Friday, June 5, 2009

Same As It Ever Was...Or Not

What Happened at Vatican II
by John O'Malley

I never thought I would describe a book about Vatican II as a page turner, but here we are. Reading this book was an interesting experience in that other people would see me reading it and want to engage in conversation about it. One afternoon I grabbed some time and was reading and drinking an iced tea at Starbucks. Within a 45-minute period, three different people spotted the title on the cover and wanted to talk about it. The each immediately asked if I was Catholic. When I said "no," they would want to know why I was reading What Happened at Vatican II. That is a fair question. In each case I responded truthfully that a) I am interested in history for its own sake, and b) the Catholic world is so intertwined with the Protestant that I was curious about the repercussions that Vatican II had on Christian faith in general.

What struck me about this very readable history of the Second Vatican Council was how much courage the man who convoked it (Pope John XXIII) had. He was old already when elected pope, and he could have just coasted through a papacy leaving things the same. However, he knew that there were important issues brewing beneath the surface of the church and that it was important to get them out into the open and have them debated as openly and fairly as possible. After John XXIII died, Paul VI took over the papacy and the responsibility of the council. He was more of an interventionist than John, and also more easily swayed by warring factions, so the council had a few more bumps in the road after he took over. However, it was Paul VI who left Italy (as pope) to visit the Holy Land, India, and later the UN. He broke a tradition of over 100 years that the pope not leave Italy while in office. So, Paul VI gets a lot of credit for becoming a unifying figure for Catholics across the world.

Most of us know that Vatican II was the council at which the bishops voted that priests who chose could conduct Mass in the vernacular language where they served, and that after Vatican II Catholic priests encouraged their people to read and study the Bible (which before had been the purview only of the priests). However, many of the items on Vatican II's agenda are issues that Protestants have struggled with and still do. All Christians (and I suspect people of other faiths as well) debate the authority of scripture, the sources of revelation other than scripture, and appropriate conduct for clergy. I realized while reading the book that we are all more alike than different. We see only through a glass darkly, and are just doing our best to be faithful.

Of course, Vatican II had much of the same infighting and behind the scenes maneuvering that we see in our Protestant Assemblies and Conferences and whatever else we call them. O'Malley's account, though, is very even handed. He does not demonize any faction or person, instead assuming from the outset that each was following his conscience and doing his best to act with integrity. He never even uses divisive labels like "liberal" and "conservative," sticking to the neutral "majority" and "minority." This book gave me an appreciation for where Christians have been, how far we have come, and how far we still have to go if we are to be the church that God envisions.

We should be grateful to the participants in Vatican II. The council produced groundbreaking documents on the church's role in the world and the necessity for the church to speak plainly, frequently, and unambiguously for justice and human rights. Vatican II intentionally reached out to our Jewish sisters and brothers and made an attempt to repair some of the damage caused by two millenia of Christians thinking of the Jews as those who killed Christ (a tragic mischaracterization that was one of the bricks in the foundation of thought that led to the Holocaust). Although there is still much repairing to be done, Vatican II also at least acknowledged that Protestants had some legitimate complaints leading up to the Reformation, and opened the way for dialogue between Catholics and their Protestant neighbors and friends.

The tone of Vatican II was different from any other previous council (O'Malley's brief history of the prior councils, going all the way back to Nicaea, is most helpful). Rather than taking a top down, threatening, punitive approach, Vatican II was focused much more on collegiality, dialogue, and mutual understanding - both within the council and in the development of relationships between the Catholic church and the rest of the world. As someone who has participated in many conferences, meetings, and assemblies where this is the tone that we at least try for, I see that the seeds for this type of church were planted at Vatican II. There are still things about Catholic policy, theology, and hierarchy that do not resonate with me and likely never will. However, What Happened at Vatican II gave me a deeper understanding of their history and a greater sense of our connectedness as Christians and children of God. We are all muddling through, doing our best to be faithful. God bless us every one.

Reverent Reader


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