One of the first comments I can remember hearing about the Catholic Church is how Vatican II had ruined it. Somehow this council took place and stole the heart and soul of Catholicism. The ongoing barb that I continually hear is how bad the liturgy is in the Catholic Church; because of Vatican II.
When I came into the Church, I made it a priority to learn all I could about this famed council, as I had already given it a good looking over before I made the swim to Rome. What I found was a council that truly shows the depth and godliness of the Church.
So lets take a look at this council, as it is a treasure trove waiting to be opened. First, the council was called by Pope John XXIII, who would not live to see it’s completion. Blessed John XXIII was an outgoing jovial man who wanted one thing, the reunification of the Catholic Church. In his first addressed he made it a point to voice this goal. But it is one thing to voice this wish, another to make it happen. As I educate myself on modern Catholic history, I find something very comforting, a spiritual and godly process was used to come to the conclusions of Vatican II.
There were four main movements to this council.
The first, a patristic movement. The Church had since Trent (and before…) been dealing with it’s structure. What is the relationship between priests and bishops; more importantly between bishops and the Holy Father. This might seem trivial to laity, but it is very important. Who is in charge? Modern history since 1500 is replete with experiments in church leadership. We have witness to thousands of leadership models, all which led to schism and at times, great heresies. Think for a moment, you are in charge, what changes will you make? Now take this one step further, who will be affected by those changes? Which of God’s laws would you change? Which portions of scripture might you extract? Minimize? Gather with a few friends over a beer and talk about what changes you might make if you were in charge of the Church. Abortion? Adultery? Divorce? Homosexuality? If you have a big enough grouping of friends, you will have a number of beliefs when asking these questions. We might have a lively conversation with our friends, but when it comes to having this conversation with God, we need to know His thoughts, not ours. Who speaks for God? Clergy? Which one? Bishops? Which one? Councils? Which one? We can easily see the confusion that theological questions can generate. So how do we gain calm out of the chaos? There is but one pope, and this is what Vatican II wanted to assert, a hierarchical structure which needs to persevere in ecclesiology. Deacons, priests, bishops, cardinals, all serve at the pleasure of the papacy. All theology has its final definition through the vicar of Christ.
The second movement of Vatican II, was scripture and its place within the Christian life. This usually gets a stern response; “of course scripture has a place in Christian life!” But before we stay the obvious, we need to speak of the nuances of biblical study. Theologians, beginning in the 18th century, began to look at scripture and question some long held theories. I will not go into detail here, but questioning scriptural translations and commentary can be dangerous territory; make a mistake and you are knee deep in heresy. Pope Pius VII, in 1943, wrote his encyclical, Divina Affante Spiritus, of which Raymond Brown would call the Magna Carta of scriptural studies. This document would lay the groundwork that Vatican II would use in order to allow biblical scholars the latitude they needed to study scripture and propose theories on its meaning without having to do so outside of the Church.
The third movement of Vatican II was liturgical. This is all I knew of Vatican II a few years ago. In my mind the whole council came together and spoke of nothing except how they could wreck the liturgy of the modern Church. As I began to visit Catholic Churches in my discernment process, I was shocked to see that their liturgy was very similar to Anglican Rite II. It was pleasant, familiar, and seemed to flow quite nicely. The second and greater shock was that Vatican II spent very little time with this issue. Sacrosanctum Concillium passed almost immediately upon convening Vatican II. No fighting, little debate, it just happened. The liturgy that would emerge from Vatican II was known as the liturgy of Pope Paul VI. We know it as the Novus Ordo, or, the “new order for the ages”. Why was its passing so easy? Pope John XXIII wanted unity amongst Christians, and the first step to that unity was creating a liturgy that was inviting. Latin was, and is seen as the one language that unifies. The language of the Church that creates the same mass whether you are in America or Germany or Rome. But in reality it was a stumbling block for those coming into the Church, and by the easy vote, the clergy knew it. Done well and with quality music, the novus ordo is a beautiful rite, produced with an eye towards the main movement of Vatican II, that all might be one.
This brings us to the forth movement of Vatican II. Ecumenicism. Pope John XXIII wanted to bring an end to the reformation, more aptly called, the deformation of Christs Church. Since the first morning star of the reformation the Catholic Church had tried to quash the reformers, gaining only martyrs. Pope John saw a better way, to act in love. Lumen Gentium was the document produced by Vatican II that took the longest by far to pass. The phrase that Pope John used was “people of God”, instead of the “Church Catholic”. The inference is that all were members of the Catholic Church, like it or not. You might be a Catholic that was separated by schism, maybe an apostate that chose to leave the church, but all were Catholic. (lets not confuse being Catholic with ability to partake in the sacramental life of the Church, the two are not related when we speak of brethren that have fallen away) Beginning with this idea that all were part of the same family, the call was no longer “repent and submit to the Catholic Church”, but instead, “come home”. The council argued for some time over the idea that there is salvation to those separated from the Church by ignorance and schism, meaning that those who were born Anglican, and never knew the truth of the Catholic Church, could have the same possibility of eternal life as any Catholic. Before Vatican II, all who were of other denominations were deemed lost unless they formally came into the Catholic Church. Here is where the argument is, and in some circles, (second only to the liturgical changes) this is where the argument remains today. We should be careful here, Vatican II states that if you have full knowledge of the Catholic faith, and still turn away, then your soul is in mortal danger. Only if you do not know the Church and it’s teachings can you find salvation outside of the Church.
Vatican II has been a wonderful discovery for me, and I highly recommend its study for anyone who truly wants to know the Catholic Church. It provides to this day a wonderful vision of open arms welcoming the dispersed back home.