THIS STORY HAS BEEN FORMATTED FOR EASY PRINTING
James Carroll

From Vatican, a tainted olive branch

By James Carroll
October 26, 2009

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THE SINGLE most eloquent expression of the Catholic Church’s Second Vatican Council in 1965 was a preposition - the word “in.’’ The title of the council declaration “The Church in the Modern World’’ could readily have been expected to be “The Church against the Modern World,’’ reiterating a long-held opposition. Or, a little more positively, it might have been “The Church and the Modern World,’’ defining a gulf between the sacred and the secular that devalues both realms. But instead, the council fathers stated their conviction that the church, neither above nor detached, is integrally a part of the contemporary human condition - happily so. The decree’s Latin title “Gaudium et Spes’’ translates as “Joy and Hope’’ - an even stronger signal of the council’s affirming mind-set.

Last week’s anti-Anglican salvo from Rome shows how far the Catholic leadership has fallen from the heights of Vatican II. The invitation to “disgruntled’’ members of the Church of England’s extended family to abandon the Thames for the Tiber is a rejection of contemporary human experience, a resounding response of “No!’’ The church against the modern world, after all. Not only a cruel assault on a fellow Christian communion that is valiantly struggling to strike a balance between liberal and conservative impulses; not only an insult to loyal Catholic liberals who will be denied what converted Anglicans are offered (notably a married clergy); not only a slap at women and homosexuals whose progress toward equality is a global measure of justice; not only a stark contrast with the common Anglican practice of fully welcoming alienated Roman Catholics, while eschewing any pressure on them to convert - there is more.

Equally damaging, the Vatican’s preemptive exploitation of Anglican distress explicitly ducks the large and urgent challenge facing every religion and every religious person, which is how to positively reconcile tradition with the massive changes in awareness, knowledge, and communication that come with the scientific and technological breakthroughs that daily alter the meaning of existence.

From the misfit fringe of another denomination, Rome recruits the naysayers it needs to bolster what has become its own place on the margin of Catholic life. First there was Opus Dei, with its crypto-fascist origins, then there were the Holocaust-denying lovers of Latin - and now the Anglo-fundies. Come on over, guys!

While the Vatican and its recruits just say no, the rest of us attempt to apply tested modes of ethical reasoning to revolutions, for example, in genetic science that separate reproduction from sexuality. While the Vatican just says no, the rest of us reckon with the ways in which the worldwide status of women emerges as the key to development and a hoped-for eradication of poverty. While the Vatican just says no, the rest of us see the link between triumphalist rejection of pluralism and the intolerance that undergirds most of the world’s violence.

The story of the Vatican raid on the Anglican communion was front page news because these issues go deeper than religion. Nothing less than the survival of the human species is at stake. Will 21st-century fundamentalism thwart science across the globe? Will old habits of tribalism, nationalism, and excluding religious denominationalism prevent a new world humanism from emerging? Will the ancient wisdom of moral philosophies embedded in the great spiritual traditions be available as guides to future decisions? Or will rational, self-critical, ecumenically minded religion self-destruct just when humanity most needs its positive influence? Positive is the point.

Catholicism is only part of this story, yet the affirming spirit of Vatican II was a resounding yes to the human future. The Catholic Church, with due modesty, embraced its role as a builder of that future in equal partnership with other believers and all people of good will. That meant not just tolerance for differing religious bodies, like the Anglican communion, but a compact of mutual advancement.

That respectful mutuality is now betrayed, but only partly so. The affirmative spirit lives on outside the Catholic Church - notably among Canterbury’s affiliates - but it is alive inside Catholicism, too. Nothing defines the ongoing triumph of Vatican II more clearly than the way the Catholic people - who are the church - are taking this latest demonstration of the Vatican’s rampant fallibility. Rome has spoken. Now, let the conversation begin.

James Carroll’s column appears regularly in the Globe.

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