'We Shall Overcome': 'liberal' Catholicism after Vatican II

'We Shall Overcome': 'liberal' Catholicism after Vatican II

Norm Yodgee

In September, John Paul II will beatify Pope John XXIII.

A noteworthy feature of Catholicism, particularly in Western countries, over the past 30 years has been the existence of 'liberal' Catholic establishments in key sectors of the local churches - in the leadership of larger religious orders, diocesan bureaucracies, numerous areas of education, publishing and communications, and so on. While the Holy See continues to appoint solidly orthodox bishops, these bishops find that, in many cases, the control points remain firmly in the hands of the 'liberals.'

Norm Yodgee's article offers a revealing analysis of the 'liberal' Catholic mind-set, its characteristics, how it evolved after Vatican II and gained such power and influence.

The writer is a former priest of the Ballarat Diocese, ordained in 1972 and laicised in 1983. He studied at the Corpus Christi seminary and later in Rome during the unsettling period following Vatican II. His reflections are based on first-hand experiences.

To understand how certain aspects of the 'liberal' Catholic mind-set emerged in the decades after Vatican II, one needs firstly to look at the wider cultural context of the period.

The epicentre of all the late 1960s unrest was, of course, the United States. The Vietnam war had triggered a violent backlash among America's university students, which grew into a broad protest movement. The country had never seen anything like it before: riots, prolonged sit-ins, demonstrations. In 1968 the students took part in 221 major demonstrations. In 1970 the National Guard - a body used only in emergencies - was needed on twenty-one campuses across fifteen States. By that stage 450 colleges had been closed down for different periods. All this widespread disruption cost lives and caused millions of dollars worth of damage. It turned America into a deeply troubled nation.

Influential elements in society gave impetus to the protest movement. Many intellectuals, including university professors, backed the students. One professor described them as the most idealistic generation in history. Writers, artists, actors and some Church identities added their unqualified support, even leading the way by conducting ritualised acts of defiance. But of all the student- backers the media outlets made the greatest impact with their sustained, savage criticism of the Administration and with their approval of draft dodging.

All along, the students had been tapping into radical ideas. By doing so they adopted extremist attitudes towards established society. They read Jean Paul Sartre, who glorified the students and their rebellion, and Herbert Marcuse, who from the same Marxist-based criticism advocated nothing less than the total transformation of society to improve conditions for the poor.

Ideas like these engendered a vision of human nature as being inherently good but corrupted by capitalist injustices, by false patriotism and by all kinds of social taboos. The protest movement believed that once these distorting influences inherent in the "system" were swept away, society's inequalities and repressions would disappear. Here we have the radical optimist mindset in all its fullness.

These ideas filtered down into the wider community and led to the appearance of that loose coalition of groups known as the counter-culture movement. It ranged from the peace- loving, back-to-nature groups right through to the urban guerrilla cells made famous by the bizarre case of Patti Hirst. Whether harmless or violent all these groups adopted the same posture: a radical protest against society as constituted, combined with a naive optimistic view of the future. And so the students waved The Little Red Book of China's Chairman Mao and everyone sang, "We Shall Overcome" - the former a potent symbol, the latter a virtual anthem of the times.

Optimist

It just so happened that during this era of uncertainty the Church, too, entered a process of deep introspection. Pope John XXIII, having announced the twenty-first Ecumenical Council in January 1959, opened it in October 1962.

Pope John was an optimist. As an historian he spoke about the signs of the times, realising that remnant forms of the old religious culture which reached back centuries still existed in a few countries with high Catholic populations. Some bishops and cardinals lamented the passing of what seemed an outmoded religious pattern and feared for the future. Pope John disagreed. He spoke in praise of the strong, successful democracies, their policy of religious tolerance and of their growing capacity to help alleviate worldwide poverty.

He gave his attention to the Church's expansion into Asia and Africa. Here he wanted the people to retain what was good in their own beliefs and culture. Judgments about such matters would have to be made locally. The same applied elsewhere; the Church would therefore have to decentralise its decision-making powers. The days of papal triumphalism, when decisions about all kinds of matters were made at the top were over.

These developments, as he saw them, would require adjustments: the shedding of some of the Church's much-loved but now superfluous customs and the acquisition of an updated view of the modern world. The term "Aggiornamento" or "renewal", with its appealing image of striding confidently into the future became intimately associated with Pope John's vision for the Council.

After Pope John's death in 1963, Pope Paul VI inherited a Church where the tension between the authority principle and a new spirit of democracy remained unresolved. Expectations were on the rise. Among those hopeful of great changes were young candidates for the priestly and religious life.

This generation in training - of which this writer was one - was fully aware of the shattering events taking place on the world stage. At the precise time when they were trying to make sense of the Council and what it implied for their future in the Church, they were witnessing people their own age in secular society speaking out with a powerful voice, proclaiming the established system corrupt, agitating for change, calling for the destruction of the nuclear stockpile, demanding greater freedom and a better future for all.

Radical spirit

In its way this radical vision with its high rhetoric was inspiring. Those preparing for the priestly and religious life, including a few already ordained and professed, certainly found it so. They came to believe they were confronting the same reactionary force inside the Church and gradually in some places, remarkably quickly in others, they adopted the radical spirit in their resolve to stand against it.

It was a confusing and ultimately disorienting experience to be in Rome studying for the priesthood during the period 1967-1970. Even here, in the citadel of tradition and conservatism (or perhaps because it was such a citadel), the new radical ideas were flowing in. Students became avid readers of Sartre and others like him, collectively known as Existentialists. I was given a present of Albert Camus' The Rebel by a friend studying for the priesthood in England (incidentally, Camus is one of the few writers in the radical vein who bears re-reading today).

