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Vatican II: 40 years later

Essay - The council we are still living


Any great social breakthrough produces, in its beneficiaries or opponents, a passionate first euphoria or panic, followed by a period of relapse or reduced tension, reversing the first reactions. Euphoria yields to disappointment that the world was not entirely changed after all. Panic finds reasons to think that all was not lost, after all. That has been the pattern of early engagement and later reaction with the civil rights movement, the feminist movement, and the “kid culture” of the ’60s. It is also true of the Second Vatican Council.

Some of our black citizens talk about the civil rights movement as having been defeated or betrayed or aborted. The fine enthusiasms evaporate. The leaders who were not killed became disappointments or burnt-out cases. The joy of struggle is gone. It is hard to appreciate what has been gained -- to see the difference between Dr. Martin Luther King elbowing for a place on the bus and the present fight for more places in the universities, or between a time when mayors and police chiefs beat and hosed blacks and a time when mayors and police chiefs are themselves blacks. There is always a need to struggle against something as deeply seated in our culture as racism. But the new struggles take place on a much higher plateau than the one on which the forebears fought their battles of the 1950s and 1960s.

In the same way, some say that the feminists are passé, that women do not even embrace the title anymore, that there has been a relapse toward domesticity, or a breakdown of those who tried to “have everything” and came up against the limits of human endeavor. There is a minimal truth in this. All great changes take a human toll, and there could not be any greater change than what has occurred in the status of women over the last few decades. The entirety of preceding history was marked by a belief in the inferiority of women. Change that and you have changed society at its inmost nexus -- you have changed the relationship of wife to husband, mother to children, daughter to parents and to siblings, employer to employee, priest to penitent.

Everywhere I look, I see marks of the feminists’ victories. On many campuses, women make up the majority of students at the graduate and undergraduate levels -- and even in some Protestant seminaries. They are now in places where no one could have predicted their presence a few years ago -- in the military, for instance. They are priests or pastors at some Protestant altars. They have broken down barriers at formerly men-only clubs. In Boston, priests who once treated women with condescension are now dragged before Catholic women who are their judges. Cardinal Bernard Law has his penance assigned to him by Judge Constance Sweeney.

The ’60s are blamed for all our woes by some conservatives -- some even say pedophile priests are their product (though the most famous serial pedophiles were formed in the seminaries of the 1950s). But many who once praised the youth culture have become old fogies or aging (disappointed) hippies. Yet they, too, do not always see how the rules of the game have changed because of what went before. The feminist revolution, already mentioned, is just one example. Another is the new recognition of gay rights. The changed attitude toward authority is something I see everyday on campus, and admire -- the demand that teachers justify what they have to say. Studs Terkel, who at age 90 has seen many changes, and wrote an oral history of the Second World War, says that the “great generation” is not that of the 1940s but of the 1960s, which saw the major changes in our attitude to so many of our fellow human beings -- women, blacks, gays, Native Americans, the disadvantaged.

In all these cases, there is a certain lack of appreciation of what has been accomplished, prompted no doubt by a justifiable sense that there is still much to be done. But any claim that little was changed or that we are returning to the status quo ante is illusory. In the old but appropriate cliché, you cannot put the toothpaste back in the tube. That holds, as well, of the changes wrought by the Second Vatican Council. Here, too, the initial euphoria has worn off, the initial panic has turned to hope that some return to the past is still possible. Episcopal collegiality has been baffled. Consulting the laity seems a joke, as the lay spokespersons at the Dallas conference of bishops said -- Margaret Steinfels of Commonweal told the assembled bishops that they pay attention to their “subjects” only when lay people threaten to withhold money, a dynamic more appropriate to parliaments dealing with kings than to members of the mystical body communicating with each other. Does all this mean that the movement launched by the Second Vatican Council has foundered? No more than we can say that the civil rights movement failed, or that feminism is dead.

