Catholics for a Changing Church

"To live is to change, and to be perfect is to have changed often" - Bl. John Henry Newman

The Loss of the "Open" Vision of Vatican II

Benedict XVI has begun well. He is taking his own time to make his mark and to shape his vision of Catholicism on the church. He is clearly a man of genuine spirituality and culture. But there are elements of his theology that should certainly cause concern for Catholics who have inherited a more "open" vision of Vatican II, that is the majority of Catholics in the English-speaking world.
The core of the theological problem is that many in ecclesiastical leadership at the highest level are moving in an increasingly sectarian direction and watering down the catholicity of the church and even unconsciously neglecting elements of its teaching.

Since this word "catholicity" will recur often it is important to define it. It is derived from the Greek word katholikos that means "general," "broad" or "universal." It also has a profound theological meaning. Cardinal Avery Dulles, SJ has a book entitled The Catholicity of the Church (1988). Catholicity, he says, is characterized by (1) inclusiveness, which means openness to various cultures and opposition to sectarianism and religious individualism; (2) by an ability to bridge generations and historical periods; (3) by an openness to truth and value wherever it exists; (4) by a recognition that it is the Holy Spirit who creates the unity of the church through whose indwelling we participate in the life of God.

This is the kind of Catholicism that many of us have embraced throughout our lives. Its foundations, which are deeply embedded in church history, were given modern expression in the vision of the church articulated at the Second Vatican Council in the 1960s. For Catholics like myself our benchmark is a church that is defined as the living sacrament of God’s presence and the place where God’s sovereignty is acknowledged, expressed through a participative community of people dedicated to the service of the world and characterized by collegiality and ecumenism. It is precisely this image of Catholicism which I think is being distorted by many at the highest level in the contemporary church.

Many in the hierarchy and some laity are moving increasingly in this narrow, elitist direction. Over the last few years a series of documents have been published by the Vatican including the Declaration of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Dominus Jesus (DJ), issued on 6 August 2000. DJ, which claims to protect the uniqueness of Christ, in fact expresses a profoundly anti-ecumenical spirit at odds with the sense of God’s grace permeating the whole cosmos. DJ gives voice to a wider movement that is slowly but pervasively turning the Catholic church inward in an increasingly sectarian direction.

Sectarianism is incompatible with genuine catholicity. It is the antithesis of the kind of openness to the world, tolerant acceptance of others and a sense of religious pluralism that most thinking Catholics have been formed in and have embraced over the last three or four decades. Thus many Catholics find themselves involved in a corrosive disjunction between what they believe and have experienced, and the views expressed at the highest levels of the church. The reason is because those who claim to articulate Catholic belief seem to be abandoning their catholic spirit. As a result there is a turning away from the other Christian churches, and a rejection of the search for common ground with the other great religious traditions. Thus more and more thinking Catholics who have been educated and live in pluralist, democratic and tolerant societies, find themselves in conflict with church hierarchs who seem to be moving in an ever-more sectarian direction.

Some times there is a hankering after a more genuinely Catholic approach - as you find in John Paul II’s encyclical Ut unum sint (1995), where he went so far as to ask the other churches for advice on papal primacy. But ecclesiastical reality indicates that this hankering is, in fact, merely ecumenical wishful- thinking.

There have also been regular attempts to "muzzle" and condemn the discussion of issues such as the ordination of women through the use of a new category of doctrine. This has received its clearest expression in the apostolic letter Ad Tuendam Fidem (30 June 1998). The letter argues that there is an intermediary, "second level" of revealed doctrine between the established and defined teaching that all Catholics believe, and what up until now has been called the "ordinary magisterium." Before the introduction of this so-called "second level," all non-infallible or non-defined teaching was exactly that: doctrine that should be respected and offered various levels of submission of mind and will, but still ultimately open to debate, discussion and development within the Church community.

