Page 8, 16th March 2007

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Page 8, 16th March 2007 — UNCERTAIN FRONTIERS

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he Church claims universality: what is declared in one place as truth must be received as truth everywhere or it cannot, by definition, be authentic. Hence the infallibility intrinsic in the apostolate, and explicit in the ex cathedra pronouncements of the successors of St Peter. The intellectual pluralism of the modem world, and the obvious dethronement of theology as the "Queen of the Sciences", pointed to the need for a new consultation of the world's bishops to restate the ancient truths in a manner comprehensible within the social circumstances and the intellectual forces of modem culture. The result was the Second Vatican Council, which opened in October 1962 and closed, at the end of the fourth session, in December 1965.

Pius XII had actually thought of a council. The First Vatican Council had never been formally dissolved: it was adjourned, with Italian troops at the gates of Rome, and with France and Germany at war. Pius XII sought to complete its business, but the work on an agenda, which he initiated, ceased in 1951. He died in 1958, and was succeeded by Angelo Giuseppe Roncalli, a Vatican diplomat, who became Pope John XXIII. As he was known to be a conservative, like his predecessor, it was not to be anticipated that he would inspire a reform programme — and he did not do so. His summoning in 1960 of the first synod of the diocese of Rome (a sort of Vorspiel for the Council) and the Council itself two years later. were not intended to stimulate far-reaching changes. His celebrated intention of aggiornamento (renewal) was exactly that: his hope, amply fulfilled as it turned out. was to revive clarity of doctrine by removing the accretions of redundant culture. He sought a work of restoration.

The Council has often been seen, especially by the promoters of extensive change, seeking authority for their various enterprises, as in itself the source of all that followed in the 1960s. But the Council was not reformist on all fronts, either under John XXIII or under Paul VI who followed him in 1963. The Council did take place, however, in a decade of crisis in Western cultural values; a time of escalating expectations. when the past often seemed burdensome and the future seemed to beckon humanity to new hopes. Many of the changes in Catholic practice attributed by later interpreters to the Council would have occurred anyway, in response to the prevailing inclinations of an era that simultaneously prompted changes in the Protestant churches too. Some of the changes later popularly attributed to the Council actually preceded it. Pius XII, for example, had encouraged lay participation in the Mass in 1947, as well as evening Masses. and dialogue with non-Catholics on matters of faith. The 3,281 bishops who assembled for the Council in 1962 included many who had expectations of change, but few rendered them in particularly radical terms.

The Council made no new dogmatic definitions, and had no need to do so. The Assumption of the Virgin had been promulgated by an exercise of papal authority in 1950, and there was no agenda for further definitions of doctrine. Nor was there any coherent intellectual mode that either prompted the idea of the Council, and so provided an agenda. or emerged throughout its proceedings. The sessions took place in a world of increasing intellectual pluralism, to which the traditional Thomist categories of formal Catholic learning could refer only very indirectly. But no alternatives were likely to achieve universal assent among the Fathers assembled at the Vatican.

Some spoke of the new vision brought by the bishops of the developing world — an enormous body of opinion at the Council. Yet their voices actually only echoed sentiments of the European and North American Catholic leaders, declaiming their own loss of cultural certainty and having no intellectual system or agreed programme to put in its place. The voices of the developing world turned out to be the voices of Westernised elites rather than authentic insights raised up from among the dispossessed. The remarkable thing about the Council was that it was able to produce more or less exactly what it set out to do: a statement of the Catholic faith in modules of understanding intelligible to modem culture yet completely conformable to past tradition — an achievement the more remarkable in view of the incoherence of Western culture in the 1960s.

