Catalyst for Renewal Address: The legacy of Vatican II

Catalyst for Renewal Address: The legacy of Vatican II

Archbishop George Pell

The following is the text of an address given by Archbishop George Pell of Sydney to Catalyst for Renewal's "Bishop's Forum" at St Patrick's, Church Hill, Sydney, on 30 May 2003.

Catalyst for Renewal is a Sydney-based organisation of generally 'liberal' Catholics, some of whose members have written critically, among other things, of Vatican centralism and a lack of consultation over episcopal appointments - especially of allegedly conservative bishops.

I am grateful to the Secretary and Committee of the Catalyst for Renewal for the invitation to speak to you. It is generally useful for Catholics to talk together about the work of Christ and the Church which is so dear to us all. Quite a few people suggested to me that I should not talk here because they wondered whether your agenda was the same as groups such as "We are Church" in Austria or "Call to Action" in the United States, which are clearly contrary to essential elements of the Catholic and Apostolic tradition.

I am not sure if the Catalyst for Renewal has spelt out which doctrines of faith and morals it accepts or rejects, but I felt there was such good will and openness in the committee that came to invite me to this gathering that I was justified in speaking to you. It also seemed to me that my robust reputation for defending the faith would protect me from any misunderstandings that I was going soft on essential doctrines.

The Second Vatican Council was the largest restructuring in Catholic history for at least 400 years, since the Council of Trent 1545-1563 responded to the challenge of Luther and the Protestant Reformation. Indeed there are not too many useful parallels even in the fifteen hundred years before the Council of Trent.

Vatican II was also followed by a dramatic downsizing in some Western countries such as Holland and French-speaking Canada, and a collapse of faith and practice which was also unequalled for hundreds of years; in fact, the immediate parallels are the aftermath of the French Revolution of 1789 or the exodus into Protestantism in the 16th century.

The Bishop of Ballarat, Dr James Patrick O'Collins sent me to study theology in Rome in September 1963. Therefore I was not in Rome for the funeral of Pope John XXIII nor for the enthronement of Pope Paul VI. Obviously too I missed the first session of the Council but I was there as a student for the last three sessions, being present in St Peter's Square for the closing ceremony and being smuggled in on one day to help the clerical assistants during an actual session of the Council.

Many of the Australian Bishops had thought that the Council would be over in a few months, after adopting a few house-keeping measures. There was almost no public pressure in Australia beforehand for a great reforming Council and this was true of Catholic opinion throughout most of the world and certainly the English-speaking world.

Enthusiasm for change

The Council period was an exciting time. Pope John XXIII in his opening address had spoken against the "prophets of doom" and of the need to express the ancient truths in new ways. During the first session some of the schemata prepared by the Roman Curia were rejected. There was a mounting enthusiasm for change, fanned by effective use of the secular and religious press.

There was then a large group of significant and important theologians, most of them from northern or central Europe. Such names include Hans KŸng, Edward Schillebeeckx, Karl and Hugo Rahner, Yves Congar, Henri de Lubac and Jean Danielou. The last three were to become Cardinals and the first two were eventually censured by the Church. One of the later books about the Second Vatican Council was headed The Rhine flows into the Tiber.

Naive young students like myself expected a new Pentecost. Catholic confidence was high with the first Catholic President of the United States, John F. Kennedy (we knew nothing then about his personal weaknesses), and the leaders of France and West Germany, General De Gaulle and Konrad Adenauer, were both practising Catholics. The Cuban crisis had been successfully surmounted, Vietnam had not yet been lost and student unrest and rebellion would not culminate until the student revolutions of 1968, which nearly brought down the French Government. De Gaulle only remained in power with the help of the Communists.

This optimism quickly turned sour. Pope Paul VI's 1968 ruling, which reaffirmed the traditional Church opposition to artificial contraception, provoked massive public dissent, whose consequences we are still experiencing. Ironically, Pope Paul's affirmation of the unitive and procreative goals of marriage set the scene for Pope John Paul II's theology of the body which speaks so powerfully to young adults today.

