The change heralded by the new Pope is less radical than it at first looksby David Lehmann / January 6, 2014 / Leave a comment
In 1958 the College of Cardinals elected an avuncular 76-year old as the new Pope. John XXIII, formerly Archbishop of Venice, was expected to be a do-nothing stop-gap. Instead he initiated a process of “aggiornamento,” bringing the Church in line with the times. He called together a Council—the highest doctrinal body of the Church—comprising all the bishops from across the world, whose last meeting had been the First Vatican Council in 1869-70. The main effect of Vatican II, as it became known, on the daily life of Catholics was to put an end to the obligatory mass in Latin. But the Council also produced several major doctrinal documents, notably Gaudium et Spes about “the Church in the World” which expressed a new spirit of pluralism and of engagement with society.
Although Pope John died before the Council had finished its deliberations, his successor Paul VI continued the trend with major declarations on economic development and social justice. But Paul also switched the agenda in 1968 when, against the advice of an expert theological commission his predecessor had established, he reaffirmed the doctrine that “any action … specifically intended to prevent procreation”—i.e. contraception by artificial means—was “unlawful.” After that, public debate about the Church, especially in Europe and North America, focused more and more on issues of personal morality. It is that focus which Pope Francis, the pontiff elected last Spring, wants to change.
In an interview Pope Francis gave in August, which was published worldwide in Jesuit magazines, the Pope made it clear that it is not necessary to talk “all the time” about “abortion, gay marriage and the use of contraceptive methods,” and that he was worried by the “ideologization” and “exploitation” of the Tridentine (Latin) Mass—whose celebration has been a rallying cry among the fiercest opponents of Vatican II. He could hardly have given out clearer signals, and he went on to say things which must have infuriated and frightened those who thought they had buried the Council: “Those who today always look for disciplinarian solutions… who long for an exaggerated doctrinal security… who stubbornly seek to recover a past that no longer exists—they have a static and inward-directed view of things. In this way faith becomes an ideology among other ideologies.” The interview is a sharp rebuke to those who would make of their religious commitment a work of relentless moralizing about others’ behaviour.