The shedding of institutional structures and the diminishing number of priests could, in fact, be liberating
It is 50 years since the Vatican Council began, and everyone, it seems, has had something to say on the anniversary; what strikes me, rather belatedly, reading the documents again, just how the world has changed since 1962, in a way that the Council Fathers could not possibly have foreseen.
Let me count the ways.
First, back in 1962, the Catholic Church spoke, more or less, with one voice. Something like a papal encyclical, or, on a local level, a bishop’s pastoral letter, enjoyed a clear and open field, relatively free from competition. There simply was not then the vast unregulated river of comment that streams forth day and night from the internet, 24-hour television, and the press. Today, a papal encyclical still packs a considerable punch, but thousands of people, indeed millions, can now publish their opinions on religious matters, who could not in the past. This profusion of voces populi resembles the sort of anarchy that all those who wish to control freedom of expression must dread.
Now, of course, it has to be said that much of this commentary is of no enduring value, but some of it is. When the history of these times comes to be written, some of these voices will be heard still, and future generations will see early 21st-century Catholicism as pluralistic, not monolithic: a cacophony of discordant voices, not a choir all singing from the same hymn sheet. This is not the Church that the Council Fathers foresaw, or the documents of the Council presuppose.
Second, the Council Fathers imagined a dialogue with the world which now no longer seems possible. Once upon a time, Catholics could engage in discussions at official level with polite Marxists from the Eastern Bloc. That bloc no longer exists; indeed, most blocs have crumbled. While the Church may still want dialogue, there seem now to be few worthy partners. Few organised bodies seem interested in reasoned debate. Take the question of gay marriage and the farcical consultation on the same subject. The British Government itself has rejected dialogue with the Church, as Bishop Joseph Devine has pointed out.
As with David Cameron, so with Richard Dawkins, and so Bin Laden’s minions. I am not for a moment saying that all these people belong in the same category, but they all share one thing – they are not interested in talking to the Catholic Church.
Third, the tone of the Council documents, and their emphasis on a knowledge of the Bible, seen, for example, in the introduction of the new lectionary, indicate an expectation that there would be a new flowering of study and learning. Sadly, for reasons largely beyond the Church’s control, the 50 years since the Council have seen a return to the Dark Ages in education. Dumbing down across the board, most clearly evident in the abandonment of the classics in schools, has largely cut theology off from its sources. The decline, too, of a book culture has led to the Bible becoming less accessible to many. What was once the shared patrimony of humanity – the stories of the Bible – has now become the preserve of those who dwell in a cultural ghetto. This collapse in educational standards is something everyone should lament, but few do, preferring to deny that it has happened. Catholicism needs a high culture in which to flourish, and that high culture, in Europe at least, is withering. The Vatican Council was, in some senses, the last hurrah of a high culture that seemed healthy, but was in fact to be dealt its death blow in 1968. Vatican II was supposed to usher in a new age of Biblical knowledge. Instead, the Bible is now less known than it was 50 years ago.
This may sound pessimistic, and in a way it is. The Vatican II Fathers probably, if they thought of the future at all, thought of the Church continuing much as before. In the last 50 years, this has been the unspoken assumption – that the Catholic Church would continue, along the same model as it has since the reign of Blessed Pius IX. But this looks increasingly unlikely. It is more than possible – indeed it seems more or less certain – that the Church of the future is not going to be like the Church of the past. It is going to have to do without the huge number of priests and religious that it once considered normal; it is going to have to do without the institutional structures. But this shedding of an old skin, which may well be deeply painful, could in fact be liberating. We could be on the brink, at last, of seeing the birth of a new model of Church, one that the Council Fathers hoped for, but the exact form of which would have surprised them considerably.