Wednesday, July 7, 2010

How Vatican II Turned The Church Toward The World

Background Of Vatican II

The Second Ecumenical Council of the Vatican, or Vatican II, was the twenty-first Ecumenical Council of the Catholic Church. It opened under Pope John XXIII on 11 October 1962 and closed under Pope Paul VI on 8 December 1965. To date four future pontiffs took part in the council's opening session: Cardinal Giovanni Battista Montini, who on succeeding Pope John XXIII took the name of Paul VI; Bishop Albino Luciani, the future Pope John Paul I; Bishop Karol Wojtyła, who became Pope John Paul II; and Father Joseph Ratzinger, present as a theological consultant, who became Pope Benedict XVI.

The Main Issues:


Perhaps the most famous and most influential product of the council is the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, Lumen Gentium.

In its first chapter, titled "The Mystery of the Church," is the famous statement that "the sole Church of Christ which in the Creed we profess to be one, holy, catholic and apostolic, which our Saviour, after His Resurrection, commissioned Peter to shepherd, and him and the other apostles to extend and direct with authority, which He erected for all ages as 'the pillar and mainstay of the truth.' This Church, constituted and organized as a society in the present world, subsists in the Catholic Church, which is governed by the successor of Peter and by the bishops in communion with him" (Lumen Gentium, 8). The document immediately adds: "Nevertheless, many elements of sanctification and of truth are found outside its visible confines."

Sacred Liturgy

One of the first issues considered by the council, and the matter that had the most immediate effect on the lives of individual Catholics, was the revision of the liturgy. The central idea was that there ought to be greater lay participation in the liturgy. In the mid-1960s, permissions were granted to celebrate most of the Mass in vernacular languages, including the Canon from 1967 onwards.

Neither the Second Vatican Council nor the subsequent revision of the Roman Missal abolished Latin as the liturgical language of the Roman Rite: the official text of the Roman Missal, on which translations into vernacular languages are to be based, continues to be in Latin, and Latin can still be used in the celebration.

Scripture and Divine Revelation

The council sought to revive the central role of Scripture in the theological and devotional life of the Church, building upon the work of earlier popes in crafting a modern approach to Scriptural analysis and interpretation. A new approach to interpretation was approved by the bishops. The Church was to continue to provide versions of the Bible in the "mother tongues" of the faithful, and both clergy and laity were to continue to make Bible study a central part of their lives. This affirmed the importance of Sacred Scripture as attested by Providentissimus Deus by Pope Leo XIII and the writings of the Saints, Doctors, and Popes throughout Church history but also approved historically conditioned interpretation of Scripture as presented in Pius XII's 1943 encyclical Divino Afflante Spiritu.

The Bishops

The role of the bishops of the Church was brought into renewed prominence, especially when seen collectively, as a college that has succeeded to that of the Apostles in teaching and governing the Church. This college does not exist without its head, the successor of St. Peter.


'"THE whole world expects a step forward," said John : XXIII as he opened the Second Vatican Council in October 1962. When Pope Paul VI formally closed it last week, church." he heralded Whatever it the as future's "among the judgment, greatest there can events be of the little doubt that the council indeed represents a major and momentous step forward in carrying Christendom's oldest, largest body into modern times and bringing it into closer contact with all men — Catholic or not, Christian or not, religious or not.

Vatican II was strikingly different from the 20 other ecclesiastical assemblies that Roman Catholicism ranks as ecumenical. It is the first council that did not face, or leave in its wake, heresy or schism. Councils have always been the church's last-resort response to crisis — from the First Council of Nicaea, summoned by Emperor Constantine in 325 to combat the Arian heresy, to Trent (1545-63), which had to cope with the Reformation, to the abortive Vatican I (1869-70), which faced bewildering currents of anticlericalism and the effects of the ever-widening industrial revolution.

At the time Vatican II convened, there were few obvious threats, few violent complaints among its 560 million mem bers. Yet the church was scarcely facing up to the growing secularization of life, the explosion of science, the bitter claims to social justice in old nations and new. Catholic theology, dominated by a textbook scholasticism, appeared to have stopped in the 13th century. Except by a few pio neer ecumenists, Protestants were unhesitatingly regarded as heretics. When not openly despised as the devil's realm, the modern world was at least suspect.

