Half a century after Vatican II, little has changed
THE SECOND VATICAN Ecumenical Council, customarily known as Vatican II, was opened by Pope John XXIII 50 years ago this week. Ecumenical, meaning universal or worldwide, was manifested by the attendance of 2,500 bishops from 116 countries at St Peter’s Basilica in Rome for four three-month sessions between 1962 and 1965.
During that time the council produced only 16 documents. Some of these were of major importance. If their decisions had been implemented, they would have made a revolutionary change in how Catholics understand the nature of their church.
But, after half a century, the only noticeable change in the everyday life of the church has been the introduction into the liturgy of the words, but not the phraseology or the rhythm, of vernacular languages.
Some Catholics think the council started a rot that could ruin the church if it is not clamped down on. Others believe the council exposed grave weaknesses in the church, which will self-destruct if the council’s remedies are not applied. A third group, probably the majority of Catholics, stands on the sideline waiting for a swing one way or the other.
But if the present stalemate goes on for another half-century there could be no Catholic Church of any significance in Europe or North America. By then the centre of gravity could have moved south of the equator, where two-thirds of the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics already live.
What has happened? Why has there been so little change? Where does the Catholic Church go from here? These questions can’t be answered fully here, but unless people-in- the-pew Catholics get some grasp of them, the deadlock that has split the Catholic Church for the past 50 years will persist.
What was it for?
From the beginning the council was controversial. Pope John summoned it after he had been only three months in office and without consulting his cardinals. He said the idea “came to us in the first instance in a sudden flash of inspiration”.
Without having any idea about what it might do, most lay Catholics seemed to welcome it. But the cardinals received the news in stony silence. Their opposition continued right through the council, and it endures.
In the 400 years preceding Vatican II only two ecumenical councils, Trent (1554-63) and Vatican I (1869-70), had been held.
Trent was summoned to reform a church that was undergoing one of the greatest crises in history. All kinds of corruption was rife. Despite there having been many good popes, others had lived lives of luxury and debauchery. Several were guilty of simony, selling church offices and indulgences on a huge scale; seven consecutive popes had refused to live in Rome; there was a 39-year, so-called Western Schism between two papacies; and the Reformation had divided Christian Europe into two opposing camps.
Trent resulted in the tightly disciplined, defensive, anti-intellectual Counter-Reformation church that has lasted to this day. Its structure is a pyramid, with the Pope at the top over levels of clerics of descending importance and a bottom layer of laypersons with no defined role except, as a council bishop would later complain, “to pray, to obey and to pay”. Bishops are regarded as appointees and local agents of the pope. Other Christian churches are kept at arm’s length. The world is evil and its insights are to be ignored.
Three hundred years after Trent, Vatican I (1869-70) proclaimed the dogma of papal infallibility and further distanced the pope from the rest of the church. The declaration had the collateral effect of strengthening the powers of the Roman Curia, the papal equivalent of the Civil Service. A process that theologians have dubbed “creeping infallibility” has allowed its members to act as if they too shared the papal prerogative.
Between them the first two councils produced the church that Pope John considered incapable of meeting the needs of the 20th century and of the future. He issued a wake-up call and told it to study the “signs of the times” and to generate an aggiornamento, or updating, that would produce a “new Pentecost”.
What did the council conclude?
The church the council fathers voted for is very different from the Tridentine one. It discards the pyramid format based on authority and replaces it with one based on shared service. It is described as a “communion” of all followers of Christ, each with a different but equally important task in a common purpose: changing the world into what God wants it to be.
It sees the bishops not as the pope’s agents but as “vicars and ambassadors of Christ”. They hold their office by divine right as successors of the apostles and, as a body, with the pope at its head, sharing full and supreme power over the universal church.
This Vatican II church regards the separated brethren of the other Christian churches not as rivals and heretics but as colleagues sharing together the task of becoming “one”, as Christ had prayed for.
In a hugely significant but little-noticed initiative, Catholics no longer claim that the Catholic Church is Christ’s church. Instead, it states that it “subsists” in Christ’s Church, indicating that other Christian churches are recognised as also belonging. This wipes out the long-held claim that “outside the [Catholic] Church there is no redemption”. And, in direct contrast to the introverted Tridentine Church, it regards modern theories on science, philosophy, sociology and even Scripture not as heresies to be condemned but as insights to be explored.