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Church Reform: “The Beginnings of the Beginning- or the end of the new song?”

This was sent to me last month by the German church reform group, “Wir Sind Kirche”. I delayed posting it at Queering the Church as I was not happy with the language of the English translation. (Provided by themselves).  In terms of some current discussion here, it is particularly topical: responding to a comment in another post, I promised to prepare a post on how John Paul II was responsible for reversing many of the council’s reforms.  That post is into fully ready, but I have been catching up on my reading, so Seibel’s words immediately recalled to my mind some of what I have been finding. I am posting below the text I received, lightly edited for language, together with my responses.

I have added at the end  references to the sources I have used – which were jsut simply those that I had to hand. Any reasonable library will have many more.

Authorized short version of a talk held in Wurzburg on November 8th 2008 during the 24th assembly of the movement “We are Church” by P.Wolfgang Seibel SJ, observer of the Council and long-standing editor of the journal “Stimmen der Zeit”of the Jesuits in Munich.

Pope John 23rd called the Council because he was convinced that the Church was in dire need of fundamental reforms. The Council was intended to initiate a “Renewal of the whole Church”. The Pope was convinced that this reform could only be achieved by shared discussion, and open argument, and only if as many as possible lay people and office bearers were to contribute and introduce their knowledge and experience. He did not accept solving problems by directives or decree. The Church shall “renew itself under the guidance of the Holy Spirit incessantly” (GS21). It is “obliged to study the signs of the present time and to interpret them in the light of the holy Bible”

In this rejection of dictating and decree, how far he was from John Paul II and Benedict XVI, who have gone right back in the opposite direction.  The earliest church, as indeed the apostles themselves, were marked by the degree of their collegiality and shared leadership.  Pope John XXIII, in his own style and in the direction taken by the Vatican Council itself,  were going right back to the spirit of the Gospels and the early Church. We ahve since been battling against the old guard, determinedly trying to recreate the monarchical, hierarchical church which was a late creation  – especially as a reaction to the perceived democratic horrors following the French Revolution, and the downfall of empires and monarchies across many parts of Europe.

Dialogue is the basis of the Council as such. It is the usual way for the Council to find the truths and to come to decisions. The Council declares without doubt that the Church as such does not have a predefined answer to all questions (GS 43) but has to search for the answers itself. For the first time in the history of the Church the Council has indicated that diversity of opinion is possible and legitimate.

This too, is so different to the situation we have seen in recent years. While a young theologian, the then Bernard Ratzinger was firmly aligned with the progressive forces at the Council.  Soon after, in 1969 he was one of many signatories to a declaration in support of open debate and freedom of expression for theologians.  However, almost as son as he was appointed to head teh CDF by JPII, he turned on his former colleague Hans Kung, and revoked his licence to teach theology, because Kung was questioning the doctrine of papal infallibility.

The Council doesn’t evaluate and consider our modern times as “negative” in principle – although that was so for a very long period in Church history- but it finds a lot of positive facts in these “modern times”. The maxim and motto is no longer “objection and demarcation” but “opening and dialogue” instead. The Church of the Council does not want to appear to order, instruct and demand but wants to have the new image of a church ready to argue which must, almost by consensus come to an understanding. It was completely new that official statements of the Catholic teaching went so far.

This negative perception of “modernism” was one of the key preoccupations of the church throughout the nineteenth century in the light of the political upheavals, which threatened to destroy the power of the church. It was one of the underlying reasons behind the calling of the First Vatican Council, and was strongly influenced its conservative flavour – heavily pre-occupied with the preservation of church control and power, compared with the democratizing currents in the secular world.  Since then, the Church has accepted the value of secular democracy:  grudgingly at first, but enthusiastically later.  Ironically, Pope John Paul II embraced democratic principles especially warmly, in the ligth of his experience of Eastern Europe – but was firm in reversing the democratizing trends initiated for the Church itself at the council.

The most important decision of the Council is the declaration on religious freedom. That point turned upside down the old teaching. The freedom in religious themes is founded in the dignity of man itself and hence that right is not derived from any law of state. It has to be respected by the states because of that fundamental foundation in Dignity. Religious freedom is a “right vested in any person”, it is “independent of objective reasoning of the individual religious conviction and independent of subjective striving for that truth”.

Here too, John Paul II was enthusiastic in his support for the principle of religious freedom and freedom of conscience – as long is it applied to the secular sphere only.

Dialogue is the basis of the Council’s statements concerning ecumenism and the non-Christian religions. The Second Vatican Council emphasizes – differently to many centuries before – that in the other religions too, there is truth and holiness.

Progress towards ecumenism was an important new initiative of the council – progress which John Paul II effectively ended with a document (encyclical?) on Christianity and the place of the Catholic Church that deeply offended other denominations. In spite of the clear decisions of the council that the church should move “collegially”, this document was issued without any consultation with the heads of the Vaticn bodies responsible for dialogue with other faiths, or other Christian churches.  It was described as a “disaster” by…..

