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Do we need a Vatican III?

The older I get, the more I read and listen to the gospel texts. It seems ever clearer to me that the reason why the religious authorities of His day rejected Jesus was because He opposed their subordination of the human person to their interpretation of the law, especially the pivotal Sabbath law. “The Sabbath was made for humankind and not humankind for the Sabbath.” The God Jesus reveals is not a respecter of human persons. Rather He is a respecter of all human persons.

Human persons are created in the image of God. It is forbidden to create any false images of God precisely because God has provided us with the only true image of God - the human person.

Whenever the Jesus of the gospels encounters any discrimination against any groups of people on the grounds that they are “unclean” in the eyes of God, He makes very clear His utter rejection of such a position. To the disgust and scandal of the self-proclaimed righteous, He eats and drinks with publicans and sinners. His words – “I have not come to call the just but sinners” - are directed against those who base their righteousness not on any freely given dignity and gift of God but on their self-proclaimed exclusive dignity before God due to their strict observance of the law.

It is this attitude which draws from Jesus some of His most outspoken condemnations, addressing the scribes and Pharisees in such terms as whited sepulchres and a brood of vipers. It is this same attitude which stimulates Jesus to produce some of His most powerful stories about the Prodigal Son or the Good Samaritan.

Even Jesus’ anger with the scribes and Pharisees fits into the same picture. It is driven by a passionate desire to eradicate what is blocking their vision and heal them from their destructive blindness. His anger is like the cutting knife of a surgeon, causing pain and discomfort, but directed only towards restoring health. In Matthew’s gospel, at the end of His sevenfold indictment of the scribes and Pharisees, branding them as hypocrites and blind guides, Jesus is almost in tears as He exclaims: “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you that kill the prophets and stone those who are sent to you! How often have I longed to gather your children, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings and you refused!” (Mt 23, 13-29)

In the eyes of Jesus, the witness being given by the scribes and Pharisees gives a false picture of the God whose true witness Jesus Himself is. The word did not become flesh in Jesus to enslave us to yet more moral rules but to reveal to us that the source of our true dignity lies in the very being of God. As human persons we are called to love each other as the Son loves us, and as the Father loves the Son. Empowered by the Spirit we are invited to share in the very life and love of God if we are to be true to who we are.

This mind-blowing truth is highlighted by Vatican II: “It is only in the mystery of the word incarnate that light is shed on the mystery of humankind. It is Christ who fully discloses humankind to itself and unfolds its noble calling by revealing the mystery of the Father and the Father’s love.” (The Church in the World of Today, n.22.)

In the decades prior to Vatican II, many Catholics were feeling more and more that their personal growth as free thinking and responsible subjects was inhibited by an increasing number of depersonalizing factors in the life of the Church. The simple words of Pope John XXIII that the Council would open the windows and let in much-needed fresh air spoke volumes to them.

Fresh air

What excited Catholics at the time of Vatican II was its insistence that human persons are far more important in the eyes of God than are man-made laws and human institutions. The Council Fathers seemed to be echoing in today’s world the explosive words of Jesus: “The Sabbath was made for humankind and not humankind for the Sabbath” (Mk 2:27).

This person-centred “good news” of Jesus is writ large across the annals of Vatican II. It is crops up in all sorts of places and in all kinds of guises. Chapter one of the Pastoral Constitution, The Church in the World of Today, is entitled “The Dignity of the Human Person”. Its opening sentence states: “Believers and unbelievers are almost at one in considering that everything on earth is to be referred to humanity as its centre and culmination.” Later the bishops go on to speak of “the exceptional dignity which belongs to the human person” and even appeal to Jesus’ words about the Sabbath as they highlight the social dimension of the human person: “The social order and its progress ought, then continually to favour the good of people since the order of things should be subordinated to the order of persons, and not the other way round, as the Lord indicated in saying the Sabbath was made for us and not we for the Sabbath.”

The Declaration on Religious Liberty, whose text was a battleground for opposing factions in the Council, actually bears the title, The Dignity of the Human Person. Its opening passage is reminiscent of what I have already quoted above: “The dignity of the human person is a concern of which people of our time are becoming increasingly more aware. In growing numbers they demand that they should enjoy the use of their own responsible judgment and freedom, and decide on their actions on grounds of duty and conscience, without external pressure or coercion.”

