by José Comblin (1923-2011)
English translation by Rebel Girl
1. Before the Council
Most of the bishops who came to Vatican II did not understand why and to what they had been called. They had no projects. They thought like the officials of the Curia that the Pope could decide everything by himself and that it was not necessary to convene a council. But there was a minority that was very aware of the problems in the Catholic people especially in the more intellectually and pastorally developed countries. There they had experienced dramatic episodes of the opposition between the concerns of priests more immersed in the contemporary world and the Vatican administration. They knew what they had suffered during the pontificate of Pius XII who opposed all reforms awaited by many. All those who sought the inclusion of the Church in the contemporary world, formed by the development of science, technology and the new economy as well as the democratic spirit, felt repressed. There was an elite of bishops and cardinals that was well aware of the necessary reforms and wanted to seize an opportunity providentially offered by John XXIII. The Curia did not accept the ideas of the new Pope and many bishops were puzzled, because the model of Pope John XXIII was so different from the model of the Popes Pius, thought to be mandatory since Pius IX.
The preparatory commissions of the council were clearly conservative, and therefore, on the opening day of the Council, the views of theologians and experts brought in by the more conscious bishops were rather pessimistic. But there was the opening speech by John XXIII, that broke decisively with the tradition of previous Popes. John XXIII announced that the Council was not meeting to make new condemnations of heresies, as was the custom. He said it was about introducing the world to a different image of the Church, which would make it more understandable to contemporary people. Most bishops didn't understand anything, and thought that the Pope had said nothing because he had not mentioned any heresy. For the Pope, it was not about increasing the number of dogmas, but rather speaking to the modern world in a language it could understand. An enlightened minority got the message and felt it would have the support of the pope in its struggle against the Curia.
The Roman Curia had a strategy. There was a way to override the council. The commissions had prepared papers on all the topics announced. All these documents were conservative and did not allow any real change in pastoral ministry. These documents would be handed over to the conciliar commissions to be approved, and the Council would end in a few weeks with unoffensive documents that would not change anything. The important thing was to make a list of commissions with conservative bishops and explain to the Council that the most practical thing would be to accept the lists already prepared by the Curia, as the bishops at the meeting didn't know each other.
The first to discover this strategy was Manuel Larraín, Bishop of Talca, Chile, and president of CELAM. He, along with Don Helder Camara -- they were close friends, used to working together -- went to notify the heads of the reformist bishops. The Curia had prepared a list of commission members, chosen in such a way that it was known that they would approve the curial texts with no problem. It was about rejecting the lists prepared by the Curia and asking that the commissions be elected by the Council itself. The leaders, cardinals Doepfner of Munich, Germany, Lienart of Lille, France, Suenens of Mechelen, Belgium, Montini of Milan and a few others took the floor and requested that the Council itself appoint the commission members, which was approved with acclamations.
The conclusion was that the new commissions rejected all the documents prepared by the preparatory commissions, which was an assertion of the episcopate against the Roman Curia. The Pope was happy. Of course, in a few hours Manuel Larraín and Helder Camara had made lists of Latin American bishops that could integrate the commissions and others did the same for the other continents because Don Manuel Larraín already had many contacts around the world. It was clear from the start that the Council would be a daily battle against the Roman Curia. The Pope had no power to change the Curia. To this day the Popes are prisoners of the Curia that in principle depends on them. The administration is stronger than the ruler in the Church, as in many nations. The administration can prevent any change just by its inertia. Not even John Paul II dared to intervene in the Curia. Powerless in Rome, he went out into the world where he was triumphantly acclaimed.
The conciliar majority that the front group managed to win over, didn't want a rupture and that's why it always gave importance to the conservative minority, however small, that represented the interests of the Curia and identified with it. Therefore, many texts were ambiguous because after a reformist paragraph came a conservative paragraph that stated the opposite. On the one hand, new themes were announced and then room was made for old themes in the tradition of the Popes Pius. This ambiguity greatly undermined implementation of the Council.
