The Revolutionary Event of Vatican II

How everything changed

 

There are two major tendencies in interpretation of Vatican Council II. The first, which currently dominates the Vatican, is that the council was an occurrence, a meeting of the bishops of the world who enacted certain reforms and clarified certain doctrines. This response and clarification were necessary but they did not drastically change the nature of the church. To find out what this occurrence meant-the "council rightly understood" of Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger-one must go to the conciliar documents. The second interpretation holds that the council was a momentous event, indeed one of the most dramatic and important events in the history of Catholicism, a structure-shattering event which one could almost call a revolution. This is the perspective which dominates a two-hour PBS special on the council, "Reflections on Vatican II," to be broadcast September 18. I began to ponder this debate after a conversation with a senior American prelate. He had remarked that the American bishops had made serious mistakes in their implementation of the council, but that they could not be blamed because they never had to implement a council before. I agreed, though I thought to myself I probably meant something different from what he did. While I can’t be sure because we didn’t pursue the subject, I thought he might have meant that they should have proceeded more slowly and cautiously, while I meant that they should not have tried to make so many changes in the church while asserting all along that nothing was changing. Then I discovered in the work of my friend and colleague Professor William Sewell, Jr., a model of social historical analysis (see, American Journal of Sociology, July 1992). It made me rethink the council and what it did and didn’t do. The council was, in fact, both an occurrence and an event. It is folly to pretend that the event did not occur or that it can be undone. To understand Catholicism today, one must recognize what has happened and work from there. I must note here that I wrote some time ago that with or without the council, the same changes would have occurred. Looking back on that statement, I must admit that it was not the most intelligent sentence I ever put on paper. No one knows what would have happened. But the fact is that there was a council (presumably in Catholic doctrine inspired by the Holy Spirit), and the church did go through enormous change. One must therefore strive to describe what happened. A theory of structures and events Let me give a brief account of Sewell’s work and then apply it to Vatican II. Sewell, who has a joint appointment at the University of Chicago in both history and political science, is concerned with structures and events, patterns of behavior and historical shifts that drastically reshape those patterns. He does not believe in "social laws," inexorable historical processes that direct the progress of human events. He writes: Sociology’s epic quest for social laws is illusory, whether the search is for timeless truths about all societies, ineluctable trends of more limited historical epochs, or inductively derived laws of certain classes of social phenomena. Social processes are inherently contingent, discontinuous, and open-ended. Sewell thus rejects the historical models of Weber, Durkheim, Marx, Comte, and all the others who find inexorable trends in human events, including implicitly those who babble today about postmodernism. His description of what actually happens in the "buzzing, blooming pluralism" of the human condition may seem like common sense, but it goes against what many sociologists and most pop sociologists believe. For the purposes of this essay it also goes against the vague intellectualism of many Catholic commentators who think they can discern the secrets of history and summarize them in a couple of clear and simple paragraphs. "Adequate eventful accounts of social process will look more like well-made stories or narratives than like laws of physics," argues Sewell. He uses what Robert Merton calls "middle-range" theories to account for contingent phenomena so he can determine why contingent events have such important and sometimes momentous impact on the structures of human existence. Sewell is also concerned with the "structures" of human behavior, that is, the routine patterns of human action. A structure, according to Sewell, is "the tendency of patterns of relationships to be reproduced even when actors engaging in the relations are unaware of the patterns or do not desire their reproduction." In contrast, an "event" is a series of historical occurrences that results in the durable transformation of structures. There are two dimensions of a structure, the schema-the pattern itself-and resources-the motivations and constraints that reinforce the schema and are in turn reinforced by it. Think of Catholics and the obligation of Sunday Mass. Sewell, who is not Catholic, gives this illustration: The priest’s power to consecrate the host derives from schemas operating at two rather different levels. First, a priest’s training has given him mastery of a wide range of explicit and implicit techniques of knowledge and self-control that enable him to perform satisfactorily as a priest. And second, he has been raised to the dignity of the priesthood by an ordination ceremony that, through the laying on of hands by a bishop, has mobilized the power of apostolic succession and thereby made him capable of an apparently miraculous feat-transforming bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ. Established and reinforced behavior patterns tend to be stable and durable. However, they can also change, either because of external forces or internal inconsistencies within structures themselves. A wartime defeat and devastation can savage the structures of a people, though in fact in many Western European countries after 1945, it seemed that the patterned and reinforced relationships were all that remained. The "fit" between resources