Four decades on

Forty years after Vatican II the bishops of Quebec were still exploring the riches of this person-centred teaching in their very thought-provoking document, Annoncer l’evangile dans la culture actuelle au Quebec, (Montreal, Fides, 1999). They bring it into conversation with the signs of the times at the turn of the millennium. In today’s culture appreciation of the human person as subject is central. This means recognizing that at the heart of our being human persons lies the fact that we are subjects, called to accept responsibility for our own lives. We cannot hand over this responsibility to any institution, not even to the Church. This has profound implications for the way we understand our membership within the Church and for how we relate to tradition and Church teaching.

“Today, personal opinion rates first among the things that count: “I think that’ becomes more important than ‘the tradition states that’ or ‘the magisterium teaches that’. Personal convictions rooted in the experience of the individual are important. A thing is true to the degree that it can be verified by experience. The theological committee of our assembly rightly remarked that our contemporaries are more sensitive to experience than to notional or abstract language. It is not so much that they are incapable of formulating their experience in concepts, but rather that experience carries more weight and authority than ideas put forward on a theoretical basis. A person’s word becomes more authoritative when it is authentic, sincere, and backed up by experience.” (quoted in The Ecumenist, winter 2000)

This echoes the words of Paul VI in his 1975 post-Synod Apostolic Exhortation, Evangelization in the Modern World: “People today listen more willingly to witnesses than to teachers, and if they do listen to teachers, it is because they are witnesses.” This way of seeing things affects our understanding of tradition. No longer something set in stone, it is seen as a living memory which both challenges our limited perspective but which we ourselves need to critique. This reminds me of the wise medieval saying: “we see further than our forebears; we are like dwarfs sitting on the shoulders of giants”.

The Quebec bishops write: “For our contemporaries, truth may come from tradition, but it is also the fruit of their own work of exploration. It is received, but it is also discovered. It may remain beyond us, but it comes to us by way of the subject’s own activity on a personal journey. Tradition and teaching are not imposed as a kind of final or definitive word, but function as memory, reference points and markers or as a word which questions and confronts one’s own discoveries, a word which evokes a response from the subject. Statements from tradition are critiqued before being taken up by the subject.”

Two-way process

As the Quebec bishops point out, this has far-reaching implications for the whole field of communications within the Church. Communication is not a one-way process. It is not simply a matter of a speaker and a listener. Active listening involves assimilation and interpretation. What is communicated is enriched in the listening process and the actual speaker becomes a receiver by being helped to understand the message through the reflective response of the listener.

This is particularly important when it comes to the way the Church arrives at its teaching and laws and how these are communicated to the people at large. Teaching is seen less as an expert holding forth and more as a conversation between people who have their own insights to contribute. An appropriate image is the seminar group in which the leader enables all to pool whatever relevant learning they have so that the full riches of the group are shared in the pursuit of truth.

The Quebec bishops use a slightly different image: “It is not sufficient to insist that the Church is not a democracy, even if that statement is correct. Integration into the Church in a democratic society leads to a new relation to authority and a different manner of proclaiming the gospel. What is required is a certain degree of participation and a careful listening to all the voices that want to be heard. Nothing can be imposed simply by authority.”

Some may shy away from such an approach to the teaching process in the Church on the grounds that it would mean the end of all clarity and certainty and would be a recipe for confusion. However, for a pilgrim people a certain level of confusion is to be expected and has to be lived with.

Karl Rahner expresses this very positively. “If the Church appears to be confused today, it is because society is confused. Both go together. Sometimes I ask myself if, from the point of view of faith, this is all so bad. Why should we Christians and the Church in an age of confusion have answers for everything instead of putting up with the confusion along with our contemporaries?” (Karl Rahner in Dialogue: Conversations and Interviews, 1965-1982, New York, Crossroad, 1986, p.154)

We cannot opt out of the mess of life, but have to trust God in the midst of the storm.

