Dallas, Texas, analyses the challenge which the Vatican Council poses to non-Catholics.
0NLY a cynic can any longer doubt that Vatican H represents a major effort at basic reform and renewal in the Roman Catholic Church. Pope John XXIII made this clear in his convocation of the Council—as also with his slogan, aggiornamento ("bringing the Church up to date"). Pope Paul VI reiterated this same theme, with Variations, in his opening address to the Second session (his first as Pope):
For reasons of brevity and better understanding, we enumerate here the four main objectives of this Council in four points: (1) the self-understanding of the Church: 0) its reform: (3) the bringing together of all Christians in unify: (4) the dialogue of the Church with the contem porary world. . .
The reform at xhich the Council is aiming is not a turning upside down of the Churrh's present way of life nor a breaking with what is essential in her tradition. Rather, it is the honouring of that tradition by stripping from it what is defective so that it may become more firm and fruitful.
These words have subsequently been echoed and reechoed, in St. Peter's and in the Catholic press, by leaders and followers. in a mounting chorus, The notions of reform and renewal have become both a passion and a hope for a great multitude of Roman Catholics around the modern world.
By the same token, Vatican TI is also a major experiment in ecumenicity. Already the traditional Roman policy of aloofness toward other Christians has begun to shift about to a
genuine openness. •
One evidence of this reversal has been the establishment of a permanent Secretariat forunPirtoy-; Christian amnoottihnegr, the welcoming into the Council itself of a sizeable corps of non-Catholic "observers". Yet another is their general and genuine acknowlAdgment of us "separated brethren" as Christian brethren
Concern for Christian unity was the strongest single motivation in the Pope's pilgrimage to Palestine. There cannot he many places left where the basic change in the ecumenical "weather-patterns" of CatholicProtestant relationships has gone unregistered.
All this being so, one would think that those who regard reform as a constant, vital principle in the life of the ongoing Church (and who are also professed advocates of Christian unity) would find in Vatican IT a ground of rejoicing and high hopes.
And so they have—many of them. It is not merely for its fuss and feathers that Vatican II is the most widely publicised event in the entire history of the Christian church.
It is all too true that there are many ardent optimists who refuse to recognise the enormous difficulties involved. They have expected too much. too soon, too easily. This way lies disenchantment.
'Yet, even so, thefe is a vast company of men of gold will in the world (and not just Christians, either) who have perceived (if only dimly) that if Vatican TI succeeds, the consequences may well be wonderful for the whole Christian cornmun its/. and for the world besides.
It is something of a scandal. therefore, that so many nonRoman reactionaries should have joined the Roman counterparts in viewing this conciliar experiment in reform with suspicion and distaste.
It was to have been expected that the die-hards in the Curia would have to he dragged over the thresholds of change. That is the normal fate of fossils. On the other side, it has also been natural enough for Protestant fundamentalists to stand firm in their loud detestations of "the Roman anti-Christ",
But it 'still raises my eyebrows to discover an implacable antiRoman bias among men of experience and stature in the ecumenical movement itself, And yet, a prominent member of the Faith and Order Commission of the World Council of Churches, in a recent ecumenical handbook, bluntly asserted: "All we can rightly learn from Rome is how not to be the Church."
It was the "Business Committee" of the Fourth World Conference on Faith and Order in Montreal last summer that beat down a proposal for a fraternal message from our Conference to the Vatican Council—and then an even more innocuous proposal that we send greetings to the Secretariat for Promoting Christian Unity.
It was a group of veteran ecumenists in Rome last fall who offended many liberal Catholics with their allegations of insincerity and self-deception in the Council—and who boycotted the Public Session held in commemoration of the 400th anniversary of. the Council of Trent !
It was an American "observer" who. before the recent winter meeting of the American
Historical Association, denounced the Church of Rome as an incorrigible papal absolutism, all protestations to the contrary notwithstanding Is it possible that such men are still so hitter about their ancient enmities that they will be glad if Vatican Ti fails?
