My daughter and I were having a discussion awhile back about the era in which Vatican II came on the scene. We weren't discussing the ubiquitous sixties so much as we were the state of Catholicism. I tried to paint her a picture that the Catholic world of the early sixties was not the secular world of the early sixties. It was still the same Catholic world that existed in twenties with more money and more education, but unlike it's secular counterpart, it was only beginning to come to grips with what a predominately Catholic Europe had wrought in two successive world wars.
I found it difficult to explain to her that in many respects Catholicism was out of sync with Western culture in some pretty fundamental ways. As far as Church participation, yes, it was much higher than now, but it was more a case of the patient being in a coma than actually living. The down trend in participation was already occurring in Europe, especially amongst males and most especially amongst middle class males. I told her the thing I most remember is the clergy themselves seemed the most somnambulent, going through the motions without much enthusiasm. I also said that the biggest change in the Church, directly during and after the council, for me anyway, was the enthusiasm of the younger clergy and the change that wrought in the relationship between them and the laity.
Today I came across a personal reflection written by Tom McMahon that really captures what I was trying to tell my daughter. Tom is a married priest in his early eighties who is a frequent contributor to Catholica Australia. The following is an excerpt of Tom's reflection:
My Ford stationwagon was weekly jammed during winter months with clerical peers on one day ski trips of 450 miles to and from Squaw Valley. We finally made time out rules, time for breviary and eating without serious talk. I had spent the first seven years of priesthood in pathological assignments, where alcoholism, lack of concern for people, and clerical egotism were a way of clerical life. Basically all I did before 1962 was say Mass, perform sacraments, and take census, with a teen club to liven up a church that was boring and dead. I was very much alone, except for my young priest friends, stationed with problemed older priests wondering how to interest people in the matters of God. I look back now and see myself on the brink of depression and despair. I was beginning to feel trapped in a no win—all lose situation. Vatican Two was my salvation as a human being.
Pope John the 23rd did not attend the first session, offering a clear signal to the gathered bishops that the Council was theirs, not a one pope show. John had summoned bishops from all over the world, those who were rich and those who were poor. John the 23rd saw to it that third world bishops had airline tickets and proper clothing. John had called for the Council only a short two years before the first session in 1962. Conservatives gathered up the left over documents of Vatican One, aka the Pope's Council, wherein Pius the Ninth had himself declared infallible. The powerful top dog pecking order of the Roman hierarchy gathered in Rome for a quick restatement of Episcopal power. They were summarily rebuffed. Little did they realize the weighty theologians, Rahner, Congar, Schillibeeckx, Suenens, Haring, etc., etc., who knew the mind of John the 23rd and had prepared a whole new agenda. The first session lasted a few weeks and the bishops were sent packing, sent home to study and to choose a periti, aka a skilled theologian. This Council would examine theologies, history, and the social role of the church in society. When they returned in 1963 a whole new future was outlined for the Roman institution. We were on our way to being more than "Mass priests". The church had outgrown Trent and there was vivid memory of World Wars One and Two, incubated in the old Holy Roman Empire. A blue print was in place with great skeletal reforms that would ideally reach into the lives of the world's people. The future rebuilding of the work of the Roman Catholic Church was on its transitional way and the laity was invited to partner with the clergy. The process would take time! And there was opposition.
If one reads carefully the 16 documents of Vatican Two one will find only positive statements, encouragements, hopeful possibilities, and reinforcement for living the way of Jesus. Nowhere is there to be found a condemnation, nor an excommunication, no threats nor violence. An old European version of religion literally began to die at Vatican Two. The bishops of Vatican Two, perhaps unwillingly for many, signed the death warrant of a medieval church. Hope pervades all documents, a positive restatement of the mind of the historical Gospel Jesus. Today psychologically it would be called cognitive therapy. The documents are evolutionary blue prints that needed to be fleshed out by humans. (Tom is dead on with this analysis. What Vatican II did is change the way we thought about being Catholics and how Jesus fit in the picture. We were moving from thinking about ourselves as Roman Catholics to thinking about ourselves as Jesus followers in the Catholic tradition.)
