Vatican II: My Alarm Clock Rings (Personal Reflections IX)

Vatican II

These weeks I’ve been trying to trace the origins of my own awakening to the necessity and power of critical thought.  I’m doing so even though the reaction of many kind enough to read my blog might be “Who cares?” From them, I beg indulgence.

However when the “who cares” thought occurs to me, I think, “I’m writing especially for my children (Maggie, Brendan, and Patrick) who might some day care – even if not now. I’m writing for some students at Berea College (where I taught for 40 years) and whose tuning into this blog suggests they might still be interested. Same goes for the hundreds of Evangelical college and university students whom I ended up teaching in the Latin American Studies Program (LASP) in Costa Rica where I worked off and on (as “Don Mike”) for more than 20 years.

So allow me to continue.

I was saying that insofar as any “awakening” has occurred in my life, it has happened in a world that I’ve gradually discovered to be mostly the opposite of what I’ve been taught by well-meaning parents, teachers and public figures in the United States. I don’t hesitate to say that in very important ways, most of what they taught me as “right” turns out to be wrong. Most of their “truths” I’ve come to see as falsehoods. And I’m referring to some of the most important aspects of life – women (yes, I list them first on purpose!), God, religion, history, and politics.

In that context, as I attempted to show last week in the case of my English professor, Father James Griffin, I experienced many caring people (especially Sisters of St. Joseph and professors within the Society of St. Columban) who while not necessarily exemplifying critical thought in the political sphere, encouraged me to think critically about poetry, literature, and the Bible at a time when the term “critical thinking” had not yet come into vogue.

Certainly, all of them were critical in a small but important aspect of the wider sphere because they were operating within the context of the Catholic Church. In the United states of  the ‘40s,‘50s and ‘60s the Church still found itself on the defensive before a population still prejudiced against it. So while the Church was trying desperately to fit in as Super American, it did so while defending its religious beliefs against hostility directed towards “Papists.” It was important for us to root for Notre Dame on fall Saturday afternoons. It was an act of cultural resistance.

My journey towards genuine critical thinking took giant strides when after finishing my undergraduate degree in philosophy, I entered the major seminary. “The Major’s” six-year curriculum comprised the final two years of undergraduate work in philosophy and was completed by four years of post-grad theological studies culminating with my ordination to the priesthood at the age of 26 in Milton, Massachusetts. (Thereafter, as you’ll see, I was sent to Rome for five more years of work towards my doctoral degree in theology.)

Actually, I don’t remember benefiting much from my philosophy major. However (paradoxically as I show here) one of my most memorable and in some ways influential professors was Fr. Norbert Feld. He taught us metaphysics and cosmology. Turns out that way back then in the early ‘60s Norbie was a precursor of today’s right wing Republicans. He was a fan of William Buckley and The National Review. He’d endlessly ridiculed “liberals” and even (as I recall) Pope John XXIII’s social encyclical, Mater and Magister (“Mother and Teacher,” 1961).  The encyclical’s title referred to the roles of the “Holy Mother Church” in the pursuit of social justice. In that connection, I remember Fr. Feld’s reading an excerpt from Buckley’s critical National Review article called, “Mater Si, Magister No!”

In fact, Norbie’s only “philosophical” utterance that sticks with me was his observation about Rene Descartes (1596-1650) – one of the great heroes of the Scientific Revolution. Norbie said Descartes “didn’t know his head from his elbow.” That shows you what Catholics even in the ‘60s thought about the “modern world.”

Despite all of that and in some strange way, Father Feld played a role in awakening me to the importance of politics. His right wing harangues did something to convince me that Barry Goldwater deserved my first vote for president. Still even at this late stage (21 or 22) I found myself content to slumber. I didn’t really see what all the fuss was about.

Even my theological studies those last four years in the major seminary didn’t make much impact at first. They were dry as dust and for me represented just one more hurdle blocking my way to the goal I wanted more than anything else –  to become a priest.

Then Pope John called the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965) and everything changed.

Suddenly, the Eucharist was celebrated entirely in English.  The seminary chapel was remodeled with the altar facing the congregation. The tabernacle (no longer located on the “Eucharistic Table”) now found its place off to the side quite distant from the altar.  Instead of a small golden cask, it became a huge wooden treasure chest meant to resemble the Ark of the Covenant. It was designed by a Jewish artist. (I remember engaging in heated debate about its appropriateness. “How could someone who did not even share the Catholic tradition,” I argued, “make a meaningful artistic statement about the Eucharist?”

Guitars now replaced organ music. We were singing songs that sounded like the Kingston Trio or Peter Paul and Mary.

