Missing the bus: How the Catholic Church has failed to adapt since Vatican II

The Second Vatican Council (1962-65) was called to work out how to handle this new world order. It changed the preferred image of the Catholic Church from that of a hierarchical organization set up by God to the People of God on a common journey.

We missed three main opportunities for adaptation: mission, message and ministry.

In La Croix, July 2019

Since the Second World War (1939-45), the Western Catholic Church has been visibly in decline. This is part of a huge cultural change that is worldwide.

Christendom was the prevailing social and political structure of Europe from the fourth to 17th centuries. A high point was Louis XIV, hand in hand with the French hierarchy. But at the same time the Enlightenment was raging, undermining its very core structure.

Meanwhile, across the Atlantic in America a new, democratic social order was being established, based on Enlightenment principles. Democracy won the day and the Church was left a disempowered widow.

The full effect of Enlightenment ideas, like power from the people and individual human rights, came to the fore in the reconstruction of Europe after the devastation of WWII. The Church still looked the same, but was no longer the political force it had been.

The Second Vatican Council (1962-65) was called to work out how to handle this new world order. It changed the preferred image of the Catholic Church from that of a hierarchical organization set up by God to the People of God on a common journey.

The egalitarian and interactive qualities of the new world order replaced the hierarchical and static qualities of the pre-Enlightenment order. The Church was adapting to the modern world. But only on paper.  Many who formerly had submitted to the old order had sniffed the breeze and abandoned the church. That flow of departures — small enough to start — was to grow into a torrent.

Vatican II had alerted us to equality of membership and the need to adapt to fast social changes, but it was up to the membership to be nimble-footed in adapting if it was to stem the collapse.  The Council finished in 1965. But the adaptation to the new world order got bogged down. The opportunity bus has driven by time after time and the Church has missed it. Why?

A restorationist, right-wing movement mobilized to halt any further adaptation and to reinstate the old order. This small but well-connected group had major influence under Pope Paul VI. But it found a real champion in John Paul II and then under Benedict XVI.  Their methodology in extending their power was to appoint like-minded ideological bishops. The Australian leader of the pack was Cardinal George Pell, who has succeeded in getting his own men appointed as archbishops of Sydney, Melbourne and Hobart.

Waved the ideological flag

The Australian scene is fast changing. Same-sex marriage and assisted dying are now legislated. Culture war champion Cardinal Pell has been convicted of child sexual abuse and is in jail. Financial compensation claims are growing, rapidly depleting the reserves of dioceses and religious orders.

The same-sex marriage campaign was a hot button issue for the Vatican and Australian restorationists. Australian bishops decried it as “against nature and against God” but polls showed that Catholics disagreed with them.  The archbishop of Sydney waved the ideological flag but was ignored. Another bishop was reported as donating $250,000 to the “No” cause — but in vain.

The restorationists are now crying foul on religious freedom to enable them to continue religious discrimination in their institutions. A similar scenario happened on assisted dying. The hierarchy’s call is to continue criminalization of assisted dying while most Catholics say leave people free to decide.

Melbourne’s Archbishop Comensoli has banned the renowned American Benedictine Sister Joan Chittester from speaking at a national Catholic education conference in Melbourne. True to Pell, his mentor, Comensoli signals a return to the bad old days of episcopal censorship and misogyny, which we thought were long gone.

Finally, Frederick Martel’s book, Inside the Closet of the Vatican, has shocked the world with its exposé. The Vatican has pursued a relentless, homophobic policy under Wotyjla and Ratzinger — yet the papal bureaucracy are overwhelmingly gay, heavily compromised and hypocritical. Some of the loudest to condemn homosexuality are themselves active gays.

As this book sinks in, Catholics will become more disgusted and ashamed.

We (first person because I personally identify with this hapless Church) missed three main opportunities for adaptation: mission, message and ministry.

Mission: The South American bishops were the early adopters of a new mission — the preferential option for the poor. They set up Basic Christian Communities to serve the needs of the poor and protect them from oppression. John Paul II deliberately reversed this by replacing pastoral bishops with hard-liners.

Message: Life-centered catechesis started rearticulating Christianity as a way of life to be lived, rather than a set of doctrines to be memorized. The restorationists, under Joseph Ratzinger (the future Benedict XVI), gave us the Catholic Catechism — more doctrine and rules including positions at odds with what mainstream Catholics believe.

Ministry: Counterintuitively, priestly vocations have been dropping since World War II, even during the baby boomer period. Proportions were dropping.

Nobody wants that lifestyle, especially as a male preserve with celibacy attached. Vatican II’s call for nimble-footed adaptation could not break through the rock barrier of clericalism.  Today’s cleric may be like the wounded knight in Monty Python’s Holy Grail, but he still blocks the ministry door.

Liturgy, the central ministry, was to be adapted to local culture. Instead, it became a culture war battleground resulting in unspeakable liturgies and language.

This has been a Pyrrhic victory for the John Paul II-George Pell camp because the people are abandoning not only the liturgy but the Church itself. And once they go they do not return. The Catholic Church is now in freefall.

Most of the opportunities for adaptation have been missed. Some parishes are still working well, but they will be the last. Their worried pastors can take heart that their ministry is still needed and valued by the remnant of believers. By providing faithful service they are still on the bus — even though it may be the last.

Eric Hodgens is a theologian and senior priest from the Archdiocese of Melbourne in Australia.

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