Archive for Vatican II

The Church and ‘Historical Amnesia’

Posted in Vatican II with tags , , , , , on August 21, 2013 by Daniel P. Horan, OFM

120213112905-moses-bishops-politics-story-top1This morning I woke up to find an article posted on the Commonweal magazine website titled, “Historical Amnesia: When Catholic Leaders Misread the Past,” by Nicholas Clifford, the emeritus historian from Middlebury College. In my opinion, it is a very interesting and well-written piece that creatively highlights a number of ways that church leaders have — and continue to — misread history. The key example he uses is the rather infamous “Fortnight for Freedom” campaign of the USCCB and an orchestration of Archbishop Lori of Baltimore. Rather than take the exercise in political-religious demonstration to task, Clifford examines the justification and rhetoric used in the promotion and campaigning that went along with the movement. In raising questions about the reading of history, Clifford highlights some of the really problematic tendencies present in various efforts of church leaders to make claims about particular teachings in a given era.

The whole conversation about the role of history, especially its reading (or misreading) by some church leaders, today is indeed timely. It strikes me as particularly relevant given that last night I gave and again this morning (10a in the community center at St. Francis church in Brant Beach, NJ) I will give a lecture titled, “Vatican II as History.” The subject matter of the talk was requested by the parochial staff on Long Beach Island that organized a summer lecture series about Vatican II. My contribution has been from the perspective of a young theologian who was born after the close of the Council and for whom, quite literally, Vatican II has been history.

But history is never dead nor static. Such is the case with the church, which remains — as the great Jesuit historian John O’Malley, SJ, has said of Vatican II — both the same church that existed before the Ecumenical Council yet one that now has a radically different self-understanding afterward. Or, as Clifford puts it, citing Pope Francis’s first encyclical, “times change and teachings change, so that (in the words of Lumen fidei in 2013) “everything in the patrimony of faith comes to be more deeply understood,” or, as we might say, historicized.” Theology and history are deeply intertwined so that we can say through a richer appreciation of our history we might aid the theological quest to seek better understanding of our faith.

As with the church’s history of promulgated teachings on “religious liberty” that are contradictory and, at times, confusing within the span of one century alone (not to mention going back over the course of some two millennia), the church’s history of doctrinal, moral, and social teaching in the final documents of the Second Vatican Council remains not only egregiously misread at times, but also not fully enacted and far-too-often ignored.

Case in point: Can one really square certain diocesan policies regarding the ministerial involvement of the laity in the liturgy with the teaching of Sacrosanctum Concilium, especially nos. 7 and 14? I do not know how one can without simply “forgetting” the conciliar texts (Clifford’s “historical amnesia”) or terribly misreading the Council.

I could go on, but won’t. Instead I’ll leave you with the closing quote Clifford offers and encourage you to read the whole essay for yourself.

“Like it or not, we are creatures of history, and must face up to the difficulties of our heritage—at least if we expect our pronouncements to be taken seriously.”

To read the whole piece visit Commonweal’s website.

Photo: AFP/Getty

10 Ways to Misunderstand Vatican II

Posted in America Magazine, Uncategorized, Vatican II with tags , , , , , on January 29, 2013 by Daniel P. Horan, OFM

MEETING DURING SECOND VATICAN COUNCIL FILE PHOTOThe current issue of America magazine includes an article by the eminent church historian John O’Malley, SJ, a professor at Georgetown University and author of many important books. O’Malley’s piece, simply titled “Misdirections,” is a commentary on ten ways he understands people to commonly misinterpret the Second Vatican Council, its mission, its documents, and its historical impact. It’s an important list given all the talk these days from various vantage points about the enduring legacy of the Council, which has recently marked the fiftieth anniversary of its beginning. O’Malley’s point is that far too often simplifications and post facto rationalizations have led to the misconstruing of the Council and its texts. He explains:

It is not easy to interpret any great event, so it is not surprising that today there is disagreement about how to interpret the Second Vatican Council. Here, I want to turn the issue around to indicate how not to interpret it. (Of course, astute readers will see that this is just a sneaky way of making positive points.) Some of these principles are, in fact, of direct concern only to historians or theologians. The issues that underlie them, however, should be of concern to all Catholics who cherish the heritage of the council. These 10 negative principles are simply a backhanded way of reminding ourselves of what is at stake in the controversies over the council’s interpretation.

