It was John XXIII (1958-63) and no one else who in a pontificate of barely five years ushered in a new era in the history of the Catholic Church. Against massive resistance from the curia, with considerable historical learning and pastoral experience, he opened up to the church, immured in a medieval Counter-Reformation antimodern paradigm, the way to renewal (aggiornamento); to a proclamation of the gospel in keeping with the time; to an understanding with the other Christian churches, with Judaism, and with the other world religions; to contacts with the Eastern states; to international social justice; and to openness to the modern world generally and the affirmation of human rights. Through his collegial behavior he strengthened the role of bishops. In all this Pope John showed a new pastoral understanding of the papal office.
John XXIII's historically most significant act was the announcement of the Second Vatican Council on January 25, 1959, which surprised the whole world. He solemnly opened the council on October 11, 1962. This council corrected Pius XII - apart from his pioneering encyclical on Catholic biblical exegesis (Divino afflante Spiritu, 1943) - on almost all decisive points: reform of the liturgy, ecumenism, anti-Communism, freedom of religion, the modern world, and above all the attitude to Judaism. Encouraged by the new pope, at last the bishops once again displayed self-confidence and felt that they were a college with their own apostolic authority.
An overall assessment of the Second Vatican Council (1962-65) is by no means easy. But as one who witnessed the council at the time and has criticisms of it today, almost four decades after the conclusion of the council, I maintain my overall verdict: for the Catholic Church this council represented an epoch-making and irrevocable turning point. With the Second Vatican Council the Catholic Church - despite the difficulties and hindrances posed by the medieval Roman system - attempted to implement two paradigm changes at once: it integrated fundamental features of both the Reformation paradigm and the paradigm of the Enlightenment and modernity.
First of all it integrated the Reformation paradigm. Catholic complicity in the split of the church was recognized, as was the need for constant reform. Ecclesia semper reformanda, constant renewal of the church in life and teaching according to the gospel, was now the official Catholic view. The other Christian fellowships were finally recognized as churches. An ecumenical attitude was called for from the whole Catholic Church. At the same time a series of central concerns of the gospel were taken up at least in principle and often also quite practically; there was a new high respect for the Bible in worship, theology, and church life, as in the life of individual believers generally. There was authentic worship of the people in the vernacular and a reformed celebration of the Eucharist related to the community. There was a revaluation of the laity through parish and diocesan councils and the admission of them to the study of theology. The church was adapted to national and local conditions by an emphasis on the local church and the national conferences of bishops. Finally, there a reform of popular piety and an abolition of many specific forms of piety from the Middle Ages, the Baroque period, and the nineteenth century.
At the same time there was also an integration of the modern paradigm. There was a clear affirmation of freedom of religion and conscience and of human rights generally, which had been condemned for so long, again by Pius XII in 1953. There was a fundamental acknowledgement of complicity in anti-Semitism and a positive turn toward Judaism, from which Christianity derives. But there was also a new constructive attitude to Islam and the other world religions. It was recognized that in principle salvation is also possible outside Christianity, even for atheists and agnostics, if they act in accordance with their conscience. There was a new, fundamentally positive attitude to modern progress, which had long been ostracized, and to the secular world, science, and democracy generally.
When it came to the understanding of the church in particular, the council's Constitution on the Church clearly dissociated itself from the understanding of the church as a kind of supernatural Roman empire which had been held since the eleventh century. In this view the pope stands at the head as absolute sole ruler; then comes the aristocracy of the bishops and priests; and finally, in a passive function, the subject people of the faithful. There was a desire to overcome such a clericalized, legalistic, and triumphalist picture of the church, which was vigorously criticized at the council. In the final version of the Constitution of the Church all statements about the church hierarchy were prefaced by a section about the people of God. "People of God" is understood as a fellowship of faith which is constantly on the way in the world, a sinful and provisional pilgrim folk, ready for ever-new reform.
At the same time, truths which had been ignored for centuries were recalled. Those who hold office do not stand over the people of God but are within it [sic]; they are not rulers but servants. The universal priesthood of believers is to be taken as seriously as the significance of local churches in the framework of the church as a whole: as worshiping communities they are the church in quite an original sense. And the bishops, regardless of papal primacy, are to exercise a communal, collegial responsibility for leading the whole church. For the bishop becomes bishop not through nomination by the pope but through ordination.
Restoration Instead of Renewal
Almost immediately after the conclusion of the council it was obvious that, despite concessions over the reform of the liturgy, the renewal of the Catholic Church and ecumenical understanding with the other Christian churches wanted by John XXIII and the council had got stuck. At the same time, the church hierarchy was beginning to lose credibility to a dramatic extent. That Roman dissociation of foreign policy from domestic policy which is now typical was already evident in 1967: outwardly (where it cost the church nothing), the church was progressive; but inwardly (in its own concerns) the church was reactionary.
