Tides of History Sweep Church toward Reform

By Fox, Thomas C. | National Catholic Reporter, January 9, 1998 | Go to article overview

Tides of History Sweep Church toward Reform


Fox, Thomas C., National Catholic Reporter


When the history of 20th century Roman Catholicism is written, two men will stand out as its most influential leaders: Angelo Roncalli and Karol Wojtyla, Pope John XXIII and Pope John Paul II. The former called a council and opened the church to the world. The latter ended conciliar renewal and shaped the institution to combat perceived secular threats.

Roncalli, the optimist, believed in the omnipresence of grace, views later reflected in the council document Gaudium et Spes. Wojtyla, the pessimist, has seen the shadow of the cross upon an human endeavors -- save the promise to Peter itself.

As Catholicism enters the 21st century, it is seriously divided. Without resolving this division, Catholicism's mission to be a sign of Christian unity and hope, compassion and forgiveness to the wider global family is likely to falter. Of course, no one knows how or even if this resolution can occur or which of these two popes will leave the longer lasting mark.

A search for answers becomes frustrated by the imponderables of the unknowable future. It may be in the currents of historical forces that we find clues.

By the time Roncalli was elected pope in 1958, pressures for church reform had been building for decades. The perceived need to bring Catholicism out of its defensive past and into the modern world was widespread. Yet it took the grace impulse by John XXIII to declare an ecumenical council.

Curiously, John had no predetermined plan for a council agenda. He left that to others. If he had anything to offer, it was his example of trust -- trust that God would not abandon him or the church he loved.

This is why he wrote on the eve of the council and with characteristic humility, "Now I understand what contribution to the council the Lord requires from me: my suffering." He knew his health was failing and he would not live through his council.

Vatican II became an opportunity for the church to harvest from a rich crop of new theology and also a moment to take advantage of wider forces of change, notably, the development of the social sciences, of democratic theories of governance and of developing inter-religious dialogues.

These advances were occurring within even broader currents of change: the emergence of educated, professional women who were taking on leadership roles worldwide; and revolutionary demographic shifts ending the era of a Eurocentric Catholicism. In the mid-1960s, for the first time Catholics in so-called Third World nations began to outnumber their European and North American brothers and sisters of faith.

If Roncalli trusted that grace was operative, Wojtyla's view of more pervasive evil moved him to speak of a widespread "culture of death." Only thee church, indeed, only the bastion church, kept most pure within Vatican walls, could prevail against the gates of hell. …

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