Vatican II—Blessing or Curse?
IT WAS 1962 in the Vatican. In front of an intrigued bishop, the pope opened a window in his Vatican palace. Pope John XXIII thus demonstrated what he expected of the Second Vatican Council (1962-65): to introduce fresh air into the Catholic Church, to bring about an aggiornamento, an updating.
What changes did the council bring into the church? This is still a relevant question, as Vatican II and its consequences are widely debated even today.
‘Truth in Other Religions’
Pope John XXIII wanted changes—that became very evident. Theologians whose avant-garde ideas had been condemned a few years earlier were invited to the Vatican Council as experts. Orthodox and Protestant dignitaries were also invited as observers.
This new stance resulted in a radical change in matters of freedom of religion and conscience. For centuries the church had firmly condemned these ideas; Gregory XVI, a 19th-century pope, even described them as “foolishness.” However, in 1964, by a large majority, the council adopted a decree recognizing that every man had the right to choose his own religion. This went beyond pure and simple freedom, as the magazine Notre Histoire explained: “From that moment onward, it was conceded that some truth was to be found in other religions.”
After Vatican II the church continued in its more liberal policy toward other religions. Demonstrating this, Pope John Paul II paid visits to King Hassan II of Morocco, a Muslim spiritual leader. He also visited a Protestant church and a synagogue in Rome. Many Catholics remember the 1986 meeting in Assisi, Italy, where Pope John Paul II invited leaders of the world’s great religions to pray at his side in the interest of peace.
Vatican II—A Curse?
For some, the refreshing “breath of air” hoped for by Pope John XXIII was more like a cold blast of wind. To support their opinion, they mentioned a famous talk in which Pope Paul VI, who succeeded John XXIII, declared that “Satan’s smoke” had filtered into the church. The book La Réception de Vatican II explained that, by his declaration, Paul VI “seemed to link the momentum created by the council to a process contrary to church interests.”
Many churchgoers share this viewpoint. A recent survey revealed that almost half the Catholics in France think that “the church has gone too far in forcing reforms.” Vatican II’s critics accuse the church of not remaining faithful to its tradition but contaminating itself with modernism. They say that the church has lent its support to changes that have shaken Western society and have caused the crisis in the church.
Vatican II—A Blessing?
For others it is not the council that should be called into question. They say that the first signs of weakness in the church were already clearly visible before Vatican II. The French daily La Croix asserted: “The scarcity of priestly and nonpriestly vocations in Western countries should be viewed in relation to the general crisis in society and its consequences on Christian communities: Too many Christians have allowed themselves to become steeped in contemporary mentalities and ideologies.”
Still others feel that the changes recommended by Vatican II were vital. Another La Croix journalist stated: “One might . . . wonder what the church would have become if it had remained inward looking.” Finally, various Catholic commentators explain that the church is an organization made up of imperfect humans, that it has gone through crises in the past and will come through this one too. Gilles, quoted in the previous article, made the following remark: “When we brought up church problems, we were told that the church was right in the middle of a teenage crisis and that it would blow over.”
Whether Vatican II was responsible for positive or negative changes, it has had a serious effect on Catholics, as we will see in the next article.
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The Second Vatican Council led to changes and confusion