Friday, October 5, 2012

Commemorating a Golden Anniversary

It was 50 years ago this month, on October 11, 1962, that the Second Vatican Council (Vatican II) opened in St. Peter’s Basilica. Convoked by Pope John XXIII, it closed in December 1965 under Pope Paul VI.

Vatican II was the 21st Ecumenical Council of the Roman Catholic Church, and only the second to be held since the highly significant Council of Trent in the 16th century. Vatican I, the 20th Council, was convened in 1869-70 at a time of great turmoil. The primary result, however, was the (questionable) defining of papal infallibility as a dogma of the Church.

By contrast to Vatican I, which failed to deal substantively with the contemporary problems of the rising influence of rationalism, liberalism, and materialism, Vatican II made many momentous decisions and greatly changed the Roman Catholic Church.

The second volume of Reclaiming Our Roots: An Inclusive Introduction to Church History (1999) by Mark Ellingsen is the textbook I am currently using in the course I teach at Rockhurst University. Here are three of Vatican II’s “progressive decisions” according to Dr. Ellingsen:

    ** Recognizing members of Protestant churches as “separated brethren.” Thus, it was “no longer official Catholic teaching that all Protestants are damned as heretics.”

   ** A countenancing of the use of the vernacular, instead of Latin, in worship.

    ** A recognition of non-Christians sincerely seeking to do God’s Will with their actions . . . as numbered among the people of God (pp. 336).

As a Protestant, it seems to me that the above changes, and the several others that Ellingsen lists, are good and important, beneficial for the Catholic Church and for Christianity as a whole. But not all agree.

I have not yet finished reading Ross Douthat’s book Bad Religion (2012), but I am finding it quite interesting—and problematic in places. Douthat (b. 1979), a New York Times columnist (and the youngest regular op-ed writer in the paper's history), is a Catholic who is quite conservative both religiously and politically.

Douthat sees Vatican II as “the marriage of orthodoxy and American liberalism” that eased the Church “toward ever greater accommodation with the modern world” (pp. 94, 95). And he sees the decline in Catholicism since the mid-1960s at least partly due to the negative influence of Vatican II.

Conservatives can always find ways to link present problems to liberal ideas. (Of course, the same may be true for liberals, who tend to see contemporary problems being due to the conservatism of the past.) But it is hard for me to think that Vatican II was anything but a positive course-correction for the Roman Catholic Church.

There are some (many?) who now think the time has come for “Vatican III” to be convoked. Quite certainly that will not happen under the present Pope, but who can tell who Benedict XVI’s successor will be or what will happen then.

Many of my Catholic students, among many other young American Catholics, strongly think the Church ought to make at least these three important changes: (1) approve the use of contraceptives, (2) allow priests to marry, and (3) allow women to become priests.

If, or when, “Vatican III” is convened those will likely be key issues discussed. Some Catholic theologians, such as Hans Küng, thought that such changes should have been made at Vatican II.

Still, the changes that were made at Vatican II were many and important, so I am happy to use this posting to commemorate its golden anniversary.


  1. Nice piece, Leroy. It certainly gets at some of the issues. // Alternative histories are always exercises of speculation in ignorance, but my best guess, as a sociologist of religion, is that, had Vatican II made those three "modern" changes, it would have resulted in a boost in growth in Western Catholicism rather than the decline that we've seen. However, I think decline would have set in eventually anyway because of the increased secularization of culture and people in the West.

    1. Anton, I agree with your "best guess" -- but I doubt that Douthat would.

      I also think that your last sentence is probably correct.

  2. Continuing with alternative histories: Some conservatives have speculated that if Vatican II had gone further in the liberal direction that the Roman Catholic church would today be in a position similar to that of the Episcopal/Anglican Church (i.e. numerous divisions and falling membership).

    Possibility of Vatican III: If Vatican III were convened today I fear any changes adopted would be in the conservative direction. That is because the appointment of bishops over the past twenty years or so has favored the conservatives.

    Meanwhile, I have to make the additional observation that some of the most liberal people I know, both theologically and politically, are Roman Catholics. That's what a big tent can do for a church.

    1. There certainly are Catholics who are very liberal -- but unlike Protestant churches, the RCC is determined not by the people under the "big tent" but by the Pope and the Cardinals, who are mostly conservative now (as you indicated, Clif).

  3. I was twelve years old in 1962, and just starting to realize what was happening in the bigger world. As Vatican II unfolded, I wondered if a great reunion of Christianity was possible. Then Pope John XXIII died, and the Catholic Church started crawling backwards. A few steps forward on evolution and Galileo just do not begin to balance the great slide into overall deeper conservatism.

    Clif mentions that some of the most liberal people he knows are Catholics. That is true in national politics as well. However, I also marvel that those people are able to remain Catholics. Looking at all the tensions and contradictions, I am reminded that the root of the name of the Protestant Reformation is in the words "protest" and "reform." Centuries earlier the Orthodox churches felt compelled to separate from the Roman Catholic Church. I think the most likely scenario is that at some point Vatican II will be seen as the birth of movement that became the next great Protestant Church. How long can Mel Gibson and Nancy Pelosi remain in the same fellowship? Who would have guessed in 1962 that the Southern Baptist Convention would soon see the election of its most visible member as President of the United States, only to have him end up a former Southern Baptist? Former Southern Baptist Jimmy Carter stands as a living question to every liberal Catholic.

    Leroy mentions the need for "at least these three important changes." Well, i would put more emphasis on the "at least" rather than on the "three." Other issues like abortion, gay marriage, end of life issues, and national health insurance are also critical factors. This is why I think an eventual split is likely. There is just too much to process. Indeed, a different kind of split is already happening. The Catholic Church is hemorrhaging members faster than any other denomination in the United States.

    1. Craig, I really don't see any split happening within the RCC -- but a continuation of people splitting from the RCC, just as many are from Protestant Christianity as well.

      Just a few minutes ago, I made this posting on Facebook:

      According to a 10/8 "Washington Post" article, "Nearly 400 Missouri pastors gathered at the podium of a hotel ballroom recently to pray over the kneeling figure of Rep. Todd Akin."

      Someone responded with this comment: "With this, can anyone really wonder why more and more people in the U.S. are abandoning Christianity? It is continuing to prove itself a home for racists, bigots, misogynists, and the ignorant."

      And my comment was, "Sadly, that may well be so."

  4. A Thinking Friend, who is a scholar and knows of what he speaks, wrote,

    "Thanks for remembering the most important happening in Church history in our lifetimes, Leroy."