The conciliar minority and the Curia were not converted. They still oppose Vatican II and find arguments in the conservative conciliar texts themselves. When John Paul II quoted the texts of Vatican II, he cited the more conservative texts, as if the other did not exist. For example in the Constitution Lumen Gentium, it is clear that the highlight is the place given to the people of God. However, when it comes to the hierarchy, the people of God disappear and everything goes on as usual. In 1985 at the instigation of Cardinal Ratzinger, "the people of God" was removed from the vocabulary of the Vatican. Since then, no Roman document refers to the people of God, which was the major theme of the Council's Constitution. Cardinal Ratzinger had discovered that the people of God was a sociological concept, although the concept of people is not found in sociology treatises. The people don't exist sociologically, because it is a theological concept, a biblical one.
This situation will be very important in the further development of Vatican II in the Church. From the beginning there was a party to which importance and power was always given, and that fought against anything new. In the papal elections, since they are always being manipulated by some groups, the problem of Vatican II was critical and the Popes were chosen because their restrictions on anything new in the conciliar documents was known. The present Pope may live another ten years or even more. After him, we may surmise that a Pope will again be elected who isn't very committed to the Council, to use a euphemism, because the groups that advocate this position are very strong within the Curia and the College of Cardinals, and there are no signs that future appointments will bring changes in direction. The latest appointments in the Curia speak volumes.
2. From 1965 to 1968
The history of the reception of Vatican II was determined by a totally unexpected event. 1968 is a symbolic date for the greatest cultural revolution in the history of the West, greater than the French Revolution or the Russian Revolution, because it affected all life values and all social structures. In 1968, there was much more than a student protest. There was the beginning of a new value system and a new interpretation of human life.
Vatican II responded to questions and challenges of western society in 1962. The issues addressed, the proposed answers, discussions on church structures, ideas about liturgical reform, had all been prepared by theologians and pastoralists, especially since the 30s in the Central European countries -- France, Germany, Belgium, Holland, Switzerland, and the fringes of northern Italy. European society, destroyed by war, was rebuilt and the church occupied a prominent place in society. It was the government in Germany, Italy, Belgium, Holland and it had an interest in the government of France. In fact, it had lost touch with the working class, but the latter was already declining numerically because of the evolution of the economy towards services. The number of practicing Catholics was declining, but not so as to attract attention. The church had a faithful clergy, sufficiently enlightened bishops, although not very social reformist, but identified with the Christian Democrat parties. The great problem of the Church was the tension between the sectors most committed to the new society and the Roman world of Pius XII, supported by the Churches of the least developed and most traditional countries such as Spain, Portugal, Latin America, Italy -- especially south of Florence, and the Catholic peoples of Southeast Europe. The problems were structural and neither dogma nor traditional morality was enough.
In 1968, a total revolution began abruptly that affected all dogmas and all traditional morality as well as all the institutional structures of the Church and society as a whole. In 1968, Vatican II would have been impossible because there would have been no one or hardly anyone to understand what was happening. Vatican II responded to the problems of 1962, but had nothing to respond to the challenges of 1968. In 1968, the Council would have been a conservative Council frightened by the radical cultural transformations that were beginning.
The outward manifestations of the student revolution throughout the developed western world were put down easily, and therefore, many thought it would be an episode without significant consequences. In fact, it was the beginning of a new era that is still in full swing today. 1968 meant a change in all politics, education, moral values, the organization of life and the economy.
1968 is a symbolic date that evokes the great events that changed the world in the 60's, especially after 1965.
a. 1968 meant a radical critique of all established institutions and all systems of authority . It was the global response to all traditional organized society. The criticism was directed at the State, at School at all its levels, the Army, the legal system, the hospitals. It was a critique of all established authorities that rule by structural force and make all citizens prisoners of the institutions. Of course the Catholic Church was included in that criticism. The Catholic Church was the typical model of a radically authoritarian institutional system. It was immediately attacked and denounced forcefully. The conciliar changes, as timid as they were, could not convince the new generation. Vatican II was completely harmless compared to the cultural revolution that started in 1968.
b. 1968 began a struggle against all systems of thought, what was called "the great stories." The systems are forms of manipulation of thought, they are expressions of intellectual domination. No system that claimed to be "the truth" was accepted. With that, the dogmas and the moral code of the Catholic Church, and all its "magisterium" pretense suffered. Vatican II could not even imagine such a situation as possible. There, there was no discussion of any dogma and the whole system of thought was never questioned. Now the new generation was contesting the whole doctrinal system of the Catholic Church, because that system does not allow the free exercise of thought. Not that the new generation wanted to deny all the doctrinal content, but it didn't want to accept a whole system without first discussing it, and didn't want to accept everything as a unit. It wanted to examine each item, to accept or not accept it.