Even more importantly, we left aside those dusty theological manuals that had been the basis of our boring studies. We were now reading protestant theologians. And all of a sudden theology was interesting – even exciting.  We were also reading the works of Edward Schilebeeckx’s  (Christ the Sacrament of the Encounter with God )as well as works by Hans Kung, Ives Congar, Teilhard de Chardin and other contemporary (mostly European) theologians.

We who had been cooped up in the seminary for so long were now allowed to travel at night together to the Paulist Fathers Lecture Series in Boylston Square. There we listened to scholars like Andrew Greely and Barnabas Ahern.

Ahern’s lecture about “The Human Jesus” impressed me tremendously. It changed the way I thought about Jesus. The talk’s central image was a “what if” analogy between Jesus and Pope John XXIII. “What if by night Pope John stole out of the Vatican precincts and in disguise travelled across the Tiber into Trastevere to consort with and teach the poor there as one of them?”  Jesus did something like that, Ahern argued – using his powerful grasp of modern scripture scholarship to make the point.

I was so impressed that the next day I sat down at my Olympus typewriter and wrote out the whole talk virtually verbatim from memory. Subsequently, I used it again and again to share Ahern’s insights with congregations I served. It was the best lecture I had ever heard.

However it’s not that I was yet completely comfortable with all the new things I was hearing. Ahern’s words were one thing, but I was uncomfortable with questioning issues I had thought long since resolved — papal infallibility and even mandatory priestly celibacy. We were now having constant though informal debates about those things. I remember once writing a “learned” essay in defense of Thomas a Kempis’ The Imitation of Christ. My classmates and others thought it too medieval and out-of-date. I loved the book and defended as if it were the Bible itself

But then, even the Bible, I found out, needed thoughtful critique. My most influential professor in the Major Seminary taught me that. And the evidence shook me to my foundations. (More one that topic next week)

Why I Left the Priesthood: Pt. 2 Intellectual Influences

I didn’t have much of an intellectual life when I was in the seminary. True, I studied hard and got good grades. I learned what I was expected to know on tests. But the intellectual curiosity just wasn’t there. Why should it have been? As Catholics we had the whole truth; there was nothing new to learn. There was no salvation outside the Church. The pope, at least, knew all the answers. There was no need to think much, except to “defend the faith.” 

Beyond that, thinking critically wasn’t much encouraged at all. In fact, from my high school seminary days till half-way through the major seminary (when I was about 23) a palpable anti-intellectualism pervaded the curriculum. For instance, I remember being taught in my first or second year as a philosophy major that Descartes “didn’t know his head from his elbow.” We never read Descartes, nor anybody of much consequence as far as “the world” was concerned, apart from snippets in the various manuals – and then only as parts of refutations. These quotes, followed quickly by rebuttal, did after all give the distinct impression that Descartes, Kant, Marx, Freud – not to mention the “Modernists” and Protestants in general – were clueless. So why be concerned about them or their writings?

In 1962, of course, things started to change, when John XXIII summoned the Second Vatican Council. I was a senior in college then. And some of our professors started encouraging us to actually read books, and to discover what was happening in the world. I resisted. I had well internalized the passivity which the seminary curriculum had encouraged in terms of not thinking for myself, at least theologically.

I had the good fortune, however, of having classmates and friends who were less gullible than me. They were excited by the prospect of the Council. After a bit of a struggle, one of them even got our library to subscribe to the National Catholic Reporter. In class and outside, others voiced criticisms of a whole host of things I considered sacred. I remember, for instance, a spirited seminary-wide discussion about the worth of continuing to regard The Imitation of Christ as a source of spiritual wisdom. I resisted that too. I remember writing something “learned” defending The Imitation’s author, Thomas a Kempis.

A series of lectures put together by the Paulist Fathers in downtown Boston was especially instrumental challenging my defensiveness. First of all it was a relief to be outside the seminary walls to attend the series. Most importantly though John L. McKenzie, Harvey Cox, Andrew Greeley and others gave powerful lectures as part of the program. Particularly memorable for me, however, was a talk by Barnabas Ahern. As a scripture scholar, he spoke of the human Jesus, and of the way the Gospels had gradually elevated the historical Jesus almost beyond recognition.

Our faith, Ahern reminded us, is that Jesus was a divine person who is fully God and fully human. We believe the first part with all our hearts, he said, but pay only lip service to the second. Ahern’s words made such profound impression on me that the next day I wrote out from memory virtually everything that he had said. His approach showed me what demythologizing in its best sense is all about. I resolved that I wanted to think and speak that way. That represented a tiny step towards adopting as my own a motto suggested to me by one of my mentors years later in Rome: “No more bullshit.”  

