In a recent exchange of e-mails regarding the three-part series I did last month on demoralization in the church, one of my editors wrote: “I think the disenchantment, detachment and quiet leaving are deeper than most imagine.” I could not disagree.
Sadly, there are Catholics who actually welcome this phenomenon. It represents for them a purification of the church, divesting it of those whom they seem to regard as spiritual riffraff.
Such Catholics lack, among other things, a sense of history. Over the course of centuries, church unity has been fractured again and again by various sectarian, or separatist, movements — relatively small groups, like the Donatists and Albigensians, which were utterly convinced that they were holier or more orthodox (or both) than the great majority of their fellow Christians.
Such movements have not survived intact within the Catholic Church because each eventually broke communion with it. Whether some of the so-called new movements in today’s church would also qualify as sectarian is open to debate.
The Second Vatican Council was so successful in initiating and then laying the groundwork for the widespread renewal and reform of the church that it stirred some measure of fear, anxiety and resentment in those who might be described as the spiritual descendants or current adherents of one or another of these groups.
By way of example, I participated earlier this summer in a panel discussion on the controversial best-selling novel, The Da Vinci Code. In the question-and-answer session, one member of the audience asked for an evaluation of Opus Dei, one of the “new movements” which plays a role in the novel.
I gave what I hoped would be a fair and objective reply, indicating the nature and purpose of the movement in as positive a fashion as I could, and acknowledging that its portrayal in the novel was excessively negative.
I also pointed out, however, that Opus Dei’s founder was unsympathetic with the renewal and reforms initiated by Vatican II, especially those pertaining to the liturgy, and was critical of the two popes of the council, John XXIII and Paul VI.
I suggested that the movement’s leaders today would, if their guard were dropped, disparage Paul VI as a weak pope (as some of the current pope’s strongest partisans have been wont to do) and dismiss John XXIII as, at best, a kindly old man whose calling of the council was more an act of naivet√© than of careful pastoral deliberation.
The panel moderator was aware (as I was not) that the superior of the local Opus Dei house was in attendance and gave him an opportunity to respond. He, of course, rejected the anti-conciliar characterization and insisted that the central purpose of Vatican II was to promote holiness, an agenda that Opus Dei embraced, as should all other Catholics.
The intervention reminded me of comments made by a few U.S. cardinals just prior to the conclaves of 1978 which elected, first, John Paul I and then John Paul II. Reporters had asked the cardinals what qualities they were looking for in the candidate for whom they would eventually vote.
“He must be a holy man,” they replied. Unfortunately, the interviewers never posed the logical follow-up question: “Are any of the leading candidates not holy men?”
Had that question been asked, the cardinals probably would have thrown up their hands and hastily assured the viewing audience that, of course, all of their fellow cardinals were “holy men.” But this would have invited yet another question: “What other qualities, therefore, will you be looking for?”
Because these questions were never raised, the cardinals were, in effect, dispensed from offering a serious analysis of the task that lay before them.
Was Vatican II simply about “holiness,” as the Opus Dei spokesman insisted? Yes, of course, it was about holiness — the holiness of the church especially. But, as in the case of the two conclaves of 1978, Vatican II was about much more than that as well.
The council taught that the church is the whole people of God, laity as well as clergy, and that the liturgy must reflect this broader reality; that the church is a communion of local churches, each of which enjoys a certain measure of spiritual autonomy, even from Rome; that the church includes, to one degree or another, non-Catholic Christians as well as Catholics; that its mission includes action on behalf of social justice, human rights and peace; and that the church itself be always be open to reform.
Catholics who worry about the current state of conciliar renewal will be hoping — and praying — for more than “holiness” in the next pontificate.
Father McBrien is a professor of theology at the University of Notre Dame.