“People of God” is the key term of the new image of the Church: The second Vatican Council wanted to overcome the image of a two- class community under the dominant clerical class. For the Council there are no Christians of lesser right. “People of God” means the strengthening of the local units of the Church. The bishops together with the Pope form a body of cooperating colleagues. They are not deputies and not clerks of the Pope.

Far from moving away from the “two-class” structure of the Church, John Paul II and Benedict XVI have clearly re-enforced it.

The tremendous resonance that the Council found within the Catholic Church is a sign most clearly showing that the bishops identified the problems in a similar way as the majority of the Catholic people and that jointly they addressed the same problems. Rarely can one find such a great consensus between bishops and the People of God.

Open Questions the Council left to posterity:

– The question of contraception;


4 Responses

  1. This article epitomises much of what I find disappointing about the articles here: sweeping generalizations about what Vatican II was supposed to be about, similar generalizations about how JPII and B16 subverted those ends, and a total lack of specific references.

    I think there could be nothing healthier now than a dialogue on Vatican II, if only because there seems to be a widespead forgetting of what the Council actually said.

    • Rick, I’m sorry you find this “disappointing”. I agree that now is a good time for a thoroughgoing discussion of all of Vatican II – not just the soundbites- and I aim to bring you a great deal of that as we move ahead. But why stop at Vatican II? V II was not an end in itself, but a beginning: it is widely acknowledged that there was much unfinished business. There is also room for wider understanding of the earlier tradition, and the legacy of Vatican I.

      Your complaint also fails to take account of the nature of a blog, which is quite different from a more formal medium. People read blogs for different reasons – some will want no more than brief snapshots and news headlines. For that reason, we aim to include a range of post types – some (such as this one) which simply pass on items of interest from elsewhere, with little in the way of comment, but with links for further information. This particular piece was a summary of a longer article presented to “Wir Sind Kirche“. For anybody wanting more than just the summary, go to the original article. Other posts do go deeper.

      Personally, there is a lot more that I would like to be writing on Vatican II, and on other matters of church history. But to put together something that is more than just scratching the surface takes time – time to research, and time to write. We are neither professional journalists, nor academics, with piles of material on hand conveniently arranged in libraries and archives. We’ve been up barely 10 days: with patience, we will produce fuller analyses, on a wide range of topics.

      If you are impatient and really don’t want to wait – here’s a suggestion for you. You’ve already put a lot of time into reasoned and courteous responses to other people’s posts. If you think there is a topic we are not covering adequately, or we are collectively presenting a one-sided view, why not prepare an independent post of your own, which we will gladly publish as a guest post? If you would like to begin with the more thorough discussion of Vatican II you have asked for, I for one would love to read it.


      • I certainly don’t mean to be purely negative, but if we are to indeed have any sort of critical engagement with Vatican II I think it’s helpful to start with the text.

        Otherwise it’s as if two people wanted to engage the text of the bible, and limited themselves to generalities, i.e., “it’s about being free,” “no, it’s about doing good.” In such a vacuum there’s no way to see how the biblical text addresses both freedom and moral norms.

        “But why stop at Vatican II? V II was not an end in itself, but a beginning: it is widely acknowledged that there was much unfinished business.”

        The question, of course, is whether the “unfinished business” must in any sense continue to be consistent with Vatican II’s teaching, as Vatican II, despite its changed focuses, carefully kept its own teacihng consistent with, if building upon, that of the earlier ecumenical councils.

        It’s in that “Vatican II plus” where the question of consistency comes in, I think. I am often puzzled when I see, say, Hans Kung characterized as a champion of Vatican II, since his dissent from Vatican II is surely as deep as Archbishop Lefevre’s. Why isn’t progressive dissent as much opposition to the Council as reactionary dissent?

  2. Thanks for posting this Terry! We Are Church once again enumerous how groundbreaking Vatican II really was but how unfortunately those reforms were undermined, subliminally or consciously, during the pontificate of Pope John Paul II and now currently under Benedict XVI.

    Just by this endeavor we are putting forth another voice, and being emmisaries of the Holy Spirit, spreading the truth to all the People of God!

    I have confidence and hope that our initiatives will indeed bear fruit, whether in our lifetimes or not we cannot know. I do think that the success of which I speak will ultimately depend upon the collaboration of the laity together with the clergy. Although we as the laity can indeed raise these issues and bring them to the attention of the People of God at large, unfortunately, the clergy do still have “power” so to speak.

    It is in this spirit that I continue to beseech the Holy Spirit to bless the the Church in the future with a pragmatic, open-minded Pontiff who can understand the relevant question and concerns of the time, and respond to them not just with dogmatism or denunciation, but rather through dialogue and understanding, in the spirit of the great Bl. John XXIII.

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