VATICAN II AND THE REST OF US…
Most Reverend Richard Clarke
In my undergraduate days in the late 1960s, one of the cult novels of the period (probably particularly in TCD in which much of it was based) was J P Donleavy’s The Beastly Beatitudes of Balthasar B. I hope you won’t think it is contrived if I look back as an affectionate outsider at the Second Vatican Council (also of the 1960s of course), not as a series of beastly beatitudes but as a source of truly inspirational beatitudes for a wider Christian Church, well beyond the frontiers of the Roman Catholic tradition. By a pleasant serendipity and with no real contortion, each of these beatitudes can also be thought of as beginning with that same letter, B. And I mean it when I say that I am thinking primarily of the impact – a continuing impact – of the Second Vatican Council on other Christian traditions, on their own self-understanding and also on their own individual relationships with one another and with the world, almost independently of the relationship they may happen to have with Roman Catholicism.
The first of these beatitudes represents not so much a change, but a vigorously expressed renewal and re-affirmation of a vibrant belief in what the Church actually is. The Church is the household of faith, of all the people of God, no longer to be thought of as a series of spiritual castes, but as a pilgrim people together, all of us pilgrims on a journey towards greater truth, greater understanding and greater love. The Council had of course to couple this with a total stated confidence in the inherited traditions of the Church, but the celebrated use of that carefully chosen word, “subsist”, in Lumen Gentium, section 8 was crucial, not only for the Roman Catholic Church and for ecumenical relationships, but also for other Christian traditions in their own understanding of the Church. As Lumen Gentium expresses it – “This Church [..defined at the opening of the section as “The Church of Christ which in the Creed is professed as one, holy, catholic and apostolic”..] constituted and organized in the world as a society, subsists in the Catholic Church, which is governed by the successor of Peter and by the Bishops in communion with him, although many elements of sanctification and of truth are found outside of its visible structure. These elements, as gifts belonging to the Church of Christ, are forces impelling toward catholic unity.”
I am not a Latinist to any degree, but the word subsist was and is a powerful yet nuanced word, implying a firm objective stationing of the Church of God in the Roman Catholic Church, and yet admitting that this was not the end of the matter. It is disappointing today to hear subsistit being either re-defined or re-crafted beyond any reasonable elucidation, or (worse still), being simply dismissed as one of the crass errors of Vatican II, leading the Church into the sin of relativism. In fact the present Pope, as Cardinal Ratzinger in 2000 (ironically as a follow-up to Dominus Iesus), expressed the matter carefully and helpfully – “The being of the Church as such is a broader entity than the Roman Catholic Church, but within the latter it acquires, in an incomparable way, the character of a true and proper subject.” This understanding of the Church in general, although deeply embedded in the ancient traditions of the Church (and fully consonant with any proper theology of the Kingdom of God) was a belief that had been overlaid and mislaid over centuries, and this crucial belief was indeed re-affirmed and re-established by Vatican II, true aggiornamento, a bringing up-to-date of traditional belief.
It has been a blessing to other traditions also, not in making us regard Roman Catholicism as the loadstone for objective Church, but as a way of seeing a confident assertion of one’s own Christian tradition in a way that is neither dismissive of others, nor exclusive in arrogance, nor relativistic. It also, as we know, opened the door to seeing men and women of other religious faiths as those with whom we must converse with reverence and humility. Nostra Aetate section 2 was radical indeed when it gave this advice: “The Church, therefore, exhorts her sons, that through dialogue and collaboration with the followers of other religions, carried out with prudence and love and in witness to the Christian faith and life, they recognize, preserve and promote the good things, spiritual and moral, as well as the socio-cultural values found among these men.” This has impacted well beyond the walls of the Roman Catholic tradition. It is now central in the life of other Christian traditions to regard inter-faith dialogue as part and parcel of our identity as followers of Jesus Christ. For that we should to a great degree be grateful to Vatican II.
Much of this leads seamlessly into a second beatitude, new behavioural patterns towards one another, that were far more than a mere increase in courtesy or politeness. In much of this island, behaviour between different traditions (and not simply between the Roman Catholic Church and the other Christian traditions, but between reformed traditions also) has, I believe, moved – slowly but surely – from well-bred if slightly uncomprehending civility to a more truly familial relationship. There was certainly some ill-considered if well-meaning hokum around in the heady and giddy days immediately following from Vatican II, along the lines of, “But sure, aren’t we all the same anyway?”, and this may have been less than helpful or productive. However it all quickly settled into a more mature perception that we must learn to understand that, although of different traditions, we have immensely more in common than anything that might separate us, and that any tiffs we might have with one another ought to dealt with as family spats rather than public firefights.
