Living in the Catholic Church: Yesterday, Today, Tomorrow

Thomas F. O’Meara, O.P.


50 Years of time since Vatican II.  You have “taken time” for us to reflect together this afternoon.  Let me begin with time.

These days we are looking at church and university at the end of 50 years since Vatican II – today and in the future.  Let us take as our theme this afternoon TIME.  Time itself will be our theme.  Time: the Past, the Present, and the Future.   The ideas and words of my talk like time itself will just fly by.


I. The Past.

In the autumn afternoons when a day of grade school at St. Augustin’s in Des Moines was over I walked down Grand Avenue, past large affluent Protestant churches.  But I did not enter – that would have been forbidden; any contact with a Protestant church, not only with the services but with the building itself, was forbidden to a Catholic.  I was an altar boy in the parish at Mass — no one else entered the sanctuary, no layperson, not even the sisters who taught in the parish school.  The priest did everything – in Latin.  There were great private universities in USA – but almost no Catholics attended them.

Thus, in 1950, in the mid-mark of the 20th century, the Catholic Church was a church of the socially marginalized and the ecclesiologically silent.  That was about to change.

Life and thinking arrived in 1962.  I had been ordained just three months before Vatican II began.

As Vatican II began, two events changed our lives in the seminary in Dubuque.  First there was the accreditation of Aquinas Institute by the North Central Association.  This was the first Roman Catholic seminary given state accreditation.  This came about because diocesan priests directed the Catholic high schools in Iowa and they needed a graduate degree after their many years of study. Accreditation led to the admission of religious women and then lay people for graduate degrees in theology.

(2) Second, the ecumenical movement came to the seminary world.  A Danish Lutheran theologian (a future observer at Vatican II, Kristen Skydsgaard, visited Wartburg Lutheran Seminary.  He suggested that the three seminary faculties – Lutheran, Presbyterian and Methodist, and Roman Catholic – had a special opportunity to work together in a new atmosphere of theological education.  Faculty dialogues and joint classes followed.

During the summer of 1963, as my seminary education ended, my Dominican superiors made a decision about me.  Someone in the Province should know something about Protestant theologies, past and modern.  After those first contacts with Protestant seminarians and professors in Dubuque, I had persistently and annoyingly been interested in Martin Luther and Paul Tillich.  And so, I was sent to Germany for doctoral studies.  I was sent from Iowa to Germany, from Dubuque to Munich (I was hindered only by not knowing German).

I belong to the generation who did their studies, their theological studies twice.  In the late summer of 1963, as I packed for Europe, at the end of my first year as a priest, there were tremors of change all around.  The opening session of Vatican II had taken place; in the South the civil rights protests began; the Cuban missile crisis came and went.

On the way to Munich, I stopped in Rome because the second session of Vatican II was about to begin.  On the streets of Rome I met a Des Moines priest who kindly asked if I would like a ticket for standing room at the Opening of the Second Session of the Council.  That morning in the fall of 1963, Paul VI gave an address that spoke of the human race making progress through knowledge and exploration, and of the church called to be faithful to the Gospel.

On a rainy night I flew north of the Alps to Munich.

Later I found myself in Rome, during the Council, as a tourist with my family or friends.  After they returned to the US, in the autumn nights you could go and hear the great theologians present their ideas to national groups of bishops, Swiss, Nigerian, Brazilian.

What was the Council changing?  Yves Congar, arguably the most important theologian involved in Vatican II, said that what marked the church after Vatican II was history.  “Everything is absolutely historical including the person of Jesus Christ.  The Gospels are historical.  Thomas Aquinas is historical, Pope Paul VI is historical.  Note that historical does not mean just that Jesus came at a certain point in time but that one must draw the consequences of this fact, that he through the time in which he lives is conditioned by them.” [i]  Church life during centuries of stagnation was occupied by theatrical reproductions of the medieval and the Baroque.  An acceptance of history, an acceptance of new forms entered the life of the Church; old and ancient theologies explained the dignity of baptism and the local ministry of a bishop.

History set Catholics free.  There was variety in thinking about Jesus and the church, possibilities for the church to live in new more vital ways today and tomorrow.

