty of suffering in Latin America. Let's say a planet of 4.2 billion moderately wealthy people with lots of leg room. Paradise.

For those who think humans are a plague, by their own reckoning the plague is here already. If they are not promoting neutron bomb surgery in the places where the planet is being struck and wounded the most, they are not answering their own problem.

Or there's no plague and incremental innovation under God will improve even the most densely populated spaces.

s martin | 09 August 2023  

'Useful response' refers to Ginger's post. Scripture calls on Christians to "give an account" of their belief. Thanks, Ginger, for keeping us on our toes!

s martin | 10 August 2023  

Rather than 'Christian cosmology', GM, the problem lies with Malthusian/Erlichian disregard for the individual dignity and eternal scope of every human life, and the greed and rapacity that underlie the rhetoric of 'reproductive health' and the practices it imposes on those whom governments deem superfluous or a threat to vested self-interest.
Friends in a country - one I won't name for the sake of their protection - recount how each month the 'health' team comes to administer compulsory sterilization and perform abortions on locals, whose only recourse is to station alarm-raisers in the trees that fringe the road into their village and hide as best they can from the "life-robbers".

John RD | 09 August 2023  
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I haven't questioned 'individual dignity', nor for that matter 'eternal scope', John. All that I was challenging was s martin's apparent denial, on the basis of theory and in the face of cold hard evidence, that the Earth, and parts of the Earth, have a limited 'carrying capacity' for any and every species, and that overpopulation by any species, including homo sapiens, is always bad news for the ecology of that environment, and often bad news for over-populating species.

Ginger Meggs | 14 August 2023  

Your reservations are reasonable in your context. However, in the Christian context, Faith that what the Earth will do is what the Judaeo-Christian deity called God will determine what the Earth will do is a single package of belief. Meanwhile, a missionary and agronomist called Tony Rinaudo is reforesting deserts, and he's not doing anything new, just doing what others have forgotten.

As mentioned, concern for the environment and respect for the deity is a single package. Contraception (the conventional answer to the perception of overpopulation) isn't the answer because that's trying to wrest from the same deity whose help you want his sovereignty over souls. It's a rather strange way to relate to a benefactor, taking his gifts with one hand while reaching around with the other to filch his wallet.

Meanwhile, perhaps Catholic schools can take more seriously the human vocation to curate Nature and start pumping into the TAFES and universities students who, like Rinaudo, are interested in restoring the Earth.

s martin | 17 August 2023