Catholics live in a different world since the council. A time traveler from the 1950s would be stunned at the differences. John Kenneth Galbraith told me in the 1970s, “The greatest social change I have seen in my lifetime is the change in your church.” On a superficial but striking level, the identifying marks of the past are missing -- gone are fish on Friday, confession on Saturday, and compelled church attendance on Sunday. Gone are the trademark 10-children Catholic families. Gone is the sin-driven mentality of the past. Gone, for most, the condemning or shunning of gays. According to the best survey of under-40 Catholics, completed with Lilly Foundation money in 1997, over twice as many young Catholics are attending college as attended in 1970. They are, as a corollary, getting married four or five years later than in 1970, having two-career families, bearing children four to five years later, using contraceptives to limit the number of their children, educating the children they do have for longer and more expensive periods. More of the young Catholics (half of Anglos in the 1997 poll) are marrying non-Catholics. This puts in a whole new light such matters as premarital sex, birth control, abortion, divorce and remarriage. Urbanization and professionalization have destroyed the social rationale of the large family. Abortion is as common among Catholics as non-Catholics, not only in America but in Catholic countries like Italy, and even in Poland. The Alan Guttmacher Foundation found that, for Americans in the 1990s, nonreligious women had four times the abortions that Catholic women did, but the Catholic abortion rate was 29 percent higher than that of Protestants. Since there are far fewer nonreligious women than Protestants, that leaves the rate of Catholics the same, overall, as that of non-Catholics.

These developments are not the direct products of Vatican II, but they are no longer automatically precluded by faith as they once were. New moral situations have called for decisions by an informed conscience, not blind acceptance of moral rules laid down by celibate males. And the most striking aspect of these changes is that those making the new decisions do not feel that this disqualifies them from membership in the church. Those dissenting from some papal pronouncements do not feel that this, of itself, makes them unfaithful Catholics. Their attitude infuriates conservatives, who keep saying, “Why don’t they just go?” John McCloskey, the spokesperson for Opus Dei who is often on Washington TV, thinks the church has simply to get rid of the dissidents to resume its life with smaller numbers but truer faith. Then “the generation of John Paul II” can fill the priesthood with men who accept the entirety of papal teaching.

Where is that generation? Various polls place the number of Catholics rejecting the pope’s condemnation of contraceptives somewhere between 70 and 80 percent. But those numbers understate the matter in generational terms -- they include Catholics in their 40s and 50s and 60s and 70s. If you want to see the shape of the future, look at Catholics in their 20s and 30s. When the Lilly-sponsored poll did that, it found that support for the papal position was too small to be registered, since it was below the margin of error, even in a large-scale poll. Statistically, that is, young people’s support of the papal ban is nonexistent. But let us grant it the maximum probable existence -- if it lies below the margin of error of 3 percentage points in either direction, let us call the number agreeing with the papal ban 5 or 6 percent. That is the group of young Catholics from which the new priests are to be recruited for the “John Paul church.” Since only half that number is male -- we are down to 3 percent at most -- and at least half of that male pool will not be willing to live as celibate priests, we are talking of 1 or 2 percent of the Catholic population on which the conservative priesthood of the future is to be built.

It is worth looking more closely at that poll, published in the book Young Adult Catholics (University of Notre Dame Press, 2001). It tracked down 800 under-40s for telephone interviews, and followed this up with 75 face-to-face interviews, and seven focus-group sessions with a representative mix of participants. The poll may be more conservative and church-oriented than the general under-40s generation since these were people found from the records of their confirmation, made possible by their being traceable (therefore fairly stable). Of these, “the vast majority have remained Catholics and will probably stay Catholic.” Of those who dropped out for a while, half had returned to active participation in the church. They were church-going, though only 30 percent went to Mass every Sunday (the pollsters allowed for over-reporting and settled on 20 percent as closer to the truth). They had attended Catholic schools at a higher rate than for the general Catholic population. Almost all of them prayed, and most believed in the essential truths of the Creed (including the real presence, the last judgment, and an afterlife). Special care was taken in the poll to see if there were major differences between non-Latino and Latino American Catholics (the latter were interviewed in the proper proportion of their numbers to the general population, and to the numbers coming from their place of ancestral origin, and their interviews were conducted in Spanish if they preferred). The young adults discovered by this method were less distant from papal teaching than those found in other nationwide surveys (for example, by James Davidson in 1995). So, if anything, this survey understates rather than overstates any disagreement with official teaching.

