A Great Awakening: A Protestant historian recalls Vatican II.

The words joy and hope appear twice in the first three lines of “Gaudium et Spes,” as do the words grief and anguish. The document is one of the last four passed and promulgated on Dec. 7, 1965, by the bishops at the Second Vatican Council. The quoted words were reflections of the mood and content of the debates at the end of the third session, which I attended late in 1964.

The philosopher Alfred North Whitehead once wrote about a period when “wise men hoped, and...as yet no circumstances had arisen to throw doubt upon the grounds of hope.” I have often thought of the wise men at the council who offered theological reasons for joy and hope, aware that then and since “circumstances” have given reasons also for grief and anguish. Soon after the council, a generation of exuberant Catholics were carried away by its promise and looked for a churchly virtual utopia. Their hopes were soon shattered, and anguish often followed.


My vantage in 1964 was that of a journalist-historian. Fortuitously, on the day of my arrival I met Bishop Peter Bartholome, one of whose predecessors as bishop of St. Cloud, Minn., shared the Swiss-rooted name, Martin Marty. What could he do for me? Within hours he generously presented me with a pass, so I could be close to the action in Saint Peter’s Basilica. There my prep school Latin carried me through long sessions, but I confess having also welcomed noontime English-language briefings and late afternoon press conferences to enhance my understanding. Let me also say that through all my time in Rome I experienced hospitality and profited from personal elaborations on hope and anguish by bishops and periti (experts), some labeled liberal and others conservative.

My experiences included gaining weight, thanks to hosts who wanted to introduce American guests like me to their favorite restaurants or to the cuisines of their religious orders. When the morning sessions were unendurably long, I escaped for an hour to coffee bars along the Via della Conciliazione, where, for example, Jewish and other visitors and I would compare notes. Advice from seasoned Catholic advisers came down to this: enjoy the council, but do not be thrown off by the overwhelmingly pro-progressive votes on the documents. When the council fathers return home, commentators would tell us, the press of responsibilities and the pressure from ideological conservatives will demonstrate how difficult it is to “run” a less encumbered church. And so it turned out to be.

All Shook Up

We ecumenically minded Protestants were genuinely stirred by the aggiornamento, the shaking-up that involved us as well as the Orthodox, plus people of good will everywhere. The realists foresaw that popes and bishops to come, as council memories faded, would react in ways that would lead to the silencing of dissent or the ignoring of experimenters. The pessimists in the church have often documented the effect of these negative ways in a no-longer-confident church. Yet the self-described traditionalists cannot win back all that they hope to. The philosopher Ernest Gellner reminded us that once you are made aware that you are in a tradition, you can never simply go back to what it was when it had been interrupted and was subsequently interpreted. Instead, you have to busy yourself creating something new in the name of return to the old.

Protestants and Orthodox may complain that ecumenical openness does not now prosper as it did for a time after the council, but they also know that fundamental positive changes have occurred. The same is true of leaders in non-Christian traditions. The council document “Nostra Aetate” spelled out different ways for Catholics to relate to people of other faiths, and many Catholics now follow these ways. On another front, the church makes news when reactionaries on high levels peel back liturgical reforms. The day after I arrived at the council, at a formal Mass in Saint Peter’s, the African garb of Ethiopian seminarians offended some but inspired others. The dress of these seminarians was one of many visual signs foretelling that the domination of Western European and American liturgical ways was to be limited.

While many officials in the Roman Curia—as well as the postconciliar popes—have resisted implementation of many approaches defined at Vatican II, we saw then and see now all kinds of changed relations among the pope, the bishops, the members of church and the masses in the world. Some moments at the council revealed these tensions. The day after I arrived, Pope Paul VI made an unannounced and largely unexplained visit to the session. The intrusion may have been mainly ceremonial or an occasion for him to get the feel of things. More often, the gestures appeared behind the scenes when actions by the pope—described in one declaration as an unnamed “higher authority”—frustrated progressive moves by the vast majority of bishops. Paul VI did not win favor by catering to a small but entrenched minority of bishops. When on the last day of the session the pope, in a few lines of his speech, gave the Virgin Mary a title—“Mother of the Church”—which the council fathers had resisted doing, they found ways to make their displeasure known. And when, at the end that day, the pope was ceremoniously carried out of the session in his chair, what should have been a trumpeted celebration was greeted with silence.

Debating Religious Liberty

For many Americans the high—or low—drama of these weeks was associated with debate over the “Declaration on Religious Liberty,” which was also clouded by unacknowledged maneuverings on the part of some conservative bishops and the pope. A huge majority of bishops was ready to pass the document, but it was pulled off the table until the next session. It was to pass with overwhelming support in the fourth session, but that November the opponents gave one last push to put it aside or weaken it.

