South African Bishop on the 'Dismantling of Vatican II'

Strong words from Kevin Dowling, C.Ss.R., the Catholic bishop of Rostenburg, South Africa, to a group of "leading laity" in Cape Town, on June 1.  He takes as his jumping-off point the Tridentine Mass celebrated by Bishop Edward James Slattery in Washington, DC, but his point goes beyond that particular Mass, and the bishop discusses the need for "humble, servant leadership" in the church, the unquestionable authority of Vatican II, the diminution of subsidiarity and collegiality and the equation of disagreement with the pope with disloyalty.

The Southern Cross [South Africa's "national Catholic weekly"] about three or four weeks ago published a picture of Bishop Slattery with his “cappa magna” – in colour...! For me, such a display of what amounts to triumphalism in a Church torn apart by the sexual abuse scandal, is most unfortunate. What happened there bore the marks of a medieval royal court, not the humble, servant leadership modelled by Jesus. But it seems to me that this is also a symbol of what has been happening in the Church especially since Pope John Paul II became the Bishop of Rome and up till today - and that is “restorationism”, the carefully planned dismantling of the theology, ecclesiology, pastoral vision, indeed the “opening of the windows” of Vatican II – in order to “restore” a previous, or more controllable model of Church through an increasingly centralised power structure; a structure which now controls everything in the life of the Church through a network of Vatican Congregations led by Cardinals who ensure strict compliance with what is deemed by them to be “orthodox”. Those who do not comply face censure and punishment, e.g. theologians who are forbidden to teach in Catholic faculties.

Lest we do not highlight sufficiently this important fact. Vatican II was an Ecumenical Council, i.e. a solemn exercise of the magisterium of the Church, i.e. the college of bishops gathered together with the Bishop of Rome and exercising a teaching function for the whole Church. In other words, its vision, its principles and the direction it gave are to be followed and implemented by all, from the Pope to the peasant farmer in the fields of Honduras. 

Since Vatican II there has been no such similar exercise of teaching authority by the magisterium. Instead, a series of decrees, pronouncements and decisions which have been given various “labels” stating, for example, that they must be firmly held to with “internal assent” by the Catholic faithful, but in reality are simply the theological or pastoral interpretations or opinions of those who have power at the centre of the Church. They have not been solemnly defined as belonging to the “deposit of the faith” to be believed and followed, therefore, by all Catholics, as with other solemnly proclaimed dogmas. For example, the issues of celibacy for the priesthood and the ordination of women, withdrawn even from the realm of discussion. Therefore, such pronouncements are open to scrutiny – to discern whether they are in accord, for example, with the fundamental theological vision of Vatican II, or whether there is indeed a case to be made for a different interpretation or opinion.



I think that today we have a leadership in the Church which actually undermines the very notion of subsidiarity; where the minutiae of Church life and praxis “at the lower level” are subject to examination and authentication being given by the “higher level”, in fact the highest level, e.g. the approval of liturgical language and texts; where one of the key Vatican II principles, collegiality in decision-making, is virtually non-existent. The eminent emeritus Archbishop of Vienna, Cardinal Franz König, wrote the following in 1999 – almost 35 years after Vatican II: “In fact, however, de facto and not de jure, intentionally or unintentionally, the curial authorities working in conjunction with the Pope have appropriated the tasks of the episcopal college. It is they who now carry out almost all of them” (“My Vision of the Church of the Future”, The Tablet, March 27, 1999, p. 434).

What compounds this, for me, is the mystique which has in increasing measure surrounded the person of the Pope in the last 30 years, such that any hint of critique or questioning of his policies, his way of thinking, his exercise of authority etc. is equated with disloyalty. There is more than a perception, because of this mystique, that unquestioning obedience by the faithful to the Pope is required and is a sign of the ethos and fidelity of a true Catholic. When the Pope’s authority is then intentionally extended to the Vatican Curia, there exists a real possibility that unquestioning obedience to very human decisions about a whole range of issues by the Curial Departments and Cardinals also becomes a mark of one’s fidelity as a Catholic, and anything less is interpreted as being disloyal to the Pope who is charged with steering the barque of Peter.