In some numbers American Catholics began to attend schools in Paris, Tubingen, and Louvain.   The Council’s official theologians, Schillebeeckx, Rahner, Chenu, had become famous; they were mainly theological schools and worlds north of the Alps and not from Roman colleges and the Vatican bureaucracy; they were from the intellectual and historical diversity of German universities and French institutes, from Louvain and Tübingen. European theological centers were drawing future American teachers and theologians.

History and new ideas brought a new way of living in the local church, in community.  “New,” however, was not always new.  The new, however, was often the old: Christologies from the Greek Church had much to say and the liturgical renewal drew on the third and fourth centuries.

Above all, Vatican II’s theology ended a monopoly, neo-scholastic monopoly.  Neo-Scholastic means a largely philosophical presentation of dogma and morality, a textbook of ancient philosophical axioms and proofs, in Latin, very simple, claimed to be universal and eternal.

The collapse of this monopoly unsettled its teachers and enthusiasts in the seminaries of the English-speaking world.  Those who had believed it was unique and eternal and who had profited from its easy repetition and neglect of real problems were angry and depressed when it faded away.  That bitterness has remained in some church teachers and leaders for fifty years. In a sense, today, some conflicts in the Catholic Church reflect this, for they are over imposing something universal and perennial – a neo-scholasticism — rather than letting grace incarnate itself in cultural variety.

What changed?  With the monopoly of a simplistic philosophy of Christianity set aside other views of the faith were free to emerge: the Biblical or Patristic theologies, contemporary theologies of faith centered in the active self, theologies from Asia or Africa.  They held the new


II.The Present.

After 1962 history was a summer storm that brought clarity and vitality.  After 1966, out of an ecclesiastical emptiness, out of the silent church of 1935 to 1955 in the United States came a series of “expansions.”  The “Expansions” — they could be called “explosions”—were big changes in the American Church.   Three explosions stand out: (1) the formation of church organizations; (2) the expansion of ministry; (3) the increase of American Catholics studying theology in an expansion of programs at universities and theological schools.

(1). The formation of church organizations.  There was an expansion of Church organizations: national conferences of bishops (all over the world); synods like that one just being held; priests’ senates, professional organizations for different ministries; parish councils, advisory boards, organizations for religious orders; organizations of the baptized like Call to Action and Voice of the Faithful.  There are ten organizations alone for lay ministers.

(2) Explosion of people entering ministry.  The second expansion was the explosion of people entering ministry.  Before 1966 the parish was composed of a few priests and of sisters working in hospitals and schools; the chancery had offices for a few canon lawyers.  That changed.  Tens of thousands of Lay Ecclesial Ministers appeared.  The parish had a staff of five to thirty, while the diocese not three officials but a dozen on staff.

The latest survey by CARA in Washington, D.C;. presents 17,748 American parishes today with around 38,000 Catholics in parish ministry (“Lay Ecclesial Ministers”), educated and paid.  These are people who work twenty to forty hours in a week in youth ministry, ministry to sick and aging, preparation for sacraments, religious education at all levels, leading base communities, activists in social issues.  There are too a very large number of permanent deacons.  Added to this are hundreds of volunteers who serve in the liturgy as lectors, ministers of communion.  As part of the expansion of lay ecclesial ministry we should see the recent multiplication of volunteer groups; a recent survey estimates that there are 25,000 associates of religious orders and schools at work in church services.

This is an “explosion” of ministry along the lines the Holy Spirit envisioned and envisions for the Christian Church.  There are far more baptized in the ministry than ever before even as fewer Catholics belong to a parish or attend Mass weekly.  The paradox is significant. [ii]

(3) Along with the expansion of ministry of the baptized came an expansion of theological education.  The new minister needed a knowledge of the Gospel and an introduction to Christian theology.  In the 1960s the theology schools of the religious orders and universities began to offer graduate programs ranging from biblical studies to the new fields of religious education and pastoral theology to all religious and laity.  Those schools hired more and more professors, recent graduates of European and American universities, to educate in theological disciplines thousands of Catholics who wanted to work in ministry – priests and sisters already at work and laity just entering.

From the time of Charlemagne to Vatican II only seminarians could study theology.  Even in the first half of the twentieth century American religious women, although they ran many schools, could not study theology.  If they studied theology at all, they did so through studying patristic or medieval theologians in a faculty of Greek and Latin literature.  At St. Mary’s College in Indiana, Sister Madaleva in the mid-1950s established a first graduate program in theology for those who were not seminarians; they were women religious.  In ten years the laity followed the many priests and sisters into the graduate programs of theology schools.