Incidentally, most of the students from Australia and New Zealand who were studying with me in Rome for the priesthood, a highly talented group of men, either chose not to be ordained or left the priesthood after ordination. The percentage who still remained would probably be less than 10%. For some of my friends an enthusiasm for reform turned into a radical dissatisfaction with the status quo, a disdain for the past and a sense of superiority towards those old-fashioned people attached to older ways. It was the first indication to me that the way forward might not be as straight or pleasant as I had expected.


The achievements of Vatican II are of course contained in the Concilliar Decrees, inspired by the two basic motifs of 1) a return to the sources i.e., Scripture and Tradition, "ressourcement"; and 2) "aggiornamento", an Italian word meaning to bring things up to date.

For the first time a Council spoke about the role of the Church in the world and urged all Catholics to dialogue with, not anathematise developments around them; and urged them to engage with the world rather than retire into a ghetto. In retrospect this now seems to reflect an excessive optimism and over-confidence. Practising Christians are everywhere in a minority, and in the English-speaking world baptised Catholics are also in a minority. We are regularly swamped and battered by the consumer society in which we live.

One of the most important developments to follow from the Council was the Catholic participation in ecumenism, a social benefit in Australia as well as something that is doctrinally essential for the different followers of Jesus Christ. Friendship and co-operation are far preferable to the hatred and violence of, e.g., Northern Ireland.

The Council also urged regular dialogue and good relations with the other great religious traditions, an approach which is now under new pressures with the rise of Islamic fundamentalism. The Declaration on Religious Liberty, which espoused the view that the State cannot compel people to follow Catholic truth and recognised people's civic rights to choose the truth as they see it, was also a significant development. The consequences of this civic doctrine are also now being wrestled with within Church life.

The most immediate consequence to follow from the Council was the introduction of the celebration of the sacraments in vernacular languages, rather than Latin, something the Council itself never decreed and which Pope John XXIII did not foresee.

Often the major achievement of the Council is described as the doctrine of the collegiality of bishops, the explicit recognition that as successors of the apostles bishops share leadership of the universal Church, with and under the Pope, the successor of St Peter. The Council immensely strengthened the position of the bishops and had the consequence of internationalising the Roman Curia. Nearly all the cardinals leading the Roman Curia now have had many years of pastoral experience in their home dioceses. Unfortunately, there was not a corresponding development in the theology of the ministerial priesthood.

Another important but undernoted development was the espousal of the role of the laity, of the rights and responsibilities that follow from baptism. This was first apparent in the order of chapters in Lumen Gentium, the constitution on the nature of the Church where the dignity and role of all the baptised was discussed before that of the clergy. Here the Council has been followed by wonderful but perhaps unexpected fruits, and not only in the parish councils and school boards which are now commonplace.

There is no doubt that this was a reforming Council, but the Council preferred to use the term renewal - Ecclesia renovanda - rather than the term reformation used by Luther. Perhaps in the light of our present troubles an even better title would be Ecclesia semper purificanda, that is, a Church always in need of purification.

It is now more than forty years since the start of the Second Vatican Council. The number of Catholics in Australia is still increasing, with a rise of 202,000 between the 1996-2001 censuses. There are increasing demands on nearly all Catholic agencies. Catholic school numbers are rising as is the number of aged care facilities, while hospitals continue strongly. The Catholic Centacare agencies still make an enormous contribution to healing in our society.


As a bishop I am one of the few privileged people who regularly visit many of our different parishes and institutions. Very few if any of our Catholic parishes are dead or dying. In many places they are strong and vibrant communities which figure very rarely in the public media. Vocations to the priesthood are now almost adequate in some of the major Catholic archdioceses, although in other places numbers continue low.

Unfortunately, many religious orders are dying, their demise welcomed by some of their members. I am told that one or two orders have already formally decided to take no more novices. Although many religious are retired, members, young and old, still contribute magnificent service to the community. This has to be replaced in some way if the Church's contribution to the Australian community is not to be radically reduced.

