The idea of calling a General Council came to John XXIII as he prayed, in the weeks after he became Pope, in 1958. John was a deeply traditional, devout, and obedient churchman – as he had to be, to attract votes at the conclave. But there was another side to him – he was not a Roman, not a Vatican man. From 1925 until 1953, he had lived in Bulgaria, Turkey, and France, representing the Pope abroad and becoming familiar with outsiders – Orthodox, Muslims, unbelievers... The experience left him unusually open-minded, sympathetic to the world outside the Catholic Church, ready to relate cordially to anyone and everyone of good will. John was also a historian: he knew what great changes there have been in the past.
Though he would have said it was the work of the Holy Spirit, John was the creator of Vatican 2. He carried it through to the end of the first session, in 1962, and though he died in 1963, he left the momentum for the next Pope – Paul VI – to see it finished, in three further sessions.
What was John’s purpose in calling a Council? It was a surprise to all, and a massive undertaking for a man of seventy-seven. The one-word answer was ‘aggiornamento’ – updating the Church and adapting it to a changed situation seen in ‘the signs of the times’. The more detailed answer was, to reunite divided Christians, to re-activate passive Catholics, and to engage in dialogue with the outside world. Friendly cooperation in a pastoral manner was to be preferred to hard-edged condemnations. There was mention, venturing on to very delicate ground, of a re-expression of Church teaching.
Not everyone was persuaded. For most of the twentieth century, ‘modernism’ had been a dirty word in the Church, the name of a ‘heresy’. To many influential officials, ‘aggiornamento’ sounded suspiciously like ‘modernisation’, and from the start there was resistance to the changes proposed by the Council. Until 1958, theologians like Yves Congar who argued the case for change were suppressed. In effect, John was giving the go-ahead to the ‘New Theology’ – a cluster of movements, biblical, ecumenical, liturgical, historical, which were reinterpreting church tradition. Persecuted scholars were turned almost overnight into expert advisers to the Council.
Some changes were passed and put into effect – the vernacular replaced Latin in the liturgy. More distantly, there was a friendlier approach to Protestant and Orthodox Christians, and to other world faiths. ‘Justice and Peace’ movements for Third World aid became active. Other changes were voted through, but were put into effect only patchily. For example, religious liberty or freedom of conscience was not easily accepted in the Church. And the promotion of Catholics to the status of ‘The People of God’ (equivalent perhaps to the change in civil society from subject to citizen) has not been generally effected. Above all, the key change proposed by the Council – ‘collegiality’, or the partnership in church government of all the bishops with the Bishop of Rome – was strongly resisted, and has scarcely been put into effect at all. The Church is still run by Pope and Curia.
Two and a half years after the Council closed, a decision was made in a test case. The question arose, in the 1960s, could catholic women use the new contraceptive pill – or indeed could catholic couples use any form of contraception? This question had been kept off the Council’s agenda and reserved to the Pope and a small advisory body of experts. It was decided, in the negative, by Pope Paul personally, accepting the advice of the minority of his advisory body. The papal monarchy of the FIRST Vatican Council was back at work. The Pope made the wrong decision, for the wrong reasons, by the wrong means. Considering that Vatican 2 sought to promote the voice of the Catholic people, and to find common ground where possible with the secular world, the 1968 encyclical letter ‘Humanae Vitae’ conveyed with great authority the message that the recent Council might as well not have taken place. This was the sub-text I picked up, as a middle-aged priest, not directly and personally affected by the main, surface, message. I was very shaken, and joined lay people in protest. I noticed that in all the official commentaries, and in all the reprimands addressed to protesters, no mention was made of the Council’s Declaration on Religious Freedom, agreed more than two years before. Newman, writing of after-dinner toasts, had said “I shall drink – to the Pope if you please – still, to Conscience first, and to the Pope afterwards.” It was remarks like this, and other far-sighted theological arguments that earned Newman the title ‘Father of the Second Vatican Council’.
Vatican 2, as a historical event, and in the form of agreed documents, supplies a vision and a programme, much of it still relevant. There is disappointment that church leaders have so far, on the whole, chosen cautious restoration rather than confident change. Hans Küng has written recently of a time of ‘stagnation’, in which many urgent problems, pastoral and intellectual, have been avoided.
An editorial in the theological periodical Concilium - a number entitled “Vatican II – A Forgotten Future?” - suggests that we are invited, “each one of us to formulate and find our own position in relation to the event that as such is history, and therefore living tissue of the way in which the Church becomes itself.” (1)
(1) G. Alberigo, ‘Vatican II and its History’, Concilium, 2005, no. 4, p.17
Picture of Cardinal Newman donated by the International Deutschen Newman-Gesellschaft