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Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Talk given in Cape Town by Professor Brian Gaybba

The post-Vatican II Church

That Vatican II was a watershed event in the life of the Church is an understatement.  To appreciate how much it changed the Church, would require not just one but a series of lectures. 

How did this come about? Well the basis for such a change was the changed way in which the Council conceived of the Church.  It created an atmosphere of openness, allowing the Catholic Church to cross a line it was unable to cross in the past: namely, to join fully in the ecumenical movement and welcome the links we have with other Churches, indeed with every and any human being who loves.  

What then is the Church?

A typical pre-Vatican II definition of the Church would go something like this: “The Church is an organization constituted by God to provide the means of salvation for its members”. All the emphasis was on the Church’s organization and that meant that all the emphasis was on the hierarchy: the bishops and especially the Pope. For all practical purposes they were the Church.  It was moreover a highly individualistic approach to salvation: the Church existed for the salvation of souls.

Since it was God’s will that there be but one flock and one shepherd, there could be only one, true Church – and that was the Catholic Church.  The official doctrinal standpoint at that time was that the Catholic Church is Christ’s Church and vice versa. Protestant churches were not really churches at all. They were simply communities that had separated themselves from the one true Church. Ecumenism was not something Catholicism could be part of because that would imply acceptance of the idea that no Church can regard itself as the true Church.  It would also imply acceptance of the idea that Christ’s Church has lost its unity – something Catholicism simply could not accept (and still finds unacceptable).  Christendom may be divided but not Christ’s Church.

Moreover, if non-Catholic churches were false churches, then their worship was false, since it was not done in unity with the one true Church that Christ founded. This in turn meant that Catholics were forbidden to attend non-Catholic church services. It would be a forbidden form of communicatio in sacris (Noldin vol 2 pp 32ff). And if one found oneself in the difficult position of having to attend a funeral or a wedding in a non-Catholic Church, one was advised to simply attend and not participate by doing a reading or singing. 

Since Protestant worship was false, Catholic moralists found themselves debating extraordinary questions such as:  if someone asks you for a lift to their Protestant Church service, are you permitted to take them there?  The problem was that it is sinful to aid and abet a sinful action – and false worship was sinful!

We were also warned against reading Protestant literature.  Above all, we were forbidden to read Protestant translations of the Bible.  Catholics had to be protected from the dangers such activities may pose to their faith. The Index of Forbidden Books was alive and well.

All of that was changed by Vatican II’s vision of the Church.  Just listen to what the Council says: “The Church is a kind of sacrament or sign of intimate union with God, and of the unity of all humankind” (LG #1).  The reality that it symbolizes – the unity of all mankind is not something that will only happen far into the future.  No, the council makes it clear that that unity is already emerging and growing amongst human beings. It does this by commending and recognizing the elements of goodness, truth, love, revelation, etc., that exist in human communities, whether religious or not.  It sees all of these as creating bonds with the Catholic Church and signs of the Spirit’s sanctifying unifying work.

The key to the change, therefore, was to make a distinction between Christ’s Church on the one hand – and its structured embodiment in the world on the other hand.  This broke with the old view of the Church that saw no distinction between the two. The borders of Christ’s Church, for the old view, were co-extensive with the borders of the Catholic Church.  For the Council, however, Christ’s Church extended beyond the visible borders of any particular embodiment of it.

Having accepted that idea, the council was now able to work on what binds us together in grace rather than to see nothing but a huge gulf running round the borders of the Church, separating it from the false imitations surrounding it.  Moreover, it laid the foundations for the idea that Christ’s Church can be embodied in varying degrees, depending on the extent to which other religious communities displayed within their structures the elements making up Christ’s Church.  Indeed, even people who have no religion at all and may in fact be atheists, can be dim but real embodiments of Christ’s Church if they strive to love their neighbour.  For love is both the broadest and the most basic and most important link that can unite [hu]mankind – as well as being the one thing that shapes us all into the likeness of God – since God is Love.

