In 1951, my second year at St Columba’s Seminary, Springwood, a Passionist priest, Father Placid, conducted our retreat. The thought of joining a Religious Order kept coming to my mind. The desire came from the spiritual theology of the day and from my naivety. I wanted to do what God wanted. I was told that obeying my superiors was doing the will of God. All I had to do, then, was to join a Religious Order, keep the rule, go where I was sent and do as I was told and I would be on a direct track to God. My own fallibility would not be a danger in leading me astray.
I shared my thoughts with Father Placid. The wise man said, “You are here now. There must be a good reason for that. Until there is an obvious reason that you should be elsewhere, stay where you are.” I was 23 years old, hardly a child, but like many Catholics of the time, I accepted what my authorised teachers taught.
This personal incident is an example of where we came from in our journey through, with and from the 2nd Vatican Council. The big change was in the approach to responsibility.
In so many ways we depended on authority. In matters of Church law we didn’t attempt to discern the best way or the most charitable way to respond to embarrassing or difficult situations. We asked an authorised person for a dispensation or permission. In a vital matter, the education of children, parents were required to obtain the permission of the parish priest to send their children to a State School. His judgement took precedence over theirs. Permission was required to attend a wedding of a family member or friend if it was not celebrated in the Catholic Church. People embarrassed their hosts by rejecting a carefully prepared meal because it contained meat and it was a Friday. The priest was presumed to know better than I whether the lenten fast was appropriate in my circumstance. He could dispense me from my obligation. I could shift my responsibility on to another person and be alleviated from guilt. People far away decided what was dangerous for me to read.
“It is finally through the gift of the Holy Spirit that we come by faith to the contemplation and appreciation of the divine plan” (Gaudium et Spes No 15).
What a contrast! What a worry!
The 2nd Vatican Council gave supreme authority to conscience:
“In fidelity to conscience, Christians are joined with the rest of humanity in the search for truth, and for the genuine solution to the numerous problems which arise in the lives of individuals from social relationships. Conscience frequently errs from invincible ignorance without losing its dignity” (Gaudium et Spes No 16).
The same paragraph stresses the importance of right conscience and integrity.
Unfortunately, we did little to prepare people to come from a state of dependence on authority for answers and direction even in small matters. For many, not having a specific law meant having no obligation at all.
One time I was asked why the Church was becoming weak in its demand for penitential acts. Abstinence on Fridays, lenten fast, eucharistic fast as we knew them were all gone. It seemed to make little impression when I suggested that it required deeper spiritual qualities to discern when, where, how we could best respond to life in an unselfish and serving way that would inevitably call us to self-sacrifice and almsgiving. It was a contrast between obedience to outside laws and obedience to conscience and the voice of the Spirit in daily life.
It wasn’t easy to help people take responsibility for their moral choices. I remember pointing out options based on different reliable opinions and the consequences and implications of each choice. After some time and effort I was asked, “What will I do?” “I have tried to point out as clearly as I can the options open to you, the choice is yours”, I replied. This evoked resentment and anger. Obviously I was meant to give the desired answer and dispense the person from personal responsibility and guilt.
The Church gave conscience its rightful place, but through lack of sound teaching on the one hand and little desire to learn on the other, freedom of conscience was much misunderstood. For some it was doing what had the most appeal, for others it was obeying the law because it is the law.
“Our human dignity demands that we act according to a knowing and free choice that is personally motivated and prompted from within, not under blind internal impulse nor by mere external pressure” (Gaudium et Spes No 17).
The Council’s teaching on responsibility was not confined to individual responsibility, because Christianity is not merely about my personal relationship, as an individual, with God. Authentic Christianity calls us to a relationship with God and therefore with God’s other children. Thus the teaching on co-responsibility was developed.
The classical definition of the Church had begun with the words, “The Catholic Church is that monarchical and hierarchical institution”. The Council stated that the Church was more than that. The Church is the People of God, worshipping in spirit and truth, living in communion and service. It is the sacrament of God’s presence in the world. Each member has dignity, each has gifts to contribute, and each has responsibility. These things are not by courtesy of another human being, but flow from baptism into the Body of Christ.
From the development of this doctrine came the changes in the liturgy in posture, language and participation. All of these changes reflected a people in communion, sharing gifts and exercising responsibility.
The sign of the priest facing the altar, back to the congregation, was that of the leader with his people behind him following where he led. It expressed the theology of “that hierarchical institution”. The priest and congregation gathered around the altar, sharing common language, participating actively and sharing ministries, expressed the theology of Church as communion, as people of God.
