The Thwarting of Catholic Reform

A half century ago, the Second Vatican Council charted a course for reform of the Catholic Church. But conservative popes, such as John Paul II and Benedict XVI, protected an autocratic system that failed to stop pedophile priests and even falls short on the religious needs of the faithful, says Catholic theologian Paul Surlis.

By Paul Surlis

As we approach the 50th anniversary of the opening of the Second Vatican Council (Oct. 11, 1962), we should highlight some of the structural changes in the Catholic Church that were supported by the Council but undermined or ignored, especially by Pope John Paul II and currently by Pope Benedict XVI.

One structural change called for collegiality, which would have had profound implications for accountability and transparency, both of which are needed in the Vatican and in the Church at large. Collegiality means that all the bishops as a collective have a role in Church governance as a matter of divine law and in a way that makes them a counterpart to the centralism that has prevailed in the Church for more than a millennium.

Pope John Paul II

During that time, the papacy, with its monarchical structure and assisted by the curia which is the civil service of the pope, has assumed absolute power — legislative, executive and judicial — in the governance of the Church. The Second Vatican Council advocated collegial structures to balance centralism of this sort whether exercised in the Vatican, in dioceses or in parishes.

The accountability and transparency, which would have come from greater collegiality, might have spared children from abuse at the hands of pedophile priests and prevented the cover-ups that allowed this scandalous behavior to spread and grow more egregious.

The lack of collegiality has allowed other problems to worsen, too. Among these is the rigid insistence that only celibate, male Catholics may be considered for ordination.

Even though married Anglican clergy and ministers from Reformed traditions may be re-ordained and serve in Catholic communities, limitation of ordination to celibate males has the effect of causing a Eucharistic famine which affects thousands of Catholic communities all over the world. People are denied full Eucharistic liturgies which should be the center and source of their spiritual lives.

Yet, maleness and celibacy are humanly imposed conditions for ordination and both are now obsolete. Insistence on them is depriving Catholics of full liturgical and sacramental celebrations to which they have a right, not by Vatican concessions but by divine law.

The Vatican, with its centralized power structure, turns a deaf ear to requests from lay persons, priests and bishops for open and honest debate on optional celibacy for priests despite the fact that it obtained until 1139 when mandatory celibacy for the western (Roman) Catholic Church was introduced.

Likewise, discussion of the ordination of women is disallowed despite the fact that women presided at Eucharistic celebrations in the early Church and no valid scriptural or theological reasons exist which would prevent the ordination of women today.

When Pope John Paul II declared that the question of the ordination of women was settled definitively, he was declaring that his will on the issue had the force of law. This is called voluntarism and it has never been embraced in the moral tradition of Catholicism.

Before a theological issue can be decided definitively, it must first have been studied in its scriptural and historical dimensions; it must be prayed over; and the faith of the People of God, the Church, must be consulted to see where it stands on the issue.

Even a pope cannot bypass these procedures and declare that his favored position has the force of law. If he does, he is being dictatorial, which Pope John Paul II often was. Thus, his decision on the ordination of women was far from being infallible. Indeed, it has no validity and should be disregarded as worthless.

If true collegiality had been implemented at all levels as the Second Vatican Council clearly intended, we might not have been spared all the recent abuses, but we surely would have avoided their worst excesses. We also would be on the way toward resolving them through dialogue and discernment in synods local, national and universal in which the entire People of God would be involved.

This is how issues were dealt with in the early Church, and it is this collegiate structure and practice that the Second Vatican Council wished to restore with its embrace of collegiality.

In the Second Vatican Council’s Dogmatic Constitution on the Church (promulgated on Nov. 21, 1964), we read: “Just as, in accordance with the Lord’s decree, St. Peter and the rest of the Apostles constitute a unique Apostolic college, so in like fashion the Roman Pontiff, Peter’s successor, and the bishops, the successors of the apostles, are related with and united to one another … likewise the holding of councils in order to settle conjointly … all questions of major importance … points clearly to the collegiate character and structure of the Episcopal order, and the holding of ecumenical councils bears this out unmistakably.”

Ironically, one of the principal architects of this pivotal paragraph on collegiality was Professor Joseph Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict XVI. Indeed, the most lucid and supportive commentary on structural reforms  mandated by the Second Vatican Council is to be found in Dr. Ratzinger’s Theological Highlights of Vatican II, a collection of commentaries each written after each session of the Council and republished by Paulist Press in 2009.

Dr. Ratzinger refers to councils of national Conferences of Bishops as “a new element in the Church’s structure (that) form a kind of quasi-synodal agency between individual bishops and the pope. In this way a kind of continuing synodal element is built into the Church, and thereby the college of bishops assumes a new function.”