Of course, the belief that the Catholic Church is the one Church that has preserved all the essential elements of Christ’s Church – including, therefore, at least one element that only Catholics had:  the unifying role of the papacy – that belief was retained.  But it was expressed in a way that allowed the Catholic Church to reach out to others as brothers and sisters in Christ (if we are talking about Christians).  The way in which it was expressed was as follows:  “This Church (i.e., the Church of Christ), constituted and organized in the world as a society subsists in the Catholic Church”.  An earlier draft had simply repeated the old statement that Christ’s Church is the Catholic Church.  But the bishops threw that out. They wanted a phrase that maintained the traditional Catholic belief that it had retained all the elements of Christ’s Church while leaving room for recognizing the presence of one or more of those elements beyond the borders of the Catholic Church.  So ‘is” became ‘subsists’ and the sentence in which it was used became one of the foundations on which a new Catholic ecclesiology as well as the full and joyful participation of Catholicism in the ecumenical movement was built.

Perhaps it would help if I were at this point to outline a theology of salvation.  The theology is mine.  But at its heart is the new eccesiology. I trust it will provide you with the framework for understanding the riches present in the Council’s view of the Church.

Let me begin by noting that the doctrine of the Trinity is a doctrine that God is a community and not some incomprehensible mathematical problem in the heart of the divinity.  God made humankind in the divine image and likeness and therefore humanity was created as a community.  God’s plan was that the two communities be one – through the Son becoming a human being and the Spirit of God’s Love being poured into our hearts to unite us in love with the members of the Trinity and with each other. This plan of God’s that we become members of the divinity’s own inner love life, being in the Father and the Son as they are in (see Jn 17:21ff) each other in a never-ending joy of loving and being loved – this plan was not plan B that came about because humanity sinned.  No, it was and remains the only plan God has for us.  Had there been no sin, Christ would still have come to unite the two communities.  All that sin did was to ensure that we and God would suffer in the process.   Moreover, the coming of Christ means that there is no longer and never ever will be a trinity that comprises only the divinity:  a man, the risen Lord, has brought into its inner sanctum his humanity.  It means that humanity and the divine community can never be separated, even if individuals may cut themselves off from that community by their refusal to love God and neighbour.

Salvation therefore is nothing more and nothing less than being made a member of that community, of enjoying God’s own love-life. And the Church is where we see that divine-human community taking shape down the ages. For the Church is a community of people who profess God as their Father, Jesus as their brother and the Spirit as the bond of love binding them all together and transforming the human members by her presence.

The Church therefore does not lead us to salvation or provide us with the means of salvation as if salvation was something distinct from the Church.  On the contrary, the Church is salvation.  It is, as I said, where we see the divine-human community taking shape down the ages.  Heaven is but the full flowering of our insertion into the trinity’s love life, the full flowering of a reality that begins its life in this spatio-temporally limited world, marred by sin. 

So Vatican II’s theology of the Church makes room for the idea that the Church can be embodied to a greater or lesser degree, depending on how much of the essential structural elements of the Church are present in the embodiment. 

One could picture these degrees as forming concentric circles around the trinity.

The first concentric circle is one in which all the essential structural and doctrinal elements of Christ’s Church are present. This is, rather naturally, where the Council would place the Catholic Church. For it and it alone has preserved intact the Petrine ministry.

Subsequent concentric circles would contain other Christian communities, the closest to us being the Eastern Orthodox Churches, the furthest being Christian communities that have only a few of the essential structures of the Church.  Moving beyond the borders of Christianity, the council also speaks of the links that unite Judaeo-Christian-Islamic religions, other world religions, indeed any human being who strives to live up to the demands of love and truth.  It is in this last category that we can see the Church being able in principle to reach out and embrace everyone. The Church indeed becomes a sacrament or sign of the unity to which God has called the whole of humankind.  More than that, love forges a link with the Church that effectively gives the individual a share in the God-humankind community even if that individual is not a Christian or even a believer in any religion.  This is why there is no salvation “outside the Church” – for the Church is salvation and embraces all who practice genuine, selfless love.

