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Rash Judgment and Vatican II: The Antidote

By Dr. Jeff Mirus ( bio - articles - email ) | Sep 11, 2013 | In Reviews

First let me demonstrate an important principle:

Vision Book Cover Prints

An Irish bishop was severely faulted in the Murphy Report in 2009 for mishandling allegations of sexual abuse as an auxiliary between 1982 and 1996. He had already recognized, as early as 2002, that, while he handled things in the manner considered responsible at the time, he should have been more vigilant and more aggressive in certain cases. He became the first of the Irish bishops to resign following the Murphy Report because he chose not to harm the Church by clinging to his office. By the time Archbishop Diarmuid Martin announced that he would press the Pope to remove four bishops, this particular bishop had already decided to remove himself while others resisted. Nonetheless, a case could have been made that the Murphy Report characterized this bishop’s faults unfairly. Such a case was offered, for example, by his brother, a prominent journalist.

I am referring to Bishop Donal Murray, and here are a few other observations which are important at least to me. Bishop Murray’s personal financial support of—very unusual for a bishop—goes back to 2003 and continues to this day, despite our consistent track record of being hard on churchmen for their failure to take swift action against sexual abuse, and for their tendency to cover it up. In addition, the first appearance of Bishop Murray in a Catholic World News story was in 2004, under this promising headline: Irish bishop decries secularism. Finally, after his resignation, Bishop Murray contacted me to ask whether we would prefer that his name no longer be associated in any way with our work. He himself prefers anonymity, and I am dishonoring that preference here, without permission.

This should leave the reader with two questions.

First, what is the important principle I have just demonstrated? It is the principle that, although we must often make judgments about the actions of others, we must never assume that our judgments exhaust the truth of a person’s character, or even the complexity of a particular situation. What we do not know about any person is almost always greater than what we do know, and that is something no Christian dares forget.

Second, why would I violate Bishop Murray’s preference for anonymity to make this point? Well, it is hard to talk about a book without identifying the author, and I am sure somebody would otherwise have made a very angry issue of it, because Bishop Donal Murray has written an extraordinarily good book.

The Door of Faith

The book has been out since early 2012. It was on my desk for six months or so until I was able to give it fair attention over the past few days. Entitled Keeping Open the Door of Faith: The Legacy of Vatican II, it focuses on five key concepts developed at the Council for authentic renewal. These concepts, which are clearly identified in the Introduction, are communion, mission, the role of the lay faithful, the nature of the human person, and “the theme which is fundamental to all the rest”, faith.

One chapter is devoted to each of these themes, which are developed from the Council documents and from subsequent amplifications by the popes since the Council closed in 1965, shortly before Donal Murray was ordained a priest. Each chapter is between twenty and twenty-five pages in length. One after the other, they enable us to realize that our faith calls every Catholic to an ever-deepening communion with Christ in the Church, a communion which is the key to our fulfillment and happiness as persons, and which is also the inescapable impetus for our heartfelt participation in the Church’s mission.

We may think we know this, and in some sense we do, but it takes the sacraments, prayer, study and practice to get it deep in our Catholic bones—to make it both instinctive and fruitful. The book we have before us here would fall into the category of study, but could easily be a catalyst for a stronger sacramental life, a developing habit of prayer, and a more comprehensive practice. Bishop Murray has a gift for drawing in wonderful insights from other writers and for unfolding deep concepts in clear and accessible prose. The book, I suppose, will take most people no more than two to three hours to read. After examining the Introduction, it could be spread over five evenings, almost as spiritual reading, with great profit.

Let me take just one passage from the chapter which explores the laity, entitled “The Noble Obligation”. We are, Bishop Murray realizes, living in a secular desert, and we very naturally expect Christian witness to be painful. But after briefly describing the sacrifice of Christ, he makes this luminous point:

The culture we are living in in the western world, and indeed in Ireland, may well become increasingly intolerant of religion. We need to draw strength from the realization that our faith is founded on the worst that can happen. The death and resurrection of Christ, which is the core of the Eucharistic celebration, is the most eloquent possible demonstration that the love of God is stronger than any disaster or loss.

Most books about Vatican II (including my own series of essays) bog down in describing the documents or in dealing with the controversies occasioned by the documents. Or, if they are bad books, they devote themselves to spinning the Council to say what they want it to say. Not this one. Instead, Bishop Murray gives us the legacy—key themes for our own authentic renewal, and for the renewal of the Church. These are very definitely drawn faithfully from the conciliar text, but they are explained and applied in a way that can change our lives.

So here is the problem. You are sick of all the controversy about the Council; in fact you may be sick of hearing about the Council altogether; and yet you are stuck in this Year of Faith with a fairly strong spiritual obligation to read at least something to deepen your appreciation of the Council. Very likely you have not fulfilled this obligation yet. You have not taken fresh steps to appropriate the conciliar message for yourself. Time is running out. Your dread is becoming acute.

But what I am saying is that there is no problem. All of this arises from a different sort of presumption, an unfortunate judgment which can be very easily rectified. In fact, I can all but guarantee that you’ll be fine, if you will only read this book.


Jeffrey Mirus holds a Ph.D. in intellectual history from Princeton University. A co-founder of Christendom College, he also pioneered Catholic Internet services. He is the founder of Trinity Communications and See full bio.

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