The Second Vatican Council set off a series of movements and disputes that still echo today. Given the chance to reexamine and update the expression of an ancient faith, Catholics explored then rediscovered the gospel. They often read in an untutored way, in the light of modern experience, which varied by place and social group. Those who viewed change as heresy or even apostasy didn’t like it.
Despite the debates, Vatican II did not touch a single foundational doctrine. The most noticeable change every Catholic saw on Sundays was the translation and adaptation of the Latin rubrics—or script, if you will—of the liturgy of the Eucharist, the Mass, to hundreds of local languages. Another big change was the priest facing the people from behind an altar in the center of the sanctuary, the area behind the communion rail. An opaque rite in a dead language was now celebrated in an everyday language, choreographed to encourage participation from the pews.
When the council encouraged singing in church by the people, the council fathers had nothing more adventurous than Gregorian Chant in mind. Next thing anyone knew people were playing guitars in church, and they weren’t singing “Panis Angelicus.”
Rather, they favored popular songs such as “Dominique,” a 1963 ballad about St. Dominic written and performed by Jeannine Deckers of Belgium, then known as Dominican Sister Luc-Gabrielle, Soeur Sourire (Sister Smile) or The Singing Nun. Similarly, people chanted, swayed and clapped to “Kumbayah” (“Come by Here”), a modern song in the style of African-American spirituals that acquired an entirely fictional modern African pedigree. These were staples of the youth or folk Mass of the 1960s and 1970s.
The call to priests and members of vowed communities to reassess their life commitments led to widespread abandonment of mostly medieval garb by many religious orders and the deemphasizing of elite Catholic schools in favor of missions to serve the poor. The Catholic priesthood, in particular, suffered in the countries with the highest rates of vocations—Ireland, Spain and the United States—as the celibacy requirement came under challenge and many men left to marry.
At the theological level, scholars attempted to strip the essentials of Catholic teaching of the many adornments that had accumulated over the ages. Some involved dead metaphors and symbols that no longer spoke meaningfully to humanity about the essential gospel message.
Two communities of thinkers coalesced around two major international and multilingual academic theological journals: Concilium, founded in 1965 to promote discussion in the “spirit of Vatican II,” with the support of Anton van den Boogaard, Paul Brand, Yves Congar, Hans Küng, Johann Baptist Metz, Karl Rahner and Edward Schillebeeckx; and Communio, founded in 1972 by Joseph Ratzinger, Hans Urs von Balthasar, Henri de Lubac, Walter Kasper, Marc Ouellet, Louis Bouyer and others. To readers unfamiliar with the theologians named, the first was a forum for reformist and speculative views, the second a conservative reaction.
Catholics separated into two broad groups. On one side were partisans of John XXIII, the smiling pope who had provided the platform for modernization in form, if not substance, a man of humble origins regarded by many, with some justification, as saintly. The former Giuseppe Roncalli had a peasant’s ease with people and a diplomat’s charm, but he was spared having to preside over the Church after the council, and no one really knows how he would have handled the fallout.
In another group were defenders of Paul VI, the more cerebral pope who followed and had to implement council decisions. He was politically open to serious reform in society but was cautious doctrinally and in matters of moral discipline. The upper-class Giovanni Battista Montini was a consummate Vatican bureaucrat who attempted to put the brakes on a Church carriage that seemed propelled by a team of runaway horses.
The late Chicago priest and sociologist Andrew Greeley correctly placed the moment of the divide at the 1968 issuance of the encyclical Humanae Vitae (Of Human Life). In that document, Paul VI reaffirmed the Catholic Church’s traditional view of marriage and ban on the use of artificial birth control. As Greeley put it, the encyclical put many Catholics who had anticipated approval of “the pill” in the position of rebelling and discovering that no lightning bolt struck them. Catholic clerical authority was never quite the same.
Sex and sexual morality cut through the preeminent post-Vatican II Catholic controversies (everything from abortion, birth control, masturbation and premarital sex to homosexuality and priestly celibacy), but primarily in the wealthy West. The region offered contrasting situations: in western Europe churches had been emptying out since the French Revolution, whereas in the United States, Irish Catholicism had produced an immigrant religious ghetto that even today has the highest church attendance among Catholics worldwide.
