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Leonard Swidler [1]



In this lecture I want to make the argument that the world re-shaping event of the 1962-65 Vatican Council II provided the theological re-visioning at the basis of Democratic Catholic Church Governance Movement of today.





It must be recalled that the 1960s were a momentous turning point for the world: 1) U.S. Catholics broke out of their ghetto in the election of President Kennedy; 2) the American civil rights movement began a transformation of the Western psyche; 3) the anti-war, environmentalist, anti-Establishment and related movements throughout the West brought the transformation to a fever pitch; 4) through Vatican Council II the Catholic Church leapt into modernity, and edged even beyond.


The literal “revolution” in the Catholic Church can be described as a “Copernican Turn,” just as the thought of Copernicus led to a revolution in astronomy. This occurred in the Catholic Church at Vatican II in five major ways: 1) The Turn Toward Freedom, 2) The Turn Toward the Historic-Dynamic, 3) The Turn Toward This World, 4)  The Turn Toward Inner Church Reform, 5) The Turn Toward Dialogue. (Unfortunately, the papacy has resisted this five-fold Copernican turn—as is inevitable in every major paradigm shift. [2] )





The image Catholicism projected at the end of the 1950s was that of a giant monolith, a community of hundreds of millions who held obedience in both action and thought as the highest virtue. With the Second Vatican Council, however, this very unfree image, and reality, was utterly transformed. Suddenly it seemed humanity, including Catholics, became aware of their “coming of age,” as Pope St. John XXIII (1958-63) put it, and hence, their freedom and responsibility. This was clearly expressed in many places, but perhaps nowhere clearer than in the Declaration on Religious Liberty. If one were asked to put the most central, burning issue of the decade of Vatican II, the 1960s, into one word, that word would be “freedom.”  In fact, for the last two hundred years it has been the central word in one or other of its variant forms from “liberté” of the French Revolution, or “Give me liberty or give me death” of the American Revolution.


The 1950s in Germany were the days of the Wirtshaftswunder and in America of the “Organization Man,” of conformity and complacency. But that era ended with the demise of the 1950s, and a new era was inaugurated in a preeminent way by two men named John—John F. Kennedy and John XXIII. One treated the secular as sacred, the other the sacred as secular. Kennedy treated his human tasks as a sacred trust and thereby helped lift politics out of self-centeredness to a service of others. In his inaugural address he wrote: “Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country.”  John XXIII embraced the world as he symbolically did in his response to a life-long convict who asked him if God could ever forgive a murderer—Pope John threw his arms around him. He em­braced the world, with all its joys and miseries, as God’s gift to, and task for, humanity.


These two men—each with his own approach—saw that only by freeing the secular from a cramped sort of selfish secularism, and the sacred from a twisted sort of Manicheistic sacralism, could the secular and the sacred really be fully secular and sacred, that is, when they were seen to be the same reality viewed from two different aspects.


Not ac­cidentally, both men, one for the secular world and one for the Church, were also deeply committed to an openness to, and con­cern for, others, to freedom and responsibility, for they saw that contemporary men and women could no longer continue to exist in a closed ghetto, unconcerned about their neighbor, that they would not live without freedom, and responsibility. These two men symbolized, and partly inspired, the new concerns of the sixties: freedom and responsibility, which also are two aspects of a single reality—human life.


Even before the beginning of Vatican II the cry of freedom in the Catholic Church was raised: freedom for Catholics from restrictive ecclesiastical traditions to fulfill their true Gospel-centered tradition of service to God’s world. American Catholics lived in the “land of the free” and were nurtured in a religious tradition which stated that “the truth will make you free.” They maintained that they are free, or that they had a right to be free.


If a religion is what it should be, it will help free women and men from the tyranny of the mountain of meaningless moments and experiences that life can appear to be. It can, in a preeminent fashion, help to open men and women to their neighbor, to all reality, and to its Source. It can give them an explanation of the meaning of life, help them to bring some sort of order into, to make sense out of, the day-to-day and year-to-year events.


A religion can, however, and often has been, a very restrictive, unfree influence in women and men’s lives. Far too often religions have weighed them down with a myriad of religious, ecclesiastical traditions that may have had some meaning at one time, but which have long since lost any significance. Of course, the challenging of constrictive traditions does not mean that all traditions are to be eliminated, but where possible, preserved and updated, made effective and meaningful.


