Postpone an ecumenical council no longer

by Ken Briggs

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The time is ripe for a Third Vatican Council, methinks. Without delay.

"Signs of the times" compel such a summit conference. The world is in turmoil, splintered by ideology, religion, wealth and colossal military oppression. Collectively, a discordant tone fills the air, aided and abetted most recently by the cacophonous intrusion of Donald Trump. We in the privileged world are not used to feeling the ground crumbling underneath us, threatening our religious and cultural props. But here we are in concert with most of the rest of the world in sensing calamity. What better response to this worldly doom than to corral the would-be followers of the Prince of Peace to Vatican III to refocus on the things that matter ultimately far more than earthly tribulation?

Such a conclave could provide an alternative of spirit and hope. Or it could become a failed opportunity. But how could it not be worth the try if there is reason to believe it is being summoned.

Several urgent factors would lend themselves to such a summons.

One is that invitation to pose an alternative to prevailing fatefulness and fear on a platform that can match its global scope. At its clearest and best, the Christian vision enfolds humanity in a movement toward unity, mercy and universal dignity, overriding divisive, competitive inequalities and tribalism such as grips us now. That's a pretty lofty hope, but it's inherently in those dusty, often maladapted annals of Christian thought and behavior. The world needs a model of salvation, if you will, and a Council could offer such a model.

It would also have plenty of concrete ambitions that could enhance the Catholic mission.

For example, it could attempt to reconcile the serious strains between Pope Francis and his detractors within the hierarchy, priesthood and laity. Most are charmed by the embracing pope but some elements chafe over his aspirations for a gentler, kinder, more servant-oriented church. Opponents cite his downplaying of strict doctrinal conformity, criticism of the culture of priests and bishops and his melding of mission and justice for the poor as neglecting what they consider the Church's primary goals of individual liturgical and doctrinal correctness.

Francis has won much of the world over with his simplicity, spontaneous compassion and, to many, his common sense approach to pastoral issues. He has made Catholicism seem more approachable and convinced people of all backgrounds that he has set the church on a new course. The fact is that he has set a new tone but that has not set a new course of action into motion. His commitment to the poor is transparent and moving but it has not become an agenda in the church. He speaks as a blessed prophet while the church lumbers along with, one senses, diminishing vitality and loss of members here in North America.

Vatican III would stage a showdown, allowing voices from every corner help determine whether the pope's vision translates into concrete action on behalf of the causes he espouses. At this point, it looks as if Francis' gifts are as a proclaimer of Gospel truths rather than an organizational reformer. He appears to want divorced and remarried Catholics to receive the Eucharist, and even convened a Roman assembly to thrash out the idea, but nothing further has happened. Some believe he wants whatever reform might be possible to bubble up from the bottom until it has consensus. A Council could help it bubble.

Other of Francis' positions, on homosexuality (including his apparent approval of the recent anti-gay priest document), growing economic inequalities and women deacons have been left floating without further explanation or connection to broader purposes such as sexual ethics, sacrifice of church resources in support of the poor and oppressed or women's equality. All and more could be taken up at a time when the scattered conflicts around them continue to fracture Catholicism and drive people away. Appeals, however passionate, fade fast without application.

In the absence of any strategy that promises to lessen these divides, a rousing Council would at least permit the debates to take place face to face and who knows, maybe progress. Vatican II jousted over many highly contentious issues such as freedom of religious conscience and approach to Judaism. After three years and countless wrangles, they found enough common ground to proceed.

I'd favor a change in structure to allow this.. Like Vatican II, the defining documents of Vatican III would require approval by vote, subject to revisions and recasting. But instead of one big bloc of bishops with the right to vote, I'd suggest three houses of deliberation: bishops, priests and laity, with roughly equal weight in the final outcomes. I can hear the yelps now, of course, on grounds that Tradition gives the ordained, and the hierarchically ordained in particular, the sole and final authority. That would be subject to an agreed process, but I'd stick with the three units. Women would be fully present in the lay unit, of course, and somehow the views of all three branches would be recognized.

The results of even holding an elevated effort to reach consensus on vital differences that are hampering the church could have its most profound effect on young people. They may see a great deal of fragmented, bickering religion around, but rarely a picture of Christianity on such a grand scale. If Francis' beliefs and intimations could be tested in the forums of world Catholics, if the church's social mission could take on sharpened and uplifting (if controversial) purposes, if a picture of the breadth of Catholicism could emerge, refreshed and inspired, after it was following Vatican II, what a powerful appeal it might have on youth who have never seen Christianity writ large.

Time to start the wheels turning. 

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