Eamonn O’Doherty, one of my scripture professors in the major seminary also moved me in that direction. The beginning of the Council coincided with my class’ entry into our four-year theology program in Milton. Central to it all was Eamonn’s introduction to modern scripture scholarship. Eamonn insisted on dealing exclusively with primary sources. His own notes and lectures provided the commentary. His approach was contextual. And with that I was introduced to genuine critical thinking for the first time. In Eamonn’s class (unlike Moral Theology of all places), questions were encouraged. I especially remember two colleagues (both a couple of years ahead of me) raising many questions I found interesting. Even more intriguing was the fact that they could actually ask them.

I wondered what they were reading. One of them gave me a list of three books – two by Hans Kung. Meanwhile our Liturgy professor acquainted us with Edward Schillebeeckx, and had us read Christ: the Sacrament of the Encounter with God. Soon I was delving into James Kavanaugh’s A Catholic Priest Looks at His Outdated Church. I was on my way.

I didn’t realize it then, but even before my ordination, I was starting my exit from the priesthood. I was beginning to recognize that what I was aspiring to – its rationale, its way of life, its theological justification – just couldn’t stand up to the evidence, not scriptural, nor historical nor theological.

By the time ordination came, I was secretly hoping I’d be sent to do graduate work instead of to the “foreign missions.” I wanted to know more. So I was delighted when my first appointment was to Rome and the Academia Alfonsiana to “do” Moral Theology. Evidently, my superiors planned for me to teach in the seminary following my years in Rome. (My intellectual development there however soon had them rethinking that idea.)

I knew Bernard Haring, the great Catholic moral theologian, taught at the Alfonsiana, and looked forward to studying under him. However, before beginning that three-year program, I had to get a degree in Systematic Theology. (Even after four years of theology in Milton, we had no corresponding degree to show for it.) So I enrolled in the Benedictine Atheneum Anselmianum.

Rome was still electric in the aftermath of Vatican II. After each day’s lectures at the Anselmo, I remember coming home on fire. I really admired Swiss Professor Magnus Lohrer. I can still see him smiling enthusiastically as he explained some fine point of the Council, Thomas Aquinas or Karl Barth – in Latin. Raphael Schulte wasn’t far behind in my estimation. Their excitement about theology, their engagement with the world, their scholarship shook my world and drove me to make up for all that “lost time” at Milton. I read voraciously – everything I could by Rahner, along with books by Congar, Schillebeeckx, Dewart, Cox, Tillich, Moltmann, and (later) by liberation theologians, especially Franz Hinkelammert of Costa Rica. Meal times in the Columban residence on Corso Trieste were spent in hot debate. I remember those discussions so well: liberals versus conservatives – and all the time enduring our rector’s dark scowls.

It was at this point that news started trickling in about seminary colleagues who were leaving the priesthood. The huge post-conciliar exodus from the priesthood had begun. Table talk on Corso Trieste refocused to that topic. Was the priesthood really forever? And what about celibacy? By now everyone knew that renunciation of marriage was quite late coming along as a requisite for ordination. Its imposition and defence had a lot to do with protecting church property from the heirs of priests. Besides all of that, Vatican II had changed the very ideas of priesthood and church. The priesthood of the faithful had been emphasized. And the church itself was primarily understood as a People of God, not as a top-down clerical hierarchy. Clerics were less important. So, what harm if ordained priests realized all of that and acted accordingly?

Such insights and insistent questions spilled over into the General Chapter of the Society of St. Columban, which I attended in Ireland in the early ‘70s. There I and an Irish and Australian colleague were specially elected “youth” delegates – even though all of us were over 30. Because we were such youngsters, we had voice at the Chapter, but no vote. I remember being disappointed, but not surprised at how closed older delegates tended to be to new ideas expressed not only by the three of us (who were literally “back benchers” in the Chapter hall), but to those expressed by forward-looking priests I had come to admire.

We were impatient for change, and for addressing big questions such as the purpose of missionary activity in an ecumenical world, and even priestly celibacy. Lack of serious response had an alienating effect, at least on me. Additionally, personal observation of the way my order worked, of its members’ basic fear of change, of stonewalling, machismo, and denial intensified the impression that those in charge didn’t really know what they were talking about.

But then, of course, alienation of youth was a “sign of the times” in the early ‘70s. Estrangement of young priests from church structures was part of all that.

It was also part of my story.

 Next Week: Personal Steps away from the Priesthood