The Council’s documents encouraged exploring the riches of Catholic theologies from the past.  The ministries of ecumenism, liturgical renewal, and religious education drew many Catholics to graduate studies in the varied fields of theology ranging from New Testament exegesis to pastoral theology for diocese and parish.  Soon young Catholic theologians and exegetes would be teachers among the Protestant scholars at Divinity schools like Chicago, Harvard, Yale, Duke, where the axiom, “Catholici non leguntur” long dominated.

So there was an explosion of people entering theology.   Today there are over 1200 members of the Catholic Theological Society, and, as I mentioned, 450 are women.  There was a huge expansion of the baptized entering theology.

How did all this affect Catholic Universities?  First, universities and theological schools of the religious orders expanded far beyond the Tridentine seminary into large departments with many graduate programs. [iii]  Second, special institutes relating church and university to society.  Jesuit universities have a remarkable number of such institutes: schools, local church, politics: for instance at Creighton, the Center for Catholic Studies, the Kripke Center for the Study of Religion and Society, the six branches of Campus Ministry, and others.

A final aspect of the expansion of theological education was the multiplication of new publishing houses.  They offered in English the many books and reference works authored and planned by the Conciliar theologians in Europe.   There were also new periodicals and specialized newsletters.  Today, of course, added to this are websites, websites whose themes range from the thought of Gregory of Nyssa to gossip from the corridors of the Vatican.


Vatican II!  50 years!  What changed?  What has changed in the church?  Nothing — and everything.

The central teachings of Christianity remained unchanged.  Over the past decades there have been few or no heterodox doctrinal positions.  Modernist reductions of the Trinity, Incarnation, or Eucharist have found no interest in American Catholicism.  What is trumpeted by reactionaries as too innovative or what is investigated by the Vatican as novel are new issues in bioethics or old forms returning to the church. [iv]  They are practical and pastoral; they touch the ordinary life of Catholics and are not the speculative thought of radical academics.

And yet, what changed?  It seemed, everything changed: liturgy, parish ministry and life churches, publications in theology, the emergence of areas of social justice, family, ethics, and war; the decline of the presence of sisters and priests; new roles for permanent deacons and bishops.  There are new issues found in bioethics, sexual morality, expression of grace in other religions, and ecclesial changes in ministry, issues about ministry for the baptized and about papal authority.  Language and education, liturgy and ministry – they changed.

It is not surprising that in the USA, the Council was particularly pastoral, because the American mindset and life is practical.  Twenty years ago it occurred to me: The Church in 962 and 1962 appeared to be much the same; the Church in 1972 and 1962 quite different.


Standing, as we do now this afternoon at the edge of the present and the future…Who would long for the past?  Who would long for a time in which there was no theological education except for seminarians?  Who would long for a time in the English-speaking world without books on great theologians, without interesting journals and helpful newsletters, without large departments of theology in Catholic schools.  Who would long for a time when Christianity was largely expressed as Greek philosophy?


The many articles appearing these months on Vatican II stress that the Council was and remains a beginning, a seminal event, a dynamic force unleashing further changes.  Only a few years after the Council, Yves Congar wrote: “It is astonishing how the post-conciliar period has so little to do with the Council. The post-conciliar questions are new and radical. ‘Aggiornamento’ [now] means changes and adaptations to a new situation.” [v]

III.  The Future.

If we think about the present, the present moving into the future, we can look forward to more change.  No matter how much change, how many calls for change from the churches around the world there are inevitably more areas that need improvement. [vi]

The philosopher Martin Heidegger wrote:  “We do not have a future; the future has us.”

What are the theological themes of the future?  Those we have just described from the past decades will dominate the future. Unforeseen bioethical discoveries, the renewal of the structures of the church’ ministers, issues in social ethics like abuse, new spiritualities and liturgies, the healthy relationship between the authority of the few and the participation of the baptized in the life of the church, the message and sacramentality of other religions.  These future topics — you know them as well as I do.