It has become more and more difficult over the past years, therefore, for the College of Bishops as a whole, or in a particular territory, to exercise their theologically-based servant leadership to discern appropriate responses to their particular socio-economic, cultural, liturgical, spiritual and other pastoral realities and needs; much less to disagree with or seek alternatives to policies and decisions taken in Rome. And what appears to be more and more the policy of appointing “safe”, unquestionably orthodox and even very conservative bishops to fill vacant dioceses over the past 30 years, only makes it less and less likely that the College of Bishops – even in powerful Conferences like the United States – will question what comes out of Rome, and certainly not publicly. Instead, there will be every effort to try and find an accommodation with those in power, which means that the Roman position will prevail in the end. And, taking this further, when an individual bishop takes issue with something, especially in public, the impression or judgement will be that he is “breaking ranks” with the other bishops and will only cause confusion to the lay faithful – so it is said - because it will appear that the Bishops are not united in their teaching and leadership role. The pressure, therefore, to conform.

Read the full talk here.

James Martin, SJ 


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James Lindsay
8 years 5 months ago
Sadly, his excellencey hits the nail on the head, at least as far as the prior papacy is concerned. I believe the current Pope may undo some of this toxicity, however - although he appears to be working very quietly. Give some of the old bulls in the Curia time to die out and I believe we will see change. The Barque of Peter steers very slowly.
Peter Lakeonovich
8 years 5 months ago
Bill, you express some very generous and charitable sentiments.

Thank you for clarifying that "Bishop Dowling doesn't say that "it is OK to dissent from the Pope." In such case, I agree with him: it is NOT ok.

I'm sorry but I don't know what you mean by "current efforts to centralize even more the power structure of the Church." Can you tell us a little about such efforts? You see, I don't know what they are. What I do know is that Pope Benedict, in declaring the Year of the Priest, sought to emphasize the role of individual and local pastors. That he gave a beautiful homily in St. Peter's when he bestowed the Palia on the new Metropolitan Archbishops, which are made of sheep's wool, and symbolize that they - his brother Bishops - are the shepherds of their dioceses. That's not collegiality?

And how about the much overlooked gesture and policy issued by the Pope for the admission of Anglican communities into communion with the Catholic Church? Does that sound like centralizing authority, allowing them to keep many of their traditions?

As for the principle of subsidiarity, who would know more about that than our late Pope John Paul II, who experienced first hand the brutality and cruelty of the communists in Russia who promised to fill the stomachs of the people in exchange for their freedom. Liberation Theology (espoused in corrupted form by communists) conflicts with the principle of subsidiarity. Christ is not a "bread king" as Bishop Sheen would remind us.