The agenda was organised by Cardinal Leon Joseph Suenens, who had succeeded Cardinal Van Roey as Archbishop of Malines in 1961. Since he was rather given to conveying his opinions to the press, Suenens was taken, by them, to be a spokesman for "open" views of the Council proceedings, almost as leader of progressive policies. He was subsequently, indeed, to become something of a progressive, and to employ the current youth vocabulary of protest in his various utterances — a disposition that in due course alienated him from the confidence of Paul VI. His work on the Council agenda was measured and seminal, however. It was Suenens who opted for the traditional distinction between ad intro matters, on the internal nature of the Church and its doctrines, and which became the substance of the Dogmatic Constitution Lumen Gentium, and ad extra policy, on the relationship of the Church to the world, which became the Pastoral Constitution Gaudium et Spes. It was Lumen Gentium that defined the Church as the "People of God", and which heightened consciousness of collegiality. The laity were incorporated into the conduct of Catholic affairs at local levels, and synods of bishops were in future to be convened by the papacy to institutionalise the consultative process. This in practice meant an abandonment of the Ultramontane mystique that had adhered to papal government.

The Constitution was not in any sense. however, a resuscitation of the old claims of collegiality, to the superiority of the bishops over the universal sovereignty of the papacy; nor was it an encouragement to the concept of national self-identity by individual Church hierarchies. The Doctrine of the Church itself was explicit: "The universal body made up of the faithful, whom the Holy One has anointed, is incapable of being at fault in itself." Infallibility was reaffirmed, and the office of the Pontiff, as the earthly head, was stated yet again as the proper order of the Church. The Vatican Council eventually, in 1994, produced a new Catechism — just as the Council of Trent had done. Its • composition was entrusted to the coordination of Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger (Benedict XVI after 2005), and its version of the Doctrine of the Church unsurprisingly followed the traditional formulations of the Council: "This pastoral office of Peter and the other apostles belongs to the Church's very foundation and is continued by the bishops under the primacy of the Pope."

The Council did not consider ecumenism a priority, and its Constitutions did not suggest any new initiatives beyond conventional courtesies and an openness to exchange views with other religious bodies.. It is not differences of liturgical use or ceremony, nor the authority of Scripture, nor the office of ministry, as such, that divide Catholicism from the Protestant churches, but the Doctrine of the Church itself. And that was restated by the Council in a manner that left little space for any realignment. Catholic teaching on the infallible nature of ecclesiastical authority, and an increasing divergence in moral theology, in the second half of the 20th century, have if anything sharpened the inherent incompatibilities of Catholicism and Protestantism. The . Catholic Church is actually an extremely diverse entity, with very considerable internal differences of opinion; but it is united around its Doctrine of the Church, and this is not negotiable.

In 1968, Cardinal Suenens published Co-responsibility in the Church, in which he contended for greater practical collegiality by the papacy. and projected a whole series of requirements for participation by the clergy and laity. The book was widely read and caused something of a sensation. But Suenens actually upheld the ultimate supremacy of the papacy — "the heart and head of collegiality in action" — and never departed from orthodoxy, even when he became preoccupied. as he later was, with Catholic Charismatic extravagances.

Another who had taken an influential part in the drafting of the documents for the Council was Karol Wojtyla, Archbishop of Krakow. He was a member of the Commission that produced Lumen Gentium, and its insistence on the moral consequences of human sovereignty over nature, and the need for the priority of ethical over material considerations in the pursuit of human development, are evidences of the respect in which his views were received. After the brief pontificate of John Paul I (Albino Luciani) from August to September 1978, Wojtyla followed him as pope in October. John Paul II was widely considered, especially by less than sympathetic liberals, as a figure deeply conditioned by his Polish background, by its traditional conservatism, its Marian devotions and its conflict between the Church and the Communist state. He was, indeed, the first non-Italian pope for almost 500 years. But it was not a particularly east European traditionalism that he brought to his pontificate. By the time of his election he was widely travelled and was, in his long tenure of office, to travel even more extensively than Paul VI, so acquainting the world, through the medium of television, with a public view of the papacy unavailable to preceding generations.

