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A Primer on Contemporary Catholicism

It was my mentor, Dr. Jack Provansha, who introduced me to Hans Kung, a Catholic theologian from the University of Tubingen. (1)  Having read Kung, (and not being struck dead by lightening) I went on to read other serious Catholic theologians such as John Wijngaards, Karl Rahner,  Edward Schillebeeck, Anthony Tambasco and more devotional  writers such as Father John Powell.   I discovered the novels and the ‘who-done-it’s’ by the Catholic sociologist, Andrew Greeley and found these to be a great source for understanding the cultural context of Catholicism.

My Catholic reading introduced me to a pivotal 20th century event – Vatican II.  Its conception, its impact on the Catholic church and the history of the man who was influential in bringing it about became a subjects of great interest to me.  What follows are my personal interpretation and insights into this event and into contemporary Catholicism.   Please note, my views should not be taken as the definitive source of infallible information!  

Pope John XXIII

After reading the biography of Pope John XXIII by Peter Hebblethwaite, I became convinced that God had a hand in raising up this man and guiding his life.  While Angelo Roncalli was a godly man he was basically an outsider.  Luck, fate, or the Spirit had stationed him outside of Italy for the major part of his career, thus he was not beholden to the establishment in Rome.  When elected Pope, he was in poor health and a compromise candidate thought to have only a short time to live. Nevertheless, he lived to open the windows of the Vatican and God’s Spirit blew fresh air into an ancient church.  

Vatican II

The conclave convened on October 10, 1962 and Pope John gave the opening address making it very clear as to his intended purpose for the meetings:    

“Our task is not merely to hoard this precious treasure (our faith) as though obsessed with the past, but to give ourselves eagerly and without fear to the task that the present age demands of us…   this authentic doctrine has to be studied and expounded in the light of the research methods and the language of modern thought.  For the substance of the ancient deposit of faith is one thing, and the way in which it is presented is another.”  ( 2)

This speech was carried live on Vatican radio and the quote above comes from a transcript of that broadcast.  Yet when this speech was transcribed for the official collection of documents from the council, the text had been tampered with and censored.   For instance, the last sentence above now reads, “…the deposit of faith itself, or the truths which are contained in our venerable doctrine, is one thing, and the way in which they are expressed in another, retaining however the same sense and meaning,” thus contradicting both the spirit and intent of Pope John’s message.   (3 )

(This action of the Curia in making changes to the historical record is reminiscent of the changes made in the consensus report issued after the third Creation Science meeting in Colorado a couple of years ago and subsequently reported on in the Adventist Review.)  

Nevertheless, against all odds, Vatican II changed the church in many dramatic and major ways.  I am personally convinced of the strong presence of the Holy Spirit throughout this conclave.  Worship practices in Catholicism today are a far cry from the church of the past.  Some of the many changes made by Vatican II include:

·         Turning the priest around to face  the altar and congregation during services

·         Giving all the faithful access to both bread & wine during communion

·         Approving street clothes for the Religious (Nuns)

·         Recognizing the baptism of non-Catholics Christians as valid

·         Reaffirmed the priesthood of all believers

·         Allowing girls to serve at the altar as well as boys

·         Requiring the Liturgy to be in the language of the people

·         Requiring all Bible readings in church to be in the language of the people

·         Encouraging personal Bible reading/study, including the use of other “versions”

·         Requiring the Pastor’s homilies to be Scripturally based

·         Strong support and encouragement of Religious Freedom (4)

·         Recognition of private confession by penitent to God as valid

·         Implementing the Rite of Reconciliation, confession to a pastor in a counseling situation

·         Promulgation of Collegiality, that is, the power of the bishops to share authority within the

church, to issue pastoral letters, to make decisions and govern their local area (5)

·          Recognition and acknowledgment the failures of the church in the past to act in accord with the

gospel in respect to Jews, other Christians– and to non- Christians.

Did Vatican II change the church?  Absolutely!   It turned a world-wide church up-side-down.   It freed its thinkers and scholars. (6)   It gave laity access to the workings of the church.  It gave official recognition to religious freedom and collegiality.  It gave the Bible preeminence in public and private worship.  

 Were the changes welcomed?  Absolutely not!     Just as the very sound of the King James version means “God’s Word” to some Protestant faithful, so the sound of the Latin rite meant “church” to  thousands of Catholic  believers.   For many laity and priests alike the feeling was that the council had dismantled and destroyed their church.      

At the start of the conclave, Pope John set up a Pontifical Commission on the family.  Birth control was one of the major issues it was directed to study.   In 1951, John’s predecessor , Pope Pius VII, had given approval to Italian midwives to teach the rhythm method of birth control.    While the method was known as “Vatican Roulette” it was tacit acknowledgment that sexual activity for married couples was ok – even if conception was not intended.

The 68 members chosen for this commission included theologians, legal experts, historians, sociologists,  obstetricians and married couples and when their report was finally submitted in 1966, they recommended the church change its position.  By a vote 64 to 4, they affirmed that birth control for Catholic couples was both possible and advisable.  (7)

Pope Paul VI

But by 1966 there was a new Pope in town and the Roman Curia, the administrative body that controls the Vatican, was already at work to nullify “the mischievous wickedness that Vatican Council II had generated.”(8 ) Obligated to acknowledge the report (and reminiscent of the actions of Praxad  upon receiving the Mohaven report in 1973) the Curia voted to “accept” the report and sent it to committee .

