The Politics of ‘Aggiornamento’

Max Vodola

Contemporary Catholicism is often plagued by ideological rhetoric rather than robust debate when it comes to discussing the significance and implications of the Second Vatican Council. Two conflicting and controversial views often prevail. The first view, expounded by traditionalists, is that the Council was “too much, too soon”. They believe that it was a giant and unnecessary program of reform that was instituted suddenly and with insufficient preparation. They believe that the questions associated with the rapid development of human history following World War II would not have intruded on the Church’s life had it not been for the Council.

One gains the distinct impression that many of these traditionalists wish the Council never took place.

The second view, expounded by more liberal voices in the Church, believe that the “spirit of the Council” has slowly been rescinded by the power of the Roman bureaucracy, particularly during the pontificate of John Paul II. These advocates often feel a sense of disenchantment with the Church and long for the day of the Third Vatican Council in the hope of recreating at some future time what was done in the excitement of the early 1960s. Their sense of disenchantment is sometimes mixed with deep feelings of nostalgia.

Much of the debate centres around the figure of John XXIII and the sudden and extraordinary change that he instituted. However, it was not change for the sake of change. Pope John wanted the Church to discern the signs of the times and renew itself in the light of the Gospel. To do so required a certain amount of aggiornamento (updating), that somewhat ambiguous and politically divisive word which is at the heart of the ideological turbulence so evident in the Church from the very moment the Council was announced. It is a term intimately and controversially linked with the memory of John XXIII.

I suggest there are two important and sometimes overlooked factors here. The first is that aggiornamento has firm pastoral and intellectual foundations in the tradition of the Church and was incredibly formative in the life of Pope John himself.

Secondly, the Catholic Church had in fact begun a very slow and subtle process of aggiornamento, particularly in the areas of liturgy, biblical scholarship and the lay apostolate, long before John XXIII called the Council in 1959. The present controversies about the Council are fundamentally about John XXIII and the politics of change, its necessity, implementation and most importantly, the way change is interpreted in the history of the Church.

At the beginning of the twentieth century, change was not on the agenda of Pope St Pius X (1903-14). In fact, he was an anti-intellectual fighter against many changes that he considered evil. Pius X ensured, by his unrelenting crusade against Modernism, that the fortress-like structure of the Catholic Church would resist any form of change. He placed suspect writings on the Index of Prohibited Books and condemned many modern propositions from historico-critical methods in theology to liberal democratic principles in politics.

In his encyclicals, Lamentabili and Pascendi, both issued in 1907, Pius X used strong words of condemnation and gave orders that all dioceses were to establish a Council of Vigilance and all priests were to take an oath disavowing Modernism.

There was a flood of suspicion and reprisal. Liberal Catholic periodicals were suppressed, and seminary teachers and academics were disgraced and dismissed. According to the eminent Catholic historian, Eamon Duffy, the impact of the Modernist crisis on Catholic intellectual life was catastrophic (Saints & Sinners: A History of the Popes, Yale University Press 1997, 251).

However, in one of the great ironies of history, a number of developments in the life of the Church had in fact set Catholicism on the path of aggiornamento. Pius X is best and somewhat fondly remembered for lowering the age for first communion and encouraging frequent, even daily, communion by the faithful. According to Owen Chadwick, this amounted to a revolution in the liturgical practice of worship:

“Historians, in hindsight, if asked which act of which pope did most to affect the Church since 1800, would put their finger on this change of 1905-6, the encouragement of frequent, even daily communion, and the receiving of it by children “(A History of the Popes: 1830-1914, Oxford University Press, 1998, 362).

This development also coincided with the beginning in Europe of what came to be known as the liturgical movement, which began with small groups of scholars who promoted dialogue Masses, vernacular translations of sacramental rites, lay participation and the study of the history and spirituality of the Church’s public worship.

Despite opposition to these liturgical developments, Rome encouraged such lay participation. This was the beginning of restoring the organic unity and sacramental integrity of the liturgy, which had been weighed down by excessive rubrical encumbrances since the Council of Trent.

If Pius X can be recognised for initiating liturgical changes, then Pius XI (1922-39) deserves the credit for encouraging the rapid expansion of Catholic Action, a major effort by the Church to organise, encourage and develop the participation of the laity in the mission of the Church. This development was the cornerstone of what the Second Vatican Council came to articulate as the unique and indispensable place of the laity in the life of the Church, the universal priesthood of all believers and the universal call to a life of holiness in the world.

The apostolate of Catholic Action flourished in Europe through the efforts of the Belgian priest, Joseph Cardijn, and those who joined him in his efforts.

He established the Young Christian Workers (YCW) and encouraged the discussion and dissemination of Catholic social principles according to the real life situation of the participants, through his well-known model: ‘See, Judge and Act’. The aim of the YCW was to bring Christian moral principles to bear on modern industry and to keep the young of the working classes within the life of the Church by forming them as peer leaders in their own right and not merely as delegates of the clergy.

In Australia, Catholic Action began tentatively in 1931 with the formation of the Campion Society at Melbourne University. The suffering of the Depression sparked the beginnings of a new social and philosophical awareness among members of a small group of young Catholic intellectuals and university students. This group included men such as Denys Jackson, Frank Maher, Kevin Kelly and BA Santamaria. They established the highly successful Catholic Worker newspaper and were instrumental in the formation of the Australian National Secretariat of Catholic Action. (See Bruce Duncan’s Crusade or Conspiracy? Catholics and the Anti-Communist Struggle in Australia, UNSW Press, 2001.)

The enhanced role of the laity continued to take shape during the long pontificate of Pius XII, who authorised a number of further significant developments in the life of the Church. These were relatively creative for their time and continued the process of aggiornamento.