The Church is similar to the parent and teacher. In fact, the Church is often referred to as “Holy Mother Church.” Then at least one of the major goals of the Church must also be that of the parent and the teacher, namely, the development of maturity in those for whom it has concern. In many ways the Church in the past has worked vigorously toward this goal. For example, it fostered learning in the Middle Ages when no other institution could. However, in recent centuries, as the masses of men and women have advanced in learning, and commensurate ma­turity, the Church often tended not to allow them their proportional freedom. It tended to continue to treat them like children who cannot be trusted to make responsible decisions. However, such a situation cannot continue in­definitely. Mature adults will either find a way to act freely and responsibly within the institution, or in their eventual frustration and embitterment will withdraw from it.


Fortunately, with Vatican II, Catholics began to find ways for increasing numbers of the faithful to act as free, responsible adults in the Church. This was epitomized in its Declaration on Religious Freedom. Recall that religious freedom had been condemned by two popes exactly a century earlier as “madness”—deliramentum! [3] and theologians were silenced for writing about such madness right up to the beginning of Vatican II. Then, totally reversing the pope who had declared himself infallible, all the bishops of the world, including the then pope, Paul VI, solemnly declared that “The human person has a right to religious freedom. This freedom means that all men are to be immune from coercion...in such wise that no one is to be forced to act in a manner contrary to his beliefs.”





For centuries the thinking of official Catholicism was dominated by a static understanding of reality; it resisted not only the democratic and human rights movements of the 19th and 20th centuries, but also the growing historical, dynamic way of understanding the world, including religious thought. That changed dramatically with Vatican II where the historical, dynamic view of reality and doctrine was officially fully embraced (unfortunately the just-ended very long pontificate of Pope John Paul II largely resisted that radical turn).


One of the most powerful forces within Western civilization in the last two centuries has been the burgeoning sense of history, the growing awareness of change, dynamism, evolution, in all of reality and, most particularly, in humanity—individually and communally. The impact of this new sense of history only relatively recently began to be felt within the Catholic Church, but the delayed impact rapidly effected wondrous changes, including the setting free of manifold forces of Church renewal. Hence, to understand adequately the dynamics of freedom at work in the Catholic Church today, one must analyze the bases of the turn toward a sense of history and its relationship to the Church.


History is a kind of knowledge, a knowledge of the past of the human community. As the knowledge of history spreads in a community, it becomes a sort of communal self-awareness. This self-awareness of each individual person includes, not only a consciousness of her/his own unique being, but also an ever-expanding knowledge of things that are not him/herself. In fact, the knowledge of the two—the self and the other—are bound together by an indissoluble and proportionately developing dialogue.


Everyone, of course, lives in a community, or rather, many communities, and these communities also provide some kind of collective memories. Since the Church is one of the communities the Christian lives in it also has a communal memory. It manifests itself in an almost limitless variety of ways: doctrines, functional relationships of offices, liturgies, alleged recollections of the past, postures toward all other aspects of life. The Church’s memory embraces all of life and if it is functioning rightly it will provide a vital integrating overview of all reality for its members.


It is dramatically apparent how this sense of history, this awareness of growth in all things, has influenced the Church in its liturgy. The very act of learning how we had arrived at the various rigid forms of the liturgy was sufficient to release us from a bondage to these forms. The past experiences could then be evaluated for what they really were and placed in proper perspective and integrated into all the rest of the Church’s experience—proper to the Church’s current needs. The Church, like all living communities, must be constantly “updated,” “aggiornamento-ized” to fulfill its proper function. Good history has here de-absolutized historical reality, e.g., the Latin silent canon did not pre-exist in some pseudo-Platonic world of ideas and wait until the ninth century to incarnate itself forever thereafter. It developed out of concrete, temporal circumstances, and must be evaluated accordingly.


In the area of doctrine, the Vatican II “coming of age” of the Church began to produce even more spectacular results. First of all, the Catholic community began to acquire a new awareness of how important it is to know the whole history of a dogmatic formula in order to interpret it accurately. Where before an analytic, scholastic approach was often used exclusively, the problems of theology were then first placed in historical perspective, with the result that many of the old impasses dissolved. Instead of merely taking a dogmatic formula and analyzing it, as it were, on the table in front of them, contemporary Catholic theologians—who are also half historians—now study the original documents bearing on the problem.


One of the most deep-going changes of the modern sense of history is the growing acceptance that doctrine grows or develops in a much more profound way than was previously thought. Development of doctrine is not just a mak­ing explicit of what was previously implicit. It certainly is not a simple, always progressive, “or­ganic” growth as from the acorn into the oak tree—to use Newman’s image—for there have been some obvious complete reversals, such as in the teaching on religious freedom in the last one hundred and fifty years. Nor is it sufficient to say that the substance of the doctrine remains the same in each age, but the formulation of it can be changed and perhaps improved, as good Pope John stated in such quiet revolutionary fashion. What is de­manded as the community of the Church attains a greater knowledge of itself and the other is not just a reformulation of the mysteries of the faith, but also a reconceptualization, at times, the restatement of the questions.