The new lay movements which flourish in some countries overseas have not had equal growth here, but we have some vigorous youth groups and increasing numbers have gone to the World Youth Day and experienced either genuine conversions or a strengthening of existing faith. Approximately 17 percent of Catholics still worship at Sunday Mass, a number which has fallen from approximately 50 plus percent 40 or 50 years ago. We still have formidable strengths in many areas, quite unmatched in all the other mainline Christian Churches. Many of our Catholic ethnic communities remain particularly strong.

"Loyal dissent"

Catholic liberalism seems to be dying and there are only small pockets of Catholic radicals. It is hard to find a practising Catholic dissident under 50 years of age. There are a few people in Australia who speak loudly of "loyal dissent", a new category which has been introduced into the conversation since the Council. But when does loyal dissent become unacceptable disloyalty?

Catholicism teaches that Christ is the son of God who came to redeem and save us and explain to us the secrets of this life and the next. His teaching has a unique authority. We regard it as divinely revealed rather than simply the work of human intelligence.

For any religion which claims to be divinely revealed there are two burning questions: what is the essential core of belief and practice that must be preserved in any restructuring and updating? And what is necessary for continuing or increasing spiritual vitality? These questions are different and the answers are not entirely the same.

The nub of the difficulty is identifying where the legitimate diversity in non-essentials begins after the unity which is necessary in essentials. At every level, of course, there should be charity.

From the first days of Christianity a hierarchy of truths has been recognised with fundamental truths enshrined in either the baptismal promises or in the creeds said at Mass e.g., the Apostles Creed and the Nicene Creed.

The category of loyal dissent now means that many want to stay as full communicant members of the Catholic Church while rejecting specific doctrines of faith and morals that nearly everyone would have regarded as essential in the past.

Examples from my own limited experience of such doctrines include the denial of the divinity of Christ, claims that abortion and euthanasia can be legitimate, and that homosexual activity and pre-marital sexual activity generally should also get a tick. Other possibilities which are urged are the reception of communion after divorce and remarriage, and women priests.

I believe strongly in the importance of individual conscience. It is indispensable. I have already endorsed the Second Vatican Council document on Freedom of Religion. In the past I have been in trouble for stating that the so-called doctrine of the primacy of conscience should be quietly dropped. I would like to reconsider my position here and now state that I believe that this misleading doctrine of the primacy of conscience should be publicly rejected.

In Chapter 3 of the first letter of St John, read at Mass some weeks ago, St John spells out the link between conscience and the commandments, between freedom and truth. He explained that the way to love God is to follow His Commandments. This is basic. Christians have no entitlement to define sins out of existence, to deny or ignore fundamental teachings of faith, by claiming that their consciences are free or that they believe in the primacy of conscience.

There is no substitute for personal sincerity, and we honour striving for the truth. But our consciences can be mistaken, sometimes mistaken through our own fault. And in any event we have to take the public consequences for our positions. It will not help me in a court of law to claim that I did not realise I was driving on the right hand side of the road!

It is somewhat misleading also to claim that our conscience is free. Free for what? We do not boast that we are free to tell lies, although usually lies do not put people in gaol. Neither do we boast that we are free to read our watch in anyway we like, to get the time wrong intentionally. So too with conscience. Conscience is at the service of truth; it stands under God's word. Conscience has no primacy. Truth has primacy. The Word of God has primacy.

When basic Catholic and Christian doctrines are explicitly and sometimes publicly denied, basic questions of personal integrity then have to be answered. I believe that the mischievous doctrine of the primacy of conscience has been used to white-ant the Church, used to justify many un-Catholic teachings, ranging as I mentioned from denying the Divinity of Christ to legitimising abortion and euthanasia.

The so-called primacy of conscience offers no useful way forward in our current dilemmas.

What is to be done?

There can be no retreat from the basics of the Apostolic tradition of faith and morals, although we must continue to penetrate it more deeply in dialogue with the modern world and with new and developing insights from a variety of modern and ancient disciplines like philosophy, medicine and psychology.

For many this is counter-intuitive. However, it is interesting to chart the areas where there is Christian vitality today, especially among young people. This is overwhelmingly where the fullness of the Christian tradition is taught, where the call to conversion is taught, the call to repentance and belief following the person and teachings of Jesus Christ. This is already true in Australia.

