By Emilia Robles (English translation by Rebel Girl)
No. 2.792, March 10-16, 2012
Born in São Paulo, Brazil, in 1941, José Oscar Beozzo is a priest, a theologian, and a renowned historian of the Church and Brazil, a consultant to bishops and an expert on Vatican II. He is also General Coordinator of the Centro Ecumênico de Serviços à Evangelização e Educação Popular. Indeed, the interview took place en route to Bologna, where he presented a paper as part of a course on Vatican II, the fiftieth anniversary of the opening of which is being celebrated this year. He is warm and straightforward in dealing with everyone. Sensitive to the "cry of the poor", one notices plainly his contemplative and calming mood. And he doesn't lose hope in a Church that follows the example of the Gospel and listens to and allows the participation of all the People of God.
What image of the Roman Catholic Church did Vatican II project to the world?
Many of us experienced it, both in its preparation and its fulfillment, as a "spring time" and a time of aggiornamento, of the Church "catching up" with the world. On the one hand, it meant the opening of the Church to science, to technology, and on the political and economic level, a positive recognition of democracy, hearing proposals for more social equality. On the other hand, it meant returning to the sources. John XXIII used to say that the Church had to look again in the Gospel. It meant going back to the Word of God, the Holy Fathers and the Great Tradition, as opposed to being more attentive to small recent traditions.
It also meant the end of the Tridentine reform, not the more positive aspects of this -- raising necessary Church reforms -- but the hard part of the Counter Reformation. In proposing ecumenical dialogue, John XXIII created a very different climate from Trent. This was perceived by observers from the different Christian denominations, and this climate soon spread to Judaism, to the great religions and, therefore, to the human being, to all people of good will who wanted to commit themselves to Justice and Peace.
How do you think the Council was received?
I would say that overall, there was good initial reception of the Council, with joy. But, looking toward the end, only one Church, the Brazilian one, left the Council with a pastoral plan approved by all the bishops. In it, the Council was taken as a whole and six pastoral priorities were defined, and, with this, what was to be done was clear for all the people in our Brazilian Church. So, in ten years, the immediate demands of the whole Church in all its plans, activities and actions, were developing the broad outlines of the Council. Meanwhile, other churches were slow, got into fights, there was a lot of division ... and they weren't able, I would say, to create a clear vision for all people of what path had to be followed.
It is also true that, for all of Latin America, the Medellin conference was a blessing in the sense that the Council had to be examined minutely in light of the continent's problems. And this was one of the problems of Vatican II: that at the time of thinking about the Church in the world today, much more thought was given to reconciling the Church with modernity, than critically raising the question that this modernity had two faces -- on the one hand, this attractive face of science and technology, and on the other, a modernity that represented colonization, plunder, wars ...
It was difficult to address this at the Council. Populorum Progessio was in some ways the answer to this cry, and Medellin was able to assert that, in this divided world, the place of the Church is with the oppressed and their efforts to be free. Medellin translated the Council, but it also innovated by contextualizing the problems and pointing out the way the Church should go much more clearly.
However, for example, Africa asked for an African council for 30 years, precisely to rethink it in light of the continent's problems, with its own face and voice. And they were unable to get more than an African Synod in Rome, a very controlled one. This is an example of a significant deficiency in the post-conciliar period.
What major central themes of the Council remain part of the "compass" today?
The world has gone through a greater and more rapid change in the last 50 years than in the previous twenty centuries. This requires us to think again about the Council. You have to differentiate what are the insights and lines of Vatican II that should be further developed and target new ones. I believe that some of the ones which must continue are the following:
First, the Church as "the People of God." That would be all those of us who through Baptism were united in Christ, as Paul says. Not forgetting that Christ died for all humankind. And, from that perspective, the concept of the People of God extends to the whole human family. Today, the challenge of ecumenism should be directed to the transformation of a society that is not acceptable. We must return to an ecumenism that looks at all humankind and looks at the most serious problems of today. The question of religion arises also in the sense of what the faiths can do in the task of building peace, justice, caring for people and safeguarding creation.
Another thing that's very important to me, is that the Council put the Word of God at the center of the life of the Church again. For us in Latin America it was essential to put the Bible in the hands of the People, with a popular method of reading the Bible, which is done in community, linking our own experience to the Word of God and thinking of everything in the world that should be transformed, because it's not in accord with what God dreams for His children or for creation as a whole. This should not, in any way, be used to belittle the immense contribution of biblical science, but to highlight that the first place for the word of God is in the hands of the People, to give meaning to the hope and life of individuals.
Moreover, we had a reform of the liturgy, of the celebration, and, in that, what was important was the participation of people in the celebration and that it's the whole People who are celebrating. It's a priestly people who are celebrating. Of course, there are roles within the celebration -- one who will preside, another who will read, another who is going to sing ... but it is the Assembly that celebrates. This liturgy should also be inculturated. It should draw from the traditions, customs, art, dance, the creation of each people.
