Benedict Surprise


Pope Celestine V did Pope Benedict XVI a favor when he resigned from the Papacy in 1294.  Five months after he had reluctantly accepted the Papacy at 79 years of age, Celestine issued a decree declaring that a Pope has the authority to resign from the Papacy.  Then on the basis of the authority he had just given himself, Celestine V resigned the Papacy to return to his former life as a hermit.

So when Pope Benedict XVI made the surprise announcement on February 11, 2013, that he would resign the Papacy on February 28, 2013, he knew he had the authority to do so, thanks to the 1294 decree of Pope Celestine V.

Pope Benedict’s words reveal that his decision was well-considered, taken after serious reflection and prayer.  I think it is a brave decision on his part, taken out of consideration for what is best for the People of God and for the administration of the affairs of the Church in today’s world.

I think his decision also does a service to the Papacy by showing that if the incumbent does not have the physical as well as the spiritual qualities needed to fulfill the responsibilities, then it is time to step aside and allow someone with the needed qualities to take over.

Perhaps Pope Benedict’s decision to resign opens the way for new thinking about the Papacy in modern times.  In modern times the membership of the Catholic Church has passed the one billion mark.  The Church must be able to adapt fluently to reach out to a wide variety of cultures in a rapidly changing world.

It seems unreasonable to expect that a newly-elected Pope would carry these responsibilities for life, especially as improved healthcare has enabled people to live long into the declining years.  Pope Benedict’s decision to resign opens the possibility of a term limit for the Papacy.  Seven is a Biblical and liturgical number.  Perhaps a maximum term of 7 years, not renewable, would be a starting point.

Pope Benedict’s decision to continue living in the Vatican may help us to get used to the idea of a former Pope living just a few blocks away from the reigning Pope in residence.  We might even get used to the idea of several former Popes living in the same neighborhood.   For the sake of peace it would be important for a Pope to remember that the claim to infallibility ends with retirement from the office.

All credit to Benedict XVI for freely deciding to resign the Papacy.  It must have been a difficult decision for him.  But I think it was a wise decision, and may well be the most significant and memorable act of his entire Papal career.


Immaculate Conception


Today is the feast day of the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary.

I think the Immaculate Conception is the most misunderstood doctrine of the Catholic Church.  Many Catholics think it refers to Mary’s miraculous conception of the child Jesus when she received the visit from the angel at the Annunciation.   I think that people are confirmed in their error when the Church assigns the Gospel of the Annunciation to today’s Mass of the Immaculate Conception (Luke 1, 26-38).

The Immaculate Conception refers to Mary’s conception in her mother’s womb, and means that from the first moment of her conception Mary was free from all sin.

It is a fair question to ask why anyone would want to declare that Mary was sinless at the moment of her conception.  I think it all goes back to Saint Paul and Saint Augustine, and their interpretation of the Bible story of Adam’s disobedience in the Garden of Eden (Genesis 3).

Saint Paul seemed to believe that because Adam sinned, all his descendants are born in a state of sinfulness (Romans 5, 12-18).  Saint Augustine called this state Original Sin, and suggested that people contract this sinfulness in the moment of their conception.

But people believed that Mary was different, that God did not allow her to contract the sinful state at her conception.  So they said Mary’s conception was sin-free, or immaculate.

I think the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception is the theologians’ way of explaining the belief that God preserved Mary from the sinful effects of Adam’s sin.  The proponents of the doctrine of Original Sin teach that, because Adam sinned, every human person, with the exception of the Virgin Mary, is born not only free to sin but actually inclined to sin.  They teach that Mary is conceived not only free from sin but also with no inclination to sin.

This leaves me with the question of why God would want to create the rest of us sinful by nature.  Do the proponents of Original Sin mean to say that God freely decided to create us flawed with an inbuilt inclination to sin?  That would seem contrary to God’s goodness.  Or do they imply that Adam, by sinning, forced the divine hand so that God had no option?

In 1893 Cardinal John Henry Newman wrote, “Many, many doctrines are far harder than the Immaculate Conception.  The doctrine of Original Sin is indefinitely harder.  It is no difficulty to believe that a soul is united to the flesh without original sin; the great mystery is that many, that millions on millions are born with it” (Meditations and Devotions p.84).

Saint Ambrose


Today is the feast day of Saint Ambrose, bishop of Milan in the 4th century AD.

Ambrose was born in Trier (present day Germany) about 340 AD.  He went to Rome to study Literature and Law.  He was appointed Governor of Liguria, with headquarters in Milan.  Ambrose was interested in Christianity, but he was not a baptized Christian.

