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Vol 38 No 1


Frank Fletcher MSC

Neil Brown

Veronica Lawson RSM

Peter Price

Matthew C Ogilvie

Kevin Mark


Vatican II in hope and memory:


THE CHURCH MUST be forever building, for it is forever decaying within and attacked from without…’ (T.S. Eliot, The Rock).

TS Eliot penned these words in 1934, in a rather different context from ours. There is nonetheless a sense in which they speak to the Catholic Christian experience of Church in our time. Many of us grew to adulthood in a church that was forever wary of attack from without- real or imaginary. We live now in a Church that is beginning to notice and to address the signs of decaying within. Eliot’s architectural metaphor with its Pauline echoes still has power even if the metaphor’s referent has undergone a momentous change. For most Catholics, the catalyst for change was Vatican II.

This reflection is about Vatican II in hope and memory. It is an invitation to look back and to re-member the past, but to look back in hope as we face an unmapped future. First, I offer a word about memory in this context. I then address the invitation to look back under the rubric of power: the unquestionable power of Vatican II and the structures of power that have functioned to release or to constrain that power. The topic is vast and the space is short. I focus therefore on what I consider to be three key features of Vatican II: 1) the church as the people of God; 2) the biblical renewal; and 3) the church’s new engagement with the world. Finally, I ask about the sources for hope and the sense in which we can speak of hope some 40 years after the Second Vatican Council. The nuances of some of the issues raised will remain for the reader to consider and explore, as this short reflection allows only for a ‘broad-sweep’ treatment of the topic.

Every worshipping Christian knows that memory is an integral part of our heritage: the rituals at the heart of our Christian tradition are based on the deep conviction that all the power of the originating event is present in the act of re-membering, in the re-telling of the communal story. Our Eucharistic celebration is in a very real sense a story-telling event, a time of re-membering, and this is true not only of the liturgy of the word but also of the liturgy of the Eucharist (On the night before he died…). For the richness of this aspect of our tradition, as for so much else, we are indebted to our Jewish sisters and brothers. From time to time, we rightly remember the event that was Vatican II, and in the remembering, the re-telling, we access once again some of the power of that event. The analogy with the Eucharistic celebration, like all analogies, falls short, but is nonetheless valid, for Catholics everywhere have been shaped and are still being shaped by the power that was released in that event.

Our re-membering, or mine at least, is tinged with a degree of disappointment that much of the promise of Vatican II is yet to be realised. Our re-membering is likewise tempered by the recognition that memory is a two-edged sword. Looking back and remembering, we see those who found the changes that came with Vatican II to be frightening, even overwhelming: some are no longer part of any church; others have found membership in other traditions; yet others put their energies into minimising if not attempting to neutralise the effects of Vatican II. We also tap into the pain of those who have not been heard during this period of our history, the pain of those who have gone unnoticed or been discounted, and of those whose experience of the church is one of dealing with the effects of serious and scandalous abuse. Few would deny that we live in a time of crisis. If we were entirely without hope for the future of the church, however, I suspect we would not be exploring these issues. More of what informs the hope that is mine should emerge by the end of this reflection.

The Power of Vatican II and the Structures of Power: The Church as the People of God (Lumen Gentium).

My sense is that the most significant insight of Vatican II was the recognition that the church is the People of God.

All those who in faith look towards Jesus, the author of salvation and the principle of unity and peace, God has gathered together and established as the Church, that it may be for each and everyone the visible sacrament of this saving unity. Destined to extend to all regions of the earth, it enters into human history, though it transcends at once all times and all racial boundaries.’ LG 9

Lumen Gentium reiterates the teaching of almost two millennia on the hierarchical nature of the church, but it resituates that teaching, addressing in the first instance the mystery of the church and then the church as the People of God. The power of Vatican II for many Catholics was in the recognition that all the baptised are indeed ‘the church’. I quote the words of Jane, a contemporary of mine who was a student at Melbourne University in the mid-sixties:

I was not a nun and I couldn’t be a priest, so there was nothing special about me as a Catholic. Then, with all the hype about Vatican II in the media and in the air, there was so much hope and some pride in being Catholic, and that was new. Now, for the first time I thought of myself as the church and of myself as someone who could make a contribution to what the church was on about, beyond simply being constrained by the restrictive teachings of a pope and bishops somewhere up there. That may seem trivial, but it was very real for me. We got involved in ways we had never done before. We thought less about saving our individual souls and began to think about the communal dimensions of church and about our responsibilities to the wider community.