“The Sabbath was made for humankind and not humankind for the Sabbath”. Are there “sabbaths” in the Church today to which we can be tempted to subordinate the good of human persons? Part of the contribution of Vatican II was to alert us to these modern-day sabbaths and put us on our guard lest in Church life we dehumanize persons by making them subservient to these sabbaths.

All such sabbaths see things out of perspective. They lose sight of the primacy of the dignity of the human person as made in God’s image. Hence, even biblical texts can become a sabbath in this sense. Texts which forbid things clearly beneficial to the good of human persons are accepted as binding in conscience. The same is true with regard to tradition, teaching, laws and liturgical rules in the Church.

In terms of reading the Bible, this approach is described as fundamentalist. In its extreme form, it turns the written text into an idol. No room for interpretation. The text is sacrosanct and must be followed. Few would go that far. However, many follow a more moderate fundamentalist approach today. Once a text is understood in the light of the culture in which it was written and what it meant to the people of that time, they insist on applying its teaching immediately to the present day. God’s word does not change, they say. God’s law for people’s lives remains the same yesterday, today and forever.

I may be wrong, but I get the impression that fundamentalist thinking of this kind lies at the root of the present division in the Anglican Communion over homosexual activity. The fundamentalist position maintains that homosexual acts are clearly forbidden in the Bible. Hence, though homosexual persons should not be condemned for being who they are, no homosexual expressions of love can be condoned.

Not so, argues the opposite view. Today we have a better understanding of God’s gift of sexuality. Homosexuality, as an innate condition of a significant minority in society, is no longer seen as deviance but rather as diversity within the full spectrum of human sexuality. To deny homosexual men or women the life-fulfilling opportunity to express sexually their life-long love and fidelity for each other is to deny them something fundamental to their lives as human persons.

With the Pharisees

This final assertion seems to get to the root of the issue. If loving and faithful homosexual relationships and their sexual expression can truly be shown to be, in their own way, authentic personal expressions of human love and fidelity - and many hold that is the case - they would seem to be fully in accord with God’s will for the people concerned. If that is so, how can we proclaim the gospel as good news and in the very next breath condemn such homosexual acts as contrary to God’s will since they are forbidden in the Bible.

This shows up the fault-line in this kind of fundamentalist approach. It seems to line up with the Pharisees against Jesus. It rejects Jesus' core principle of interpretation, “The Sabbath was made for humankind and not humankind for the Sabbath”. This primacy of the human person principle implies that any interpretation of biblical texts which demands that the manifest good of human persons be made subservient to an alleged faithfulness to the text is not interpreting the text according to the mind of God revealed to us in Jesus, the Word made flesh.

Some might argue that the Catholic Church still has a “get-out” clause. It claims it has God-given authority to interpret both the natural law and the Bible. So, for instance, this would seem to give it the authority to settle the issue by declaring that homosexual activity is both unnatural and forbidden in the Bible. It can then insist that Catholics are obliged to accept and follow this teaching.

Such a crude view of the Church’s teaching authority is fairly common both within the Church and beyond. Yet it is utterly false and has no basis in Catholic theology and Church teaching. Church authorities do not have the freedom to teach whatever they like.

A responsible use of teaching authority demands widespread consultation, especially amongst those best informed and most experienced in the matter in question. It would be highly irresponsible to short-circuit the essential consultation needed and instead appeal to the inspiration of the Holy Spirit.

The Jesuit philosopher and moral theologian, Gerard Hughes, made that point very strongly some years ago: "In practice the appeal to tradition and to teaching authority tends to short-circuit the need for proper inquiry and for argument which will withstand criticism in open debate. These are the normal human means to the attainment of truth, which we ignore at our peril. I suspect that the ultimate cause of disagreement in moral theology today stems from a notion of revelation and the guidance of the Spirit in the church which is largely independent of human cooperation, and a contrasting notion in which such guidance is to be expected only when we have in fact done what is humanly possible. I think one of the most valuable aspects of the natural law tradition in moral theology is that it comes down firmly in favour of this latter view... We cannot confidently lay claim to the guidance of the Spirit, whether as individuals or as a Church, unless we take the normal human means to try to arrive at the truth." (Natural Law Ethics and Moral Theology, in The Month, 1987, pp.102-103

Going back to the basic principle of interpretation, “The Sabbath was made for humankind and not humankind for the Sabbath”, that principle should apply across the board in the life and ministry of the Church. In other words, anything in Church life and ministry which is detrimental to the good of the human persons concerned cannot be an authentic discernment of the will of God.

