Paul VI Was Right

Author: Stefano M. Paci

Paul VI Was Right

by Stefano M. Paci

A Second Reformation is under way in the Church on a par with the 16th century movement that lacerated Christianity. Moreover, "it is even more dangerous today". It is a crisis "which has penetrated deep in the Church", a danger "we must fight with our eyes wide open" because "the very foundations of the faith are being questioned". This dramatic warning comes from Cardinal Adrianus Simonis who, as Primate of The Netherlands, has been leading one of the "frontier" Churches of the western world since 1983. "Paul VI was right", he sustains, "when he said that there was a risk that non- Catholic thinking was prevailing in the Catholic Church. I found it remarkable that he had been aware of this danger all those years ago when so few recognize it today".

In the exhilarating and dramatic years following the Council, the Dutch Church appeared to be a type of "ecclesial laboratory" for good or ill. The turbulence, in its beginnings in your Church - considered the of Catholicism - always then assumed an explosive form throughout the whole Church. Is this still the case? Does the Dutch Church represent the future for the universal Church?

ADRIANUS SIMONIS: There is no doubt that public criticism of the Magisterium and hierarchy, which became widespread in the whole Church, did start more or less in the Netherlands. It coincided with the Pastoral Council which opened in Noordwijkerhout in 1968. At that time in Holland, all Catholics were trying to fathom the Second Vatican Council but in a way that was quite critical. Some claim that this was the result of our harsher nature, more rigid. I think that one of the main reasons was the influence of the 'protestant' atmosphere in Holland. We are one third Protestant and a third Catholic. I am convinced that Protestantism has a much stronger influence on Catholic thinking than might generally be supposed. This critical atmosphere subsequently spread, though not as a consequence of events in Holland, to all of western Europe and then to the whole Church.

And today?

SIMONIS: Today? The situation is very difficult for the Church. One might wonder if there weren't a Second Reformation under way in the western world - I mean a situation quite similar to that which lacerated the Church in the 16th century. Some of the more attentive observers have been saying this for some time now. And I find myself thinking it more and more often. Today more than ever before the time has come for Catholicism to prove itself in terms of its identity because this Second Reformation will be even more dangerous than the first.

Has this Second Reformation been generated from within the Catholic Church?

SIMONIS: Yes, it penetrates deep into the Church. It is right, of course, that there be efforts made in the Church to reform because our Church is a Church . But this Second Reformation has a different aim. Some, indeed many, believe that the goal is to constitute a Church where everyone can decide matters of faith and morality for themselves.

What you say is reminiscent of Paul VI's dramatic confession, a few months before he died, to his friend, Jean Guitton, and reported in the book, : "There is great unrest at this time in the Church and what they are questioning is the faith. I am alarmed, when I reflect on the Catholic world, that nonCatholic thinking sometimes seems to prevail within Catholicism and it could happen that this non-Catholic thinking within Catholicism will become stronger in the future. But it will never represent the Church's thinking. A small flock must survive, no matter how small it may be" ...

SIMONIS: Thank you for that. I was not familiar with that but it's exactly my own impression. I find it remarkable that Pope Paul VI was aware of this danger all those years ago while today, with a fundamentally more critical situation in many ways, the majority don't recognize it.

Naturally - you're talking about a Second Reformation, a real danger in the offing for

the Church amidst the general indifference ...

SIMONIS: Yes, but we must fight this danger with our eyes wide open, turning it to our own advantage to become more Catholic, to have a better idea of what we are.

The main risk is often said within the Church to be the spread of sects or Islam's advance. Do you think this is because it is easier to combat an external enemy than an enemy within?

SIMONIS: I think it is precisely that. We should remember that the event that later became the Protestant schism also started from within the Catholic Church. Luther was a professor at an important theological university. His ideas had been winding their way for a long time within the Church's thinking, among his theologian colleagues and authorities, before they were officially recognized as extraneous to the faith of the Church. The indifference I'm talking about is also born from within the Church and that is why I think it will be really hard to combat it.

What are the characteristics of this crisis that threatens to spread throughout Catholicism today?

SIMONIS: My concern, my biggest concern is that faith in a personal God will be questioned. What Emmanuel Suhard, Cardinal Archbishop of Paris, said after the Second World War still holds true today. He said 'we have lost our sense of God'. I fear that many faithful, many Catholics, many practicing Catholics have unconsciously become 'deists'. They certainly believe in 'Something' but not in a personal God, who is real, still a living God and still a God we can encounter today just as the disciples did 2,000 years ago.

Some time ago, Jean Guitton shared similar reflections with me. I was at his home in Paris and he was commenting on what Paul VI had said to him, as we quoted earlier. And he told me: "Paul VI was right. We can see that today. We are experiencing an unprecedented crisis. The Church, indeed the history of the world, has never seen the like of it. When Christ was walking in the streets of Galilee, the world was pagan but so many pagans of the West and East at least had a sense of mystery. We could say that for the first time in its very long history, humanity as a whole is a-theological. It no longer has a clear - or even confused for that matter sense of what we call 'the mystery of God'. This crisis besetting our sense of the mystery afflicting humanity as a whole has also infiltrated the Catholic Church" ...

SIMONIS: I agree. I, too, am concerned for the orthodoxy of the faith of our people, the orthodox faith in God made known through the Revelation of Jesus Christ, a faith that recognizes the Glory of Jesus Christ, His divinity, the mystery of His Church, the Holy Spirit as a person, the third person of the Blessed Trinity. Of course, these are the essentials, the foundations of our faith. And, strange as it may seem, these are the very things being questioned today. The proof is there for all to see that so many people who call themselves Catholic now believe Jesus Christ to have been a more or less special man, a man who commands respect and admiration, but just a man. They have 'censored' the divine aspect of his person. We are seeing people take refuge in a more or less abstract idea of God along similar lines to the eastern divinities. They are losing their certainty in a personal God.