My friend Jane who looked back on the power of Vatican II and reflected in these terms has taught in government and Catholic schools, and has had opportunities for some formal study of theology. Together with her husband and three children, she has maintained quite active links with parish although she sometimes wonders why she ‘hangs in there’. She reflects further:

The disillusionment set in quite quickly. The first sign of erosion [of the notion that the church was the people of God] was Humanae Vitae. I have to admit there was much that was good in that document which we studied in our little home group. The problem for me was that the listening seemed to have stopped almost before it began. In retrospect, I think this had something to do with the vision of John XXIII and the caution of Paul VI. Things are different now. Before Vatican II, it was not easy to be a Catholic, but I was never ashamed of my faith. Now there are times when I have to say I dread meeting some of my disaffected friends who draw my attention to yet another Church scandal exposed in the media.

Jane’s perception was that ‘the listening seemed to have stopped.’ The example she uses is the encyclical Humanae Vitae and the processes around its appearance. I want to suggest that it may not have been so much the ‘listening’ in this and other instances as ‘the capacity to hear’ on the part of those with the authority to effect change and to sustain the vision expressed in LG. The result is that when Catholics use the word Church today they are invariably imaging the pope and/or the bishops and/or the ordained clergy, more frequently the former than the latter. While some lay Catholics are taking their power as ‘church’, most of those who have stayed around to reflect on the issue do not see themselves included in any significant way.

With some slight modifications, the structures of power function as they have for centuries: decisions are made and are seen to be made by ‘the hierarchy’ while the role of all other baptised Catholics is to comply, often without question. In other words, the structures of power in the church frequently function as domination, not as ‘power with’ in the spirit of the gospel. Inappropriate exercise of power and lack of transparency has created a climate of distrust and loss of cohesion. If the ecclesiology of Vatican II is to be fully received, then the structures of power must change. To my mind, this will happen if we work together towards an understanding of authority that is grounded more in prophetic leadership than in ‘position’ or status, and exercised more in gospel justice, respect, and openness than in control. Transparent processes need to replace the all too pervasive climate of secrecy and cover-up. Such processes would not in any way diminish the legitimate exercise of papal and episcopal authority, but would rather enhance it.

Some steps have been taken in this direction to deal with issues of sexual abuse by clergy and other church personnel. There is still need to develop processes that are more open and just to deal with this and other issues.1 A situation of particular urgency concerns challenges to orthodoxy in teaching. Allegations frequently come from those who have had difficulty with the changing culture of the post-Vatican II church. Some allegations are heard and acted upon without due process. The identity of the accuser and judge can be protected while the accused is condemned without trial and sometimes without explanation. Not to address such questions about the malfunctioning of the structures of power in our church is to risk a growing contempt for power and authority, further ecclesial alienation, and an identification of ‘church’ with ‘hierarchy’.2 ‘The Church must be forever building, for it is forever decaying within….’

Biblical Renewal
Another power-filled feature of Vatican II was the implicit authorisation it gave to the popular biblical renewal that had been gaining momentum over the two decades since the publication of Pius XII’s encyclical of 1943, Divino Afflante Spiritu. As one of my Mercy sisters expressed it, ‘The opening up of the bible to Catholics has been the most momentous and formative change in the post-Vatican church.’ This has been my own experience.

