The fact the Roman Catholic Church was not a monolith was an eye-opener for Protestants

Tue, Oct 16, 2012, 01:00

Many of the riches of the spirituality of the Roman Catholic Church had a positive effect on other Christians as the Second Vatican Council opened long-shut doors, writes JOHN NEILL

FIFTY YEARS ago this week the Second Vatican Council commenced. Fifty years ago this week I entered university to commence training for the ordained ministry.

I am now aware that what began in the Vatican that week was to alter my perspective on the Roman Catholic Church and that of many members of the Church of Ireland and, indeed, that of the wider Protestant community. The effects were hardly immediate, but through the 1970s and 1980s the working out of that council at local level affected every part of the Christian community.

There may be little to distinguish prejudice and perception in the eyes of some, but yet it is important to realise that the perception of the Roman Catholic Church with which Irish Anglicans of my generation grew up, and from which I had to be weaned, was multifaceted.

It was a perception of a church that was both authoritarian and monolithic with little room for discussion or variety. It was a perception of a church with an inaccessible liturgy with which other Christians had little or nothing in common.

It was a perception of a church in which scripture was hardly studied or read beyond the gates of the seminaries. It was a perception of a church that was so clericalised that there seemed little or no scope for the laity.

It was a perception of a church with no interest in other Christians except in terms of converting them to Rome.

As is now well known, the council had barely been opened by Pope John XXIII when dissenting voices were raised among the bishops as to the method set out for the election of the 10 conciliar commissions. This resulted in an adjournment and a review of methodology.

Those first few minutes of the Second Vatican Council proved to be symbolic of the opening up to discussion and debate that was increasingly to be a feature of its deliberations. The fact that the Roman Catholic Church was not a monolith, and that there was room for discussion and questioning, was an eye-opener for Protestants, and one would suspect also for many of the Roman obedience!

Protestants had for many decades been used to synods and conferences and assemblies in which there was robust debate. The council was not like an Anglican synod with bishops, priests and laity as it was a council only of bishops. Nevertheless it displayed features of dissent and debate with which those of other traditions were familiar.

The public face of a church, as well as its heart, is, of course, its worship and liturgy. The fact that the use of vernacular within the liturgy and a new Eucharistic rite were to emerge as a result of the council caused a change of perception among other churches.

Suddenly liturgical similarities became apparent, and in time this was of course built upon as common liturgical texts were encouraged. Scholars from many traditions began working together to such an extent that liturgies in different churches began to influence each another.

From the start the council had included official observers from many other churches, and it had included theological advisers and consultants both lay and ordained.

This feature was to develop much further as the council continued under the oversight of Pope Paul VI. Suddenly other Christians realised that they were being taken very seriously, and that they were seeing a council engaging with ecumenical issues.

One of the best known documents of the Second Vatican Council is Lumen Gentium in which there is a slight opening up within the Roman Catholic Church’s self-understanding.

Lumen Gentium sees the One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church of the creed “subsisting” in the Roman Catholic Church, but yet it allowed some scope for others to share in something of what it is to be that One Church.

It is questionable whether this document can serve as an ecumenical blueprint 50 years later, yet in a small but significant manner it changed perception, and legitimised ecumenical activity at an international, national and local level.

It was in this context that official bilateral talks and commissions with other churches began, and the Anglican Roman Catholic International Commission is perhaps the best known of these.

The council achieved an enhanced recognition of scripture throughout the whole Roman Catholic Church and this generated a real thirst for the study of the Bible among many Roman Catholic laity. Such did not go unnoticed among Protestants. Across the decade following the council, joint prayer and Bible study groups began to emerge.

The story of Vatican II and its implications as it unfolded was very well communicated in this country. This affected perceptions far beyond the Roman Catholic Church or, indeed, the confines of pulpit or lecture hall.

The late Seán Mac Réamoinn and Fr Austin Flannery OP were each central, though at different academic levels, to the telling of the story of the council.

The half century since the Second Vatican Council has been deeply affected for all Christians by that council. The immediate effects were most naturally felt in the first quarter century. By the mid-1980s there was a great deal of ecumenical progress and hope.

After those first 25 years if the momentum generated by the council was to continue there was a need to develop further the work of the council, looking at such issues as Eucharistic sharing, and, indeed, a re-evaluation of the definitions of Lumen Gentium. The opportunity for this seemed to slip away.

Those of the generation who were most influenced by the council have continued to attempt to build on the initial hope and progress. Deep ecumenical sharing and joint proclamation have developed in some places.

There is also within most churches, including the Roman Catholic Church and the Church of Ireland, a neo-conservatism which makes many aspects of ecumenism hard to progress.

It is unfortunate that the whole issue of women in the church, and indeed in priesthood, was not on many agendas 50 years ago.

I would wish to end on a positive note. The council had the effect of opening doors that had long been closed. In many parts of Ireland it was the religious orders, male and female, that led the response.

It would be simplistic to see the effect of the council on Irish Protestantism as simply changing its perception of the Roman Catholic Church. Rather it is a fact that many of the riches of the spirituality of the Roman Catholic Church had a positive effect on other Christians as the council opened those long-shut doors.

All Christians have reason to be deeply thankful to Almighty God for the ministry of Pope John XXIII and Pope Paul VI.


Most Rev John Neill was Church of Ireland archbishop of Dublin from 2002 to 2011