Alas, Poor Vatican II! I Knew It Well -- Sightings

I was but a small child when the Roman Catholic Church gathered -- along with numerous observers from other faith traditions to re-evaluate the church and its faith practices.  It was for many a radical departure from what had been in place prior to the Council.  Many in both the Catholic and the non-Catholic world welcomed this apparent new openness of spirit.  There were, of course, dissenters.  In recent years, under the two previous Popes we have witnessed a pulling back from that open spirit (at least that's how many of us on the outside perceive such things).  In this piece Michael Reid Trice offers us a word of hope -- despite apparent pull-backs, the spirit of Vatican II continues to live on.  If so, then this is good news.  I invite you to read and respond.


Alas, Poor Vatican II! I Knew It Well
Thursday | Nov 7 2013
Second Vatican Council                                              Giancarlo Giuliani / Catholic Press Photo
This year marks the 50th anniversary of the Second Vatican Council of the Roman Catholic Church. Why is Vatican II, as some have nicknamed it, still relevant today?

Vatican II marked a liberal, soul-searching openness of the Roman Catholic Church towards itself, and towards other religious partners. Its flourish of bilateral and multilateral dialogues emerged at a time when, for instance, the quest for greater Christian unity (i.e. modern Ecumenism) inspired the public Christian imagination, and the Church was waking up to its own historical complicity toward some co-religionists, in particular Jews.

The Church’s about-face on the absurdity of Deicide (that Jews then and now are culpable for the death of Christ) was a balm toward trustful Jewish-Christian engagement. For their turn, ecumenical dialogues in the afterglow of 1965 led to cooperation and unity between Christians at a time when marriage between Norwegian and Swedish Lutherans was, for many, an inter-religious event. 

The lasting and broad impact of these dialogues, which continue, is still being determined today. And yet, even as these dialogues proved successful, areas of dissonance emerged: first, a clear strategy for communicating and acting upon the results of these dialogues was often not adequately sustained at the national or international levels. Next, due in part to the public skepticism of institutional life that escalated in mid-1960s in the U.S., a commensurate erosion of trust in religious authority took place. Decades later, local communities emphasize religious cooperation at the grass-roots while paying less attention to the closed-door meetings at the grass-tips.

Finally, how we train tomorrow’s religious leaders also present challenges. A progressive, post-liberal Protestant seminarian may agree on principle with a neo-conservative, Catholic priest that Vatican II is irrelevant today. This begs the question: can we teach the spirit of Vatican II to a new generation that does not share the proclivities of an earlier age? And if not, what will be the Zeitgeist of the Millennial generation’s identity?

However we respond, this generation will not cling pro forma to the reforming, liberal spirit of a previous age. Nor should it. Likewise, older generations are wise not to favor the colorless shroud of nostalgia over and against the needs of their children and children’s children to launch their own revolutions. Let Vatican II stand. And look to the signals from the Christian voices around the world. From students of theology to Pope Francis’ leadership today, we are at the crucible of renewal that will require a new way of imaging our future together.

There is no reason for remorse: today the spirit of the Second Vatican Council lives on in our communities—in meals that include family and friends like the brother-in-law who is Muslim, the niece who just celebrated her first communion, and the unchurched neighbor for whom faith generates curiosity.

In 2012, a chance encounter sealed the spirit of Vatican II on my heart. That summer, my wife and I traveled to Rome to visit the National Palatine Museum. As we entered the portico with its busts of marble, we learned that a special exhibit of Vatican documents was on display upstairs. Unwilling to miss this opportunity, we bought tickets and toured dark, air-conditioned hallways filled with neatly displayed documents. Galileo’s condemnation, penciled images of Michelangelo’s flying machine, and letters from Pope Innocent III appeared thin and fragile compared to their historical significance.

Then, around a corner, I blinked hard at two documents placed side-by-side on dark velvet. On the left were the colorful words of welcome from the Second Vatican Council.  On the right, in stark contrast, rested the papal bull that ordered the excommunication of Martin Luther and made the rupture between Catholics and Protestants inevitable. I stood quietly contemplating the documents, each so fully present but oblivious to the other. The inches between them compressed centuries of Christian hardship and theological fortitude.

Eventually I pulled myself away to peer at other wonders, but the history-making importance of the two documents drew me back twice to gaze silently at them. Then, all at once, the spirit of our current age ascended from the thin space between them—we are travelers—and the tribulations of our past teach us that our true destination is to make every effort for deeper fellowship with family, friend, neighbor, stranger, and enemy alike. This destination is our only true home.
Photo Credit: Giancarlo Giuliani / Catholic Press Photo creative commons
Author, Michael Reid Trice, is Assistant Dean for Ecumenical and Interreligious Dialogue, and Assistant Professor of Ecumenical and Practical Theology at the Seattle University School of Theology and Ministry. Besides multireligious relations and trends, his areas of interest include applied theology and conflict transformation. He is the author of Encountering Cruelty: A Fracture in the Human Heart (2011) and numerous articles.

Editor, Myriam Renaud, is a Ph.D. Candidate in Theology at the University of Chicago Divinity School. She was a 2012-13 Junior Fellow in the Marty Center.


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