Vatican II at 50
Promises Made, Promises Delivered
When we try to reflect on the Second Vatican Council’s (1962–1965) “promises” to the Church, we cannot help but think of the famous definition that one of the most important theologians of the council, French Dominican Yves Congar (1904–1995) gave to the council’s Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World (Gaudium et Spes). Congar referred to this document as “the promised land of the Council.”
Gaudium et Spes was one of the last documents the council voted on and approved. The long period of drafting and amending the document was a natural consequence of the new issues it had to confront. It tackled important issues such as the relationship between Gospel and culture, peace and war, modern economy, family and marriage, and the role of the Church in political life.
Furthermore, it’s the most important council document that addresses the changes in the modern world and judges them in light of the Gospel. Discerning the tone of the times is necessary to impart relevant changes, keeping the message of the Gospel alive in light of the times.
To understand the role of the council in today’s Church, we must understand the political and cultural changes that have taken place since these documents were written.
When the council first met, the process of decolonization, which eventually became one of the most significant watersheds of the twentieth century, was just beginning. Nations that for centuries had been dominated and oppressed by European colonial empires were being liberated, giving new dignity to peoples—many whom were Christian or Catholic.
These historical events shed light on one of the key ideas of Vatican II. The council taught fidelity to the Gospel, not to a so-called golden age (whatever that was). German Jesuit Karl Rahner defined Vatican II as the event of a “world-church.” The reorientation of Catholic theology entails a new relationship to the idea of culture and civilization, making Vatican II a countercultural council. With Vatican II, Catholicism took a more holistic approach, refusing to be tied to geographic or cultural boundaries.
The end of Soviet-led communism in Europe from 1989 to 1991 halted the era of Cold War in which churches, particularly the Catholic Church, were culturally opposed; these regimes often adopted a rhetoric typical of the crusade, which contradicts the spirit of the Gospel. Vatican II didn’t officially condemn communism and communists, but John XXIII’s encyclical Pacem in Terris (1963) and the conciliar declaration on religious freedom Dignitatis Humanae (1965) were the first steps in the postconciliar engagement of the Church with political regimes worldwide on the issue of human rights.
These documents confronted unjust regimes, leading to the election of John Paul II, a Polish pope, and to the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. If not for Vatican II and the diplomatic détente that followed between Rome and Moscow, it would have been unthinkable for a Polish cardinal to ever have taken part in a conclave—and surely not twice in one year.
Beginning the Conversation
The council provided the Catholic Church with an awareness of the need to be in touch with a world not only marked by secularization in the western hemisphere, but also by a new protagonism of religions in the political realm. With its teachings on ecumenism (Unitatis Redintegratio), religious freedom (Dignitatis -Humanae), and non-Christian religions (Nostra Aetate), council documents gave Catholicism a new theological framework for understanding the complex relationship between religion and politics in a world much more multifaceted than the opposing views, say, between Church and secularism or religion and atheism.
Vatican II took place before many of the developments on the world map of religions that affect us today, especially developments in the Middle East and Central Asia. For example, the rise of “political Islam” took place between the 1967 Arab-Israeli war and the 1979 Islamic revolution in Iran. The western world witnessed what French scholar Islam Gilles Kepel termed revanche de Dieu, “God’s return.”
The upholding of religious freedom and the respect of non-Christian -religions helped Catholics better understand the impact of religious pluralism on our interconnected world. Vatican II documents teach that non-Christian religions often reflect a ray of the truth that enlightens all humanity. Keep in mind as well that these documents were created for a world that had yet to coin the phrase “separation between Church and State.”
In the twenty-first century, part of this multifaceted picture is the geopolitical decline of Europe and the western world—and the rise of Asia. Within this context, Vatican II enabled and still enables Catholicism to be respected in non-European cultures because it was the first ecumenical council not to be dominated by Italian and European bishops and theologians.