Today this sort of thinking seems almost as remote in the church as the sale of indulgences— and this is perhaps the strongest single measure of the council's achievements. The essentials of Catholic dogma stand, of course, as does Rome's claim of universality. What has changed drastically is atmosphere and attitudes. "Before, the church looked like an immense and immovable colossus, the city set on a hill, the stable bulwark against the revolutionary change," says the English Benedictine abbot, Dom Christopher Butler. "Now it has become a people on the march — or at least a people which is packing its bags for a pilgrimage."

Legacy of Free Debate

In all, more than 2,400 patriarchs, cardinals, bishops and religious superiors took part in the council's deliberations. For the first time in history, observers from Protestant and Orthodox churches not only sat in attendance at the debates, but were also consulted by the prelates responsible for shaping conciliar decrees. In Rome also were more than 400 periti, or theological experts, and 400 newsmen who made the frank, free debates, quarrels and achievements of Vatican II front-page news in every nation outside the Iron Curtain.

The 16 promulgated decrees, constitutions and declarations that are the council's legacy divide roughly into two categories. The majority are aimed at the internal renewal and reform of Catholicism, but at least four may profoundly affect the relationship between the church and the non-Catholic world.

One document that has already changed the spiritual life of the church is the constitution On the Liturgy, which led to widespread introduction of vernacular languages in the Mass. Another constitution, On the Church, asserting that bishops collectively share ruling power over the church with the Pope, is the charter for what many theologians feel will be a slow, subtle but unstoppable process of democratization within the church. The decree On the Apostolate of the Laity gives greater freedom and responsibility to Catholic laymen.

Of more concern to non-Catholics are the documents that clearly define the end of the church's Counter Reformation hostility to other faiths. One is the much rewritten constitution On the Church in the Modern World, which attempts to express the mind of Catholicism on such matters of common concern as peace and war, world poverty, industrialism, social and economic justice. A decree On Ecumenism, committing Catholicism to work for Christian unity, for the first time acknowledges Protestant bodies as churches that share God's grace and favor. The declaration On Religious Liberty states the right of all men to freedom of conscience in worship. Another declaration, On Non-Christian Religions, condemns anti-Semitism and asserts that the Jewish people as a whole cannot be accounted guilty of Christ's death.

Many bishops readily admit that these and other documents of Vatican II show some omissions and outright failures. The ecclesiastical legislation had to be shaped and sometimes compromised to gain the approval of disparate men—Italian country bishops who have seldom seen Protestants, and Dutch prelates who pray with them almost daily; U.S. cardinals whose most pressing concern is a multimillion-dollar building fund, and Asian missionaries whose church is a Quonset hut. Methodist Observer Albert C. Outler of Texas says that "several of the decrees and declarations are substandard; several are no better than mediocre." One of the worst is a decree on mass communications which implies the right of governments to censor the press; hardly better is the declaration On Christian Education which is little more than a cliche-ridden defense of parochial schools.

Several other documents are clouded by defensive, cautionary phrasing. The noble declaration On Religious Liberty, for example, insists that all men have a duty to embrace Catholicism once they recognize its truthful claims, and argues that the church has always professed liberty of conscience—which ignores several centuries of the Inquisition. The bitterly debated declaration On Non-Christian Religions is not nearly as direct or forceful as the original draft proposed, and omits what might have given it maximum moral impact—a phrase acknowledging the church's role in fostering anti-Semitism in previous centuries.

More disappointing to many Catholics is that Vatican II did not settle pressing ethical issues—most notably, birth control. Since the Pope demanded that this problem be left for him alone to solve, On the Church in the Modern World does little more than reaffirm Catholicism's traditional opposition to contraception. Nonetheless, some progressives take heart from the facts that the text does assert that only parents have the right to decide how many children they shall have, and does not close the door to future change.

