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The Fact, the Metaphor and the Fiction

Patrick Odou

Book-review on The Catholic Revolution - New Wine, Old Wineskins, and the Second Vatican Council
by Andrew Greeley (Berkeley: University of California Press), 2004, 224 pp.


The Catholic Revolution book cover
What this book is about can be seen by adding a few words to its title: The Catholic Revolution was caused by New Wine being poured into Old Wineskins, and not by The Second Vatican Council. Fr. Andrew Greeley, today an older Catholic priest who attended the third session of the Second Vatican Council, better known for his novels and TV ‘talk show’ appearances, writes this book as an “empirical sociologist.” He presents the results of several sociological surveys about religious topics that he and others ran before and after the Council. The surveys reveal a significant decline from 1962 to 1972 in values and attitudes that Catholics have always held dear. Making an interpretation of data from his surveys, he writes his book.

The fact: The Catholic Revolution

The book objectively proves that what occurred in the Catholic Church between 1962 and 1972 deserves to be called a Revolution; a Revolution which reverberates till this day. Throughout the book Fr. Greeley defends the use of the term ‘Revolution’ even though he appears to have received criticism from colleagues who think the term too harsh. He also ridicules those who returned from the Council telling everyone that nothing has changed.

To any traditionalist Catholic who loves the Church and has followed the crisis in the Church over the last 40 years, this is nothing new. But it is always beneficial to use corroborating opinions and data of mainstream, popular priests in the never-ending controversy with “moderates,” “conservatives,” and the “prophets of common sense.”

According to Fr. Greeley, the Catholic Revolution began at the first meeting of the Second Vatican Council, on October 13th 1962, when Cardinals Joseph Frings of Cologne and Achille Lienart of Lille demanded that the Bishops -and no longer the Roman Curia -should select the members of the various commissions in the Council; until then the selection procedure “had been slanted by the Curia” (p. 52).

With this demand and its acceptance by John XXIII, “there was no way to prevent Vatican II from becoming a revolutionary event” (p. 68). This event is to the Catholic Revolution, Greeley says, what the storming of the Bastille was to the French Revolution. This democratic defiance of the Bishops to the aristocratic Vatican’s Roman Curia, and the ensuing mutations of heretofore immutable Catholic teachings, rippled down to the lower clergy and the laity. The ‘effervescence’ (chapter 5) of freedom from authority and sexual rules spread from the Council to the world. Many Catholics remained in the Church and others left, but those who remained became ‘Catholics on their own terms.’ In other words, they became Catholics who still considered themselves Catholics but who didn’t feel the need to follow traditional Catholic teachings especially regarding sexual behavior and Church authority. This Revolution continued until around 1972, and Fr. Greeley wonders what would have happened if “the leadership of the Church had not lost its nerve and instead had continued the reform to include the Curia and the style of the Papacy itself” (p. 195).

Using results from his own survey, which could be questioned, Fr. Greeley paints a grim picture of the results of the Catholic Revolution. For example, according to table 4 on page 39, “Changes in Attitudes and Behavior of Catholics between 1963 and 1974,” attendance at weekly mass fell from 70% in 1963 to 50% in 1974, monthly confession fell from 38% to 17%, belief that sex before marriage is always wrong fell from 74% to 35%, acceptance of Church’s right to teach about acceptable birth control fell from 54% to 23%, those who would support a decision of a son to be a priest fell from 66% to 50%.

Of course, the progressivist Fr. Greeley welcomes the changes. He welcomes the Revolution: “If there had not been a council in the mid 1960s the Church would be in far worse confusion than it is now. The revolution had to come. It would have been much better for the Church if it had come earlier; it would have been much worse if it had not come at all” (p.11).