These, of course, are not the building blocks of a mechanistic kind of system which can produce the eternal verities in concepts and formularies eternally valid for all people, times, and places. They are more like the living tissues which in vital organic interaction can transcend themselves.


Here we fumble with the latest gift of the new sense of history; the past leads to the present but it also implies the future, which contains the radically unknown; for history shows us that because of human freedom the present is not limited to an unfolding of the potential of the past. Human freedom, despite all its restrictions, places in our hands the power of creativity. This has always been potentially available, but now that the new sense of history has made the Christian more profoundly aware of it, its opera­tion on the communal level of the Church will be the more profound.





Until very recently the term “salvation” was understood exclusively to mean going to heaven after death; its root meaning from salus, of a “full, healthy life,” was largely lost in Christianity after the third century. [4] Marx was not far from the mark when he claimed that Christianity (and religion in general) was mainly concerned about “pie in the sky bye and bye.” But that focus shifted radically with Vatican II, especially as reflected in the document “The Church in the Modern World,” which in effect, though without the name, launched Liberation Theology.


With Vatican II there was a decided Copernican “turn toward this world,” a renewing of the effort to overcome the destructive dualism that has plagued Christianity (and many other religions) from its very first century. During the Middle Ages the Church was very much involved in this world, with bishops and abbots being secular as well as spiritual princes. However, in many ways even the concern for the neighbor’s physical well-being of the medieval feudal world, which the Church helped construct, began to turn inward as that feudal world gave way to modernity.


In the wake of the Industrial Revolution plans on how to shape and re‑shape the disappearing feudal structures were laid and tested, adjusted, and re‑tested. Such awareness, planning, and action also took place within Western religions. One need only recall the large number of Jews involved in the history of socialism (starting with Marx) and the labor movement, including Jewish social‑justice orga­nizations from the Jüdischer Bund to Israeli Kibbutzim. Christian Socialism started in England with people like Charles Kingsley (1819-1875) and Frederick Denison Maurice (1805-1872) and in Germany with people like Bishop Wilhelm von Ketteler (1811-1877); in France religious social justice work was led by activists like Count Albert de Mun (1841-1914), Count René de la Tour du Pin (1834-1925) and Marc Sagnier (1873-1950); in America there were Terence Powderley (1849-1924) and the Knights of Labor, Walter Rauschenbusch (1861-1918) and his highly influential “Social Gospel” message. Even the popes moved in this direction: Leo XIII issued the first papal social encyclical Rerum novarum in 1893, followed by Pius XI’s Quadragesimo anno in 1933, John XXIII’s Pacem in terris (1963) and Paul VI’s Populorum progressio (1968).


The more recent developments include European Political Theology, Latin American Liberation Theology, North American Black Theology and Feminist Theology, and Korean Minjung or People’s Theology. Around the globe Christian churches spend hundreds of millions of dollars annually on social justice issues, a significant portion of which is aimed at changing the structures of society to benefit more people. The notion is spreading among Christians that the mission of the Church is to preach the Good News of the Gospel to all humanity, not just quantita­tively in terms of individual persons, but also qualitatively in terms of every portion of the human beings—and the human structures one lives in are an essential part of one’s humanity.





Since the 16th century, inside the Catholic Church even the word “reform” was forbidden, to say nothing of the reality (there were periods of notable exception, [5] but they were largely obliterated— even from our church history textbooks!). At the beginning of the 20th century Pope Pius X, leapfrogging back to his prior predecessor, Pope Pius XI, launched the heresy-hunting Inquisition of Anti-Modernism, crushing all creative thought in Catholicism for decades. In the middle of the 20th century, leading theologians were again censured and silenced (e.g., Jean Danielou, Henri de Lubac, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, John Courtney Murray, Karl Rahner). Then Pope St. John XXIII [6] burst those binding chains and called Vatican Council II. However, in order to understand what a significant move this was, it is important to see it against its historical backdrop.


In the beginning of the Christian community the leadership had the example of its “Initiator,” Jesus, who stated that his followers were to be like him, the servants of all. Eventually the Christian communities in the most important cities of the Roman empire were recognized as the preeminent Churches. The Roman Church was recognized as the primus inter pares, first among equals. After the Empire was divided into East and West in the late fourth century, the bishop of Rome also became the recognized leader of the Western Church.


