Thursday, December 10, 2015

Reflections on Vatican II

The first chapter of American Catholics in Transition is titled “The Legacy of Pre-Vatican II Catholics” and the authors refer to Catholics born in 1940 and earlier as “the pre-Vatican II generation.”

 They go on to say, “Prior to the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965), Catholics were known for their willingness "to kneel, pray, pay, and obey.”

 Although I was not a Catholic, that is the age bracket I am in and that was the Catholic Church I grew up knowing only a little bit about.

 I finished my undergraduate theology degree in 1962. Since it was a Baptist seminary I attended, there was not a lot of study about Catholics. But of course there was some—and much of what I learned was very soon out of date.

As indicated above, the Second Vatican Council, often called Vatican II, began in 1962 and ended fifty years ago this week, on December 8, 1965.
Many significant changes were made in the Catholic Church at that Council. Consequently, much of what I had learned by 1962 about contemporary Catholic faith and practice was out of date by 1965.

Vatican II was the 21st so-called Ecumenical Council of the Roman Catholic Church, and the first one since Vatican I in 1869-70. It was called by John XXIII, the remarkable Pope who was canonized in April of last year. Already 76 years old when he was elected Pope in October 1958, he surprised most people, who expected him to be nothing more than a “caretaker pope.”

One of the most significant changes made at Vatican II was the position of the Catholic Church’s relationship to non-Catholic Christians as well as its relationships with other religious faiths. The “Decree on Ecumenism” was passed in late 1964, more than a year after Pope John had died (in June 1963), but it was very much in keeping with his stated desire.

That Decree declared that other Christians were “separated brethren,” a remarkable shift from prior church teaching that regarded them (us Protestants) as “heretics.”

Vatican II also greatly changed the relationship between the Catholic Church and Jews. The “Declaration on the Relation of the Church with Non-Christian Religions” was passed in October 1965, about six weeks before the close of Vatican II.

The fourth part of that Declaration speaks of the bond that ties the people of the “New Covenant”' (Christians) to Abraham’s stock (Jews).

It states that even though some Jewish authorities and those who followed them called for Jesus’s death, the blame for this cannot be laid at the door of all those Jews present at that time, nor can the Jews in our time be held as guilty.

Accordingly, the Jews “should not be presented as rejected or accursed by God.”

The Declaration also decries all displays of antisemitism made at any time by anyone. This repudiated the abuse heaped on Jewish people through the years because they were considered “Christ killers.”

There were also many changes in Catholic worship and practice. For example, there was a new emphasis on lay people reading the Bible. Also, Mass began to be conducted with the priest facing the congregation, and the language spoken by the congregants was used in worship rather than Latin.

Of course some things didn’t change, to the disappointment of some of the more progressive clergy and lay people: priests still couldn’t marry, women still couldn’t become priests, and contraceptives continued to be banned.

Some Catholics are now hoping Pope Francis will call for “Vatican III,” but that is not likely to happen.

But thank God for Vatican II!


  1. Indeed, Vatican II was a remarkable event; changing the religious complexion of the world. For those who might like to eavesdrop on some internet discussions regarding Vatican II, primarily among academic Catholics, you'll find some interesting topics and short essays here:

    1. Anton, thanks for reading this morning's blog article and, as you have done many times, being the first to respond.

      Thanks, too, for the link, which I had not seen. I wish I had time to read many of them.

  2. Too many Protestants continue to bash Catholics out of ignorance. Thanks for shining this light on our sisters and brothers in Christ.

    1. David, it was good to hear from you again. Even after 50 years, some of the old negative views of Catholics seem to be still around. (Of course, there are still Catholics who prefer the Catholic Church as it was before Vatican II.)

  3. Leroy, I was in seminary (the same one you attended) all during Vatican II. I don't remember hearing much about it from the profs there. That was also when Johnny Unitas was an acclaimed quarterback in the NFL. Colts, I think, before they moved to Indianapolis. Anyway, I can remember the Pope John XXIII being referred to as Pope Johnny Unite Us. He didn't quite do that, but relations between Catholics and Protestants did soften considerably. Baptists were very anti-Catholic, viewed Catholics as hell bound. And of course all Protestants were considered heretics. I'm sure the results of Vatican II were influential in my changing views. But I think there was a general broadening of perspectives that began in my undergraduate days in Wayland Baptist College, continued through my seminary days, and has continued to this day. I rejoice in the papacy of Francis, and hope that Protestants can be considered by Catholics simply as brothers (and sisters) rather than separated brothers. And that Protestants can reciprocate by warmly accepting Catholics as fellow sojourners toward the realm of God. When I was pastor of Community Baptist Church (ABCUSA) in Arco, Idaho, retired Catholic Bishop Sylvester Treinen had been sent to Arco to minister to the small Catholic congregation there. Bishop Treinen and I became warm friends. We fished together and occasionally our congregations worshiped together, along with the Episcopal congregation there. I think I learned from Bishop Treinen, and dare to think he might have learned from me.

