Sunday, October 21, 2012

The Council and the Move to the Left

Archbishop Thomas Toolen of
Mobile Alabama who forbad
his clergy to participate in Civil
Rights Demonstratons
I want to give another example of where the Council brought about a change of direction in the Church—here perhaps more of what Pope Benedict would call “reform” rather than “rupture” but a change none the less.  Robert Blair Kaiser writes in his Tablet article to which I have referred in my last two posts:  

Before the Council, we thought we were miserable sinners when we were being nothing but human. After the Council, we had a new view of ourselves. We learned to put a greater importance on finding and following Jesus as 'the way' (as opposed to what we said in the Creed. It didn't matter so much what we said. What mattered was what we did: helping to feed the hungry, clothe the naked and find shelter for the homeless. That's what made us followers of Jesus. …. Before the Council, we identified 'salvation' as 'getting to heaven.' After the Council, we knew that we had a duty to bring justice and peace to the world in our own contemporary society, understanding in a new way the words that Jesus gave us when he taught us to pray, 'thy Kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.' By the end, among the most influential figures at the Council, we encountered two humble souls, one a woman, Dorothy Day, the founder of the Catholic Worker movement, who wasn't allowed to speak to the assembled bishops at Vatican II (no woman was), and a bird-like figure, Dom Helder Camara, the archbishop of Recife, in Brazil. Both of them went around Rome telling individual bishops and those who were putting together the Council's crowning document, Gaudium et Spes: please don't forget the poor.
The Council did not forget the poor, and the statement out of Rome in October 2011 allying the Church with the world's have-nots only proves that even the current powers-that-be in the Church (still so unaccountable in so many other ways) get it. I will quote Gaudium et Spes: The joys and the hopes, the griefs and the anxieties of the men of this age, especially those who are poor or in any way afflicted, these are the joys and hopes, the griefs and anxieties of the followers of Christ.

The Council radically reshaped what we meant by “sin.”  Before the Council sin meant—to the Catholic-in-the-pews a personal violation of the Church’s moral code.  While this  most frequently fell into the category of a sexual transgression, there were other types of sin possible ranging from missing Mass on Sundays or Holy Days to eating meat on a day of abstinence to stealing from one’s employer to lying under oath.   The pivotal element was, however, that it was a personal violation of the moral code.   There was no awareness—to the ordinary Catholic—of the social dimension of sin.  While various popes such as Leo XIII and Pius XI had written encyclical letters talking of the rights of labor and the obligations of employers towards their employees, connections were not being made in the pulpit or confessional between such magisterial teaching and moral culpability.  Of course, in the first half of the twentieth century, as in the century before, most people in a position to exploit their employees were in the Protestant ascendancy in this country and Catholics were far more likely to be sinned against than sinning when it came to the sins outlined in the economic theories of the magisterium.  But the Church’s hands were not entirely clean.  Such prelates as Cardinal O’Connell of Boston and Archbishop Corrigan of New York, being Paddies of the most shameless social-climbing sort,  had always allied themselves with the Protestant ascendancy and its economic interests.  And of course Cardinal Spellman in 1949 sent his seminarians to dig graves to break a strike by cemetery workers in Archdiocese of New York graveyards—and was proud of it. 
Moreover, while the Church did have—at least on paper—a credible theology of defending the rights of workers, there were other social sins rarely spoken of and even more rarely condemned.  Racism was not only rarely denounced from the pulpit but the Catholic Church had long supported policies of segregation and did not accept African-American candidates for the priesthood until the ordination of Father Augustus Tolton in 1886 and such vocations remained rare until the mid-twentieth century.  Tolton himself had to be sent to Rome for his studies as no American seminary would have him as a student.  (In telling this story I have omitted the saga of the Healy brothers who—despite their slave mother managed to be accepted and treated as whites—one becoming a bishop, a second a Vicar General of the Boston Archdiocese, and a third, president of Georgetown University.  See entry for February 14, 2011.)  Cardinal Glennon of Saint Louis blocked the integration of Webster College and tried to do the same with Jesuit Saint Louis University.  Archbishop Toolen of Mobile forbade his priests to take part in any civil-rights demonstrations and won the support of other bishops who initially forbad their priests to travel to Alabama to be part of the marches led by the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.  Cardinal McIntyre suspended priests and expelled from this Archdiocese priests and religious who preached or spoke on civil rights.  (See entries for August 31 and September 1, 2011).
All this changed with the Second Vatican Council.  Catholics have become very much aware of the social dimension of sin and consequently have moved from being a conservative force in American society to a force for social change and liberation.  This fits the model of a “hermeneutic of reform” more than a “hermeneutic of rupture” as the Ecumenical and Interfaith issues addressed in yesterday’s posting.  However it is probably one of the reasons that some influential members of the hierarchy are so anxious to “turn back” the Council and the Church’s record of social progress during the last 50 years. 

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