From John XXIII to Pope Francis: Four recent stages of Catholicism

From John XXIII to Pope Francis: Four recent stages of Catholicism

Patrick Morgan

Catholics brought up in Victoria after the Second World War had for decades the unchanging leadership of Archbishop Mannix, Sir Robert Menzies and Pope Pius XII, whose reigns went on so long that by 1960 many people could remember no others.

Traditional Catholicism itself emphasised the idea of stability and taking the long view: it was a religion founded by Peter, a rock which would never founder even in the wildest of disturbances.

Since then significant developments in Catholicism have been identified with the three reigns of Popes John XXIII, John Paul II and Francis.

Traditional Catholicism concentrated on essentials, endeavouring to create in its adherents an understanding of earthly life and the means of transcending that condition through a path to salvation.

Integral to this was creating a sacred mood through the Mass, the sacraments and other liturgical ceremonies which embodied distance and reverence as a foretaste of the eternal.

In spite of the emphasis on unity ('Catholic', we were told, meant all-embracing), in the Catholic Church many mansions flourished.

Personal piety

Personal piety took many forms, including devotion to particular saints, and identification with the distinctive cultures of the various religious orders, all things now even more appealing since they have been diluted or discarded.

Life was an endless round of novenas, retreats, emphasis on the final things, worry about sin, personal prayers, embracing a collective mind of some considerable antiquity.

Tribal habits of mind persisted, though we were not living a tribal life. The weaknesses of this form of Catholicism included too much emphasis on personal remorse, and a misguided striving for premature transcendence, the desire to connect immediately with God, the Jansenist inheritance.

In theological terms, it emphasised the Resurrection at the expense of the Incarnation. We have to work through the materials of this world to bring it towards its completion, a sort of delayed gratification on a grand scale.

Vatican II in the 1960s under Pope John XXII was a natural corrective to these introspective and otherworldly tendencies.

The church had been in an anti-modernity and anti-liberal mood since Pope Pius IX's Syllabus of Errors in 1864; its new teachings now encouraged action on a social as much as a personal plane.

In addition the church had been identified more with the traditional European right than with the left.

This meant that with the rise of totalitarian regimes between the wars, the church's commendable opposition to Communism had not been accompanied in many instances by an equally strong condemnation of Fascism.

One weakness of Vatican II's was that, in a desire to modernise, it tinkered with liturgical rituals and sacred music, watering down and in some cases dissolving some of church's great glories.

Another weakness was that as time went on certain progressive Catholics groups began to use the new freedoms of Vatican II to go on a frolic of their own, justifying all sorts of currently fashionable views under the rubric of "the spirit of Vatican II".

The traditional Catholicism in which they had been reared became the object of their constant scorn. True "aggiornamento" should have meant exercising discrimination about what was happening in the world, not accepting it blindly. Communism was foolishly seen by some as now a legitimate form of rule which Catholics should have dialogue with.

By the 1980s signs of slackness and indirection were evident, not to mention worrying unorthodoxy.

John Paul II, Cardinal Ratzinger and in Australia Cardinal Pell were not, as they are often portrayed, old conservatives trying to restore an unsalvageable past.

Karol Wojtyla (later Pope John Paul II) and Ratzinger had been part of Vatican II; they were modern pluralist thinkers who later became mugged by reality, alarmed by Catholic liberals who were diverting the faithful from fundamental Catholic beliefs.

John Paul's role

Pope John Paul II developed in his extensive writings a way of expressing the church's theological beliefs in a contemporary way. At the same time he was noteworthy for restoring opposition to Communism, being instrumental in its demise and the restoration of freedoms in east Europe.

Ratzinger devoted his main energies to reaffirming traditional Catholic teaching, and to rescuing the liturgy from the slough of despond into which it had descended.

By the end of John Paul's long reign and Ratzinger's shorter one a new type of  problem had arisen, mainly a certain calcification and introversion of vision centred on Rome.

The curial administration had become mired in financial problems, in the loose life style of some of its clerics, and its inability to get its message across in the whirlpool of modern media agendas. These are organisational problems, not ones of fundamental belief.

The new Pope Francis has quickly moved to overcome these. He has spoken against the church's obsession with sexual and gender matters (women priests, contraception, abortion, gays); some commentators and liberal Catholics wrongly took him to be advocating radical new positions on these matters.

He has advocated more tolerance overall, and more sympathy with Catholics (such as divorcees) who feel at odds with the church, and particularly with the poor, the oppressed and the marginalised, the prime concerns of the church in Third World countries from which he comes, a church which is much more vibrant that the European one.

Over the six decades since the end of world war two, we have witnessed a see-sawing pattern of traditionalism, liberal change, traditionalism and liberal change. This can be expected of any organisation which strives to keep itself functioning efficiently.

Changes in both directions are about sensible adaptation, they do not touch on core beliefs which remain intact. The recent simultaneous canonisation of Popes John XXIII and John Paul II is the church's way of showing that the traditional and liberal variants can be comfortably subsumed into the church's overall mission.

Professor Patrick Morgan edited two volumes of the writings of B.A. Santamaria; his latest book is Melbourne Before Mannix: Catholics in Public Life 1880-1920 (Connor Court).

Be the first to comment

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