John Paul Ifs intellectual writings owed their inspiration almost entirely to the phenomenology and ethical theory of Max Scheler, the Catholic sociologist at the University of Cologne about whose ideas Wojtyla wrote his second doctoral thesis in 1959. This work led to his most important book, published in 1969, The Acting Person. In its synthesis of the sociology of knowledge and Catholic ethical theory nearly all of Wojtyla's teachings as pontiff can be discerned — first made prominent in the encyclical of 1979, Redemptor Hominis.

The incomplete view of man available to contemporary scientific and philosophical enquiry, he argued, has resulted in a practical subordination of humanity to the products of its own creation. In concrete terms this meant the limiting effects of materialism, both philosophical and actual. The Communist regimes were, he believed, no worse in this than the capitalist ones; indeed, capitalism was the more culpable because it possessed the greater opportunities for freedom of individual choice. In the encyclical, therefore, he condemned what he called "consumer civilisation".

Here, and in later pronouncements, this analysis was applied in relation to sexual morality. Men and women had replaced creative views of human sexuality with utilitarian ones — an amplification of Paul VI's warnings about the effects of artificial birth control in Humanae Vitae in 1968. Humans were intended by God to be immortal creatures; human life was capable of transcendence, and yet personal behaviour in modem society increasingly demonstrated the lower nature expressed in the pursuit of security, material welfare and pleasure. It was no surprise, John Paul insisted, that the world was now full of fear. He surveyed a moral culture of faithlessness, personal gratification, sexual irregularity, and the separation of sexuality from serious moral purpose. Human sexuality took its providential characteristics from the sacred means by which the race is perpetuated and children are nurtured in true principles. In reality. it was becoming a leisure activity. The maintenance of Catholic teaching in such matters, which to many interpreters both inside and outside the Church seemed restrictive and oldfashioned, was for John Paul an absolutely vital issue in the emancipation of the person from the thrall of self-destructive materialism. Life was not intended to be defined by the pursuit of sexual encounters, or by remorseless exploitation of hedonism. Far from being a narrow understanding of humanity, he believed, Catholic teaching opened up individual lives to higher purpose. Very many did not listen.

The 20th century ended with a gathering sense that Humanist materialism had eclipsed the transcendent views of human life upheld by the Church for centuries. There had actually been, during all that time. quite a number of philosophical and moral views with which the Church had felt able to associate its essential message, but none had subordinated men and women to material processes with the consistency of modem Humanism. The increasingly prevalent materialism is the more accessible because it has no moral label by which it can be popularly detected: it is encountered by men and women as unconscious orientations of life and thought, and often seems as evident inside the Churches as outside them. Liberal Catholics appear to question traditional moral theology on the basis of ethical premises derived from the doctrinespf the secular Humanists; lay people seem impatient of clerical advice on moral issues. It is an age in which a massive privatisation of religious choice is taking place: individual preferences for emotionally satisfying or morally flexible practices are replacing collective adhesion to religious authority.

In Western societies attendance at religious services, and vocations to the priesthood and Christian voluntary associations, are declining at a rate very similar to that in the Protestant churches _ Modem education, even in institutions conducted by the Church, is plainly not conducive to recruitment of children to the Faith. Such is the effect of cultural pluralism in modem society. In the developing countries, however, the Catholic Church continues to expand. Some imagine that eventually the extension of education, and the consequences of electronic communication, will produce universal secularisation. Yet Islamic revivalism of the present time. which takes place among urban and educated people, indicates that the conventional correlation between modernity and religious decline is not securely established. It all depends on the nature of the values conveyed in educational programmes . Perhaps it is institutional religion, rather than selfselected "spiri tuality", that is passing from the scene, at any rate in Western society. The book of the future has yet to be written. At present even the concept of spirituality itself has been secularised. "We are building a dictatorship of relativism that does not recognise anything as definitive, and whose ultimate goal consists solely of one's own desires." The words are those of Benedict XVI.

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