Cathblog - A Spirit Uncontrolled


In the few weeks since Jorge Bergoglio became Pope Francis he has become for many a symbol of renewed hope and confidence while for others he remains someone to be regarded with a degree of caution, even suspicion.

While some are looking closely at Francis to see if he maintains a sense of recognisable continuity with his predecessor, others have been waiting for him to give clear indications of openness to future change.

He has, it seems, now done that simply, emphatically in two major areas of structural change and renewal in the life of the Church.

His has appointed of an international panel of Cardinals to begin the process of reforming the Roman Curia. This has been almost universally welcomed, given that the ecclesiastical bureaucracy has become top heavy, flabby and self-serving, especially during the past 40 years or so. Despite Cardinal George Pell’s recent door stop remark that ‘a few mishaps’ have occurred in the Curia which require fixing, the real problems are systemic and deep-seated.

John Allen, of The National Catholic Reporter, has observed that the recent Conclave passed a rather critical judgment, not on Benedict XVI himself, but on his management and governance of the Church.

In Allen’s view, ‘They were either non-existent or dysfunctional.’  He went on to say that the Cardinals wanted a candidate ‘not tainted in any way by association with the old regime’. It seems Jorge Bergoglio was certainly aware of this well before the voting started. [1]

It is evident that Pope Francis is now happy to see the wild, persistent and naggingly intrusive mustard weed of the Kingdom flourish once more in God’s garden.

At a recent chapel Mass in his shared residence Francis, referring to the 50th anniversary of the Second Vatican Council, spoke eloquently of the original prompting action of the Holy Spirit. He called the Council the beautiful gift of God’s’ Spirit which cannot be controlled or manipulated. He went on to say,

‘We celebrate this anniversary, we put up a monument but we don’t want it to upset us. We don’t want to change and what’s more, there are people who want to turn the clock back. .... The Holy Spirit upsets us because it moves us, it makes us walk, it pushes the Church forward.’ [2]

There has been extensive debate during the last decade or more that this momentum has been slowed dramatically, even stalled under the watch of Pope Benedict and extending back into his time as Prefect of the CDF.

Pretty much from the day the Council was closed, the question has been how its documents should be interpreted authentically. This has long been a point of contention for those who have strongly resisted the proposition that the combined magisterium of Popes John Paul II, Benedict XVI and the Catechism of the Catholic Church amount to the authentic interpretation of the Council’s documents. History points in another direction.

The historical clues for identifying the authentic interpretative criteria for Vatican II should be found in the thinking and action of the almost 2,800 bishops who participated.

These were the Fathers who were transformed by what they witnessed and experienced. They were the ones who wrestled with the often bewilderingly complex, critical issues. They were the ones who pondered about, argued, debated about and made deliberate, conscious decisions on behalf of the universal Church.

They were keenly aware of the contending theologies of Church, Sacraments and ministries embedded in the Council Documents. Importantly, they demonstrated the intention, directions and vision of the Council by what they did when they returned home. That is what constitutes the authentic interpretation of the Second Vatican Ecumenical Council. [3]

North American blogger and commenter, Colleen Koch (colkoch) offers a way of developing this principle of forward movement that is in congruence with the intentions and praxis of the Council Fathers.  She suggests that the notion of evolution could provide a basis for re-envisioning the dynamics of the Council. Commenting recently in an NCR article on the shift in viewpoints between Benedict XVI and Francis, Koch observes,

‘Yes, he’s shifting the viewpoint. That’s not reform, that’s evolution. I am far more excited about an evolution than I would be a reform. The Church has reformed ad nauseam only to see new pathways created to keep the old ways of doing business. Evolution is a different story all together. Evolution leaves the old behind because it can’t adapt to a new environment.’

With a new Pope, there are different possibilities which might emerge. These are all things which can be done within the living and evolving life of the People of God. These involve some dramatic organic changes in Church governance, ministry and practice which are within the Church’s present understanding of what can and cannot be done. Here are some suggestions:

The College of Cardinals should be abolished The integrity and authority of the national Bishops’ conferences or permanent national synods should be restored or established with suitable representative from the non-ordained religious and laity should have permanent consultative and deliberative voice in these conferences One elected member of all these national groups would constitute the Conclave to elect the Pope. The authority to determine the translation of liturgical texts and, where appropriate calendars should be restored according to the express intentions of the Bishops at Vatican II. The Bishops of the English speaking world should instate the 1998 ICEL translation of the Eucharistic texts. A recent example of a national Episcopal conference declining to follow the express instructions of Pope Benedict XVI is their instruction to priests in their jurisdiction to continuing using the words, for all during the consecration of the cup. This autonomous unilateral action is supported by Cardinal Meisner of Cologne: ‘I have always said that the Congregation for Divine Worship should go through our text critically and see if we have translated the theological context correctly. But how we express ourselves in German is up to the German bishops.’ De-link the ministry of word, altar and charity (ordained Deaconate) from the clerical state and open it to women. De-link the Sacrament of Anointing of the Sick from sacramental absolution and include the ministry to the sick in the liturgical commissioning of male and female deacons. Restoration of the Third Rite of Reconciliation. 

These are essentially matters of initially rearranging the Church’s mental and spiritual furniture. The really contentious issues can be addressed as time goes by.

[1] See an interview with John Allen on the significance of Jorge Bergoglio’s election here.

[2] Francis on the ongoing challenges of Vatican II, here and here.

[3] Fr William Grimm, MM, offers some very useful reminders in this UCANews article. Click here.

[4] For Colleen Koch’s observations on evolution in papal thought and future direction of policy, click here.


David Timbs blogs from Albion, Victoria.

Disclaimer: CathBlog is an extension of CathNews story feedback. It is intended to promote discussion and debate among the subscribers to CathNews and the readers of the website. The opinions expressed in CathBlog are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of the members of the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference or of Church Resources.

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