The council’s theology of the Church can therefore be expressed as follows.  Christ’s Church, which forms a seamless robe with the trinity, takes on a visible, structured form in the world.  It finds its full expression only in the Catholic Church but it is linked in many ways to other Christian communities, other religions, indeed to every human being who strives to love his or her neighbour. 

The deep respect for the religious beliefs of others that the Council demonstrated by praising the elements of truth and goodness found in them (another radical innovation) led it to issue as its final document a Declaration on Religious Freedom.  It flatly contradicted Pius IX’s famous condemnation of the practice of religious freedom:  “[It is an error to say that] every human being is free to embrace and profess that religion which, led by the light of reason he/she believes to be true” ( Pius IX Syllabus of Errors (1864 AD), Denz. 1715). One of his predecessors – I forget which – went even further and called religious freedom the ravings of a lunatic. Popes can make mistakes!


After its ground-breaking treatment of the Church in general, chapter two of Lumen Gentium is devoted to the People of God – another massive shift from traditional expositions of the Church.  Since they constitute 99% of the Church’s members the chapter can also be read as an extended treatment of the role of the laity. [ In addition to that chapter (which was deliberately placed before the chapters on the hierarchical structure of the Church), chapter 4 is devoted to the Laity and there is also an entire Decree on the apostolate of the laity (“Apostolicam Actuositatem”).]

The very fact that the question was frequently posed as to the role of the laity indicates, in my opinion, that something had gone wrong somewhere.  Remember we are talking about 99% of the Church’s members. To ponder their role is to demonstrate that one is still entangled in the mesh of identifying the Church primarily with the clergy.  It is to split the Church into two uneven parts.  The smaller of the two is the clergy and their role does not require much pondering.  It is nothing less than being at the service of the other 99% of the Church’s members.  As for that other 99%, they are the very reason for the Church’s existence.  Their role is quite simply to live out in their lives the unity between the trinity and humanity that we see taking visible shape in the Church. 

The Council unfortunately repeats the earlier answer to the question:  what is the role of the laity? The answer is based on the distinction between the sacred and the secular.  The sacred is the clergy’s concern while sanctifying the secular (that is to say the workplace, marriages, etc.) is the concern of the laity.  This allocation of roles is buried deep in our Catholic psyche.  But I believe that it came about because of the discipline of celibacy and the fact that all priests entered a way of life different from that of the laity.  The problem with that distinction of roles has become clearer in recent years because of the introduction of married, part-time deacons.  They are part of the clergy but yet are immersed in a secular environment having to hold down a job – and they are married.  I believe that the question of the distinction of roles as regards clergy and laity is the wrong question.  I don’t think that the laity have got a role specific to them.  They are called to be God’s People and to act and live as such.  So too are the clergy – but they have the extra role of caring for the Church’s faith and structures and the spiritual well-being of the laity.

Precisely because that extra calling exists in the Church, some such distinction between ‘clergy’ and ‘laity’ is necessary. However all such distinctions run the risk of dividing people into classes. And this happened to the distinction between clergy and laity.  Moreover the clergy were the higher class and the laity the lower one.  The clergy came to possess all the authority, all the power. The lower class – the laity – found their rights and privileges stripped away as the centuries went by. They lost the right to vote for their bishops, to vote for their clergy, to have a say in what was or was not in conformity with their faith.  By the 19th century they were reduced to sheep whose sole task, according to Pope Pius X, was to follow their shepherd [Vehementer nos, # 8: “.[T]he Church is essentially an unequal society, that is, a society comprising two categories of persons, the Pastors and the flock, those who occupy a rank in the different degrees of the hierarchy and the multitude of the faithful. So distinct are these categories that with the pastoral body only rests the necessary right and authority for promoting the end of the society and directing all its members towards that end; the one duty of the multitude is to allow themselves to be led, and, like a docile flock, to follow the Pastors.”

Unfortunately, the council did not restore those rights.  Perhaps it was too embedded in the sacred-secular distinction.  But the Council went a long way to restoring their dignity by affirming that all the Church’s members, including therefore the People of God, share in the priestly, prophetic and kingly functions of Christ.  This statement was also taken up by the new Code of Canon Law, being the opening canon (204) of a lengthy section of the code devoted to the rights, duties and privileges of being a member of the Church.