In those heady days of the Vietnam moratorium and student demonstrations, I was being introduced to critical biblical scholarship by the professors from the Redemptorist studentate in Wendouree, just out of Ballarat. There was no question of formal qualifications for such studies, simply the satisfaction of a thirst to move more deeply into the mysteries of the word of God. I learned my Greek and Hebrew verbs and vocabulary while the boarders at St Martin’s in the Pines, Mt Clear, ate their breakfast. The one hundred and fifty Year 11 and 12 boarders had less need of meal supervision than I had of those languages, though I was not to know where that informal study would lead me over the subsequent decades. None of the formal studies in theology and scripture and the ministry of the word that followed would have been possible for me as a woman in the church without the impetus that Vatican II gave to the study of the bible (to a large extent a formalising of developments since Divino Afflante Spiritu) and to the opening up of religious life (although that is another question beyond the scope of this article).

In the late seventies and into the eighties, parish bible study groups using programs that were informed by serious scholarship nourished the lives of church communities across the globe. Lay Catholics became increasingly more biblically literate. In the scholarly world, old borders were breached and boundaries were crossed in the field of biblical interpretation and in its engagement with other disciplines.3 Catholics, including lay Catholics, had a freedom to participate in this movement in ways that were unthinkable in the first decades of the twentieth century. The power of the biblical movement has, for the most part, been sustained and expanded to an astonishing degree by ecclesial structures of power, even in the face of forces within the church that struggle for a return to literalist even fundamentalist readings of the biblical text.

Hearing the joys and the hopes…of the people of this age.

I turn now to a third feature of Vatican II, the church’s engagement with the world and the recognition of the action of God’s Spirit in the world. The opening paragraph of Gaudium et Spes expressed a new vision and a new hope:

The joys and the hopes, the griefs and the anxieties of the people of this age, especially those who are poor or in any way afflicted, these are the joys and hopes, the griefs and anxieties of the followers of Christ (GS 1).

When that statement was published in December 1965, I for one had only just learned that the indigenous people of Australia were not even counted in the census. I remember my response to the GS statement. I thought that the griefs and the anxieties of the people of this age were my griefs and anxieties. Along with the vast majority of my contemporaries in this country I had little idea of the situation in my own land let alone that of the people of this age.

In his 1998 verse novel Freddy Neptune, Les Murray presents a hero struggling with the question of those he must forgive if he is to get a heart.4 Freddy answers his own questioning: ‘Forgive the aborigines. What have I got to forgive? They never hurt me.’ He finds his answer: ‘For being on our conscience….’ But there’s more: ‘Forgive the Jews, my self said….Forgive women…all women, it said.’ The irony is palpable. Perhaps the aborigines, the Jews, and all the women were on the consciences of some in the immediate aftermath of Vatican II. They were certainly not on our collective conscience, any more than the ailing earth was on our minds. In recent decades, the rights of indigeneous peoples have been espoused by church leadership in this country and globally. Acceptance of such leadership has been mixed. There is still much to be learnt and the learning will only happen if we stop to listen and to hear.

‘Forgive the Jews!’ The irony is almost too heavy to bear. Vatican II re-articulated the relationship between Christianity and Judaism in terms that were more respectful than had been the case in the past. The prevailing ecclesial wisdom of the time was nonetheless successionist in its attitudes to Judaism. Recognition of the Jewishness of Jesus and the Jewishness of the reign of God movement in its beginnings was to dawn only gradually on Christian consciousness in the final decades of the 20th century. We are still struggling to come to terms with its implications.