I may be wrong, but it seems to me that there are quite a few aspects of the Church’s life and ministry which are in conflict with this fundamental principle. I suspect that others may wish to add to the list I give below. Of course, in a short piece like this it is impossible to look at each issue in any detail. All I can do is limit myself to some brief comments on each.

Lay participation

Words like co responsibility, collaborative ministry, consultation, shared decision-making have become common parlance in the wake of Vatican II. However, they tend to be more honoured in word than in actual practice. Ladislas Orsy SJ, a canon lawyer of international repute, made the following comment about the way the laity are excluded: “You could put it this way: They can say something, they even have a right to, but there is no way of making sure that they will be listened to. The new code uses fine expressions that can be interpreted in various ways. The practice, however, after the publication of the new code, is not to admit the laity into any kind of decision-making processes, and consequently not to use the sacra potestas (sacred power) that is given to the people of God at large by the Holy Spirit and that every single Christian shares. In fact, recent canonical literature has developed the custom of speaking about the ‘sacred power’ as if it belonged to the episcopal body exclusively. This is poor theology. The bishops’ ministerial power is holy, but it does not equal the immensely rich and sacred gifts given to the whole Church.” (America, 7/10/1995, p.12)

Some years ago Yves Congar showed that the term magisterium has suffered a similar impoverishment to that of sacra potestas in the Church in recent centuries - and with similar consequences for wider participation in the magisterium. (cf. my New Directions in Moral Theology, London, Geoffrey Chapman, 1992, pp.140-141).

In his 1988 Cardinal Heenan Memorial Lecture delivered a few days before his death, the writer Paul Sieghart concluded a very positive over-view of the Catholic Church’s involvement in promoting human rights by complaining that the Church “has not yet even begun to practise what it has so forcefully preached for 25 years and more in the matter of human rights”. (cf. The Month, 1989, February, p.51) This is part of the same wider picture.

There has been some progress in lay participation, it cannot be denied, but there is still a long way to go.

General Absolution

A good friend of mine, the late Father Hugh Lavery, a much-revered theological thinker and speaker, used to say that the prime form of the sacrament of reconciliation was its communal rather than its individual form. This is because, as human persons, we are essential relational, interdependent and social beings. Human sin of its very nature has a communal dimension to it.

Solidarity in sin is a condition which affects each of us. Reconciliation is not just about individuals making their peace together. It is also about eradicating the structures of sin which are the root cause of some much evil and injustice in our world. As the recent “Make Poverty History” campaign makes clear, this reconciling work lies beyond the capacity of isolated individuals. In more traditional terminology, our purpose of amendment, to be effective, will often need to be communal if it is to be truly personal.


Our current normative practice of excluding from the eucharist (with some apparently grudging exceptions) seems to many to fly in the face of our deepest human instincts. For many years I have felt that in time to come we will look back on our current practice and wonder how we could have possibly behaved in such an inhuman fashion.

To invite someone to share our table and encourage him or her to share fully in all the companionship and table-talk and then deny that person any share in the meal itself would seem to be an extraordinary thing to do. All the more so when we are not actually the host at the table. And especially so when the host is notorious for welcoming everyone at his table and has actually caused scandal by the kind of company he keeps.

To accept an “open table” approach to the eucharist would mean moving from an attitude of toleration to one of appreciating the gift of difference: If the Church claims to be a sacrament of the unity of the human family, the eucharist should not be a meal at which the presence of outsiders is tolerated within certain strict limits, but a meal at which their presence is treasured and accepted as a gift. Communion will be more truly communion. A Benedictine friend of mine makes the point. “Perhaps the power and fire the eucharist contains as the breaking of the Lord’s body has to be thrown open to the world and all Christians so that no one is excluded who does not chose to be... For Christians it would be the bread of pilgrims searching for unity rather than a celebration by the few of a unity they believe they already possess. Perhaps the destruction of the temple of One Bread, One Body is needed if the real Body of the Lord is to be given shape in the world today.”

