What Happened to the Vision of Good Pope John?

Blessed John XXIIIThis Wednesday marked the fifty-first anniversary of Blessed John XXIII’s election to the See of Rome. Given his advanced age at the time he was predicted as being nothing more than a “transitional pope.” However, he took the Church, and the world, for that matter, by surprise when he convened the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965). The entire purpose of this Council was to enact long overdue measures to reform and renew the life of the universal Church, revitalizing it in light of so much progress that had been made in the twentieth century. In response to the Protestant Reformation, the sixteenth century Council of Trent had attempted to begin this process but ultimately it’s initiatives and intentions were stunted (or cast aside, depending on your point of view) and business as usual continued within the Catholic Church. When John XXIII announced his decision to call Vatican II, much to the bewilderment of his brother bishops. He explained it by saying  “I want to throw open the windows of the Church so that we can see out and the people can see in.” And thus, it was this inclusive, all-encompassing approach of revitilization that shaped all of the sessions of Vatican II.

Instead of being defined in terms of the rigid, hierarchical clerical structure that was so emblmatic of Catholicism, the documents of the Second Vatican Council described the Church as the “People of God” made up of all individuals; the clergy,the  laity, as well as men and women religious. Now, it was pointed out that all members of the Church were incorporated into a universal priesthood of Christ through Baptism (as St. Paul makes clear in his Epistle to the Hebrews). Although the ordained ministry is a special and unique calling within this priesthood all Christians share in the prophetic, priestly, and kingly faculties of Christ. Therefore, the Holy Spirit speaks through the Body of Christ as a whole, not the clergy exclusively.

The Council also reflected anew on the way the Church relates to the world. Instead of seeing itself as opposed to and against temporal structures at Vatican II it was said that “The Church has always had the duty of scrutinizing the signs of the times and of interpreting them in the light of the Gospel” (Gaudium et Spes). Thus, the Church was a vehicle of God not in conflict with the temporal order but rather a reality that existed within and that was intimately connected to the modern world.

As the Council continued to run its course many other highly signifigant innovations were initiated. The Mass, after having been celebrated solely in Latin since the early Middle Ages, was now allowed to be celebrated in the local vernacular tongues. Instead of being seen as destined for eternal damnation, the members of other non-Christian religions were encouraged to be treated with respect and esteem as their expressions of faith too were acknoledged to contain “elements of truth.” Likewise, non-Catholic Chrisitans were no longer characterized as “heretics” but as fellow members of the Body of Christ with whom reunion must earnestly be sought; particularly the Eastern Orthodox with whom Catholicism shares an inseperable bond. From that point on the ecumenical movement had its creation. Dialogue and reconciliation across denominational barriers were to be the methods moving toward unity, forsaking incivility, condemnations, and discourtesty as things of the past.

The pope’s critics were many. Some thought these actions were too rash and were forsaking the infallible nature of the Church. Pope John, however, dismissed these accusations by saying that they only stemmed from “prophets of gloom, who are always forecasting disaster, as if the end of the world were at hand.”  To the contrary of these arguments, the pope said that, “Divine Providence is leading us to a new order of human relations in accordance with God’s superior and inscrutable designs.”

Unfortunately, Good Pope John, who had recently addressed a recent Jewish delegation visiting him by exclaiming “I am Joseph, your brother!”, passed away just after the Council had completed its first session. With him went a part of the virgorous and virbrant progressive vision he had had in mind for the Church to contemplate, and ultimately embrace. Shortly after, Cardinal Montini of Milan was elected as his successor as Bishop of Rome and took the name Paul VI. However, Cardinal Montini had been a mainstay of the Roman Curia for quite some time, and this very integral part of his personality would prove problematic in the future, particularly when it came to carrying out the directives of the Second Vatican Council.