Finally, the Pope, to the extent that he has authority, it is because he sits on the Chair of Peter and his authority is not his own but that which comes from Christ. He does not hold the Keys to the Kingdom because of power, he holds them because they were entrusted to him by Christ. I read the writings of Pope Benedict I see humility, holiness, sanctity, inspiration of the Holy Spirit and my whole being is directed towards the Trinity in adoration. I read Bishop Dowling's address and I look for the Rosary.
Jim McCrea
8 years 5 months ago
“Christ is not a ‘bread king’ as Bishop Sheen would remind us.”  (The good bishop never looked to me as if had missed too many meals, so his comment is worth taking with a grain of grain.)
I will direct you to Mt 25: 
For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, a stranger and you welcomed me,
naked and you clothed me, ill and you cared for me, in prison and you visited me.'
Then the righteous will answer him and say, 'Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink?
When did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you?
When did we see you ill or in prison, and visit you?'
And the king will say to them in reply, 'Amen, I say to you, whatever you did for one of these least brothers of mine, you did for me.'
"Unless you hear the mouth eating, you cannot hear the mouth crying."  Rwandan proverb.
8 years 5 months ago
Concerning your comment:  "You might be much better off if you would open Scriptures."
The Rosary is a most scriptural prayer.  You should try it some time!
John Stabeno
8 years 5 months ago
This Bishop gives me hope that maybe there are more bishops out there, men to model our priestly ministry after who truly love the church but are disheartened as to where it has been heading since October 1978. We need a true leader, like Pope John Paul the First, one not afraid to stand up to the political curia and remind us the reason why we are in ministry, the ministry of Jesus Christ. And yes, to truly read the scripture and study of ministry of Jesus Christ, who would no doubt have critized a cappa magna and the authoritarian hierarchy as it exists today in our church. Jesus of Nazareth was a radical person. He wasn't judgemental. He was loving. He revealed God to us.
I have hope that one day we will be allowed to truly dialogue. I believe that factions in the church will one day say it is ok that we see things differently. We don't have to agree on everything. There can be unity in diversity. I don't have to be right and you don't have to be wrong. We can be Church together, we don't have to be a cult that are robots who repeat what we are told to repeat.
So, thank you Bishop Dowling and thank you James Martin, S.J.
Tamzin Simmons
8 years 5 months ago
I think Bishop Dowling's remarks come at a very significant time. Whatever the meaning of dissent, if there is space made for different ideas and experiences to be expressed, then the search for truth and thus the journey towards Christ becomes richer for everyone. The Jesus of the Gospels did not object to people challenging him initially, he did however object to the oppression of the human spirit. And what better model for any Christian than Christ?

David Jackson
8 years 5 months ago
Just Coincidence?  The link to the entire article is broken both on the America web site and also on Catholic Culture News web site.  Not even a Google search could turn up the entire article.
Eugene Pagano
8 years 5 months ago
The speech as it appeared at the link contained a lengthy quote from a National Catholic Reporter article about Bishop Slattery's Tridentine mass.  Maybe the speech will  back after the copyright matter is attended to.
Peter Lakeonovich
8 years 5 months ago
There is nothing concrete in the Bishop's editorial, other than that it is OK to dissent from the Pope. There is no mention of what the Bishop would do differently, except that he would open for discussion priestly celibacy (which our Holy Father has already addressed) and the ordination of women (which I am not sure if our Holy Father has addressed, but which is currently tearing apart the Anglican/Episcopal church). So what does the Bishop's editorial leave us with? Dissent for the sake of dissent? Sounds like a young man going through puberty who wears a "cool" t-shirt that says "question authority."

The Bishop's appeal to Vatican II has to fall short because it happens far too often that Vatican II gets used as an excuse for anything goes. There are documents of the Second Vatican Council that the Bishop should refer to if he wants to make a point, but most likely such authoritative will not support his point. Our Holy Father, on the other hand, always refers to specific references to the documents of Vatican II to support his positions. Then again, we can't expect all of our Bishops to be intellectual/spiritual giants like Pope Benedict.

All of this calls to mind what St. Ignatius asks us to consider the Spiritual Exercises, namely, what would you wish, on your deathbed, that you had done? For me, knowing that there is only one life on earth, I choose to spend it defending the Chruch. God forbid I should do anything divisive.

The Bishop's editorial really brings home the importance of our Holy Father' words where he stated:

