Another Call for Vatican III: Fr Edward Beck, ABC

A short while ago, any thought of an imminent Third Vatican Council seemed a completely fanciful, impossible dream.  The thought remains unlikely to be achieved anytime soon, but it is no longer so fanciful, and no longer impossible.  Over just the past fortnight, the idea has been raised as proposals or reports of discussions, in a number of places.  For ABC, Fr Edward Beck has discussed not just the principle, but some concrete proposals for topics that need urgent discussion, and also useful proposals for the appropriate attendance.



Fr Beck begins by noting that Americans may have thought that the furore over clerical abuse had been laid to rest eight years ago, but recent revelations have made it clear that the problem was never restricted to North America, nor even to the English speaking world.  They were just the first to bring the topic out for exposure and public discussion.  This year, it has become clear that there are problems not yet addressed across Europe. Similarly, we should expect further disclosures still to come from Africa, and Latin America. (In fact, there have already been the first reports from South America. While there have not yet been many reports of child abuse from Africa, ther have been numerous complaints of abuse against religious women.)

Fr Beck does not go as far as some in suggesting that there is a clear connection between compulsory celibacy and clerical sexual abuse, he does say that the mere possibility of a connection makes it imperative that the wisdom of compulsory celibacy, which for so long has been not even allowed to be  discussed, should be the top order of business.

What issues might this Council address? Many to be sure, but chief among them could be the current crisis confronting the priesthood. Certainly the issue of sexual abuse and the devastating toll it has taken in the church might be examined and addressed definitively, once and for all. In addition, while pedophilia and the sexual abuse of minors and priestly celibacy are not organically related, the abuse crisis has once again raised the issue of the necessity and relevancy of mandatory celibacy for diocesan priests. The majority of Catholics and priests want an open discussion about this issue, but up to this point, that has not been permitted.

He reminds us that marriage for priests was permitted fr the first millenium and more, and that the motivation for compulsory celibacy was originally economic (to safeguard the inheritance of property), not spiritual.  He also notes that there are already married priests operating who have transferred from the anglican communion.  (He does not note, although he could have done, that several groups of bishops have in the past asked for at least open discussion of the matter, or even for outright repeal of the ban – and that the idea of universal clerical celibacy is in any case something of a popular myth, as it is so widely flouted.) With the notable worldwide shortage of priests, it is by no menas clear that the existing total ban on married priests has the support of most Catholics. The need fo open discussion has become urgent.

Other issues

While the uproar over sexual abuse by the clergy demands that celibacy be the major topic for discussion, there are also other important issues where official teaching remains rigid, but lacks any clear support of the faithful.

Many feel that other issues should also be addressed if a new Vatican Council was ever convened. Women priests, sexual ethics, inter-religious dialogue, globalization and ecology are but some of the topics that get mentioned. Above all people seem to desire an open dialogue, simply to be able to talk about these issues in an adult forum where their life experience and hard-earned wisdom is acknowledged as a indispensable element in the establishment of church law and doctrine.

This is an important point he makes here: the need for fresh discussion is not just for any changes tht may emerge from them, but also for recognition of the simple fact that real issues need to be publicly discussed, and that within a context where real -life experience is acknowledged and valued as an element in evaluating appropriate decisions. That brings him to what for me is his most important observation, and one which superficially seems to be the least realistic: a recognition that the next council cannot be restricted to the cardinals. That, in turn also raises in my own mind the need for discussion of a couple of other urgent points not included in Fr Beck’s list – the fallacious claims of papal infallibility,  and the need for lay participation in selecting their pastors and bishops.


This would mean that more than Red Hats gather for such a Council. The laity would need to be more than window dressing this time. They would rather be respected as serious deliberators who help the ecclesiastical hierarchy to shape a new and spirit-filled vision.

Is this just a pipe dream? on the face of it, perhaps, but I am not so sure.  Now, I do not for a second believe that Benedict will decide overnight to call a general council of the church just because a few dreamers have speculated about the idea, but that is not the only way these things work.

The history of the late twentieth century has shown how in country after country, popular pressure from below has forced fundamental change from the most unlikely despots. The sense of anger in the church is now palpable across a wide front.  If the Vatican officials in theor ivory towers are not yet realising just how much they have lost the confidence of ordinary Catholics, many of the bishops and parish priests (who are more in touch with those ordinary Catholics) most certainly are beginning to grasp the severity of the situation.  As fresh revelations continue to emerge, as governments and police services begin to report on their own investigations in the manner of the Irish Murphy report, this recognition of plain fact will spread further among the clergy and episcopacy. Slowly, they can be expected to grow some collective backbone, and to apply pressure from below.

If that pressure is still not enough, there are other possibilities too.  There is provision in church law for individual bishops to call diocesan synods to discuss matters of importance. It is conceivable that in some areas, a few bishops or bishops’ conferences might adopt such a step.  If a few did so, it is possible that others could follow.  If no bishops are prepared to step so prominently out of line, what is to keep us from doing it for ourselves, and calling a series of synods of the people?  Preparations are for just such a synod of the people are already under way in Minneapolis. Why not elsewhere?

For far too long, we as Catholics have allowed this self-appointed cabal to assume total control of the Church, in total opposition to both the Gospel message of love, inclusion and collegiality among the disciples, adn the practice of the early Church.  As clergy and bishops, they should be serving us, but they hold themselves accountable to no human authority but themselves.

We must find ways to make it stop.

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3 comments for “Another Call for Vatican III: Fr Edward Beck, ABC

  1. April 3, 2010 at 12:24 am

    I don’t think there’s any question that the kind of reform that is needed will require another council.

    But there is a part of me that shudders at the thought of what the current crop of bishops would do to the Church if they had the chance.

    • Terry
      April 3, 2010 at 9:53 am

      What indeedd, would the current crop of bishops do? Left simply to their own devices, they might simply opt for more of the same. However, there are I think, two crucial issues that could change that. The first is that even the most obtuse papal loyalists among them must surely have discerned by now the deep seated anger among the laity, and seen how people are deserting the church in droves -and taking their cheque books with them.
      The second is that if we are to take the faith seriously, we must take account of a non- humn agency at work as well. Who knows what the Holy Spirit could do, once a Council has assembled?

      See, for example, the response of Etienne, in this comment thread.

  2. Terry
    April 3, 2010 at 10:12 am

    Thank you, Etienne. While we urge change on the institutional power structure, demanding the right to be able to “discuss openly, without fear”, we need to rememeber also that fear is internal, as is the “pray, pay, and obey” mentality. When I was a young student activist in apartheid South Africa, a friend who was then a Jesuit novice regularly advised that tot change the world, we first need to chnage ourselves. That novice later served two terms as Jesuit regional superior for South Africa, and the country has been transformed. Something of his message is relevant alos for us in the church today. Obviously, there is need for prudence, especially on the part of the clergy. But we could probably all do something to set aside some of our subservience and become more assertive than we ahve been, particularly if we recognise the source of our strength, and pray to the Lord for guidance, courage and strength.

    Together, we can transform the Church. Quite how, remains to be seen.

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