The list of “ways not to interpret” Vatican II are as follows:

  1. Insist Vatican II was only a pastoral council.
  2. Insist it was an occurrence in the life of the church, not an event.
  3. Banish the expression “spirit of the council.”
  4. Study the documents individually, without considering them part of an integral corpus.
  5. Study the final 16 documents in the order of hierarchical authority, not in the chronological order in which they were approved in the council.
  6. Pay no attention to the documents’ literary form.
  7. Stick to the final 16 documents and pay no attention to the historical context, the history of the texts or the controversies concerning them during the council.
  8. Outlaw the use of any “unofficial” sources, such as the diaries or correspondence of participants.
  9. Interpret the documents as expressions of continuity with the Catholic tradition.
  10. Make your assessment of the council into a self-fulfilling prophecy.

To read his explanation of each of these points, check out the full article: “Misdirections” over at America‘s website.

Photo: File

The Church as (Un)equal Society

Posted in Uncategorized, Vatican II with tags , , , , , , on January 14, 2013 by Daniel P. Horan, OFM

MEETING DURING SECOND VATICAN COUNCIL FILE PHOTOYesterday I had the privilege of giving a lecture on “Vatican II and the Laity” at a parish on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. Those in attendance were wonderful, attentive, engaged, and lively in discussion afterward. One of the themes that came up in several different ways was the meaning of the shift from a pre-conciliar notion of the church as “unequal society” to the church as “the People of God” as presented in the constitutions and decrees of the Second Vatican Council. While the language of the conciliar texts, both theologically grounded and pastorally sensitive, was a vast improvement over the discursive approach to defining the church prior to the council, there was a specter of Pope Pius X’s “essentially unequal society” that continued to haunt the actual experience various people, especially women, had of the church today.

Everyone could more or less trace the practical differences in the understanding of the laity’s relationship to the church by virtue of baptism and as the constitutive element of the church, which is the Body of Christ, prior to and after the council. Many of the folks at the lecture and who participated in the discussion are liturgical ministers, theologians and other educators, leaders in their local communities, and so on. These sorts of opportunities were essentially unavailable or outright prohibited according to the pre-conciliar understanding of who/what constitutes “the church,” as well as according to the pre-1983 Code of Canon Law (generally, the CIC of 1917).

Yet, many people felt that what Pope Pius X says in his 1906 text Vehementer Nos continues to prevail, if not “officially” then practically, in the ordinary experience of the laity.

[The Church is an] essentially unequal society, that is, a society comprising two categories of person, the Pastors and the flock, those who occupy a rank in the different degrees of the hierarchy and the multitude of the faithful.  So distinct are these categories that with the pastoral body only rests the necessary right and authority for promoting the end of the society and directing all its members towards that end; the one duty of the multitude is to allow themselves to be led, and, like a docile flock, to follow the Pastors (Pope Pius X, Vehementer Nos, no. 8).

One gentleman, while not explicitly coming to the defense of Pius X’s turn-of-the-last-century vision, suggested that in all organizations and facets of life there are necessarily those who “make the decisions” and those who, by and large, “follow.”

I suppose that is true and, as the Council documents aptly note, to talk about the church as the People of God and inclusive of all women and men by virtue of Baptism, is not to suggest that everybody should or ought to do the same thing. Just like not everybody should have the right to practice medicine or law, not everybody should have the right to every position of ministry or leadership.

But what is to be made of the seemingly accidental (in the Aristotelian sense of qualities verses substance or nature) distinctions that prohibit certain members of the People of God, the Body of Christ, from per se participation in certain forms of leadership or participation in ministry? This was a difficult discussion to have, but an honest and very good topic still in need of further discussion.

This is particularly the case when the Second Vatican Council documents discuss the “vocation of the laity,” attributing the vocational call (vocare) to Christ alone and that all the faithful have a “right and duty” to participate in the liturgy and in the life of the church.