Even so, the results show a massive disaffection from official (papal) positions. As I have already mentioned, the poll found agreement with the ban on contraceptives was below the margin of error. Differences between non-Latinos and Latinos were less than suspected, and sometimes the reverse of what was suspected. Though Latinos, for instance, were expected to show greater reverence for priests, more of them (91 percent) than of non-Latinos (88 percent) said that “lay people are just as important a part of the church as priests are.” And though Latinos are thought to come from a “macho culture,” both groups favored the ordination of women at the same rate (87 percent). Asked whether the church should reconsider the stands on divorce, remarriage, and human sexuality, the rate was all but the same (yes by 79 percent for the Latinos, by 80 percent for non-Latinos). In the combined survey, more thought charity to the poor was essential to the faith (58 percent) than was having a pope (48 percent). Only 32 percent thought going to confession was essential. They agreed (71 percent) that the final authority for moral decision is “the individual’s informed conscience.” They felt overwhelmingly that other religions also conduct people to God. With regard to other Christian churches, 50 percent strongly disagreed with the statement that “the Catholic church is more faithful to the will of Christ than other Christian churches,” and only 48 percent strongly agreed.

The conductors of the poll point out that few people change their basic convictions after the age of 40, and if anything the older members of this under-40 group are more, not less, dissident, suggesting a trajectory of continued dissent. This post-conciliar generation is therefore as much a firm plateau of growth as are the other social changes I mentioned (civil rights, feminism, the culture stemming from the ’60s). There is an inertia to such upheavals. If anything, Catholic dissidence is growing rather than slowing down, despite all efforts by the curia to reverse this tide. Young Catholics are more than ever living in a Second Vatican Council church -- one that emphasizes the laity, individual conscience, ecumenism, social concern and community.

An entropy of social change?

Conservative Catholics deny all of the above. They say that the social changes have burnt themselves out, are imploding, and will blow away like dust. A new “John Paul generation” is returning to bedrock principle, dismissing the preceding decades as what George Weigel calls “the silly season.” According to Weigel’s new book, The Courage to be Catholic, tired old liberals (what he calls “the Lite Brigade”) are fading from the scene, they have run out of ideas, they are ceding place to unnamed young men with fresh ideas and undaunted energies, people who realize that John Paul II is “the first modern pope.” I heard that claim again when I appeared recently on a television show in Toronto, where a Catholic press spokesperson, one Fr. D’Souza, pooh-poohed my citation of the fact that Catholics under 40 agreeing with the pope on contraception have disappeared into the margin of error. He countered with statistics of his own, claiming that young people are proving their devotion to the pope by “giving their lives” to him in bulging seminaries. His boldest statistic was breathtakingly bogus. He claimed that there are twice as many priests now as when the pope came into office. The brazenness of it left me speechless. I did not have concrete numbers to offer in refutation, and he did not offer actual figures. As soon as I returned home, I looked up the numbers. According to the Vatican statistics for 1998 (the latest figures available in the Catholic Almanac for 2001), there are 404,626 priests in the world. If Fr. D’Souza is right, that would mean there were 202,313 in 1977, just before John Paul II took office. Right?

Wrong. In 1977 there were 410,030 priests worldwide. The number has stayed flat. But that means there is a drastic shrinkage, since over 300 million Catholics were added in that same period, with a plummeting priest-to-laity ratio as a result. Moreover, the average age of the priests has grown rapidly, as fewer new priests come in, and those often at a later age than in the past, meaning they will have shorter terms of service. Many of the priests are not only spread thin but are old or ill, partly or entirely incapacitated. And the shortage is greatest just where conservatives like to claim, now, that there is a great surge in vocations, in the developing world. It is true that where priests from the colonial powers have died, retired or been withdrawn, local seminaries have doubled or tripled their numbers; but this is nowhere near enough to cope with the far more rapidly expanding body of the faithful. The priest shortage is greatest in Latin America, and second greatest in Africa. Their numbers reduce almost to insignificance the shortages in Europe and America.

In America during the 1990s, ordinations were less than a third of what they had been in the 1960s, one in 10 parishes had no permanent pastor. Robert Schoenherr and Lawrence Young noted in Full Pews and Empty Altars, their demographic study published in 1993, that from 1965 to 1985 the ratio of priests to laity fell in America from 15 for every 10,000 to 12 (with increasing age to go along with decreasing numbers). In Europe, the numbers fell from 13 to 11. Bad enough. But look at Africa. There the numbers fell from 5.5 per 10,000 to 2.4. The numbers in Latin America were 1.4 in 1985. Though it is true that there has been an increase in ordinations since, it is nowhere near catching up with the increase in Catholics, as the flat overall numbers of priests up to 1998 indicate. The number of priests is still what it was when the current pope took office nearly a quarter of a century ago.