The fact that the clergy shared in Christ’s priestly function had been widely seen as one of the more obvious differences between them and the laity, especially when priests offer the sacrifice of the mass.  But Vatican II (#31) stated that by their baptism the laity too are called upon to offer the sacrifice of the mass “not only through the hands of the priest but also together with him”.  Granted they cannot make such an offering without the priest, whose presence as Christ’s representative is crucial to the full structure of the sacrament.  But they are no longer just onlookers – as was the case in the old Tridentine Mass.

Of course, there are also other ways in which they exercise their sharing in Christ’s priesthood such as praying, receiving the sacraments, through leading a holy life, etc. (Lumen Gentium #10).  But we cannot develop those ideas here.

The People of God share also in Christ’s prophetic, i.e., teaching function.  Teaching the faith was also regarded as a role distinguishing priest from people.  And to this day laity are excluded from giving homilies.  But they are able to be employed as lecturers in theology in Catholic institutions, even seminaries and can be employed as expert advisors if they have the competency (see canons 228-229). Moreover, “Where the needs of the Church require and ministers are not available, lay people….. can supply certain of their functions, that is, exercise the ministry of the word, preside over liturgical prayers, confer baptism and distribute Holy Communion, in accordance with the provisions of the law.” (Canon 230 #3).  In certain cases canon 766 permits lay persons, both men and women, to preach in a church.  But it can never be the homily that is part of the celebration of the mass.  At any rate, the laity are taken seriously enough for the Code of Canon Law to devote canons 204 to 231 to their rights and duties. 
 [As regards the inclusion of women in all this, see i]

Of course the most common way in which the laity exercise their sharing in Christ’s prophetic office is through being catechists.  I do find it a bit odd that laity are entrusted with perhaps the most important aspect of teaching the faith:  that of instructing children and youth in it – and yet they are forbidden to give a homily at mass. I believe that this ban, however well motivated, denies to God’s People a valuable opportunity for sharing their insights into the faith – especially as regards its exercise in the secular world that is supposed to be their special area of expertise. And should a lay person say something in a sermon that contradicts the teaching of the Church, the celebrating priest could gently but firmly correct what was said. Since the ban is imposed by the Church’s authorities and not Christ I believe they need to give serious consideration to removing it. 

Vatican II takes the authority of the faith of the laity very seriously. For the Council speaks of the infallibility of the Church’s faith as rising up from its foundation in the faith of the people and finding a more focused expression in the infallibility of councils and that of the Pope (LG #12).  Of course this foundation, which is the unanimity of belief, includes clergy too.  But the point is that the faith of God’s People has an importance and carries weight in itself and not just because it is in agreement with what the Church’s magisterium teaches.

This important insight was expounded by Cardinal Newman in his booklet On consulting the faithful in matters of doctrine.  It was written to demonstrate that virtually the entire hierarchy in the early Church had caved in to accept as the truth an heretical Arian doctrine about Christ.  But the laity rejected this heresy and continued to confess its faith in Christ’s full divinity.    Newman’s work evoked the anger of Pius IX - but it became a classic.  And it laid the foundation for yet another of Vatican II’s surprises.   Taking up suggestions made years previously by Pius XII, laity who have the competence to do so are encouraged to speak without fear about matters affecting the good of the Church.  It is a rather weak and tentative concession.  But it is there, affirmed by an ecumenical council. Moreover, it is also enshrined in the new Code of Canon Law (212 #3). And I am exercising that right whenever I give lectures of this nature.

The role played by the laity in the development, understanding and application of our faith is of immense importance therefore.  Vatican II gives as the theological reason for this the fact that through our Baptism we have been anointed by the Spirit (1 Jn 2:20) and so “cannot err in matters of belief” (where all God’s people throughout the world are in agreement) LG # 12).  I believe that this anointing is rooted in the gift of wisdom that we are all said to receive when we are confirmed.  Aquinas saw the gift of wisdom as enabling all believers to make judgements about their faith, especially moral issues, more or less instinctively.   At any rate what is being spoken of here is what is known as the ‘sensus fidelium’, an instinct that the People of God have for what is and what is not part of their faith.