What is worth our concluding reflection this afternoon is their underlying dynamics.  These ways of thinking are at work in and beneath all of these topics. [vii]  They are basic theological approaches.  They influence the totality and depth of “living and thinking” in today’s church. Three occur to me

1)The church in the future must be more.  The church in a global society, in a complexity of both economic oneness and cultural diversity, has been since Vatican II becoming more.  It is passing beyond being a church of the Roman Empire or of European nations at work in colonization in 1500 or 1900.  Vatican II, as Karl Rahner pointed out, opens the church up to becoming a “world church” as it ceases to be a church offering old medieval and Baroque archaic clothes and liturgies.[viii]

How will the Church be more?  How will it be the voice and community of Asian theologies, celebrate joyfully the liturgies of African churches, and pursue the social movements in American churches?

There will be more men and women pondering the mystery of Jesus Christ, new interpretations of Trinity and Incarnation, more people at work in ministry, in the services of the church, more people relating the Gospel to social needs, joining political science and ethics.  There will be more cultures fashioning how churches live and worship; not less liturgy or an old liturgy but more liturgies from other cultures.

2) Inside the church’s organization the Catholic Church needs to be more.

A modern society presumes that people will participate in decisions. [ix]  There should be encouragement for activist-vocal organizations like “Voice of the Faithful” and for organizations supporting lay ministry. [x]   All believers to be adult Christians will need religious education, theology.  They will need some understanding of how to think about new bioethical discoveries, about the gap between rich and poor, about marriage and divorce.  The average churchgoer will need to understand the degrees of teaching, the degrees of authority.  Some understanding of how the bishop of Rome leads even when he is uncertain or modestly informed.

Against the backdrop of more voices and contributions, more charisms and services within the Church, qualified Catholics should take part in the decisions of the local and international church.  Every office is diakonia, service, and not a few involve teaching.  Congar wrote:  “All have a responsibility, on the basis of their life itself, to share, bear witness and serve.” [xi]

There is authority in the Catholic Church.  Nonetheless, the personal theologies and lives of believers cannot be expected to be repressed. In terms of participation, there will have to be voice from bishops and lay ecclesial ministers in the selection of bishops.  The selection of the pope too must come from wider participation. A pope today exists within a church that is world-wide and so is challenged to serve within the world-wide church, furthering the Pauline ecclesiology of the many ministries in the Body of Christ.  The Pope needs to re-enter the church, to enter into the midst of the church in its diversity, the church as it is, the church as the living organism of activities and charisms as described by Paul.

3) Behind these shifts and expansions we see that a basic shift in paradigm now moving  throughout the church.  The shift in models is: From the dividing line to the concentric circle.  The dividing line separated the haves from the have-nots: clergy over against laity, Catholics and non-Catholics, Christians and pagans.  It no longer corresponds to reality.  Actually, it never represented well the Body of Christ.

A shift from the dividing line to the concentric circle — we have just seen this new model in church and ministry where the baptized are entering various different ministries arranged in circles around a leader, pastor or bishop, but all animated by the Holy Spirit.  Second, we see it in liturgy.  This model of concentric circles explains sacramentals, devotions, rituals, liturgies and the seven sacraments.  Third, the new model of circles is present in a contemporary understanding of authority.  At the center is the leader of a church.  The Holy Spirit, however, vitalizes all of church life so that existing around the leader of the community are true ministries, and they should have a voice in decision-making, teaching, in the selection of leaders. [xii]  Finally, in the realm of grace, in the kingdom of God, we believe that history places Jesus Christ at the center, and the church is near the center in a world of religions, although the religions themselves are circles of grace and salvation.  This model assists us in giving centrality in salvation-history to the work of Jesus but also recognizing grace in other religions.


The church is becoming more.  The Holy Spirit is intent upon being the animator of more living forms in the church, more theologies and liturgies. [xiii] It is fitting that we think about these things at a Jesuit university nourished by the motto of the Society of Jesus:  “Ad majorem Dei gloriam.” “The Glory of God – and More of it.”



Our topic has been time.

Time never goes backwards: Christian revelation of an eschatological history of salvation affirms this.

Time is not evil, although every fundamentalism – including Catholic fundamentalisms – flees time and history as dangerous.

Time holds promise, promises of a better future.

Time, St. Augustine said, “non vacat.”  “Time never takes a holiday.”