c. Simultaneously there was the explosion of the feminist revolution. The discovery of the pill that allowed the prevention of fertilization and, therefore, facilitated birth limitation, aroused universal enthusiasm among the women who learned of the news. It was a basic element in the liberation of women, who were no longer totally dependent on repeated pregnancies. It was new for the Church as well. There was nothing in the Bible about this technology. The episcopate of the most socially developed countries, the theologians consulted by the Pope stated that there was nothing in Christian morality that would condemn the use of the pill. But the Pope let himself be influenced by the more conservative sector, though a minority, and published the encyclical Humanae Vitae, which was like a bomb. Many could not believe that the pope had signed the encyclical. There was a huge revolt among Catholic women. The latter did not implement the papal prohibition and learned disobedience. The flight of women started on that date. Now, women are the ones who transmit religion. When women stopped teaching their children religion, generations appeared that knew nothing about Christianity. Many bishops were devastated, but they could do nothing because the Council had not touched anything in regard to the exercise of papal primacy. The Pope decides alone, even against everyone else. This was the case: the Pope had decided against the bishops, theologians, the clergy, informed lay people. Unfortunately, it was the work of Pope Paul VI, who, because of many merits in the history of the Council, appeared to be a man of openness. Why him, precisely? It would have been more understandable coming from another Pope, but the effect would have been the same. For many, Humanae Vitae was like a denial of Vatican II: nothing had changed!
d. 1968 and the consumer society. Until then, consumption was guided by customs. There was a moderate and limited consumption. The rich didn't flaunt their wealth. There were no outrageous returns. Consumption depended on the regularity of life, regular and traditional meals, traditional fiestas with traditional costs, within a lifestyle in which work took center stage. Starting in the 60's, the job stopped being the center of life. Henceforth, the center has been seeking money to pay for vacations, weekends, fiestas that multiply indefinitely and holiday consumption. Work is what allows consumption. Farm work disappears in the more developed countries, industrial employment declines, and services don't provide any human satisfaction because they are boring. Social structures themselves stimulate consumption, and those who can't consume feel rejected by society. From then on, people spend what they don't have and pay off their purchases in 12, 48, 70 months. One can consume without being able to pay immediately. One pays years later. Young people don't have rules, they spend as much as they can.
e. Uncontrolled capitalism. The abolition of all laws that control the movement of capital encourages the race to wealth. A new morality rates people by the money they accumulate and the ostentation of their wealth. Thereafter the owners of capital do what they want how they want at the risk of causing financial crises, the victims of which are the little ones. Up to the end of communism in the USSR, the Magisterium fought against that communism and gave little attention to the rapid growth of a new form of capitalism. In Latin America, the Church reacted very timidly to the economic conquest by the great world capitalist centers. In practice, the Church would forget Gaudium et Spes and accept the evolution of uncontrolled capitalism. The social doctrine of the Church lost all prophetic meaning because in practice nothing was applied to specific cases. In practice, the Magisterium accepted the new capitalism.
None of that was caused by the Council. One cannot attribute to Vatican II all that happened as a result of the great cultural revolution of the West. Well, that revolution had immediate repercussions on the youth of the Church. All felt that the institution of the Church was deeply challenged and discredited. That discrediting came not from Vatican II but from the great cultural crisis. The more visible effect was the crisis in the priesthood. Some 80,000 priests left the ministry. Almost all seminarians left the seminaries. This was attributed to the Council by all its adversaries. In reality there was nothing in Vatican II that could explain this event. Nor is the flight of millions of lay Catholics explained by Vatican II. But everything is explained by the cultural revolution of youth. However, Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI themselves have repeatedly made allusions to this argument, although they haven't dared to express it more clearly.
3. The Church's reaction was as feared.
The popes and many bishops accepted the argument from conservatives that the problems of the Church came from Vatican II. Several theologians who had been advocates and promoters of the conciliar documents, changed and adopted the view of conservatives, including the current Pope. They said that the Council "was misinterpreted." Therefore, the Pope convened an extraordinary synod in 1985 on the occasion of the 20 year anniversary of the conclusion of the Council to combat false interpretations and give a correct interpretation. In practice, the new interpretation, the "correct one" was to suppress all that was new in the documents of Vatican II. A very symbolic sign was the condemnation of the expression "people of God." The time of experimentation is over, said John Paul II. Practically, what was done was redoing what it did after the French Revolution -- closing the doors and windows to cut off communication with the outside world and strengthening discipline to prevent flight. But it wasn't able to avoid flight. The problem is that the Church no longer has a vast poor peasantry. In Latin America, the poor are going over to the evangelicals.