What Ad Tuendam Fidem has done is to introduce formally a category of "definitive" but non-infallibly-defined doctrine. The then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger said that this second-level teaching is, in fact, infallible. He says that it includes "all those teachings in the dogmatic or moral area which are necessary for faithfully keeping and expounding the deposit of faith, even if they have not been proposed by the magisterium as formally revealed." As examples of second level definitive teaching he includes the condemnation of euthanasia, the validity of the canonization of a particular saint, the legitimacy of a papal election, and even the invalidity of Anglican orders. The gratuitous reference to Anglican orders is astonishingly maladroit and insulting; it reveals a real lack of ecumenical sensitivity.

There is also an emerging unspoken assumption among some very senior church leaders that the contemporary western world is so far gone in individualism, permissiveness and consumerism that it is totally impervious to church teaching. Claiming to assume the broader historical perspective, these churchmen have virtually abandoned the secularised masses, to nurture elitist enclaves which will carry the true faith through to future, more "receptive" generations. This is why the New Religious Movements (NRMs) have received so much favour and patronage in this papacy. The NRMs have embraced an essentially sectarian vision of Catholicism, are very hierarchical in structure and theologically reactionary. This is true of some elements in the Catholic charismatic movement, and also outfits like Opus Dei, Communion and Liberation, the Neo-Catechuminate and the Legionaries of Christ, as well as a number of other smaller, less significant groupings.

This has been highlighted by the article "Catholic Fundamentalism. Some Implications of Dominus Jesus for Dialogue and Peacemaking," by my friend, John D’Arcy May who teaches theology and ecumenism at Trinity College, Dublin. DJ is primarily directed against those Catholics involved in the "wider ecumenism" who have been trying to find common ground with the great non-Christian religious traditions. But DJ also managed to offend many Anglicans and Protestants through an awkwardly-worded passage that was so obscure that many journalists incorrectly took it to mean that only Catholics could be saved. The passage actually says that Anglicanism and the various forms of Protestantism "are not churches in the proper sense"(DJ, Paragraph 17).
It was the opening sentences of May’s commentary that struck me between the eyes. "There is no reason, in principle, why the Roman Catholic church, despite its enormous size and global presence, could not become a sect. Sectarianism is a matter of mentality, not size ... The deep shock Dominus Jesus caused in ecumenical circles consisted precisely in their exposure to the specifically Roman Catholic form of fundamentalism."

These are the real problems facing those Catholics who share an open vision of Vatican II.

Paul Collins


Born in Melbourne, Australia, in August 1940, Paul Collins is an historian, broadcaster, and writer. A Catholic priest for thirty-three years, he has also worked in varying capacities in TV and radio with the ABC since 1986. He is the author of nine books: Mixed Blessings [Penguin, 1986], No Set Agenda. Australia’s Catholic Church Faces an Uncertain Future [David Lovell, 1991], God’s Earth. Religion as if matter really mattered [Harper Collins 1995], Papal Power [Harper Collins, 1997], Upon This Rock. The development of the papal office from Saint Peter to John Paul II [Melbourne University Press, 2000 and Crossroad, 2002], From Inquisition to Freedom [Simon and Schuster, 2001 and Overlook, 2002], Hells’ Gates. The Terrible Journey of Alexander Pearce, Van Dieman’s Land Cannibal [HardieGrant, 2002], Between the Rock and a Hard Place. Being Catholic Today [ABC Books, 2004]. His latest book is God’s New Man. The election of Benedict XVI and the legacy of John Paul II [Melbourne University Press and Continuum, 2005]. He is well known as a commentator on the papacy and he also has a strong interest in environmental and population issues, and his book God’s Earth has been made into a major TV documentary by the ABC. He has a Master’s degree in theology (Th.M.) from Harvard University, and a Doctorate in Philosophy (Ph.D) in history from the Australian National University (ANU).

CCC is most grateful to Paul Collins for writing this article on the papacy.  We have included the above biographical information, which he sent us, as the writer - shamefully little known in Britain - has illumined a wide range of subjects of interest to thinking Catholics. Editor

JoomBall - Cookies