Thursday, August 8

Examining Catholicism: What Changes Did Vatican II Bring About?

After the two World Wars, terror did not come to a halt. The Cold War began, and what occurred at Hiroshima and Nagasaki showed the world not only what we were capable of, but created a very real fear of the threat of nuclear destruction. It was also around this time that the Church began to become more culturally diverse – the Church became less European and more Asian, more African, more Latin, for example, and poorer third world countries were finding themselves with more Christians than other countries. A new Pope came into power – Pope John XXIII, and within only a few months of coming to the papacy, John called for a new church council. In the wake of horrific wars, modern ideas, religious challenges and other issues, John believed that this new council could benefit the relationship between the Church and the common people. This new council was intended to build up the people as well as the church and help the larger world overall.

A church council can be defined as a meeting of mainly bishops who gather together in the name of Christ to make decisions that are binding to the Church as a whole. The Catholic Church itself recognizes 21 councils, whereas Protestants generally recognize only 4. This Second Vatican Council. The relationship between the council and the papacy was a big issue during Vatican II. Issues such as celibacy, birth control and others were addressed, and Vatican II was also known to be one of the largest meetings in world history. One of the things that made Vatican II so different than previous councils was not simply the massive amount of official documentation, but also the widespread media coverage of the event. A major point concerning the background of this council was the recent Biblical scholarship and critical interpretations that had been going on in the 18th-20th centuries. These critical ways of looking at sacred scripture shed new light on what had previously been taken for granted, and as such, these new ideas had to be taken into consideration. The writings of the early church fathers were also used as a background, as well as Reformation studies and liturgical uses.

What came out of the historical situations leading up to the Second Vatican Council was the right of human life and the right to human dignity. The council changed liturgy so that participation within the liturgy was now the main goal. Vatican II was not necessarily about modernizing the church. It simply speaks to our world as it is today. It is a counter-cultural message but it also responds to our deepest longings. The participation among the people with the Church was, as aforementioned, a major focus. The Mass was no longer only in Latin, and local languages came to be used in the Mass liturgies. Individuals who were simply laypeople would read from Scriptures as well as priests and bishops, and these changes began to transform the modern Catholic understanding.

Another major document was the Declaration of Religious Freedom. It recognized the validity of the individual’s right and ability to choose what they wanted to believe. This was a big deal as the Church had claimed for centuries that it was the only way to the truth, and by acknowledging the right of the individual to choose truth for themselves was to put power in the hands of the common people. Vatican II itself did not necessarily change Catholicism as a whole, but it did force the church and its people to take a good long look within, and after looking within and examining what had been going on in the world at large, it decided to shift its emphasis, let go of former prejudices and strict guidelines, and allow the people the freedom that a human being deserved.

The Second Vatican Council led to a number of reforms both inside and outside of The Church. Messages and documents drafted by the council were not only addressed to Catholics, but people of other faiths as well. This was one of the major changes in the Church: several of the documents advocated not only religious freedom and inter-religious dialogue, but also recognized that various religions also held a grain of truth. These messages were addressed to Buddhists, to Hindus, Muslims, Jews, and others. It was recognized and agreed that books such as the Qur’an and other sacred texts of other faiths also included kernels of truth; and that although the Catholic Church indeed had and clung to the full truth, these other texts and other faiths had at least some merit to them. Indeed, some of these documents even suggested that Catholic and non-Catholics ought to collaborate together if the problems now facing our world were to be solved and corrected.

All of this was rooted in the understanding of the nature of a person. It was acknowledged that each individual is created in the image of God (imago dei), and that we are all one race. As one race created together in the image of God, we are also created with inherent value, purpose and meaning, and we ought to treat one another as brothers and sisters and care for one another. This recognition of the dignity and worth of the human being is what the Council held in high regard – indeed, it shaped and informed the 16 documents to come out of Vatican II. The Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, for example, was a major document. Although some Catholics did not recognize the changes that certain documents brought about, this document brought about a very visible and very noticeable change to the liturgy. It brought the laity more into the Mass and enabled them to participate much more. This was a big change for many, since the Mass had remained essentially the same since the Council of Trent. Now, it was not only the bishops and the priests who were called on to participate in readings, in gifts and in repetitions but also everyone else.

