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Conversation starter: keeping Vatican II alive

Archbishop Rembert Weakland long ago assured himself a place in any history written about the immediate period following the Second Vatican Council.

More than most in the hierarchy, this former head of the worldwide Benedictine order had a global view of the church and understood deeply the impulses that moved the church toward reform and the implications of those reforms. More than most, too, he could both articulate the vision of the council and lead an archdiocese in practical ways to weave the reforms into the everyday fabric of parish life. And he was not afraid to stand up to Vatican bureaucrats and the rising tide of Vatican II revisionists within the U.S. bishops’ conference.

So it is noteworthy that Weakland earlier this year, anticipating his retirement and a successor in 2002, wrote a letter to more than 400 diocesan priests in which he predicted a new era of retreat from Vatican II reforms and of greater uniformity and legalism in church practice.

The candid quality of the letter, predicting the end of an era of experimentation and creativity, ironically could only have been produced by one so deeply convinced of the ambitions of Vatican II. It is a frank, open pastoral exchange, an example of the kind of true authority and leadership that can’t exist when rigid application of the law becomes the institution’s guiding principle.

Unfortunately, the point of the letter is grim. In a sweeping overview of the tug and pull since the council, Weakland sees the church entering a period of retrenchment, a reaction to the wide-open enthusiasm that immediately followed the 1962-65 council in Rome. In Weakland’s view, the first generation after the council was perhaps too enthusiastic; the current generation, too rule-bound and cautious. Somewhere in the distance, Weakland predicts, is a hazy synthesis, a generation that “may well just get it right.”

Weakland makes no long-range prediction about whether reform will win the day. There is a kind of dialectic internal to the letter that also remains unresolved. At one point, Weakland’s tones are almost conciliatory, inviting of the new era. “It may well be that at this given moment more consistency of practice is important for the stability of the church and its members. The younger generation needs more structures, clarity and guidance. … It may well be exactly what is needed to make us deepen the reforms we have already made, strive to have them more widely accepted and finally see that they lead our people to a greater holiness.”

That may be, as Weakland put it, the logic behind “the way the Spirit is leading us at this moment.”

In the next breath, however, Weakland’s language changes abruptly. “I fear the restorationist implementation that is characterizing the second post-conciliar generation will err on the side of rigidity, rubricism and a fear of the gifts of individuals, especially of the lay, and build their renewal more on reaction than on theological insights.”

This would not be the first time, of course, that fear and the leading of the Spirit were partners accompanying the human quest for a share in God’s life. Knowing that does little to make life easier in the day-to-day. As Jesuit Fr. Tom Reese said, in reaction to the letter, “Progressives have to ask themselves how they plan to live in a church that is not going to change in a direction they would like anytime soon. Weakland is getting that conversation going.”

Weakland is politically savvy enough to know that his letter to the priests would not remain a secret and that his words would reverberate well beyond the boundaries of his archdiocese. If he has started a conversation in Milwaukee, he has started it for all of us.

The conditions being created by today’s restorationists might eerily resemble conditions in the church immediately before John XXIII called the council, but there are significant differences.

The clerical culture is in crisis; the number of priests continues to dwindle in the United States and elsewhere; the revisionists, for the most part, are not those running the parishes, educating the children and performing most of the ministries in today’s church.

No matter how much Rome decrees, women will not remain silent, gays will not go back into the closet, and the most educated generations of lay people in Roman Catholic history will not suddenly forget the church history and theology they have learned.

Also different is the fact that the exchange of ideas in the Catholic world of today goes on at a far greater rate and among a much wider spread of peoples and cultures than ever before -- and we don’t think that will change.

So, let the conversation begin. If there is a certain inevitability that the restorationists -- given the appointments by Pope John Paul II -- will have their way for a period, others will have to figure a way to maintain the tradition of Vatican II during that time. It is never too early to begin talking.

National Catholic Reporter, March 10, 2000