Time involves us in its enterprise.  Thomas Aquinas observed that time can be our assistant. “Time is, so to say, a discoverer and a kind of co-operator.” [xiv]  We are called to be the servants of time and change on earth.  We are called even to serve the work of the Holy Spirit.

Vatican II is a rediscovery of the self-understanding of the Church, the revolutionary realities of the Christian churches after Pentecost in the years of St. Paul.

The church is always hearing as a challenge the words of St. Paul to the church in Saloniki, the Thessalonians (1 Thess. 5:19).  They are the same words Karl Rahner chose in 1962 for the theme of his first talk on the coming Ecumenical Council, Vatican II, just about to begin.  “Do not extinguish the Spirit.”

[i] Jean Puyo interroge le Pere Congar.  Une vie pour la verité (Paris: Le


Centurion, 1974) 43.
[ii] Lakeland, “A New Sense of Adulthood Marks Postconciliar Laity,” in “A Church Reborn. Second Vatican Council, 1962-1965,” National Catholic Reporter (October 11, 2012): 28f.
[iii] Theodore Hesburgh, “Challenge and Promise of a Catholic University,” The Challenge and Promise of a Catholic University (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1995) 3.
[iv] Brad Hinze, “The controversies of post-conciliar theology, “ National Catholic Reporter  (October 11, 20112) vol. 48, 39, 42.
[v] Congar, Letter to Thomas O’Meara, 1970,
[vi] In the last ten years so many books have appeared in the United States for twenty years on the pastoral renewal of the church, today and tomorrow: Stephen Bevans, Prophetic Dialogue.  Reflections on Christian Mission Today (Maryknoll: Orbis, 2011); Tom Roberts, The Emerging Catholic Church: A Community’s Search for Itself (Maryknoll: Orbis, 2011); George Wilson, Clericalism.  The Death of Priesthood (2008); Michael Crosby, Paradox of Power (2008); McGuire, Daniel, Whose Church?  A Concise Guide to Progressive Catholicism (2008); Leonard Swidler, Making the Church Our Own. How We Can Reform the Catholic Church from the Ground Up (2007); Dennis O’Brien, Finding the Voice of the Church (2007); W. D’Antonio, American Catholics Today.  New Realities and New Faith (2007); Paul Lakeland, Catholicism at the Crossroads.  How the Laity Can Save the Church (2007); William Clark, A Voice of Their Own. The Local Parish (2005); Bernard Prusak, The Church Unfinished (2004); Rausch, Thomas, Being a Catholic in a Culture of Choice (2006); Peter Steinfels,  A People Adrift (2003).
[vii] Ladislas Orsy selects as background dynamics: freedom of thinking, justice in action, sympathy for pastoral planning, and respect and ministry for the non-ordained (”The Second Vatican Council was the sower.  Now we are the laborers,” America  207 [2012] 16).
[viii] Congar’s theology presents the Spirit as the vitalizing principle of all the church, the Spirit precisely intent upon enabling a variety of gifts, a universality of ministries.  “The Spirit creates, from within, the unity of the community, and also the organs or expressions of its special genius, i.e., its tradition….The role thus vested in the Holy Spirit is the actualizing and interiorizing of what Christ said and did.”Tradition and Traditions (New York: Macmillan,1966) 340, 342.
[ix] Bishop  William McManus wrote twenty years ago that the baptized have rights to govern the church.  The obstacles to this are widespread ignorance about these rights and responsibilities, and indifference to them; tolerate injustice in the church’s management and the secrecy surrounding it (“The Rights of Catholics to Govern the Church,” America [November 14, 1992] 167 [1992] 82f.).
[x] For a report of the meeting attended by ten separate organizations supporting lay ecclesial ministry in North America, see William Cahoy, In the Name of the Church. Vocation and Authorization of Lay Ministry (Collegeville: Liturgical Press, 2012).
[xi] Congar, Tradition and Traditions 321.
[xii] “These modes of service already exist…They exist now; but up to now were not called by their true name, ministries, nor were their place and status in ecclesiology recognized” (Congar, “My Path-Findings in the Theology of Laity and Ministries,” The Jurist 32 [1972]: 181).
[xiii] See Ulrich Beuttler, Gott und Raum –Theologie der Weltgegenwart Gottes

(Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht,  2010).
[xiv] Aquinas, Commentary on the Ethics of Aristotle 2, 4.