I think what demarcated the two parties that emerged in the wake of the Second Vatican Council was not at first theology (either dogmatic or moral) but something else. There had been an awakening of what one might call a moral imperative to do something about the state of the world; the Second World War had ended a mere seventeen years previously, and the horrors of war, brought by the media for the first time into every living room in the comfortable ‘first world’, the devastation of the atomic bomb, the death camps, made those with a conscience ponder what the world was becoming.
There was a picture, popular in Irish homes, called The Peace Sowers; it showed Good Pope John and President John F. Kennedy walking together in a ploughed field, casting seed; living in the shadow of the Cuban Missile Crisis, the imperative for peace seemed all-important. Yet there were still wars, especially (in the States) against what appeared to be a Communist threat—Korea, and then Vietnam later—which seemed to be going nowhere. They were guided by old men, from the pre-nuclear world who, like Senator McCarthy, destroyed their own arguments by over-stating them. The younger generation was impatient with all the old way of doing things; ‘make love, not war’ seemed a sensible proposition, given where war had got us and what war was now capable of doing.
When Pope John opened his windows to the world to ‘blow off the dust that had accumulated on the throne of Peter since the time of Constantine’, his words found a resonance with the young who wanted a similar revolution in the world. He was pushing at an open door. All the old certainties were to be reviewed and, if found wanting, discarded. At St John’s Seminary at Wonersh, Fr Michael Hollings (then the Catholic chaplain at Oxford University) in 1963 gave the students an electrifying retreat in which he urged them not simply to follow the seminary rules, but to examine their whole way of life, and if something was in their opinion wrong, then to work to get it changed, because simply going along with the old way of doing things was to collaborate in it, to give passive assent to something that was being perpetuated when it shouldn’t.
And this was the watchword. Throughout the 1950s, the Church had been extraordinarily energetic in her missions and her outlook. Vocations were abundant, especially to the missionary congregations, and these young clergy and religious were the people to be particularly energized by the new ideas.
‘What if,’ a young sister might say, ‘instead of attending Terce, Sext and None, I stayed working in the hospital? Wouldn’t that achieve even more good? Isn’t the Office sung in common actually a hindrance to doing God’s work in the world?’ These long sleeves on my habit could harbour infection. And this wimple makes me a danger when I drive on the roads. And anyway, doesn’t it frighten people off?
I really don’t think that these things were excuses for people wanting a more comfortable life. They were—misguided, in my opinion—attempts to live the Christian life more ‘authentically’ (in the existentialist cant of the day) in the service of our neighbour.
The Second Vatican Council—especially towards the end—seemed to be inclining in this same direction. I have commented before that really there were two councils; one in the Aula of St Peter’s, and the other, (more important, as it turned out) in the bars and restaurants all around St Peter’s, where the periti with their new ideas met journalists. Those journalists were not interested in the documents of the Council which mandated the retention of Latin, for instance: ‘dog bites man’ is never news. They were interested in change and revolution within the Catholic Church, and, fuelled by the speculations of the periti, and deprived of sight of the actual documents until they were published, change and innovation is what they reported in their newspapers. It caused a ferment. And that is what greeted the bishops when they returned to their dioceses; a Church on fire with the prospect of exciting and radical change.
What were the bishops to do? Reach for the fire extinguisher and tell everyone that they had got it wrong? Some tried that, but the majority decided to ride the wave and go for popularity.