Dr. Ratzinger refers to a “fundamental innovation” in the Latin church whereby “the formulation of liturgical laws for their own regions is now, within limits, the responsibility of the various conferences of bishops. And this … by virtue of their own independent authority.”

He also refers to Pope Paul VI inviting the Council to consider “the creation of a new organ, a kind of Episcopal council … not to be understood as subordinate to the curia but rather as a direct representation of the world episcopate” and with mainly elected bishops and permanently in session.

Such a permanent synod would have authority over the curia, which today co-rules the Church with the Pope and controls the bishops of the Church.

If the will of the Second Vatican Council, the supreme teaching authority in the Church, had not been subverted on these issues by Pope John Paul II (who worked tirelessly to undermine national conferences of bishops) and today by Benedict XVI, we would have accountability and transparency in the Church.

We also would have truly independent Episcopal councils of priests with lay persons in each diocese, we would have elected councils of lay persons in each parish and issues like ordination of married men and ordination of women would get impartial hearings and become transformative realities in a church where they are sorely needed.

Instead, Catholics are deprived of priests and full Eucharistic liturgies. Precious Catholic liberties are stolen from them not by secular governments but by the Vatican and its accomplices.

Surely, such theft of precious religious rights from the People of God by Vatican intransigence should be where Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York and Archbishop William Lori of Baltimore should focus their zeal to arouse Catholics to battle for their precious liberties and rights.

Paul Surlis taught moral theology and Catholic Social teaching at St. John’s University, New York from 1975-2000. He is now retired and living in Crofton, Maryland.

23 comments for “The Thwarting of Catholic Reform

  1. Robert Charron
    June 30, 2012 at 08:57

    Evidently there are many people who want to be Catholics but also they do not want to follow the teachings of the church that constituted Catholcism. they appear to want their cake and eat it too. They feel the church is wrong and has been wrong, but they still want to sail under the flag labeled “Catholic.” Why don’t they join a more liberal Christian religious group that has adopted the policies that these dissidents believe are good, why not? It is like I would want to be called a communist but work to have the communist party adopt capitalism.

    • F. G. Sanford
      June 30, 2012 at 10:26

      Reminds me of that old Greyhound Bus commercial: “Leave the driving to us”. Liberal minded Catholics can leave the church, and we’ll tend to those tender young…morals.

    • kim
      July 6, 2012 at 15:55

      When you say teachings of the church do you mean supporting slavery as Pope Pius IX did or condemning it as John Paul II did.Do you mean holding sex in marriage as a necessary evil tolerable for children but tainted with sin or Pius XII that hailed sex in marriage as good. Or maybe Pis IX condemning democract but Pope Paul VI approving it with the bishops in the documents in Vatican II where it states people have the right to vote & elect. I could go on forever….

      • kim
        July 6, 2012 at 15:56

        That sex is evil in marriage was taught by Pope Gregory the great

  2. Joe O'Leary
    June 30, 2012 at 07:26

    I agree totally with Paul Surlis’s diagnosis. As with Hans Kung, the unanswerability of what he says prompts his critics into juvenile ad hominems — “another whiner” etc. etc. Surlis is one of Ireland’s most courageous and honest theologians, and assuredly no whiner!

  3. June 29, 2012 at 23:04

    In 1968, after convening a highly respected commission to make recommendations to the papacy about which policies the Catholic Church should adopt regarding birth control, and receiving the advice that the church should radically revise its opposition to it, Pope Paul VI totally ignored that advice and instead issued his landmark encyclical letter, Humanae Vitae, reaffirming the Catholic Church’s traditional opposition to all forms of artificial birth control.
    I can’t speak for the thousands of other priests who left the priesthood at that time, but I suspect that many like me came to the conclusion that after waiting for hundreds of years for the Catholic Church to be reformed and then seeing our church going backwards instead of forwards after the 2nd Vatican Council that there was no hope of seeing the Catholic Church reformed in our lifetime.
    I had no idea at the time, but I have since learned that the brief period of the liberal popes of the 60s and 70s, namely John XXIII, Paul the 6th, and John Paul the 1st didn’t die of natural causes. argues very cogently that it was anything but natural for the very liberal Popes John Paul I to die after just 33 days in office to make room for the very conservative Pope John Paul II, who enjoyed one of the longest papacies in history because liberals compete with their rivals with arguments, not poison!

  4. Jerry
    June 29, 2012 at 18:28

    However inadequate the Church’s new method of ending clergy abuse, the Catholic Church has taken more steps to protect against it than any other organization. It would also be much more accurate to refer to the priest abuse scandal not as “pedophile,” since the overwhelming number of cases were homosexual acts between the clerics and adolescent boys. Pedophile acts involve pre-pubescent boys. Those who want to make the scandal even more awful than it is like to use the inaccurate label “pedophile,” when it is something quite different.