In 374 there was a serious conflict between the Catholics and the Arians in Milan about the appointment of a new bishop.  Each group wanted one of their own to be appointed, and there was a near riot.  Ambrose, as Governor, went to see if he could help them resolve their differences peacefully.  As he spoke to the crowd, someone called out, “Ambrose, Bishop”.  The call was taken up by others, and soon the whole crowd was calling out for Ambrose as bishop.  Ambrose refused, but a few days later he agreed, was baptized, and was ordained bishop of Milan on December 7th.

He was a true pastor of his people, and defended them and the true Faith by his words and deeds.  As bishop of Milan he met Augustine of Hippo, who was a student in Milan at the time.  Ambrose helped Augustine in his efforts to reform his life, and then baptized him when he decided to become a Catholic. Augustine went on to become bishop of Hippo, in Africa.

Ambrose, with Augustine, Jerome, and Pope Gregory I, are the four Fathers (outstanding teachers) of the Latin (Western) Church.  Ambrose died in Milan in 397 AD.

Saint Nicholas


Today is the feast day of St. Nicholas, whose gifts to the poor made him the model for our modern day Santa Claus.  Saint Nicholas was bishop of Myra (located in present-day Turkey) around 300 AD.  He was imprisoned during the persecution by the Roman Emperor Diocletian (303-305 A.D.) but released when Emperor Constantine legalized Christianity in 313 A.D.

I worked for one of St. Nicholas’ successors, when I was secretary to the Apostolic Nunciature in Manila from 1955-1958.  The Apostolic Nuncio was Archbishop Egidio Vagnozzi, titular bishop of Myra, where St. Nicholas once was bishop

When he finished his term in the Philippines, Archbishop Vagnozzi was appointed Apostolic Delegate to the United States, and after that he returned to Rome, where he was made Cardinal, and put in charge of L’Istituto delle Opere di Religione.

L’Istituto delle Opere di Religione (Institute of the Works of Religion) is popularly known as the Vatican Bank.  It may function as a bank, but it is different.  The ATM’s are in Latin, priests enter by a special door, and there is a life-size picture of the current Pope hanging on the wall.

Religious Freedom


On April 18, 2008 Pope Benedict XVI addressed the United Nations General Assembly.  They were celebrating the 60th anniversary of the U.N. Declaration of Human Rights (UNDHR).

Article 18 of the UNDHR states: Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.

Pope Benedict told the Assembly: “This document was the outcome of a convergence of different religious and cultural traditions, all of them motivated by the common desire to place the human person at the heart of institutions, laws and the workings of society, and to consider the human person essential for the world of culture, religion and science”.

Pope Benedict did not tell the Assembly that the universal freedoms promulgated by the United Nations in 1948 were contrary to the official teaching of the Catholic Church at that time.  For centuries the teaching of the Catholic Church was simple and clear: where Catholics are in a majority, a privileged position for the Catholic Church and intolerance of other religions; where Catholics are in a minority they must have full freedom to live and exercise their faith.

That was the teaching in the text books used in the seminaries preparing young men for the priesthood.  This double standard was based on the assertion that only the Catholic Church taught the true religion.  All others are in error, and error has no rights.

In 2008 the Pope was able to speak favorably of the UNDHR because in 1965 the Second Vatican Council promulgated the Declaration on Religious Freedom which included a tolerance and respect for other religions, something totally absent from Catholic teaching in previous centuries.

The Vatican II document on Religious Freedom was known by its first two words Dignitatis Humanae (Of Human Dignity).  It had a stormy passage from its first presentation on November 1963 until the final vote in December 1965.

One reason for the opposition to the document was that the tolerance and respect expressed towards other religions appeared to be contrary to the traditional Church attitude of criticism and condemnation.  Several bishops saw the document as a reversal of earlier Church teaching. The supporters of the document tried to persuade them that it was a development of doctrine, not a reversal.

It was not an easy sell.  For many of us there is nothing surprising in what the document states, such as: In religious matters no one is to be forced to act in a manner contrary to his own beliefs.  Religious freedom is a civil right.  All are obliged to seek the truth, and to do this they must be free from external coercion.  This is a natural right based on man’s very nature. (n.2)

Man is bound to follow his conscience.  He cannot be forced to act contrary to his conscience (n.3).  Religious groups have the right to govern themselves according to their own rules (n.4).  Even if special legal status is given to one particular religion, the religious freedom of other religious bodies should be recognized and respected (n.6).

For those of us who lived in countries where Catholics are in the minority we expect the rules to be even-handed and fair.  But it is very different for those who live in countries where Catholics are the large majority.  They are used to the Catholic Church having a privileged position, with other religions being barely tolerated or placed under restrictions.  It is the old story of error having no rights.

But the main opposition to the document came from those bishops who believed that Church teaching is unchangeable, and who saw this document as a betrayal of earlier teaching on true and false religion.  They succeeded in delaying a vote, but Pope Paul VI, who was invited to address the United Nations General Assembly on October 4, 1965, made clear that he wanted this document approved by the Council.