Since then the Council has been refered to in official discourse, but its message remains ignored. The Council remains in the memory and foundation of minorities sensitive to the changing world, who seek arguments in it to call for changes and responses to the challenges of today. Youth, including new priests, don't know what the Second Vatican Council was; it is of no interest to them. They are more interested in Catholicism prior to Vatican II with its security, its liturgical beauty and justification for clerical authoritarianism that saves them from problems.
The reaction of the church was a return to the earlier discipline. The symbol of this reaction was the new code of canon law which keeps all the ecclesiastical structure of the code of 1917 sometimes with less authoritarian and more flowery language. The new code closed the doors on all changes that could have been inspired by Vatican II. It made Vatican II historically inoperative.
Worldwide, the priority given to the fight against communism - communism that was already fully in decline - made the Church accept in silence - the silence of the Church's social doctrine, Father Calvez used to say - the unbridled capitalism that set in in the early 70's. In Latin America, the Vatican supported military dictatorships and condemned all movements for social change in the name of fighting communism. Since the Reagan administration, the alliance with the United States has been faithful up to the Iraq war which at last opened the eyes of the Pope for a moment. In this way the Church was allied with the powerful and was condemned to ignore the world of the poor in its real ministry. Episcopal appointments were highly significant.
In Latin America, the Church's reaction to the cultural revolution that began in the developed world, was very painful. It destroyed something new that was being born. Well, in Latin America, Vatican II marked a real change. Vatican II was what converted the bishops and a good part of the clergy and religious. Before, there were priests, religious, lay people and bishops too who had made an option for the poor. In Rome, the Latin American bishops met and were evangelized by the bishops who had an option for the poor. CELAM, with the approval of Pope Paul VI, convened the meeting in Medellin that changed the direction of the Church because it drew practical conclusions from the Council. It chose the option for the poor and commitment to radical social change, legitimized Christian base communities and the formation of the laity through the Bible, through political action. BCCs were a new structure in which the laity had a real initiative and a real though limited power. In several regions, Medellin was not accepted or was not enforced. But there were important areas where Medellin changed the Church and was the implementation of Vatican II.
This whole movement was systematically attacked in Rome with arguments provided by the reactionary sectors of Latin America. Since 1972, the campaign against Medellin has been directed by Alfonso Lopez Trujillo. Despite this campaign, in Puebla in 1979, Medellín was still saved. But under the pontificate of John Paul II, the pressure mounted. The Roman warnings, episcopal appointments, the expressions of repression against the bishops most committed to Medellín took effect. The condemnation of liberation theology in 1984 wanted to give the final blow. The Pope's letter to the CNBB [the Brazilian Bishops Conference] the following year somewhat limited the scope of the condemnation, but liberation theology is still suspect.
4. What remains of Vatican II
Today, the reforms achieved by Vatican II seem very timid and totally inadequate in their insufficiency. We will have to go much further because the world has changed more in the last 50 years than in the previous 2,000 years.
We will highlight the following things from Vatican II that should remain as a basis for future reforms:
- The return to the Bible as a permanent reference point for ecclesial life above all further doctrinal elaboration, above dogmas and theologies.
- The affirmation of the people of God as active participants in the life of the Church, both in the testimony of faith and in the organization of the community, with a legal definition of rights and remedies in cases of oppression by the authorities.
- Affirmation of the Church of the poor.
- Affirmation of the Church as service to the world and without seeking power.
- Affirmation of a more intimate ecumenical involvement between Christian churches.
- Affirmation of the meeting between all religions, or non-religious thought.
- A liturgical reform that uses symbols and words understandable to contemporary men and women. The commissions formed after Vatican II left many words and symbols that are completely meaningless for Christians today and an obstacle to the mission.
5. The conditions of humanity today in a state of radical transformation
a. How is faith understood?
In modern times, many Christians lost faith or thought they lost it because they had the wrong idea about faith. Currently this phenomenon is multiplying because intellectual formation has developed and many are left with a childish or primitive religious consciousness that they reject or lose when they reach adolescence.
