“Deconstruction into Reality. Beyond the pain experienced after the Council when the familiar ecclesiological dream was shattered, are the opportunity, challenge and hope of interacting more faithfully with the real world.”

Some years ago in reading Saint Gregory of Nyssa I came across a passage in which God was referred to as anarchos. While my head told me that this meant simply “without beginning”, my imagination seized delightedly on the image of God as anarchist and would not let go. And so today I wish to speak of the divine anarchy that has visited the Church these past 40 years.

You may say that surely it is of a God who brings order into chaos that the Bible speaks. Viewed from the side of God that is undoubtedly the case. From the side of chaos, however, the act of creation meant the end of all that was familiar, and the beginning of a strange and unsettling phase of existence. Since our particular mode of being combines elements both of entrenched chaos and emergent divinity, it is no wonder that sometimes we perceive God’s life-giving activity to be threatening and anarchic as far as concerns the continuance of the order we have established and in which we have reposed our trust.

The reason for this collision of interests is simple. We too easily identify the structures of thought and life that we have created as expressive of ultimate order, whereas in fact they serve only as a tentative means of reducing a huge mass of contradictory data to manageable proportions. There is no guarantee that our familiar constructs have any particular merit. Any system tends to exclude whatever is beyond the scope of its specialised understanding; as a result God tends to be built out of the human structures we erect.

Malcolm Muggeridge used to speak disdainfully of “the Kingdom of Heaven on Earth Incorporated”. If, indeed, the means we devise to incarnate the Kingdom are no more than Babel-like towers, then well may God’s restorative action commence with a work of demolition. We cannot hope to tame and keep at bay indefinitely the saving incomprehensibility of a transcendent God. Eventually God will break through the barriers that our rationality has built.

We Catholics have to beware of what may be called an ecclesial Docetism. We remember, perhaps, that in the early Church Docetism was a heretical strand of thought which so emphasised the divine nature of Jesus that it lost sight of his humanity. In so doing it reduced the mystery of the Incarnation to the level of divine play-acting, whereby God adopted the kindly pretence of being human, as an adult may pretend to join in a doll’s tea party. The mystery of God’s action in the world cannot be thus reduced to a false simplicity. Divine and human coexist and interact. As with Christ, as with us, so with the Church. Especially in situations of conflict and controversy, it is easy to fall into the trap of exaggerating the divine elements in the life of the Church and to overlook those human factors, which result in historical error, misjudgement and impermanence. One of the great barriers to the perennial renewal of the Church is a certain kind of smugness or pious complacency which, at the time of the Council, led to the coining of the word “triumphalism”.

In 1960, the year after Vatican II had been announced, Philip Hughes, the Church historian, produced a history of the ecumenical councils under the title The Church in Crisis. In contrast, it was commonly observed at the time that this new Council would be concerned with renewal; the Church was not in crisis nor did it need reforming. It was just a matter of updating, aggiornamento. Perhaps some attention would be given to individual morality and to particular local problems. But, it was thought, there were no great malfunctions evident in the universal Church. I do not remember hearing much dissent from this view.

In his 1962 book, The Second Vatican Council, the French author Henri Daniel-Rops asks whether the Church of the twentieth century is in a state of crisis, that it stands in need of the same kind of reformation as did the Church of the sixteenth century? Most assuredly this is not so. Cardinal Montini emphasised this aspect when, in inaugurating a study week organised by the University of the Sacred Heart, Milan in September of 1960, he declared: “Unlike many another council, Vatican II will meet at a time when life in the Church is at once peaceful and fervent.”

Recent revelations, however, have given us more information about the secret life of the Church in those days: sexual abuse, the full extent of which has yet to come to light, dubious financial transactions and alliances (not only by the Vatican Bank), and a systematic exclusion from power on the basis of gender, race and social class. What we see now as hidden under the splendid facade is endemic defiance of Gospel values in the areas of sex, money and power: not unlike the issues addressed by the eleventh-century reform of Gregory VII and, centuries later, also by the Council of Trent. Who says that the Church of those days needed no reform?

