What is Vatican II?
After World War II, the Vatican under the leadership of Pope John XXIII, convoked in 1962 a meeting of over 2500 Catholic Bishops from across the world. This meeting is commonly referred to as the Second Vatican Council or Vatican II for short. In the last 500 years, there have been only three such ecumenical councils of such magnitude and importance: Council of Trent, Vatican I and Vatican II. Needless to say, Vatican II was an important gathering of bishops.
Last month, October 11th, we celebrated Vatican II’s 50th anniversary. I reflect on what the fuss was all about back then and it it had any desired impact on Christendom.
Why did they meet?
Pope John XXIII did not have a specific crisis to solve. They were not meeting to solve any particular burning issue of the day. In the words of John XXIII, Vatican II aimed
“…to open the windows of the Church to let in some fresh air.”
The world was rapidly changing in front of them. New divisions, alliances gave rise to new boundaries. The church had to go through a tectonic shift in ideology to be relevant to a globalized citizen. Vatican II wanted to reach out to all people in a new way that has never been done before. Pope John XXIII called this updating of church ideology as aggiornamento. A remarkable change in attitude, considering it’s previous rejection of modern, liberal life as heresy.
What did Vatican II accomplish?
After three years of deliberations, Vatican II came out with some new directions. Some of the documents developed new directions and underscored these important ideas for a modern world:
- building ecumenical bridges, especially across the Christian-Jewish faiths
- permitting Mass to be celebrated in regional local languages instead of only in Latin
- defining the church as the people of God. Emphasis on the active role of laypeople
- make the church more effective in proclaiming the Gospel to the modern world. Bring to light the positives in modern culture
- all Catholics to remain effective messengers of Gospel values in a pluralistic public square.
A young Theology Consultant of this Council was Fr. Ratzinger. He observed that the theology and philosophy of Christianity was sterile, as it’s exegesis was practiced in a dead language – Latin. He went on to become Pope Benedict XVI in 2005.
The strongest arguments came from the bishops of mission dioceses in Asia and Africa. With the Mass in Latin, they said, it was extremely difficult to get local people to seriously consider becoming Catholic. Latin had to give way to a myriad of languages.
Christianity around which the Western world was build, looked weary and losing it’s power to shape society. Society was being re-ordered, re-organized and rejigged around new secular and universal themes. A mould that did not hand over the pole position to religion, it’s clergy or the Pope. This was frightening. While the Vatican mentioned that it looked like the future was determined by other spiritual forces, it is my opinion, that the future was trying to lock out the spiritual and allow just the forces.
Benedict XVI explains. “Christianity must be in the present if it is to be able to form the future,” he writes. “So that it might once again be a force to shape the future, John XXIII had convoked the Council without indicating to it any specific problems or programmes. This was the greatness and at the same time the difficulty of the task that was set before the ecclesial assembly.”
Briefly, the laypeople or those that participate in the faith but were not the representative clergy elected by it, underwent some changes. I list here a before and after effects of Vatican II on the laity:
Laity prior to Vatican II:
- laity were passive spectators in the liturgy
- often praying devotional prayers while they were hearing Mass since the readings were in Latin
- lay ushers collected and counted the money, and often the choir and its director were lay
- those wishing to convert to Catholicism would receive private instruction from a priest.
Laity after Vatican II:
- Probably the biggest change in the aftermath of Vatican II was an explosion of lay participation in evangelization and catechesis
- It identified parents as the primary religious educators of their children
- It also taught that the secular employment of laypeople, was not a distraction to their Christian vocation, but was their primary way to sanctify themselves and the society
- Church of the people of God in which all were called to sainthood
Some of the documents that held these important changes are referenced below. At the risk of sounding like I am reading some Harry Potter magic, let us proceed:
Lumen Gentium — the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church - this was the council’s greatest highlight. It discusses the subject of the people of God. It was for the first time inclusive of a laity in what was considered the church. It was no longer an edifice of just it’s elected clergy.
It also states that it is possible for people to be saved without hearing the Gospel. By this, it included the entire non-Catholic church in the salvation of Christ.