The day when the pope and some curial members acted against the majority came to be called Black Thursday. It is always described as the worst moment of the four sessions. It took courage for Cardinal Gregory Meyer of Chicago to leap up and within hours organize a majority of the bishops. Overnight the minority learned that it could not win every battle. There was no doubt that they had been serious in their efforts to kill the declaration. Could Catholics have positive relations with other faiths? Cardinal Ernesto Ruffini had opposed even the weak concept of tolerance of non-Catholics. He argued that tolerance was a license for error, which has no rights. The bishops who were for more than tolerance, who pushed for a broader definition of religious liberty, succeeded in getting a commitment that there would be a vote on religious liberty in the fourth session. In a semipublic follow-up to Black Thursday, John Courtney Murray, S.J., the main agent and drafter of the document, was asked whether he was impatient with the pope’s obstructive action. He said, no: he was angry over the pope’s action.

In the 50 years since the council, I have spent most of my vocational life in the classroom or speaking on the campuses of colleges, seminaries and universities. This career has led me to be aware of, concerned about and eager to relate to the generations born since the council. Most of them have understandable difficulty picturing the church in pre-council times. It is often noted that when a revolution is over, it is hard to picture circumstances of life before it. Vatican II was, if not a revolution, at least such a drastic change that the old ways are hard to imagine, even for many who had lived through them. Catholics may argue over the legacy of this council, but they cannot simply go back.

For the most part, Vatican II appropriately addressed the anguishing circumstances of its time. Each of the 20 previous ecumenical councils took up topics appropriate to its own era or to a basic set of issues. Thus the early councils dealt mainly with debates about the Trinity or Christology. They may not have settled issues for all later centuries, but they were authoritative and influential. Some later councils, up through Vatican I, which took place in the 19th century, dealt with questions of papal authority.

Talking About Sex

If inquirers asked young through upper-middle-aged Catholics today what needs addressing now and where the church needs fresh insights, voices and programs, they might expect to hear complex answers that could be condensed in the word “sex” and the church’s approach to sexual issues. These will include the biological, ethical, philosophical, theological and news-making elaborations of sexual themes that trouble, or should trouble, Catholics now. They come coded under “birth control,” “abortion,” “in vitro fertilization,” “divorce,” “homosexuality” and many more. I write a weekly online column, “Religion and Public Life,” based on headlines and articles in the media. Many times I deliberately pass up most of the topics that deal with sexual issues in order to try to raise issues of justice, poverty, climate and so on. The church and the council had and still have much to say, most of it helpful, on all of these issues. But the biological, sexual and legal themes connected with them have become a preoccupation.

Very little of all that came up at the council.

I was fortunate enough to arrive just in time for a brief moment one morning on the subject of birth control and its correlates that was a foretaste of things to come. Three cardinals and one patriarch startled everyone and pleased most bishops by bringing up the subject. The church, one of them said, did not need a new Galileo: it did need to face scientific and other challenges. That morning was not quite the end of it. My crumbling copy of Documents of Vatican II is 1,062 pages long. Almost 1,000 pages into the book, under a chapter headed “Some More Urgent Problems,” there are finally 10 pages on marriage, the family and marital relations.

Sparse notice? We need not fault the bishops for this, since these particular “urgent problems” were not the announced agenda for Vatican II. We can find very brief references to topics that impinge on birth control and connected issues here and there. It is clear that in the conversations near the end of the third session, the council fathers recognized how unprepared they were to discuss these topics. How wise they were to refer to the situation in a tiny-print footnote on page 955: “By order of the Holy Father, certain questions requiring further and more careful investigation have been given over to a commission for the study of population, the family, and births, in order that the Holy Father may pass judgment when it is completed. With the teaching of the magisterium standing as it is, the Council has no intention of proposing concrete solutions at the moment.” (The italics are mine.)

“Humanae Vitae,” the papal encyclical in opposition to birth control, appeared in 1968 but brought only more disaffection and turbulence. Epochal changes have been occurring. A Protestant reporter and visitor does not speak for a community that could be described as ready to come up with concrete solutions. At the International Theological Conference (1966), held at the University of Notre Dame, the well-qualified official visitor Albert C. Outler delivered a paper on Protestantism, one that was more demonstrative of “anguish and gloom” than of “joy and hope.” He said, “It is...clear enough that Roman Catholic and Protestant theology have now been brought into a new, dynamic interdependency, that the future of Roman Catholic and Protestant theologizing will parallel each other in the tasks of communicating the gospel to the modern mind....” And so it has begun to be.

