Reactions to the 50th Anniversary of Vatican II

Three posts in one day… Can you tell that it’s Fall Break at Bethel University?

After a couple of earlier posts centered on Protestantism, I’ll close my blogging for the day (?) with one focused on a seminal event in the history of Roman Catholicism: today marks the 50th anniversary of the beginning of the Second Vatican Council (or “Vatican II”). What did it accomplish over its three years of deliberations, and what is its legacy half a century later?

A selection of reflections and reactions:

Paul VI and Joseph Ratzinger
Fifteen years after the start of Vatican II… Pope Paul VI in 1977 with Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger (the present Pope Benedict XVI) – Wikimedia

From Pope Benedict XVI himself (present at the council on that “splendid day” — along with three other future pontiffs)… Not surprisingly, given how much of his papacy has focused on responding to secularization in Europe, he emphasized that the council — without a specific issue to resolve — confronted the seeming loss of church influence in the modern world:

It was a moment of extraordinary expectation. Great things were about to happen. The previous Councils had almost always been convoked for a precise question to which they were to provide an answer. This time there was no specific problem to resolve. But precisely because of this, a general sense of expectation hovered in the air: Christianity, which had built and formed the Western world, seemed more and more to be losing its power to shape society. It appeared weary and it looked as if the future would be determined by other spiritual forces. The sense of this loss of the present on the part of Christianity, and of the task following on from that, was well summed up in the word “aggiornamento” (updating). Christianity must be in the present if it is to be able to form the future. So that it might once again be a force to shape the future, John XXIII had convoked the Council without indicating to it any specific problems or programmes. This was the greatness and at the same time the difficulty of the task that was set before the ecclesial assembly.

In this vein, Benedict went on to discuss the council’s declarations on Religious Liberty and on the Relation of the Church to Non-Christian Religions (“Nostra Aetate”). Likewise Jesuit theologian John O’Malley emphasized that at Vatican II “The church validated for the first time the principle of religious freedom and rejected all forms of civil discrimination based on religious grounds. Thus ended an era of cozy church-state relations that began in the fourth century with Emperor Constantine.”

(In American history, it is Vatican II — together with the election of John F. Kennedy not quite two years before — that made possible last night’s historic sight of two Catholic vice-presidential candidates debating each other.)

Similarly, Commonweal editorialized, about the embrace of religious pluralism (and science and technology, for that matter):

And so a church once narrowly focused on the world to come suddenly discovered much to praise in the world at hand. Most important, perhaps, the laity was now urged to bring its faith into the secular sphere, to transform a fallen world rather than retreat from it. This effort at aggiornamento, or updating, looked back to certain neglected aspects of the tradition (ressourcement) for inspiration and guidance. That project was in part an effort to find within the church’s own traditions theological and philosophical sources that could more firmly ground and thus defend what was morally sound in the modern world’s understanding of human dignity and individual liberty.

Paul VI and Karol Wotyla, 1967
Two of the future popes who began Vatican II as bishops: in 1967, Pope Paul VI elevates Karol Wotyla (the future John Paul II) to the College of Cardinals – Wikimedia

Contending that the response to modernity really began over eight decades earlier, with the election of Pope Leo XIII, conservative commentator George Weigel (biographer of one of the future popes present at the council) warned against reading Vatican II as marking a profound break with the past:

Yes, the Council opened the Church’s windows to the modern world. But the Council also challenged the modern world to open its own windows (and doors, and skylights) in order to rediscover the world of transcendent Truth and Love—the world of the supernatural, which is the really real world. The growing end of early 21st-century Catholicism is found in local churches that have embraced the Council’s evangelical intention and the Council’s teaching in full. Those who have done so have found both a new understanding of Word and Sacrament, the twin pillars of Catholic life, and a new passion for evangelism.

(That quotation from Weigel’s post at First Thoughts. He also wrote an extended essay on the council and its historical roots for The National Review.)

But to traditionalist Catholics like Kenneth Wolfe, Vatican II went too far in accommodating to the modern age. He lays many of the Church’s recent problems at the feet of the council and the reformers who directed it, arguing that “from conversions to Mass attendance, it has produced nothing measurable in the upward direction.” He concludes with the call from the traditionalist Society of St. Pius X, “for the pope to simply erase all 16 Vatican II documents and restore the liturgy, teachings and discipline in place before the collapse of all that was considered good and holy in 1962.”

Hans Küng
Hans Küng in 2009 – Creative Commons (Muesse)

At the same time, liberal Catholics and secular media have tended to treat Vatican II as a missed opportunity, a reform movement that didn’t go far enough. BBC correspondent David Willey decided that “a close reading of the historical record of what actually happened reveals that the Council’s lofty goals were never achieved. Pope John [XXIII] died the year after the first session. When his successor Pope Paul VI took over the running of the Council, John’s initial vision and impetus had weakened.” Willey quoted critics of Benedict like Hans Küng (like the current pope, a theological adviser at Vatican II) and the late Cardinal Carlo Maria Martini (famous for saying earlier this year, in his final interview, that the Church remained “200 years behind the times”), noted that the council’s attempt to retain an advisory function for a regular synod of bishops has amounted to little (O’Malley also discussed the decline of conciliarism), and hinted that a third Vatican council was necessary to complete “unfinished” business from 1965.

For a similar take (with extended comments from Kung), see this report by NPR correspondent Sylvia Poggioli. She quotes British Catholic journalist Robert Mickens, who laments that the reform-minded, modernity-engaging spirit of Vatican II didn’t last: “We really haven’t made our peace as a Catholic Church, as an institution, with the Enlightenment…. The Vatican is a great example. It’s an absolute monarchy. The Enlightenment got rid of all that.”

Finally, the Jesuit magazine America offered a different kind of commemoration: it republished its 1962 editorial on the opening of the council, which summarized the council’s challenge in these terms: “…to proclaim the truths of faith without hesitation. At the sarne time, however, it will seek, in all charity, to further Christian unity by narrowing the chance of misunderstanding on the part of other Christians.”


4 thoughts on “Reactions to the 50th Anniversary of Vatican II

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