It is, of course, not easy to use this principle to decide with certitude on whether there is a unanimous agreement that something is part of the infallible deposit of our faith.   However, this principle can have a very important practical role to play if it is clear that there is an absence of unanimity regarding a particular belief. For example, there is sufficient dissent amongst God’s People regarding the ordination of women and Humanae Vitae for it to be clear that these issues are not part of the Church’s infallible teaching – despite what some officials in the Vatican may say.  And this raises serious questions about the magisterium’s insistence that the question as to whether such beliefs are true or not cannot even be discussed.  If the Pope’s repeated use of his legitimate authority to bring about a consensus amongst the People of God regarding some doctrine fails, then I believe he has an obligation to take an opposite tack and promote rather than ban responsible discussion regarding such matters. 

What has been happening instead is a very worrying misuse of the Church’s teaching authority (especially as exercised by the Bishop of Rome).  For instead of encouraging and enabling discussion and theological study to resolve the issue, a ban is placed on such discussions.  But, worse still, professional theologians and even bishops who feel that honesty demands they dissent from the teaching in question can find themselves faced with disciplinary measures aimed at silencing them.  There have been many reports by theologians who have been summoned to Rome and forced to undergo a process of interrogation that they experienced as grossly unjust and which would not be tolerated in a court of law in most civilized countries.  If that is so, then Lord Acton’s famous comment about the papacy’s power (“all power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely”) has a sad ring of truth to it.

It is true that we are expected to submit to the teaching authority of the magisterium even in cases where we are not dealing with a dogma, but when one finds dissent growing, serious doubt can creep into the minds of believers and even in the mind of members of the magisterium.  In such circumstances the demand for submission has to yield to the need for the matter to be investigated in an honest, open way. 

After the Council Pope Paul VI established a Synod of bishops who would represent the Church throughout the world – a sort of mini-council.  It seemed to be the perfect vehicle for trying to resolve the sort of issues referred to above. But the first major issue the Synod had to deal with was power:  would the Synod’s decisions have a deliberative or merely a consultative vote? Our own bishops voted for a deliberative vote but in the end those who wanted the Synod to have only a consultative vote won the day. As a result, the Synod became an ineffective instrument for serious investigation into the issues that were beginning to tear the Church apart.  Bishops have generally lost interest in the Synod and the issues remain unresolved. What a pity, since one of the issues that needs urgent investigation is the exercise of authority in the Church and the reception of the magisterium’s decisions by the rest of the Church. Humanae Vitae did more than anything else at the time to undermine the traditional compliant and receptive attitude of Catholics to what the magisterium taught. The undermining has simply continued and moved on to other issues. What a tragedy.

Unfortunately, I have left little space for the laity’s sharing in Christ’s ‘kingly” function.  So let me just observe that there is no reason why a layperson should not be given even very senior positions in organizing a parish or even a diocese. Indeed, in the Code of Canon Law such positions are open to laity (see canons 228, 482, 1421, 1428-1432).


Pre-Vatican II theology took over Vatican I’s heavy emphasis on the monarchical structure of the Church: the pope was the monarch and it was his authority and his infallibility that were stressed.

At Vatican II the bishops felt that the time had come to create a balance between those ideas and the pastoral powers that bishops have. Here too some remarkable changes in Catholic thinking occurred. 

In the early period of the Church’s history a rather strange theological theory developed that Christ gave the episcopacy to Peter, who in turn gave it to the other apostles.  Bishops were therefore believed to get their pastoral authority from the pope.  Although it was never more than a theory, it was more widely accepted since it strengthened the pope’s role as the one who unites, through the bishops, all the members of the Church to each other.   It was a theory that undoubtedly placed the bishops in a position of inferiority to the one who gave them their pastoral authority

Vatican II simply threw the theory out of the window by saying that every bishop gets his power and pastoral authority not from the pope but directly from Christ (# 21) – and it went on to drive the point home by stating that every bishop is the Vicar of Christ in his diocese and most certainly is not the pope’s vicar (#27).

