Happy Birthday, Vatican II

On this 50th Anniversary of Vatican II, John O’Malley takes a critical look at one of the major, if not THE major religious event of the 20th Century in the New York Times.

The bishops at Vatican II felt that more than a century of centralization needed to be tempered. But in their euphoria, they failed to reckon sufficiently with the resistance of entrenched bureaucracies — jealous of their authority and fearful of disorder — to change. A more participatory mode of church life took hold for 15 years or so after the council, but from on high it began to be more and more restricted, to the point that central control is now tighter than ever.

This has led to widespread disillusionment and anger. Priests and parishioners feel that their voices are not heard. Some critics argue, not unreasonably, that a more collegial style of governance, or at least of consultation, would have addressed the clerical sex-abuse problem earlier and more effectively. The fact that collegiality now seems little more than an ideal resting quietly in the council’s documents — with little relevance for the real life of the church — stands as a major failure to carry out what the council intended.

I agree and I disagree here. Would we ever see the rise in lay ministry without Vatican II? Would a married layman like me be an official minister in the church without Vatican II. Haven’t we at least moved away from clerical culture in some way over the past 50 years?

Perhaps O’Malley’s criticism is well stocked in some regard though. He does mention the sex abuse crisis as one place where lay voices may have been more well-heeded if there was not this lack of collegiality. I think that’s partially true. In many cases though, the lack of all voices, clergy and laity, predominated and kept predators in ministry with the Bishops unfortunately not firing the final salvo in exercising their authority in order to protect children and rid the church of those who abused them.

Over the next few days or so I’m going to write a bit on the documents of Vatican II and talk about how they have been most realized in the hearts and minds of the Catholic laity and clergy together. I might even ask some others to weigh in on certain things here and there. I’ll be using Ed Hahnenberg’s A Concise Guide to the Documents of Vatican II as my guide which should be required reading as a primer on the Council and it’s spirit.

But no matter where we go on this topic, it was a majestic time. As a 42 year old, I have known no other church than the post-Vatican II one. So I’m interested to know what folks both old and young think about the perspective of the council.

Ricky Manalo, CSP a younger Paulist priest made a good comment about Vatican II recently. He pointed out that “we forget that Vatican II was a response to modernism. And during the time of the council, post-modernism began to spring forth quickly in the midst of all of these changes.”

So while the church responded to the modern era, it was quickly eclipsed by the post-modern era. Perhaps that’s enough of a reason for us to look forward to a Vatican III? Or perhaps we should temper our thoughts (positive and negative) about Vatican II a bit in light of where we’ve been since then?

I believe the next Pope will call a new ecumenical council and then to say the least, it will be time to fasten the seat belts. But all in all, it’s an exciting time in the church today, much like the time of Vatican II itself. So today let’s celebrate that just a bit and be grateful for those who put in much work to the thought of the council. It is their spirit that we rejoice in today!

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