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Selections from ARCC LIGHT
the ARCC Newsletter 
edited by James E. Biechler, Ph.D.

A Question of Rights
Please, God, Don't Ask for 'Restoration'

By James E. Biechler

I've been reading a lot of criticism of the post-Vatican II period as a time of chaos and wild experimentation. Polka Masses, dancing in the aisles, home-baked bread in the Eucharistyou name it. To tell the truth, I think that criticism is correct. I lived through it and there was an awful lot of craziness going on. What's so bad about getting back to the basics?
--D.P.E, Glenside, PA 

"Back to basics" would be a great motto for the reform program of the Second Vatican Council! "Reform" is a term which pretty much means "back to basics." What has happened in the past few years is that "basics" came to mean, for many, the structures and practices of a church shaped by the Council of Trent (1545-63) and the First Vatican Council (1869-70). The reform of Vatican II wants to go back to the true basics of original Christianity. 

"Restorationists" are the true perpetrators of confusion and disorder in the church. 

Among these "basics" we can speak about the election of leaders by the members of the local churches, about the freedom of the church to adapt to the local cultures in which it found itself, about the central role of women and married persons in liturgy and administration, and about the central place of scripture and service to the poor in the Christian community. 

Perhaps your gripe does not concern "basics" after all. Perhaps your problem is really about "change." Like many of us, you probably grew up programmed to think "the church has not changed and cannot change." "As it was in the beginning, is now and ever shall be," referred not only to the Trinity but also to the church! 

Well, welcome to the world of history! Theologian Bernard Lonergan said that Vatican II marked the transition of the church from a classicist to a historicist mentality. "Classicist" is the world of unchanging essences and static social structures. Of course, the church never really inhabited such a world: it only seemed to or thought it did. 

For the first time in its history, the church at Vatican II affirmed the presence of the church in the world of human affairs. It saw the church not "over against" the world but immersed in its trials and tribulations. It recognized itself as changeable. When Pope John XXIII used the term aggiornamento he was suggesting that the church had to "update" itself; it was out of step with the times. Unlike the present pope who is basically a philosopher and as such tends to see things as eternal essences, John XXIII was a historian who recognized the historical realities of his time. 

A historian knows that things change. Institutions which refuse to change simply pass out of existence. "Adapt or perish" is the simple rule of all survival. Francis Bacon said it well: "He that will not apply new remedies must expect new evils, for time is the greatest innovator." One of the major evils such a one can expect is extinction. 

I recently ran across a remark by Alexis de Tocqueville, the famous student of democracy in America, which made me think of your question. In one sense, it is a complete, but terse, answer to your question. "Democratic eras are periods of experiment, innovation and adventure....I cannot but fear that men may arrive at such a state as to regard every new theory as a peril, every innovation as an irksome toil, every social improvement as a stepping-stone to revolution, and so refuse to move altogether for fear of being moved too far." 

?Granted, your question did not mention democracy but the Second Vatican Council was the closest the modern church came to democratic action and the result was precisely a period of "experiment, innovation and adventure." Vatican II changed nothing basic. It did recall the church to some of its basic principles. It's an axiom in the business world that if the CEO says, "it's okay to change," the message will reverberate throughout the company and every worker will find new ways, better ways, of doing the job. 

John XXIII made it clear that the church should change, open its windows. That gave the bishops at the council permission to innovate and that permission galvanized the entire church. "A thousand flowers bloomed." Not all the experiments developed into permanent improvements. But even those that failed to do so did not fail in their courage, their hope, their nobility of intention. 

Those who criticize the post-Vatican II period by citing what they conceive of as misguided or even chaotic liturgical efforts are no doubt missing the more important results of such attempts. The active participation of the laity has brought forth a new churchnot yet fully comfortable with itself, but a new church nonetheless. 

Before you continue your hankering for "the fleshpots of Egypt," for the "good old days," you should be reminded of the studies that have shown that parishes in which the pastor has indicated that "it's okay to change" are invariably dynamic enterprises, enjoy a high degree of active lay involvement. Similar studies have shown that although Catholic financial contributions are generally lower than those of other denominations, in Catholic parishes with an active laity, where lay persons participate in the financial decisions of the parish, the rate of giving is higher than that in other denominations. 

The so-called "restorationists" under the leadership of Cardinal Ratzinger who gave the equivalent of a papal approval to the term, are the true perpetrators of confusion and disorder in the church. By rejecting the reform program of John XXIII, Paul VI and the Second Vatican Council, they breed deep disrespect for authority, and for the judgment of their saintly predecessors. As Francis Bacon observed, by refusing to apply the new remedies they must expect new evils. 


Dr. Biechler, an emeritus professor of religion, is a member of ARCC's board of directors. He also holds a licentiate in canon law and is a longtime member of the Canon Law Society of America. 

E-mail Comments to Dr. Biechler

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Ingrid H. Shafer, Ph.D.
e-mail address: ihs@ionet.net
Posted 18 July 1999
Last updated 18 July 1999
Copyright © 1999 Ingrid H. Shafer
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