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A Man of Vatican II

John Paul II is one of the last active Fathers of the Second Vatican Council, a member of the commission that drafted Gaudium et Spes (Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World). This document above all others sets the tone for post-conciliar reform. Paul VI detected “the smoke of Satan” in the Church, but John Paul II’s first words upon his election were “Be not afraid.” He appears to regard himself as preeminently a man of the Council, someone who embodies its fundamental spirit.

In effect, Gaudium et Spes attempts to impose a compulsory optimism on Catholics, and one way of viewing John Paul II is to see him as deeply imbued with this optimism, according to which apparent evils are relatively minor in comparison with the inexorable movement of good. Gaudium et Spes seems to teach that error springs from misguided good intentions and can be corrected by love and understanding. It provides little help in understanding how post-conciliar renewal could have gone so awry, and John Paul II seems to think that patient teaching and exhortation are sufficient to correct those errors.

He is perhaps the greatest teacher ever to occupy the papal throne, and he has set forth in his copious writings a grand synthesis of Catholic belief that will occupy theologians and others for centuries. In accordance with Gaudium et Spes, he has laid out an appropriate Catholic relationship to the entire modern world, one that strikes a balance between fidelity to truth and openness to the culture.

Collapse of Discipline

Unfortunately, during John Paul II’s pontificate, the governing function has fallen into desuetude. He seems to have an almost principled reluctance to exercise his disciplinary powers.

One way of viewing John Paul II—a view that is necessarily speculative concerning this ultimately enigmatic man—is that he is an example of the intellectual in politics. Such a person is motivated by a great vision yet uncertain how that vision can be realized, convinced that, if he only articulates his vision strongly and repeatedly, it will capture the minds and hearts of the people.

The papal journeys illustrate the drawback of this attitude. On the one hand, the Pope’s bold strategy of travel has enabled him to disseminate his message far more widely than any previous pope was able to do. Everywhere he is greeted by enthusiastic crowds, which cannot help but reinforce an optimistic impression of the state of the Church.

But when those who cheer the Pope return home, the officials in their local churches often propagandize them with ideas that undermine the papal message. Since men are made holy by receiving correct teaching then endeavoring to live it, John Paul II’s failure to govern undercuts the teaching office and renders the task of sanctification more difficult.

During the first decade of his pontificate, he seemed willing to use his disciplinary authority. There were notable exercises of discipline against certain theologians, such as Hans Küng, and in official investigations of seminaries and religious orders. But all those initiatives had collapsed by l988, except in a few curial offices under particularly strong leaders, notably the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith under Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger.

The fate of Ex Corde Ecclesiae (“From the Heart of the Church”), the Holy See’s document concerning Catholic higher education, illustrates this collapse. When originally promulgated in 1990, it included strong provisions for insuring orthodoxy in Catholic universities. At the demand particularly of American Catholic educators, those procedures were omitted from revised drafts. The final version, now officially adopted, continues to make strong affirmations about the need for Catholic institutions to maintain their fidelity to the Church, but no one believes that the document will have much effect. Various American bishops have indicated publicly that they have no intention of enforcing it, and there is no evidence that the Holy See will insist that they do so.

John Paul II’s intervention in the affairs of the Society of Jesus was, as it turned out, a paradigm of his entire papacy. It was an extraordinarily bold initiative. But at some point, for reasons never publicly explained, the Holy Father simply withdrew, leaving everything in the Society as it was before and eventually rewarding the men whom he had trusted to reform it but who failed to do so. There was also a failure to save, or reclaim, the vocations of men who might have been won back to orthodoxy under a different kind of leadership. What happened in the Jesuits was a dynamic that is at work on all levels of the Church.

The most plausible explanation for why so many disciplinary initiatives collapsed around l988 is that the Pope discovered that he did not have the support of many of the bishops. There are credible reports that some bishops threatened open defiance. The great mystery of this pontificate is the failure to discipline bishops and, even more importantly, the failure to appoint bold ones.

It might be thought that John Paul II, passionately devoted to his teaching office, has simply paid insufficient attention to the actual governance of the Church. Of necessity, promotions in large organizations come to those recommended by people already in the hierarchy. In ordinary times this system works well. In extraordinary times—if those in office have shown themselves to be deficient in serious ways—it becomes necessary to go outside the normal appointment process to identify potential leaders. All indications are that John Paul II routinely approves the recommendations that come to him through bureaucratic channels.

Pitfalls of Collegiality

If the Pope’s overall exercise of his office seems to be guided by the optimism of Gaudium et Spes, his relationship with the bishops perhaps derives from a particular understanding of the Second Vatican Council’s Lumen Gentium (Dogmatic Constitution on the Church). Lumen Gentium contains strong reaffirmations of papal authority but strong statements also about the authority of bishops, and John Paul may think that he is constrained by conciliar teaching from “interfering” with a bishop’s activities. The authority of individual bishops and national episcopal conferences is said to be an application of that document’s principle of collegiality.

Several years ago, the Pope issued Apostolos Suos (“His Own Apostles”), reminding bishops that episcopal conferences do not have doctrinal standing but are mere prudential arrangements that may not override the authority of either the Holy See or an individual bishop in his own diocese. Nonetheless, the Holy See appears troubled if bishops take public positions at odds with their national conferences or with one another. The appearance of unity, even if it compromises the clarity of doctrine, is highly valued.

Part of John Paul II’s “conservatism” seems to be his high regard for episcopal authority, which he hesitates to see tarnished in any way, even if its maintenance requires the continued support of bishops who have shown themselves to be unworthy of the responsibilities placed on them. Liberal bishops feel free to disagree with official Church teaching, and episcopal courtesy seems to demand that no bishop, nor the Holy See itself, publicly chastise these prelates or call attention to their errors.