The near-immediate restoration of full papal authority was characterized by Paul VI's (1963-78) encyclical on priestly celibacy Sacerdotalis coelibatus, published in 1967. Here, for the first time since the council, the pope again in a preconciliar authoritarian way made a unilateral decision, completely scorning the collegiality of the bishops which was solemnly resolved on by the council. The decision on celibacy was particularly important for the churches in Latin America, Africa, and Asia, which are poor in priests, yet Paul VI himself forbade discussion of it at the council.
It was quite evident that despite the impulse of the council, in this postconciliar period it had not proved possible to bring a decisive change to the authoritarian, institutional, and personal power structure of church government in the spirit of the Christian message; despite all the unavoidable changes, pope, curia, and most bishops continued to behave in a preconciliar authoritarian way. Little seemed to have been learned from the conciliar process. In Rome and in other areas of the church, personalities still held the reins of power who showed more interest in preserving that power and the convenient status quo than in serious renewal in the spirit of the gospel and collegiality.
In every possible decision, small and great, there was still an appeal to the Holy Spirit, to the apostolic authority allegedly given by Christ. How much this was the case became clear to all when in 1968, with a new baneful encyclical, against contraception, Humanae vitae, Paul VI hurled the church into a crisis of credibility which still exists today. Humanae vitae was the first instance in the church history of the twentieth century when the vast majority of people and clergy refused obedience to the pope in an important matter, though in the papal view this was in fact an infallible teaching of the ordinary magisterium of pope and bishops (article 25 of the Constitution of the Church). This was a precise parallel to the most recent rejection by John Paul II of the ordination of women for time and eternity, which is also explicitly declared to be infallible.
Betrayal of the Council
Given the splitting of the world into two power blocs, the election of John Paul II (1978-2005), a pope from the East, was generally welcomed in the Catholic Church. From the beginning, John Paul II proved, unlike many statesmen, to be a man of character, deeply rooted in the Christian faith, an impressive champion of peace, of human rights, of social justice, and later also of interreligious dialogue, but at the same time also the champion of a strong church.
Yet in the course of his long pontificate the positive image of this pope has changed fundamentally for most Catholics, at least within the developed countries. Today this pope appears to them less a successor of John XXIII than a successor of Pius XII, that pope who despite the tremendous personality cult which he enjoyed during his lifetime has left relatively few positive traces in the most recent history of the church.
It has become increasingly clear, even for admirers, what the real intention of this pope had been from the beginning, despite all verbal assertions: a brake was to be applied to the conciliar movement, reform within the church was to be stopped; the real understanding with the Eastern Churches, Protestants, and Anglicans was to be blocked; and dialogue with the modern world was to be replaced with one-sided teaching and decrees. Looked at more closely, his reevangelization has meant re-Catholicization and his wordy ecumenism has under the surface been aimed at a return to the Catholic Church.
Many people rightly speak of a betrayal of the council, a betrayal which has alienated countless Catholics from the church all over the world. Instead of the words of the conciliar program there are again the slogans of a magisterium which once more is conservative and authoritarian. Instead of the aggiornamento in the spirit of the gospel there is now again the traditional "Catholic teaching" (rigorous moral encyclicals, the traditionalist world catechism). Instead of the collegiality of the pope with the bishops there is again a tighter Roman centralism which in the nomination of bishops and appointments to the theological chairs sets itself above the interests of the local churches. Instead of openness to the modern world there is increasingly accusation, complaint, and lamentation over alleged assimilation and an encouragement of traditional forms of piety, such as Marianism. Instead of dialogue there is again reinforced inquisition and a refusal of freedom of conscience and teaching in the church. Instead of ecumenism the emphasis is again on everything that is narrowly Roman Catholic. There is no longer any talk, as at the council, of the distinction between the church of Christ and the Roman Catholic Church, between the substance of the doctrine of faith and its garb in language and history; of a hierarchy of truths which are not equally important.
Even the most moderate requests within Catholicism and the ecumenical world have been turned down or left undecided, with no reason, by a high-handed curia. This has been accepted; who still bothers? In many places, in matters of sexual morality, mixed marriages, and ecumenism, pastors and the faithful quietly do what seems right in the spirit of the gospel and in accordance with the impulses of Vatican II. They are not bothered about pope and bishops.
Meanwhile the Roman legalism, clericalism, and triumphalism, which was [sic] so vigorously criticized by the bishops at the council - cosmetically rejuvenated and in modern dress - has come back with a vengeance. This became evident above all in the new Canon Law promulgated in 1983, which contrary to the intentions of the council, sets no limit to the exercise of power by pope, curia, and nuncios. Indeed it diminishes the status of the ecumenical councils, assigns the conferences of bishops only advisory tasks, continues to keep the laity totally dependent on the hierarchy, and thoroughly neglects the church's ecumenical dimension.