The Event of the Century
By Skip Tate
“My favorite story about Pope John XXIII,” says Robert Kaiser, “is when he ran into a group of protestants. He was this real jovial person and he told them they must get together sometime. They said, ‘We can’t get together.’ He said, ‘Why not?’ They said, ‘Because we have different ideas.’ He said, ‘Ideas, ideas, what are ideas among friends?’”
Standing before a crowd of several hundred people in the Cintas Center banquet room, Kaiser offered insights into John XXIII and the Second Vatican Council—the monumental event that John XXIII set into motion 40 years ago this October. The University’s department of theology is celebrating the anniversary of the four-year council by sponsoring one program a year detailing events of the council for the next four years.
“Depending on your age, Vatican II was either a great event that breathed new life into the church and brought great unity among humankind,” says department of theology chair William Madges. “Or, it was an event that brought about a loss of identity within the church and took it down the wrong path, making the Catholic church look too much like the protestant church. Either way, it was the most significant event in the Catholic church in the last century.”
John XXIII announced his intentions for a new council on Jan. 25, 1959, less than three months after his election to the papacy. On Christmas 1961, he signed the document formally evoking what was to be the Church’s 21st ecumenical council. Vatican II, as it became known (Vatican I was in 1869-70), opened on Oct. 11, 1962—the same month as the Cuban missile crisis. The council met every autumn through 1965, producing 16 documents: four constitutions, nine decrees and three declarations.
Kaiser kicked off the series with an overview of the council, which he covered for Time magazine. A former member of the Society of Jesus, Kaiser was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize for his coverage. He also won an Overseas Press Club Award and wrote two of his 10 books on the council: Pope, Council and World and The Politics of Sex and Religion.
The council, he says, was “the ecclesiastical Super Bowl,” the “climax of a battle that had been going on in the Church for almost two centuries.”
“It was a fight,” he says, “between forces that believed that the Church had been in flux from its very beginning, versus those who believed that the Church could never change. It was a fight between those who believed that the Church is always in need of reform (though it is in the middle of a world that is basically good) versus those who believed the Church’s holiness demanded it condemn a world that is mostly bad. It was a fight between those who gloried in the Church’s humanity versus those who took pride in its divinity. It was a fight between those who heard the Holy Spirit speaking through history and those who considered history as something the Church should try to escape.”
The winner of the fight, he says, was the people. Or at least that’s how it seemed at the time. In the 40 years since, though, it’s become obvious that there haven’t been any winners because the fight is still taking place. The Church hasn’t implemented the charters it wrote. “The Council fathers had a vision—of a Church that was more decentralized and more democratic,” he says. “But they didn’t set up the machinery that would make that vision happen.”
So we’re here, he says, still slugging it out. People interested in seeing those changes implemented have two options: Start at the top and push for a new council, or start at the bottom and make changes at the parish, deanery or diocesan level.
His recommendation is to push for the creation of what he calls “autochthonous” churches. Autochthonous churches—it’s a “$15 word,” he says, “meaning local”—not only insert the gospel into each culture, but insert the differences of each culture into the gospel. Both are enhanced this way, he says. “The substance of faith is one thing,” he says. “How it’s presented is another. People in America don’t want to hear the same thing as those in Rome.”
He doesn’t have all the answers, he says, but thinks the people do, and thinks the people need to get together, discuss the issues at hand and do something about them. The problem, he adds, is that that would look too much like a democracy from Rome’s point of view, and the church isn’t democratic.
“The church isn’t a democracy, but there are democratic mechanisms that could be put into place,” he says. “In every other segment of society we have checks and balances that we have worked out over time. Why not the church? We can do it easier in America because democracy is the air that we breathe. We have to grow up. We’re used to ‘Father May I?’ and ‘Father’s always right,’ but that doesn’t work for us.”
The people must realize they are the voice of the church, he says, and must insist the bishops start listening.
“We, the people of God, will start with our bishops. The first task ahead of us is clear: we must insist that our bishops start listening. Once they do, we will be able to demand they use their authority not for domination, but for service. And that they make themselves accountable. Right now, they have a childish out: ‘Rome won’t let us be accountable.’ In an autochthonous American Church, we would all grow up. We wouldn’t have to play the game called ‘Mother, May I?’”
(In addition to writing for Newsweek magazine, Kaiser also writes for the British Catholic publication The Tablet and edits a new online publication, justgoodcompany.com. The full text of his talk can be read at that site.)