Several changes were made to try to win over those who opposed the document for being against tradition.  To assure the Traditionalists the document stated: “It (the Council) leaves untouched traditional Catholic doctrine on the moral duty of men and societies towards the true religion and toward the one Church of Christ” (n.1).  It added: “The Council intends to develop the doctrine of recent Popes on the inviolable rights of the human person and on the constitutional order of society” (n.1).

The only Pope they could call upon was Pope John XXIII, whose Encyclical Letter Pacem in Terris (Peace on Earth) issued in 1963 prepared the way for this document.  As regards leaving untouched traditional Catholic doctrine, it calls for some ingenuity to see this tolerant respectful document as the natural development of an earlier Church teaching which could allow Galileo to be placed under house arrest, and Giordano Bruno and Jan Hus to be burned at the stake for expressing ideas not in conformity with official teaching.

Nevertheless opposition to the document gradually diminished, though there was a strong influential group of bishops who resisted to the very end.  The final vote, promulgated on December 7, 1965, was 2308 in favor with 70 opposed.

Father John Courtney Murray, the American Jesuit, played an important role in drafting the document on Religious Liberty.  After the promulgation of the document he made this comment: “The conciliar affirmation of the principle of freedom was narrowly limited – in the text.  But the text itself was flung into a pool whose shores are wide as the universal Church.  The ripples will run far.” (Introduction to Dignitatis Humanae).

These could be prophetic words.  Catholic Church authorities have been trying to protect Catholic doctrine by discouraging new thinking and suppressing debate within the Church.  The ripples mentioned by Father Murray are beginning to appear as Catholic thinkers and writers claim their freedom to seek the truth without hindrance, the freedom that is a God-given right deriving from the dignity of the human person, and recognized by the Church in article 2 of Dignitatis Humanae (Of Human Dignity) the Second Vatican Council’s Declaration on Religious Freedom.

Unity of Christians


On May 5, 1995 Pope John Paul II issued an Encyclical Letter Ut Unum Sint (That They May Be One) on Christian Unity.  The Encyclical read like an extended commentary on the document on Christian Unity issued on December 7, 1965 by the Second Vatican Council.

The unity of all Christians was high on the list of priorities of Pope John XXIII when he called the Second Vatican Council.  On January 25, 1959, when he announced his intention of calling the Council, he said he wished to invite the separated Christians to seek again the unity for which so many souls are longing throughout the world.

He set up the Secretariat for Christian Unity as one of the Commissions to prepare for the Council.  Its task was to prepare the document on Christian Unity, and shepherd it through the discussions and decisions of the Council until it received final approval.

The document on Christian Unity was usually referred to as the Decree on Ecumenism, a word which means the movement and activities directed towards worldwide unity of Christians.  It received final approval in the Council on November 20, 1964, with a vote of 2054 in favor and 64 against.

The document went through various stages.  It began as a chapter in the document on the Church, drawn up by the Doctrinal Commission.  That was found unsatisfactory because of lack of input from Christians who are not Catholics.

A new document was prepared by the Secretariat of Christian Unity.  It was introduced to the Council on November 18, 1963, and consisted of five chapters.  Then Chapter 4 on “Catholic Attitude to non-Christians”, and Chapter 5 on “Religious Liberty” were taken out to become separate documents, leaving a document of three chapters contained in 25 pages.

The chapters were (1) Catholic Principles on Ecumenism, (2) The Practice of Ecumenism and (3) Churches and Ecclesial Communities Separated from the Roman Apostolic See.

The first chapter begins by stating that the restoration of unity among all Christians is one of the chief concerns of the Second Vatican Council.  It recognized that even in the time of the apostles there were signs of division, and in subsequent centuries more widespread disagreements appeared and quite large communities became separated from full communion . . .developments for which at times men of both sides were to blame (n.3)

It is something new for the Catholic Church to accept even partial responsibility for the division among Christians, and it is an example of the humility which this document both recommends and puts into practice.

The document recommends that Catholics take care not to engage in words, actions or judgments which could be hurtful or harmful to the movement of Christians towards unity.  Beyond that they should be prepared to engage in dialogue so that everyone gains a truer knowledge and more just appreciation of the teaching and religious life of the other side. (n.4)

In chapter 2 the document emphasizes that change of heart and holiness of life, along with public and private prayer for the unity of Christians, are at the heart of the whole ecumenical movement.  In prayer services for unity it is permissible and desirable that Catholics join in prayer with their separated brethren. It also repeats the statement that shared worship is a sign of unity, and also a means by which unity is achieved (n.2 &8).