Following the immediate aftermath of the Council the Catholic Church seemed to be on fire with the spirit of innovation and renewal. In most places the priests now chose to face the congregation, instead of facing towards the East (with their backs to the congregation) as had been practiced for centuries, during the celebration of the Mass. The laity were encouraged into greater and more active roles within local parishes, even now being able to proclaim the Scripture readings during Eucharistic celebrations and help distribute Holy Communion. Female communites of religious went through makeovers and adapted their religious habits to better fit the needs of modern day society, and their own comfort as well. And everywhere, the progresive spirit of the Council inspired all to no longer be afraid to ask questions but to seriously inquire about the content of their Faith. This phenomenon even spread to numerous members of the clergy, even to many members of the hierarchy. A renewed and charismatic way of being a disciple of Jesus Christ had emerged and had given the Church a second Pentecost! Even the Pontifical Biblical Commission in 1976 concluded that the question on women’s ordination was open to debate stating, “the New Testament does not settle in a clear way… whether women can be ordained as priests, scriptural grounds alone are not enough to exclude the possibility of ordaining women, Christ’s plan would not be transgressed by permitting the ordination of women.”

Amidst all this excitement fearful reactionaries of the past had been lying dormant. Then in 1968 these forces finally reared their ugly heads. It was then that Pope Paul VI published his infamous encyclical Humane Vitae, in it he vociferously condemned abortion, any use of contraception, and all forms of marital relations that did not result in the “transmission of life” During the period in which the Council took place Pope John had taken the initiative to create a commission to analyze the traditional Catholic position against contraception in light of the emergence of oral contraceptives and other forms of birth control. By the time the panel had completed their process of prayer, analysis, and contemplation an overwhelming majority (of both clergy and scientists) saw no reason why the ban on contraception should not be lifted. However, rejecting the consensus reached by the experts of the commision, Pope Paul VI decided that it would be to the benefit of the Church to have the ban remain in place. As a veteran of the Roman Curia it’s almost certain that Paul VI based his decision out of a fear of losing a sense of power and crediblity (having papal infallibility and authority be undermined) rather than true pastoral compassion and empathy. And thus, the dismal Roman snowball effect was initiated, keep in mind the ball from now on would be moving uphill and backward rather than forward…

And so the grand restoration began. After Paul VI passed away John Paul I (The Smiling Pope) was elected. Pope John Paul I captured the world with his sensitivity, warmth, and ability to connect with individuals in a genuine manner. Apprently he even sympathized with homosexuals and saw no reason why they would make any less worthy examples of parents to adopted children than heterosexual couples would. Then, mysteriously, he too died after having reigned for nearly a month. It was one of the shortest pontificates in history. The exact causes of the pope’s death have never been verified because autopsies are strictly forbidden under Vatican protocal.

John Paul II’s papacy was grand and monumental in many ways and indeed offered many benefits and gifts to the universal Church. Yet, gradually, the clock of time continued to be turned back within the Church. The reforms of the Council were undermined time and again. Then, it became forbidden to discuss certain topics under the pain of excommunication. The topic of women’s ordination was declared closed forever with John Paul claiming that, “the Church has and never will have the authority to ordain women to the priesthood…” Homosexuality was continually defined as a “disorder” and family planning methods at odds with those espoused in Humane Vitate were continally characterized as morally wrong. Thus, the Church moved from the People of God into the Realm of the Clergy.

With the election of Benedict XVI more of the same has continued. It seems that fear has given way to true dialogue and analytical thought. Fear of what could be, resignation for the familiar rather than confronting the wonder of the unknown. Once again His Holiness has eloquently and beautifully espoused the intimate and inseperable bond between fides et ratio. Yet, a true dialogue between reason and faith is not allowed to take place within the Church. Dialogue and the persuit of reason should not be conditional or on our own terms, but entirely objective and open to all possibilities. Is this what is taking place within the Church today? Or out of fear is ecclesiastical nepotism (as this week’s Anglican debacle can be most simply described) becoming the way of business within the Body of Christ?