And finally, I want to emphasize that it's necessary today to regain and further develop the Church's preferential option for and with the poor, because in this great economic crisis we are again creating millions of poor people. Here we are again faced with a key issue to develop, an issue that was already talked about at the Council and further developed at Medellín, Puebla and, most recently, Aparecida.
How did Vatican II reinforce the role of local churches and how has this attempt evolved?
At the Council, an ancient tradition was re-emphasized that the particular Church, the local Church around its bishop, is the true Church. It gives an important role to each Bishop in relation to his Church. Thus a lot of progress was made. It's evident in Christus Dominus, in Lumen Gentium, in speaking of the local Church, in communion, all of them, with their bishops as successors of the Apostolic College and in communion with Peter. What is happening now, perhaps out of fear that the unity of the Church will be undermined by inculturation, is a return to strengthening the Roman center, looking for uniformity, which was not what the Council conceived for the churches.
I think that the strategies to ensure the interruption of a long tradition of centralization, rebalancing the internal relationships in the Church between the local and the universal, were not enough. What was missing in the Council was that the Roman center would act more collegially in the exercise of authority. To achieve this, they conceived a synod where the deliberative function of the Council would be taken up again. But when Paul VI created the Synod, he created it as a purely advisory body, which took away its power and efficacy.
However, in the Church in Latin America, there does exist an experience of having deliberative episcopal assemblies (Medellín, Puebla, Santo Domingo, and Aparecida). This is a key contribution (although not the only experience to get going) to conceiving of another possible Church, where local churches have their way of analyzing the issues, their ways of deliberating, and finally, with the assistance of the Holy Spirit, deciding the pastoral paths, in communion with the whole Church, but with their own decisions and magisterium.
What new topics would you point out today to to be worked on in a conciliar environment?
One is the serious environmental crisis, air pollution, the destruction of forests, water sources and resources. We spend more than nature can replenish in its system. This awareness is recent. This crisis threatens all humankind, but especially the poorest. The environmental crisis today generates more displaced people than war or politics. And yet, the opening of doors is often reduced to a political level. This is shocking, because our responsibility in the climate crisis is greater, because of this over-exploitation of economic resources, especially in the rich countries.
Another issue that was beginning to be discussed at the Council, but now reaches intolerable dimensions, is the inequality within the Church between laity and clergy, but much more so between women and men. Although the Council proclaimed full equality between men and women and equal dignity to all human beings, in practice the Church today continues to marginalize women by prohibiting them from entering ordained ministry. This is a serious issue that can no longer be neglected.
Are there any burning topics today that, even though they were raised at the Council, could not be adequately discussed?
Right. For me, one of the main ones was the discussion about war and peace. We were squarely in the Cold War, we had the crisis of October '62, of the Soviet missiles in Cuba, the U.S. blockade and we had reached the brink of nuclear war. In the discussion on this chapter, there were three distinct positions. There were those who still defended the old concept of "just war", ie that the innocent have a right to defend themselves when attacked. However, Pius XII already, faced with the world wars, seeing that it was no longer armies who were fighting and that there was bombing of civilian populations, wanted to move beyond that notion, saying that any total war that affects the civilian population is immoral. John XXIII went further, saying that, in the face of weapons of mass destruction, no war could be a just war, and that negotiation mechanisms must be built or the gathering of an international authority achieved.
And finally, a group of bishops, including Helder Camara, stressed that today the big war was the war against hunger, the war against underdevelopment, and that the arms race was a race against the poor. Unfortunately, a synthesis of shared interests could not be achieved, and elements of all three positions appear, juxtaposed, in Gaudium et Spes. This is a hot topic that now would demand to be rethought in an integrated manner, but emphasizing that all resources would have to be used to combat poverty, hunger and disease.
Another issue that was blocked was the family issue. It's true that there was a breakthrough in the council, leaving the historic trap of the two supposed ends of marriage -- the main purpose, it was said, which was procreation, and the secondary one, as it was put -- very badly, as I see it -- was to save from concupiscence, which came from St. Augustine. The Council very clearly agreed with the position that the purpose of marriage is the love between the spouses and the constitution of the family unit, and that within this unit, children were an asset, which must be guided in their planning by responsible maternity and paternity. The problem and the contradiction were generated when they got into the subject of the means for limiting births. At this point, the confrontation grew.
Paul VI removed the subject from conciliar discussion and constituted a diverse commission to examine these issues more calmly. This commission worked for several months, and in its findings, over 95% of the members took the position that it was lawful to use the pill and other artificial means. The Pope was disturbed and added people who thought otherwise to the commission. The commission returned to work, and eventually was convinced, even the latter, of the opposite position. Paul VI seems to have finally passed the question on to two moralists in Washington who belonged to the minority of the commission. They told the Pope that if he allowed it to be legitimate against what Casti Connubii (1930) said, it would discredit the papal magisterium. Something that, in fact, I don't think would have been so, because the conditions and the situation were different from the time of Casti Connubii -- by that same token, the Church and the Magisterium would not move forward.