If the processes set in train by the Vatican Council and other social forces have allowed us to notice that the emperor has no clothes, then we should rejoice that at last we could see how things stand in reality. Of course we are ashamed when scandals become public, disappointed, angry and maybe disillusioned. The depth of our feeling confirms just how entrenched was our failure to perceive the shadow side of the Church. Our need for a blameless Church made us too “charitable” in our assessment of its liabilities. No wonder we are desolate when the hollowness of our hopes is exposed. Perhaps it is for ourselves that we grieve, not the Church!

In the stories of individual men and women, it is often true that it is in the shadow side that the possibility of future growth is to be found. Unearth a potentially tragic flaw and you discover simultaneously the road that leads to heroic virtue. All of us grow spiritually by systematically pulling out the weeds in the garden so that what God has planted may come to flower. Extrapolating from this we may assert that the continued growth of the Church in spirit and truth demands the abandonment of whatever is false. This includes pious fantasy, no matter how sincerely it is held. If the seeming negativity that is all around us causes us to be less cocksure and more cautious then it must be read as a sign of hope, the beginning of new life. First the ground must be cleared and excavated before even a foundation can be laid. It is erroneous to think that human life, be it ever so spiritual, is a matter of pure progress, without any hesitation, wobbling or backsliding. Indeed the text of Job 7:1 is often quoted in this respect: “Is not human life on earth a continual warfare?”

If we are at war who is the enemy? Strangely enough it often seems to be God whose plans for our future differ radically from our own. As Alfred North Whitehead remarked “[Religion] runs through three stages if it evolves to its final satisfaction. It is the transition from God the void to God the enemy, and from God the enemy to God the companion.” Note that middle phase of the progression: God the enemy. God’s initial appearance often seems hostile to us and we resist it. The process by which God enters the perceptual horizons of unredeemed humanity is not without the experience of dread and opposition from the human side.

I say all this as a way of affirming that there is no reason for believing a priori that every structural collapse is a disaster. I see no harm in admitting that in Australia and in many industrialised countries the Church is suffering from a decline in many of the indicators by which we formerly judged its health:

acceptance of the rightness of its moral teaching, particularly in the areas of non-marital sex, contraception and abortion,

recruitment to the priesthood and religious life and the public visibility of consecrated persons,

acceptance of every level of ecclesiastical authority,

adhesion to the integrity of Church teaching, and

an expectation of probity, devotion and even holiness in those who stand up and let themselves be counted as Catholics.

Things have changed. This is the reality, but there is no need for panic. There are still ten thousand who have not bowed their knees to Baal! We need to keep our nerve and analyse the situation, firstly to try to perceive the hand of God at work in the present and, secondly, to devise tactics for going forward in hope — tactics, I should add, to advance the Kingdom of God, and not merely to make us feel better.

To this end I would like to offer three principles. They do not express the whole story, but perhaps they are worth pondering.

First Principle Not every change in the Church that coincided with the work of Vatican II was the result of Vatican II.

In the popular mind everything that has happened in the Church in the last 40 years is due to Vatican II. This is not so. Other forces have also been at work.

The Church of the 1950s, which once appeared immutable, has disappeared forever. In this I make a simple statement of fact, devoid of both regret and exultation. Efforts to re-establish selected practices, common at the time fail to recreate the total atmosphere of the Church as it then was. What strikes me most particularly in retrospect is the massive certainty we Catholics enjoyed. Faith, morals, the sacraments, Church authority and even pious custom seemed set in concrete. There was a distinctive “Catholic” position on history, philosophy, medical ethics and issues of public life. Many of us in Australia grew up accustomed to a particularly insular Catholicism that not only provided us with a firm identity, but implanted in our hearts a subtle sense of superiority that compensated for the predominance of the working class in the Catholic Church. Being Catholic meant that we did things differently and this was a cause for celebration. Alas, it also generated a secret sea of resentment that we were “not like the rest of men”.

