By Kristen Moulton
Editor's Note: This article was first published March 4, 2011 in The Salt Lake Tribune.
Colleen McDannell knew the title of her new book, The Spirit of Vatican II: A History of Catholic Reform in America, would be provocative.
It does, after all, place the book smack in the middle of a contentious debate within the U.S. Catholic Church.
Modernists talk of the church not living up to “the spirit of Vatican II,” while traditionalists mock the phrase as if it’s a ruse for turning the council on its head.
Yet McDannell [left], a history professor at the University of Utah, says the title was nonetheless perfect for what she wanted to do: Tell the story of how American Catholics negotiated a time of dramatic change in their church.
“There was a spirit, and it was not just a light, frivolous, hippie, mini-skirted-nun type of thing,” says McDannell, who holds the Sterling McMurrin Chair in Religious Studies at the U.
The Spirit of Vatican II, McDannell’s eighth book, was released this week by Basic Books of New York. It is a social history, so it focuses on people’s lives.
“Many Catholics of an age remember this time in a warm and positive way, and that legacy endures,” McDannell says. “The council was, for most Catholics, a breath of fresh air.”
The Second Vatican Council was a meeting of Catholic bishops from throughout the world. It convened for months at a time in Rome over a three-year span, ending in late 1965.
Vatican II is considered the most pivotal church council in recent centuries, not because it declared new doctrine but because it changed the way the faith engages the modern world. It described a whole new role for lay Catholics.
The documents produced by the council to guide the church “were more poetry than law,” McDannell says. “The documents were meant to be inspirational and show through language an openness.”
A Mass for the masses
The most apparent changes had to do with liturgy.
Soon after Vatican II, priests began facing their congregations rather than the altar during Mass, and worship was in the vernacular of the people rather than the church’s official language, Latin.
Lay people began reading the scriptures for their fellow Catholics at Mass and serving communion. Women no longer covered their hair with veils, scarves or hats. Guitars appeared, and, for a time, popular folk songs were played.
In addition, lay people began studying scripture and theology together, and teaching it, too — something previously reserved for priests and nuns.
“It was a call to lay people to take a more active stance with regard to the liturgy,” says Kathleen Dolphin, who organized a conference and yearlong series to celebrate the 40th anniversary of Vatican II in 2005. She is the director of the Center for Spirituality at St. Mary’s College in Indiana, next to Notre Dame University.
“There were some people who went overboard with making the liturgy too ordinary,” Dolphin says. “Some of it was silly and some of it got kind of vapid, but . . . they were putting together the airplane while in flight.”
The church also began conversing with those engaged in science, government and other faith traditions.
McDannell says the effects cascaded.
“The council,” she explains, “opened up a space for Catholics to think critically, intelligently, thoughtfully, thoroughly, about their religious tradition.”
For regular Catholics, Dolphin says, the changes were profound.
“There has been this consistent effort to tone down what happened at the Second Vatican Council,” as if it were not a major turning point, Dolphin says. “But the people in the pews would say something really happened.”
McDannell tells the story through the lens of her parents, particularly her mother’s life.
In Los Angeles, where her parents lived in the early 1960s, the archbishop was in no hurry to implement Vatican II reforms, and so Catholics there saw slow change.
When the family moved to Denver in 1967, they found Vatican II in full flower, with an architecturally modern church, a priest who wanted to be called by his first name, “Bill,” and guitar Masses.
Her Republican parents, Margaret and Ken McDannell, were now in a parish with a social-justice commission that took up collections for Cesar Chavez’s United Farm Workers Union and sponsored a refugee family from Vietnam.
“Although she chose not to boycott nonunion grapes and lettuce, she did begin a long relationship with an order of priests who worked among the poor in Appalachia,” McDannell writes of her mother. “For Margaret and many of her generation who were critical of liberal protests, the parish served as a trusted interpreter of world culture and politics.”
Indeed, McDannell was surprised in researching her book to learn of the importance of the church to her mother, who moved every few years because of her husband’s work in the federal prison system.
“She had a ready-made community no matter where she went, with core rituals and history,” says McDannell, who visited her parents’ parishes from Ohio to California and from Colorado to Florida, interviewing friends and former priests and reading old parish bulletins.
While the American church still suffers from a rift between traditionalists and modernists, which centers often on the legacy of Vatican II, the divide often is set aside, she says. Her parents’ affluent, conservative parish in Ocala, Fla., for instance, has a sister church in Uganda.
“In parishes alive and growing, they have to deal with a variety of different kinds of Catholics,” McDannell says.
While it was not part of her mother’s story, McDannell talks about one of the other consequences of Vatican II: the hemorrhage of American Catholics out of the church.
“It’s . . . indicative of Catholics thinking the church did not go far enough in making changes, in its attitude toward homosexuality, toward women in the priesthood, toward birth control,” McDannell says. “For many people, they just got frustrated with that. The promise that we moved so far but not far enough.”
McDannell says she has stopped practicing her faith and now describes herself as a secular humanist.
“Where the church seemed to be going,” she says, “was not where I thought I wanted to go.”
Nonetheless, she calls herself a “confusing Catholic.”
“I spend more time talking about it, reading about it, studying it, than most normal Catholics.”
The publication of her book is bittersweet, because her mother died Dec. 13, as it was going to press.
“I feel confident that I told her story in an honest and straightforward way,” McDannell says. “This was not a woman who in any way was a liberal hippie, but it [Vatican II] allowed her to participate in the changes . . . in that era in a way that made sense to her. For many serious Catholics, it really revitalized their relationship to their faith and the tradition itself.”
Peter Steinfels, co-director of Fordham University’s Center on Religion and Culture, calls McDannell’s book innovative for looking at the cultural changes through the eyes of women, particularly her mother.
“She has brought in a grass-roots perspective,” Steinfels says. “It is a very readable introduction. . . . It’s not inside baseball.”
Unlike McDannell’s mother and her friends, though, Steinfels has a more “worried” interpretation of the legacy of Vatican II. In 2003, he wrote A People Adrift: The Crisis of the Roman Catholic Church in America.
“Vatican II set in motion certain dynamics, this conservative and liberal split,” Steinfels says, “and it was handled poorly in turn.”
Data show that one in three adult American Catholics have left the faith, he says. “And the picture looks much more troubled from the standpoint of 20-somethings.
“There’s a conservative read on what went wrong and a liberal read on what went wrong, but is there a common ground?” Steinfels asks. “Something is amiss right now.”