Thought for the Day - Clifford Longley - 13/10/2012

Good morning
The Catholic Church is celebrating the fiftieth anniversary of one of the most important events of its history, the solemn opening of the Second Vatican Council. Good Pope John's stirring words to the nearly 3,000 assembled bishops encouraged them to think boldly. Which they proceeded to do, ironically to the great embarrassment of the Vatican itself.

The bureaucrats who ran the Vatican had prepared in advance a set of documents which they hoped the Council members would quickly approve, perhaps with minor tweaks here and there. And it would all be over by Christmas. In effect the bishops from all over the globe were being invited to endorse the Vatican's complacent and conservative view of the world and the Church's place in it.

And the bishops refused. Ninety per cent of the draft texts were thrown out in the first weeks of the Council, and the bishops then set up their own commissions of experts - many of them staffed by progressive theologians that the Vatican frankly did not approve of. They wrote a new and more radical set of draft documents for the bishops to consider.

They even insisted on expanding the Council's agenda to include such unheard of things - from a Vatican official's point of view - as the need for religious freedom, and to repudiate the Catholic Church's sorry record of complicity in centuries of European anti-Semitism. It was not far short of a revolution.

The majority of bishops at the Council from the British Isles were conservative at the outset. It took them a little while to catch up with what their continental brothers were saying. But catch up they did. Such is the power of a critical mass of like-minded people in one place at one time. Or as they would say, the power of the Holy Spirit was manifesting itself. It jolted the Catholic Church through several centuries-worth of reform in three short years.

The kind of Catholicism described in novels like Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh or Brighton Rock by Graham Greene is virtually unrecognisable today, thanks to Vatican II. And that is so despite two subsequent conservative papacies, of John Paul II and Benedict XVI.

It is true a reaction set in, as people at the centre began to panic that the Church was changing too fast and too far. The combination of accelerator and brake at the same time was very confusing. It was in the midst of that confusion that we got the ghastly scandal of child sex abuse by clergy - and the subsequent shameful cover-up.

The right balance between fast and slow, between centre and periphery, has still not yet been worked out. But the trajectory set by the Second Vatican Council is still there, leading who knows where. To a Third Vatican Council, perhaps? Another explosion of the Spirit? I wouldn't be totally surprised.

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