    • F. G. Sanford
      June 29, 2012 at 20:00

      Minors are minors, and rape is rape. Shame on you.

      • Joe O'Leary
        June 30, 2012 at 07:25

        The overwhelming majority of cases did NOT concern adolescent boys unless you count 11-13 year olds in this category. The Jay Report also misled me on this. The correct statistic for older teenagers as a proportion of abuse cases is around 25%.

  5. Hillary
    June 29, 2012 at 12:43

    What is this continued religious nonsense that Consortium puts out.

    And how is it related to “Independent Investigative Journalism” ?

    The Bible (Greatest Story Book ever sold) is full of invented stories that closely parallel preexisting myths and legends from other cultures that cannot be supported by archaeological data but are strongly influenced by Egyptian, Greek, Sumerian, and Hebrew mythology and literature .

    Jews created and believed all that gobldy gook and Christianity jumped on the band wagon to make it a real “cash cow” .

    • F. G. Sanford
      June 29, 2012 at 13:35

      My sentiments exactly.

  6. Herbert A. Davis, Jr.
    June 29, 2012 at 12:16

    Joseph W.

    I understand your anger and frustration with this superstitous group…rather than get angry at them, join something like the “Freedom From Religion Foundation”____ffrf.org___ and do battle with this hierarchy. Good people do have superstitions and sadly, they continue to support a hierarchy that supports pedophilia and claims a tax exemption while fighting things like birth control and abortion rights!

  7. Robert Charron
    June 29, 2012 at 09:24

    To describe Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI as “conservative,” shows that the author has lost all sense of objectivity. Pope Benedict the XVI played a mojor role in Vatidan II. Pope John Paul II’s actions at Assisi alone would have earned him an excommunication by all popes prior to the two previous popes. Just because they did not immediately reject all previous Catholic teaching did not mean they were at all conservative. The catholic church has maintained it teaches and has always taught the truth, so if they did as the radical revolutionists wanted, they would undercut the Catholic Churches claim to teach the truth which would then undermine their authority, so they tried to disguise their liberalism in order to bamboozle the “faithful.” And why is the term “conservative” such a condemnation? Haven’t the liberal “reformers’ made every effort to “conserve” the changes they introduced? Look at how the author has taken a “conservatve” position in regard to the what he feels were at odds with those he regards Vatican II as intoducing. Vatican II, boys and girls, was after all officaially designated a “pastoral” council not a doctrinal council, and as such was not supposed to define any doctrine. But the spirit of “Americanism” is powerful and intoxicating. “Americanists” believe the church should be run like a democracy where the people decide what is right and wrong and what is good and bad. It was a democratic decision after all that Christ be crucified. And we all see how our country is headed. then there is the example of the episcopal Church that embraced modernism. Is that the path these “Catholic” theologians would have the church follow. They probably think that if they had all the powers that god has they could have created a much better world, I am sure.

    • F. G. Sanford
      June 29, 2012 at 12:27

      The Catholic Church is a political, not a religious organization. It maintains its own department of state, and has well developed intelligence and espionage organs. The “Crisis of Modernism” is an old and well documented story, along with anti-democracy and anti-Americanism in the church. Even today, the “Anti-Modernist Oath” is a requirement, and remains a form of thought control unrivaled under even fascist and communist regimes. Pius X’s campaign against modernism was run by Umberto Benigni, who said, “History is nothing but a continual desperate attempt to vomit. For this sort of human being, there is only one remedy: the Inquisition.” That the Vatican resisted the democratization of Italy is well demonstrated by Pio Nono’s remarks, referring to “the outrageous treason of democracy”, and his threats to excommunicate voters. In his “Syllabus of Errors”, he asserted it was a grave error that the “Roman Pontiff should reconcile himself with progress, liberalism, and modern civilization”. Incidentally, he had a young Jewish boy named Edgardo Mortara kidnapped by papal police. He kept the boy as a plaything, and the scandal outraged the world. Twenty editorials were published in the New York Times on the subject. Franz Joseph of Austria and Napoleon III of France both campaigned for the boy’s release, but the Pope would not budge. The despicable injustices of the Catholic Church continue to this day, and this article falls on the heels of a money laundering scandal at the Vatican. But the churches supporters, like the author of this comment, feign piety in their hypocritical desire to overlook history and reality in order to justify the insult to humanity that the church represents. Like Benigni, he would no doubt have us racked by the Inquisition in order to preserve his sanctimonious point of view. Or is it, in reality, just greed and power, and not piety they seek to perpetuate? History plainly answers that question. No wonder they despise historians. Who’s doing the bamboozling here: you or the historians?