    1. Thanks for your comments, Charles. As a graduate student from 1962 to 1966, there was little that I can remember being said about Vatican II as it was going on. I would imagine Dr. Hinson (and maybe a few others) talked about it some in his classes, but I didn't have a graduate seminar under him.

      I grew up in rural north Missouri where there were hardly any Catholic and went to Baptist colleges, so I didn't have real strong feelings, or a great deal of knowledge, about Catholics before going to Kentucky. But Kentucky Baptists, including many in the church I served as pastor, influenced me to become more anti-Catholic during the presidential campaign of 1960. And my voting for Nixon rather than Kennedy (a Catholic!) is the presidental vote I most regret.

      Thanks for sharing your positive experiences in Idaho.

    2. Charles, I forgot to make reference to what you said about Johnny Unite Us. I wasn't much of a NFL fan back then, but I do remember the name Unitas. Still, I don't remember ever hearing the play on his name being used for John XXIII. That was cute!

    3. Leroy, I couldn't bring myself to vote for Kennedy in 1960, but had a deep aversion to RMN, so I threw my vote away on some minor party candidate--Prohibition I think. After I came to SBTS there was a polio vaccination clinic in a Catholic church near Seminary Village. We went there to get our sugar cubes because we feared polio more than we feared Catholics, but I remember feeling a tinge of guilt for being inside the doors of a Catholic church. I look back and smile and remember "He who sits in the heavens laughs."

  4. Local thinking Friend Don Wideman, who is a lifelong Baptist (and a few years older than I) shares these comments:

    "I grew up in St. Louis where Catholics, though a minority, had more power and influence on the rest of us. Prior to Vatican II, non-Catholic ministers were not allowed to do committal services in Catholic cemeteries or to share there ministries in Catholic churches.

    I was totally surprised when I was asked to share in a wedding of one of our church members and a Catholic. I was invited to sit with the priest and perform my part of the service up front.

    Catholics had many more freedoms also: no more meatless Fridays, lay people could participate in communion, even the music and singing changed.

    1. Thanks, Don, for sharing a personal word about your experience with a changed Catholic Church--and for pointing out other practices that changed because of Vatican II.

  5. Thinking Friend Glenn Hinson, who is a church historian, makes these important comments:

    "Vatican II was one of Christianity’s greatest moments. There’s much debate, however, as to its impact on the Catholic Church. Pope John Paul II and Benedict XVI did a lot to roll back reforms the council intended. Nevertheless, they could not undo so many dramatic changes.

    Thankfully, Pope Francis seems to be returning to its most important statements again. I thank God every day for Pope John XXIII and Pope Francis. The Church and the world are better because of what Pope John started.

    1. Thanks, Dr. Hinson, for your important comments. I read just a few days ago that much of the opposition that Pope Francis is facing now is from those who are still opposed to the changes made by Vatican II.

  6. Prior to my teenage years, I remember hearing from my parents and others that Catholics were not Christian - essentially because they didn't follow all 17 of the 10 commandments, and because of the "worship" of Christ's mother, Mary.

    That changed in 1975 (time of Pope Paul VI) when the local priests began reaching out to others in the Christian faith community to work together in a standardization of the gospel message, so all would be communicating the same story of faith in Jesus Christ - there was no compromise on the essentials. There were also regular times of prayer, and a commitment to serve each other in practical ways. It worked, at least for a few years. I like this concept of unity for the Church. But there were some from each group, including the Catholics, who rejected a functional ecumenism.

    That was in part my beginning a spiritual sojourn, a very refreshing one. One of my current spiritual mentors is a Roman Catholic priest, whose pastoral sojourn took him from Pentecostal, to Evangelical Free, to Anglican, to Catholic. But, as he has noted, only about 20% of the members of any brand appear to be truly devout followers of Christ.

    Listening to EWTN, I have come to the conclusion that I cannot be Roman Catholic, there are just too many fundamentally novel doctrines in that branch of the Church (including the diety of Mary - the incarnation of the Holy Spirit, which the Roman Church celebrated 2 days back. Note: the Magisterium (another novel doctrine) has not made this dogma yet, but it is regularly promoted.) Plus many Church apologists on EWTN state that the ecumenism of Vatican II does require that the separated must repent and join the Roman Church.

