The Unfinished Business of Vatican II

Geoffrey Robinson

When numbers of bishops come together, they are at ease with discussion of pastoral issues, but much less comfortable with discussion of profound theological issues. This is true whether we are speaking of a meeting of the Australian bishops in Conference or of the Synod of Bishops in Rome, and I believe it was true also of the Second Vatican Council.

The Council opened up perspectives, raised questions, indicated directions and made many beautiful and inspiring pastoral statements, but it frequently did not give the clear theological foundation on which to plan confidently for the Church of the future. All too often a tension between very different theological positions was part of the Council’s treatment of a topic. This was certainly true of the Council’s treatment of collegiality, conscience and marriage, among others. It is one of the major reasons why we must entitle this forum “Vatican II: Unfinished Business”.

It is important to understand that these tensions were present in the Council itself and in the documents it produced. Opposing groups within the Church can quote different statements to support their own positions. It is not surprising, therefore, that these tensions are still with us.

Despite this, I am an optimist about the final outcome of the Council. In large part my optimism comes from the least likely source imaginable, the crisis concerning sexual abuse of minors that has engulfed the Church.

It is my hope that, somewhere around the year 2100, an historian will be able to look back and say that serious change took place in the Catholic Church in the hundred years between 1960 and 2060. At first it was the Second Vatican Council that caused changes in most aspects of the Church’s life and had a quite profound effect on the way Catholic people lived their lives. Eventually, however, the changes of the Council seemed to come to a stop and go no further. It was then, in the twenty-first century, the historian will say, that the issue of sexual abuse forced further change. Serious change in an organisation as large and ancient as the Catholic Church requires an immense energy and it was the issue of sexual abuse alone that had that level of energy, for it was this issue that finally caused vast numbers of Catholic people around the world to rise up and say, “This is not good enough. There must be change.”

And so, our future historian might report, a further series of profound changes came over the Church in the first half of the twenty-first century. They were mainly in the two areas of sex and power. They did not come without fierce opposition, but the energy for change arising from sexual abuse was so great that eventually they did come.

Human development came to be put beside spiritual development and the two began to walk hand in hand. What was spiritually healthy and what was psychologically healthy began to shed light on each other. Sexuality was distinguished from sex, spirit and matter were reunited and joy in every aspect of God’s creation began to spread. The gifts of women came to be better appreciated. Power came to be seen as service, as Jesus had intended, and collaboration and empowerment became daily more common.

It is extremely unlikely that our historian will be able to report that everything became as perfect as this, but I hope that she will be able to report serious progress.

In bringing about these changes, I am not calling for a revolution or battles in the street in front of cathedrals. The issue of abuse is complex and sensitive, and it does not allow of instant and sweeping solutions. (Will you allow me to repeat that sentence: The issue of abuse is complex and sensitive, and it does not allow of instant and sweeping solutions.) The whole Church must work together. But the immense energy for change that sexual abuse has aroused must not be lost. It must grow stronger, and it must be harnessed and used effectively.

Permit me to give a few examples. I would like to see a massive request from the Catholic people of the whole world to the Pope, asking him to put in motion a serious study of any and all factors within the Church that might foster a climate of abuse or contribute to the covering up of abuse. I would like to see an insistence that obligatory celibacy, attitudes to sex and sexuality and all the ways in which power is understood and exercised within the Church at every level be part of this study. I would, however, want a truly serious and scientific study, far deeper than anything I have so far seen in newspapers or heard around a table.

As a second example, I would like to see a massive request/demand that the collegiality the Vatican Council spoke of be used to the full in responding to this crisis. If collegiality is not fully used in an issue so important, so down-to-earth and so crucial to the effectiveness of the Church, then the Vatican Council is truly unfinished business. It does not involve any dogmas of faith, so there is no reason not to respect the needs and values of each culture. This surely means the Vatican listening to the needs of each country and not imposing the “foreign” solutions they have imposed, e.g. establishing a statute of limitations of ten years for bringing forward an accusation of abuse or insisting that all cases must be heard by a tribunal consisting solely of priests and referred to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in Rome.

As a third example, I would like to see the 32 diocesan bishops and 150 leaders of religious institutes in Australia give up some of their independence for the sake of all of us acting as one on this issue. However, I realise that in the Catholic Church people treasure any independence they do have and are slow to surrender it. I also know that before the Council bishops rode roughshod over the rights of religious, especially women religious, so some religious can today be resistant to any suggestion that comes from a bishop. As I said, the issues can be complex and sensitive.

