W hen Pope John XXIII called for the Second Vatican Council in 1959, he did not know fully what would be its outcome. He had an instinct, an inspiration taken on the basis of prayer and reflection that the Catholic Church needed aggiornamento, a bringing up-to-date, a manner in which its message of hope and salvation would be more relevant and effective in today’s society. Good Pope John, as he was called, died six months after the beginning of the Council in 1962 so did not live to see the dramatic development in the governance of the Church to fresh ecumenical outreach and a new way of being church in our modern world – and much else.
The Second Vatican Council was a seismic event in the history of the Catholic Church in the 20th century. Pope John knew that, like all General Councils, its conclusions would take many years to truly flourish and be fulfilled; indeed, I believe that only now, 50 years on, in the pontificate of Pope Francis, is the Council event being fully realised. However, Pope John told the assembled bishops not to be “prophets of gloom” and to go about their business with great trust in the Lord.
We have just detonated another kind of seismic event in the history of our country. While I have argued for continued membership of the European Union, a majority of voters in the referendum decided otherwise and opted for radical and risky change.It seems that comfortable assumptions we have all lived with for a generation can no longer be relied on.
One of these assumptions in Britain was that the vanishing ideological difference between the main political parties – Conservative and Labour – reflected a similar growing together of all the elements in our society. Now we look across a divide of education, expectation and economic prosperity between those who have ridden the tide of globalisation and those who have not and, perhaps more poignantly, between generations, the young and old.
I suppose the truth is that “Europe” has been a continuously controversial issue in our politics since we decided not to join the European Community in the 1950s. I remember an address of the late Sir Geoffrey Howe which he gave to Church leaders in the south of England in the early 1990s. After his speech I asked him why it was that the Conservative Party, which had been in power for so many years, had done nothing to educate or “form” British citizens on the implications, advantages and underlying vision of European union and cooperation. This is what had been first envisaged by its founding fathers soon after the Second World War. Sir Geoffrey replied to me – with a twinkle in his eye – “Ah, I used often say that to Margaret!”
Yet, at least in the earlier years of her premiership, Mrs Thatcher was not opposed to European union. As Charles Moore points out in his masterly biography, she did make genuine efforts to forge a cooperative relationship and was anxious to seem positive without ceding the national independence she prized. We seem to have voted principally for national independence and ignored the fostering of the positive relationship.
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