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From: Church & State: Editorials
Date: January, 2013
By: Jack Lane

Vatican 2 - What Went Wrong?

There has been much agonising by figures in the Catholic Church on the 50th anniversary of the opening of Vatican 2. Nobody can now deny that this was the harbinger of a decline in the strength of Irish Catholicism, as this magazine has always claimed. But what exactly went wrong?

Fr. Vincent Twomey SVD is emeritus Professor of Moral Theology at St Patrick’s College, Maynooth and a leading expert on the subject of theology. He had a piece in the Irish Catholic on 1st October to explain what went wrong. He says that before Vatican 2: 

“If any local Church was ripe for renewal—and could have achieved it—it was the Irish Catholic Church. Practice was at record levels for both Sunday and daily Mass-going. Devotions and confraternities flourished, Seminaries, Religious and missionary congregations were bursting at the seams.”

There is a peculiar logic here. The Church was never in better shape in Ireland than it was just before Vatican 2 but that made it ‘ripe for renewal’!

Let’s take an analogy to explore the sense of this thesis. The Cork football team establishes a very successful run, wins every game (beating Kerry well every time), wins a string of All Irelands (against Kerry), and wins every other championship, fills every stadium wherever they appear, establishes an international reputation for its football skills. The Club is at top of its game, literally and metaphorically. Then the GAA Executive suddenly decides the time is "ripe for renewal" of the team, that it should be shaken up and game-plan disrupted. How should the Cork GAA board react? Should it agree and begin 'renewing' a winning formula? Is it not more likely to say that it will not fix something that is working perfectly well? Any other response would be crazy. Yet is this not what happened with Vatican 2? The Irish Church, never more successful, agreed to "renewal" and created a disaster for itself.

Fr. Twomey has an explanation for what happened. It was not the Vatican’s fault—perish the thought—it was the fault of the Irish Church:  it was not ready for this renewal because it did not have a sufficient grasp of theology. What happened was a bit like Garret Fitzgerald’s dictum about the economy—it was fine in practice but it did not work in theory.

Fr. Twomey elaborates: 

“The malaise of modern Irish Catholicism is its inability to take theology seriously. Asked how he got on at the Second Vatican Council, one Irish bishop is reported to have replied: “Well, it was really all a bit of a waste of time. They talked about nothing but theology.” To what extent this comment reflected the general attitude of Irish bishops who attended the Council, I am unable to judge. But the remark would seem to reflect the general attitude of Irish clerics to theology then as now: a waste of time. This is one of the main reasons, it seems to me, why in Ireland the Council failed to achieve the renewal that Blessed Pope John XXIII had hoped to promote when he surprised the world by calling an Ecumenical {i.e. Universal} Council.”

So lack of a good theological underpinning is the problem! 

I think he could not be more wrong. Older religions and faster-growing religions do not exist and thrive on the basis of theology—which is essentially an effort to dissect and analyse the nature of God. Theology in itself can be a very insecure basis for religion at the best of times.

The Jews were chosen by their God as his people, who spoke to them a few times, gave them some real estate and a set of Commandments and as a result they have no problem about him or his nature. Their relationship is clear as they are made in his image and their rabbis work out the practicalities involved.
For Moslems their God experimented with a number of prophets, a sort of trial and error process, and finally settled on one and made him the final one, Mohammad. God wrote a book of instructions for him and his followers and while Muslims can analyse and interpret this book, the author is above and beyond all that and there is no need to analyse him as he said all that needed saying.

By contrast the Christian God is a bit of riddle. For a start he is three in one and/or one in three. It’s a bit like getting your mind around a Three Card Trick trying to visualise this God. He became man, reportedly said some pious things, died, rose again and disappeared. He left no instructions as was the case in other religions. 

This state of affairs gave rise to countless heresies, different views of what God is, and an immense theology arose to resolve these problems.

Sorting out riddles is very good for the brain and the imagination. Trying to calculate the number of angels on the head of a pin etc. helped develop the imagination in a way that facilitated the development of modern science, which relies more and more on the imagination: as the ‘real’ world disappears more and more from physical view, the more it is analysed.

However, this does not solve the riddle of the Christian God, and humanity cannot be at peace with itself on the basis of a riddle:  life will then always remain problematic and that is an unsatisfactory way to live. The Irish Catholic Church had found a way of coping with this dilemma in Vatican 1 days, but that is rare. And how this was done horrifies Fr. Twomey as it was done by ignoring theology. And yet he must see that it was a dose of theological innovation from Rome that helped demolish the thriving Irish Church.

He claims the problem was that the Council was all misinterpreted by the Irish. But surely it is the job of infallible Rome to prevent misinterpretation? That is what it has been doing for 2,000 years. It is hardly reassuring or convincing that Rome failed, or was powerless against misinterpretation by the Irish, in putting its case to them.

My barometer for understanding Irish Catholicism pre- and post-Vatican 2 is my mother. She would have been representative of the millions who were the backbone of the Church in Ireland—and elsewhere. She was born in 1916 and no doubt her mother told her, as she told me, that the world had gone mad in 1914. My mother’s life would have confirmed that conclusion. In her childhood she experienced two wars, the War of Independence and the ‘Civil’ War and her home received the attention of the Tans and the Free State Army. She lived though an ‘economic war’, the Blueshirt/ FF conflict, WW 2 and the Cold War. The outside world was full of wars and rumours of wars all her adult life, with a very real prospect of the human race being wiped out at any moment.

In this scenario the Catholic Church was a beacon of sense in a mad world and was a most benign alternative to live by. (And for good measure there was the additional bonus of a miracle for her concerning yours truly. I was born with a serious liver problem, was hospitalised but discharged as being beyond hope of recovery. She promptly ‘did the rounds’ of a Holy Well with me and I made a full recovery.)