Common Responsibility

The success or failure of Vatican II cannot be judged merely by the bulk of written documents. More important is the spirit that brought the council together and inspired its discussions. The most apparent impact of those discussions was the bishops' self-discovery of their common responsibility for the church as a whole. By working together, says Dr. John K. S. Reid, an observer from the World Alliance of Reformed and Presbyterian Churches, "the council has enabled the Roman Catholic Church to form a common mind. At the first session nothing was decided. In the final session, a real consensus had grown up."

This consensus, Reid adds, acknowledged the insights of thinkers who, before the council, were considered almost an underground minority—such as U.S. Jesuit John Courtney Murray, whose theories on church-state relations provided background for the religious-liberty statement. In the wake of this progressive victory has come what Dominican Edward Schillebeeckx of Nijmegen University calls "the triumph of anti-triumphal ism"—the rejection by the council of the world-hating, anathema-hurling Counter Reformation conviction that Catholicism alone possessed the truth of life. In contrast to past councils, which devoted much of their time consigning to eternal flames those who did not agree with majority decisions, Vatican II issued no such condemnations. On the floor of St. Peter's, Vienna's Franzis-kus Cardinal Konig argued that the church has much to learn from the world, even from atheism.

In stating what the church today believes, the bishops sometimes found fresh, nontraditional language that escaped from what Italian Bishop Jolando Nuzzi calls "the Western mortgage" on scholastic theology. By way of evidence, Bernard Haring, a German Redemptorist theologian, cites what happened to On Divine Revelation. "The first text intended to define precisely the declaration of faith by excluding as many thoughts from today's theology as possible," he says. "The style was abstract, negative. The final draft tries to avoid any uncertain declaration, and thus leaves room for further research and dialogue."

All this reflects the new understanding of the nature of the church that has emerged from Vatican II. Many council documents explicitly reject the notion that Catholicism is primarily a juridically organized and hierarchically governed institution; what they assert instead is that the church is above all the people of God, on a journey that will remain incomplete until the second coming of Christ. Says India's Archbishop Eugene D'Souza: "The church's whole approach to the world is one of sincere admiration, not of dominating it but of serving it, not of despising it but of appreciating it, not of condemning it but of strengthening and saving it." Such a new attitude toward the world implies what Bishop Joseph Blomjous of Tanzania calls the "positive appreciation of terrestrial values in themselves." Cardinal-Patriarch Maximos IV Saigh of Antioch argues that the effect of the council has been to "put the church into a permanent state of dialogue—dialogue with itself for a continuous renewal; dialogue with our Christian brothers in order to restore the visible unity of the body of Jesus Christ; dialogue, finally, with today's world, addressed to every man of good will."

After the Wedding

'The council has been like a beautiful wedding ceremony," says San Antonio Auxiliary Bishop Stephen Leven. "But what counts is how the marriage works out in life and practice." There are plenty of signs that Pope Paul agrees. He calls the council not so much an end as a beginning. Paul has long promised to reform the Vatican's entrenched, antiquated Curia, a move the council also demanded in On the Pastoral Office of Bishops. As a first step, Paul last week announced a major overhaul of the stern, bureaucratic guardian of dogma, the Holy Office. Now known as the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, it must allow anyone charged with "error" the right to defend himself.

Paul, when he set up an advisory Synod of Bishops, also gave positive meaning to the concept of collegiality enunciated by the council. In pursuit of Christian unity, Paul and Patriarch Athenagoras of Constantinople last week issued a joint statement deploring the mutual excommunications that Roman Catholic and Orthodox leaders had hurled at each other in 1054. Within months, it is expected that Paul will announce changes in Catholic discipline, such as a relaxation of the rules against mixed marriages and abolition of the compulsory Friday abstinence from meat.

It took 30 years for the decrees of Trent to take hold, and even in this century of rapid communication, it may take nearly as long before the promise of Vatican II is realized. For one thing, many members of the still-powerful Roman Curia, and conservative prelates in such countries as Ireland, Spain and Italy, are likely to give only lip service to conciliar decrees. In some dioceses, says Jesuit Scholar John Mc-Kenzie, "there will be little reform until the death of the present incumbent." Many bishops, moreover, will be returning home to face the hostility or incomprehension of pastors and laymen who have not had the exalting experience of the four sessions in St. Peter's aula. Much of the council's impact will not be felt until a reform of church seminaries and schools produces a new generation of priests and laymen.