On 29 June 1943, the Pope issued the encyclical Mystici Corporis (On the Mystical Body of Christ). This represented a move towards a more organic and sacramental definition of the Church rather than a strictly juridical one that treated the Church only as a hierarchical and entirely supernatural institution.

In a similar way, Mediator Dei (On the Sacred Liturgy), published on 20 November 1947, addressed issues such as the vernacular in the liturgy and the active participation of the lay faithful. In addressing the issue of enhancing public worship in the life of the Church, this encyclical gave birth to the more modern liturgical movement which, in 1955, was instrumental in reforming the entire Holy Week cycle and restoring the liturgical prominence of the Easter Vigil.

As a young seminarian in Rome, Angelo Roncalli embraced with enthusiasm the study of history, archaeology, secular and religious art. His preference was Patristics. At twenty years of age he wrote:

“I do not hold critical thinking in contempt and I will guard against having sinister thoughts about critics or lacking in respect for them; quite the contrary, I like critical studies and I will enthusiastically follow the latest results of research; I will keep up with new systems, with their constant development, and I will study their tendencies; critical investigation is light and truth for me: and truth is holy, and there is only one truth …I shall take comfort in the fact that God arranges everything for the sacred treasure of his Revelation to become ever clearer and purer”(Loris Capovilla, John XXIII: Witness to the Tenderness of God, Mediaspaul, 2001, 25).

In the midst of the great anti-Modernist crusade of the early twentieth century, Roncalli began lecturing in ecclesiastical history at the local seminary in Bergamo, northern Italy. He was sympathetic to those writers and intellectuals who attempted to reconcile faith and reason. He was particularly fond of Antonio Rosmini (1797-1855), priest, patriot and philosopher who devoted his life to reconciling Catholicism with modern political and scientific thought.

Roncalli was also fond of Cesar Baronius (1538-1607), the father of ecclesiastical history. In a lecture at the Bergamo seminary in December 1907 to commemorate the third centenary of the death of Baronius, Roncalli began to speak a language that would later become the hallmark of his pontificate and an essential intellectual framework of the Second Vatican Council.

In speaking of Baronius, Roncalli defended historical criticism and claimed that Baronius had quite rightly been hailed as the founder of this scholarly method. It meant that Roncalli could cautiously assert that the Church had been the first in the field of historical criticism.

This was a clever move of tactical brilliance. According to Roncalli, the general renewal of Catholic scholarship promoted by Baronius was still on the agenda, despite the Modernist controversy that had begun to engulf the Church in a tense atmosphere of suspicion, fear and ecclesiastical sanction. (On becoming pope in 1958, he visited the Holy Office and asked to see his personal file, which contained details of his early career. It was marked: “Suspected of Modernism”. See Paul Johnson, Pope John XXIII, Hutchinson & Co, 1974, 37.)

Soon after his time as a lecturer in ecclesiastical history, Roncalli was appointed secretary to the Bishop of Bergamo, Giacomo Radini Tedeschi. This appointment would have a profound influence on the future pope. He was Tedeschi’s secretary from 1905 to 1914.

Tedeschi was both mentor and father figure to Angelo Roncalli. From this unique vantage point, Roncalli accompanied Tedeschi as he re-organised the diocese, issued pastoral letters, organised Catholic Action and major congresses, revised the seminary curriculum and undertook the patient and time-consuming task of parochial visitation. Roncalli described the Synod of 1910 as the most solemn and important event of Tedeschi’s episcopate.

There had been no synod in Bergamo since 1742. At the Synod of 1910, local customs and laws were brought into line with the needs of modern times and altered circumstances. (A. Roncalli, My Bishop: A Portrait of Mgr Giacomo Maria Radini Tedeschi, Geoffrey Chapman, 1969, 92.)

Another undertaking of a more academic nature would make an enormous pastoral impression on the future pope. As a young history lecturer Roncalli became very interested in the life of St Carlo Borromeo (1538-84), the brilliant and distinguished Archbishop of Milan, who undertook major reform in that diocese after the Council of Trent. Roncalli undertook the monumental task of translating all the pastoral decrees, spiritual exhortations and synodal instructions issued by Borromeo and publishing them in a five-volume series, the last of which was completed soon after his election as pope.

In Borromeo, Roncalli found an intelligent and zealous pastor. In order to reform the diocese, Borromeo undertook meticulous pastoral visitation, followed by an extensive diocesan synod. He convoked six provincial councils and eleven diocesan synods.

Roncalli adopted Borromeo’s belief that the diocesan bishop is the authentic agent of pastoral renewal in his diocese and not some Roman bureaucrat. Following his election to the papacy in October 1958, Roncalli insisted that the papal coronation take place on 4 November, a Wednesday rather than the traditional Sunday. It was the feast of St Carlo Borromeo.

The influence of Borromeo was clearly evident when Roncalli convoked the diocesan synod of Venice in 1957, following an extensive round of pastoral visitation throughout the diocese. It was a year before his election to the papacy. In his pastoral letter to the priests and people of Venice, he wrote:

“You’ve probably heard the word aggiornamento repeated so many times. Well, Holy Church who is ever youthful wants to be in a position to understand the diverse circumstances of life so that she can adapt, correct, improve and be filled with fervour. That in brief is the nature of the Synod, and that is its goal” (Peter Hebblethwaite, John XXIII: Pope of the Council, Harper Collins, 1984, 264).

(Fr Max Vodola was ordained for the Melbourne archdiocese in 1997 and is currently pastor at St Joseph the Worker, North Reservoir, Vic.)