A low point in the state of Roman Church was reached in the tenth century when its bishops, called Papa, Pope, were one after the other assinated and placed on the papal throne by a powerful woman. After 1170, however, the papacy in the West rose dramatically in power, reaching its apogee in Pope Boniface VIII’s 1302 fateful papal bull Unam Sanctam:


Consequently we declare, state, define and pronounce that it is altogether necessary to salvation for every human creature to be subject to the Roman Pontiff [Why would this not also qualify as an ex cathedra “infallible”—and yet, no Catholic theologian, or pope, would affirm it today?]. [7]


After Boniface VIII the status of the papacy declined significantly through the “Babylonian Captivity” of the Avignon Papacy (1309-1377 when the popes lived in Avignon in France), into the morass of the late 14th-early 15th century “Western Schism,” wherein there were for decades simultaneously two, and even three, popes. This disaster was resolved finally by the Ecumenical Council of Constance (1414-1418) which accepted and confirmed the resignation of two of the popes and deposed the third, and then elected a new pope, Martin V (1417-1431).


There had already been since the beginning of the 13th century, and increasingly in the following two centuries, a great deal of canonical and theological argumentation against the idea of supreme papal power in favor of the notion of the supreme ecumenical council. This “conciliarist” move reached its high point at the Council of Constance, which in 1415 issued its famous decree Sacrosancta declaring the Council to be superior to the Pope: “A General Council...has immediate power from Christ, which every state and dignity, even if it be the papal dignity, must obey in what concerns faith.”


Three years later in 1417, the Council issued its equally famous decree, Frequens, solemnly declaring the regular calling of an Ecumenical Council every ten years mandatory, thereby placing the power of the pope within the college of bishops in Ecumenical Council:


We enact, decree and order by this perpetual edict that henceforth General Councils shall be...always held from decade to decade...if no such action shall have been taken by the Pope, the Council itself shall do so. So that with this continuity a Council will always be either in session or it will be awaited at the end of a certain current period. [8]


Nevertheless, a centralized papacy recovered its power, and succumbed again to the thirst for power, this time fed by the corrupting influences of the Renaissance—all of which led in turn to the tsunami of the Reformation, catastrophically shattering the unity of Western Christianity. In the wake of the subsequent reforms of the Counter-Reformation Council of Trent (1545-1563), a centralized papacy was once more resurgent into the middle of the 18th century Enlightenment. Then the forces of the Enlightenment began to melt away to some extent the centralized fortress of the papacy, especially through the movements of Gallicanism, Febronianism, Josephinism and Aufklärung Catholicism. [9] The situation once more reverted to the Counter-Reformation mentality under popes Gregory XVI (1830-1846), Pius IX (1846-1878), and then Pius X (1903-1914).


Under Pope Pius IX papal jurisdictional supremacy was formally declared once more, along with the more notorious papal doctrinal infallibility. Vatican Council I (1869-70) intended to also spell out the relationship between the papacy and the body of bishops, but that goal was frustrated by the suspension of the Council because of the invasion of the Papal States by the Risorgimento forces shaping the modern nation state of Italy. The German bishops, who as a group had been most resistant to the papal claims of infallibility and primacy, issued a public clarification after the Council in 1875 (which received the explicit approbation of Pope Pius IX [10] ), insisting that bishops were not the agents of the pope, but authentically pastors in their own right within their dioceses. Nevertheless, the lack of a conciliar document stating that, in practice left the field to the ultra-papalist elements, with the result that the centralizing forces in the Church continued expanding until Vatican Council II.


In January, 1959, Pope St. John XXIII burst those chains binding Catholic reform by calling Vatican Council II. He spoke about “throwing open the windows of the Vatican” to let in fresh thought, about aggiornamento, bringing the Church “up to date.”


“Christ summons the Church, as she goes her pilgrim way, to that continual reformation of which she always has need.” Those are not the words of Luther, Calvin, or some other 16th-century Reformer, but of all the Catholic bishops of the world, including the pope, at Vatican Council II. Indeed, the pope and bishops were even more insistent when they said: “All are led...wherever necessary, to undertake with vigor the task of renewal and reform.” Notice, the pope and bishops did not say all bishops, all priests, all religious, but simply, “all,” that is, all those to whom that Decree was addressed, namely, all the Catholic faithful.


Moreover, this mandate to renewal and reform was not conceived as a luxury for those Catholics who have nothing else to do. Rather, it is a duty that is incumbent on all Catholics, as the pope and bishops made clear: “Catholics’...primary duty is to make a careful and honest appraisal of whatever needs to be renewed and done in the Catholic household” (Decree on Ecumenism).


