Being in my sixties now, I can remember when Holy Mass was celebrated in Latin and the priest had his back to the congregation and was busy doing ‘holy things’ while the rest of us quietly watched on from a distance or just fingered our rosary beads. I was certainly brought up in a pre Vatican II milieu where religion was taught in a dogmatic and fundamentally ‘black and white’ moralistic way. As Catholic school children, we were drilled – religiously – every week with Mass, Benediction, rote-learning of catechism and of course frequent confession.
I have to say I was never aware of, nor a victim of, any sexual abuse by priests and nuns – and there were plenty of them around me – but clearly it was going on. If I suffered any abuse from these ministers of religion I would have to say that it was a theological and spiritual oppression, based on a scary view of human nature and – crucially – a scary view of God. It may be strange to say that I then went on to become a priest myself, but one factor in that was certainly that Vatican II had made some impact on the local Church by the time that I was old enough to discern my way in life. But while the ‘fresh air’ generated by Vatican II was liberating for me as a young person, it was also clearly destabilising and threatening to many others, particularly the older folk.
At the heart of the Church’s traditional understanding of the Gospel and therefore how it presented the ‘things of God’ and humanity’s role, was the centrality of sin. It might be overstating the point but when I was young sin was everywhere. Sin had its precise gradings, into venial (minor) and mortal (serious) sin. Many folk, good decent folk, lived in constant terror of the possibility of committing a mortal sin and suddenly dying before managing to get to confession and receive absolution: thereby going straight to hell, which was eternal damnation and the everlasting loss of God and His heaven. And mortal sin was certainly doable in those days! Not surprisingly confession was widely frequented and especially before Mass, because receiving Jesus in Communion while being in a state of serious sin was anathema, a kind of mega-mortal sin, if that were possible.
In those days of my youth, the nineteen fifties and sixties, churches were packed and Catholic practice was impressive in terms of numbers. Numbers… But did we ever really evaluate the quality of our personal and collective faith? Was it perhaps that folk attended their religious duties out of fear, sometimes fear of societal pressure, sometimes naked fear of damnation? What levels of neurosis and stress did people carry in their psyches? And what picture of God did we all hold in our hearts?
When I ministered as a priest in the nineteen eighties, the emphasis had shifted in the main from Crucifixion to Resurrection; from sin to grace; from our attempts to love God to His freely given love for us; from God as stern Judge to God as loving Father; from Original Sin to Original Blessing. I say ‘in the main’, because there were many who never really accepted the renewed theology of Vatican II: often these were older people but by no means always older people.
I was – thankfully – formed as a priest in the spirit of Vatican II, and sought as best I could to preach its values. For such as me, Original Blessing trumped Original Sin: God and His love were primary, the absolute starting point for any journey of faith. As a parish missioner I frequently met people who were profoundly alienated from the Church, either by a traumatic experience at the hands of a priest or nun, or through a failed marriage and an unsympathetic and unforgiving Church, or indeed by being thoroughly sickened by the sin-soaked mentality of those earlier days. I met folk who were terribly constricted by scrupulosity: religious scrupulosity is a terrifying and immensely difficult psychological neurosis, akin to paranoia, and easily induced by an over-sensitivity to the sin-obsession of that time. It would be hard to over-emphasise how debilitating and literally soul-destroying religious scrupulosity can be.
Ultimately, the pre Vatican II mentality centred on ‘going through the motions’, a surface religious practice, regimented by fear and authority. This of course also reflected a wider societal milieu. There was no emphasis on inner spiritual experience, and not that much on emotional fellowship either. In contrast, the message of Vatican II is broad, fundamentally positive and in direct opposition to the earlier sin-centric mentality. But many of us ask, has the spirit and the practice of Vatican II been diluted or even reneged on in the years since the nineteen sixties?
Is the Catholic Church of today thoroughly convinced of the veracity and relevance of Original Blessing, or is it still clinging on to many aspects of the Original Sin mentality?
Catholics, love the Church, because we are the Church!