Sunday, July 30, 2017
The Second Vatican Council was the most significant religious event in the 20th century, each person reading it differently. To many Catholics the council launched the Mass in the local language with the priest facing the people and lots more singing by the congregation, got nuns to swap habits for dowdy street clothes, gave a sudden new prominence to the Bible and effectively opened anything and everything to questioning. Protestants I have known, even clerics, remember it for ecumenism.
For most Catholics, the 1962-65 period of Vatican II is the dividing line between a “before” picture of the Church and an “after” that endures today. I was 10 years old when it started, barely aware of the issues, and by the time it ended I was an adolescent rocking and rolling to the changes, and I finally understood what was going on in church.
Vatican II was unquestionably the largest ecumenical (or general) council of the Church. Attendance varied from 2,100 to nearly 2,400 voting bishops. This does not count the phalanx of periti (Latin for “experts”) nor the observers from 17 Orthodox churches and Protestant denominations—nearly 100 by the end of the last session. Among those who took part, four became pope: Giovanni Battista Cardinal Montini succeeded John XXIII as Paul VI and saw the council to its conclusion; Bishop Albino Luciani became John Paul I; Bishop Karol Wojtyła became John Paul II; and Joseph Ratzinger, a peritus, became Benedict XVI. The experts included a star-studded cast of theologians, including Karl Rahner, John Courtney Murray, Yves Congar and Henri de Lubac.
Still, the council’s enduring significance was not about size or star power but about its content, which was not primarily dogmatic or doctrinal. The council reviewed the Church in its role as the keeper of the one, true and complete Christian faith. It also tackled its relations with other Christian churches through ecumenism and with other religions, its place in the modern world and, consequently, the renewal of clerical and consecrated roles, liturgy, disciplines and much more.
It was all put into 16 documents (four constitutions, three declarations and nine decrees)—the formal legacy of the council. They are, in order of adoption (Latin title first):
1. Sacrosanctum concilium, Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, 1963.
2. Inter Mirifica, Decree on the Means of Social Communication, 1963.
3. Lumen Gentium, Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, 1964.
4. Orientalium Ecclesiarum, Decree on the Catholic Churches of the Eastern Rite, 1964.
5. Unitatis Redintegratio, Decree on Ecumenism, 1964.
6. Christus Dominus, Decree Concerning the Pastoral Office of Bishops in the Church, 1965.
7. Perfectae Caritatis, Decree on Renewal of Religious Life, 1965.
8. Optatam Totius, Decree on Priestly Training, 1965.
9. Gravissimum Educationis, Declaration on Christian Education, 1965.
10. Nostra Aetate, Declaration on the Relation of the Church to Non-Christian Religions, 1965.
11. Dei Verbum, Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation, 1965.
12. Apostolicam Actuositatem, Decree on the Apostolate of the Laity, 1965.
13. Dignitatis Humanae, Declaration on Religious Freedom, 1965.
14. Ad Gentes, Decree on the Mission Activity of the Church, 1965.
15. Presbyterorum Ordinis, Decree on the Ministry and Life of Priests, 1965.
16. Gaudium et Spes, Pastoral Constitution on the Church In the Modern World,1965.
They can be read at the Vatican website under Documents of The Second Vatican Council.
“The Church is not a museum,” Pope John XXIII advised the periti. In opening the council, he explained what he meant: “The Church should never depart from the sacred treasure of truth inherited from the Fathers. But at the same time she must ever look to the present, to the new conditions and the new forms of life introduced into the modern world.”
Why was this necessary? The Catholic Church was almost 2,000 years old, had survived centuries of (sometimes self-inflicted) turmoil and there was no indication that it was on the wane.
What changed was the world. A third of humanity remained Christian, as was true in 1900. But the majority, which had been in Europe, shifted mostly to developing countries. A third to nearly half of all Christians now lived in overwhelmingly Catholic Latin America. Conversions surged in Africa, now home to the majority of Anglicans. Moreover, two world wars had directly and indirectly called nearly every human hope into question.
