Shall We Wrangle Or Reason About Church Reforms?
IN delivering lectures on the
Second' Vatican Council, I find priests the most receptive audience. Ordinarily they are far from being lecture vultures but Council reforms vitally affect their whole cast of thought as well as their life and work.
In the question periods following the lectures, however, I have noticed a development that might have extremely dangerous implications for the Church: it is the reluctance of some of the older clergy to adjust to the demands of Council reforms. They find it difficult to break away from the old ideas they learned in their seminary days and to adapt to the biblical. liturgical, theological and other revivals that have received vocal expression at the Council.
Of course, theological age is not always a matter of years. There are priests well along in years who are as young at heart as Cardinal Bea or Pope John and on the other hand, there are younger priests who are as intransigently traditional as the rules of the Holy Office. Nor should I restrict my remarks to the clergy.
The priesthood is the Church in microcosm. The laity also are either alarmed or elated over the vigour with which Pope John threw open windows to let fresh air into the Church.
Trouble comes when younger priests try to ram reforms down the throats of the reluctant. Obviously, all members of the Church should accept what is so clearly the mind of the Church and the message of the Holy Spirit for our time but this cannot he done by strong-arm methods on the part of progressives who condemn conservatives as old fogies, obscurantists and reactionaries.
What is needed, I believe, is some of the irenic approach of ecumenism. If it is laudable to promote Catholic Protestant unity. it is also commendable to heal the divisions in Catholic ranks.
The rigid mind must bend but fulminations and name-calling won't bend it. St. Paul reminded the Ephesians of their mutual obligations: ". . . with all humility and meakness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, careful to preserve the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace." I realise we are in an era of agonising reappraisal of Catholic life and thought but self scrutiny is no justification for condemnation of others.
I have heard priests and laity
of the younger generation complain that older Catholics are in a rut and that self-complacency keeps them in the rut. This is an unfair and sweeping generalisation. The priest averse to change is usually alarmed and sincerely worried about the possibility of innovations creeping into the ancient deposit of doctrine.
He fears that a temporary hysteria has taken hold of certain Churchmen and that eventually the Church will shake off these doctrinal novelties and return to tradition and the fundamentals.
Cardinal Suenens says that much of the "healthy tension" in the Church today is rooted in the sensitivity of some to the need of preserving the deposit of faith and the contrary tendency, or rather the complementary sensitivity of others to "the talent to be developed". He contends that both the conservers and the developers have their proper roles in the Church today.
But he also says that what is needed today is a fine sense of distinguishing between the essential and the non-essential.
The Council has insisted on a maximum of "diversity" in Catholic unity, and an appreciation of "diversity" requires minds Which are "gifted with an extraordinary degree of suppleness, minds which are, above all else, capable of distinguishing with pmcision that which is not subject to change from that which is changeable in ti-se Church and all the elements that go to make her up".
A striking example of this is the need to distinguish what is Roman from what is Catholic. They are not at all synonymous. In the April, 1964, Clergy Review. Fr. William Purdy points out that the ultra-conservatism found in certain Catholic circles today does not derive from the Council of Trent or from the Counter-Reformation generally. The Tridentine spirit was a creative one, religiously, artistically and even politically. But today's Catholic ultraconservatism is narrow-minded, critical, defensive, an attitude of mind that took its rise in the last century in Italy. When the Pope became the prisoner of the Vatican, the Catholic response to risorgimento was a living protest against liberalism.
Catholic Rome retreated into clericalism, isolating itself from the contemporary world and striving to turn the hands of the clock back to the past. Our Catholic life since, according to Fr. Purdy, has reflected this siege-mentality and anti-culture.
When Pope Paul (as Fr. Montini) began his post-graduate course at Rome he enrolled for a course in Italian literature but his Roman mentors told him he would be wasting his time.
I remember hearing of an old Roman ecclesiastic who commented on some of the theology of Germans at the Council, "The old miasma comes once again over the Alps". Romanha is a super-orthodoxy that does not hesitate to look with suspicion even on bishops of great learning and integrity—if they come from outside Rome.
Unless older clergy have kept up on latest developments in Catholic thought. they reflect a stance and approach that was built into our seminary training as a reaction to 19th-century Italian anti-clericalism.