After Vatican II, another major shift in thinking and practice regarded what came about through the Declaration on the Relationship of the Church to Non-Christian Religions. In the past, once you became Catholic your former religious practices, your traditions and cultural ideas had to be left behind you. Now, if you were a Hindu, Jew, Buddhist or someone from another religion who became a Catholic, it was recognized that sometimes certain religious practices and traditions actually enhanced, clarified and built up Christianity. Although the Jesuits had attempted to push for this kind of reform in the 1600s and were rejected, Vatican II finally made it happen. Other philosophical and social ideas (such as those put forth by Karl Marx) were recognized as also containing some truths, and were beginning to be taken into consideration. This led to a great many changes. Monks, for example, were learning new things from Hindu monks, Catholics were being taught by Jews, and so forth. The dialogues between Catholics and Jews – particularly in the wake of World War II – was intended to put an end to centuries of Anti-Semitism.

Another major document was the Declaration of Religious Freedom. It recognized the validity of the individual’s right and ability to choose what they wanted to believe. This was a big deal as the Church had claimed for centuries that it was the only way to the truth, and by acknowledging the right of the individual to choose truth for themselves was to put power in the hands of the common people. Vatican II itself did not necessarily change Catholicism as a whole, but it did force the church and its people to take a good long look within, and after looking within and examining what had been going on in the world at large, it decided to shift its emphasis, let go of former prejudices and strict guidelines, and allow the people the freedom that a human being deserved.

Viewing Marriage as a Sacrament

When two people come together in holy matrimony, God becomes the third person in the relationship, and God works in and through your relationship. As such, it is considered one of the seven sacraments of the church. In today’s Catholic Church, you meet with a pastor several months before the wedding, fill out paperwork and then proceed to go into a marriage preparation program. In the past, the church was mainly concerned with making certain that the marriage was legitimate whereas now the focus is on the marriage preparation. The idea behind this is simple: if we spend a long time preparing for our future careers by going to college to get our degrees and learn to work in our field, how much more should we be prepared to take such a significant step as marriage to another human being? Therefore, the focus on marriage preparation is intended to allow the couple to live fully and lovingly together by getting ready for the marriage itself.

Friendship is a big part of daily human activity on various levels – socially, mentally, emotionally, and particularly spiritually. Friendship reflects God’s love for us, as we enter into relationships with other people and through this human experience is reflected the divine experience. When two people enter into a marriage, this becomes particularly valid. Vatican II established marriage as a commitment that two individuals make to each other by making a covenant with one another. Prior to this, marriage was understood more in contractual than covenantal terms. In this view, the marriage is a contract in which you agree to the legal exchange of each other’s body – which, as we understand today, is not a very loving and caring approach but more of a physical and legalistic approach. In fact, marriage is one of the two major issues discussed at Vatican II (the other being revelation). Although this caused a big problem between the bishops, and it created further problems for annulment cases – where marriage was once simply treated as a contract – since now, the idea was that marriage was an interpersonal partnership filled with love that was intended to be life-long. 

The debate, therefore, came down to the difference between a contract and a covenant. Covenants are quite biblical, such as the covenant made between Moses and God (the Mosaic Law), the New Covenant made between Jesus and his followers, and smaller covenants are seen between God and man in the cases of Adam and Eve, Noah, Abraham and others. A covenant, than, is much different from a contract. A contract is usually something that deals specifically with things whereas a covenant deals specifically with individuals. Contracts are also generally made for a set amount of time whereas a covenant is intended to last forever. A contract can be made in a business setting, but a covenant between two people would be on the psychological, emotional and spiritual levels. The debate then deals with the level of maturity between the two individuals.

Perhaps a better understand is this: a marital contract is what two people use to enter into marriage, but the hope is that as these two grow, mature and develop together that they come to realize the purpose and meaning of a marital covenant and take it as their own. Entering into a marriage covenant is a serious matter. You are committing yourself wholly and fully to the other person, and both individuals realize that to make the covenant work – just as covenants between God and man – there must be trust, communication, honesty, and love, as well as seeing all of this in light of their faith in Jesus. Vatican II defined faith as committing oneself freely and completely to God, which certainly sounds a lot like a marriage covenant. This is likely why there were marriage comparisons in early Christian literature between Christ and the Church. Both marriage and faith in Christ require commitment, hence why it sounds so similar. Marriage is considered one of the official seven sacraments of the church, and it is mainly for this reason.

