By Barbara J. Miner
When I read that Thursday Oct. 11 marks the 50th anniversary of the opening of the Second Vatican Council, I immediately was lost in memories.
Most of all, I remember Pope John XXIII, a kind-looking man who held saint-like status in my family, school and parish. I can still see in my mind’s eye the wall plate of John XXIII that hung in many a Catholic home — often next to a similar plate of John F. Kennedy.
I grew up in an all-encompassing Catholic world, which was typical for most Milwaukee Catholics in the 1950s. But thanks to Vatican II, which lasted from 1962-65, the church of my youth embraced the world in all its complexities and contradictions.
Nuns marched in civil rights protests, priests burned draft files to protest the Vietnam War, girls served at mass. Above all, everyone was talking about what it meant to be a Catholic in the world, not apart from it. A new word — ecumenical — became as important a concept as transubstantiation.
When Pope John XXIII explained why he called the Second Vatican Council, he talked of the church’s need to “open the windows and let in the fresh air.” I was too young to understand the liturgical debates swirling around the council. But I caught that spirit of change, and felt proud to be a Catholic.
Later, at least as far as the church was concerned, I lost that spirit. So did the church hierarchy. Obedience replaced dialogue, birth control became more important than social justice, and the Vatican reigned in those who questioned that the Pope’s word is God’s word.
Like many people raised Catholic, I rarely go to church anymore except on Christmas and, perhaps, Easter. But I still enjoy the Catholic Church’s unrivaled ability to blend ritual, pageantry and music, and I love the beauty of midnight mass on Christmas Eve.
But pick any number of issues — gay marriage, women’s rights, top-down church mandates — and the church of my youth is breathing stagnant air.
Faced with the seeming unanimity of the church hierarchy, I have tended to see the church as a monolith. But thanks to the Internet, it doesn’t take long to find out that the Catholic Church is engulfed by controversy. The spirit of John XXIII and Vatican II is far from dead.
Changing Demographics and Renewed Calls for Reform
One of the many realities facing the church is its changing demographics.
At the beginning of the 20th Century, 75 percent of the world’s Catholics lived in Europe and North America. By century’s end, the figure had dropped to 33 percent. By 2023, non-Hispanic whites will account for only 20 percent of the world’s Catholics.
What has been the Vatican’s response? To further centralize power and decision-making.
“Unfortunately, these [demographic] changes are not yet evident in the leadership of the church,” notes an Oct. 15 article in America, a Jesuit magazine founded in 1909. “During the conclave of 2005, for example, Italian cardinals cast 19 votes, equivalent to the total number from Africa and Asia combined. But there are just 55 million Catholics in Italy while Africa and Asia are home to more than four times that number. The recent appointment of cardinals on the part of Pope Benedict XVI also appears to favor the northern hemisphere over those areas where the Catholic Church is growing.”
Within the United States, controversy within the church is most evident in the Vatican’s attempt to control Catholic nuns fighting for social justice and calling for dialogue. In the court of public opinion, the nuns are winning, hands down. But whether the nuns will win over the church hierarchy is another matter.
In July, Pope Benedict XVI named a staunch conservative, Bishop Gerhard Ludwig Müller of Germany, as the new head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. The Congregation is the historical successor to the Inquisition and wields considerable power.
Among other things, Muller will oversee the Vatican’s review of the Leadership Conference of Woman Religious, which represents 80 percent of U.S. nuns.
In a column in The National Catholic Reporter on July 16, reporter John L. Allen Jr (widely recognized as an astute observer of Vatican politics) reported that in a homily in April, Müller strongly rebuked reform-minded Germans. “Being Catholic means being united with the bishop and the priests.” Muller said. “Ravings against the truth of the faith and the unity of the church will not be tolerated.”
The former head of the Maryknoll order, meanwhile, warns that Muller’s comments are symbolic of a wider campaign by the Vatican.
“Under the guise of a ‘Year of Faith,’ the Vatican has launched an all-out assault on any theology or interpretation of Vatican II,” writes John C. Sivalon, the former Superior General of Maryknoll Fathers and Brothers. “The [Vatican II] Council that was declared to open the windows is now being reinterpreted as closed shutters, protecting the Church from the gale force winds of a world searching for spiritual authenticity. While said to be a time of renewal, the ‘Year of Faith’ is really dedicated to the idolatry of doctrine, power and hierarchy.”
It’s far from certain, however, that the Pope and his supporters will be able to stifle calls for reform.
On Oct. 9, just as a Synod of Bishops began meeting in Rome to focus on evangelization, a European reform group issued a challenge to the Vatican. As Allen of The National Catholic Reporter wrote:
“‘We Are Church,’ the most visible Catholic reform group in Europe, issued a new call for ‘profound renovations’ in church structures and its relationship to the world, including a more ‘collegial and democratic church’, ‘gender equity and the acceptance of diverse sexual orientations,’ and ‘the ordination of women and married people.’”
Clearly, the fight for the soul of the Catholic Church is far from over.
— — —
This blog is cross-posted at the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel Purple Wisconsin project.