Vatican III? Where?

There are many good arguments against quickly convening a Third Vatican Council—a notion beloved of Catholics who occupy the portside cabins on the Barque of Peter.

The most obvious is that Catholicism has barely begun to digest the teaching of Vatican II on the nature of the Church, the universal call to holiness, and the reform of the episcopate, the priesthood, consecrated life, and the lay vocation in the world. Until the dramatic change in Catholic self-understanding that Vatican II mandated is fully internalized and implemented—until the Church understands itself as a mission, not as an institution that has a mission (as one among many things it does)—there seems little sense in convening Vatican III.

One might also argue that another ecumenical council would be a distraction from the evangelical mission to which Vatican II called the Church, and especially the Church’s bishops. As it is, bishops spend far too much of their time in meetings. Would the preaching of the Gospel, which, according to Vatican II, is the first responsibility of bishops, be advanced by gathering the entire world episcopate into a global mega-meeting for three or four months of the year, over a period of years?

Then there’s the question of resources. Any Vatican III would cost vast sums of money: would such an expenditure be the best use of the Church’s resources? (As Father John O’Malley reports in “What Happened at Vatican II?,” one of the reasons Pope Paul VI was determined to conclude Vatican II in December 1965 was that the Council was simply costing too much.)

These are all good reasons why a general council would be a bad idea for the foreseeable future. But there’s another issue here, one that raises an intriguing question about any future council, no matter when it’s convened: Where could Vatican III (or Lateran VI, or Trent II, or Lyons III, or whatever-the-future-council-is called) possibly be held?

Vatican I (1869-70) met in one transept of St. Peter’s, because there were only 737 bishops attending. Some 2,800 bishops participated in the four sessions of Vatican II, which met in the fall months of 1962, 1963, 1964 and 1965, although at any one session there were between 2,000 and 2,500 bishops present—and they filled the entire, vast nave of St. Peter’s, seated on bleachers built high above the basilica’s marble floor. Add the ecumenical observers, the Council periti (advisers), and other functionaries with access to the Council aula (as the reconfigured basilica was called), and St. Peter’s was packed full.

But today? At the end of 2009, the last year for which complete Church statistics are available, there were 5,065 Catholic bishops in the world. A general or “ecumenical” council is, by definition, one in which all bishops have the right to participate (Canon 339). Where would this throng of over 5,000 bishops, literally twice the size of the episcopate that attended the most jam-packed session of Vatican II, meet? It certainly couldn’t meet at St. Peter’s, or at any of the other Roman basilicas. Indeed, is there a Catholic church in the world that could readily accommodate more than 5,000 bishops, their advisors, the ecumenical observers, and all the others who would rightly claim at least some place in a council hall?

One wag to whom I mentioned this conundrum spoke of a future council as “Metroplex I,” with the Council Fathers, the observers, the advisers, the translators, and all the rest of the apparatus meeting in Cowboys Stadium, graciously donated for the occasion by Jerry Jones. Bad jokes aside, however, the fact that the world episcopate has doubled in number over the past 50 years raises important questions for the future. How can this large a body function as the episcopal “college” of Vatican II’s Dogmatic Constitution on the Church? Is it possible to imagine a “virtual council,” or some other technological mechanism that would allow the world episcopate to meet as a whole?

There’s far more, literally, to any future council than typically meets the eye.

COMING UP: On Fathers and Christian Masculinity

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The Year of St. Joseph points us to Jesus’ adoptive father, Joseph, as the essential model for fathers. Joseph not only manifests genuine masculinity, he also images God’s own fatherhood, as Pope Francis makes clear in his apostolic letter, Patris Corde: “In his relationship to Jesus, Joseph was the earthly shadow of the heavenly Father: he watched over him and protected him, never leaving him to go his own way.” Jesus, though the Son of God, obeyed Joseph, learned from him, and worked with him, acknowledging Joseph as a true expression of God’s own fatherhood.  

God does not just use fatherhood as an image of himself, because he himself is Father, even within his own triune life. Earthly fatherhood comes forth from him and should manifest his life and love. St. Paul speaks of honoring the “Father, from whom all fatherhood in heaven and on earth is named” (Eph 3:15). God wants everyone to be able to see his own fatherly love and called certain men to share in his own paternal gift of bringing forth life and caring for others. Every father is called to be liked Joseph, “an earthly shadow of the heavenly Father” for his own family. 

Our culture, however, often denigrates masculinity, sometimes viewing even its proper expressions as toxic. We too often see maleness in its fallenness — dominating and selfish — rather than showing self-sacrificial service. In fact, later in Ephesians, Paul speaks of the true vocation of the husband and father: “Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her” (Eph 5:25). He also speaks of the role of fatherhood: “Do not provoke your children to anger, but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord” (Eph 6:4). Paul shows us the goal of fatherhood — sacrificing himself for the flourishing of the family by putting the good of his wife and children before his own desires.   

No matter what the contrary voices of our culture say, we need strong men and fathers. God created man and woman in complementarity, and they need each other to thrive, helping the other in relation to their own strengths and weaknesses. Children need the strong presence of a father to discipline and teach, as Paul reminds us. Study after study has shown that fathers have the largest impact on the faith of their children. Christian Smith explains in his sociological study, Young Catholic America, that “the faith of Catholic fathers is powerfully determinative of the future faith of their children (125). The same can be said for general wellbeing and success. When fathers are absent or refuse to exercise their role, a moral and spiritual vacuum appears. A strong majority of felons, for instance, grew up without fathers in the home.  

St. Joseph helps us to understand the strength of Christian fatherhood. First, like any good husband, Joseph listened — not just to his wife but also to God. Woken up frequently by angels, he demonstrated obedience and trust, quickly leaving everything behind to follow God’s instructions and to protect his family. We also know Joseph for his work as a carpenter and builder, content to live simply and to work hard. Importantly, he also taught Jesus how to work, showing that fathers model and teach by drawing their children into their life and work. And we can also learn from Joseph’s humility, serving the Incarnate God and his Mother without even a single recorded word in the Gospels.  

This humility points us to the essence of Christian fatherhood. Although living with two perfect people, Joseph was still called to lead. He quietly and humbly did what was needed for his family and taught his own maker how to share in his work. Fathers do not lead in order to be in charge or to get their own way. They lead because God asks them to care for and protect their families. Fathers and mothers share in the great and beautiful partnership of family life, although fathers cannot simply sit back and let mom take the lead in the spiritual life, as they are often tempted to do. Like Joseph, fathers should act firmly and lovingly to put God and the family before self, obeying God and leading the family in the right direction. They are called to model faith, work, and sacrifice to their children. 

On Father’s Day we can affirm that masculinity and fatherhood are not just good — they are essential to understanding God and his plan for human flourishing. If our culture turns around, it will be because, in large part, Christian men stand up and fight. As Christians, we cannot give in to the culture’s attempt to denigrate masculinity and fatherhood or to pit men and women against each other. We can use this celebration to affirm the essential role that our fathers play, leading their families like St. Joseph.