Francis affirms no place in church for those who reject Vatican II

By Christopher Lamb | Contributor
Wednesday, February 3, 2021

Pope Francis arrives for an audience with participants in a meeting organized by the Italian bishops’ National Catechetical Office, at the Vatican Jan. 30, 2021. (CNS photo/Vatican Media)

To understand the renewal that Pope Francis wants to see in the church, it is important not to overcomplicate things. It can be summed up in a sentence: Francis’ pontificate is an attempt to implement the Second Vatican Council.

As he approaches the eighth anniversary of his papacy, Francis is setting down some clear markers. Speaking to a group of catechists from the Italian Bishops’ Conference Jan. 30, the pope stressed that there is no place in the church for those who reject the council.

“Either you are with the church, and therefore you follow the council, or you interpret it in your own away, according to your desire, [and] you do not stand with the church,” he said.

These were his strongest remarks yet against those who call the council into question or imagine a church where the council never happened. Since his election, the 84-year-old pope, who has been a man in a hurry, sounds like he doesn’t want any more equivocating. He added that Vatican II “must not be negotiated,” and on this point “we must be demanding, strict.”

The reforms of the 1962-1965 council sought to reinvigorate the church. Council fathers sought to open a dialogue with the contemporary world, and connect Catholicism more firmly with its Gospel roots. The guiding principles were “aggiornamento” (to update) and “ressourcement” (a return to sources). But the years after Vatican II saw an intense debate about how to interpret the council, particularly in Europe and the United States, where different schools of thought emerged.

It was different in Francis’ home continent of Latin America. There the council was embraced as a moment of liberation from European and colonial Catholicism. After the council, Latin and Central America saw the flourishing of a liberation theology that placed the Gospel at the service of the poorest and the emergence of a prophetic church embodied by figures such as the martyred archbishop of San Salvador, Oscar Romero, assassinated for standing up to a repressive regime.

During his pontificate, the pope has not wanted to debate the council’s meaning, but instead work toward embedding its reforms.

“I know that the Lord wants the council to make headway in the church,” he told a group of Jesuits in 2018. “Historians tell us that it takes 100 years for a council to be applied. We are halfway there.”

While all popes since the council have sought to follow its mandate, many who were enthused by the spirit of renewal that was unleashed by Vatican II  became disheartened during the papacies of St. John Paul II and Benedict XVI. They felt that Rome was reasserting control and too narrowly defining the council’s implementation. As a result, some in Rome see this pontificate as the “third phase” of Vatican II’s reception.

The challenge that the teaching of the council faces today is not so much from “liberal dissenters” trying to push it further than the council fathers had in mind, but rather from those who question the wisdom of the council at all, or want to re-interpret it out of existence. It is groups of neo-traditionalists who are among the most vocal opponents of the Francis pontificate.

Warning against a mentality that says “we are the true Catholics,” during his address to the catechists from the Italian Bishops’ Conference, the pope cited those believers who split from the Roman church following the First Vatican Council (1869-70) over the teaching on papal infallibility, and are part of the “Old Catholic Church.” Francis said that today this group ordains women, which runs contrary to church teaching. The point is that those who reject the council and its authority end up in a quasi-schism.

Francis’ commitment to implementing the council is evidenced in various ways. One can be seen in the pope’s work on interfaith dialogue, which builds on Vatican II’s declarations on religious freedom and co-operation with other religions. Next month, the pope plans to make a historic trip to Iraq during which he is expected to meet Ayatollah Sistani, an influential Shiite Muslim leader. It is speculated that Sistani could sign the landmark human fraternity dialogue on Christian-Muslim dialogue signed in 2019 by Francis and the Grand Imam of Al-Azhar, a leading Sunni authority.  

Another example is the pope’s repeated emphasis on synodality, a church model that brings people, priests and bishops together in an ongoing mission. It builds on the council’s ecclesiology of the church as the people of God, and the importance of the laity. A more synodal church can be described as a fruit of the council.

At the end of his speech to the catechists, the pope said that the church in Italy “must” now begin a national synod process, which would start “community by community, diocese by diocese.” This is a significant moment. If the church in Italy embarks on a synod, then other local churches could follow. It is another step in making the council’s reforms a reality.



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