When one reads Lumen Gentium’s chapter on bishops one can see the fear of many conservative bishops (and the Curia) that this teaching about the authority of bishops will affect what Catholics believe about the authority of the pope.  To counteract this fear, there is an almost obsessive repetition of the truth that bishops can only exercise their authority if they remain in union with their head, the bishop of Rome.  But what is meant by “remaining in union with their” needs some clarification.  For loyal dissent to a papal decree is not impossible.

What the council had to say about the source of a bishop’s authority should logically have led to the dismantling of the excessive degree of centralization that existed.    But power does not give itself up that easily.  The mentality behind the old theology of the source of a bishop’s power is alive and well and bishops are at times treated like naughty school boys if they do not follow 100% the official line on something.  As a result, a new phenomenon has developed in the Church: bishops (including cardinals) are openly expressing their views on disputed matters (e.g., women’s ordination, celibacy) and are openly complaining about the way Rome treats bishops - BUT they nearly all do so shortly before or soon after their retirement.

I believe that the way Rome treats bishops, especially those who may show too much independence contradicts all that the Council said about their dignity and pastoral obligations.  This too, I believe, is a misuse of authority.  The most recent example of Rome riding rough shod over a bishop’s pastoral authority is, I believe, the unilateral decision by Pope Benedict to allow priests to say the Tridentine rite of Mass as an ongoing liturgical option without them first having to get the local bishop’s permission.  That is an disturbing lack of respect for the local bishop’s God-given authority. 

There is a distortion here of the unity that should exist between bishops and their head, the Bishop of Rome.  Instead of being built on mutual brotherhood and trust, it is built on the model of the superior demanding obedience from the inferior.

One is forced to ask whether the authorities in Rome really believe that the Spirit guides and inspires bishops to be good, creative pastors.  If Christ’s vicars scattered throughout the world are forbidden by their head to question whether certain official standpoints truly reflect God’s will or truth, then we have a very serious problem in the Church.  The ban on such discussions amongst bishops could well in effect be a ban on the Holy Spirit being allowed to open our eyes and our hearts to a better understanding of our faith.


Pope John-Paul II made a remarkable request when he addressed a World Council of Churches meeting in Geneva.  He acknowledged that his own ministry was a major stumbling block on the road to Christian unity.  He then went on to ask the assembled representatives of Christian churches throughout the world to examine his office and to come up with recommendations as to how it could be exercised in a way that would be acceptable to them while remaining faithful to its basic purpose. 

The request implicitly acknowledges that there is not one and only one way of exercising the Petrine Ministry, the ministry of caring for the unity of the Church spread throughout the world. For Catholics it is a dogma of faith that the Pope possesses the authority that he does possess.  But it is not a dogma that he has to exercise it in the highly centralized way that we are familiar with.

The service that the Bishop of Rome performs for the universal Church is extremely important.  An event such as Vatican II and the rapidity with which its changes were introduced into the Church are almost inconceivable without a central authority able to oversee the whole process.

But it is precisely because of the importance of that ministry that it should never ever come under the suspicion of being exercised in a way that smacks of an abuse of authority – for supreme authority is open to abuse as any other.  The great historian of theology, Yves Congar, when dealing with the tragic split by eastern and western Christianity into two separate halves in the eleventh century, pointed out that a major factor in the split was not some doctrinal issue (though there were some) but a complaint by the Eastern Orthodox bishops that the Bishop of Rome was treating them as his underlings rather than as his brothers.  This shows that the exercise of the pope’s power has been problematic for a long time and must bear some of the blame for the division between the two great halves of the Church in the middle ages. 

The danger signs of papal power having a corrosive influence have been around for a long time. But we don’t have the time to go into any detail.  Instead I will concentrate on just one item since it contains within itself all the others: the item in question is the practice of describing the Pope’s basic job as being ‘to govern the universal Church’.