The council documents gives three conditions for the salvation of non-Christians:
- inculpable ignorance, that it’s not their own fault that they haven’t heard the Gospel
- that they are seriously seeking God, they want to know who he is and what his will is
- they are living according to the light of their conscience assisted by grace.
Many Catholics have taken this as a license for complacency about evangelization. They make this leap from possibility to probability to (presuming) almost everybody will be saved.
Gaudium et Spes — the Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World — offered a vision of church in modern society that radiated joy and hope. The council emphasized engagement and the need to discern the signs of the times. It is explicit in its condemnation of abortion, which bishops even now point to as a characteristic evil of today’s pagan world.
Sacrosanctum Concilium — The Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy – authorized moving the tabernacle that houses the Eucharist to a separate devotional chapel. It means that Christ is present in the Eucharist in the tabernacle. The same document called for fewer statues in churches. This was mostly wrongly interpreted as removal of all statues and replacing them with one of Mother Mary’s in the corridor.
Perfectae Caritatis — Decree on the Appropriate Renewal of the Religious Life – directed religious women to modify their habits (religious garments for nuns) according to the circumstances of time and place and to the needs of the ministry involved. Sounds like a minor point, but there is minor liberation for women in the church and this was about the limit the all-male bishops could agree on!
What did Vatican II not accomplish?
Nuns, encouraged by the council’s reformist instincts, emerged from convents to live the Gospel in underserved communities. These brave women continue to serve in prisons, hospitals and war-torn countries. Many took on leadership positions that belie antiquated stereotypes. They seem to be marching to this order:
Preach the Gospel always and when necessary use words – St. Francis of Assisi
You can read about the progressive Nuns on the Bus movement in the US, that saw a handfull of nuns bus across the country on a political mission. Find the article marked as the fourth in References below. Sadly, they were sanctioned and reined in by the Vatican because their feminist themes were incompatible with the Catholic faith.
Contraception, same-sex marriages and abortion rights, to name just a few, were either ignored or classified as pagan and evil. There was however a curious note in one of Vatican II’s documents - Gaudium et Spes:
Every type of discrimination based on sex is to be overcome and eradicated as contrary to God’s intent – church in the modern world, Vatican II 1965
Ms. Maureen Fiedler, a Sister of Loretto and host of Public Radio’s Interfaith Voices
Proponents of gender equality within the church think of this as a mysterious note tucked in, whose time has now come to be implemented. What it means today, 50 years later to our current society, is a far cry from what it might have meant in 1962!
For many, Vatican II represents an unkept promise waiting to be executed today. but that was more due to the breakthrough it never had into a society shaped by other forces. A sharp decline in clergy and laity marked it’s inception:
- remarkable decline in the missionary orders that traditionally have carried out evangelization
- tremendous decline in observance by Catholics in historically Christian countries
- the sex abuse scandals of the clergy and the shocking lethargy and lack of discipline in correcting it must be added to a moral and disciplinary decline of the church as well
Why did Vatican II fail?
Not only did the Vatican II fail to have a sweeping impact on Catholic life, it marked the beginning of missteps and declines in a major way. A few reasons here attribute these failures to the following:
- attributed the loss of Catholic missionary zeal to a widespread misunderstanding and doctrinal confusion of some of Vatican II’s most distinctive teachings
- many Catholics were confused by the council’s encouraging emphasis on ecumenism and interreligious dialogue into thinking that maybe it doesn’t matter anymore whether people are Christians or not
- Lax internal church discipline over the past half century has undermined the reforms of the Second Vatican Council. A new church that preached freedom and love was in conflict with the old disciplines.
In the years that followed the Second Vatican Council, the church retrenched quietly. Pope John XXIII passed on the baton to these three very conservative Popes, who literally shut all the windows that were letting in too much fresh air:
- Paul VI, ignored the majority report of his own theological commission when in 1968 he declared birth control to be an intrinsic evil even for married couples.
