The Extraordinary Synod: A Symposium

The negative side-effects of Vatican II resulted chiefly from our failure to educate clergy and public in its divinely inspired message. What the Council proclaimed has been heard through the distorting megaphones of the secular, religiously ignorant media. Catholic publications have delivered it in the form of ugly conservative vs. liberal polemics, more as accusation than Good News. Religious educators reduced its teachings to “love,” i.e. to pop psychology. Our preaching performed the same reduction, and without adequate preaching the liturgical reforms cannot work. As for the theologians, they have used the wider freedom given them by the Council not so much to expound its doctrines as to second-guess it and call for Vatican III.

This educational failure cannot be attributed to the Council itself. Rather it has exposed the concealed inadequacy of Catholic religious instruction before the Council. If the pre-Conciliar Church had done a good job of teaching, its clergy and laity would have been prepared to understand properly the work of the Council. The fact that they have been so confused by the Council’s fresh formulation of eternal Gospel truths is proof positive that the Council was overdue and that the Synod must promote the full implementation of its work.

While it is no doubt necessary that the Holy See and the bishops undertake some firm disciplinary measures to correct abuses in practice and manifest errors in teaching, a merely negative, defensive posture is not in the spirit of the Council and will not be effective. What is needed is a vigorous, constructive effort to educate clergy and laity in the fundamental truths of the Gospel as the Council very clearly enunciated these and the popes since the Council have expounded them. It is true there has inevitably been much disagreement as to what the message of the Council really was, but such disagreements can be overcome by the Magisterium which alone can give an authentic interpretation of the Council for the purposes of preaching, catechizing, and pastoral guidance.

Therefore, what I hope from the Synod, which in two weeks can do no more than call for a new phase in the implementation of the Council is that it will encourage the Pope to give priority to the work of educating clergy and laity in the fundamental truths of the Gospel, doctrinal and moral, as these were stated for our times by Vatican II.

As a teacher I realize the difficulties such an educational campaign entails. First of all, conservatives will not be pleased with this Council’s reformulation of the Gospel because it corrected many of the traditional distortions of the Gospel current in the pre-conciliar Church (e.g., a legalistic conception of morality, an individualistic piety, a rubricistical liturgy). Second, the liberals will be miffed because they have understood the Council as an invitation to freedom of thought, expression, and conscience, rather than a proclamation of the Faith to be accepted in faith. To overcome this polarization the Pope with his brother bishops need to make clear that both “traditionalism” and “theological pluralism” must yield first place to a positive unity of proclamation under the leadership of the Magisterium in its collegial strength.

The expert laity must be given a large part in this educational task, but whether liberal or conservative, they must accept the decisive leadership of their bishops as to what the message to be communicated really is.


  • Benedict M. Ashley

    Benedict M. Ashley, O.P. (1915 - 2013), was a theologian and philosopher who had a major influence on 20th century Catholic theology and ethics in America through his writing, teaching, and consulting with the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. Author of 19 books, Ashley was a major exponent of the "River Forest School" of Thomism. Health Care Ethics, which he co-authored in 1975 and now in its fifth edition, continues to be a fundamental text in the field of Catholic Medical Ethics.

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