Fifty years after it was met with euphoria, debate continues to surround Vatican II
The council’s legacy has indelibly shaped the modern Catholic Church, writes Fr VINCENT TWOMEY
I CAN STILL remember the surprise and excitement caused in January 1961 when the newly elected Pope John XXIII announced his convocation of the 21st Ecumenical Council in the Catholic Church’s history. Its objective would be to open the windows of the church and let in some fresh air. Some might say a whirlwind entered instead.
For the universally loved pontiff, the council had three aims: the renewal of the church, Christian unity, and an opening to the contemporary world. His programme was initially greeted with euphoria.
To understand the impact of the council, the cultural situation of the 1960s needs to be taken into account. Prosperity had replaced the austerities of the second World War.
Long in preparation, the sexual revolution erupted with volcanic force. Science and technology were quite literally reaching for the stars. New nations in Africa and Asia were shaking off the shackles of their colonial masters.
The first Catholic president of the US, John F Kennedy, had ushered in a new era of confidence. The Soviet Union, the other world power, led by Nikita Khrushchev, was in the process of shaking off some of its Stalinist excesses.
But above all, it was the time when TV came of age and with it a new political role for journalism in general. All this left its mark indelibly on the council.
Vatican II was like no other council. It was the largest assembly of bishops ever: some 2,300 from every continent and almost every nation. It was the first to have official observers from the Anglican, Protestant and Eastern Orthodox churches.
Another first was the inclusion of religious and lay experts, male and female, in the course of its four years of deliberations (1962-1965). Included among the latter was Frank Duff, who received a standing ovation.
Moral theologians were trying to develop an alternative to the legalist approach found in the manuals used to train confessors. Before the council, these developments were confined to a small number of critical theologians, some of whom had been silenced by the Holy Office. Vatican II, it could be said, was their council.
But it was also the journalists’ council. They flocked to Rome to relate the deliberations of the council to the world. Their presence also left its effect on the way the council was interpreted and on theology itself.
Used to commenting on political life, they naturally tended to interpret the intense debates in the Aula of St Peter’s in political terms, namely “progressive” versus “conservative”, thus replacing the traditional terms of orthodox and heterodox.