Many Catholic laity, religious, clergy, and even hierarchy responded positively to the charge to renew and reform the Church to make it relevant to today’s world, responding to Pope St. John XXIII’s call for aggiornamento, to “bring the Church up to date,” when he called the Second Vatican Council. Renewal moved ahead with great elan for the first few years after the end of the Council in 1965.


Within the Vatican II Copernican turn toward inner self-reform a key notion was “collegiality,” i.e., the College of Bishops in communion with its head, the pope was likewise the subject of supreme, full power of the whole Church, just as was the pope. Although it primarily referred to the governance of the Church by all the bishops acting together as a college of bishops, it is obvious that acting in a collegial manner at the top of the hierarchical ladder was bound to have its effect on all the lower levels as well—inevitably drawing the Church toward a more democratic structure.


Without directly challenging the extreme papalist positions expressed in Vatican I, Vatican II attempted, with modest success, to emphasize the episcopal collegial approach—which of course has an even much more honored history in the Catholic Church going back to the early centuries before the rise of the centralized feudal papacy only well after the first millennium of Christian history—to say nothing about the hyper-clear command by the necessarily-acknowledged Ecumenical Council of Constance that the Ecumenical Council is superior to all, including the papacy, and that an Ecumenical Council must assemble every ten years.


Even this modest Collegiality received its first major setback in 1968, with Paul VI’s encyclical against birth control, Humanae vitae, in which he rejected the huge majority’s recommendation of his own appointed Commission (following rather, the tiny minority, supported by Cardinal Karel Woytila who, though a member of the Commission, refused to attend and secretly fed much of the key wording of the later encyclical to the pope).


Another heavy blow came by way of omission in connection with the recommendation to change the electors of the pope from the papal-appointed cardinals to delegates elected by the national bishops’ councils around the world. This decree sat on Pope Paul’s desk already in 1970, but he was dissuaded from signing it by conservative Curial elements, who seemed to have whispered in his ear the prediction of a catastrophe that would result if he did sign it. The only catastrophe, of course, would have been for certain church power-holders. Had he made this momentous decision, the whole subsequent history of Catholic Church renewal would have been radically different. Every new pope would necessarily have had a sense of responsibility to, and more collegiality with, his “constituents,” the representatives of the world church. But most importantly, this structural change at the top would have released an irresistible movement for bishops in some substantial way to be elected by their “constituents,” and then also for pastors in turn to be elected.


As the Church moved further into the 1970s Pope Paul became increasingly indecisive, wanting on the one hand to carry out the Vatican II mandate of renewal and reform, while on the other fearing the specter of error and anarchy that was constantly whispered in his ear. Then came Pope Paul’s death in 1978 and his replacement first by the briefly reigning Paul John I, and then the long-reigning John Paul II, beginning late in 1978.


However, even that modest progress was still further restricted during the pontificate of John Paul II, as can be seen, e.g., in the 1983 Code of Canon Law. The fine words of Vatican II are repeated:


The College of Bishops...is also the subject of supreme and full power over the universal Church. (Canon 336) The College of Bishops exercises power over the universal Church in a solemn manner in an ecumenical council. (Canon 337 §1)


However, repeatedly any power the College of Bishops might appear to be granted is always checkmated by wording such as:


Decrees of an ecumenical council do not have obligatory force unless they are approved by the Roman Pontiff... (Canon 341 §1) For decrees which the College of Bishops issues to have obligatory force this same confirmation and promulgation is needed, when the College takes collegial action in another manner, initiated or freely accepted by the Roman Pontiff. (§2)


What was even more discouraging was what happened to the international Synod of Bishops that Vatican II conceived and was put into action on a regular basis under Pope Paul VI. The Synod of Bishops was to be an instrument by which the College of Bishops would exercise its collegiality.  However, Pope John Paul II in the 1983 Code turned it around to an instrument of papal power:


A synod of bishops is directly under the authority of the Roman Pontiff whose role is to:

1. convoke a synod as often as he deems it opportune and to designate the place

where its sessions are to be held;

2. ratify the election of those members who are to be elected in accord with the

norm of special law and to designate and name its other members;

3. determine topics for discussion...

4. determine the agenda;

5. preside over the synod in person or through others;

6. conclude, transfer, suspend and dissolve the synod. (Canon 344)


This conceptualization and terminology is far distant from that of the 1414-18 Ecumenical Council of Constance which in the wake of three contending popes restored the unitary papacy and upon which the papacy’s validity today totally depends.


In brief: The watchword of Vatican II was Reform; the watchword of Pope John Paul II was Restoration.