Mother Church earnestly desires that all the faithful should be led to that fully conscious, and active participation in liturgical celebrations which is demanded by the very nature of the liturgy.  Such participation by the Christian people as a “chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a redeemed people” (1 Peter 2:9), is their right and duty by reason of their Baptism (Sacrosanctum Concilium, no. 14).

I made clear in my presentation that one of the most overlooked dimensions of the Council’s teaching, especially concerning the liturgy, is that the assembly is participating, is — quite literally — concelebrating with the presider. So to suggest that everybody should necessarily be the presider or lector or some other particular ministry within the assembly doesn’t really hold if one believes in the teaching of the church that the community gathered also makes Christ present (see Sacrosanctum Concilium no. 7).

Yet, the real question, and a difficult one to be sure, that continues to loom over all these great discussions is the matter of discernment.

As other conciliar texts, like the “Decree on the Apostolate of the Laity” (Apostolicam Actuositatem) and Gaudium et Spes make clear, the call or vocation of each member of the Body of Christ, which is the church, comes from Christ alone. How, then, do we understand who and how and for what Christ calls any individual person within the assembly of believers, from among the People of God?

Furthermore, how is it that we understand the shift from Pius X’s notion of “unequal society” to the renewed understanding of the church that we have today? What does it mean to talk about an “equal” society? Can we or should we talk this way? What does that look like?

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Vatican II, Inculturation and What the Church Learns from the World

Posted in Vatican II with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on November 27, 2012 by Daniel P. Horan, OFM

Among the many important insights that arose from the Second Vatican Council, one of the more timely is the recognition that the church has not simply been a self-contained and distinct civilization or institution from the “rest of the world,” but has always been a part of the world. Additionally, the church has benefited and, even more strikingly, has needed the culture, philosophy, and traditions of the world in which it exists. This is a wonderfully insightful development given the state of the so-called church-world relationship prior to the ecumenical council. Whether theologically, or otherwise in theory, the church understood itself as apart from the world, it pragmatically acted as such. Here I mean the church in the literal sense as the Body of Christ, which is — as Vatican II put it, among other ways — the People of God. The baptized acted as if the church, its ministers, and so forth, were quite different from the quotidian experience of their lives and work. This was perpetuated by the attitudes and dispositions of the church’s leadership in those years.

And what is troubling, in my view, is that there is an undercurrent of similar attitudes percolating in our own day. There are women and men, especially within the ranks of the church’s leadership in certain sectors of our society, that feel as though the church should be “purer,” more isolated, and set apart from “the world.” As the great theologian Edward Schillebeeckx once said, the idea of a “pure church” is a heresy. Those who maintain such a view need to realize that the teaching of the church’s magisterium, here in the documents of Vatican II, especially Gaudium et Spes, confirm Schillebeeckx’s observation. The church and the world are inseparable and, further, the church needs the world, as we read here:

Just as it is important for the world to recognize the church as a social reality and agent in history, so the church also is aware of how much it has received from the history and development of the human race.

The experience of past centuries, the advances in the sciences and the treasures hidden in the various forms of human culture, which disclose human nature more completely and indicate new ways to the truth, are of benefit also to the church. From the beginning of its history it has leaned to express Christ’s message in the concepts and languages of various peoples, and it has also tried to throw light on it through the wisdom of the philosophers, aiming so far as was proper to suit the gospel to the grasp of everyone as well as to expectations of the wise. This adaptation in preaching the revealed word should remain the law of all evangelization. In this way, in every nation, the capacity to express Christ’s message in its own fashion is stimulated and at the same time a fruitful interchange is encouraged between the church and various cultures.

To develop such an exchange, especially in a time characterized by rapid change and a growing variety in ways of thought, the church has particular need of those who live in the world, whether they are believers or not, and who are familiar with its various institutions and disciplines and understand them intimately. It is for God’s people as a whole, with the help of the Holy Spirit, and especially for pastors and theologians, to listen to the various voices of our day, discerning them and interpreting them, and to evaluate them in the light of the divine word, so that the revealed truth can be increasingly appropriated, better understood and more suitably expressed (Gaudium et Spes no. 44).

Hopefully, in returning to the documents of the Second Vatican Council as we mark the half-century that has passed since this great moment in the history of the church and world we can renew our vision of what it means to live the Gospel in our own day.