The Council reminded us of our role in the teaching and believing Church. It affirmed our responsibility and our dignity as the teaching Body of Christ. The expression of authentic Christian doctrine is not the prerogative of a few. Authentic doctrine is expressed by the sense of faith of the People of God.
“The People of God shares also in Christ’s prophetic office … the entire body of the faithful, anointed as they are by the Holy One, cannot err in matters of belief. They manifest this special property by means of the whole people’s supernatural discernment in matters of faith when, from the bishops down to the last of the faithful, they share universal agreement in matters of faith and morals” (Lumen Gentium No 12).
If we want to discern true doctrine, here is the Church’s own reference point.
This teaching of the Church on authentic doctrine seems to have been ignored. The spirit of search, journey and discernment released in the Church by the Council has been stifled by central control. The 2nd Vatican Council reminded us that there are gifts both hierarchical and charismatic. When an exclusive few claim to be the full voice of the Church, the life-giving breath of the Holy Spirit is stifled. (Jesus warned us that the sin against the Holy Spirit cannot be forgiven. It seems to me that this is so simply because it is not seen as sin. If no sin is recognised, no repentance is necessary and no change seems necessary).
We should not forget that it is not only through the sacraments and Church ministries that the Holy Spirit sanctifies and leads the People of God, enriching them with virtues.
“Allotting his gifts to everyone according as he wills, he distributes special graces among the faithful of every rank” (Lumen Gentium No 12).
To come from this sublime concept to a point in Church life where theologians are forbidden to discuss unresolved matters is surely stifling the Holy Spirit.
The Council called us to a fuller life as members of the Body of Christ, as People of God: a fuller life with responsibility for our actions, participation in the liturgical worship of the Church and its life of prayer, in the teaching role of the Church and in Church administration and governance. We are called to be responsible in a mature way. We clergy, religious and laity are called to be co-responsible in decision-making and in the implementation of decisions. We have a responsibility for the distribution and administration of the Church’s spiritual and temporal gifts.
The style of the liturgy before its reform, as priest teaching a people who followed behind, was the style of leadership mostly exercised in the Church prior to the Council. It was the responsibility of the clergy to make decisions and the responsibility of the laity to obey. The Council gave a different model of leadership. We were to be co-responsible on all levels.
“It is highly desirable that in each diocese a pastoral council be established over which the diocesan Bishop himself will preside and in which specially chosen clergy, religious and lay people will participate. The function of this Council will be to investigate and weigh matters which bear on pastoral activity, and to formulate practical conclusions regarding them” (Christus Dominus No 27).
It is interesting to note that the above quotation is from the Decree on the Pastoral Office of Bishops. It is instructing Bishops on how to exercise their ministry. Unfortunately, some Bishops don’t seem to have sufficient leadership skills and perhaps even trust in others to make a Pastoral Council work effectively. Members and prospective members of Pastoral Councils were given little or no opportunity to understand and accept their role. Thus we hear that Pastoral Councils have been tried and failed or that they are an invitation to division and trouble or a waste of time and effort for both Bishops and members.
It is also unfortunate that some Bishops still work out of a law mentality. Since the decree does not say “must” but “it is highly desirable”, they see no obligation in the matter. Yet the whole climate of the Council was not of law but of spirit. The question is not one of obligation from an external law but obligation from an inner desire to follow the call of the Holy Spirit speaking through the highest Church authority.
The Council Fathers saw the wisdom of co-responsibility on all levels. Parish priests should consult, listen, take advice and set up structures that would facilitate these things. The concept of collegiality between Popes and Bishops was affirmed. Structures to facilitate this were developed. Yet how many authentic Pastoral Councils exist? Is real collegiality evident?
So while the 2nd Vatican Council was a glorious, liberating, exhilarating breath of fresh air, it has yet to achieve its objectives.
The great difference between the 2nd Vatican Council and others Councils of the Church was that it was not called to react to error or address an agenda coming from a perceived adversary. It was called to look at the needs of the Church and the World and to respond to these.
The outcome from reaction in defence is quite different from the results of a response in love and care. The reactions were determined by the agenda, set by perceived opponents and cast in theological and philosophical language and perceptions of the day. They should be seen and interpreted in that way.
Genuine truth, truth conducive to life and love, co-operation and growth in unity comes more from a gentle response than it does from a violent reaction. The 2nd Vatican Council was this gentle, yet profoundly forceful response in love. I pray and hope that its spirit will re-emerge
(John Heaps is a retired bishop, former auxiliary of the Archdiocese of Sydney.)