Apparently, a major cause of this is fear of division within the Church, the estimate that a strong defense of controversial doctrines might lead to schism. (It is the explanation for papal inaction heard most frequently from Vatican and other ecclesiastical sources.) This merely deepens the mystery, implying that the Pope knows that certain bishops are capable of leading a schism and yet treats them as nonetheless suitable to continue to guide the faithful.

The “good” bishop now possesses primarily negative virtues: He is not controversial, has a benign public image, and keeps peace in his diocese. Usually this requires ignoring deviations from official doctrine and practice, even failing to instruct his flock adequately in “controversial” teachings.

The long list of canonized bishops shows a disproportionate number who were martyred or otherwise suffered for their faith. They did not seek martyrdom but simply tried to discharge their duties conscientiously. These days a good bishop seems to be defined as one who is able to finesse conflict and blur controversial issues so as not to arouse antagonisms.

Prudence is one of the four cardinal virtues, and its classical meaning is not caution but a wise assessment of what is appropriate in a particular situation in order to give proper weight to all the virtues. Thus excessive “prudence” actually subverts true prudence. A misguided understanding of this virtue seems common in the Church at present, and many appointments of the Holy See suggest that it is precisely “prudent” men in this wrong sense who are deemed suitable for office.

The Holy See’s passivity in the face of open defiance sometimes has an effect opposite from what the Pope presumably intends—such passivity actually increases division and conflict in the Church. Disputes over such things as the ordination of women to the priesthood will be put to rest only if the dissenters finally accept the fact that they have lost, that they have no choice except to leave the Church or to huddle in marginal communities. As it is, since they have even some prelates on their side, they hope to win at some future time, which makes them even more aggressive and abrasive.

Over a period of time, people of integrity find it no longer psychologically possible to tolerate things that they know to be wrong, and there is consequently an increasing temptation to deny that they are wrong. Eventually this extends even to matters of doctrine. The decree Dominus Iesus reaffirms the fundamental Christian teaching that salvation comes only through Jesus Christ. But two cardinals high in the papal Curia—Ratzinger and Walter .asper—take opposite sides on the matter, which only confuses ordinary Catholics about one of the most basic teachings of their faith.

John Paul II has made no public effort to adjudicate this doctrinal conflict between the two cardinals, both of whom he has chosen for great responsibility. This illustrates another dimension of his papacy: his apparent belief that he can and should stay out of particular disagreements as he urges people toward a grand vision of the Church in which, presumably, all such divisions will eventually be transcended.

The Diplomatic Mindset

The fact that even members of the Curia do not always seem in harmony with official teaching demonstrates how far the problem extends and how, once again, the process of identifying candidates for responsible office is at the heart of the matter. In some ways the Curia is dominated by professional diplomats, and diplomacy is an art that was practically invented by the Holy See.

By its nature, diplomacy seeks compromise and regards confrontation as failure. To the diplomatic mind, bold statements of belief have the potential for division and are therefore to be avoided. In certain ways, therefore, the Vatican Secretariat of State, which is the center of the diplomatic mindset, seems to view the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith with some unease, as an office capable of upsetting existing “arrangements.”

In the post-conciliar period, diplomacy often reigns supreme even within the Church itself. National episcopal conferences, religious orders, and even individual bishops are treated almost as sovereign states that must not be offended and toward which proper protocol must always be observed. To imply that such “nations” suffer from grave deficiencies is the equivalent of an international “incident” to be avoided at all costs.

The claim that a pope is not supposed to be a disciplinarian is belied by history. Pius XI actually took away the red hat of a cardinal. Pius XII summarily removed an archbishop of Montreal, Canada, and sent him to a monastery. After World War II he also removed, at the behest of the French government, bishops thought to be too compliant with the Vichy regime. In earlier times such instances multiply.

The “positive strategy” of encouraging good movements can be impeded—even suppressed—by unsympathetic bishops, and such movements would flourish more abundantly if there were more good bishops to encourage them. It is impossible to rebuild a damaged structure while debris is still falling.

In evaluating the “positive strategy,” the image of two elevators—one going up and one simultaneously going down—is useful. Some things are better now than in l978, some worse. Unfortunately, the “up” elevator is the slower of the two, and it has many fewer people on it. All the positive movements together have not reached more than a small segment of the faithful.

John Paul II has provided inspiring personal example, strong and systematic teaching, and a renewed vision of the Church’s apostolic mission. He has protected the doctrine of the faith and decisively blocked certain erroneous paths of theological development. A man of Vatican II, he has put in place a magisterial understanding of the Council. But in a sense all this is, once again, primarily a great vision without an adequate blueprint of how it is to be implemented, much less actual construction.

The next papal election will be one of the most crucial in the history of the Church, not least because the cardinals will choose the successor of one of the most remarkable men ever to occupy the papal throne. Faith in the Holy Spirit precludes the possibility that the next pope will abandon Catholic truth, and the alternative to a vigorously orthodox pope is, realistically, a benignly passive one who simply tolerates every kind of disorder.

What will be needed, in order to make possible at long last the authentic renewal promised by Vatican II, is a decisive break with the dominant optimism of the past forty years. The new pope will have to acknowledge forthrightly the reality of evil both in the world and in the Church in order to begin the work of rooting out that evil.

A pope who would do this would in no way repudiate the work of his predecessor but would begin to implement John Paul II’s profound and inspiring vision of what it means to be both a Catholic and a human being. It would be an implementation that would require a willingness to engage in the often messy duties of governance that John Paul II perhaps hoped he would be able to transcend.

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