and schemas is not so tight that inconsistencies, uncertainties, doubts, and conflicts cannot arise, more so under some sets of circumstances than in others. Ruptures may then occur in behavior patterns and motivations-a basketball team swarms off a court to protest a defeat or a referee’s decision that seems unfair. Such rupture events become historical events when they "touch off a chain of occurrences that durably transforms previous structures and practices." To paraphrase and rearrange Sewell’s argument, even the accumulation of incremental changes often results in a buildup of pressures and a dramatic crisis of existing practices, rather than a gradual transition from one state of affairs to another. Lumpiness, rather than smoothness, is the normal texture of historical temporality. And while the events are sometimes the culmination of processes long underway, they typically do more than simply carry out a rearrangement of practices made necessary by gradual and cumulative social change. Historical events tend to transform social relations in ways that could not be fully predicted from the gradual changes that may have made them possible. What makes historical events so important is that they reshape history by imparting an unforeseen direction to social development. Events, then, should be conceived of as sequences of occurrences that result in the transformation(s) of structures. Such sequences begin with a rupture of some kind-that is, a surprising break with routine practice. But whatever the nature of the initial rupture, an occurrence becomes a historical event only when it touches off a chain of occurrences that durably transform previous structures and practices. A structure-shattering event Sewell’s example of such a structure-shattering event is the storming of the Bastille in July 1789. Paris was on the edge that summer. The crown had run out of money. The Estates General had convened and constituted itself as a National Assembly. King Louis dismissed the liberal minister Necker, surrounded Paris with troops, and seemed ready to suppress the National Assembly. Underlying the growing tensions between the king and his supporters and the Enlightenment-influenced National Assembly was a sharp division on the nature of sovereignty. Prospects for the harvest seemed poor. Pamphlets and newspapers were flooding Paris with incendiary articles. Mobs ransacked the city. On the morning of July 14, representatives of this government and a mob went to the Hotel des Invalides to demand the arms that were stored there so that they could create a militia to defend the city against a possible attack by royal troops. They seized more than thirty thousand muskets and then moved to the Bastille to find gunpowder. After a bitter fight in which more than a hundred of the attackers were killed, they captured the fort, released the seven prisoners (forgers and madmen), killed two government officials, and paraded their heads around Paris on pikes. There had been urban riots in Paris before, and the battle for the Bastille was not a militarily important one; but within three days the king had recalled Necker, removed the troops around Paris, and come to Paris to submit, in effect, to the wishes of the National Assembly. At first the Assembly condemned the violence at the Bastille, and indeed all political violence. But within two weeks, Sewell writes, they had changed their mind: In the excitement, terror, and elation that characterized the taking of the Bastille, orators, journalists, and the crowd itself seized on the political theory of popular sovereignty to explain and justify the popular violence. This act of epoch-making cultural creativity occurred in a moment of ecstatic discovery: the taking of the Bastille, which had begun as an act of defense against the king’s aggression, revealed itself in the days that followed as a concrete, unmediated, and sublime instance of the people expressing its sovereign will. What happened at the Bastille became the establishing act of revolution in the modern sense. By their action at the Bastille, the people were understood to have risen up, destroyed tyranny, and established liberty. Within a month other structure-shattering events followed: the abolition of feudal exactions, provincial and municipal privileges, exclusive hunting rights, and tithes, and the confiscation and eventual sale of the vast properties of the church. The storming of the Bastille, now a culturally defined event, led to the utter transformation of the structures of French society in an outburst of exuberant creativity. The Old Regime would linger on at least until 1830 in one fashion or another. But the New Regime had in fact replaced it. Would the political and social development of the then largest and most powerful country of Europe have been different if that event had not occurred? Did there have to be a revolution and then the bloody wars which lasted until 1815? Was the development on balance good or bad? Might a more peaceful evolutionary transformation of power have been less traumatic for France? There are many answers to such questions, and indeed the politics of France for two centuries have been, in part, a battle between those who accept the revolution and those who in some sense do not. But the important point in Sewell’s analysis is that the storming of the Bastille, once interpreted as a revolutionary, momentous event, shattered and eventually replaced the social, political, and religious structures of France. Vatican II I now propose to apply Sewell’s model to Vatican II, and to argue that while the council’s various documents, either singly or taken together, are not of themselves the cause of the shattering of structures in the Catholic church, the council as (irrevocably) interpreted was, in addition to and beyond its decisions, a historical event of enormous importance for the church, perhaps the most momentous in its history. I will consider three structures of twentieth-century Catholicism that shaped the Catholic institution: the centralization of power in the