The expression What Would Jesus Do often comes to my mind in light of these circumstances. What would He do if He walked the earth among us and saw how His unconditional love failes to radiate through His Body here on earth. What would He say to the leaders of the Church, who like the Pharisees and Sadducees, have stubbornly clung to legalistic interpretations of doctrine rather than a true adherance to the Spirit of God? What does the Lord think as He rests in our tabernacles and is allowed to be made substantially and sacramentally present by the hands of men but not by women? He, Who did not hesitate to heal and make His compassionate touch known to women, and Who was given to us in human flesh through the womb of His Mother. How have the leaders of the Church lost sight of Blessed John the XXIII’s words, that the mission of the Church is “not to guard a musuem, but to cultivate a flowering garden of life!”

Before He left us, Jesus promised that He would be with us always and that He would send His Holy Spirit, the Comforter, to guide us in all of our efforts. Despite the loss of trust and credibility the People of God has experienced in its leaders we must not give up hope. Since Humane Vitae was published we as the laity have understood that we can no longer simply accept that the Holy Spirit is confined to a body of celibate men. It our job to reveal the “signs of the times” and to help the leaders of the Church understand that the Holy Spirit is indeed at work among us.  We know and are assured that the Spirit of God is in our midst and continues to build us up and confirm our faith as we follow Jesus Christ ever forward into the pages of history! “I will pour out My Spirit upon all flesh. Your sons and daughter shall prophesy, your old men shall dream dreams, your young men shall see visions; even upon your servants and the handmaids, in those days, I will pour out My Spirit.” (Joel 3:1-2)

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About Phillip Clark

Phillip Clark is a paralegal student in Baltimore, Maryland and contributing author to “Hungering and Thirsting for Justice: Real-Life Stories by Young Adult Catholics.” Interests include politics, theology, civil/human rights, social justice, LGBT rights, international relations, and history.

One thought on “What Happened to the Vision of Good Pope John?

  1. I think it’s a huge leap to go from Bl. Pope John XXIII’s vision for the council to lambasting Pope John Paul II’s defense of the faith. I see nothing in the former’s writings to indicate that he wished to abrogate the doctrine of the Church; indeed, in the opening speech to the council he made it clear that its purpose was not to change doctrine as it has been handed down through the centuries, but merely how the truths of the faith are presented to the modern world (emphases mine):

    “The Twenty-first Ecumenical Council, which will draw upon the effective and important wealth of juridical, liturgical, apostolic, and administrative experiences, wishes to transmit the doctrine, pure and integral, without any attenuation or distortion, which throughout twenty centuries, notwithstanding difficulties and contrasts, has become the common patrimony of men. It is a patrimony not well received by all, but always a rich treasure available to men of good will.

    “Our duty is not only to guard this precious treasure, as if we were concerned only with antiquity, but to dedicate ourselves with an earnest will and without fear to that work which our era demands of us, pursuing thus the path which the Church has followed for twenty centuries. The salient point of this Council is not, therefore, a discussion of one article or another of the fundamental doctrine of the Church which has repeatedly been taught by the Fathers and by ancient and modern theologians, and which is presumed to be well known and familiar to all.

    For this a Council was not necessary. But from the renewed, serene, and tranquil adherence to all the teaching of the Church in its entirety and preciseness, as it still shines forth in the Acts of the Council of Trent and First Vatican Council, the Christian, Catholic, and apostolic spirit of the whole world expects a step forward toward a doctrinal penetration and a formation of consciousness in faithful and perfect conformity to the authentic doctrine, which, however, should be studied and expounded through the methods of research and through the literary forms of modern thought. The substance of the ancient doctrine of the deposit of faith is one thing, and the way in which it is presented is another. And it is the latter that must be taken into great consideration with patience if necessary, everything being measured in the forms and proportions of a magisterium which is predominantly pastoral in character.

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