Back-pedalling on Vatican II
What makes for spiritual growth? In my childhood and adolescence, it was all about going to Sunday Mass, confessing your sins once a month at least, going to Mass through the week or even attending Sunday benediction, an active interest in cultivating a devotional life fostered by the many movements that still thrived till the 1960s. These were the emblems of a thriving Catholic faith.
Mass attendance was four times what it is today, members of pious societies filling the pews at their designated Masses. Clerics in collars and soutanes and, when called on, bishops and ‘experts’ in particular devotions, fed the faithful with the treasures of these traditions of piety. There was always an ‘authority’ who could explain the mysteries and put anxious minds and hearts at rest. Authority was a big factor in Church and society.
Also, the religion of Catholics was of a piece with the self-perception that had carried generations of them through hard times on the margins of Australian economic, social and cultural life. Most Catholics only had their status as ‘sons and daughters of the one true faith’ to comfort them.
Enter Vatican II and the change to the ground rules of Catholicism: the Church isn’t the hierarchy, the priests and religious, but the people of God; the point of being a Catholic isn’t best exemplified by the ordained or vowed members of the community, but by the calling of all the baptised.
The treacle of devotional piety melted under the renewed discovery of the New Testament as the fountainhead of faith. A perceived obsession with sin and death was named as sick. Bad theology had combined with human limitation to create a Church whose stunted culture needed the vacuum cleaner.
But the drive for reform and its associated energies and activities were only half implemented. Over the last 30 years, the momentum that had driven a fresh wind through the Church for 20 years was reined in. The focus turned to shoring up ‘the firm wall of religion’ against threatening forces unleashed by a world that had grown tired of religion in general and the Catholic Church in particular.
Some, such as the present Pope Benedict XVI, agree with the leading 20th Century theologian Karl Rahner, who in the 1960s predicted a minority status for Christianity in Europe.
But whereas for Rahner, Christians of the future will be either mystics or nothing, for Benedict, the future lies with the Old Testament concept of the ‘faithful remnant’, a distinctly marked, garbed and confessing group tied together in their adherence to doctrine, sacramental practice and a structure of authority in the Church. The Pope’s plan seems to be an intellectualised version of the ghetto that Vatican II sought to break down.
The ghetto mentality does not diminish the things that Vatican II suggested were the way forward for the Church — among them, a robust engagement with the wider world on its terms, an embrace of the multi-denominational and multi-faith world we live in, a recognition that faith and its celebration needs to relate more obviously to our lives, a recognition that we had got some things wrong over the centuries such as clerical power and our approach to ideas we found uncongenial, and an acknowledgement that we don’t have all the answers.
And Vatican II was an implicit recognition that the bonds of fear at a personal level — which seemed to authorise capricious exercises of authority, a culture of unworthiness and the celebration of a pattern of conformity that masked human needs and shrivelled the personalities of many in authority in the Church’s institutions — were no way to nurture a free embrace of faith.
But Rahner’s way forward is a narrow gate and a straight path. It is an interior path that engages a believer with his and her Creator as the point of departure for faith. And when you look at the deployment of the Church’s resources to sustain that journey, you can see how ill equipped we are to meet its requirements.
Public displays and events, immense investments in education, training, the intellectual life and the corporal works of mercy — health, aged care and social welfare: these are the strong points of Australian Catholicism.
Will they meet the challenge that a new age in the Church’s life needs, one that nourishes the capacities for believers to grow deeper in their lives of faith and walk the mystic road?