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David Pasinski
6 years 7 months ago
Thank you for this wonderful, insightful, if ultimately bittersweet glimpse of "hope deferred." One hers little about the status of inter-church dialogue (othe than among Catholics and evangelicals) and our own diocesan ecumenical committee has long been moribund. Perhaps the general decline of "organized religion" will be a prompt to again dialogue on the commonly shared aspects of faith and service, but I fear the American bishops current attitudes have alienated further possibilities for common work and prayer.
6 years 7 months ago

Respectfully, let me say, this is only an opinion, my opinion, probably inadequately addressing  a  piece of the ecumenical puzzle imaging the Church. In that image I see the face of the Lord, somewhat distorted and a little blurred perhaps, but   there, nonetheless. So, as Paul would say, “Put up with me because you yourselves are wise” as I venture perhaps foolishly into territory where “even angels fear to tread!”

Professor Martin E. Marty’s up front account as a Protestant observer at Vatican Council II revisited  in “A Great Adventure,” provides credible insight into what it was like to be part of that “fresh floral scent” I mean the Vatican II “ecumenical garden” that blossomed fifty years ago, but now for some a  wilting bouquet of promise. I say “a wilting bouquet of promise” because so much seems to be militating against what many   thought the Holy Spirit has instructed the Council Fathers to package and deliver. Hopefully the winds, fires and tongues of Pentecost will aerate,  reignite and proclaim that Good News, despite the destructive trembling of the spiritually timid.

It’s true as Professor Marty says quoting Albert C. Outler that,   as a result of the Council, Roman Catholic and Protestant theology have  bought into a new dynamic interdependency. I don’t fully understand that, but wonder if this outcome is one of the reasons scaring some current Catholic leadership into an ecumenical pullback. Are some experiencing a kind of “spiritual acid reflux” wondering if the Council ended up Protestantizing Catholicism? Do they ever stop to think that as a result of theological interdependency a Catholicized Protestantism is also surely emerging, one step at a time, into the future maybe one hundred years down the pike, bringing to fruition the Lord’s High Priestly prayer, “that all may be one.”

At the risk of oversimplification of an ecclesial complexity , I’d like to suggest that Roman Catholic/Protestant “theological interdependency” came into play not at Vatican Council II initially, but long before at Worms, when Martin Luther posted his declaration of theological independence, taking along with him however, fundamental Roman Catholic theological dependency. Indeed   evidence shows that all Protestantism,  subsequently opted for a  pick and choose theological conglomerate of teachings, hinging onto Catholic Church integrity towards what was kept, producing in fact a kind of Catholic Church/Protestant theological interdependency but specifically  Protestant? Clearly, Protestantism  does owe major parts of its theology to a theological attachment, an  interdependency to the Roman Catholic Church from whence came what turned into the muddied pool of fragmented theological interpretations, in  a fragmented Christian Church. This emergence is best  characterized  as a  broken link relationship to the Mother Church. Vatican Council II was about mending that “broken link.”

Specifically, how has this helped the Catholic Church? No doubt in ways I don’t even comprehend, but also in my opinion in two simple and obvious ways. (1) Vatican II Protestant theological interdependency to the Catholic Church withered Catholic triumphalism, a perversion  which unfortunately continues rattling in its grave! (2) Protestant theological interdependency also gifted the Catholic Church with an “in the beginning” Apostolic sense of communality of worship, of a communal Christianity, helping to rid the Church of a starched image, a liturgical church-pew formalism sort of straight-jacketing priests and people,  but  which once again unfortunately, may be trying to make a return  to what shall I call it? The “maniple mentality” of the past? I think that these are two peripheral ecclesiologies  pooling from the giant cleansing Baptismal font of Christ’s High Priestly Prayer, that is, from the very heart of the Lord! They are or should be  irreversible charisms linked to Roman Catholic and Protestant dynamic theological interdependency. For far too many, Vatican II seems terrifying! What Jesus said to the terrified Apostles needs repeating, “It is I, fear not!” Or as Blessed John Paul the Great liked to say, “Do not be afraid!” Spirit of the Living God, fall afresh on us!  Simplistic? I hope not.        

6 years 7 months ago
The philosopher Ernest Gellner reminded us that once you are made aware that you are in a tradition, you can never simply go back to what it was when it had been interrupted and was subsequently interpreted. Instead, you have to busy yourself creating something new in the name of return to the old.

That is a wonderful observation.

It took courage for Cardinal Gregory Meyer of Chicago to leap up and within hours organize a majority of the bishops.

A minor quibble: I learned his name to be Albert (middle name Gregory) Meyer. 


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