The metaphor: New wine poured into old wineskins, the wineskins burst

In an attempt to explain these radical changes over a short period of time (and simultaneously trying to exempt Pope John XXIII and the Second Vatican Council from culpability), Fr. Greeley presents a metaphor: New wine poured into old wineskins and the wineskins break. The old wineskins were the pre-existing structures and the upper clergy’s attachments to them. In other words, “nineteenth century Catholicism”. The new wine was the spirit of the Council, aggiornamento, and the changes (very slight changes according to Greeley) that appeared with Vatican II. The pouring of this new wine into the old wineskins caused them to burst, resulting in the drastic changes reflected in the surveys. He explains:
“I was busy defending the integrity of my work [his surveys] from assaults on all sides. I saw what had happened and, dissatisfied, as I was with those who blamed the Council for all the trauma in the Church, I did not have a theoretical perspective that explained why it had happened. Neither did anyone else. Now I understand that the Council fathers had gleefully poured new wine into old wineskins and the wineskins had burst. Church leaders then denied that it was new wine or that the wineskins had burst, and finally they blamed everyone else for what had happened and made no attempt to fashion new wineskins. Many of them instead called for repairing the old ones.” (p.13)
The fiction: Don’t blame the Second Vatican Council

For the growing number of Catholics who see Vatican II and the conciliar Popes at the root of the crisis in the Church, it is interesting to read these words of Fr. Greeley. First he says: “The model I propose does marshal the available data into what I think is a coherent analysis and refutes the current tendency to blame Pope John XXIII and his Council for the apparent destruction of Catholicism” (p. 3). But a few pages later he contradictorily states: “I am now forced by theory and data to conclude that there was indeed a revolution within Catholicism … immediately after the Vatican Council, which was itself a revolutionary event” (p. 8) [emphasis added]. And later: “On that October day [October 13, 1962, the first session of the Council], the Catholic revolution had begun” (p.53) [emphasis added].

Fr. Greeley’s contradictions concerning Vatican II as the cause of the Catholic Revolution continue throughout the book. For example, on page 12 he states that the Revolution was only after the Council: “The revolution I describe in this essay lasted therefore by the most generous estimate from 1965 to 1974, and probably only from 1966 to 1970.” Yet on page 65 he affirms that the Council itself caused the Revolution: “Did the Second Vatican Council, considered as a historic event, destroy the Church? If the question is rephrased to mean did the Council destroy some of the major structures of the pre-conciliar Church, the answer must be that it did and that the lower clergy and the laity, caught in a similar state of euphoria as the Bishops had felt at the Council, finished the job” [emphasis added].

Regarding the Council’s documents, one sees more ambiguity in Greeley’s theses. He states; “I now propose to apply Sewell’s model to Vatican II, and to argue that while the Council’s various documents, taken singly or together, were not, in and of themselves, the cause of the shattering of structures in the Catholic Church, the Council, as (irrevocably) interpreted, was, in addition to and beyond its decisions, a historical event of enormous importance for the Church” (p.49) [emphasis added]. Yet, contradictorily, on page 68 he writes; “But it is self-deceiving to argue that there is nothing in the actual documents of Vatican II to legitimate the collapse of the old structures. For the documents themselves - those in liturgy, Scripture, religious freedom, the modern world, other faiths (especially Judaism), ecumenism - contributed substantially to the weakening of pre-existing structures” [emphasis added].

The book is ambiguous and contradictory in its attempt to “refute the current tendency to blame” Vatican II.

So the fact to be retained from Greeley’s arguments is that Vatican II represented a Revolution that destroyed the structures of the Church, as well as her dogmatic and moral doctrines, her liturgy and her habits. The metaphor he uses is creative: the conciliar Bishops committed an error when they introduced their changes (the new wine) into the mentality of a people accustomed to traditional structures (old wineskins). It unchained uncontrolled reactions. The fiction, as any reader of Greeley’s book will notice, is that his attempt to save Vatican II from blame is useless. Greeley himself defends the opposite in several places.

So we have the fact, the metaphor, and fiction.



Posted on July 28, 2004


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