Again, this has not only affected behaviour between Roman Catholics and other Christians (and between the different reformed traditions), but also behaviour within our different traditions. It is not that there are not rows within our traditions – visit a meeting of the Church of Ireland General Synod if you’re in any doubt on this! – but I do believe that the contours have become different. This is partly due to the realisation that there are many people on this island who think that we church people are by definition deranged and dangerously so (and we do not wish to give them further evidence for this perception) but there is more to it than this. We have slowly begun to learn that if we as Christians do not model standards of mutual respect and generosity, we cannot expect anyone outside our walls to take us even remotely seriously. And the trouble is that they will not take the Gospel seriously either, and this will be to our eternal shame – probably literally, our eternal shame.
My third beatitude is perhaps the most predictable – the Bible. Although the myth that Roman Catholics were somehow not allowed to read the Scriptures until the Second Vatican Council is palpable nonsense, there can be no doubt that the Council did open flood gates on the matter, even (dare one suggest) beyond its intention? If one reads the Dogmatic Constitution Dei Verbum with care, it appears that although great encouragement was given for authorized scholars to study, translate and explore the scriptures, there was also a degree of concern that the scriptures needed careful mediation for the faithful. In the penultimate section (25) Dei Verbum gives warning as well as encouragement – “It devolves on sacred bishops ‘who have the apostolic teaching’ to give the faithful entrusted to them suitable instruction in the right use of the divine books, especially the New Testament and above all the Gospels. This can be done through translations of the sacred texts, which are to be provided with the necessary and really adequate explanations so that the children of the Church may safely and profitably become conversant with the Sacred Scriptures and be penetrated with their spirit”. In fact, many of the “children of the Church” quickly demonstrated that they wanted the scriptures for themselves. Not only did they wish to read the scriptures for themselves and in their own way, but they also wanted to talk to their neighbours of the reformed traditions about them.
If it was a myth that Roman Catholics knew nothing of the scriptures before the Vatican Council, it was a further myth among Catholics that any member of any reformed tradition axiomatically knew the scriptures backwards! Yes, I certainly grew up in a culture where, from a young age, regular reading of the Bible was seen as a bedrock for any serious Christian discipleship, but I also believe that the new enthusiasm for the scriptures evinced by Roman Catholics after the Council made other Christians realise that they were perhaps taking for granted something that was truly priceless. You may know that when a British Monarch is crowned, the Archbishop of Canterbury hands him or her a Bible with the words, “We present you with this Book, the most valuable thing that this world affords. Here is Wisdom; This is the royal Law; These are the lively Oracles of God”.
One would not wish to romanticise the impact of a new and more central place for the Scriptures on the psyche of the Roman Catholic Church, but there was certainly now a realisation and acceptance – one that has had huge ecumenical impact – that the Bible is a possession we hold entirely in common. The scriptures are not the property of any Christian tradition. And none of us can defend anything we do if the Bible is not somewhere “on our side”. I believe that those of us who belong to other Christian traditions were almost galvanised by the new wave of enthusiasm for the scriptures from our Roman Catholic neighbours that came with Vatican II into appreciating anew and afresh for ourselves the great reformed tradition and culture of love for the Scriptures.
Early last year, in the course of a sermon in St Patrick’s Catholic Cathedral in Armagh during the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, I urged that a simple ecumenical step we might take together as Christians would be that we would avoid studying the Bible in denominational isolation from one another. By this I meant that we would learn more of the ways of God and more of one another if we sat reverently together under the Scriptures. The scriptures are there for us to share with one another; confessional barriers are irrelevant. I will always remember my friend Archbishop Vincenzo Paglia (recently appointed as President of the Pontifical Council for the Family) saying that he never felt more a bishop than when he was studying and sharing the Word of God with his people. Immeasurably true, and it perhaps needs to be enlarged so that we can say that we are truly the Body of Christ when as people of different Christian traditions we are listening, studying and praying together under the Word of God.
If my first three beatitudes of Vatican II can be regarded as “work in progress” (to employ that rather over-cooked cliché), the fourth is a work in the very early stages of assemblage, and the fifth is a vision that is set before us perhaps more by Pope John XXIII than by the Council per se, but it is nevertheless one that we must grasp together as Christians.