As in any area of life, progress is likely to depend upon the initiative of an adventurous few. Joseph Cardinal Ritter of St. Louis and the Bishops of Oklahoma City-Tulsa and Wheeling have already announced plans to hold "Little Councils" in their own dioceses, in which laymen as well as priests and nuns will take part. Boston's Richard Cardinal Gushing plans to establish lay councils in every parish.

In the view of many churchmen, the renewal achieved by Vatican II challenges Protestantism to put its own houses of God in order and revise its attitude toward the church against which the Reformation rebelled. "If the Roman Catholic Church had looked 450 years ago as it looks today," says Germany's Evangelical Bishop Otto Dibelius, "there would never have been a Reformation." Says U.S. Lutheran Leader Franklin Clark Fry: "Thank God that the council responded to the leading of the Holy Spirit as far as it did."

Spirit of Fraternity

One likely result of the dialogue between Catholics and Protestants, in the view of Pittsburgh's Catholic Bishop John Wright, is "immediate unity in good works and charity"—more cooperation by missionaries of both churches, common action on social issues, frequent prayer in common, even a joint Catholic-Protestant Bible. But, warns Dr. Alan MacArthur of the Church of Scotland, while "the glaciers are melting, the Alps remain." Many Catholics and Protestants now regard the dogmatic differences between their churches as less and less relevant—but differences are still there. The theologians frankly admit that divided Christianity is intellectually no closer than before to resolving such issues as the role of the Pope, the nature of church organization, the place of Mary in Christian devotion. On this score, all that has happened is that Vatican II has raised hopes for unity where there were none before.

The council's work may have only limited effects in the world of politics, economics and other "practical" matters—but effects there will be. For one thing, the Church of the Council has a new attitude toward Communism, contrasting with the almost crusading anti-Communism of Pius XI and Pius XII. While Paul, more conservative than John, has warned afresh of Communism's errors, Vatican diplomats have been busy negotiating better operating conditions for the church in Iron Curtain countries. Nowhere in council pronouncement is there a condemnation of Communism by name. There is room for debate about the wisdom of this new posture, but the fact that the church is willing to take the risk is a sign of a new flexibility. To a great extent, the church now seeks to combat Communism less through head-on hostility than by championing social reform.

In general, the council indicates a new attitude toward a complex, pluralistic world. At its birth, the church was a beacon of moral light that stood apart from the Roman society in which it flourished. For more than 1,000 years after Constantine, it was a power within society, acquiring some of the pride, intolerance and triumphal spirit that is part of power's corruption. At the Reformation and after, the church reacted badly to the loss of its claim to be God's only spokesman and clung to its shrunken patrimony of power in ways that justified the exasperation of those who stood outside it.

Vatican II has made it clear that the church is ready to abandon "triumphalism," to erase the nonessential traditions that have often kept it from being credible as a moral force in the world at large. Without denying its own belief that it has a special divine mission, Catholicism now acknowledges that it is but one of many spiritual voices with something to tell perplexed modern man. When medieval Popes spoke to Kings and Princes, they listened and obeyed —or ran the risk of excommunication and exile from society. The words of Paul VI and his bishops to Presidents and Premiers bear no such threat; but neither did those of the Apostles to Roman procurators. Thus the more the church returns in spirit to the unfettered simplicity of the Gospel from which it sprang, the more likely it is that its voice will be heeded again by the world.

Source: Time


The Second Vatican Council

International Catholic University video clip from a lecture by historian James Hitchcock about the background of the Second Vatican Council.

Please post your comments.


Walter said...

the Church stands and magisterium cannot err when defining faith and morals. Ambiguities are ambiguities, not errors. That these ambiguities have been exploited by the enemies of Christ is undeniable, and yet there is a proper way to understand the Second Vatican Council which-though different from the heretical understanding-is a development (but not in essence) from previous understanding.

FG said...

We have to go back to the old ways. Old Catholic, the real Catholic tradition.

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