- The charismatic Pope John Paul II (1978-2005) cracked down on liberation theology movements in Latin America led by priests and nuns standing with the poor in the face of oppressive right-wing governments. His conservative sexual theology, a staunch defense of the all-male priesthood and blindness to the clergy sexual abuse crisis that engulfed the church, marked his 27 year conservative papacy.
- Now Pope Benedict XVI’s doctrine office has cracked down on an organization called the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, which represents most U.S nuns. A scathing report from the Vatican in April blasted the group for promoting radical feminist themes incompatible with the Catholic faith. It chided the nuns for largely focusing on social justice at the expense of speaking out against same-sex marriage and abortion.
Catholicism that was once known for intellectual vigor and social justice is possibly on it’s way to becoming a reactionary entity than an influential body. As one bishop lamented: the church is 200 years out of date and so focused on lecturing about sexuality that its leaders are in danger of being perceived as a caricature in the media.
What is the way forward?
While many think of the Council as being one of discontinuity and rupture, Pope Benedict XVI talks about renewal and continuity saying that the Church which grows in time and develops, remaining however always the same, the one People of God on their way.
Many Catholics today have adopted an attitude of practical universalism, which is described as a belief that broad and wide is the way that leads to heaven, and almost everybody is going that way; but narrow is the gate the leads to hell, and hardly anybody’s going that way. This sits diametrically opposite of what Jesus himself preached. Matthew 7:14: How narrow the gate and constricted the road that leads to life. And those who find it are few.
The secular culture being adopted by Catholics comes at a time when Christiandom and Christian culture has but collapsed. They are, according to the clergy, drifting toward the disintegration of human relationships and marriage and family life and then the possibility of eternal separation from God.
But bishops who strongly oppose contraception, abortion and gay marriage must seriously pay attention to other relevant social ills facing society: the chasm between rich and poor, environmental destruction and assaults on workers. The new blood being infused into the Vatican’s cardinalate seem to be speaking a language I can relate to.
Pope Benedict XVI has announced the appointment of six new cardinals, including three Asians. The new Asian names are Archbishop Luis Antonio Tagle of Manila, Philippines, Baselios Cleemis Thottunkal, head of the Syro-Malankara Church in India, and Patriarch Bechara Rai of the Maronite Church in Lebanon.
In one of his first public outings as a cardinal-elect, Tagle called for the Church to speak less and listen more to its people.
“I realize that the sufferings of people and the difficult questions they ask are an invitation to be first in solidarity with them, not to pretend we have all the solutions,” he told Vatican Radio. “I believe the Church should contribute in the public square but we in Asia are very particular about the mode. You may be saying the right things but people will not listen if the manner by which you communicate reminds them of a triumphalistic, know-it-all institution.”
My hope is that the intellectual vigor and social justice is put back into the discussions. Above all the time is now for the clergy to take heed to what the nuns are already practicing:
Preach the Gospel always and when necessary use words – St. Francis of Assisi
That seems to be the lethal proper mix for Vatican II: speak less, listen more, do more!
|This is Part I of the Vatican Trilogy|
|Pope Francis – Part II||Liberation Theology – Part III|
- Vatican II: Gone but not forgotten
Fiftieth Anniversary Of Vatican II – The Diane Rehm Show, Thursday, October 4, 2012 – 11:06 a.m.
- What are Catholics to think of Vatican II?
- ‘Nuns on the bus’ leader: Power to the people – below the poverty line
- The Council at 50: Vatican II on Communications: Speaking to the World
- Behind the Scenes at Vatican II: Yves Congar Captures a Historic Moment
- Vatican II elevates laity from passive spectators to involved members
- Lively debate on liturgy ends with near-unanimity
- Aggiornamento revisited
- Misreading of Vatican II dampened missionary zeal, theologian says
- Fifty years later, Bishop McNaughton remembers Vatican II.
- Cardinal Burke says spirit of Vatican II has been betrayed
- @Pontifex Habemus Papum Franciscum – We have Pope Francis
- My Prayer: Let Women Be Priests – Roy Bourgeois
- NPR – Pope Francis Puts The Poor Front And Center