With reference to the training of the clergy, the document recommends that theology be taught in a way that respects the teaching of our separated brethren and not as a means of refuting them.  While standing fast by the doctrines of the Church, Catholics can be flexible in the manner of expressing them.  They should exercise humility and charity as they search together with separated brethren into the divine mysteries of the Christian faith. (n.11)

Chapter 3 is divided into two sections, dealing with the separated Christians first of the East and then of the West.  Many of the Eastern churches originated with the Apostles, and for centuries they were sister churches sharing with the Latin Church the sacraments and the basic dogmas forged in the Councils of the East (n.14)

Due to differences in language and culture the apostolic heritage received different forms of expression.  This, added to mutual failures in understanding and charity, set the stage for separations.  These are factors which must be kept in mind by those devoted to restoring full communion between the East and the West. (n.14)

The document goes on to state that the churches of the East always had the freedom to govern themselves according to their own discipline, and that this will be honored in any restoration of unity (n.16).  Likewise the Council allowed for a legitimate variety in theological expressions since East and West have different approaches to understanding and proclaiming divine things (n.17)

Turning to the separated churches of the West, the Council noted considerable differences in doctrine, practice and structure among the churches themselves, as well as weighty differences with the Catholic Church.  The Council nevertheless offers some considerations to serve as a basis and motivation for dialogue towards unity. (n.19)

Shared faith in Jesus Christ as God incarnate, and love of the Sacred Scriptures which reveal God in history, create an important bond towards unity between the separated Christians in the West and the Catholic Church.  Those separated Christians who are baptized have a sacramental bond of unity with the Catholic Church, but there is still need for dialogue on the true meaning of the Lord’s Supper and other sacraments for progress towards unity in ministry and worship (n.22).

These principles and recommendations of the Council are an astounding change from what had gone before.  Rulings by Pope Pius XI (Animos Mortalium 1928) and Pius XII  (Ecclesia Catholica 1949) placed severe restrictions on Catholics engaging with other Christians in a search for Christian unity.

The appeal of Pope John Paul II to separated Christians to pray for his conversion is an indication of how ecumenism has developed. (Ut Unum Sint n.4).  Pope John Paul II was aware that the Primacy of the bishop of Rome as it is exercised today is an obstacle to Christian unity.  He appealed to separated Christians to help him discover how to exercise the Primacy in a way that will be faithful to Christ’s command without being an obstacle to Christian unity.

The Vatican II document on Christian Unity has laid down the simple and humble guidelines for engaging in ecumenical activity.  It is now up to all Catholics, clergy and faithful alike, to do their part towards bringing about that unity among Christians that the Lord wants and the world needs (n.5).

The Church in Today’s World


“The Church in the Modern World” is unique among the documents of Vatican II.  It is the longest of the 16 documents issued by the Council; it was not even contemplated in the work of the Preparatory Commissions; and it is written in a style that has come to characterize the newness of Vatican II among the Councils of the Catholic Church.

On December 1, 1962, the Doctrinal Commission presented its outline of the document on the Church (De Ecclesia), expected to be the key document of the Council.  It received withering criticism from the majority for being a repetition of the defensive stance of the Council of Trent against Protestantism, with nothing positive to say about other religions or the contemporary world.

A proposal was made that the document should follow the suggestion made by Pope John XXIII in his opening address on October 11th.  This would give the document the form of a triple dialogue: the Church in dialogue with its own membership (who are we, and what are we about); the Church in dialogue with other Christians (our brothers and sisters in the Faith, but visibly separated from us); the Church in dialogue with the modern world (how can we serve the world; what can we learn from the world).

This proposal was widely acclaimed.  Over the next two years the third dialogue gradually became a separate document.  Its title was Gaudium et Spes (Joy and Hope), from its first two words, and it received its final form only during the last two months of the Council.  It was finally approved on December 7, 1965, with 2309 votes in favor, and 75 against.

The document consists of 93 articles, filling 110 printed pages.  It is divided into two parts.  Part One has four chapters which deal with (1) the dignity of the human person, (2) the community of mankind, (3) human activity throughout the world, and (4) the role of the Church – how the Church can serve the world, what the Church can learn from the world.

Part Two has 5 chapters which deal with these specific matters (1) Marriage and the Family, (2) Development of Culture, (3) Socio-Economic Life, (4) Political Life and (5) Justice and Peace.

Apart from the topics under consideration, what is noteworthy about this document is the language.  The Council is respectful as it offers to be of service to the world, and recognizes the help the Church has received from the modern world (n.44).  The Council is humble as it acknowledges the responsibility of Christians for some of the loss of religious values in the world (n.19).

This optimistic document helps to distinguish Vatican II from other Church Councils with their condemnations and anathemas.  It makes an honorable attempt to follow the lead given by Pope John XXIII in his opening address when he declared, “The Church prefers to make use of the medicine of mercy rather than that of severity.  She considers that she meets the needs of the present day by demonstrating the validity of her teaching rather than by condemnations”.