Conservatives like to make another claim about the developing countries -- that they are doctrinally more aligned with the pope. But if the papal writ is so honored there, why do priests in the most populous Catholic sector of the world, Latin America, so frequently flout the discipline of celibacy? Why are evangelicals and Pentecostals making such inroads on the Catholic population? Some make a rather simpleminded equation between the “conservatism” of moralistic (and Republican) evangelicals in America and the theological conservatism of the pope. But Pentecostalism is at the farthest pole from hierarchy and the grace of office. It looks to the authenticity of one’s experience of the Holy Spirit, not mediated through hierarchies or official dispensers of the Spirit. The ordinary believer can be a healer, a speaker of the Spirit. It is said that Christians in the developing countries are returning to the time of the New Testament, and in some way that may be true; but we should remember that there was no pope at Pentecost or in the primitive church. In the early centuries, people elected their own bishops, even down to the time of Ambrose and Augustine. I hear more liberals than papal spokespersons praising that idea. Living close to the indigenous experience is what evangelical ministers, lay and married, do in Latin America -- and the closest Catholic equivalent of that was the “base communities” that the pope quashed. The base communities were supported by Catholic liberals, not conservatives. In general that has been the history of Catholics dealing with different cultures. The liberals have had to fight the papacy to honor local customs.

This long story has many chapters, going all the way back to 885, when Pope Stephen II set back the mission of Cyril and Methodius by forbidding their Slavonic liturgy. In the 16th century, the papacy denied itself a mission tool used effectively by Protestants when it banned or limited translations of the Bible into local languages. In 1742, Benedict XIV condemned the Jesuits’ adaptation of ritual to Chinese forms -- which, says Owen Chadwick, “destroyed a young church almost totally.” In 1759, the same pope let the colonizing power in Paraguay seize the indigenous land communities set up by the Jesuits there. Pope John Paul has acted in this tradition by attacking liberation theology in Latin America or syncretist theology in Asia (see Tom Fox’s new book, Pentecost in Asia). The curia has discouraged priests showing respect for ancestor veneration in Vietnam and for Buddhism in India. Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger’s document, Dominus Jesus, is a blow to any interfaith cooperation.

The true legacy of the council

Cardinal Ratzinger and others say that this present pope is retrieving the true meaning of the Second Vatican Council from the excesses and abuses of those who invoke it. If that is the case, why has the pope accepted as heroes and models the very popes whose influence that council tried to escape? I am referring to the Piuses, IX through XII, the first of whom this pope beatified and the second of whom he tried to canonize. Pius IX was the personification of everything the council repudiated -- the belief that democracy is an illegitimate form of government, that the modern world is a conspiracy against the church, that Jews were a dangerous force to be controlled, that the papacy is a spiritual monarchy. When Pius IX canonized a Spanish Inquisitor who forced the baptism of Jews under pain of execution, he wrote in the canonization document that this was aimed at contemporary Jews who “help the enemies of the church with their books and money.”

The council’s stand on episcopal collegiality could not be more strikingly repudiated than by the 1998 motu proprio, Apostolos Suos, which said that no act of a national conference of bishops could be binding unless it were a) voted for unanimously, and b) subject of papal approval. This was a castration of the conferences. It gave one conservative bishop the power to veto the things Rome was worried about, an address to the problem of the shrinking priesthood by considering married and/or women priests. Though past councils had aimed at “moral unanimity,” it was the papalists who said that was not needed at Vatican I. And if literal unanimity had been applied to Vatican II, the statement that Jews had not killed Christ would have failed because of the 188 council fathers who voted against it. In the past, national synods had overruled the pope himself (the African one in 418, for instance, with Augustine leading the attack on Pope Zosimus’ exoneration of Pelagius).

Rome has taken from the bishops their control of their local liturgies. It rejected draft after draft of the American conference’s statement on women, or the implementation of the discipline for university theologians (Ex Corde Ecclesiae). Its emasculation of the conference led to the dance by which the Dallas meeting’s “Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People” had to be called a gentlemen’s agreement, not a legislative act -- and even that may be overruled indirectly by rejection of the “norms” that were submitted for approval instead of the charter. Cardinal Ratzinger has opposed the council’s (and 1 Peter 2.9’s) term, “the people of God,” as a “catchword” hiding “a Marxist myth.” He has opposed liturgical reforms, urging that the eucharistic meal not be called a meal, that the altar be turned around and the priest faced away from the people, that the Marxist myth be fought in such prayers as “Look not on our sins” -- it should be individualistic “Look not on my sins.” That means that Ratzinger must condemn the Lord’s Prayer: “Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who have sinned against us.” In fact the prayer is communal in ways that must strike Ratzinger’s fine sniffing apparatus for incipient Marxism: “Give us this day our daily bread, and forgive us our sins as we forgive those who have sinned against us, and lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.” (The original Greek rings even more insistently the communal note, since all the first person plurals use the hym- stem, giving us, in this passage, hymon, hymin, hymin, hymon, hymeis, hymon, hymas, hymas. The curia is now at odds not only with the Vatican Council but with the New Testament.