Given this setting it is not difficult to see the council’s conclusions as pointing in two directions, one inward, touching on doctrine (lightly) and disciplines (in somewhat greater depth), and another outward looking at other churches, religions and institutions, then finally placing the Church within that world.
Among the inward-looking documents, perhaps the most significant is Dei Verbum. Since Trent, Catholic popular teaching had deemphasized the Bible in favor of dogma from the hierarchy; Catholic biblical theology was almost nonexistent. Dei Verbum was remarkable because it treated Scripture as the result of tradition, but noted that tradition feeds on Scripture, so that both are a single vehicle for the revelation of God. This is the only expressly doctrinal document.
Next in importance is, probably, Sacrosanctum concilium. It dealt with worship and revised the rules to emphasize “the whole People of God,” common prayer and singing. It expanded Scripture readings, introduced the vernacular (the language of the people) as an allowed replacement of Latin and called for greater inclusion of laypeople. This is what all Catholics noticed right away.
These were the girders that underpinned decrees and declarations about members of religious orders and priests, the role of the laity and, more significantly, greater collegiality among bishops. Many of these rules were externally put into practice, even though the substance did not always change.
Looking outward, the council fathers examined Christianity in Unitatis Redintegratio (literally, “restoring unity”) the decree on ecumenism, which openly declares:
“Christ the Lord founded one Church and one Church only. However, many Christian communions present themselves to men as the true inheritors of Jesus Christ; all indeed profess to be followers of the Lord but differ in mind and go their different ways, as if Christ Himself were divided. Such division openly contradicts the will of Christ, scandalizes the world, and damages the holy cause of preaching the Gospel to every creature.” (UR, 1)
The document calls for efforts to restate beliefs and enter into dialogue in the interest of greater understanding and eventual unity. It is accompanied by several others. Especially notable is Nostra Aetate (“our times”), which deals primarily with Judaism and antisemitism. It also opens a door for non-Christian religions by asserting that even though the Church received the fullness of revelation, other faiths also reflect divine interaction with humanity.
Another notable outward-looking document, Dignitatis Humanae, was influenced by an American, John Courtney Murray, S.J., who urged consideration of freedom of thought, particularly when it came to the relationship between church and state.
At the time, the council fathers who opposed it (it garnered one of the highest number of “no” votes, 77, of any document) argued that “error has no rights.” In opposition, they preferred the model of Spanish-speaking countries where the Catholic Church was officially recognized and protected by the state and had veto power on social policy, with relations between the government and the Vatican regulated by a concordat or agreement.
Murray persuaded a majority to accept that “the human person has a right to religious freedom. This freedom means that all men are to be immune from coercion on the part of individuals or of social groups and of any human power, in such wise that no one is to be forced to act in a manner contrary to his own beliefs, whether privately or publicly, whether alone or in association with others, within due limits.” (DH, 2) The deist Thomas Jefferson would have endorsed such a view.
Catholics remain deeply divided about Vatican II, especially in the United States, where Catholics tend to be legalistic—less so in Latin America and Europe. Two popes tried to bridge the divide by taking the name John Paul from the two conciliar popes, one seen as more “liberal” (John) and the other more “conservative” (Paul), possibly because of his 1967 encyclical against birth control. Popes John and Paul, however, were not notably different in theology.
The council inspired many Protestant denominations to hold similar meetings. The 1968 Anglican Lambeth Conference, for example, dropped the requirement that priests assent to the doctrinal Thirty-Nine Articles of 1571 and allowed open communion, meaning that anyone in attendance could receive the Eucharist.
Ecumenical dialogue resulted in the common lectionary or Sunday readings and the Lutheran-Catholic Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification in December 1999. Because this coming November will be celebrated as the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, a follow-up joint document, Declaration on the Way, was issued in preparation.