There is a clear call here for the validation of various cultures, philosophies, and ways of thinking. There is value in the thought and practices of people throughout the world, no matter how different those ways of being-in-the-world might appear alongside the Euro-normative traditions we generally associate with Catholicism since the middle ages. What can we do to live this truth out in our own lives, communities, and universal church?

Photo: Stock

Vatican II and the Equal Rights of All People

Posted in Vatican II with tags , , , , , , , , on November 13, 2012 by Daniel P. Horan, OFM

As we continue to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the Second Vatican Council, I plan to make occasional posts related to the documents, history, and reception of the Council. There is a lot of talk among Christian women and men about the Council — people talking about its apparent merits and problems, the “spirit” and challenges, and so on — but there is very little discussion of what the Council actually said. The truth is, as one seminary professor said to me a few years ago, very few people, including very few priests and other ministers in the church, have actually read the texts themselves or have only half-heartedly read portions of the texts for coursework and the like. My interest is to stir up discussion about what we believe, what the church has actually said as an Ecumenical Council (the highest teaching authority in the church), and what these teachings might mean for us today.

Today I’m struck by one of the most important texts, Gaudium et Spes (The Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World). There is a striking passage in section no. 29 that deals with the question of the equal rights of all people.

Since all men and women possessed of a rational soul and created in the image of God have the same nature and the same origin, and since they have been redeemed by Christ and enjoy the same divine calling and destiny, the basic equality which they all share needs to be increasingly recognized (no. 29).

What the Church teaches is that by virtue of being a human person, all people have inherent rights from the creator. The problem isn’t the “granting” of these rights by a particular government or group of people, but the uncovering or recognizing the truth that is always already present in the fabric of creation.

Furthermore, the next two paragraphs of this section really deliver home the meaning of this uncovering or recognition of the equality of all.

Not everyone is identical in physical capacity and in mental and moral resources. But every type of discrimination affecting the fundamental rights of the person, whether social or cultural, on grounds of sex, race, color, class, language or religion, should be overcome and done away with, as contrary to the purpose of God. It is matter for deep regret that these basic personal rights are still not universally recognized and respected, as when women are denied the choice of a husband or a state of life, or opportunities for education and culture equal to those of men.

Moreover, although there are just differences among individuals, the equal dignity of persons demands access to more human and equal conditions of life. And the excessive economic and social inequalities among members or peoples of the same human family are a scandal and are at variance with social justice, equity, the dignity of the human person and, not least, social and international peace (no. 29).

As the church notes nearly fifty-years ago and as we still experience it today, people do not have access to the basic rights and needs that ground fundamental human flourishing. This is a social sin in which all who don’t work, in whatever capacity she or he is able, to overcome this are in some way complicit.

Healthcare, equal and living wages, the right to vote, the right to love whomever one loves, and the like are contained and expressed above as included among those rights that — as Gaudium et Spes makes explicit in a later section — all human institutions (e.g., governments and the church) are to work to guarantee for all people, regardless of any person’s mental, moral, physical, or social capacity or utility.

The church does not ignore the practical differences of each person, but instead affirms the reality that aptitude does in fact vary from person to person. Nevertheless, one does not earn something like access to healthcare or the right to make as much money doing the same work as someone of another sex. These are the intrinsic rights that the Creator has bestowed and that other human beings have unjustly curbed or outrightly taken away from other women and men.

Fifty years after the call of the Second Vatican Council, we can look back and reflect on how we’ve responded to this challenge and the needs of the modern world as seen by the church. We have a long way to go. What can you do to make a difference?

Photo: Stock

Voting, ‘Gaudium et Spes’ and the Responsibility of Citizenship

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , , , , , on November 5, 2012 by Daniel P. Horan, OFM

Here we are with just one day left before the 2012 presidential election. It is important that we all contribute to the life of our society and recall that the responsibility of citizenship requires that all vote tomorrow. In order to prepare ourselves for this civic duty, it seemed a good idea to look briefly at what the Church’s teaching holds concerning voting and government. Because most of us fall under the category of the citizen who will cast a vote for those who serve in elected office, let’s begin with this succinct and clear reminder of our task at hand:

All citizens, therefore, should be mindful of the right and also the duty to use their free vote to further the common good (no. 75).

