Pope Francis in Context
The Catholic Thing
Howard Kainz looks at Pope Francis and Vatican Council II. The pope is approaching ecumenism, collegiality, and marriage in ways the Council never imagined.
After his election to the papacy, Pope Francis described himself as “a faithful son of the Church.” But as we know only too well, reactions to Pope Francis in Catholic print and online publications during the last few years have run the gamut from positive to negative to “confused.” It may be a fool’s errand, but it may help our understanding of a pope not easily understood to see precisely how he is trying, for good or ill, to implement goals of the Second Vatican Council.
Let’s start by reviewing some of the Council’s major objectives:
1) Aggiornamento: The “updating” of the Church sought by Pope John XXIII, quickly turned to serious ecumenism, with the hope of bringing about Christian unity by reaching out to Protestants and Orthodox. In the minds of the most optimistic Council Fathers, a possibility existed of finally bringing about the vision of Jesus at the Last Supper – “that they may all be one.” Very soon after the Council began, the Secretariat for Promoting the Unity of Christians was given the power by Pope John XXIII of checking and, if necessary, redirecting the work of the various other commissions.
2)In theological circles, there were still strong vestiges of Conciliarism, which was considered to have been rejected by the strong affirmation of papal prerogatives, including papal infallibility, at Vatican I. Vatican II offered a chance once and for all to clear up the issue of papal jurisdiction. This clarification was expected to bolster the ecumenical aims of the “progressives” at the Council, by overcoming Protestant and Orthodox fears of subordination to the pope.
3)The 1917 Code of Canon Law, which was operative in the 1960s, clearly distinguished the “primary” end of marriage – namely, procreation, from the “secondary end” – i.e., mutual help and “allaying of concupiscence.” The stereotype of Catholics as emphasizing “breeding” had to be overcome, in the opinion of some Council Fathers and their theological advisors, by reformulating the theology of the sacrament of matrimony.
4) Catholics in the 1960s prayed for the “perfidious Jews” in the Good Friday liturgy, and were familiar with the traditional portrayal of the Church as the “New Israel” superseding the Old Testament covenants. But they were also intensely conscious of possible anti-Semitic ramifications in the aftermath of the Holocaust, and the formation of the new state of Israel. Rethinking of the relationship of Catholicism to Judaism was indispensable.