By Bill Hunt
Recent observances of the fiftieth anniversary of the start of the Second Vatican Council (like the October 11, 2012 special edition of the National Catholic Reporter) have had a muted tone – a fear that the gains of the Council are in danger of being reversed by current Vatican authorities. I understand that feeling, but I think that there are many reasons to celebrate the Council’s achievements. So I have listed a few things that the Council has done that are not likely to be overturned any time soon. I hope that this will stimulate readers of the Progressive Catholic Voice to recall still other accomplishments of the Council and to make these fiftieth anniversary years a full-throated celebration.
1. The People of God as a primary image of the Church
This is illustrated by the debate during the Second Period (1963) about the order of chapters in the decree on the Church. The vote was in favor of putting the chapter “People of God” before the chapter “The Hierarchical Structure of the Church, with Special Reference to the Episcopate.”
2. Liturgy and sacraments in the vernacular throughout the Latin Rite
Antiquarians can promote a return to the Latin Mass, but 99% of Catholics throughout the world now worship in their own language and have at least the possibility of participating actively in the prayer of the people.
3. The lectionary initiated in Advent 1969
This amazing "restauratio" of the ancient Church's three-year cycle provides Catholics with a vastly wider selection of readings than were available in the pre-Vatican II lectionary, which had no Old Testament readings and a one year cycle of gospel readings, mainly from Matthew.
4. New methods of scripture interpretation, especially historical criticism
Since the early part of the twentieth century Vatican offices, particularly the Biblical Commission and the Holy Office, were obsessed with “Modernism” and opposed modern methods of biblical criticism. One decree demanded that Catholic scholars hold that the first five books of the Bible were actually written by Moses himself. Although some relief came from Bishop Pacelli’s encyclical Divino Afflante Spiritu (1943), scripture scholars labored under many doctrinal restrictions. The decree on Revelation reversed many, if not all, of the pre-conciliar anti-modernist fulminations and gave renewed impetus to the blossoming of Catholic biblical scholarship.
Although the majority position was compromised at the Council (See, e.g., the infamous "nota praevia explicativa."), the cat is out of the bag. The hitherto unmentionable word has been mentioned and even embodied in the (till now ineffective) Synod of Bishops.
6. Episcopal conferences
Suspect before the Council and attenuated by recent legislation from the Vatican, they still are an institution. It is important to remember that prior to the Council there was no Italian bishops' conference. The American Catholic bishops’ National Catholic War Council (1917), later the National Catholic Welfare Conference (1922), was a real pioneer along with the Conference of Latin American Bishops (CELAM). Now the structure is universal.
7. Restoration of the Permanent Diaconate
This is another restoration of a practice of the ancient Church that has changed the face of the Latin Rite since the Council. Today the number of ordained deacons in many dioceses rivals or even exceeds the number of priests. Deacons play an essential role in parishes, large and small. They preach, baptize, preside at marriages, bring Viaticum to the dying, officiate at funerals, direct works of charity, and perform a wide variety of administrative functions. While the number of ordained priests in the US is declining, the number of ordained deacons is increasing. Given their training and experience, deacons are logical candidates for ordination to the priesthood.
Ecumenical dialog, cooperation, and witness: Even though the Vatican has been cautious about multilateral cooperation on the interdenominational level (e.g. the World Council of Churches), following from the Council it has approved unilateral dialogs with various Christian denominations, e.g. the Lutheran Catholic dialog. On the local level, however, organizations like the Minnesota Joint Religious Legislative Coalition, founded in 1971, join the State Catholic Conference, the Jewish Community Relations Council, the Council of Churches, and the Islamic Center in common legislative initiatives.
Other examples of ecumenical dialog cooperation and witness include Catholic marriages in Protestant churches, intercommunion in Orthodox churches, and ecumenical publishing. An example of the latter is The New Oxford Annotated Bible with the Apocrypha (New Revised Standard Edition). A Catholic priest, Roland E Murphy co-edited it with Bruce M. Metzger, a Presbyterian.
9. Inter-religious Dialog
The Council was a stimulus for active dialog, not only with Jews, but also with Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, and others. This is especially true for Catholics in Asia. See for example the works of Bede Griffith, Thomas Merton, Hans Kung, Jacques Dupuis, David Steindl-Rast, etc. The Council also sparked Jewish-Christian initiatives such as the program at the University of St Thomas in St Paul, MN.
10. Lay ministries
Lay ministries have exploded since the Second Vatican Council – teachers, religious education coordinators, parish administrators, Eucharistic ministers, readers, pastoral associates, chaplains, etc.
11. Lay theologians
Another factoid illustrates this point. Notre Dame's graduate theology program dates from around 1966. Now almost every Catholic University in the world is training lay people to be theologians. Back in the 1960s meetings of the Catholic Theological Society of America (CTSA) were a sea of Roman collars with an occasional nun or layperson. As far back as the 1997 convention in Minneapolis, clerics were a small minority, and about half of the participants were women. Today, I suspect, women constitute a majority of the attendees.
12. Renewal in religious orders
There are still a few orders, mostly contemplative, that wear “traditional” garb. However, the vast majority of religious have made significant changes not only to their manner of dress but also to their life, practices, and mission since the Council. They have reviewed their foundational documents and embraced new ministries in the spirit of their founders adapted to the needs of the time. They have pioneered new structures and new methods of consultative decision-making and consensus building. Most of all, they are working to transform dying religious orders into new structures of Christian life and ministry.
Prior to the Council the Roman Catholic Church was truly Eurocentric, even Italocentric. Today, with the demise of colonialism and the spread of communications technology, we are much more connected. Some of this comes from the Council and the actions that followed it, e.g. the internationalization of the Curia and the College of Cardinals (although this had the unintended consequence of electing Wojtyla!). Still, we are much more of a universal church than before Vatican II.
The whole approach to missions and non-Christian religions has changed from what it was before the Council. Rather than see indigenous religions as the work of the devil, “missionaries” spend years studying the language and religious customs of native peoples before attempting to evangelize them. Inculturation also includes things like translations that reflect the rhythm and usage of the various language groups (dynamic equivalence).