We are so accustomed to such a description of the Bishop of Rome’s particular ministry that we don’t see the inherent dangers it poses to a theology that wants to stress the brotherhood, the basic equality that the bishops throughout the world have with each other and with their head, the Bishop of Rome.  There is nothing in our faith that says that the job given to Peter by Christ is to “govern the universal Church”.  On the contrary “governing the universal Church” is a relatively late development, being the result of a long process of centralizing power in the hands of the Pope.

That his job is to govern the universal Church is expressed in many ways. One way was the open request Pope John Paul II made to his brother bishops to help him govern the Church (if memory serves me correctly). But its most familiar and frequent expression is in the way in which issues are dealt with in the Church.  It is simply accepted that any serious issue that arises and affects the Church is handed over to Rome to deal with and make decisions about.  Consultations with bishops may or may not take place.  But the bishops will have no vote on the matter.  It will always be Rome that will make the decision.  And, of course, the whole structure of the Vatican’s bureaucracy is designed to be the headquarters of a large organization.

I believe that the excessive centralization that has returned to characterize the way the Bishop of Rome exercises his ministry to his fellow bishops is counterproductive.  Indeed, it has results which would be seen in ordinary life as an unjust use of power, even though the wielders of that power are acting in what they honestly believe to be the best interests of the Church.  But their blindness to the injustices that are flowing from the system is part of the corruptive influence that wielding absolute power can have.

This part of the lecture must sound like an attack on the present Pope and his predecessors. It is not.  They are holy and saintly men.  But they are men who are the victims of a structure that, I believe, has blinded them to its problematic aspects – just as apartheid blinded Christians to its injustices.  What the supporters of apartheid could not see was that their actions appealed to things that were good and in themselves demanded respect, such as ‘law and order’.  But corrupted and blinded by their power they did not see that the way they applied that phrase was oppressive rather than uplifting to people.

I am also not suggesting that the entire edifice of the curia be dismantled and the Pope go back to looking after Rome as his primary concern (for that is his diocese) and only getting involved in other affairs on an ad hoc basis.  That would be unrealistic and would lose the efficiency with which we are able to execute decisions and deal with many problems in the Church.  In today’s world some centralization is essential.


The Church we are familiar with today is a bit of a hybrid creation. The conservative and progressive views that existed amongst the bishops at Vatican II had to find a way of living together. Neither side won out completely.  Both are alive and well and perhaps one of the gifts of Vatican II to the Catholic Church is the gift of learning to live with differences rather than living a monolithic life.

We live in a Church in which there remains a great deal of uniformity but it is also a Church in which there is much dissent. This ranges from relatively minor matters such as the way one administers the chalice at communion to pretty serious stuff such as rejecting the teaching on the [non-]ordainability of women (which we are told is ‘definitive’ and given the impression that it is a dogma, which it isn’t; this raises the question as to whether that is a just and honest thing to do).  It used to be a Church where the laity for the most part played the role given them by Pius X – being nothing but sheep.  It is now a Church where lay interest in theology has created an articulate and informed laity in many places, who are not afraid to speak their minds about many things in the Church.  In short, unlike the Church under the Pius popes, today’s Church is anything but a monolith, its clergy anything but demi-gods and its people anything but dumb sheep

I know there are fears that all of Vatican II’s good work is being undone.  I don’t believe that it can be undone.  The Council’s views on the Church, on the dignity and calling of the laity, on religious freedom, on the status and authority of bishops has laid a foundation that I believe makes any attempt to go back to pre-Vatican II days very difficult – if not impossible.  While there are those who would like to go back to those days, they are I believe a minority, and even so, I suspect that many of that minority are looking back for sentimental reasons.  So I am not in a state of despair about the Church.  For the Spirit of God’s love is working in all of us – calling each of us to love and to be open to repentance and change, while standing firmly for what we believe to be true. 

Brian Gaybba
Emeritus Professor of Systematic Theology
Rhodes University


  1. I'm so glad that this was recommended to me. Mr Gaybba's comments give me hope, and I agree that the Church will, indeed, be OK. Change of attitude is needed, however - more democracy and less dictatorship!

  2. Where can I find readings on catholic forms of hegemony?

  3. I would think that you should consult a book on the History of the Church, or else Google it