Vatican; the post-Tridentine understanding of sin; and the immutability of the church. Prior to Vatican II, it was assumed that decision making flowed downward, and that those who disagreed with the pope or any higher church leaders were no longer Catholic. It was further assumed that the primary goal for a good Catholic was the salvation of his or her soul, a goal that could be attained by avoiding sins or, once committed, by confessing them in species and number. It was finally assumed that the church could not change, had not changed, and would never change. These "schemas," reinforced by such "resources" as theories of the divine origin of the church and papal infallibility, set the parameters of Catholicism inside the world views of the Counter Reformation, the centralization of papal power at Vatican I, and the condemnation of "Modernism" at the beginning of the twentieth century. It might have been true that pluralistic decisions about power had been characteristic of the church for many centuries (for example, in the internal governance of some religious orders). It might have been true that in its long history the Catholic church had often changed (most recently on such issues as slavery and co-education). It might have been true that one ceased to be a Catholic not when one disagreed with the pope but only when one was excommunicated or joined another church or formally and explicitly renounced the faith. It might finally have been true that the central truth of Christianity was God’s forgiving love which Christians were to imitate. Nonetheless, in the minds of most of the laity and the clergy and those who were not Catholic, Catholicism before Vatican II was in fact a centralized, immutable, and sin-obsessed heritage. Most of the bishops who attended the council came to Rome fully accepting those assumptions. On the surface, the Catholic church in 1962 was not nearly as "edgy" as the populace of Paris in 1789. Yet Pope Pius XII, the predecessor of Pope John XXIII who would convene the council, had instigated changes during his long administration that might, in retrospect, seem seditious. He approved changes in the liturgy of Holy Week, the modern critical study of the Bible, and, in effect, birth control, by accepting the rhythm method. A new emphasis on the Mystical Body, the teaching that the laity, as well as the pope and the bishops, were in some fashion the church, suggested to small groups of laity that perhaps the church ought to listen to them. Scholars, digging into the liturgical, theological, and organizational history of the church, found a much more variegated Catholicism than the existing official structure of immutable centralization. Bishops, however conservative, did not like the heavy-handed behavior of the curial dicasteries. An increasingly well-educated Catholic laity was uneasy with the rigidity of the church. Married people found the birth control teaching difficult (a teaching which became a matter of heavy emphasis only after 1930). Parish priests were increasingly uneasy with the apparent insensitivity of the church to the problems of the laity, and the "Catholic Action" movements were producing cadres of well-informed, dedicated lay people. Finally, the disaster of World War II and the surprising rebirth of Europe following the war created an atmosphere in which many Catholics felt that some modifications in the church’s various stances might be appropriate. None of these events, either separately or in combination, seemed then to have constituted a "prerevolutionary" situation. In retrospect, they can be seen as the raw material for drastic change; in Sewell’s terms, the resources for new structures. There were also signs of "slippage." By 1963, half of the Catholics in America did not think that birth control was always wrong, and studies showed that most American Catholic women practiced some kind of contraception before the end of their fertile years. Still, many, if not most, probably confessed their use of birth control. By 1974, however, the proportion accepting the teaching had sunk to 12 percent, and most did not confess it. Moreover, the Catholic hierarchy in the United States was already bringing pressure on Rome to obtain some sort of relief for divorced and remarried Catholics, despite the official posture that the Catholic church could not change its teachings on marriage. Only in retrospect, however, do these issues suggest that there was serious ferment in Catholicism in the United States or anywhere else when John XXIII convened the council. The council’s preparatory commissions, dominated by the Roman curia, had prepared draft documents for the first session of the council which would have turned it into a rubber stamp for the then existing ecclesiastical structures. Most bishops, it would seem, were prepared to vote for them and go home, still able to tell their people what they (in the bishops’ minds) wanted to hear: nothing had changed. The occurrence which played a role something like the storming of the Bastille was the sudden opposition of two leaders of the Western European church, Cardinal Joseph Frings of Cologne and Cardinal Achille LiŽnart of Lille. Two elderly men with enormous personal prestige who had suffered through the war, they demanded that the preparatory documents be scrapped and that the council fathers themselves shape the documents on which they would vote. The pope agreed. It was clear then to at least some of the bishops that it would be their council, not the Roman curia’s. The bishops, it turned out, had power in practice as well as in theory. The Vatican bureaucracy could be defied. There was indeed a pluralism of power in the Catholic church. This was a dangerous truth, as subsequent events would demonstrate. Very few Catholics, lay or clerical, realized what had happened. As the council went on, the bishops, by overwhelming votes, endorsed a broad range of changes in the church. Joseph Komonchak has noted three overarching changes: The council proposed a far more nuanced evaluation of the modern world; it introduced