Catholics reflect on 50th anniversary of Vatican II

Published: Monday, Oct. 15 2012 8:10 a.m. MDT

Pope John XXIII said that he convened the Vatican II council 50 years ago this month because he thought it was time for "renewal" and to open the windows of the church to the world.

In marking the anniversary of the historic changes the council recommended, liberal and conservative Catholic scholars are reflecting on whether the windows have since been or should be shut.

The council met from 1962 to 1965 and issued 16 documents that radically changed the course of the church by updating the liturgy, giving bishops and laity a voice, introducing the concept of religious freedom and respecting common bonds with other religions.

Among the welcomed and enduring changes was the church's validation of religious freedom and forging relationships with other faiths.

"Thus ended an era of cozy church-state relations that began in the fourth century with Emperor Constantine," John W. O'Malley, a Georgetown University professor and Jesuit priest, wrote in The New York Times.

"Before the council, Catholics were not only forbidden to pray with those of other faiths but also indoctrinated into a disdain or even contempt for them. (This was, of course, a two-way street.) Now, for the first time, Catholics were encouraged to foster friendly relations with Orthodox and Protestant Christians, as well as Jews and Muslims, and even to pray with them. The council condemned all forms of anti-Semitism and insisted on respect for Judaism and Islam as Abrahamic faiths, like Christianity."

With Vatican II, the Catholic Church sent out the message that it was part of the modern world, Thomas Ryan, director of the Loyola Institute for Ministry, told the Times-Picayune. “Not against, not above, not apart, but in the modern world,” he said. “The church sought to engage, not condemn.”

The most pronounced example of this change was the church’s approach to Judaism. Before Vatican II, Jews were stigmatized as the people who killed Jesus Christ. That changed with the council, when the Catholic Church acknowledged its Jewish roots and Jews’ covenant with God, Ryan said.

“It had the effect that the sun has when it comes up and interrupts the night,” said Rabbi Edward Cohn of Temple Sinai in New Orleans. “It was no less dramatic than that. It provided an entirely new day. It changed everything.”

Other changes included making the Mass accessible to the public by celebrating it in local languages instead of just Latin and having the priest face the congregation. Nuns and priests became more vocal and active in social causes. And, while the final word still rested with the papacy, bishops and laity had more of a voice.

But in the intervening years, the hierarchy has retrenched, fearing that many of the changes undermined the power of the pope, according to liberal voices like John Gehring, Catholic program director at Faith in Public Life. He wrote in The Los Angeles Times that church leaders "may be dragging Catholicism, known for social justice and intellectual rigor, into the reactionary arms of fundamentalist Christianity" and driving people away from the church.

But conservatives who applaud a restoration of teachings and practices before 1962, question what benefits came from Vatican II. "Fifty years later, the greatest accomplishment that can be said for the Second Vatican Council is Pope John XXIII’s stated goal to 'throw open the windows of the Church.' Yet from conversions to Mass attendance, it has produced nothing measurable in the upward direction," wrote Kenneth J. Wolfe in The Washington Post.

Yet, Pope Benedict XVI, who was present at the council and reportedly felt its effects went too far, told an audience of bishops on Friday that the Second Vatican Council's call for "renewal'' did not mark a break with tradition, as liberals have characterized it, or a watering down of the faith, as its conservative critics have argued. Instead, he said, the renewal "reflected Christianity's lasting vitality and God's eternal presence."

"Christianity must never be seen as something from the past, nor lived with one's gaze always looking back, because Jesus is yesterday, today and for all eternity," Pope Benedict said.

"This 'renewal' does not mean a break with tradition, rather it expresses a lasting vitality," he said.