Divorced and remarried

Accepting the primacy of the person principle might radically alter our approach to many people who have suffered the painful trauma of marriage breakdown and found healing and new life in a second marriage. It could mean welcoming them as fully participant members of the family and dispelling their understandable, though mistaken, feelings of being second-class due to some kind of unforgivable sin. In an unpublished paper, a theologian-friend puts this point very forcefully: “The idea that a past broken relationship (e.g. divorce-remarriage) should bar a person from the very sacrament whose purpose is to heal wounds and rebuild life seems as perverse and blind as the criticism of Jesus by the Pharisees of a miracle of healing performed on the Sabbath.”

Birth control

Giving primacy to the human person might free couples facing decisions about birth regulation. No longer would they be given the impression that the natural processes of their bodies are sacred and absolute inviolable and take precedence over their own personal needs, as well as those of any existing or future children. Hence, they would feel able to look together at all the factors involved which affect them deeply at the personal level.

For instance, how will any method chosen affect their love as life giving towards each other, helping them to feel truly loved and respected by each other? How reliable is it? Is it a method in which they carry a shared responsibility or does it put all the responsibility on either husband or wife? Does it involve a health hazard or even a bodily mutilation for either of them? Is it permanent or can they change their decision later?

Of course, all the above assumes that a couple are in a relationship of mutuality and equality. Sadly, that is not always the case. There are additional factors to be considered in an HIV/AIDS scenario in some developing countries where the relationship might be very oppressive to the woman.

If it is the husband who is HIV positive and he demands intercourse as his right from his wife, sexual ethics must make it crystal-clear that this is not his right. He has no right to endanger the health of his wife in this way. She has every right to refuse him, unless he is prepared to take adequate precautions. Obviously, in such a situation, it may be very difficult, even dangerous, for a wife to refuse her husband. To do so could put her at risk in a different way, as a result of her husband's violence towards here.

A scenario likes this presents a pastoral challenge to the Church on a number of fronts:

  • The Church's earlier understanding implicitly legitimated this kind of behaviour and attitude on the part of a husband. Today we recognize that this violates the Church's own criterion of the dignity of the human person. Hence, every effort needs to be made to disabuse both husbands and wives of this earlier understanding and so reduce the harm it is still causing, especially to women, within marriage.

  • The criterion of the dignity of the human person means that, if a wife feels she has to agree to sex in the kind of scenario envisaged above, any Church official who told her that it would better if her husband did not use a condom would be perpetrating a serious injustice against her.

Once again, the dignity of the human person is paramount. This exposes the inhumanity of turning Œno condoms∂ into a moral absolute. In some instances, condom-use is actually saving life rather than preventing birth.

Virtue of “epikeia”

Some years ago the National Conference of Priests asked me to submit a short brief pre-conference reflection paper on the gap between certain Church laws or moral rules and what many priests believed to be demanded by the true good of persons in their pastoral care. In it I draw attention to an attitude of mind (actually called a “virtue” by Aquinas) which enables a person to discern between the general good envisaged by a particular law (or even a moral principle) and the demands of the particularities of a specific situation and their bearing on the good of the persons involved. (“Pastoral Care and Church Law: Mind the Gap”, chapter 4 in my, From a Parish Base, London, DLT, 1999, pp.69-74)

Epikeia, the technical name for this virtue, is sometimes denigrated as providing a soft option in any difficult situation. In reality, the very opposite can be true. The Sabbath healings by Jesus were no soft option. They actually lie at the root of His eventual judicial murder. Many find epikeia attractive precisely because it rings so true to the basic attitude of Jesus Himself.

I could go on and on with examples of how deeper respect for this gospel-inspired primacy of the human person principle at the heart of Vatican II would dramatically change life in the Church. For instance, a good friend of mine keeps reminding me that most preaching and spirituality in the Church is too “sacral”. It bypasses the everyday lives of people. In a recent e-mail she wrote: “I fear that unless the Church gets to its centre something about the lay agenda - how to support the primary vocation of being a spouse/partner, a parent, a worker, a friend, increasingly a single person, a human person born to enjoy and contribute to the wonder of creation and try to help make that possible for others - it will become an increasingly cultic institution divorced from the reality of the day and where people are finding life. I’m afraid mass often feels like that to me and to lots of others I know. I think we need contemplative space to process and reflect on and make meaning of the difficult things that are happening within and around us, and some focus on promoting friendship and passion and intimacy and enjoyment for all of the possibilities that life has to offer - and some focus on all this when we gather at Sunday mass.”