    Thankfully, both the Eastern and Western branches of the traditional Church have began to reach out to each other, and to others, and welcomed many in. For this to work, arrogance must be left behind, and there must be a deliberate move of the Holy Spirit, with much humility by all involved.

    I for one am ready for the 8th Ecumenical Council - even if it is just of the popes and patriarchs.

    1. Two days ago the Catholic Church celebrated the Feast of the Immaculate Conception. The doctrine of the Immaculate Conception is a Catholic teaching that I think is complete unfounded and unnecessary -- but it is not about the deity of Mary or the incarnation of the Holy Spirit. The Catholic Catechism never uses "Incarnation" except in reference to Jesus Christ.

      The Immaculate Conception refers to the conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary in the womb of her mother, Saint Anne, free from original sin by virtue of the foreseen merits of her son Jesus Christ. The Catholic Church teaches that Mary was conceived by normal biological means, but God acted upon her soul (keeping her "immaculate") at the time of her conception. This does not imply in any way that Mary is divine.

      For those of you who may not know what the reference to the 8th Ecumenical Council means in the above comments, while the RCC counts Vatican II as the 21st Ecumenical Council, the Eastern (Orthodox) Church consider only the first seven are legitimate Ecumenical Councils.

    2. Thank you for the clarification on the Council numbers. I have read the Catechism of the Catholic Church, which is a fairly recent document (about 25 years), but I have also heard statements by clergy and apologists on EWTN who have not been corrected for stating that the Immaculate Conception of Mary was the incarnation of the Holy Spirit, and that "she reigns together with her Son, Jesus Christ, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, One God, forever". Those clergy I have asked to clarify these statements either say that is heresy to call a creature God, or that the Magisterium has not addressed this doctrine, so neither will I - an even split among several. (Those are only 2 of the statements which I have heard, plus one from an Eastern Catholic). A Council probably needs to address this since it is a fundamental statement about the nature of the Godhead.)

  7. The years of Vatican II coincided with the beginning of my best friendship with a Roman Catholic neighbor, John Hoffman. I was a public school Southern Baptist and he a private Catholic school student. The climate of Vatican II freed us to participate in the other’s church events. What I learned with John is fundamental to who I am as a religious person. He was Best Man at my wedding and I am Godfather to one of his children.

    If anyone is curious, here is a link to a Baptist-Catholic dialogue from 1973 (about ten years after we first met) in which John was a student participant.

    I thank God for Vatican II and John Hoffman!

    1. Thanks for sharing this, Dick.

    2. Having been a sophomore in High School in 1960, Vatican II was great news in the mid-to late 60s! I had a very close Catholic friend, Jim, and we made a vow to hold the first Ecumenical Religious Service when we had finished Seminary! Much planning went into our dreams and sure enough, in 1970 Jim graduated from St. John Seminary in Minnesota. Things were going swimmingly until... two weeks before Jim was to say his first Mass and formally become a Priest... He got married and I never trusted Catholics ever since! Dastardly plot if I do say so myself!
      George M Melby, Pastor

  8. I turned twelve in 1962, so I mostly remember Vatican II for the fact that it was in the news, not for any specific content. By the time Pope Paul VI was pushing back, I was aware that something big had happened, and that conservatives did not like it. Funny, conservatives are still pushing back, yet Vatican II still stands there, like the proverbial candle on a candlestick, letting its light still shine.

    I wonder if Obamacare will look a little like Vatican II in fifty years, the conservatives still pushing back, even as the light still shines, and thinking people still knowing there is more to do. I suppose the arrival of the new has always looked something like that, an amazing burst of light and creativity, followed by a long period of adjustment.

    I also suppose if Jesus were to come back today, He might check his to-do list against our accomplishments, and be rather disappointed at our failure to deliver more good news to the poor, and to those who are in prison, and to those burdened by debt. I doubt He would care nearly so much how buddy-buddy Protestants and Catholics have become, even if the detente is a major improvement over the Hundred Years War. What use is all the unity in the world if we cannot feed the hungry, relieve the suffering, and free the oppressed? Does justice roll down like a mighty river? What are we to make of the desperate refugees marching across our television screen every night? Does God care whether they are Christian or Muslim? How can it be that it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than it is for a poor Syrian to enter America? Is God the only one who can see the connection between population explosion, global warming, and the chaos engulfing our world?

    We have sown the wind, and now we are reaping the whirlwind. We should be increasing the funding for Planned Parenthood, not cutting it, demonizing it, and winking as radical Christian terrorists assault its buildings and even employees. We should should be desperately seeking more green energy, not winking and nodding as we protected fossil fuels. We should be calling for a great peace conference in the Middle East to negotiate all the issues there, not just the ones the powerful want to talk about. How long, O Lord, how long?