Columnist hopes divide in church can be bridged
As the years pass, the gap between Catholics who lived through the Second Vatican Council and those too young to remember it or born afterwards continues to widen. Eventually, there will be only a few, and then none, alive who had straddled both sides of the conciliar divide.
Some members of the church seem to be waiting impatiently for that day to dawn. They appear eager to witness the departure of the Vatican II generation, those who participated in the great renewal of Catholicism in the late 1950s, throughout the 1960s, and then into the 1970s and early 1980s.
This Vatican II generation is hardly a monolithic group, but the more active among them are members of Call to Action, Voice of the Faithful and similar reform-minded lay organizations. They are also regular readers of such publications as The National Catholic Reporter, Commonweal and America (particularly when Father Thomas Reese was editor-in-chief).
The Vatican II generation includes some bishops, even a few cardinals, and many priests and religious, as well as laity. They were restive under the prolonged pontificate of John Paul II. Many of them would acknowledge today the genuine achievements that marked the late pope's more than 26 years in office, among which were his dramatic outreach to non-Christians, especially Jews, and his unstinting commitment to human rights and human dignity and to the cause of the poor and the powerless of the world.
But the Vatican II generation was also deeply troubled by the efforts to recentralize authority in the Vatican and particularly in the person of the pope, the Vatican's seeming intolerance for theological opinions and pastoral practices different from its own sense of doctrinal orthodoxy and liturgical propriety, and the types of priests appointed to the hierarchy and subsequently promoted within it.
For the Vatican II generation no leading church figure was more disliked or feared than Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, the longtime head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. His election to the papacy last April was greeted by many of this generation with shock, dismay and foreboding, deepened by the sometimes taunting jubilation of their counterparts on the Catholic right.
Many of the Vatican II generation may be a bit confused now, perhaps even guardedly optimistic, because thus far there has been no lowering of the papal boom on advocates of church renewal and reform.
On the contrary, last September Benedict XVI warmly welcomed his former colleague and perennial critic, Father Hans Küng, to a lengthy, one-on-one meeting that included a private dinner together. The new pope personally drafted a statement for the media, insisting that it not be released until Father Küng himself had read and approved it.
But for every reform-minded Catholic who may have shifted into an attitudinally neutral gear regarding the new pontificate, there may be as many, if not more, highly conservative Catholics who have begun to wonder -- and worry -- whether Benedict will ever use his newly acquired powers to do what they have long hoped for.
They want theologians like Father Küng kicked out of the church and their writings placed on some new version of the Index of Forbidden Books. They want the Mass returned to its old Latin Tridentine form and the altar once again turned around, with the priest celebrating (they prefer the word "saying") Mass with his back to the congregation, which, in turn, would be doing a lot more kneeling than standing.
Such conservatives feel that the ecumenical spirit initiated by Pope John XXIII and implemented by the Second Vatican Council and Paul VI has gone too far, at the expense of Catholic identity and Catholicism's traditional claim to be the "one, true Church of Christ," necessary for the salvation of all.
They also want to see the ordained priesthood restored to its former "dignity," with priests always dressed in formal clerical attire and universally accorded the title of "Father."
Priests alone would preach at Mass, distribute holy Communion and carry out the principal spiritual works of the church, with occasional assistance from pious lay people, who would never exceed the limited mandate the priest had given them.
They would also like their bishops to be even more pastorally tough-minded and politically conservative than many already are, pointing to bishops such as Chaput of Denver, Burke of St. Louis, Sheridan of Colorado Springs, Myers of Newark, Bruskewitz of Lincoln and Finn of Kansas City-St. Joseph as models for the entire hierarchy to emulate.
It will require visionary leadership and a full measure of pastoral skill and sensitivity to bridge such a divide. May it begin to emerge this year.
Father McBrien is a professor of theology at the University of Notre Dame.