However, Paul VI was caught in the contradiction and yielded to these pressures. And so Humanae Vitae integrates the key insights of the Council regarding the family and the responsibility of the spouses, but condemns all artificial methods. This created a chasm and a fracture within and outside the Church. Fifty years later, we are still waiting to open a clear and healthy debate on these issues.
From my point of view, another very current and poorly settled issue was the discussion that ensued around the life and ministry of priests, when the bishops got into the issue of clerical celibacy. The first to open the debate with a criticism of the position of the Latin Church was the Patriarch Maximos IV, who recalled that the Roman Catholic Church had a tradition of clergy with family, ie, the 22 Eastern rite Catholic Churches are open to their clergy having a family. And, accordingly, recalled Maximos IV, in the Latin tradition we mustn't talk about this issue as if there were a single tradition in the Church.
Thus began the debate, but other bishops from the Western churches got into it also expressing that the communities had a right to the Eucharist and their pastoral care by priests, and that this was not always so. So, one way would be to admit people like the viri probati -- married men recognized within the community -- who could receive the priestly ministry within the community and stay married. Others also got into the subject, saying directly that one had to separate the call to ministry and the vocation to follow Jesus in celibacy. And there was, moreover, an express denunciation of outrageous situations in the Church related to imposed celibacy and that this had to cease.
That is, various people agreed that the matter was important and should be treated differently. But before they entered into debate taking into account all these considerations, Paul VI suspended it. He asked them to write suggestions and proposals to him, that he would take them into account, and then he wrote the encyclical Sacerdotalis Caelibatus. Again, this produced a major crisis, because even Cardinal Suenens told the Pope that he had betrayed the proposed synodality and collegiality and that the whole Church should have been consulted on this issue. Although Paul VI again revisited the issue, this is a problem that has not been resolved. In my humble opinion, it wasn't good to withdraw these issues from conciliar debate, and today they need to be taken up again in an appropriate manner.
How, in a new and renovated conciliar process, could the blockages be overcome and communication and consensus building be improved today?
No doubt, changes should be implemented at different levels. And this is a collective task. But I'll just point out some important ones. I think we should pick up a great primary intuition again. When they began to prepare the Council, people came from the Roman Curia with a proposal for consultation, long -- very very long -- questionnaires [laughs] that each bishop would answer on various points: liturgy, religious life, the life of priests, the training of the latter ... And then, John XXIII said to them, "No, let's do something different. Just ask the bishops what issues they believe should be addressed." And that's what was done, in a completely open way, a consultation of the whole Church and which also included theological schools, universities ... This intuition of attentive listening is more necessary than ever today, but listening to the whole People of God. One ought to listen to what the cries, the anxieties, questions, proposals are, not only those of the bishops and universities. Doing this today is much easier than at the time of the Council. There are more means.
And we must also draw conclusions from the primary proposal of Lumen Gentium: on the one hand, take the people of God into account and, on the other, a collegial and communal practice of the life of the Church. We would have to find and have a more synodal, more conciliar manner, one that would cut across all levels of life of the Church: bishops' conferences, assemblies of priests, and conferences of men and women religious.
And there is another very rich experience: around specific issues, the local Church should speak with its representation. It's what we call the Assembly of the People of God. The bishop participates in it, but he comes together with lay people, with his Pastoral Council, with some priests. They themselves should agree on how they will vote on the issues.
In sum, we must find participatory formulas, where everyone has a voice and vote. We have to find the way to do it, but that it be inspired by the notion of the People of God and collegial exercise of authority and decision-making within the Church.
A third issue, from my point of view, is that we can't kill prophecy in the Church. Prophecy means that beyond all the formulas we find, there is a prophetic moment to say "what is happening is against God's Plan" because it oppresses the poor, because it marginalizes people, because it damages nature...So, we must always leave room for prophecy, which is the irruption of God in history.
And I would even point out another issue. At present, three quarters of the members of the Roman Catholic Church are in Asia, Africa and Latin America, and perhaps one-fifth of the Church is in Europe. But for Catholics, the structures of decisionmaking and power are in Rome. They are in Geneva for the World Council of Churches, which affects the Protestants. They are in London for the Anglicans, while 60% of Anglicans are in Africa ... We must change these structures, because the world is different today, and the agenda of the ecclesial communities of these countries does not match the agenda of the centers of power.
We are faced with giving a voice to all these communities in the world, because they want to have hope, to walk, and instead, they are more and more controlled, more contested, less heard ... I am thinking, without going any further, of the 22 new cardinals -- none from Africa, no cardinal residing in Latin America (there is a Latin American cardinal but he's residing in the Roman Curia). This should not be, because this College is going to choose the new pope. So it's an insult to all these churches that they are not adequately represented. The Curia is not the Church. It's a service within the Church, but it can't accumulate so much power.
Therefore, I'll conclude by saying that we must listen more fully, we must democratize the structures of the Church, find formulas for participation, make room for prophecy -- these are aspects, in my opinion, that are very important to take care of, to move further along the conciliar path.