The Catholic Church is currently very active in the field of moral doctrine. Its aim is to make today's man re-discover his awareness of sin, a consciousness which now seems lost even to some Catholics ...

SIMONIS: A loss of faith always has its consequences in the field of morality. But the primary concern is the orthodoxy of the faith. Then comes morality. Sin is not the transgression of abstract norms. Sin is failure to recognize the consequences of all that happened in Israel 2,000 years ago, the consequences of salvation brought by Jesus Christ, a God who allows himself to be encountered by man in the Church. This is what John Paul II said in Holland to young people 'The secret of the coherent and joyful Christian life' - the moral life 'lies in our sincere, personal and profound love for Christ'. We can only know what sin is if we have faith in a personal God. Otherwise, it is not possible. Look at what's happening in Holland with the sacrament of Confession. Very few still confess nowadays. This is a consequence of the lack of faith in a personal God and it is this that worries me so much. But I must say I have another concern. I would like the whole Bible to be read, not just the Gospel passages that people see as more in keeping with their sensibility today. Jesus Christ and everything he said must be taken seriously. Many Christians don't even know what he was really saying. Jesus, for example, also spoke of Hell and of the danger that man would end up there. But people are never reminded of this and so they forget about it. The result is that people are not being reminded that we all have personal responsibility for our eternal lives, and that the sense of this responsibility is also the measure of the dignity of man. We priests are also to blame, our poor preaching is also to blame if Christianity has become a worldly thing with no perspective of eternity.

Holland still corresponds to its old label of "test-bench country". While the Church in other western countries is concerned about the consequences of legalizing abortion, the Dutch have gone a step further and legalized euthanasia ...

SIMONIS: There is some misunderstanding of this new law passed in Holland. Euthanasia is still on the penal code, which is to say, that it is still considered a crime and we bishops have declared our satisfaction at this. But according to the law, if there exist three precise conditions - terminal illness in the final stages, the consent of the patient and if the doctor concerned has consulted another doctor - a judge will not punish the crime. This makes for a schizophrenic situation. Euthanasia is still a crime but if it is perpetrated 'correctly', it goes unpunished. We bishops cannot tolerate this situation - euthanasia is a crime under God's law. Our Episcopal Conference reacted strongly and recently we have been opposing every new parliamentary bill in this direction. First, we wrote a pastoral letter on this theme, then we made various declarations stating clearly that euthanasia is not permissible in any case. But despite our indignation, the legislators took this decision. It is my fear that, because of this loss of faith in a personal God that I discussed at length earlier, euthanasia could soon be acceptable in other countries, too.

What climate reigns within the Dutch Church today?

SIMONIS: For many years, contestation was the main event in my country but from this point of view, I think things are improving. There is a movement in Holland which is very critical of hierarchy. They call themselves the 'May 8 Movement': They took their name from the demonstration held on May 8, 1985 on the eve of John Paul II's visit here. It had been organized to show, as the movement said, 'the other face of the Church'. I cannot say that all Christians share the opinions of the 'May 8 Movement' but it certainly has many Catholic members. But now at long last I think people are realizing that to persist with an attitude of open opposition to the Church is futile. During the last visit to Rome by Dutch bishops, we wrote a report on the Church's current status and we circulated it to our faithful. In this report we said that after so many years of sometimes bitter contrasts, the time had now come for dialogue. We had already asked that dialogue be launched on other occasions but only now are we

starting to note that, for the first time, there is a certain willingness. So we are currently looking for an active forum to compare notes. We are looking for a common path. That is why I say that the climate has improved. There is also new hope that the 'May 8 Movement' really will assume 'the Church's other face' and not, as many suspected, 'the face of another Church'. I must also say, unfortunately, that we have lost many, many faithful in these past years and that these interecclesial battles have generated a climate of indifference to the Church and to Christianity. But it is our intention through dialogue to launch a message to all, including those who have left us and who could now come back.

We will embark on the third millennium in a few years' time and the Church is placing great stress on this deadline. What forms do you think the new evangelization drive might take, this being the declared goal of the new era?

SIMONIS: That's a difficult question. I often ask myself how we can touch the heart of modern man. I am in constant touch with young people and I am always surprised to find that they expect to be challenged. Youth is a challenge in itself. They are waiting, almost anxiously, to encounter someone who will tell them that there is a way to live life to the full. They are unconsciously waiting and desiring the encounter with Jesus Christ, the fullness of life, even when they are apparently very distant, even when they scorn and blaspheme against the Church. What they are really hoping to encounter is none other than the experience which, by grace and despite all our limitations, it is possible to live within the Church. In short, there is an entire generation which, in the midst of all its contradictions, lives in expectation and yearning. The new evangelization drive must start with prayer because the success of any such endeavor depends on the grace of God and must be implored from heaven. And so I hope that the Holy Spirit will be the life source of this, more so than we can ever be. And I hope that the Spirit will intervene and prompt the saints - human beings burning with the desire for God - and that they may show men where life's treasure lies. This is my heart's desire because I also believe that only the saints can give the Church a new face.

This article was taken from the No. 10, 1995 issue of "30Days". To subscribe contact "30Days" at: Subscriptions Office, 28 Trinity St., Newton, NJ 07860 or call 1-800-321- 2255, Fax 201-579-5541. Subscription rate is $35.00 per year.

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