In dealing with the compromises that adult life in the real world inevitably brings, many of these pre-critical certainties began to lose their adhesion. And so began a drift away from the rituals of tribal Catholicism towards the statistical average. The common Catholic lifestyle slowly ceased to be “sacred”; ruled by an all-pervading ethos with its holy pictures and scapulars, its meatless Fridays and holy Sundays, daily prayer, regular confession and Lenten fasting. Today the lives of many who identify themselves on the census forms as “Catholic” have become predominantly “secular”. What is more surprising, perhaps, is that many active members of the Church including priests and religious have followed suit.

Surveys routinely demonstrate that Catholics are practically indistinguishable from other Australians in significant areas of both faith and morals. Active participation in Church activities has a diminished role in establishing and reinforcing our personal identity. The Catholic Church is no longer seen by outsiders as the “scarlet woman” — she now wears the indistinguishable grey common to all mainline religious groups. It is almost socially acceptable to be a Catholic. The problem is that active Catholicism is no longer very interesting. Our Church has become an agency of boredom. Who was surprised when 42% of respondents to the 2001 National Church Life poll cite boredom as the chief reason for not going to church more often?

This “normalisation” of the lives of Catholics within multicultural Australia has largely coincided with the effects of Vatican II. It is important not to confuse the two, nor to regard the Council as responsible for the movement of secularisation that swept through the West in the 1960s. This itself has been generated, in part, by social changes, which in turn resulted both from technological advances and as a reaction to the serial horrors of the twentieth century.

Let us reflect briefly on the changed world. Forty years after the Council the world is less Eurocentric, computers and biotechnology have gone far beyond what most of us are able to understand, the global village is almost totally open to what the Roman documents continue to name as “the social means of communication” and the rest us call “mass media”, deductive thinking and theology is subject to questioning by data coming from the bottom up, and even though bureaucratic procedures have multiplied there is an expectation that institutions will be governed democratically and that “people power” can overturn autocratic regimes. On the other hand there is a relentless pursuit of entertainment. Self-destructive behaviour seems to have increased as evidenced by alcohol and substance abuse, promiscuity and rising suicide rates. There is much insecurity and many seek reassurance in totalitarian systems of thought based on an unyielding fundamentalism. Jingoistic isolationism and militarism are on the upsurge. However we evaluate these changes in the world, I feel certain that cumulatively they have more direct impact on the life of many in the Church today than anything the Council said or did or caused to be done. Especially in the case of those who know little about the events of 40 years ago and who have never read a Council document.

The dialogue with the modern world encouraged by Vatican II and strongly and consistently espoused by Paul VI presupposes an ongoing distinction; assimilation transforms dialogue into monologue. For effective evangelisation (which, after all, is what the Church is about) channels of communication must be open. For this to occur, the Gospel needs to be proclaimed from within a cultural community. An identity built up by isolation behind high walls is less secure than that which is achieved through interaction. The essential distinctiveness of the Church derives from its fidelity to the words and example of Jesus; not from its continuance of exotic customs — no matter how entertaining these may be.

There is no doubt that in the past many people sought or found in religious practice the satisfaction of needs that were not properly religious. Those who felt deprived of affirmation, consolation, meaning or support often found within the churches some unconscious compensation for the comforts that life denied them. When the possibility of meeting these needs in a more direct manner arises, religious adherence and practice become irrelevant. A residue of unreal nostalgia may remain but, fundamentally, there is no reason for continuing with a religion that has no function in their lives. “Now that we are on Easy Street, we don’t need God!”

It is right to sympathise with those who have continued with the Church yet still feel the loss of what were seen as defining Catholic characteristics experienced as strong ramparts against anomie: infallible teaching, friendly statues, fiery Redemptorist missions, and the gauzy glitter of popular devotions. The so-called “piety void” is real. The difficulty is that the vacuum cannot be filled by going back because, in the meantime, people and society have changed. We have to go forward. Going forward means understanding where you are, how you got there and where it is you want to go.

Second Principle – The implementation of the decrees of Vatican II was not immune from misunderstanding, misjudgement, or politics.