Far too often religion has held men and women back from their neighbor in their deepest dimen- sion, their religious dimension, because their religion was different. There are still many Catholics and Protestants who hate each other, many Christians who hate Jews, many Christians and Jews who hate Muslims—religiously. When this happens, religion, including Christianity, becomes an enslaving force; religion—Christianity—becomes the anti-Christ, for the truth of Christ should make women and men free and open to all men and women, to all reality, to all paths to God.


For centuries, especially since the 16th, the Catholic Church has been largely trapped in a kind of solipsism, talking only to itself, shaking its finger at the rest of the world. When, e.g., a committee of Protestant churchmen shortly after World War I visited Pope Benedict XV to invite him to join in launching the Ecumenical Movement to work for Church reunion, he told them that he was happy they were finally concerned about Church unity, but that he already had the solution to the problem of Christian division: “Come home to mama!” The forbidding of Catholic participation in dialogue was subsequently constantly repeated (e.g., 1928 Mortalium animos, 1948 Monitum, 1949 Instructio, 1954 barring of Catholics at the Evanston, Illinois World Council of Churches World Assembly).


Again, St. John XXIII and Vatican II changed all that navel-staring radically. Ecumenism was now not only not forbidden, but was said to “pertain to the whole Church, faithful and clergy alike. It extends to everyone” (Decree on Ecumenism). Pope Paul VI issued his first encyclical (Ecclesiam suam, 1964), specifically on dialogue, saying:


            Dialogue is demanded nowadays.... It is demanded by the dynamic course of action which is changing the face of modern society. It is demanded by the pluralism of society and by the maturity man has reached in this day and age. Be he religious or not, his secular education has enabled him to think and speak and conduct a dialogue with dignity.


At Vatican II Catholics were taught that to be authentically Christian, they must cease being enslaved by their tribal forms of Christianity;  stop their fratricidal hate; recall their Jewish roots and the fact that the Jewish people today are still God’s Chosen People; to turn from their imperialistic convert-making among Muslims, Hindus, and other religious peoples, and turn toward bearing witness to Jesus Christ by their lives and words, toward helping the Muslims be better Muslims and the Hindus better Hindus. This will make Christians love their own liberating traditions not less, but more, for these traditions will then be even more fully Christian.


Nowhere was this stated more forcefully than in the Vatican’s Humanae personae dignitatem:


            Doctrinal discussion requires recognizing the truth everywhere, even if truth demolishes one so that one is forced to reconsider one’s own position, in theory and in practice, at least in part.... In discussion the truth will prevail by no other means than the truth itself. Therefore the liberty of the participants must be ensured by law and reverenced  in practice. [11]


This turn toward dialogue naturally was directed toward the first obvious dialogue partners for Catholics: Fellow Christians, Protestants and Orthodox. But this turn from an inward gazing outward had its own inner dynamic: why stop at talking with Protestants and Orthodox; why not continue on to dialogue with Jews, and then Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, etc., and even non-believers? And so it is now happening in an explosion of interreligious/interideological dialogue of exponentially increasing magnitude. One need only look at the flood of books now appearing in the field.


Moreover, this dimension of the Copernican turn will be at least as radical in its creative transformation of Catholic self-understanding as the other four, and hence will profoundly affect all aspects of Christian life. For example, since in this new “Age of Dialogue” we Christians understand that our Jewish or Muslim neighbors can be “saved” without becoming Christian, our relationship to them ceases being one of “proselytization,” and becomes dialogue and cooperation.






If one looks again at the Declaration on Religious Freedom it should be clear that much concerning freedom in the Catholic Church is awry and must be set aright; openness to, and concern for the freedom of, the other has far-reaching implications for the freedom of the initiator. Dialogue with others is inseparably linked with self-freedom and self-reform/renewal.


Although the Declaration on Religious Freedom was originally part of the “Schema on Ecumenism,” it by no means monopolized the concern for freedom when it became a separate doc- ument. Even in the Decree on Ecumenism itself, the need for freedom was recognized explicitly as needed within the Church, stating: “Let all members of the Church...preserve a proper freedom in...spiritual life and discipline...liturgical rites, and even in the elaborations of revealed truth.” While this sentence is not a detailed program of the key areas where there ought to be freedom inside the Catholic Church, the clear implication is that there is a need for greater freedom, and the Decree lists the key areas where such further freedom is required inside the Catholic Church.


The reason such a statement is in a decree on ecumenism, of course, is that a Catholic could not possibly enter a true dialogue, which by definition includes an openness to one another, if one were not a responsible person, and this can be so only to the degree that one is free. At the same time it would also be impossible for Catholic authorities to think they were seriously engaged in ecumenical dialogue, with unity as a goal, if freedom for adjustment in matters that can be adjusted were not allowed.


