16 FEBRUARY 1991, Page 27

Can thy soul know change?

Piers Paul Read

MODERN CATHOLICISM: VATICAN II AND AFTER edited by Adrian Hastings £20, SPCK, pp. 496 It is now 25 years since the close of the Second Vatican Council, called by Pope John XXIII. In four sessions the 2,500 bishops passed 16 decrees which radically affected the attitudes and practices of Catholics throughout the world.

The most immediate and visible changes were the abolition of Latin as the sole language for the liturgy, and the introduc- tion of Communion in both kinds. The laity was no longer to be seen as an appendage to a priestly caste: the celebrant who had said mass with his back to the congregation now faced 'the People of God'.

Equally significant were the changes in attitudes enjoined by the Council fathers. Catholics were not to remain indifferent to the material condition of their fellow men, or to anathematise those who belonged to other religions. Above all they must strive to unite with other Christian denomina- tions because Christ had prayed that 'all might be one'. Although the Council led to both elation and anguish in the Catholic Church, one can only marvel today, in reading its decrees, at the manner in which it steered a difficult course between the Scylla of scler- osis and the Charybdis of modernism. Perhaps its decrees on the liturgy were imposed with an insensitive zeal — particu- larly in England where, for historical reasons, the Latin mass was held in great affection; but the only flaws I can discern in the texts today are the use of the term `world' in two contradictory senses; and in an over-optimistic reading of the 'signs of the times'.

The Church has misinterpreted them before, and one must remember that this was the epoch of 'flower-power' and Dr Spock. The war in Algeria was ending; that in Vietnam had not got underway. No wonder, then, that the Decree Gaudium et Spes felt able to talk of 'the birth of a new humanism, where man is defined before all else by his responsibility to his brothers and at the court of history'.

What remains difficult to understand — and will undoubtedly perplex future histor-

ians — is the way in which the Council was subsequently used to subvert the Catholic beliefs which the Council either explicitly or implicity confirmed. As David Lodge has illustrated so well in his novels, Catho- lics suddenly behaved as if the Council had abolished Hell. In fact, it did nothing of the kind: indeed Gaudium et Spes implies that we might be damned for breaking the speed limit or tax evasion.

This collection of essays by 40 'leading Catholic scholars' is a more learned ex- pression of the same phenomenon. Pre- sented as a 'comprehensive study' of mod- ern Catholicism, its contributors come mostly from a particular group within the Church whose opinions, considered pro- gressive in the era of bell-bottomed jeans, rarely match those of the Pope in Rome. Caveat emptor. When the editor, Adrian Hastings, once a priest and now Professor of Theology at Leeds, writes that the essays have 'avoided extremes', remember that Catholics can differ on what they mean by extreme.

The arrangement of the contributions is excellent: a brief history of the Catholic Church from Vatican I to the present; portraits of recent Popes by two former Jesuits, Michael Walsh and Peter Hebble- thwaite ; essays on the conciliar documents, the institutions of renewal which followed the Council; aspects of Church life since the Council, and so on. Most entertaining are Hebblethwaite's essays: he has a touch of a Nigel Dempster when it comes to the Vatican's corridors of power. Remarkably restrained is his wife Margaret's short essay on Devotion ('sacred hearts and crowned virgins were on the decrease; golden sun- sets, billowing waves, snow-clad mountain peaks and leafy glades took their place). The Jesuit John McDade contributes a good essay on post-Conciliar theology, contrasting and comparing the writing of von Balthasar and Schillebeeck. He comes down — inevitably but, one suspects, not entirely happily — in favour of Liberation Theology and Rahner's misty notion of a `world church'.

'I'm not drinking for any reason, as far as I can remember.'

Most revealing is a section by F. J. Laishley, head of the department of Christ- ian Doctrine at Heythrop College, on the Council's 'Unfinished Business'. With a barrage of intimidating jargon, he appears to advance the theory that all teaching and dogmatic formulation are conditioned by their times. Thus the decrees of the Coun- cil do not mean what they say. They are like a photograph of a fast-moving train: we must examine it with a microscope to discover which way it is going, to know where it is now. This leads to the absurd spectacle of Dr Laishley trying to discern the spirit of the Council from the exact position of the word 'quoque' in section 22 of Gaudium et Spes or in the meaning of the word 'subsists'.

It also leads to generalisations so mis- leading that they can at best be described as wishful thinking and at worst as `dis- information'. Compare Laishley's 'The Council was a plunge into the waters of pluralism or it was nothing' with the Council's insistence that the 'loyal submis- sion of the will and intellect' due to the bishops 'must be given, in a special way, to the authentic teaching authority of the Roman Pontiff, even when he does not speak ex cathedra. .

Distortions of this kind are to be found throughout this collection of essays. The idea of a 'one true Church' is dismissed as a remnant of 'pre-Vatican II' Catholicism, when in fact, as Dr Edward Norman recognises in the only contribution by a Protestant to the collection, the Council's 'reformulations of faith were, in the event, surprisingly unitary and conservative'; and rather than abolishing distinctions between the different Christian churches, the Ecumenical dimension 'was not a priority . . . of the Council'; and 'beneath the ecclesiastical courtesy . . . there was basi- cally an unchanged landscape'.

Again, in an essay on the Decree on Other Religions (Nostra Aetate), Donald Nichol, once the Rector of the Ecumenical Institute at Tantur, concludes that 'the very inner logic of the Council's various statements has gradually crystallised the fundamental issue which now faces Catho- lic theologians concerning what is called "the uniqueness of Christ" '. If the Church now accepts that there is truth in other religions, 'does it not follow that there is now no need for evangelisation?' Can it still insist upon 'the uniqueness of Christ'?

Yet Nostra Aelate specifically stfites that 'the Catholic Church . . proclaims, and is in duty bound to proclaim without fail, Christ who is the way, the truth and the life'. It is therefore difficult to understand how someone who no longer believes it can consider himself a Catholic or even a Christian. The Council may have taught that everyone has a right to his opinion, but there comes a point when dissent destroys the coherence of any religion and reduces a Church to no more than a tower of Babel.