Right at the heart of Lumen Gentium is the most glorious and radiant description of Baptism. The sacrament of Holy Baptism is of course Baptism into the Church, but Lumen Gentium explores deeper and wider than this, in what it has to say in that well-known passage that I believe one simply cannot re-read too often – Section 15. This says of those of other Christian traditions, “The Church recognizes that in many ways she is linked with those who, being baptized, are honored with the name of Christian, though they do not profess the faith in its entirety or do not preserve unity of communion with the successor of Peter. For there are many who honor Sacred Scripture, taking it as a norm of belief and a pattern of life, and who show a sincere zeal. They lovingly believe in God the Father Almighty and in Christ, the Son of God and Saviour. They are consecrated by baptism, in which they are united with Christ.” And later (although by no means out of context) in the same section – “They also share with us in prayer and other spiritual benefits. Likewise we can say that in some real way they are joined with us in the Holy Spirit, for to them too He gives His gifts and graces whereby He is operative among them with His sanctifying power. Some indeed He has strengthened to the extent of the shedding of their blood.” There is here a recognition not only of the glory of martyrdom among Christians of other traditions, but also of a unity we have with one another in the sanctifying power of the Holy Spirit, and the belief is further expressed that those who baptised, regardless of tradition, are thereby united with Christ. We are, I believe, only now – fifty years on – “unpacking” the implications of Holy Baptism as something that we must, dare I say, take a great deal more seriously in our western Christian culture, and that we must take seriously together.
We surely accept here that many of our people (even among those who are regular church-goers) simply do not grasp the enormity of what Baptism represents. We probably need to remind ourselves of this constantly. Recently, in the context of a paper I was preparing for an Anglican-Orthodox Commission, I found myself reading – and then quoting – the great Anglican theologian of the sixteenth century, Richard Hooker (who is, as you probably know, universally regarded as one of the giants of the Anglican theological tradition), and what he had to say about Baptism. Despite the fact that I have baptised many many children throughout my ministry, and I am myself the parent of two baptised young adults and the grandparent of one baptised infant, I have to confess that I found myself, not for the first time, almost mesmerised by the immensity of what Hooker has to say about Baptism (in, of course, Tudor English) – “Baptism is a Sacrament which God hath instituted in His Church, to the end that they which receive the same might be incorporated into Christ, and so through His precious merit obtain as well that saving grace of imputation which taketh away all former guiltiness, as also that infused Divine virtue of the Holy Ghost, which giveth to the powers of the soul their first disposition towards future newness of life.” If we believe what Hooker is saying, and of course also what our baptismal liturgies are saying (and I should assume that in this setting we all do), why do we not make vastly more of Baptism, and together?
I have made the suggestion many times – and in a number of contexts – that it would be a powerful symbol of the real nature of Holy Baptism that in so many ways actually transcends the divisions between different Christian traditions, if periodically (and a most suitable time would be the Easter Vigil) members of other Christian traditions were invited to be part of a baptismal ceremony, even if the particular candidate for baptism (and his or her parents) were all of one particular tradition. This compromises nothing, but it is a sign to the Church and to the world that Holy Baptism is bigger and greater than us, as individuals or as separated traditions. We continue to agonize and fret over Eucharistic hospitality or sharing but yet, when opportunity is presented to us within the other great Sacrament of the Gospel – Holy Baptism – we neglect the real and hugely powerful possibilities for shared evangelisation that are already there.
Virtually all that I have tried to say is encapsulated briefly in a fifth and final beatitude – the vocation of the whole Church of God to be a bridge – a golden bridge – from the world to God and from God to the world. Although this image of the bridge may sound commonplace, and it is certainly of the essence of what the Church has always been called to become, it was nevertheless given a massive impetus by the great sea-change that the Second Vatican Council represents. This was not the bridge-building of pontifex, which from classical times was of its nature hierarchical, but the bridge of all the People of God, called to serve God and to serve the world openly and lovingly.
It may indeed be that it is due as much the personality of Blessed John XXIII (“Good Pope John”, as much to those of us outside the Roman Catholic Church as to those of you within) as to the documents of the Council itself, but suddenly we all had the image of a Church that was unconcerned with holding the world at arm’s length or with scolding the world, and more concerned with loving the world, showing God to the world without fear, and bringing the world on a pilgrimage to the loving welcome of God, as companions rather than despots.
We all have a long way to go before that attitude of loving fearlessness becomes our default mode today, as it was for John XXIII. The Council was prepared to take risks and I have alluded to some of them, and being a bridge is a risky thing. It is much easier to be a scold, as we tell the world the many ways in which it has gone wrong, and how it should pay attention to us. It is also much easier to retreat into a bunker, where the world with all its wickedness will not be able to get at us or disturb us. It is difficult to be a bridge Church because we cannot then claim inviolability from the world. The Vatican Council calls us to listen openly and honestly to the world, if we are to engage with this world in a Christian spirit. And we will be changed by that. We might add that if we truly listen to the voice of the Spirit, with openness and honesty, we will be changed by that also. It was after all John Henry Newman (in whom, even though of different Christian traditions, we both have a share) who reminded us that “to live is to change, and to be perfect is to have changed often”. A bridge that is too rigid is prone to collapse.
I thank God for the Second Vatican Council, for it has given me a wider vision of the call of God to the Church, and also a new vision for each of us as individual Christian disciples. In your role and vocation as Dominic’s Preachers, I ask you to keep that hope and that flame alive – all God’s people and God’s whole world will be the beneficiaries.