Suffice it to say that it is not the stance of the universal Church. Fr. Purdy says that one of our best reasons for hope is that Paul VI is "uncommitted by training to the current which has too long dominated Italian ecclesiastical life, isolating it from what is vigorous and creative in the national character and life".
As I see it. the task confronting the progressive in dialogue with a conservative is for the progressive to ask his partner to re-examine his position. This must he done with consummate courtesy and respect for the intelligence and sincerity of the other person.
He should he asked to distinguish between genuine conserva
tism (which is laudable) and the time-conditioned ideology which he absorbed in the seminary and which is now an anachronism in the Johannine era.
This is especially true of the hostile attitude towards "the new Scripture" that seminarians imbibed formerly in their Scripture courses. The conservative's opposition to use of the latest methods of biblical research must he discussed genially, peacefully and with sweet reasonableness.
He cannot be coerced into accepting the new tnethods even though Pope John and Pope Paul have indicated their approval.
A recent statement of the Pontifical Commission for Biblical Studies asked that Catholics judge with maximum charity the labours of "these valiant workers in the vine-yard of the Lord" but also warned Bible scholars to take care lest "in the ardour of the disputes the limits of mutual charity be surpassed".
Ecumenism is another source of friction. The older Catholic is accustomed to thinking of the Protestant Church as a sort of obstacle to the salvation of the Protestant's soul, that he saves his soul in spite of and not because of his Church. It is not easy for the priest or lay person, brought up in the old apologetic, to adjust to the heavy emphasis now placed on the valid Christian elements in Protestantism.
As against the old concept of an heretical Church, it is disturbing for the conservative to read in the ecumenism schema that the Spirit of Christ does not refuse to use these Protestant communities as means of salvation, whose power is derived from the very plenitude of grace and. truth that has been entrusted to the Church.
If the Catholic ecumenist should strive to understand the deep intent of Protestant theological positions. should not a Catholic progressive listen intently to the Catholic conservative in order to understand why he thinks as he does?
The conservative may have
learned his theology "against the Protestants" in an apologetics course that was more concerned about refuting Protestant arguments than presenting the fullness of Catholic truth.
Should not the progressive listen patiently to discover if perhaps the conservative has an insight that will uncover the faulse nuances of some of the new ideas? May not Providence be using the conservative to slow down the pace of an aggiornamento that is too fast?
If polemics are out of place in a Catholic-Protestant dialogue, are they not out of place in a dialogue between two Catholics?
If, as the ecumenism schema says. the priest especially must cultivate conversion of the heart by asking the grace of selfdenial, humility and meekness in the service of others, does this need of conversion of heart apply only in regard to our contacts with Protestants?
Freedom of expression in the Church need not he a battleground. Cannot the conservative who believes in the sacredness of secrecy talk things over with the progressive who helieves that an official gag is more scandalous than any scandal'?
Cannot the Catholic writer, who aims to shock, talk matters over with the righteous Catholic editor who edits copy for the honour and glory of Holy Mother Church?
Of course, the conservative himself should he patient and open minded in discussing aggiornomento. A Protestant observer at the Council remarked to me last autumn that he approved the Church's decision to launch out into a new era of freedom and openness to the modern world but he said he did not envy the bishops their responsibility.
"For you Catholics will have Our troublemakers and heretics. We have had our lunatic fringe and you too will have your radicals," He is absolutely right. We will hear now and again strident voices that carry reform to the point of revolution.
The conservative should take the vagaries of radicals with a grain of salt without blaming legitimate reform from the excesses of its irresponsible advocates.
Precisely because aggiornamenlo is travelling so fast, we need a sense of balance to keep from falling away from the Catholic centre. Humour is a balance-wheel but there seems to be a dearth of humour about conservatives and progressives although some good humour came out of the Council.
Finally, we all need a constant reassurance that reform is not revolution. "The reform at which the Council aims," said Pope Paul in his opening address last autumn, "is not therefore a turning upside down of the Church's present way of life or a breaking with what is essential and worthy in her tradition but it is rather an honouring of tradition by stripping it of what is unworthy or defective so that it may he rendered firm and fruitful."
( Reprinted from THE CATHOLIC WORLD.)