Finally in 1968, the encyclical, Humanea Vitae, was issued.   It declared that the only acceptable methods of birth control were abstinence and the rhythm method.  How was this encyclical received?    According to one writer, “On a disaster scale for the Roman Catholic Church it measures higher than the treatment of Galileo in the 17th century or the declaration of papal infallibility in the 19th.”  (9)  

Pope John Paul I

Significantly Pope Paul’s successor, John Paul I, had a different viewpoint.  At the time the encyclical was issued he was still a bishop and his response was to recommend that priests show kindness toward married couples. (i.e. forgiveness for their use of contraceptives)   As a bishop, he became increasingly concerned about the misuse and abuse of the church’s finances.  So after he became Pope, high on his agenda was an attempt to correct the corrupt financial dealings within the church. 

A Pope who would actively implement Vatican II in spirit and in action, who would seek to change the Vatican’s attitude toward sexuality; a pope  who would open the Vatican’s financial dealings to outside auditors could not be allowed to remind in office.  And he wasn’t. 

Pope John Paul II

Upon John Paul’s sudden and questionable death only one month into his episcopacy as pope, John Paul II was elected.  He was a pope much more to the liking of the Curia and to the religious fundamentalists within Catholicism.   

The early eighties saw a rise in resistance against authoritarian regimes – in the Philippines, in Brazil and all around the Caribbean where Latin American dictators were the norm.   Local Cardinals and Monsignors frequently had close ties with the ruling classes and the heads of state.  The local parish priests, however, were preaching freedom from oppression and encouraging resistance to totalitarian governments.   John Paul II interpreted this behavior as rebellion not just to the state but to the church as well.  The “Liberation Theology” being taught by the priests and bishops he labeled as a brand of communism and sought to stamp it out.  He even found an ally in President Reagan.  Whither it was Latin America or the Philippines, resisting freedom fighters became their joint goal.  (10)

Following Vatican II, women religious were pressing for a more inclusive role in the church.  The

Pontifical Biblical Commission (read BRI) released its study on the subject in 1977 and concluded that Scripture alone could not definitively resolve the dilemma.   Neither could the exclusion of women from the priesthood be sustained merely from the Bible.      

Much as a recent Adventist Review issue praised women, who without ordination, did the work of God, the encyclical letter of 1988, Mulieris Dignitatem, went to great lengths to uphold the dignity and vocation of women in religious life apart from the priesthood.    It was not that the Vatican “would not” ordain women, but that it “could not.”  As the encyclical explained, according Catholic doctrinal tradition only males processed the ontologically configuration allowing them to say the words, “my body, my blood.” (11)

One of John Paul’s first acts was to appoint Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger as head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, a department formerly known as Office of the Inquisition.   Having his good friend in this position allowed John Paul II to play the good cop and leave Ratzinger to be the bad cop. 

Around the inner circle of the Vatican, Cardinal Ratzinger gained the reputation of being God’s Rottweiler.  (Go ahead and Google the term!)

As the issue of child sexual abuse continued to escalate, the names of offending priests were often sent to Rome where action on their discipline or dismissal was tabled or delayed.  However Ratzinger was quick to excommunicate women who dared be ordained and priests who officiated.   While years passed without overt action on the egregious situation of pedophilia, the Vatican took immediate action to excommunicate a nun who, as head of a Catholic hospital, allowed an abortion in order to save the life of a mother. 

Pope Benedict XVI

Today, Cardinal Ratzinger is Pope Benedict XVI.     If John Paul II tried to subvert and to retract the spirit of Vatican II, Pope Benedict is quite overt in his attempts undo the changes.  He is a strong supporter of organizations such as Opus Dei and the Legion of Christ, secretive and right wing groups that some describe as cult-like.  


 Be very careful in quoting sources regarding Catholic doctrine and practices.  Carefully check any information dated prior to 1960. (12)   Be aware that there is as much – perhaps even more – diversity of thought within Catholicism today as there is within Adventism.   Catholic scholarship in the area of Biblical studies is outstanding and deserves wide readership within Adventism.  Catholic social actions and humanitarian practices are to be emulated.   

At the same time be aware of the current Vatican administration.  Its aim is to consolidate power at the top and to ignore or whenever possible, undo the advances of Vatican II.  Pope Benedict is a conservative traditionalist of the old school whose aim is to return the church to the past and to see that the faithful adhere to his church vision. 

End Notes: 

(1)     In my mind Jack Provansha and Hans Kung are two great 20th century visionaries cut from the same cloth; both were influential the development of my spiritual life.   

(2)     Peter Hebblethaite, PopeJohn XXIII, Shepherd of the Modern World. Doubleday & Company, Inc. 1985. Pages 431, 432

(3)     Ibid. 432

(4)     The document on Religious Freedom, Dignitatis Humanae, is one that I urge all Adventists read,    especially pastors who want to preach on the topic of religious liberty.  

(5)     The document on Collegiality, Lumen Gentium, on the priesthood of all believers is another  principal document to come out of Vatican II. 

(6)      On Sept 30, 1943, Pope Pius XII  issued an encyclical, Divinio Afflante.  This became the “Magna Carta” for Bible Study within Catholic Universities and Seminaries.   This openness toward Scripture study in the 1940’s by Roman scholars and intellectuals coincided with the Adventist Church’s move toward sending its leading scholars and pastors to universities to obtain advanced graduate degrees in areas of archeology , ancient languages and Biblical studies. 

(7)     David Yallop, In God’s Name. Basic Books, Ronstable & Robinson, Ltd. UK, 1984.  Page 17

(8)     Ibid. pg 17

(9)      Ibid. pg 21

(10) Matthew Fox, The Pope’s War, Sterling Ethos, NY 2011, Pages 22, 23

 (11) In persona Christi capitis

(12)  It really annoys me to no end to see Adventist writers and speakers refer to 19th century

documents negated by Vatican II to substantiate their prejudice of Catholic teaching and beliefs.   

All thoughts, opinions and conclusions expressed in this article are my own.  I am not now nor have I ever been a Jesuit.   


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