Nobody was trained to handle the massive external changes that accompanied the Church’s attempt to heave itself into the twentieth century. We who too easily identified catholicity with uniformity never expected to find such polarisation of opinion and practice at all level of ecclesial life. None of us anticipated the emotional impact that changes would have on those most directly touched by them, or the high levels of tension that would be generated in those precipitately charged with the task of implementation.

Above all we underestimated the symbolic content of many everyday realities. We did not always realise that exchanging traditional practices for something more “sensible” would have an emotional impact that would move us more in the direction of meaninglessness. Let us look at one example. Almost certainly we misjudged the pain and sense of loss that liturgical change would generate, especially for those who were committed to the liturgy as they had known it all their lives. As early as 1966 Edward Schillebeeckx, whose progressive credentials are beyond dispute, was aware that something was amiss.

“There is also the common unrest that is characteristic of persons abandoning old habits when this does not come from a personal, existential need that is experienced at depth, but which is imposed on them by the community in which they live. This is what happened in the sphere of the liturgy after the Council. To be sure, it is not the vocation of the Church to act as the conservator of ancient and outdated treasures but to try, first of all, to satisfy the Christian needs of the faithful. Meeting these needs has priority over saving from destruction the treasures of Gregorian culture. On the other hand, for older people who have lived the Catholic faith, these ancient treasures are not simply cultural treasures. They are part of the fabric of their Christian life: they are, as it were, the living skin of their religious experience, and not simply a garment that we can at any time take or leave, even sometimes regretfully. These are not simply religious forms of expression, but they are the particular forms in and through which their religious life has become what it is. Here there is no room for a dualism between what is inner and what is outer. A good number of such people inevitably feel as though they have been skinned alive, as though they have been stripped of their own flesh.”

Changing the liturgy meant more than slipping out of one garment into another. Those for whom the liturgy had been “the living skin of their religious experience” felt as though they had been flayed. Those of us who had a hand in some of these changes need to reflect and regret. Perhaps we could have acted more sensitively.

Confession of sin is an essential of Catholicism. Most bitter of all, I suppose, is the need to admit that actions we thought to be honest, noble and just are now revealed as enfeebled by hidden agenda, and secretly powered by baser motivations. We meant well, but we overestimated our own integrity. Pope John Paul II has been courageous in this respect. His could be called a papacy of apology. In surveying the impact of Vatican II, we ought not to be afraid of following his example sometimes. The fact that not everything done in the name of Vatican II has been well done is no excuse for trying to negate its initiatives. I once heard heretics defined as those who prefer the second-last Council to the last one. For this reason we need to insist more steadfastly on the authority that Vatican II wields.

Third Principle: The vision of Vatican II, although not often expressed prescriptively, offers authoritative guidance to God’s people from the highest level of the Magisterium, and may not be ignored.

From the time of Blessed John XXIII’s unexpected announcement of the Council at the Basilica of St Paul Outside the Walls on 25 January 1959, he was convinced that the idea came from the Holy Spirit. This sense of a divine mission permeated all that Vatican II did. The difficulties some experience in feeling at home in post-conciliar Catholicism cannot be used as an argument in favour of an alternative church. The difficulties need to be owned and respected, a conversation must be begun, but there is no ground for doubting the credentials of Vatican II as an authentic expression of magisterial teaching for our time. This means in practice re-acquainting ourselves with the content of its decrees and recommitting ourselves to its mission.

“It would be a mistake not to consider the implementation of Vatican II as the response of faith to the word of God as it proceeded from that Council . . . The teaching of Vatican II stands revealed as the image, proper to our time, of the Church’s self-realisation, an image which in various ways should pervade the minds of the whole people of God.”

Those who experience hardship in the “new” Church must be willing to work towards the resolution of their difficulties. In many cases the possibility of offering pastoral assistance at a personal level has been limited by the politicisation of issues such as the Latin Mass. We can see many components operative in this situation:

the abruptness and rapidity of change,

the cultural and spiritual impoverishment of transitional forms,

the ineptness and confusion of those trained for a different model of liturgical leadership,

a certain lack of timely explanation about what was happening, and

the defensiveness of those in the firing line.