Back home priests were summoned to study sessions; education was underway and the priest would say Mass in the native language, the presider (a new term) facing the people and Mass was becoming a communitarian experience. The presider was to offer a homily, a personal reflections on the Gospel way of life ... the spiritual life of the priest was talked about as crucial to the efficacy of the sacraments, they now were seen as living experiences and non-automatic rituals. The laity was called The People of God — we shall address the Document on the LAITY later in this series. We formed priests' senates and parish councils and a newness began to cover the old void [Genesis Ch1, vs1].
The reaction begins to emerge...
Yet out of nowhere, silently and viciously the older clergy began to react. Their power positions were under attack and they did not like the people having a voice. Some said John the 23rd had been captured by the Russians and taken to Moscow for a lobotomy and the devil had taken over the Roman Institution. There was shit aplenty hitting the curial and clerical fans.........
......At the time the theology was prevalent that a legitimate Ecumenical Council was higher authority than a reigning pope; in time John Paul the 2nd would nullify this age old theology and return sole power and authority to the pope of Rome and the Curia. The old church and the new church was on a head-on collision course.
Arguments broke out publicly at clerical meetings. Elder priests saw God as being trashed and the church being made a fool of … meat ok on Friday and Mass attendance off and all due to those renegade priests and their stupid Vatican Two teachings, which the old clergy had never read or understood. People over the years became confused, splitting in their want for the good old days while a gray-haired membership held tightly to the old way. Massive numbers began to leave the institution to seek the way of Jesus. Bishops were unable to comprehend the turmoil. in America the bishops became obsessed with pelvic problems, becoming outspoken experts in the field of human sexuality while their clergy secretly sabotaged morale and reputation.
The post-WW2 generations have no idea how vast and deep are the John the 23rd changes that are now permanent fixtures. They are changes of attitude much more than mere change of liturgical practices. A cleric ordained in 1980 has no idea of the value of Vatican Two and their position has become one of the blind leading the blind. There is no trustworthy leadership in the American Catholic Church. Today an adult convert to Catholicism has no idea of how the SPIRIT changed the face of the Roman Church. Thomas Arthur Connelly is dead and Raymond Hunthausen bravely lead the people in protest of the nuclear train that dangerously crossed the United States, a move that warranted then President Ronald Regan to ask Rome to dismiss the Dutchman — old Roman church uniting with corrupt government to beat down a Jesus' peace movement. There is still opposition to reform, coming from the highest places in the Roman system. Yet Jesus is at work, patiently and calming, one person at a time, preaching the Beatitudes and his Father's way of peaceful renewal.
One of the ironic things about the JPII generation is their apparent lack of understanding that in that pre Vatican II Church they so espouse, they would not be allowed to open their mouths. They would find that most schools of theology were limited to clerics or seminarians and that even if they did somehow manage to get a degree in theology, no one would listen to them anyway, and most certainly not their fellow laity. The really sad part of all this is in that previous Church they could have written glowing papers agreeing with every jot and tittle coming from the Papacy and Vatican curia and not one person would have noticed, much less cared. Laity did not count except on expense ledgers.
Sometimes I ask myself if I'm really angry about the restorationist movement or just plain sad. When push comes to shove, I think I'm terribly concerned that the real target of the restorationist movement is not revamping the liturgy or re securing clerical power or even fighting secular relativism. The real target is the incredible change in thinking, in conceptualization that Vatican II actually wrought. All of the rest that happened was secondary to this change in thinking about the laity, the clergy, the world, and the relationships amongst all the people of God and the Church in the world.
A lot of people, self included, sometimes reference this historic change in thinking about these relationships strictly in terms of power. In some respects the Vatican itself has lent credibility to framing the discussion in power terms. But it wasn't just exclusively about power vis a vis Church authority, it was about redefining the boundaries concerning all relationships with in and with out the Church. Vatican II changed the language we use to think about all of this, and from there, the way we conceptualize and then act on all of these relationships. All of the other changes flowed from this core change in the language used to conceptualize the Church.
The restorationist movement is reworking all the changes piece by piece, but the end goal is to restore the prior thinking and the relational boundaries that thinking supports. Ultimately this will be a losing strategy. Once today's proponents of the restorationist movement realise the price for success is their virtual insignificance as meaningful players, they'll be hitting the streets with the very people they now wish would take the exit door. What they don't yet see, is the Church they want back so badly had neither a place nor a desire for lay input--unless it came with a great deal of money. It's that church they are really restoring and that is the real shame.