Cardinal Tagle: Church should not look to 'idealized past' with nostalgia

by Joshua J. McElwee

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Philippines Cardinal Luis Tagle -- often cited as a possible successor to Pope Francis -- has called on Catholics to avoid looking to the pre-Second Vatican Council church with a sense of nostalgia, but to embrace and live out the council's sense of openness to the modern world.

Speaking at a landmark theological conference focused on carrying the vision of the council forward, Tagle said Vatican II rediscovered the church's understanding of mystery, mission and communion -- and that, from there, "the understanding of church changed radically."

One of the key changes of the council, he said, was the move from a church that focused on itself to one that focused on the needs of humanity.

"Many people want to witness to Christ in some idealized past that they long for with nostalgia," said Tagle, who spoke Friday morning at Georgetown University. "No, we witness to Christ now, here, where we are in our world."

"The church is being asked to retrieve its deepest identity as a communion, but a communion that is not focused on itself," he continued. "Not self-focused, not self-referential."

"The church finds its true identity only in reference to Jesus and never to itself," he said. "The church's reference to its identity is outside of itself. The church is the pointer to Jesus, the sign of the presence of Jesus, the servant of Jesus."

Tagle, the archbishop of Manila and newly elected president of Caritas Internationalis, spoke at a conference titled "Vatican II, Remembering the Future: Ecumenical, Interfaith and Secular Perspectives on the Council's Impact and Promise." The event is co-hosted by Georgetown, Marymount University in Arlington, Va., and the Washington National Cathedral.

The event, a gathering of the Ecclesiological Investigations International Research Network, is seeing some 140 academics reflect Thursday to Sunday on the meaning and import of the council and how its vision might be carried forward.

Among other speakers: Cardinal Jean-Louis Tauran, president of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue, and Cardinal Walter Kasper, the German theologian whose focus on mercy is known to have deeply influenced Francis.

The Second Vatican Council was a 1962-65 global meeting of Catholic bishops that led to significant changes in the church, including modernization of the Catholic liturgy and redefining the relationship between the church and the modern world.

Opening the second day of the conference's discussions Friday, Tagle gave a powerful, wide-ranging and sometimes emotional speech on the deep and resounding changes Vatican II made to the Catholic church.

Tagle focused his talk on the way the council called on the church to express openness to the world, saying that part of that call means Catholic leaders must get out of themselves and face what is happening today.

Relating how an Italian journalist had asked him once what he thought of the so-called "weariness" of the Catholic church in Europe, Tagle said he replied: "What are you tired of?"

"In Asia, we may be a small flock, but you don't have time to get tired," he continued, mentioning how Christians across Asia are only 3 percent of the total population.

"We have always been small in Asia," he said. "And even with a little flock, you get out of yourself: Face Jesus, face the world."

Tagle also said the council decided to take a stance of openness to the world because the bishops at the event wanted to be "constantly open to every human condition."

"No human being ... should be alien to the church," said the cardinal, adding that he likes to say that the council had a "mystical, missionary amazement ... of the worth of human beings."

But quoting from the council's constitution on the church in the modern world, Gaudium et Spes, Tagle said the church's new posture of openness also compels its community to speak up for the parts of humanity that are sometimes forgotten, especially the poor.

"Part of the church's openness to humanity is to remind the rest of the world of human beings that have been forgotten," the cardinal said. "There is no true and complete openness to the world if we do not remember ... those who have been forgotten."

"Openness to the world means getting ourselves dirty, stained, wounded by the existential realities" that the poor face, he said. "The church should smell like the world that it penetrates."

Outlining his vision for how the church can speak to the world as it is today, Tagle said church leaders must make a distinction between problems it can solve and dilemmas that may not have solutions.

In order to face dilemmas, the cardinal said, you must tell stories.

"Tell stories of people who have navigated through those murky waters of dilemmas," Tagle said. "You don't need a solution. You need meaning. You need hope."

"But who can tell stories?" he asked. "Only those who have entered the world of stories, who have been open to the stories of human life."

"We should be the living story of what we proclaim," Tagle said. "We should be the living sign of the Jesus that we profess to believe in."

This week's conference is the ninth for the Ecclesiological Investigations International Research Network, a global group of theologians co-founded and led by Georgetown professor Gerard Mannion. It follows previous events in India, Belgium and England.

Tauran, the president of the pontifical council, opened with an address Thursday. Kasper, the German cardinal, is to speak Saturday morning.

Outlining his own understanding of the conciliar event, Tauran said Vatican II could be called "the council of the search." Saying that two significant dimensions of the council that have appeared in the last 50 years are theological and hierarchical, he said: "The celebration of a council is one thing; implementation is another thing."

Among others speaking at the conference, which is seeing a diverse range of viewpoints: noted moral theologian Fr. Charlie Curran; former Catholic Theological Society of America presidents Richard Gaillardetz and M. Shawn Copeland; South Sudan Bishop Eduardo Hiiboro Kussala; and Nigerian Jesuit Fr. Agbonkhianmeghe Orobator.

One of the speakers who opened the event Thursday was Jesuit historian and theologian Fr. John O'Malley, author of the seminal book What Happened at Vatican II.

O'Malley said the typical refrain that Vatican II was a pastoral council and therefore did not propose new doctrines of the church is not correct. Saying that such a perspective tries to downplay the council's decrees or call Vatican II a sort of "council light," the Jesuit said the 1960s event was pastoral through its doctrinal nature.

Vatican II, O'Malley said, offered a new model of merging between so-called pastoral and doctrinal councils.

"Vatican II was a pastoral council by its teachings, that is, its doctrines," he said. "In a word, Vatican II was pastoral by being doctrinal."

On Friday, Gaillardetz expanded upon O'Malley's conclusions by tying Vatican II's understanding of doctrine to Francis.

Gaillardetz, a professor at Boston College, said Francis "has boldly returned to the foreground a broad range of conciliar teachings." Among those, the professor said, is a "recontextualization" of the role of doctrine in the life of the church.

"Our first Latin American pope is not afraid to affirm the necessary place of doctrine in the church, but he ... situates it within the pastoral life of the church," Gaillardetz said.

[Joshua J. McElwee is NCR Vatican correspondent. His email address is Follow him on Twitter: @joshjmac.]

A version of this story appeared in the June 5-18, 2015 print issue under the headline: Tagle: Embrace openness to the world.

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