It can be frustrating to dwell on the imperfections of both sides of the US two-party system, realizing that neither candidate in a given race is perfect and each bears some responsibility — to greater or lesser degrees — for positions that do not align precisely with what Roman Catholics strive to affirm.

Nevertheless, we are called to recall not just our right, but our duty to use our free vote to “further the common good,” which extends beyond our limited partisan priorities and personal financial or social gains. Furthering the common good necessarily takes into consideration those who are discriminated against and marginalized, especially the poor and powerless.

Concerning individual property and its relationship to the common good, the Church teaches:

By its very nature private property has a social quality which is based on the law of the common destination of earthly goods. If this social quality is overlooked, property often becomes an occasion of passionate desires for wealth and serious disturbances, so that a pretext is given to the attackers for calling the right itself into question (no. 71).

There is always a responsibility tied between what we traditionally identify as the realm of private property and that which is necessary to secure the common good, the basic needs and conditions for human flourishing for all people. Nobody has the right to have excessive wealth and property while others face poverty and other threats to life and human dignity.

Concerning the role of the government in facilitating the flourishing of humanity and the promotion of the common good, the Church teaches:

The complex circumstances of our day make it necessary for public authority to intervene more often in social, economic and cultural matters in order to bring about favorable conditions which will give more effective help to citizens and groups in their free pursuit of [humanity's] total well-being (no. 75).

Furthermore, there is a strong sense of what the Christian’s responsibility entails when it comes to the political life of one’s nation. The Church teaches that there are various public and civic vocations, including the legitimate exercise of public office, but that all members of a socio-economic community like the United States, for example, have a duty and responsibility to participate fully.

In a very succinct paragraph, the Second Vatican Council makes stark these concerns and presents a challenge to political parties (take note, Republicans and Democrats!!) as to what their respective roles are in the function of civil government.

All Christians must be aware of their own specific vocation within the political community. It is for them to give an example by their sense of responsibility and their service of the common good. In this way they are to demonstrate concretely how authority can be compatible with freedom, personal initiative with the solidarity of the whole social organism, and the advantages of unity with fruitful diversity. They must recognize the legitimacy of different opinions with regard to temporal solutions, and respect citizens, who, even as a group, defend their points of view by honest methods. Political parties, for their part, must promote those things which in their judgement are required for the common good; it is never allowable to give their interests priority over the common good (no. 75).

In what follows in the rest of Gaudium et Spes concerning the urgent needs of our age, the Church affirms the need for international cooperation, the value and need to sustain international communities of governance such as the United Nations, the collective responsibility to avoid war and promote peace, among other important issues.

All of these things should help to inform the consciences of Christians that take up their duty to vote tomorrow. There is no single issue that is the ultimate determiner for a Catholic Christian to judge a candidate, instead there are a panoply of concerns, issues, goals, and responsibilities that must all converge to inform the political action of the citizenry.

There is no higher teaching in the Roman Catholic Church than that which is promulgated by an Ecumenical Council such as Vatican II. Gaudium et Spes, as it concerns politics, government, and voting must be taken with the utmost seriousness and regarded before any claims of individual ecclesiastical authorities. In the end, the most oft-occuring factor in the Church’s teaching on political action is: promotion of the common good.

Photo: Stock

Nearing the Anniversary of Vatican II’s Beginning

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , , on February 3, 2012 by Daniel P. Horan, OFM

In the most recent issue of America magazine, Boston College theologian Richard Gaillardetz (visit his personal website) writes about some of the themes and dispositions present in the context of the Second Vatican Council, particularly highlighting the roles of dialogue and deliberation with a spirit of openness and collegiality during the conciliar discussions. There is much we can learn from the way the Second Vatican Council unfolded and has (or has not) been received in subsequent years. As we approach the fiftieth anniversary of this historic event in the life of the Church and world, take a look at this article. Here’s a brief excerpt:

Every ecumenical council manifests or puts on display, to some extent, what the church really is. What happens at ecumenical councils is more than the writing, debate, revision and approval of documents. At an ecumenical council, saints and sinners, the learned and the ignorant gather together. They share their faith, voice their concerns, pray, argue, gossip, forge alliances and compromises, enter into political intrigue, rise above that intrigue to discern the movements of the Spirit, worry about preserving the great tradition in which their identity is rooted, seek to understand the demands of the present moment and hope for a better future.