Along the way I tried to fathom Ernst Bloch's philosophy of hope with its Marxist, utopian and mystical elements. I failed, but entered into long discussions about it. Then in 1970 we staged John Osborne's Luther, a play about the great Protestant reformer for whom we had considerable admiration. (Had he known about it, Osborne would have appreciated the irony of his play actually making it all the way to Rome itself.)

Like students in the secular world who looked forward to the dismantling of capitalist society, we looked forward to the dismantling of the hierarchical Church. We stood for the principle of freedom in matters of conscience. We wanted an open dialogue with the secular world. As radical optimists we believed that when Catholicism emerged from its Constantinian past it would automatically become more human, appealing, even compelling. One day in the college refectory, in front of a startled audience composed of the rector and vice-rectors, the student body rose up and sang, "We Shall Overcome".

We wanted a revolution. Humanae Vitae came instead.

This encyclical, dealing with the procreation of human life, rather like the Vietnam war, acted as a symbol and a summary of all that was "wrong" with the established order. It became the focal point of a whole range of furious resentments. In its aftermath the lines of battle were drawn up and the great exodus from priestly and religious life began.

However, the droves of priests, brothers and nuns who returned to the lay state during the 1970s included many of those who found the radical optimist position unsustainable, even unreal in some cases.

The diminishing number of clerics and religious who stayed were chiefly made up of those convinced of this position, together with those who fell in behind them as time passed. True conservatives who ploughed on found themselves in a small, beleaguered minority. They lacked the numbers to make a difference. By a process of attrition, therefore, the radical optimists and their followers found themselves in charge of the fort. They were free to implement their agenda almost in its entirety.

Their contemporaries outside the Church, who had been at the forefront of the protest movement, lost their radical fervour by having to confront the real world of their own needs and ambitions. The members of the same generation inside the Church moved in a more sheltered environment, always mixing with people like themselves, and so they were able to retain their old enthusiasms without having them seriously challenged.

If an Establishment means a "loosely defined grouping of people whose joint opinions and values have a strong influence on the power structure of a community" (Macquarie Dictionary), then they became the Establishment in diocese after diocese. For years now, they have occupied most if not all the positions of power and influence in parishes, religious houses, colleges, and educational and catechetical offices.

Anti-hierarchical

The style of religion they have imported into schools and parishes stems directly from the radical optimist vision of the 1960s. It consists of a strong anti-hierarchical sentiment, an emphasis on heartfelt commitment to Christian values - as they interpret them - rather than what is crudely referred to as "external religion"; a Christology that emphasises an ethical (rather than a divine) Jesus; the rights of individual conscience; small, communal-based sharing; enthusiasm for "enlightened" socio-political trends.

This stripped-down, moralistic version of Catholicism bears most of the hallmarks of Protestantism, itself - as the term makes clear - a great protest movement.

The emotion underlying these exciting reforms was strong in the early days. Priests and nuns brought up in the old strict regime were entering uncharted waters on a new voyage of personal discovery. They were stepping away from their former selves, tasting new freedoms, witnessing the fall of traditions never before questioned, attending conferences on "updating", participating in daring liturgies and the like.

Similar to those in America, who took part in the Great Awakening of the 18th century, replacing their Calvinist fear with gladness, nuns and priests believed this newly-discovered note of brightness and joy was central to religion itself, so they made it an important component of their liturgical arrangements, catechetical teaching and renewal programs. They believed that young people especially, but also ordinary Catholics, would experience the same enthralled feelings when exposed to these new forms of Christianity.

Blind spot

It failed comprehensively: people weren't coming to religion from the same "liberating" experiences as those in priestly and religious life.

The problem with this kind of enthusiasm is that it doesn't take on very well outside the ranks. Herein lies the chief blind spot of the few who are moved by it: they fail to understand that the majority of people don't have the same Church background, nor the same religious disposition as themselves. Which is why young people have rejected the brand of it put before them over the past quarter of a century.

The Establishment described here, with its strong pull back to the late 1960s experience, is caught in an eerie time-warp. Its mentality is out of joint with the times. It still preaches "Renewal" themes long after the mood died and despite such diminished numbers to renew. While the general population finds it difficult to commit itself even to the basic idea of belief in God and drifts further into agnosticism, the establishment continues to preach in its moralistic fashion a commitment to its concept of the higher ideals of Christian living. There is no understanding of the kind of world ordinary young people inhabit.

The Establishment's other direction, namely an uncritical acceptance of social trends, fails to see that secular society is in need; the solutions it puts forward for its own problems aren't working. It could be the case that secular society needs a coherent alternative with a sense of the supernatural to give direction to the aimlessness of many.

But the members of this Establishment aren't likely to listen. They aren't even conscious of being an Establishment; rather, they continue on as always thinking of themselves as outsiders, rockers of the boat, when they are the boat (as if the Pope or Cardinal Ratzinger made any difference at the parish level where the real action takes place).

They don't like their articles of faith being subjected to criticism. There are no new ideas outside narrow parameters, there is no debate, no self-reflection, no review of their collective performance over nearly thirty years at the helm, because they control the review mechanisms.

They go on optimistically as ever, looking for a change from on high, for something to happen in the upper reachs of the Vatican that will liberate the Church and make it appealing to society as they understand it - a new Pope, another ecumenical council, maybe. You hear the strains of an old song, faint now, but still playing: "We Shall Overcome...".

Be the first to comment

Please check your e-mail for a link to activate your account.