This article appeared in the November 1998 edition of the Catholic Medical Quarterly

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The Promise of Vatican II

View Point

Ian Jessiman

I was a student when Vatican II began. I sang in the choir at a celebration to mark its opening - with a magnifying glass you can just see me in the photo- graph. At the time, we sensed that this was the start of something big, a new chapter for the Church. We could not anticipate what to expect or the extent of the upheaval which was to come.

Those who did not experience the events of that time can hardly be aware of the enormous sense of liberalisation which was felt in the Church, in varying degrees, at least in the West. After centuries of being the "simple faithful" who were told what to do, it seemed that the opinions of the laity would in future be considered if not actively sought. The windows of the Vatican were being opened wide to let in the fresh air. The future was seen as life "in the Spirit', in the joy of Christ.

Even before the Council, various new ideas were being put forward, particularly in the field of catechesis. Teaching was to be based on experience, both of the teachers and the taught. Matters of ethics were to be viewed, not only in the light of textbooks of moral theology, but of contemporary, particularly scientific, knowledge. At last the Church seemed prepared to emerge from the dark ages and engage with the contemporary mind.

Many people, clergy and laity, set to with enthusiasm to proclaim the good news inside and outside the Church. The faithful were in future to be answerable directly to Christ, not to some rigid ecclesiastical system. "Love God and do what you will" was at last to be their guideline.

There was, however, a serious draw back: some of these new ideas appeared to be incompatible with what had gone before. Anyone who gave the matter thought must have felt distinctly uneasy. How could the new ways of thinking be taught as coming from the Church? Some decided to go boldly ahead "in faith", others to stay quiet and wait and see, and others took up an entrenched position to resist any attempt at change. Bishop Butler recalled one of the bishops at the Council saying: "It is not a debate between the progressives and the conservatives but between the progressive and the conservative in each of us."

In large part the proposed changes had come from out side the Vatican. Those in the Vatican may have seen an implied criticism in the new ideas and reacted unfavourably, hindering any development in theology. The crisis over Humanae Vitae was not merely because the teaching about birth control was seen by many Catholics as causing more harm than good in marriage and thus unacceptable, but because it revealed that the Vatican, notwithstanding the lead that had been given by the Council, was unable, or unwilling, to allow any development from the theology of previous ages.

Can the Church change? The Vatican Council showed that the bishops in Council considered change possible, and indeed to be encouraged. The Church has changed in the past, usury being the commonly quoted example. Nowadays, the biggest problems arise in the fields of bio- and medical ethics and moral theology. There may be no fundamental clash between science and religion, but they speak very different languages. Any change here would require a new moral theology and a new sexual ethic, based on better scientific understanding. The Vatican appears to oppose any change, at least for the present.

Sadly, in Britain we are beginning to see an increasing antagonism between those opposing points of view. That part of us which rightly adheres to established theology tends to see those who are keen on change as "traitors". And that part which desires greater freedom and responsibility is dismayed to see the Church apparently becoming increasingly dogmatic and rigid.

Our admiration and respect for existing teaching should not lead us to become fundamentalist and exclude all possibility of change and development in the future. Nor should our desire for change lead us to invent our own theology "on the hoof". Change can only come about if new ideas can be proposed, debated and either adopted or discarded. Let none of us seek to demonise those who are expressing views contrary to our own. The Church is big enough for all of us.

Dr lan Jessiman is current Treasurer and a former Master of the Guild.

Reprinted from The Tablet of 26 September 1998, p 1241, by permission of the Editor, 1 King Street Cloisters, Clifton Walk, London W6 0QZ.