That those who gather at a council carry lofty titles (pope, patriarch, cardinal, archbishop, bishop, religious superior, theologian) and wear somewhat unusual garb should not distract us from the fact that, at heart, they are brothers and sisters (women did play their part, however circumscribed it may have been) in the faith to all other Catholic Christians. Their deliberations represent, in a dramatic form, what the church is called to be.

To read the rest, go here: “Conversation Starters: Dialogue and Deliberation During Vatican II.”

Photo: File

Vatican II: Too Early to Tell?

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , , , , , , on October 13, 2011 by Daniel P. Horan, OFM

I’ve read a couple of things recently that have got me thinking a lot about the state of the Roman Catholic church in light of its most recent ecumenical council: Vatican II. The first comes from Hendrik Hertzberg’s The Talk of the Town piece in the current issue of The New Yorker about the “Occupy Wall Street” events in Manhattan and around the country. In an effort to illustrate the as-of-yet unknown impact and future of these ostensibly grass-roots happenings, Hertzberg recollection of what Zhou Enlai supposedly said in response to then-president Richard Nixon when the president “asked him to assess the impact of the French Revolution: it’s too early to tell.”

The second comes from the renowned systematic theologian and Franciscan friar, Kenan Osborne, who, in his book Priesthood: A History of Ordained Ministry in the Roman Catholic Church (Wipf & Stock), wrote: “The Second Vatican Council presented the Roman Catholic Church with a theological understanding of ministry which [sic] will continue to exert an influence for decades, perhaps even centuries to come.”

Both of these remarks got me thinking about the Church and the way in which people continue to respond to the theological and pragmatic shifts brought about by the Council. We recently observed the 49th anniversary of Bl. Pope John XXIII’s calling of a new ecumenical council, a perfect time to pause and look at where we’ve come and where we are going, especially as major half-century milestones of the event approach.

There have been some trends in the Church of late that rightly give pause to those concerned about seeing the prophetic and practical dimensions of the Council implemented and lived within the life of the Body of Christ. Recently, I was thinking about the understanding of the threefold understanding of the priesthood as it is presented in the Council’s theology of ministry (particularly in the texts Lumen Gentium and Presbyterorum Ordines). The notion that the members of the Body of Christ, which is the Church, share in Christ’s ministry of teacher, sanctifier and leader is not limited to those in holy orders (deacons, priests, bishops), but also includes, in very explicit terms (Lumen Gentium art. 34-38), the fact the laity too share this mission and responsibility.

It should come as no surprise given the recent discussions on DatingGod.org and elsewhere about the policy changes in Phoenix and Madison that the role — liturgically and ecclesiastically — of the laity and the role of the ordained would be a matter of timely concern. There are indeed ways in which the Second Vatican Council seems to be curbed by such behaviors, if not in the letter of the documents (although one might argue that is indeed true), then in the spirit of the texts.

I am increasingly convinced that few people, including those whose responsibilities are to shepherd local churches, have a competent grasp of these Church documents from Vatican II, which are still very new at under fifty-years old each. It doesn’t take long, having read only the primary constitutions and decrees from the Council to realize that the vision of Church and the heuristic model laid out by the Council Fathers continues to be treated only in the most superficial ways, if not ignored in some places entirely.

I used to think — and still do to some extent — that this was largely do to a willed ignorance of the texts and a disregard for the change that necessarily comes with a substantial effort to return to a more authentically Christian way of living as Church. But I also wonder, in light of Hertzberg and Osborne’s remarks, if part of the problem isn’t just the small amount of time that has passed since the closing of the Council. How long does it take for the vision of an ecumenical council to take hold? How long should it?