Still. bias has its uses. In this case. these bigoted reactions remind us that, if Vatican II succeeds, the consequences will drastically upset the standing order in the contemporary Christian community.
Both Protestant and Orthodox Christians would then he confronted with an urgent and undeclinable challenge to reform their own ranks, or else . !
It would he a strange new world. indeed. if it is a reformed Church of Rome that forces the wrangling fragments of nonRoman Christendom to face up to the scandal of "our present unhappy divisions".
And yet. the Romans have already captured the initiative in the ecumenical movement and, at least for the time being, are setting the pace in the ecumenical dialogue
As just one example, consider what may happen to us Protestants as the new constitution On the Sacred Liturgy opens the way for radical liturgical reform amongst our Catholic brethren —with the prospect that their worship will become simpler and more intimate without being less solemn or realistic?
Will it then suffice for us to point to the myriad liturgical improvisations that we have produced in recent years—with motives more theatrical than theological? What if the Romans teach the world that the essence of worship is man's faithful response to God's immediate and real presence in a community of men and women who love each other as they have been loved by God in Christ? Our only legitimate reaction would have to he a hold venture in basic liturgical reform ourselves.
Again, what would happen to us if the final draft of the
schema On the Church marks a giant forward step in Roman Catholic ecclesiology—as it very well may? We have debated the nature of the church, in denominational and ecumenical conferences. for as long as I can remember—but the excellent things we have said have all too often been nullified by the actual effects of our sanctified divisioris and our doctrinal confusions.
Unless the Roman reactionaries succeed in scuttling this schema, both Protestants and Orthodox Christians may have to undertake a series of agonising reappraisals of our "place" and "mission" within the People of God. Why not?
In the course of the long dehates in St. Peter's, I was repeatedly astonished (and here my has kept breaking through!) to hear bishops say things about "the Word of God." "the people of God." "the priesthood of all believers," "the universal call to holiness"—that I could not classify except as "evangelical".
Moreover (in the Bar-Jonah, and elsewhere), I kept running into obviously able men who seemed vividly alert to the issues involved — more flexible in theological dialogue than any of the Orthodox theologians that I know, or even many of my Protestant colleagues.
I recall a lively, discussion between Hans Kung and George Linclbeck, in which Kung claimed that he took Luther more seriously as a theologian than did I.indheck—and Lindheck was a Lutheran "observer"!
Thus, in occasional idle moments, I have wondered what would happen to Christianity if the Roman Catholic Church did, in fact, bee'ome at least minimally evangelical without becoming hopelessly divisive in the process? it would chance every conventional posture of every Christian communion in the world.
Any such "danger" is still so slight that only the most fearful • of us need be disturbed as yet. The Roman traditionalists are not yet overwhelmed, by any means. The non-Roman pessimists will continue to dampen the atmosphere as much as possible.
Even the Roman "moderates" are still deeply rooted in and committed to their partisan historic heritage -while the moderates on "our side" will soon enough turn wary if we ever come to really serious talk about communio in .sacris (organic union).
God moves in mysterious ways his wonders to perform— this I know—but in none more Mysterious, nor more ironic than in this curious turn of affairs that makes it at least barely possible that the most significant reform movement in the Christian community in the last half of the twentieth century may occur in a .tradition supposed to he unreformed and irreformable !
Even if the final accounting of Vatican H is less momentous than i expect it to he —it can hardly fail to alter the basic terms in which Christians can henceforth consider "the nature of the unity we seek".
Thus, those of us who have no interest whatsoever in immediate church unity negotiations with Rome ought still to hope and pray that Vatican II succeeds— for the "trouble" that would come upon us as the consequence of a revitalised Catholicism would he "a visitation from the Lord," a gauntlet and gat=e that we could rightly welcome!
Copyright 1964. Reprinted front MOTIVE, May 1964 by kind permission.