Primitive peoples from oral cultures and children believe both in religious objects and the objects of their experience. Therefore it is easy to come to think that faith is something like immediate experience. When they realize they can no longer believe in the objects of religion in that way because the critical spirit has been born, they believe they are losing their faith because they confuse it with their childish religious consciousness.
Faith is different from immediate experience, from scientific or philosophical knowledge. The object of faith is Jesus Christ, the life of Jesus. It is adhering to that life and adopting it as a standard of living because it has absolute value, because that life is the truth, that is how we should be a man or woman. It isn't evidence that doesn't allow doubts. It's a perception of truth, that never removes a scrap of doubt, because it is always a voluntary act, and because that truth is unseen. The believer does not feel obliged to believe. It is an act of giving one's life, choosing a path. There is no evidence that Jesus is alive and in us, but it is recognized because one feels a presence that is a repeated call despite all the doubts.
Today, the Pope condemns as relativism phenomena of today's man who can no longer understand the traditional way of knowing the objects of religion. These are not part of his life experience. Faith is knowledge of the life of Jesus in a very special way without comparison to the certainties that are picked up in daily life. The current human condition involves a thorough review of the theology of faith. This review of theology is already being done but not being divulged, which has enabled millions of adolescents to lose faith more than ever, because no one explains to them what it is.
Our contemporaries leave the official liturgical acts of the Church, because they find them boring. The usual mass is boring, except in some very special circumstances when thousands of people appear. The repetition of the same is boring. The repetition of the "Sunday of the Year" for so many weeks is boring. The liturgical language is worse, because it's done in the vernacular. When the liturgy was in Latin, it was better because you didn't understand it. Once you understand it, you notice that the style is unbearable. It uses a pompous formalistic language, the language of the court. "We humbly beseech ..." Nobody talks like that. "We join our voices with angels and archangels..." A conventional formula that doesn't answer anything in life. There are hundreds of similar formulas. The charismatics save the situation, but their liturgy is far from an introduction to the mystery of Jesus.
Our contemporaries don't accept moral codes or that behaviors are required of them or prohibited because they are in the code. They want to understand the value of the precepts or prohibitions. In other words, they are discovering the moral conscience that reveals the value of the acts. They do not accept the voice of a conscience that is nothing more than the voice of the "superego." Before, the foundation of Christian morality was obedience to authority. One had to do it or not do it, because the Church commanded or forbade it. Therefore, the laity often asked, "Can this be done?" If the priest said "yes", the moral problem was solved. Now this is a thing of the past.
Christianity is communal. But traditional forms of community are tending to weaken. The family itself lost much of its importance because family members get together less. The present day parish has lost the sense of community. Many new forms of small communities based on free choice are appearing. These communities will be able to celebrate the Eucharist, which assumes one person fit to preside over the Eucharist in each group of 50 people. There is no doctrinal difficulty, because this was the situation in the first centuries and there was no problem. This is critical because a community that isn't united in the Eucharist is not really a Christian community. Full-time priests will be around the bishop of every major city to evangelize all sectors of urban society.
Clearly we don't know when or how this will come about. It is unlikely that a Council where only bishops are gathered can discover the answers to the challenges of the times. The answers will not come from the hierarchy or the clergy, but from lay people who live the gospel in the world they understand. Therefore we have to stimulate the formation of lay groups committed to the gospel and to the human society in which they work at the same time.
Vatican II will go down in history as an attempt to reform the Church at the end of an historical epoch of 15 centuries. Its only fault was that it came too late. Three years after its closure, it was falling in the great cultural revolution of the West. Its detractors accused it of all the problems that arose from that cultural revolution, and with that, they killed it. But Vatican II stands as a prophetic sign. In the midst of a Church that is prisoner of a past it doesn't know how to overcome, it's an evangelical voice. It could not reform the Church as it wanted, but it was a call to look toward the future. There are still powerful movements that preach a return to the past. We have to protest. When people who know nothing of the evolution of the contemporary world and want to take refuge in a past without openness to the future, we must condemn it. For us Vatican II is Medellín. They also wanted to kill Medellin. Medellín remains the lamp that shows us the way.
One last thought: the future of the Catholic Church is being born in Asia and Africa. It will be very different. We must tell the young people: learn Chinese!