John Paul II led the way through post-Vatican II confusion

John Paul II led the way through post-Vatican II confusion


Today is Good Friday; it is also the fifth anniversary of the death of Pope John Paul II. I would like to mark this anniversary with a few thoughts about his legacy as the one who led the way through the confusions of the post-Vatican II era.

From the outside anyone can see the many changes in the Church — in its liturgy, the rules for fasting, and the rise of lay involvement in Church activities. Confusions emerged over doctrines concerning sin and redemption, the nature of the sacraments and the priesthood, the status of the laity, and moral norms, particularly regarding sexuality. We witnessed declines in vocations to priesthood and religious life, Mass attendance, and the use of the sacrament of Penance. Some groups such as women, laity, married couples, priests and religious formed rising expectations whose radical goals would inevitably lead to disappointment and bitterness.

Much of this confusion could be traced back to a distorted interpretation of the meaning of Vatican II. Many were propounding a one sided if not false view of the council on multiple points. These include: (i) the very intention of the council was to update and make the Church “relevant” by abandoning the old doctrines and practices and to understand the faith in light of modern times; (ii) the Church was taken to be “the people of God” understood as a non-hierarchical, horizontal community; (iii) authority was redefined as a co-magisterium and conscience was exalted to a creative status; (iv) the participation of the laity was understood to mean they must function in ministry as priests or alongside them in the activities of the sanctuary; (v) spirituality was redefined in terms of pastoral compassion without truth or without the cross; (vi) sacraments were reconceived with the Eucharist as meal and penance made irrelevant because of the denial of mortal sin; (vii) the social doctrine of the Church was taken as a call to direct social action and political liberation.

In the short span of this blog we could not possibly address each of these. I find helpful Ralph McInerny’s little book, What Went Wrong with Vatican II, or Vatican II: Renewal Within Tradition. ed, Matthew L. Lamb and Matthew Levering (New York: OUP, 2008). Of course, the very first Ratzinger Report, by Vittorio Messori (Ignatius Press, 1987) remains a classic for understanding the distortions and the correction made by the John Paul II papacy, and now continued by Benedict XVI. Promoting renewal through an authentic understanding of Vatican II is one of the goals of the John Paul II Forum for the Church in the Modern World. The entire sweep of his Pontificate shows the effort to recover and propel the authentic renewal of the Church. One could do no better than to work through the encyclical letters of John Paul in order to understand his achievement in clarifying the doctrinal issues with a pastoral understanding of the Church in the modern world.

I will make three points to indicate the path he took for getting through the confusions to authentic renewal.

First, he expressed a deep appreciation of the importance and meaning of Vatican II. On February 27, 2000 he said that “Vatican II Was the Spirit’s Gift to the Church.” He emphasized the continuity with the past and the central goal was evangelization, making the deposit of faith more effectively taught and lived. And he charged the laity with appropriating its teaching: “With this Exhortation the lay faithful are invited to take up again and reread, meditate on and assimilate with renewed understanding and love, the rich and fruitful teaching of the Council.” Christifidelis Laici: On The Vocation And The Mission Of The Lay Faithful In The Church And In The World # 14.

Second, John Paul proposed the apostolate of the laity as the key to understanding Vatican II and the role of the Church in the Modern World. “This [is a] great moment in history, made especially dramatic by occurring on the threshold of the Third Millennium. A new state of affairs today both in the Church and in social, economic, political and cultural life, calls with a particular urgency for the action of the lay faithful. If lack of commitment is always unacceptable, the present time renders it even more so. It is not permissible for anyone to remain idle.” (Christifidelis Laici #3) This apostolate derives from the universal call to holiness through a deeper understanding of the word of God and a deeper participation in the sacramental life of the Church.

Third, as a great pastor, John Paul II stressed the connection between pastoral concern and the Truth. Pastoral compassion does not require a reduction of truth or a fudging of truth but precisely the contrary — a full devotion to the truth about God and man. The first encyclical, Redeemer of Man, makes this clear and he pursued this line of approach through Veritatis splendor. His reflections on Humanae Vitae are particular strong on the connection between the truth and the pastoral approach in whose name many tried to downplay or deny the moral norms for human sexuality. “Whoever believes that the Council and the encyclical do not sufficiently take into account the difficulties present in concrete life does not understand the pastoral concern that was at the origin of those documents. Pastoral concern means the search for the true good of man, a promotion of the values engraved in his person by God; that is, it means observing that ‘rule of understanding which is directed to the ever clearer discovery of God’s plan for human love, in the certitude that the only true good of the human person consists in fulfilling this divine plan.”

Although confusion still exists and some in the Church persist in teaching the distortions about Vatican II, the climate has changed much since 1978 when Karol Wojtyla became pope. The Catechism of the Catholic Church establishes a baseline for doctrinal teaching; Ex corde ecclesiae lays down principles for education, along with the apostolic exhortation Catechesi Tradendae. The encyclicals fill in a wonderous depth of understanding. There are many signs of renewal abroad in the Church. But we will need time to catch up with Pope John Paul II. His legacy has set the agenda for centuries to come..

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