Wednesday, October 17, 2012

5 Things We Learned from Vatican II

I haven't been too topical lately, but there have been some rather interesting developments in Rome as the Pope celebrates the 50th anniversary of the opening of Vatican II, the sweeping reform of the Roman Catholic Church. In the meantime, the Pope is also calling together a "Year of Faith", whose impact and meaning has yet to be seen.

So in honor of the 50th of Vatican II, I want to nail down 5 things we have learned from Vatican II.

1) Do not run from reality. Vatican II is considered a pivotal point in the history of Christianity as a global church organization directly called the world - our present reality - "good", god-filled, and a source of spiritual health. Until that time, and into our own present, Christians have been at war with the present. But Vatican II responds that God exists in our world and that the final goals of humanity - salvation - are achieved using our world.  

In so doing Vatican II encouraged scientific research and condemned apocalyptic language that divides "chosen" or "believers" from the world. Anything that removes false divisions and encourages communication is aces for me. 

2) Churches are for People. Maybe the most existentially challenging aspect of the council was the idea that the church is an instution, and that it needs to be updated. The only comparable council in terms of scope and content was Trent, five centuries earlier, so for 20th century church authorities, every major question was more or less settled, and it was the people's job to accept and conform. Vatican I in the 19th century solidified this by formally claiming the pope to be infallible.

But the horror of WWII destroyed Europe's confidence in institutions. Church leaders (university theologians first) saw that they were not an institution separate from the world. This prompted a radical theological shift that asked basic questions about the nature and purpose of religious institutions, and led to the conclusion that religious institutions are for people. Christian churches are built and organized to facilitate people getting together with each other and God. 

3) Women are also People. Vatican II vastly improved the integration of women into the church organization, although it was (is) still wildly inadequate. Although women could not attend or vote in any formal session (only clergy were allowed), and were not the theological advisors to any attendees, they were there, in the vatican, as more than domestics. Married women and women religious (nuns) essentially had subcommittees that wrote some material for the sessions. 

Is that much? No. But now women are present in majority at major theological universities, and hold high-ranking positions within the hierarchy. Women still aren't voting members - clergy like bishops and cardinals.

4)  Globalization, not Colonization. Vatican II was still predominantly Italian, and then overwhelmingly European, but many non-caucasian bishops represented their non-European nations at the council. Now, religious liturgies are adapted to local customs, so that God can be present in the rituals for people who aren't Roman. 

This may seem small, again, but it paved the way for the general globalization of the Catholic church, a church in which European members (and European bishops) are now in the minority. Asian, Hispanic, and African leaders were all popular choices for pope after John Paul II, which might have led to an organization with very different priorities. 

5) Philosophy is not a Curse. Because the most satisfying reflections on WWII were coming from philosophers like Sartre, in contrast to the anemic responses of contemporary religious figures, the theologians present at the council were adept students of post-modern philosophy. At the council they asked big, whole-world questions that had never before been asked of a church organization. What is God? What is the nature of our relationship with God? What is Jesus? What does it mean to be saved by Jesus? These texts, then, read like a manual to re-build a car, bolt by bolt.

We, in turn, should not shy away from these questions in the new millennium. These days our church organizations are - again - not answering our needs. The sessions of Vatican II is a lesson that it is possible to ask big questions without being ostracized or labeled. The years since? Not so much. 

Let's rebuild our spiritual landscape with the same sense of futurism and openness of fifty years ago. 


  1. It's interesting to read an analysis of Vatican II from an institutional point of view rather than from a theological or doctrinal point of view (though certainly those radical changes in institution led to important changes in world view and thus theology).

    1. That's an important observation, Stephen. I've found that most people don't ever experience religion or spirituality or anything from a theological point of view, with the exception of professors of theology. If people experience religion, we are experiencing an institution. So while institutional and theological changes definitely mingled at Vatican II, I tried to focus on changes people might have noticed - and that people could use as a template for future spiritual communities.

  2. I like it, your summary on the positive effects that reflect a new "lived" theology, albeit a fragile one. Great work. I think you tease out the "teachings" that the person in the pews probably noticed the most, but couldn't articulate.

    1. Thanks for the kind words. I hope I combine lived experience "in the pews" with some assessment of where that experience came from, institutionally speaking.

  3. I think lots of people try to exaggerate the amount of change that the magisterium was actually willing to make, or err by understating the societal shifts that the changes represented. Well written.

    Do you think that the selection of Benedict over a more progressive papal candidate was a genuine shift back to the more conservative doctrinal focus, or a vestige of old power structures that are fading away over time?

    1. I honestly don't know about Benedict. It could have been a nod to the past, a final grounding in traditional theology before a more 21st century approach. That's my hope, at least. But it's still a day late.

  4. I think you avoid overstating the changes that the magisterium was actually willing to endorse, while rightly highlighting the seismic societal shifts that the council represented. Well written.

    Do you think the selection of Benedict's conservatism is a reversal of this move toward openness, or a vestige of power structures within the church that are fading away over time? Will the next pope will be more progressive as the church's leadership becomes more global?

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