Then she was suddenly faced with results of Vatican 2. The priest jabbering away in English, an experiment with open confession, taking and eating rather than ‘receiving’ the body of Christ (the introduction of knives and forks would have been no surprise), guitars and songs in the Church, shaking hands there, Stations of the Cross dumped in a local river and some favourite Saints abolished. Even the architecture of the next world was changed. A big department, Limbo, was abolished, Purgatory seemed to have closed down and the fire department became very much cooler. Hell freezing over no longer seemed an impossibility. 

An alien religion had appeared. And a normal religious person cannot have two religions. It was not convincing to her that all this was needed to come to terms with the modern world, as she believed in her religion insofar as it did not come to terms with most of what the modern world had to offer.

But it took another shock to finally destroy her faith. It was the Papal visit. She had gone on the usual pilgrimages to Knock and Lourdes and would come back spiritually refreshed. She approached the Papal visit in a similar way and I expected a similar reaction. The very opposite happened. She was disillusioned by the whole spectacle. It did nothing whatever for her. It was empty and crass.  There was an additional disgust at the consequences of a lack of toilet facilities in a Limerick field while the Pope John said Mass. I will spare the reader her graphic description of this, but for her it was the Pope saying Mass in a toilet. I then realised this new departure of a globe-trotting Pope was incongruous and idiotic. The less seen and heard of Christ’s Vicar on Earth the better, as he is not really of, or for, this world. A celebrity Pope is oxymoronic. That was why the then Bishop of Cork, Lucey, kept him away from his patch despite St. Jack Lynch being Taoiseach at the time. He only turned up to wave him goodbye, that was why my mother had to go to Limerick. 

The point of all this is that no theology whatever was involved in the creation and demise of my mother’s beliefs. She was in any case a theological heretic, strictly speaking, with her Holy Well business. Her lifelong love of music and dancing probably made her prone, if not to heresy, certainly to many occasions of sin which caused her no end of enjoyment. She could trace her family to Penal times and theology never entered the picture as a reason for their commitment to the Church. There were always much more obvious and convincing reasons for this commitment.

There were a number of smart ass items in the Irish Times on the anniversary of Vatican 2 to the effect that people such as my mother should not have been surprised by any of these changes and that these were inevitable. One would think the Irish Times of the day was so attuned to Catholic thinking that if she was reading it she would be well prepared for the changes.

Fr. Twomey like everyone else is not happy with he outcome of Vatican 2 as it has never lived up to its promise of renewal and coming to terms with the modern world. But, as far as I can see, all would accept that Vatican 1 was a great success—and it did precisely the opposite. Its raison d’être was to refuse to come to terms with the modern, liberal, world and it thrived—most spectacularly of all In Ireland. 

It looked on the emerging liberal world as inevitably leading to disaster and the wars and horrors of the following century has not disproved that thesis. Yet I never see Church leaders prepared to learn some lessons from Vatican 1. Surely there are grounds for suspecting that the liberal world is not finished with its love of wars and their inevitable horrors that might well yet put the 20th century in the shade in these matters—if the first years of the 21st century are anything to go by. I cannot see why Church leaders cannot learn some lessons from Vatican 1 that might be relevant for today and and forget about trying to put a good face on the disaster that was Vatican 2.

Theology seems to be in fashion among Catholics, probably because the current Pope is a theologian. He has already shown that this discipline does not make for a sensible Pope. His first major outing on the subject after becoming Pope was a disaster, the Regensburg speech. He insulted Islam by accusing it of relying on the sword whereas the Christian Church was based on reason for its success. As if the opposite was not just as convincing. It was neither good history or theology.

In this speech Benedict set out to show that God was reasonable à la the ancient Greeks. It is worth noting that in arguing this he had a swipe at the Irish theologian, Duns Scotus, for what he called his 'voluntarism’, because Scotus did not accept this thesis about God. For Scotus, God was beyond reason and could not be limited to reason. In other words he could not be nicely summed up, defined and put in a box labelled reason, and made to look like an ancient Greek. And, after all, reason did not do that much for the Greeks as their subsequent history showed.

Perhaps the Irish, as they were never subject to Greco-Roman discipline in thought or deed, just cannot relate to theology based on that discipline and that is probably the real source of the problem that Fr. Twomey is wrestling with. The Irish God was a more comprehensive God and did not need to be fully understood to be acceptable. The heart ruled the head for them and their understanding of God was not a cerebral affair. I feel Fr. Twomey is on to a lost cause as he is trying to prove otherwise.


Vatican 2—what went wrong.  Jack Lane
French Bishops On Gay Marriage.  Report (Froggy, Labour Affairs)
The French White Paper On Same Sex Marriage.  Cathy Winch
Civil Unions.  Report
1492 And Its Effects On Ireland  (Part 2).  John Minahane
1941.  An Ulster Scots Poem.  Wilson John Haire
End Of Western Civilisation .  .  .    Desmond Fennell
Michael Collins And Lenin.  Brendan Clifford
Vox Pat  By Pat Maloney  (Government Of Ireland Act;  Women flock to join the Freemasons!; Dame Elisabeth Joy;  Murdoch;  No Religion;  Deacons;  Digging His Own Grave!;  Baby Boom;  Immigrants;  C of E Surprise;  Heather Perrin;  England uber alles!;  Putnam Pontificates;  Patrick Kavanagh)
The New Establishment.  Stephen Richards
Name Of Church & State.  Desmond Fennell
Intellectual Life In Ireland.  Brendan Clifford
The Catholic Church In France During The Second World War.  With Appendix On James Parkes' Oxford Pamphlet.  Cathy Winch
Egghead History.  The Twist, Part 1:  Brian Girvin