‘Forgive women…all women,’ says Freddy, with the same dramatic irony. Expressions of the women’s movement that emerged in the sixties were considered mildly embarrassing at best in church circles and dangerous at worst. In a recently published study of women, the papacy and social justice, Camille Paul has demonstrated that papal statements about women are consistently informed by an outdated anthropology that affirms the male as the standard of humanity and the female as the other.5 Women are depicted in church documents primarily as wives, mothers, and housekeepers. Even women religious are spiritual mothers. Terms like complementarity and equal but different serve to reinforce the otherness of women in relation to the male norm. Paul concludes her study with the words:

[I]f the church is to be relevant to women in the twenty-first century, then the theological anthropology concerning women, their ‘nature,’ and their limited role in human affairs-a religious anthropology propounded by a handful of influential men, and belonging to the same category as belief in a flat earth-must, in the name of justice, be abandoned. It is imperative that the full and equal personhood of both men and women, with accompanying rights and dignity, be acknowledged…for true social justice to be preached to the world.6

The story of women in the post-Vatican church is a story of one step forward and one step back. There is no denying the power of the data that emerged from the inquiry into the participation of women in the Australian Catholic Church. It is probably too soon to know whether or not the structures established to address the findings of that inquiry will facilitate a significant way forward. The constraints imposed by papal teaching on the place of women in the church can only function as a powerful deterrent to any substantive change.

Church leaders have often condemned the manipulations of what John Pilger calls ‘the new rulers of the world.’7 Church leadership has frequently facilitated a common voice for many of the suffering peoples of our world (refugees, asylum seekers, victims of war and oppressive regimes, those experiencing hunger and starvation). In this country, through the 2002 Social Justice Statement, it has appealed to us all to hear the cries of the suffering earth and to learn from our indigenous sisters and brothers new ways of relating to the earth.8

That same leadership has not, however, been as attentive as it might have been to the ways in which the structures of the Church oppress its members. The hopes and anxieties of those on the edge of the church community, and of those it has alienated, must become the hopes and anxieties of church leadership and church membership at every level. For this to happen, we need to open the channels of communication and make known to each other our hopes, our joys, our fears and our anxieties. We need to listen and, more importantly, we need to expand our capacities to hear and to respond.

And so I return to T.S. Eliot: ‘Where is the Life we have lost in living?’ asks the Chorus in the opening lines of The Rock. There was life and life-giving power in Vatican II. Its vision of the Church as the people of God brought hope to those within. The biblical renewal opened the Word to its members and created new bonds with the Jewish community and with other Christian Churches. A new openness to the world created a new consciousness and initiated a process towards healing the hurts of centuries. The life and the power of Vatican II will not be ‘lost in living’ if ecclesial structures of power and church members can learn to function in a spirit of openness and mutual respect for the full humanity of every person and for the sacredness of life in all its manifestations. ‘The Church must be forever building [bridges]…’ if it is to become what it is.

Veronica Lawson is a Sister of Mercy and Senior Lecturer in Theology at Aquinas Campus of Australian Catholic University, Ballarat. She lectures in biblical studies, feminist interpretation, and women and the Church.


1. William J. Bausch, Breaking Trust: A Priest Looks at the Scandal of Sexual Abuse (Mystic, CT: Twenty-Third Publications, 2002), passim.
2. See comments of Dominican Thomas Doyle reported in Chuck Colbert, ‘Church in Crisis: 4,000 Meet to Give Laity a Voice,’ National Catholic Reporter Cover Story. http://www.natcath.org/crisis/080202a.htm. Accessed 011002.
3. See, for instance, Martin O’Kane, Borders, Boundaries and the Bible (Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 2002), 1-4.
4. Les Murray, Freddy Neptune (Sydney: Duffy & Snellgrove, 1998), 264.
5. Camille Paul, Equal or Different? Women, the Papacy and Social Justice (Mulgrave: John Garrett, 1999).
6. Paul, Equal or Different, 148-149.
7. John Pilger, The New Rulers of the World (London: Verso, 2002), 1-14.
8. Australian Catholic Social Justice Council, ‘A New Earth: The Environmental Challenge,’ in Australian Catholics (Spring 2002).

This is a slightly revised version of a paper reprinted with permission from the Australian E-Journal of Theology from the MacAuley Campus of Australian Catholic University (http://dlibrary.acu.edu.au/research/theology/ejournal/).