The aim of such internal dialogue is, naturally, change—in the words of the Decree: renewal and reform. This renewal and reform within the Catholic Church will then lead to a more effective inter-church and interreligious dialogue; all four—freedom, intra-church dialogue, inter-church dialogue, inter-religious dialogue—are bound together very intimately. When one suffers, they all suffer. The Decree makes the link quite explicit when it states:


In ecumenical work Catholics must assuredly be concerned for their separated brethren.... But their primary duty is to make an honest and careful appraisal of whatever needs to be renewed and achieved in the Catholic household itself. Finally, all are led to examine...and wherever necessary [no limitations!] undertake with vigor [!] the task of renewal and reform.


Both words, “primary” and “duty” are very important. What is spoken of here is, as noted before, not what just some clergy may engage in if they were so inclined. Clearly all Catholics are to undertake the described renewal as their first and most pressing obligation. It is also very interesting that the writers of the Decree felt it necessary to use the terms “honest” and “careful,” intimating that the institutional tendency is toward self-justification and cover-up. Then too, the Council demands that all Catholics—you and I included—make an appraisal of whatever needs to be renewed and achieved in the Catholic household itself. Nothing is excluded from being in need of reappraisal and renewal—not priestly ministry, not episcopacy, not papacy.... It does not seem possible to be clearer or more urgent than the Decree is here.


The bishops summed up their contention that renewal is vital to the ecumenical [and interreligious] dialogue when they wrote: “Church renewal therefore has notable ecumenical importance.” The converse is obviously also true, namely, that ecumenical and interreligious dialogue has notable importance for renewal and reform. It also should be clear that Catholics should not be working for the conversion of Protestants and Orthodox to Catholicism, not only because it is now recognized that such conversions can never heal—only exacerbate—the ecclesiastical breaches, but also be- cause piecemeal conversion, or even premature corporate union, would stop the ongoing Catholic renewal and development of freedom. Without dialogue, freedom and renewal would not come to a full flowering in the Church—and the Church, and the world, would be cheated as a result.





Clearly the Five-fold Copernican Turn of Vatican II points ineluctably toward a more democratic governance of the Catholic Church. The Turn Toward Freedom obviously mandates the participa- tion of the governed in governance. How else can all the Catholic faithful exercise their freedom if they are not intimately involved in their own governance? The Turn Toward the Historical/ Dynamic shows that the current governance structure of the Catholic Church grew out of the Roman Imperial and Medieval Feudal governance structures—nothing at all Gospel-based about the Jewish-hated Imperial Rome which murdered Jesus as the mocked King of the Jews. A democratic form of governance, now arrived at in the secular world in the course of history, is without a doubt much more in keeping with human dignity than the authoritarian governance structures of past secular—and ecclesial—history.


The Turn Toward This World means that the lessons we learn in this secular world begin again to take on their proper importance within our religious life, for it is here and now that we are to “work out our salvation.” That is, Christianity once again begins to follow the motto of Jesus: “I have come that you may have life, and have it more abundantly,” not an other-worldly focus beyond the grave. In this world we have learned that, as Churchill said, although “Democracy is a terrible poli- tical system, all the others are worse!” If democratic governance is the best for our secular political world, a fortiori it certainly is best for our even more important religious world! The Turn Toward Self-Reform absolutely mandates that we use the very best practices of our experience to reform the governance structure of our Church. We are obligated, commanded, by all the bishops and the pope as our “primary duty” to reform our Church. If we do not, we are disobedient Catholics!


The Turn Toward Dialogue is a charge given by the Ecumenical Council to all Catholics, not as a luxury, but as a requirement—if we are to take the words of the highest authority of the Catholic Church seriously. At the same time, the Council inextricably linked dialogue with self-reform. The two require and reenforce each other. And self-reform requires taking freedom, as well as our history, and this world seriously—all of which point toward a democratic governance structure of the Catholic Church.  There is our goal that we all are charged to pursue.

[1] Leonard Swidler has an STL in Catholic Theology, University of Tübingen and a Ph.D. in history and philosophy, University of Wisconsin.  Professor of Catholic Thought and Interreligious Dialogue at Temple University since 1966, he is author or editor of over 65 books & 180 articles, Co-founder (1964) with his wife Arlene Anderson Swidler,and Editor of the Journal of Ecumenical Studies. His books include: Dialogue for Reunion (1962), The Ecumenical Vanguard (1965), Jewish-Christian Dialogues (1966), Buddhism Made Plain (co-author, 1984), Toward a Universal Theology of Religion (1987), A Jewish-Christian Dialogue on Jesus and Paul (1990), After the Absolute: The Dialogical Future of Religious Reflection (1990), A Bridge to Buddhist-Christian Dialogue (1991) and Muslims In Dialogue. The Evolution of a Dialogue (1992), Die Zukunft der Theologie (1992), Theoria ± Praxis. How Jews, Christians, Muslims Can Together Move From Theory to Practice (1998), For All Life. Toward a Universal Declaration of a Global Ethic: An Interreligious Dialogue (1999), The Study of Religion in an Age of Global Dialogue (co-author, 2000) Dialogue in Malaysia and the Globe (2004), Confucianism in Dialogue Today. West, Christianity, and Judaism (2005).