the necessity of updating and reform into the church; and it called for greater responsibility in the local churches. The press reported, with increasing fascination and exuberance, the alteration of the unalterable. Five critical changes I further note five crucial changes that transformed the structures of the preconciliar church: The Liturgy. On Septuagesima Sunday 1965, almost every altar in a Catholic church in the United States was turned around. For the first time in at least a thousand years, the priest said Mass facing the congregation; and it was said partially (soon totally) in English. If the Latin liturgy could be abandoned that easily (and seven-eighths of American Catholics approved of the change) after more than a millennium, the Catholic church could certainly change. Ecumenism. The council was now willing to admit that Protestant denominations were indeed churches and that Catholics should strive for mutual understanding with them in friendly dialogue. The heretics, schismatics, Jews, and infidels down the street were now suddenly separated brothers and sisters. Overnight, Catholicism was willing to change when it wanted to. Meat on Friday. This change resulted from a decision of the American bishops. It may have been the most unnecessary and the most devastating. Fish on Friday had been a symbol that most visibly distinguished Catholic Americans from other Americans. Bishops continued to insist that nothing had really changed. None of these reforms touched on the essence of Catholic doctrine. But such distinctions were lost on the laity (and on many of the clergy, too). The immutable had mutated. What would change next? The centralization of authority was not yet in jeopardy, however. Change did not in itself mean that ordinary priests or lay persons could make their own decisions about the conditions on which they would be Catholic. Yet implicit in the newly discovered mutability of the church (and in the bishops’ revolt against the curia) was the notion that, if something ought to be changed and it would be changed eventually, then it was all right to anticipate such decisions and change on one’s own authority. The gradual drift in this direction in the late 1960s put the centralized authority structure in grave jeopardy. Could the bishops have been more cautious in implementing the council? Was the prelate I quoted above correct about the bishops’ mistakes? They might have left Friday abstinence alone, but liturgical reform and ecumenism by themselves would have created a heady atmosphere in which the expectation of more change would have swept the church. Two other developments, however, called the authority structure of the church into question. Birth Control. This is the story of how an attempt to preserve the authority structure of the church in fact weakened and eventually came close to destroying it. There was strong sentiment among the bishops at the council to address the question, but Pope Paul VI, not trusting his fellow bishops with the issue, removed it from conciliar debate. Still, he had a special commission to report to him on the subject, the existence of which became common knowledge. Laity and clergy alike assumed that if change were possible, it would occur, especially after learning that the commission had recommended change almost unanimously. ———————————————————————————————————————— Historical events tend to transform social relations in ways that could not be fully predicted from the gradual changes that may have made them possible. What makes historical events so important is that they reshape history by imparting an unforeseen direction to social development. ———————————————————————————————————————— When the pope turned down the recommendations, the "lower orders" of the church had already made up their minds. In terms of protecting the authority structure of the church, it would have been better for the pope never to have established his commission, to have followed its recommendation, or to have left the whole matter alone. In the confusion, disappointment, and anger that followed Paul VI’s Humanae vitae (1968), laity and clergy embraced the principle of "follow your own conscience." It was this development, more than any other, that shattered the authority structure. It is often argued that priests and lay people cannot make such decisions for themselves. Perhaps they cannot, but in fact they do. It is further argued that they cannot be good Catholics if they make such decisions, but in fact they think they can. This is what happens when a historical event shatters a behavior pattern and the resources that supported it. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, every age segment in Catholic America changed its convictions about the legitimacy of birth control, and, more ominously, about the right of the church to lay down rules for sexual behavior. Authority was no longer centralized; it had become pluralistic. Similarly, acceptance of papal infallibility fell to 22 percent of Catholics in the United States. Catholic laity, with the support of the lower clergy, had decided that it was not wrong to be Catholic on their own terms. Such was the fruit of Vatican II, not as a series of documents, but as a phenomenon that transformed the behavior patterns of Catholics with regard to their church. Catholics who decided that contraception was not wrong justified that decision by appealing from a pope who did not understand to a God who did. The point is not whether such a justification was proper, but that it helped to erode the "sin concern" structure of preconciliar Catholicism. Priests and nuns. Another critical change in the structure of the preconciliar church was the dispensation of priests to leave the priesthood and enter ecclesiastically valid marriages, often with former nuns. The development confirmed not only the possibility of change, but the willingness of church authorities to back down at least partially in the face of pressure. In effect, the "lower orders" asked the following questions: If the church could permit men who