Hugh Somerville Knapman OSB takes the long view of Vatican IIBeware the Church of ‘perpetual initiatives, built on shifting sands’ – Catholic Herald
Hugh Somerville Knapman OSB takes the long view of Vatican II
As surely we all know by now, 11 October was the 60th anniversary of the opening of the
Second Vatican Council. In the context of the current synodal process through which the
Church is going, the anniversary has sparked renewed reflection and debate on the
significance of the Council and the course of its implementation. Debate seems to have
moved beyond the question of the rightness or otherwise of the conciliar decrees.
Questions remain over their implementation, certainly but some also even ask if the Council
was truly needful, and if so, was the 1960s the right time for it. For those of us born after the
Council’s sessions concluded it is a difficult task to understand the ambience and mindset of
the Church in the years leading up to 1962. However, there is ample contemporary testimony
that many saw a real problem facing the Church in the wake of the Second World War.
The century was not half over, and the nations of the world had already endured the trauma of
two world wars on a scale never before seen, a likewise traumatic global economic
depression, and stunningly rapid advances in science, technology, and communications both
for good and ill. Government, and authority more generally, came to be viewed with
suspicion, seen as largely responsible for the cyclonic course of the early 20 th century.
Society had been violently reshaped before the Church, ever more snail than hare, had had
time to catch up. Its rhetoric, its methods, and its invincible self-confidence were no longer
suited to the mood and mind of the masses. While the edifice looked sound, many detected an
increasingly stale air within its walls. The fortress needed to open some windows and engage
with the world outside afresh.
The rate of Mass attendance was beginning to fall. Communism especially was gaining a
better hearing among those who longed, often inarticulately and without direction, for a
global social order that would prevent the traumas of the last few decades. Many were asking,
as they looked back on the wreckage of a century barely half gone: where was God in all
this? Abetted by clerics such as the Anglican bishop John Robinson, many replaced a
personal God with deity as an impersonal ground of personal being.
Humanity turned to itself and its new material achievements to find solutions. Is it any
wonder that people increasingly sought to flee the cold logic of socio-political and
ecclesiastical dynamics and turn instead to feeling, to move from head to heart, to let the
sunshine in as they welcomed the dawning of the Age of Aquarius, to make love not war?
Reason gave way to feelings, and feelings became identified with conscience.
In all this we lost sight of God and saw only ourselves. There had been movements in the
Church that had sought to adapt to the changes on the battlefield for the human soul, such as
Cardinal Joseph Cardijn’s Young Christian Workers and Dorothy Day’s Christian Worker
Movement, though they proved unable to produce sufficiently wide effect. Another
movement, seeking to win Catholics back to the lively and enlivening practice of their faith in
communal worship, was the Liturgical Movement.
These movements had noble aims and sound origins, and all sought to engage with a rapidly
changing world in order that the gospel might touch the lives of men and women with new
force and effect. Alas, in time some of these movements were themselves converted to the
world they had originally sought to convert to Christ, a tragedy repeated even to our day.
Pope John XXIII saw the problem and in January 1959 proposed an ecumenical council to
find a solution. It would take some time to organise, and in the three and half years it took to
open the first session, the world had changed further still. Pope John and his council sought to recognise the signs of the times, but the times were a-changing, and quickly. Therein lies
what might possibly be the real fatal flaw of the council, if taken on its own terms: its decrees
sought to address a situation that had changed even before their ink was dry.
Gaudium et Spes, the council’s decree on the Church in the modern world, and its longest
document, was irrelevant by the end of the decade. The world was in perpetual and rapid
flux. As the decrees lost their relevance, their implementation moved from their fixed letter to
their malleable spirit, as changeable as everything else in the modern world. Invariably, the
spirit of the council is in the eye of the beholder, not in its decrees.
This might partly explain the current ecclesial phenomenon of synodality, a novelty that is
intended to be a “constitutive dimension of the Church”. The Church seems set to be as
changeable, unstable, and insecure as the world it is meant to convert. The tragedy of the
Council is that its documents have become irrelevant even as its “spirit” endures as a totem to
legitimise each and every change, and to which every knee must bow.
The bitter fruit is that not only has the Church’s method changed, but also her message. We
have become a Church of perpetual initiatives, built not on rock but shifting sands.
Synodality seems set to institutionalise flux as determining the life of the Church as she
becomes never ancient, ever new. There is a question that underlies, largely unrecognised, the
flux of the Church today: is her mission to serve our happiness or our holiness?
Does Holy Church answer to the restless human heart, or to the eternal call of Christ? The
answer determines both her method and message, for she cannot serve two masters.
Dom Hugh Somerville Knapman is a monk of Douai Abbey