Undoubtedly the major challenge is with young people and with middle-aged people - many of whom have not been adequately introduced to the basics of the Catholic tradition. In fact a contemporary temptation is to rely on someone else to be teaching the basics so that in fact these rudimentary truths are not explained strongly and clearly at all.

Such basics include:

* the teaching that the one true God, Father, Son and Spirit, loves us, especially when we are in trouble;

* that Jesus Christ, the only Son of God, redeemed and saved us through his teaching, suffering, death, and resurrection;

* that there is one true Church led by the Pope and the bishops, although we work happily with our sister Churches such as the Orthodox and with the other Christian denominations; and

* that Christ calls us to follow him.

In other words, Catholicism is primarily a religion concerned about worship, service, and right personal conduct. On too many occasions the principal energy of some Catholics has been diverted into other areas; for example, nationalism, being successful, keeping the organisation running efficiently, concern for social justice, or ecology, or feminism. It is not too difficult for the primary religious call to be misplaced.

It might also be an appropriate time to say a few words on the sexual scandals that have beset the Catholic Church. Their gravity cannot be ignored or underestimated, but I believe that these abuses and crimes (and the way they have been dealt with) are symptoms of malaise and confusion, evidence of personal sin and evil rather than evidence of widespread corruption.

We must continue to face up to the truth, and deal justly with complaints. We should also acknowledge that only a small minority are offenders. Clear moral standards are a help to everyone in avoiding sin and to superiors in enforcing discipline. People, religious and irreligious, are correct to insist that we practise what we preach. It is not clear to me that mandatory celibacy is a major cause of paedophilia, most of which occurs in family situations. But bishops and religious superiors must continue to be vigilant against all misdemeanours, especially with children, but also with adults.


Undoubtedly the best known exponent of the Vatican II exhortation to dialogue with the worlds of popular culture and contemporary thought is Pope John Paul II. In many areas from philosophy through his great moral encyclicals to the theology of the body he has broken new ground and changed the parameters. It is quaint to see a few commentators repeating positions fashionable in the 1970s and imagining that these continue at the centre of discussion and development.

The Church always needs purification (semper purificanda), especially through prayer and penance. All suffering, including the humiliation of public scandals can be used as occasions for learning and improvement, for doing better, much better.

Some Catholics, even senior students in Catholic schools, might not believe in the divinity of Christ, the special status of the sacraments, the Real Presence, the authority of the Pope. They might accept the legitimacy of abortion, euthanasia, and every form of adult sexual activity. In many cases we are powerless to prevent this. But they should not be so mistaken to imagine these are legitimate Catholic teachings. Clear Catholic teaching is needed.

In working to protect the core of the Catholic tradition of faith and morals, the tradition bequeathed to us from Christ and the apostles, one is not playing at cowboys and Indians or cops and robbers. Whatever our position these are substantive issues, worthy of discussion and debate.

For over 2,000 years the Catholic Church has weathered persecutions, storms and trials, enemies from within and from outside. Secularism will prove a more enduring challenge than Communism - the lethal influences on Catholic life, the acid rain, now coming from the society around us.

The Western world is more and more preoccupied with self, extolling personal autonomy, obsessed with self-realisation. People are urged to turn inwards, to confront the emptiness with clichès from the New Age or the sophistication of Eastern religions.

Catholicism strikes out in a different direction. The Vatican II constitution on The Church in the World (par 22) insists that the human mystery is only intelligible in the light of Christ: "Through Christ and in Christ, the riddles of sorrow and death grow meaningful. Apart from his gospel they overwhelm us".

Christ and the Catholic tradition call us to faith, hope and love, to an eternity of happiness won through Christ's death and resurrection. The Church reminds us of the necessity of community, of the moral law, natural and revealed; reminds us too that we need to worship and pray regularly.

Membership of the Catholic Church is a wonderful honour. We belong to a proud community of worship and service; flawed and sinful certainly, always in need of purification, but a tradition of truth, beauty and unselfish love.

This is why the Catholic Church has survived and continues to prosper; even in Australia.

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