“By the spirit of Vatican II” is meant to promote the teachings and intentions of the Second Vatican Council in ways not limited to literal readings of its documents, but not in contradiction to the “letter” of the Council (cf. Saint Paul’s phrase, “the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life”).
The spirit of Vatican II is invoked for a great variety of ideas and attitudes. Bishop John Tong Hon of Hong Kong used it with regard merely to an openness to dialogue with others, saying: “We are guided by the spirit of Vatican II: only dialogue and negotiation can solve conflicts.”
In contrast, Michael Novak described it as a spirit that “sometimes soared far beyond the actual, hard-won documents and decisions of Vatican II. … It was as though the world (or at least the history of the Church) were now to be divided into only two periods, pre-Vatican II and post-Vatican II. Everything ‘pre’ was then pretty much dismissed, so far as its authority mattered. For the most extreme, to be a Catholic now meant to believe more or less anything one wished to believe, or at least in the sense in which one personally interpreted it. One could be a Catholic ‘in spirit’. One could take Catholic to mean the ‘culture’ in which one was born, rather than to mean a creed making objective and rigorous demands. One could imagine Rome as a distant and irrelevant anachronism, embarrassment, even adversary. Rome as ‘them’.” Such views of the Second Vatican Council were condemned by the Church’s hierarchy, and the works of theologians who were active in the Council or who closely adhered to the Council’s aspect of reform (such as Hans Küng) have often been criticized by the Church for espousing a belief system that is radical and misguided.
So. A battle of wills, if nothing else.
But, of course, Vatican II was much more than a battle of wills. In the end it was a consummated change of style, a clear change of attitude – in a sense, even a change of hierarchy; a change wrought by a good person who had clearly not been raised to high office with the objective of changing anything.
Far from being a mere “stop gap” Pope, to great excitement John called an ecumenical council fewer than ninety years after the Vatican Council. Cardinal Montini remarked to a friend that “this holy old boy doesn’t realise what a hornet’s nest he’s stirring up”. From the Second Vatican Council came changes that reshaped the face of Catholicism: a comprehensively revised liturgy, a stronger emphasis on ecumenism, and a new approach to the world.
Now let us turn to another just as political church of the people. Ed Miliband has just turned 40 years old. The similarities with John XXIII are not immediately apparent. But even so, I do wonder if, in an analogous way, Ed Miliband hasn’t been being installed by certain people as leader of a similarly broad group of believers like the Labour Party, with the expectation that he will do a job in a certain way – in a way not essentially dissimilar to the “stop-gap” and “puppet” John XXIII.
Why do I think this?
Let’s ask the questions.
A broad church in need of a kick up the backside? A creaking hierarchy which, for far too long, has abused the trust and served itself of a generally ignored grassroots and base? An ideology in need of comprehensive renovation?
A leadership long in the tooth, tired and hollow?
Yes, I hear you. Ed Miliband is about as young as any leader can get these days. Some of his supporters, however, are most decidedly not.
But I shouldn’t be surprised, even so, if – in this second decade of the 21st century – Mr Miliband doesn’t manage to turn this hidebound Labour Party of ours upside down in much the same way that – in the Sixties of the last century – John XXIII did to Catholicism.
Perhaps that wasn’t the reason why many voted for Miliband. They weren’t looking for a real change-maker – just a man who could dress up the Party comfortably enough to win again.
My intuition does inform me, however, that such an eventuality – the eventuality of profound and persistent internal change – may be just what we get.
Perhaps that explains the moderately muted applause when the Labour leadership conference discovered yesterday which Miliband had won the coveted prize of Labour leader.
It wasn’t because they were disappointed that David hadn’t won.
No. Disappointment wasn’t the driver. Rather, I suspect, it was more a gentle lilt of apprehension.
It was, I would suggest, because they all realised that the change Ed Miliband had been airily promising whilst only a candidate would now impact sooner or later on their own precious structures now he had actually become leader.
Maybe positively, maybe negatively (for them as individuals, I mean – as owners of little Party fiefdoms) – but either way, a change which would need to be understood, managed and negotiated.
Change is always a trying circumstance, whether good or bad, whether constructive or destructive. And most change, even when it clearly constructs, inevitably destroys something which previously existed.
All those in the hall were in some way Party faithful.
All those outside watching were in some way interested onlookers.
All those in the country who cared to follow the announcement, meanwhile, could only smile and say to themselves: “These are the processes of change we’ve suffered in our workplaces every single day of the past thirteen New Labour years. Now it’s your turn. Now you’ll see what it’s like.”
What Ed Miliband promises the Labour Party now is what John XXIII did to the Roman Catholic Church almost half a century ago.
Stir up that hornet’s nest.
And not a moment too soon.