This is not to suggest that certain liturgical and ecclesiastical shifts haven’t already taken hold and for the better, but read Lumen Gentium, Gaudium et Spes and Sacrosanctum Concilium — if only those three constitutions — and tell me that we’re living that understanding of Church today! I don’t think you could, whether you like it or not. I am concerned that we are not more consciously imbuing ourselves with the texts of the Council, saturating our thinking and vision with this liturgical and ecclesiastical worldview. Instead, we hear of the silly-to-absurd actions of certain local churches (prohibiting girl altar servers, restricting communion under both kinds, limiting the involvement of the faithful in the ecclesiastical and liturgical life of the community in several ways, and so on). I’m not sure what is behind these sorts of things, but I know that nowhere in the Council documents does one find justification for such behavior. Sure, there may be juridical authority to do these things, but that doesn’t make it right.

So, I’m left to continue thinking about Vatican II and whether or not it might indeed be too early to tell if things will change and work out for the best. To return to Hendrik Hertzberg’s article again, I think the closing line of his piece rings true here too: “It’s too early to tell, but not too late to hope.” Amen.

Photo: CNS

Vatican to Dialogue with Atheists

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , , , , on March 28, 2011 by Daniel P. Horan, OFM

Whatever you think about the Vatican, whatever you think about atheists for that matter, one thing that Church leaders are engaged in today is something about which all can be proud: public dialogue between believers and nonbelievers. I take this sort of move to reflect a sincere interest in discussing matters of ultimate importance for the human family among people who do not hold the same worldviews. That such an initiative happens to be started and supported by the Church is yet another positive sign at a time when it can be difficult to see edifying actions and statements from Church leaders amid clergy abuse and other things.

I am convinced that such a move could really only begin with the Church and not the other way around. The more I read the work of people like Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins and others, the more I realize that public atheists such as them have absolutely no interest in discussing the human condition with people of faith. The hostility of someone like Harris toward institutional religion can at times cross the boundaries of offensive and even border on the obscene (just read or listen too some of his more recent interviews about his latest book).

Nevertheless, leaders in the Catholic Church, in part spurred on by Pope Benedict XVI’s personal interest in revitalizing the Christian faith in Europe, sees dialogue as essential to moving forward as a more tolerant and peaceable society.

I seriously doubt that obstinate atheists like Harris and others will readily come to the dialogue, but I’m not entirely sure that is who the Vatican wishes to speak with in this case. Paris is the first site of the multi-year, transnational endeavor, which will include several spots in Europe and North America. It is no accident that France is the launching pad for this sort of effort. For one, France, a formerly and historically Catholic country, has become one of the most “secular” nations in Europe. For Benedict XVI, this is precisely the place such initiatives should begin and take root. Secondly, France has produced some of the most intellectually astute atheists and philosophers (religious and political) that have challenged the metanarratives of Christianity.

It is this second group of thinkers, the real scholars, that I believe the Vatican has in mind for a dialogue partner. Harris, Hitchens and the rest garner a lot of attention and publicity through the publication of their books and rather provocative speaking tours, but it is the realm of the real scholars at places like the Sorbonne that believers seek to enter and engage. It could prove quite interesting.

The Religion News Service included the following in its report of the first installment of the dialogue:

A new Vatican initiative to promote dialogue between believers and atheists debuted with a two-day event on Thursday and Friday (March 24-25) in Paris.

“Religion, Light and Common Reason” was the theme of seminars sponsored by the Vatican’s Pontifical Council for Culture at various locations in the French capital, including Paris-Sorbonne University and the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO).

“The church does not see itself as an island cut off from the world … Dialogue is thus a question of principle for her,” Cardinal Gianfranco Ravasi told the French newspaper La Croix. “We are aware that the great challenge is not atheism but indifference, which is much more dangerous.”

This is definitely a sign that those in ecclesiastical leadership recognize their responsibility to live out the call of the Second Vatican Council, which says that the Church is to engage the world because it is indeed part of it. Furthermore, the notion of atheism versus indifference as the real problem is precisely on-target. Even the most offensive atheists are better off, in my opinion, than the apathetic. At least they care about something.

I have several friends who are avowed nonbelievers and I know several colleagues in the world of theology, philosophy and religious studies that, publicly or otherwise, align themselves quite closely with figures such as those with whom the Church seeks to dialogue. I think all of us, believers and nonbelievers, are curious to see how this will unfold. It will be interesting indeed.

Photos: Reuters; AP
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