  8. JosephW
    June 28, 2012 at 23:34

    However, sexual abuse is not monopolized by Catholic Church alone. In fact, Americans are world’s top child sex abusers. According to the Family Research Council: “Each year, right under our noses, 100,000 American children are victimized by sex traffickers. Make no mistake, this is not a problem that’s just “over there.” These heinous crimes are happening in our own backyards”.
    Yeah. And part of those crimes “happening in our own backyards” have been at the hands of Catholic priests. US Catholic priests.

    And the Family Research Council has its own problems when it comes to the abuse of children. Don’t forget the FRC has spent a great deal of time ignoring school bullying, especially the bullying of LGBT kids (even *supporting* the idea that bullying SHOULD be protected if the bullies can claim they’re only following their “religious beliefs”).

    Fuck religion. And fuck the religious sheeple who enable the sick twisted bastards who enjoy victimizing children and teens.

  9. John R.
    June 28, 2012 at 22:48

    Sounds like more whining cliches. The Episcopal Church has had its own sex scandals, so your theory that conciliarism would have prevented the sex scandals is bunk.

    If you prefer adherence to paganism to following Christ, then that is your business.

    • Josh Kimball
      June 29, 2012 at 00:07

      Over and over again, people who point to the occurrence of pedophilia in other churches or society large miss the point. Let me try again. It was the COVER UP that is the shame on the Church. Yes, the assault, the rape of children is awful, horrific. And it seems impossible that celibacy and the unnatural thwarting of normal sexual development didn’t play a role in how many priests were involved. But what sets the RCC so beyond the Pale, and casts such a deep stain on the soul of the Church was the willingness of the rest of the hierarchy to cover it up and move these pedantry monsters on to new victims. And it was the secret, clerical culture that allowed that to happen. It was only because of this closed, secret society that the cover up went on for so long. And it is the continued failure of the RCC to acknowledge its complicity in these crimes that continues the shame.

      • Isaac Hoppe
        July 7, 2012 at 01:21

        Agreed. The shame on the Church lies in its inability to address sex abuse with any appropriate action. “What is in the darkness shall be brought into the light”. That can occur either in a way that brings shame or it can bring justice. A collegiate would make it possible for local congregations around the world to review the leadership’s actions and ensure they remain in line with the principles of Christianity. That may not immediately stop the abuse from occurring, but would change the culture of the priesthood, a step toward ensuring the abuse will end in the future.

      • Isaac Hoppe
        July 7, 2012 at 01:30

        Ah, one more thing, pedantry means “overly concerned with rules, procedure or details”. The literal translation is approximately “boasting about minor knowledge”. So perhaps I’m being pedantic, but it hurts to see good words misunderstood. :)

    • Colin Smith
      June 29, 2012 at 02:43

      What kind of choice is that? One type of medieval superstition to another. Why a religion anyway? Aren’t you adult enough to live life without another Father, without unprovable propositions,without ignorance and ritual. It is time for human beings to shrug off religion. All the people who believe in the a ‘Holy Father’ that I have met are still children. That’s why they need an authority figure to tell them how to live their lives. It’s all superstitious mumbo-jumbo, a fairy story rooted in ancient and conflicting texts that are nothing more than hearsay. Without religion, there would be less impulse to kill each other. You only have to look at those who gain from religion..the priests and rabbis and mullahs who gain power, esteem, wealth, status over other human beings. Who is less violent than a West Bank rabbi.”Go kill the Arabs, boys..I say it’s OK and I talk to God”. Human beings will not advance until they throw off religion and adopt humanism..the only civilized code by which to live.

      • F. G. Sanford
        June 29, 2012 at 08:41

        Bravo! The clergy are a bunch of despicable parasites. The Vatican’s Serbian Concordat fueled the animosity to help set off WWI. Then the Vatican got their nose into the act with the Versailles Treaty. Then, that self-serving prick Pacelli signed the Reich Concordat, giving legitimacy to the Nazis. He became Pope, and turned a blind eye to what everybody knew was going on in Germany. Then, when the war was over, the Catholic Church became the chief enabler of the so-called “Rat-lines”, aiding Nazis to escape to South America with Red Cross and Vatican passports. And look at the pitiful excuse they use for child molestation: celibacy. I say BULLSHIT! Those are perverts, and celibacy is no excuse. They were attracted to that lifestyle as a predatory strategy. Nobody would care if a desperate priest went out and got a hooker. But no, they have to prey on children. Parasites and abusers of the defenseless and gullible is all they are. By the way, the same office that conducted the inquisition still exists at the Vatican. All they did was change the name. Despicable. Utterly despicable.

    • kim
      July 6, 2012 at 15:47

      Funny married catholic clergy of the Eastern rite have not been involved in sexual scandals involving children. Then there the Council of Aux-La-Chapelle in the 9nth century that openly admitted that abortions & infanticide were comitted by uncelibate clerics in monasteries.Ts Ulrich a Bishop of the council argued in the name of reason & scripture for the church to purge itself from such excesses & allow priests to marry

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