[2] See, e.g., Leonard Swidler and Hans Küng, eds., The Church in Anguish: Has the Vatican Betrayed Vatican II? (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1987); Bernard Häring, My Witness for the Church, Translation and Introduction by Leonard Swidler (Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 1992); Heinrich Fries, Suffering From the Church, Translation and Introduction Arlene and Leonard Swidler (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 1995).

[3] Horrific words written by Pope Gregory XVI in his encyclical Mirari vos in 1832 and repeated in Pope Pius IX’ Syllabus of Errors in 1864. Quoted in Roger Aubert, “Religious Liberty from ‘Mirari vos’ to the ‘Syllabus,’” Historical Problems of Church Renewal, Concilium, VII (Glen Rock, NJ, 1965), pp. 91f.: “From this poisonous spring of indifferentism flows the false and absurd, or rather the mad principle [deliramentum] that we must secure and guarantee to each one liberty of conscience [italics added]; this is one of the most contagious of errors; it smooths the way for that absolute and unbridled freedom of thought, which, to the ruin of Church and State, is now spreading everywhere, and which certain men, with outrageous impudence, do not fear to represent as advantageous to religion.”

[4]       For a discussion of “salvation” and other key terms about the ultimate goal of life see, Leonard Swidler, The Meaning of Life At the Edge of the Third Millennium, (Mahwah, NJ: Paulist, 1992).

[5] See, e.g., Leonard Swidler, Freedom in the Church, (Dayton: Pflaum Press, 1969); Leonard Swidler, Aufklärung Catholicism 1780‑1850, (Missoula, MT: Scholars Press, 1978); Leonard and Arlene Swidler, Bishops and People, (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1970).

[6] Canonized by the traditional method of popular acclamation by the Association for the Rights of Catholics in the Church—ARCC ( )

[7] Colman J. Barry, ed., Readings in Church History (Westminster, MD: Newman Press, 1960), vol. I, pp. 466f.

[8] Barry, Readings in Church History, vol. I, pp. 504f.

[9] Josephinism was preceded by Gallicanism, a doctrine that grew up in France (previously known as Gaul; hence the name Gallican) starting in the thirteenth century as taught at the Sorbonne (founded 1257).  It developed further during the 14th-15th century “Western Schism” when there two or three popes simultaneously, and still more in the wake of the sixteenth century Protestant Reformation.  The basic teaching was that the decrees of Rome could take effect in France only with the appropriate French approvals. One version was “Royal Gallicanism” wherein the King had the right of (dis)approval; a second was “Episcopal Gallicanism” wherein the Assembly of French bishops had the right of (dis)approval; and the third was “Parliamentarian Gallicanism” wherein the French Parliament had the right of (dis)approval. Gallicanism was dominant in France until after the Napoleonic period (ended 1815).

               Febronianism in many ways was a mid-eighteenth century German counterpart of Gallicanism.  The three Archbishop Electors of the Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire commissioned Bishop Nicholas von Hontheim of Trier to do an analysis of the German Church’s grievances against Rome. The result was his essay published under the pen name Justinus Febronius. He advocated that as far as possible German Church affairs should be kept in German episcopal and civil hands.

               Josephinism receives it name from Emperor Joseph II of Austria (sole Emperor 1780-90) who not only basically followed the principles of Gallicanism and Febronianism but also was very active in reforming and restructuring the Church within his empire. He did so not only without waiting for permission from Rome but often in direct opposition to Rome. His aggressiveness in many ways put the Enlightenment and reform in a subsequent disadvantageous light.

For Aufklärung Catholicism see Leonard Swidler, Aufklärung Catholicism 1780-1850 (Missoula, MT: Scholars Press, 1978).

[10] See F. Logan, “The 1875 Statement of the German Bishops on Episcopal Power, The Jurist, 21 (1961), pp. 285-295.

[11]       Humanae personae dignitatem, “On Dialogue with Unbelievers,” in Austin Flannery, ed. Vatican Council II (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 1975), pp. 1002-1014, p. 1010.

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