As a result, when the liturgical changes were implemented, despite being applauded by many (not without the occasional grimace), some became disaffected, although with varying degrees of intensity. Too often these good people so saw the problems as “out there”, (objective aberrations in the Church) that they failed to deal with the subjective aspects of the situation, the more inner sources of their intolerance of change. It is hard to help those who attribute all their pain to external factors and who do not allow any scrutiny of what is going on inside them. And so very often a personal crisis that could have had a creative outcome was denied and, instead, projected onto the post-Conciliar Church and then politicised.

Saint John of the Cross speaks about the crisis experienced by many as their prayer passes through necessary transitions in the process of being purified. He speaks of three possible responses to the pain experienced at this time, only the third of which is a creative way forward. I might paraphrase the options he lists as follows,

to give up the spiritual pursuit altogether and to use its energies in ways that are more gratifying or useful,

to clench one’s teeth and to go back to doing the things that used to work, refusing to pay any attention to the fact that they no longer seem appropriate, or

to trust in the providence of God and to hang on in there, doing whatever one can to return the soul to peace.

Corresponding to the first category, many blame the Church for many aspects of modernity (and post-modernity) and for its bumbling efforts to respond to a new situation. Some have deliberately renounced their membership of the Church, many more have drifted away or taken a holiday, some have become vituperative Corresponding to the second category are those who remain in the Church and keep as many of the “old ways” as they can — with varying degrees of success — and seek out like-minded priests and congregations. It is, however, on those who belong the third category that I wish to focus for a moment — those who have faith in God’s providence and guidance of the Church and who will not allow anything to undermine their hope.

The first thing to recognise is that tranquillity of heart is not merely the placidity resulting from a lack of external harassments. It is the fruit of a disciplined interior effort to prevent the secret sources of emotional upheaval from running away with one’s power of reason. This means that we need to subject any situation of suffering or conflict to analysis and discernment. We need to think it through in an atmosphere of faith, hope and charity. If peace is the work and fruit of the Holy Spirit, then our pondering must necessarily be well seasoned with prayer. Prayer not politics.

With regard to the state of the Church at the moment I am reluctant to surrender too easily to the pessimists. Our daily newspapers, the voices of dissent and perhaps some of our own Hanrahan tendencies tell us that we will all be ruined. Yet the wonderful things that have happened in the Church over the past 40 years are so numerous and so obvious that it would be tedious to list them. Without minimising the pain that some have experienced, it has been a period of creative ferment with many good results — even when these were undesired and unintended. When a shortage of priests and religious necessitates a greater involvement of lay men and women in the work of the Church it seems more like a case of a felix culpa than an occasion of gloom.

I began with the image of a God who brings forth anarchy and I would like to conclude with the scriptural metaphor of a piece of pottery that submits to the shaping hand of the potter. At the moment we do not know where the Church is going and what it is going to become. Our hope for the future is based less on our history or on our present state but on the skill of the potter in whose hands we are. It seems to me that the present difficulties of the Church confront us with a fourfold challenge to which I am confident that we have the resources to respond creatively.

What do we need in these times?

Some measure of endurance in coping with change and conflict,

a spirit of hopefulness that does not doubt God’s capacity to bring to completion the good work once started,

an unambiguous boldness in taking well-founded initiatives, and

and in all circumstances good humour — which is the only appropriate way of responding to divine initiatives. .

In the midst of the Council Pope Paul VI went to India. He prayed at Bombay airport, using words drawn from The Upanishads:

“Lead us from Unreality to reality, from darkness to light from death to life.”

In my view, there is no evidence that God is not acceding to that prayer.

(Michael Casey OCSO has been a monk of Tarrawarra Abbey in Victoria since 1960: he did studies in Scripture at the Catholic University Louvain and gained a Doctorate in Theology from Melbourne College of Divinity. He is the author of “Towards God, the Art of Sacred Reading and Truthful Living” and over 100 articles and books. Currently, he is Prior and Master of Juniors at Tarrawarra.)