Fifty years ago this year Pope John XXIII invited the Church and the world to follow the Holy Spirit into the 20th Century and beyond, by calling together the Second Vatican Council. It was a surprise to many church leaders in Rome, and it brought great joy to a number of priests I happened to know in California who were thrilled to the core. Many non-Catholics held their collective breath and shared the delight of their Catholic friends. Christians throughout the world were feeling the need for renewal. Many hoped that Vatican II signaled such a possibility, only to be later disappointed by very meager results.
Christianity, like any other religion can survive only if it manifests the fruits of the Spirit such as love, joy, peace, and power. When religion becomes more preoccupied with morality, protocol, doctrine, and questions of "truth" than in such manifestations, then it is easy to sense signs of impending senility and impotence.
A little history.
The fears of conservative church leaders were soon confirmed when it began to appear that the Holy Spirit was fostering a mood that was much too democratic, egalitarian, and unruly for bureaucrats in Rome to be able to manage. They perhaps rightly saw that such a Spirit might not stop with merely cosmetic, surface changes, but would require something more fundamental.
Church leaders, including the present Pope, whose very identities were tied up with their positions of authority, did not trust that the Spirit would leave them whole at the end of the process. They dug in their heels. John Paul II undertook a quiet, but wholehearted counter reform of his own to "restore the dignity of tradition." It was effective. Tradition triumphed. The church continued its long slide into moralism in place of a dynamic and progressive faith. What are the results?
Growing numbers today seem to have concluded that God is dead, or worse never was there to begin with. Such an attitude can seem quite understandable when the church has so little to say and presents such scant evidence of any palpable "living presence."
What does all this mean for the future of the church or society? The church's present authoritarian posture puts it at exactly the wrong end of the spectrum of what is so urgently needed right now in the world. The Holy Spirit now seems to be co-opting agnostic scientists into service of a much larger picture. That would seem to make the Spirit far too powerful and creative to be put off by dogmatic roadblocks.