Wider remit

I am conscious that the particular issues I have raised are all to do with the Church’s life and ministry. There is a much wider agenda which must be equally the concern of the Church. However, it is important that the Church’s life and ministry bears witness to the gospel-values it is trying to share with others.

Timothy Radcliffe, another contributor to this book, got it about right in his words to the 2002 National Conference of Priests: “When Jesus ate and drank with tax collectors and prostitutes, it was not a duty. It was utter delight in their company, in their very being. When He touched the untouchable, it was not a clinical gesture, but the hug of joy. It belongs to our priesthood that we rejoice in the very existence of people, with all their fumbling attempts to live and love, whether they are married or divorced or single, whether they are straight or gay, whether their lives are lived in accordance with Church teaching or not. The Church should be a community in which people discover God’s delight in them.”

Because I say so

Accepting the primacy of the human person principle would pull the carpet from under all those non-person considerations which, in their claims to absoluteness, too often operate as conversation-stoppers in any debate. As the Quebec bishops put it so succinctly, “nothing can be imposed simply by authority”. In other words, any specific exercise of authority needs to be justified not simply on the grounds that any human society needs authority, but on much more specific grounds relating to this specific exercise of authority. “Because I say so” might be the last court of appeal for a frantic parent. It is certainly not good enough for a community claiming to follow one who defined authority precisely in terms of service.

I am not advocating that every exercise of authority should be rejected and disobeyed unless it can be proved to be manifestly for the good of all the persons concerned. Far from it. What I am suggesting is closer to the view of Aquinas. He presents obedience as the virtue of cooperation for the common good. Cooperation does not mean unquestioning obedience. Rather it may well demand questioning obedience - and occasionally even faithful disobedience.

Once again, Vatican II’s approach to the human person can provide an important safeguard here. Each person may be unique, but we are not simply isolated individuals. We are essentially relational and interdependent as persons. Even the word “conscience” has a communal and social dimension to it. It literally means “knowing with”.

Discerning the truth is not an individualistic process. It involves attentive listening as well as honest speaking. It means tuning in to the story of our shared pilgrimage as well as listening to our fellow-pilgrims today.

Cardinal Hume brought out this communal and social dimension of the human person very beautifully in a lecture he gave in 1998: “It has been well said that ‘I’ needs ‘we’ to be really ‘I’. We are persons in relationships; we are better persons as those loving relationships grow. We share a common humanity. We share too a common home, and respect the natural world and other creatures.” (Briefing, 18/6/98, p.9)

Vatican III?

As I reach the end of this essay, I have become more aware of a deeper reason why I am instinctively opposed to any suggestion of the need for a Vatican III at the outset of the papacy of Benedict XVI. I believe that the Church is not yet ready for the glorious grace and life-giving inspiration that Vatican III could be. If we as Church really succeed in growing out of Vatican II in the way we have been considering, the whole Church will be in listening mode, ready for Vatican III, open to hearing God’s Spirit from whatever quarter that Spirit speaks to us.

Listening implies openness to learn from and be enriched by others. Listening can be a painful process too. For the Church to be prepared for that, a major sea change is still needed in the so-called magisterium as well as in the members of the Church at large. For the former, that means much more profound listening both before any teaching activity and after - a good conversation needs to keep on going. For the rest of the Church, much greater confidence in the value of their own experience is needed as well as the willingness to share this with others. Otherwise, they will continue to be excluded from the conversation. A laity-excluding council would not be worthy of the name Vatican III.

To end on a hopeful note, in a sermon prior to the 1980 National Pastoral Congress, when people challenged him with “aren’t you afraid of calling together 3000 Catholics to a three-day meeting with such an open agenda?”, Archbishop Derek Worlock said his reply was always: “Don’t you believe in the Holy Spirit?”


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