Nevertheless, my thesis is simple. The Second Vatican Council was the greatest event in the Church in my lifetime. It has inspired my life over the last forty years. But because its theology was frequently far from clear, it is unfinished business, and two of the areas that absolutely demand further work are sex and power. For these two issues the crisis of sexual abuse alone gives the enormous energy that is needed for further change to occur. We should respond to the crisis of abuse for its own sake and the sake of the victims, but we should also seek to use its energy creatively, sensitively and intelligently in order to take further the unfinished business of the Council.

In everything he did and in everything he said, Jesus Christ sang a song. Sometimes, when he cured a sick person, he sang softly and gently, a song full of love. Sometimes, when he told one of his beautiful stories, he sang a haunting panpipe melody that, once heard, is never forgotten. Sometimes, when he defended the rights of the poor, his voice grew strong and powerful, until finally, from the cross, he sang so powerfully that his voice filled the universe.

The disciples who heard him thought that this was the most beautiful song they had ever heard, and they began to sing it to others. They did not sing as well as Jesus had – their voices went flat, they forgot some of the words – but they sang to the best of their ability, and the people who heard them thought in their turn that this was the most beautiful song they had ever heard.

And so the song of Jesus gradually spread out from Jerusalem into other lands. Parents began to sing it to their children, and the song passed down through the generations and the centuries.

Sometimes, in the life of a great saint, the song was sung with exquisite beauty. Sometimes, however, it was sung very badly, for the song was so beautiful that there was power in possessing it, and people used the power of the song to march to war and to oppress and dominate others. Always, however, the song was greater than the singers and never lost its ancient beauty.

Among the last places on earth that the song reached was a far-off land that would later be called Australia. At first the song was sung there very badly indeed, for the beauty of the song was drowned by the sound of the lash on the backs of the convicts and the cries of fear of the aboriginal people. But even in that world the song was greater than the singers and gradually, in little wooden homes and churches throughout a vast and dry land, the song was sung with love and affection.

At last the song came down to me, sung gently and lovingly by my parents. Like so many millions of people before me, I too was so captured by the song that I wanted to sing and dance it with my whole life.

A eat Council of the Church came, and I was inspired by the beauty of the song that seemed to be at the very heart of that Council. The overwhelming message I received was that here were two thousand bishops, divided by many issues but united in the song. We met with other churches and found, perhaps to our surprise, that they loved the song as much as we did. In the Scriptures and in the council I found the firm foundations on which I could live my life.

There was always a tension between the beauty of the song and the weakness and the pettiness that I found within myself and in so many others who shared this song with me, but the song sustained me throughout the years.

But then the darkness of evil within the Church gathered around me, and at times it was so deep that it seemed that the very song itself had been conquered. But in the depths of that darkness, when my clinging to the song was based on blind faith rather than on any warm feeling within me, I realised that the song is quite simply part of who I am and it is in the darkness that it is most important to me.

The song must not stop with us and we in our turn must sing it to others. In doing this we must remember that this song has two special characteristics.

The first is that we, too, will never sing the song as well as Jesus did – our voices lack strength and go flat, we misunderstand the words – but, if we sing this song to the best of our ability, people do not hear only our voices. Behind us and through us they hear a stronger and a surer voice, the voice of Jesus.

The second is that we always sing the song better if we can learn to sing it together – not one voice here, another there, each singing different words to different melodies, but all singing the one song in harmony. Then people will truly know that it is still the most beautiful song the world has ever known.

In the early Church, it was customary to take up a collection of money at the celebration of the Eucharist. That money was passed on to the poor and needy. The custom endures to the present day. At the celebration of the Eucharist at the National Forum, a collection was taken up and the proceeds were given to the Sisters of St Joseph for the work with the East Timorese. Representatives of the East Timorese community in Sydney were present to accept the gift. Sr Sue Connolly RSJ, of the Mary MacKillop Institute of East Timorese Studies, wrote the following letter of thanks.

“The mass was great last night and we were very happy to be there. Thanks so much for the opportunity of presenting Timor’s great need to these good people. The amount given was $3,976.50 plus 40 American dollars! Truly, a perfect indication of the state of the heart of the people present at the Forum. I do hope that the whole experience was full of challenge, ideas and a commitment to the hard yards. Love from all of us here, especially Josephine and me.”

(Bishop Geoffrey Robinson is Auxiliary Bishop of Sydney)