Opposing the world

Some people, not all of them Catholic, think that the supreme task and glory of the Catholic church is to oppose the world, to throw up a bulwark of changelessness against the giddy whirl of modernity. That is what Malcolm Muggeridge liked about the church -- its secular usefulness to conservatism. Some take this instrumental approach to all things Catholic. They do not stress the natural law arguments for opposing contraception (a good thing, too, given the weakness of those arguments) but the fact that it goes against hedonistic culture of sexual permissiveness -- as if it did not trivialize that opposition by saying one need not have intellectual integrity so long as you are critical of lust. Fr. Richard John Neuhaus has said that any arguments for a married priesthood cannot be considered on their own merits at the moment, because this would be seen as giving in to the modern mood. That kind of fear and fanaticism against “the world” was the Pius IX position, and what John XXIIII tried to free us from in his opening and updating.

A mindless opposition to the new has crippled the church in the past, as when it did not see the merits of printing, literacy and the vernacular during the Reformation. At other times, though, the church has been willing to learn from “the world.” Augustine was able to use what was helpful in neo-Platonism, even though it was pagan in origin. Thomas Aquinas was able to use the new fad for Aristotle, even though it came mediated through “infidel” Arabic scholarship. In the same way, the church should be able to use what is valid and revolutionary in the modern world -- a subtler view of sexuality, for instance, a new sense that all authority must be accountable to be legitimate, and especially the new recognition of women’s equality. To deny itself the talents of half the human race in its ministry, when that ministry is in dire need of recruits, is a form of institutional suicide.

Why does Pope John Paul fear and resist the modern world, on the pattern of Pius IX? He is an impressive man, in some ways a great one. But he bears the marks of having been formed in a persecuted church, doubly persecuted, first by Nazis, then by communists. Those in persecuted churches cling to every symbol or practice of the church out of a fierce defiance to those who would crush it. That no doubt is why one of the pope’s first acts in office was to order priests back into their Roman collars and nuns back into their habits. It was a brave act to wear a Roman collar in Poland during his earlier days. But to treat all the world as a plot against you, outside the persecution situation, is to encourage a paranoid style of rule. The pope distrusts his own bishops, his own laity. He showers favor on those who share his paranoid concerns, who think of themselves as a besieged church within the church, who are secretive in fighting their own people -- Opus Dei, for instance, or the Legionaries of Christ.

The young seminarians attracted to the priesthood now are in this mold. (They must be, to submit to the papal strictures.) A survey just reported in The New York Times shows that the young priests are opposed to married priests and women priests, even though older priests favor both changes, and the flocks they will be serving favor them overwhelmingly. Conservatives like to call these young priests the wave of the future, and point out that the strictest seminaries attract the most applicants now, twice or three times what others are. They do not deal in absolute numbers but in these ratios, like those claiming great growth in Third World seminaries. A few American seminaries with a reputation among conservatives and a nationwide catchment area can attract hardline resisters of the general Catholic population. But they avoid citing absolute numbers because they are a drop in the bucket. The same fake statistics make people think that the hardline churches in general are becoming vast because they are doubling or tripling their numbers. But these are churches like the Assemblies of God, which grew by 18.5 percent in the last decade. Sure. But twice one is just two, and they are only 1.4 million people even at the end of that growth. The Catholic church grew in America at a slightly lower rate in the same period (16.2 percent), but we have 62 million people, and these young people in general belong to the Vatican II generation, not the Pope John Paul generation. A doubling of an intense minority still leaves one with a minority, whether in the Catholic or the other churches. Vatican II lives.

Garry Wills is an adjunct professor of history at Northwestern University. He won the 1993 Pulitzer Prize for General Nonfiction for Lincoln in Gettysburg. He is the author of Papal Sin: Structures of Deceit, a bestseller published in 2000, and Why I Am a Catholic, published this past summer.

National Catholic Reporter, October 4, 2002