The Catholic center of gravity, long set in wealthy regions, however, began to shift to Latin America, Africa and Asia, where the problems were primarily economic and social. The Church in many poor countries was saddled with a history of uneasy compromise with colonial authorities and the native elites that succeeded them. In Latin America, home to more than a third of the world’s Catholics, 90 percent of the population was baptized Catholic in the 1960s, but no more than 10 percent attended Mass regularly (lower than western Europe’s 15 percent); however, the culture was deeply and irretrievably Catholic.
Paul VI’s Populorum Progressio (Progress of Peoples) fired the imagination of the Latin American clergy by reexamining the gospel in the face of worldwide rampant social and economic inequality. The 1967 encyclical, which The Wall Street Journal called “Communist,” eventually inspired some Latin American clergymen to support revolution.
In 1968, the Latin American bishops gathered in Medellin issued a historic message for “all people who, in this continent, ‘hunger and thirst for justice.’ ” Citing Vatican II, they reminded people that “God intended the earth with everything contained in it for the use of all human beings and peoples.” (Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World, 69) Three years later, an unassuming theologian named Gustavo Gutierrez published Teología de la Liberación (Liberation Theology) and gave a name to a vast movement.
Colombian priest Camilo Torres Restrepo asserted that “if Jesus were alive today, He would be a guerrillero” not long before he died with a machine gun in his hands. Nicaraguan priest and poet Ernesto Cardenal founded a community of peasants and exiled artists in the Solentiname Islands, where he lived during 1965-1977 and penned the Gospel of Solentiname before joining the cabinet of the first Sandinista government. Dom Hélder Pessoa Câmara, archbishop of Olinda and Recife during the 1965-83 Brazilian military regime, was an outspoken advocate for the poor and for human rights. He said, “When I give food to the poor, they call me a saint. When I ask why they are poor, they call me a Communist.”
Liberation theology attempted, in Câmara’s view, to do with atheist Marx what Aquinas did with pagan Aristotle. Similarly, an echo influenced by the second wave of feminism produced feminist theology, with notable exponents such as Mary Daly, Rosemary Radford Ruether and Elizabeth Schussler Fiorenza. They saw Jesus as distinct from the social culture of his time in his ennobling treatment of women. Within the Catholic Church, feminist theologians have pressed for the ordination of women, so far unsuccessfully. Because feminist theology emerged among European, or “white,” women critics mounted counterpoint submovements such as “womanist,” Asian feminist and mujerista theology.
These few examples of post-Vatican II developments did not fail to evoke counterrevolution.
The Society of Saint Pius X, founded in 1970 by the French archbishop Marcel Lefebvre, is a notable example. When he attended the Vatican II council as a bishop, Lefebvre had been a ringleader of the conservative bloc, fighting change tooth and nail.
Lefebvre articulated four common views among those who oppose, and still seek a reversal of, Vatican II changes. He rejected ecumenism in favor of the idea that only Catholicism teaches the truth, proposed tolerance instead of a principle of religious liberty, supported total papal supremacy rather than the council’s (still unrealized) collegiality among bishops and adamantly opposed replacing the Latin Tridentine Mass with the new Mass of Vatican II.
In 1988, when Lefebvre consecrated four bishops in defiance of Pope John Paul II, he was excommunicated. Pope Benedict XVI lifted the excommunication of the four bishops in January 2009.
Lefebvre’s views are today advanced far more subtly by other movements, such as the secretive Opus Dei (“Work of God”), a group founded in 1928 by Spanish priest Josemaría Escrivá, which often connects politically and economically influential lay people—including the late Antonin Scalia— and priests worldwide in a very conservative, morally dualistic group.
A much more extreme view is Sedevacantism (from the Latin phrase sede vacante, “the chair [of Saint Peter] vacant”), held by a few of ultratraditional Catholics who do not consider recent pontiffs bona fide. They argue that the Catholic Church adopted heretical modernism, and some hold that the papal see has been vacant since the death of Pope Pius XII in 1958.
Two popes tried to bridge the divide by adopting the name John Paul. Pope Francis opted to canonize John XXIII, whose cause had been blocked by conservatives, and John Paul II—until his successor’s reign a favorite of the tradition minded.
Passions have subsided with time. The Kumbaya spirit of post-Vatican II renewal has the aura of more innocent and naive times; devout young Catholics who genuflect and wear veils in church wish for a pre-Vatican II Church that never actually existed. Vatican II dared Catholicism to look at itself in the mirror, see a few warts and attempt, sometimes clumsily, to remove them. It’s no surprise that the task would not be easy and consensus hard to restore. Perhaps tomorrow.