A Rapidly Changing Society
All this happened in the midst of a profound cultural shift in the Western hemisphere and elsewhere. Vatican II responded to the widespread crisis of authority and tradition by pointing to the real authority for Christians and Catholics—that is, God’s Word in Scripture and the great Tradition of the Church. The issue of ecclesiastical authority thus became merely a mediator of the “deposit of the faith” and was no longer the primary target of antiauthority polemics.
The challenge of secularization found a Church surprised by the rapidity of the spread of this phenomenon, especially in Europe and in North America. But the Church was already mobilized and quite open to new forms of presence in the world, such as the “new Catholic movements” of the laity.
To the rise of multiple identities in modern society, the Church of Vatican II offered a vision of Christian life that is less focused on a precise sociological model of the lay Catholic and more focused on the need for formation and growth in the faith.
And to the crisis of legitimacy of politics, Vatican II emphasized in Gaudiem et Spes the criticality of loving one’s neighbor when engaging politically and socially.
Particularly important for the council and the post-Vatican II period of Catholicism was the contribution of American Catholicism: the introduction of a new understanding of pluralism (particularly religious pluralism), as the necessary living condition for the Church in modernity. U.S. Catholics experienced a separation from state-run religious institutions and gave rise to a new model of Church that differed greatly from the State Church system created according to the sixteenth-century principle cuius regio, eius et religio, “one state, one religion.” The reality of Church became worldwide—a globalized Church.
Cultural and Countercultural Dimensions
Vatican II enabled the people of God to experience its historicity. God’s revelation was received and handed down throughout history through communities of faith that learned to adapt the tools and languages of their eras.
Tradition is an evolving, living organism. Through faith communities, the Church as a whole is able to discern what can and must be left behind, and what can and must be renewed and updated—without altering core beliefs.
The Church’s supreme goal is the salvation of souls (salus animarum). The Catholic Church is faithful to the Gospel only if it’s free from a particular cultural setting. In fact, fidelity to the Gospel and to the cultural experiences of the faith enter, in some historical circumstances, into a complex relationship. Faithfulness to the Gospel may require distance from cultural paradigms that are unable to communicate the Gospel to the people of the age, particularly new generations of the faithful.
Both cultural and countercultural faith dimensions show rich and particular challenges for the global community of believers. The council clearly distanced itself from the old European paradigm, which rejected religious freedom and required Latin to be the only language used during the liturgy. All of this was taught to embrace a more global paradigm relating Catholicism to the culture it finds itself engaging.
Furthermore, the council called all believers to look for the signs of the times to give these times our spirit-filled and prophetic voices. Vatican II considered the plurality of Christian religions a historical fact, and therefore the Church recognized the necessity for people to freely choose to live their faith. This new revitalized vision of Church propels all cultures to be transformed by the light of the Gospel, inviting them to freely live and be transformed by Jesus’ message.
Thus, Vatican II doesn’t reject the idea of Catholic culture, but rather it reformulates it in two ways. On the one hand, culture is subject to an interpretation of the Gospel that trumps any other authority (cultural, ecclesiastical, and so forth). Therefore, the idea of culture must be understood in a new, global setting where national culture doesn’t impede the natural culture for embedding the Catholic faith.
On the other hand, though, the council devoted particular attention to culture and the history of culture as one of the loci theologici, or sources for doing theology to evangelize, as noted in Gaudiem et Spes (44).
The World and the Church—No Longer Enemies
From the very beginning, the 1963 liturgical constitution Sacrosanctum Concilium (Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy) reframed the centrality of faith around the Eucharist and called for a new unity between the Church and humanity—as opposed to historically determined social and political patterns. The 1964 ecclesiological constitution of Vatican II, Lumen Gentium (Dogmatic Constitution on the Church), developed a theology of Church not only in light of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, but also in light of the new needs of an evolving Church.
At council’s end in 1965, the pastoral constitution Gaudium et Spes signaled the end of almost 200 years of hatred of modernity and modern cultures. Vatican II expressed the idea that the Catholic Church can preach, teach, and sanctify effectively in a rapidly changing world if it is aware of the context in which it finds itself—namely, the modern world. c