Why the hopes of the Council Fathers of Vatican II are yet to be realised

Why the hopes of the Council Fathers of Vatican II are yet to be realised

Michael Daniel

What Went Wrong with Vatican II: The Catholic Crisis Explained by Ralph M. McInerny (Sophia Press, 1998, 176pp, RRP $29.95. Available from AD Books)

Almost forty years ago, the Second Vatican Council was opened by Pope John XXIII. He and his successor, Paul VI, hoped that the Council would usher in a period of renewal. At the turn of the millenium, however, the hopes of the Council Fathers are far from being realised, at least in many sections of the Catholic Church.

In Australia, weekly Mass attendance rates have plumetted from around 60 percent before the Council to less than 20 percent today; rates for baptisms and Church weddings, have likewise declined, as has a knowledge of Church teachings, particularly among younger generations. Another trend that seems to be pervasive is what some commentators describe as the "Cafeteria Catholicism mentality", that is, a belief that Catholics may choose which Church teachings, particularly moral ones, to accept or reject.

Dissident theologians

Dr Ralph McInerny is a professor of philosophy at Notre Dame University in the United States. His thesis is that the crisis in the Catholic Church of the last few decades cannot be blamed upon Vatican II. Vatican II was a legitimate Council of the Church, just as Vatican I and Trent were. The crisis, he argues, was caused largely by the actions of dissident theologians, particularly in their response to Humanae Vitae.

These dissidents, many of whom held senior positions, particularly in higher education institutes, argued that since the Papal statement was not infallible, Catholics need merely "respect" it. They could disregard the prohibition on artificial birth control, while remaining in good standing as Catholics, if their consciences told them otherwise. McInerny points out that an appeal to this line argued by dissident theologians is at variance with Vatican II's declaration that "loyal submission of the will and intellect must be given in a special way to the authentic teaching authority of the Roman pontiff, even when he does not speak ex cathedra" (Lumen Gentium, no. 22).

This dissent led in turn to confusion among the laity. To whom should they listen: the Pope, who, the Catholic Church teaches, speaks with the authority of Christ, or dissenting "experts" who told them to act according to their consciences? This dissent has since spread to other teachings relating to faith (e.g., ordination of women to the priesthood) and morals (e.g., pre-marital relationships and homosexuality). As further documents were issued by the Holy See, dissidents either ignored them or told people they were not applicable if their consciences told them otherwise.

This mood of dissent has characterised other areas of Church life, such as catechetics and liturgy. McInerny concludes his analysis by discussing the Vatican's response to this trend of dissent, particularly the Oath of Fidelity and the letter Ad Tuendam Fidem. While other contributing factors to the crisis are mentioned, such as the liturgy, McInerny does not explore them in depth in this work.

Michael E. Daniel teaches at a Melbourne independent college.

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