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Tides of history sweep church toward reform

When the history of 20th century Roman Catholicism is written, two men will stand out as its most influential leaders: Angelo Roncalli and Karol Wojtyla, Pope John XXIII and Pope John Paul II. The former called a council and opened the church to the world. The latter ended conciliar renewal and shaped the institution to combat perceived secular threats.

Roncalli, the optimist, believed in the omnipresence of grace, views later reflected in the council document Gaudium et Spes. Wojtyla, the pessimist, has seen the shadow of the cross upon all human endeavors -- save the promise to Peter itself.

As Catholicism enters the 21st century, it is seriously divided. Without resolving this division, Catholicism’s mission to be a sign of Christian unity and hope, compassion and forgiveness to the wider global family is likely to falter. Of course, no one knows how or even if this resolution can occur or which of these two popes will leave the longer lasting mark.

A search for answers becomes frustrated by the imponderables of the unknowable future. It may be in the currents of historical forces that we find clues.

By the time Roncalli was elected pope in 1958, pressures for church reform had been building for decades. The perceived need to bring Catholicism out of its defensive past and into the modern world was widespread. Yet it took the graced impulse by John XXIII to declare an ecumenical council.

Curiously, John had no predetermined plan for a council agenda. He left that to others. If he had anything to offer, it was his example of trust -- trust that God would not abandon him or the church he loved.

This is why he wrote on the eve of the council and with characteristic humility, “Now I understand what contribution to the council the Lord requires from me: my suffering.” He knew his health was failing and he would not live through his council.

Vatican II became an opportunity for the church to harvest from a rich crop of new theology and also a moment to take advantage of wider forces of change, notably, the development of the social sciences, of democratic theories of governance and of developing inter-religious dialogues.

These advances were occurring within even broader currents of change: the emergence of educated, professional women who were taking on leadership roles worldwide; and revolutionary demographic shifts ending the era of a Eurocentric Catholicism. In the mid-1960s, for the first time Catholics in so-called Third World nations began to outnumber their European and North American brothers and sisters of faith.

If Roncalli trusted that grace was operative, Wojtyla’s view of more pervasive evil moved him to speak of a widespread “culture of death.” Only the church, indeed, only the bastion church, kept most pure within Vatican walls, could prevail against the gates of hell.

And if Roncalli had no precise plan for counciliar renewal, leaving it to the collective body of world bishops, John Paul acted with deliberate attention to detail, stripping the world’s bishops of their collective authority while appointing new bishops who reflected his theological and ecclesial views.

Wojtyla’s fix on God’s plan for his life has been larger than Roncalli’s self-interpretation. Wojtyla interpreted his election as pope as providential. His sense of providential mission was enormously strengthened by the failed assassination attempt of May 13, 1981, feast of Our Lady of Fatima. He believed that Our Lady of Fatima “saved his life” for a purpose.

And this service is not complete in John Paul’s mind. More has been ordained. He has recalled Cardinal Stefan Wyszynski’s 1978 exhortation: “You must lead the church into the year 2000.”

So, whereto Catholicism after 2000?

Certainly, much depends on the leadership that emerges in the next pontificate. While the College of Cardinals now reflects John Paul’s conservative views, it is highly unlikely it will elect another pope determined to go it alone. Widespread resentment exists among the world’s cardinals regarding the way their authority has been diminished during this pontificate.

Operable collegial church leadership will likely be the litmus test for a successful papal candidate. Yet not the entire future -- or perhaps even most of it -- depends on the next pope. His options will be shaped by circumstance and need.

Consider that much of the world today is without priests. The shape of the priesthood will be addressed. And now that Catholicism is experiencing enormous growth in Africa, Asia and Latin America, new respect will have to be extended to non-Western cultures, and non-Western theologies will have to be accepted for future growth to occur.

Women have entered theological studies, assuring that pressures to end the church’s sexism will surely grow.

In short, the need to preserve Catholicism as a worldwide operable institution will force church renewal.

Catholicism is at the end of an era. A new chapter remains to be written. It won’t be like this one. The pendulum is getting set to swing the other way.

Ready or not, the global family is coming into view and into life. And if that’s not a Catholic invitation I don’t know what is. The experiences of the past several decades have already taught us some valuable lessons. This is not a time to look to a church of the past, but a time to continue the council’s work of opening the church to the future.

Fox is NCR's publisher.

National Catholic Reporter, January, 9, 1998