had left the priesthood to marry, why could it not permit them to marry while still active in the priesthood? If it could change the playing field on liturgy, ecumenism, and Friday abstinence, why not on birth control and the role of women in the church? If so many "mortal" sins were no longer sinful, was it necessary to worry so much about sin? There are complex theological replies to these questions, but they don’t seem credible to many Catholics who conclude, unfairly perhaps, that the church can change whatever it wants, if only it wants to. Currently, a large majority of both priests and lay people reject the church’s official teachings on the ordination of women, birth control, premarital sex, in utero and in vitro fertilization, oral sex, and the legality of abortion under some circumstances. There is also strong movement in the direction of tolerance for homosexuality. Moreover, media surveys indicate that the laity believe that they can "disagree" with the pope on these issues and remain good Catholics. Central authority has lost its credibility (and on social issues like immigration, too). Thus the vigorous efforts of John Paul II to impose his teaching on the ordination of women seem to have had little effect on the attitudes of either lower clergy or laity. The structures of assent, the patterns of motivation and behavior which would have worked smoothly forty years ago in response to such papal rulings, are simply no longer available. Catholics believe that the church can change and that they can disregard the pope when it comes to making decisions, especially about sex and gender. Many American Catholics diminish whatever dissonance they may feel by cheering the pope when he comes to this country while ignoring what he says. On the other hand, defection from the church has not increased in the United States-among non-Latinos, it remains at 11 percent for every birth cohort in this century. Moreover, Catholic acceptance of such central truths as the existence of God, the divinity of Jesus, the resurrection of the dead, and the presence of Jesus in the Eucharist (however explained) has not changed. The majority of American Catholics still attend the Eucharist at least once a month and there has been no decline in attendance across birth cohorts since the middle 1970s. Summing up Is a restoration possible? At one time many bishops hoped that the new Catechism would instruct Catholics on what they had to believe and do and that this would lead to a restoration. Such a hope was patently na•ve. The twenty years of the present papal administration have been devoted to the centralization of authority and resistance to further change. All the evidence suggests that these efforts have had little impact. The old structures no longer exist and new ones are in place. Thirty-five years after Vatican II, thirty of them devoted unsuccessfully to restoration, the elimination of the structures which emerged from that historic event seems most improbable. What is the content of the new structures, the resources for the new schemas, to use Sewell’s term? A recent research project on Catholic identity (see, "A Faith Loosely Held," Commonweal, July 17) indicates that Catholics under thirty are less likely to emphasize authority and sin and more likely to emphasize the presence of Christ in the sacraments, the Real Presence, concern for the poor, and devotion to Mary the mother of God, a thoroughly Catholic identity if very different from the preconciliar identity. Can Catholicism live with these new structures? Should it? To the first question it must be said that it has often in the past lived with very similar structures, indeed for much of its history. To the second I must reply that that is beyond my skills as a sociologist to judge. However, the new structures are not likely to go away. Purely from the viewpoint of a sociologist, I would suggest that perhaps the time ahead might well be a period of reconsideration and readjustment to what has become the reality of the structures of contemporary Catholicism. Did Vatican II, considered as a historic event, destroy the church? Did the French Revolution destroy France? If the question is rephrased to mean did the council destroy some of the major structures of the preconciliar church, the answer must be that it did. Whether that be good or bad or a mixture of good and bad, readers must judge for themselves. Could the American bishops, if they were more adroit, more credible as pastors, and possessed better theological resources and media skills, have directed the process more wisely? Perhaps, but in the long run, it probably would not have made much difference. It is self-deceiving to argue that there is nothing in the actual documents of Vatican II to legitimate the collapse of the old structures. For the documents themselves-those on liturgy, Scripture, religious freedom, the modern world, other faiths and the Jews, ecumenism-contributed substantially to the weakening of preexisting structures. Reflecting again on my discussion with the senior prelate, I conclude that after the interventions by Cardinals Frings and LiŽnart at the council and their acceptance by John XXIII, there was no way to prevent Vatican II from becoming a revolutionary event. Sociology, to repeat, has no means of measuring whether what the cardinals proposed was wise and well-intentioned, or whether the consequences are, in the main, to be welcomed or condemned. Speaking not from within any academic discipline, but simply as a Catholic, I believe the Spirit was at work within the council on that day, and remains on call.

Published in the 1998-09-11 issue: 
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Rev. Andrew M. Greeley is a priest of the Archdiocese of Chicago. He is the author of The Catholic Revolution: New Wine in Old Wineskins (University of California Press), Priests: A Calling in Crisis (University of Chicago Press), and The Truth about Conservative Christians (University of Chicago Press), with Michael Hout.

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