Vatican II: The Optimism of John XXIII

Blessed Pope John XXIII

Fifty years ago today, one of the most momentous events in the life of the Catholic Church took place.  Attentive to the “signs of the times” as he was, Pope John XXIII officially opened the Second Vatican Council.  Others more astute than I have commented at length about the importance of this day and the event that so deeply affected the experience of millions of Catholics around the world. Nonetheless, there is no Catholic alive today who hasn’t felt the impact — whether he/she is aware of it or not — of that Council.

Pope John’s complete opening remarks are worth reading and absorbing.  Parts of those remarks  somehow sound even more relevant to the Church in 2012 as they must have sounded to the Church in 1962.

In the daily exercise of Our pastoral office, it sometimes happens that We hear certain opinions which disturb Us—opinions expressed by people who, though fired with a commendable zeal for religion, are lacking in sufficient prudence and judgment in their evaluation of events. They can see nothing but calamity and disaster in the present state of the world. They say over and over that this modern age of ours, in comparison with past ages, is definitely deteriorating. One would think from their attitude that history, that great teacher of life, had taught them nothing. They seem to imagine that in the days of the earlier councils everything was as it should be so far as doctrine and morality and the Church’s rightful liberty were concerned.

We feel that We must disagree with these prophets of doom, who are always forecasting worse disasters, as though the end of the world were at hand.

Yves Congar: “Motives of conscience and conviction”

While exploring the recently found blog of theologian Joseph Komonchak, “In verbo veritas” I came upon this gem from the journal of the late Yves Cardinal Congar, OP. Père Congar, a great advocate of ecumenism and influential theologian at the Second Vatican Council, wrote this in his journal:

Experience and history have taught me that one must always protest when motives of conscience or conviction call for it. Undoubtedly this incurs some unpleasantness, but something always remains from it”; Congar, Mon Journal, p. 14 (as quoted in an unpublished paper of Joseph Komonchak on the initial work of Vatican II’s Preparatory Theological Commission)

“Undoubtedly this incurs some unpleasantness”… Indeed!

I don’t know Congar’s writings very well, so I don’t know whether the understatement here is intentional. But, knowing that he was a man who had personally experienced the heavy hand of Church authority, Père Congar’s choice of words makes the point all the more poignantly. Perhaps this phrase jumped out at me because I find myself so frequently facing situations that challenge my conscience and convictions. I recently saw a Facebook post which ostensibly promoted drug testing for recipients of “welfare.” (By the way, at the federal level at least, there is no  program called “welfare.” The federal programs that support the poor and needy are Temporary Assistance for Needy Families [TANF] and Supplemental Security Income [SSI] for the disabled). Upon seeing the post, my immediate reaction was to think, What tests did Jesus require before he fed the multitudes or otherwise served the poor and needy? What offended me most was not so much the issue itself — after all, any issue about which people disagree is legitimate fodder for discussion and debate.  No; what bothered me was the tone of disrespect and judgment. I suppose just having heard presidential candidate Mitt Romney state that he wasn’t concerned “for the very poor” didn’t help, but I have to wonder why so many of us — many of us who claim to be Christian — have such antipathy toward the very ones whom Jesus most frequently lifted up.

Joseph Ratzinger on Conscience and Papal Authority

“Over the Pope as expression of the binding claim of ecclesiastical authority, there stands one’s own conscience which must be obeyed before all else, even if necessary against the requirement of ecclesiastical authority [emphasis added]. This emphasis on the individual, whose conscience confronts him with a supreme and ultimate tribunal, and one which in the last resort is beyond the claim of external social groups, even the official Church, also establishes a principle in opposition to increasing totalitarianism.”

Joseph Ratzinger in: Commentary on the Documents of Vatican II ,Vol. V., pg. 134 (Ed) H. Vorgrimler, New York, Herder and Herder, 1967.