"Therefore the priest does not teach his own ideas, a philosophy that he himself has invented, that he has discovered or likes; the priest does not speak of himself, he does not speak for himself, to attract admirers, perhaps, or create a party of his own; he does not say his own thing, his own inventions but, in the medley of all the philosophies, the priest teaches in the name of Christ present, he proposes the truth that is Christ himself, his word and his way of living and of moving ahead. What Christ said of himself applies to the priest: "My teaching is not mine" (Jn 7: 16); Christ, that is, does not propose himself but, as the Son he is the voice, the Word of the Father. The priest too must always speak and act in this way: "My teaching is not mine, I do not spread my own ideas or what I like, but I am the mouthpiece and heart of Christ and I make present this one, shared teaching that has created the universal Church and creates eternal life."
Bill Collier
8 years 5 months ago
Mr. Lake-
Bishop Dowling doesn't say that "it is OK to dissent from the Pope." He does note the current efforts to centralize even more the power structure of the Church, and he reminds all of us about the restorationism that IMO is a sad fact. He doesn't invoke VII as "an excuse for anything goes." That's hyperbole. Moreover, I doubt that there is anything in your quote about the role of the priest that this good bishop would disagree with. There's nothing in the bishop's Cape Town speech that dissents from the teachings of Christ. Instead, Bishop Dowling laments, as Fr. Martin aptly points out, "the diminution of subsidiarity and collegiality and the equation of disagreement with the pope with disloyalty." I'm sure there are a significant number of bishops who would agree with Bishop Dowling's sentiments. I hope they too bring their sentiments to the fore in a similarly respectful manner.
I'll add, and you are no doubt aware, that the joint Catholic/Orthodox body discussing reunification of these two branches of Christianity is currently focused on the role of the pope in a reunified church. The Orthodox feel strongly that a pope is the first among equals, not an absolute ruler as to decisions about matters both infallible and fallible. IMO, the increasing efforts to centralize power in the Pope, and by extension, in the Curia, could be a roadblock for Catholic/Orthodox reunifcation, ironically one of BXVI's most important goals. It seems to me that many bishops' conferences have very little input into Church-wide decision making and that they have become timid and weak in the face of the power the Pope now wields. I'm not advocating abolition of the papacy, only, as Bishop Dowling respectfully comments, increased collegiality, subsidiarity, and implementation of VII.       
Jim McCrea
8 years 5 months ago
"I read Bishop Dowling's address and I look for the Rosary."
You might be much better off if you would open Scriptures.
Jim McCrea
8 years 5 months ago
The rosary is scriptural?  You are kidding, of course.  It is mariolotry at some of its most blatant.
Jim McCrea
8 years 5 months ago
Here is the Dowling talk in full:
Pearce Shea
8 years 5 months ago
Pretty sure that the rosary, while being a prayer to Mary for her intercession, a particularly highly-held Saint for us Catholics since time immemorial,also has as its subject of suggested contemplation particular gospel scenes. Most people that pray the rosary on a regular basis, as I do, would also tell you that one quickly ignores the mariology stuff and focus on the contemplative stuff. Merton mentioned it as a great tool for contemplation, gospel-oriented or otherwise.
I agree with you completely on the bread bit, though I'd suggest that the intention is quite important and I frequently find that my fellow catholics handing out bread, soup, etc, do not "love god" and then "love their neighbor" but have decided, contra scriptures, that loving their neighbor is good enough.
Frankly, I find the complaints about a baroque church tiresome. I similarly find the complaints about an entrenched VII-anything-goes-church tiresome. And to be honest, Pete Lake does make a good point. Where's this centralization exactly? Weren't we just reading about how the Pope is thinking of keeping the central bureaucracy small? Aren't we also reading about how understaffed the CDF has been in re the abuse scandals? So per the NYT the Pope failed to beef up the CDF and fully employ its clout yet per the above bishop's statement we are to think that he is all about centralization of power? We all need to be more intellectually honest when dealing with matters of faith and our church. We need new paradigms for discussion or the Jims and Pete Lakes and Michael Binders of the world or just going to beat their respective dead horses while the world moves on without them. 
Bob Barry
8 years 5 months ago
"The rosary is scriptural?  You are kidding, of course.  It is mariolotry at some of its most blatant."
It repeats the words of the angel Gabriel in Luke 1:28 and Elizabeth in 1:42, and follows the practice of Paul and the Apostles in asking others to pray for us.
Yeah, I can see how that is at odds with God's revelation to us in the New Testament.


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