New life for Vatican II reforms?

Priest sex abuse scandal an opportunity for Catholic Church to fully embrace needed changes

April 16, 2010|By Stephen J. Stahley

There may well be a silver lining threaded within the dark, menacing cloud that now blankets the Vatican — a cloud that grows heavier with each new disclosure of clerical sex abuse. The long-suppressed promise of the Second Vatican Council may, at long last, gather the necessary energy and velocity, as does a hurricane swirling over open water. Should this happen, the overdue reforms formulated by Vatican II may flood into the church.

As proclaimed by the pope who convened it, John XXIII, the intent of Vatican II (1962-65) was to "throw open the windows of the Church" and let in the fresh air of renewal. Pope John wanted dialogue with the modern world. His goal was to enrich the Catholic Church with new ideas while also reclaiming the best of its dormant traditions in worship and theology.

Among the many transformative changes to emerge from the council deliberations was a new (yet also very ancient) definition of the church itself. By proclaiming that the church is, first and foremost, "The People of God," Vatican II overthrew the rigid, hierarchical self-understanding that had characterized the church for centuries. It is almost impossible to overstate the revolutionary nature of this change as expressed in the beautiful document Lumen Gentium that was the centerpiece of the Council's proclamations.

After Pope John's death in 1963, the next Pope, Paul VI, carried through on the council's agenda. By 1965, the church had a coherent blueprint for sweeping reform and genuine renewal. While the momentum launched by Vatican II lost steam over the next 10 years, it was the election of Pope John Paul II in 1978 that took the momentum from "slow" to "stop."

By 1980, there were powerful signs that the "reform and renew" agenda laid out by John XXIII were to be replaced by John Paul II's agenda of "retrench and restore." Foremost on John Paul's to-do list was the restoration of the hierarchical model of the church — an unmistakable recentralization of all ecclesiastical power in the papacy.

If the "People of God" had any role in John Paul's definition of the church, it was to "pray, pay and obey." And to shut up — especially if you happened to be a woman. The role of bishops in the church, defined in the documents of Vatican II as true shepherds exercising authentic pastoral authority in their dioceses, was also redefined by John Paul. Bishops became little more than regional branch managers in a multinational corporation. All authority, again, flowed from the top. The vetting process for bishops filtered out any candidates whose ideas differed from those of the pope.

The architect who took John Paul's vision to reality was Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, the man who is now pope. By the time he assumed the throne of St. Peter as Pope Benedict XVI, the institution he presided over bore more resemblance to the 1950 model than the image envisioned by Vatican II. And that was fine with him.

The priest sex abuse scandal that erupted in North America in 2002 was only the first wave of what has become an international tsunami. The restoration of the hierarchical, Vatican-centric model achieved by John Paul II and Benedict XVI has been ill-equipped to handle the storm that now engulfs it. A brittle ecclesiastical structure that relies on blind obedience, secrecy, denial and the exclusion of dissenting points of view is not a structure with the tensile strength — or the integrity — to accomplish the core mission with which it has been entrusted, namely, spreading the message of Jesus Christ.

The course that was charted for the church in the deliberations of Vatican II was not a panacea by any means. What it did offer, however, were several good ideas that the church is sorely in need of today, including a more meaningful role for the laity in decision making, a greater diversity of theological opinions and a broad embrace of the insights of modern science, especially in the realm of psychology and the associated behavioral disciplines.

The Catholic Church has come a long way from the dramatic vision embodied in the proclamations of Vatican II. Unfortunately, it's been in the wrong direction. As the restored hierarchical incarnation of the church now grows increasingly defensive and paranoid, the swirling storm only gathers more force.

At the core of our Christian, Catholic faith is the belief that life is stronger than death; that God can make all things new. Now is the time for the "People of God" to lay hold of that belief and allow its truth to transform the church.

Stephen J. Stahley, a writer in Baltimore County, served as a priest from 1978 to 1988 in the order of the Missionary Servants of the Most Holy Trinity. His e-mail is

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