Marriage is listed by some as sacramental on several levels: through the sexual love, the creative love, the loving itself, the ecclesial love and finally, the spiritual love. These various ways of experiencing marriage as a sacrament allow the couple to engage with one another on levels not experienced beforehand. The sexual level allows them to join together and become one, as you are actually entering into one another physically and joining together in the closest possible way physically. On the creative level, they learn to take care of each other but sometimes also taking care of children as well as elderly parents. On the level of loving itself, this love is reflective of God’s love for us and although love between the two individuals can take a variety of forms during their lives, it can also show those who know the couple of their faithfulness to each other and to God. The fourth level is the ecclesial level, in which the couple models itself after Christ’s love for the church. There is then the spiritual level, in which the relationship reflects God’s own life: his communion, love and relational nature as a Trinity.

As time goes on, we are faced with the idea that marriage and its relation to the church may one day go back to the way it was in the early church, when marriage was primarily between the family and the church had little to no involvement in it. Later on, blessings and the actual ceremony came to be performed in a church or basilica, but the church still stayed out of the actual marriage and preparation. However, when the barbarians began their invasions of Europe, the church started getting involved in marriages. When the barbarians swept through Europe, they would often only leave the local pastor and church, and the pastor was then forced to take over the town and keep records, specifically those of marriage. Now that the church had control in marriage – as well as financial support from those who were married – that power stayed intact. Theologians in the 1200s developed Christian theology based on marriage, and around this time marriage came to be used and seen as a sacrament, tying it firmly to the church.

However, one of the issues with considering marriage a sacrament was admitting the sexual nature of marriage, and seeing this as a way to somehow grow with God. The solution to this for theologians of the time was to portray sex as a way to procreate and fulfill our duty to fill the earth, and not on the intimate and loving aspect of sex in marriage. As such, it was not until this past century around the time of Vatican II that marriage had an emphasis more on the personal and loving nature between a husband and wife and less on the contract aspect. Post-Vatican II, Christians have an appreciation for the new emphasis on the personal nature of marriage. This is also seen as agreeing with much of Protestant views on marriage as a covenant. One of the issues facing the Catholic Church today is the idea that there are people entering into marriages who are unbaptized believers – as such, should their marriage be looked at as sacramental? There have been several different ways this is handled. For example, believers in Autun, France in the 1970s were given a work that listed three forms of marriage and asked to choose which form they believed was best. The Vatican later banned this method. In short, Vatican II’s emphasis on the personal nature of marriage has been a blessing and a benefit for many albeit an issue for some, and has brought into focus the covenantal nature of marriage. It has also brought out issues such as unbaptized believers which theologians are grappling with, but as a whole the decisions at the council have brought marriage into a new era of religious history and sacramentality.

Where Did the Jesuits Come From?

When Spain was taken over in the late 1400s, the Catholic Church finally had the opportunity to make a Catholic country. In order to live in Spain, if you were of a different faith you were faced with utter scrutiny and you could sometimes be tortured, interrogated or even in some cases, executed. Out of this context came the famous Ignatius of Loyola. He was well-studied and well-trained, and desired greatly to go to battle and act in a chivalrous manner. He went to defend Spain against the French in the early 1520s, and it became evident that God had other plans for Ignatius. A cannon ball destroyed his leg and almost killed Ignatius, and he was brought to his family castle to recover. After a couple of failed surgeries, Ignatius claims to have had a vision (much like St. Anthony’s) of the Virgin Mary holding Jesus in the form of a child. Having lost his mother at a young age, this maternal image appealed directly to the heart of Ignatius. After his recovery he began to write several works.

One of these works is known as The Exercises. This work detailed a process to undergo over the period of one month where you go through a series of actions in order to truly begin to find yourself and find God. Around this time, much like St. Francis several centuries before him, Ignatius formed a small band of followers known as the Society of Jesus or the Jesuits (*which Pope Francis is part of). Between the Council of Trent and the Jesuit Society, the Catholic Church had enough fuel to fight the fire of Protestantism. Ignatius burned with an unquenchable desire to convey the truth of Catholicism to others, even if it meant martyrdom for his faith. People from outside of the Catholic Church were portraying the Jesuits as pompous and arrogant men, but this could not historically be farther from the truth. We often demonize those whom we oppose or disagree with, and this was no exception.

The Jesuits were actually known to associate with people of low economic and social standing, and Ignatius became looked at different when he tried to minister to prostitutes in Rome. For some in the Catholic Church, however, the Jesuit Society was not going about the faith in the right manner. Various countries began to go through a process of Christianization, yet when Jesuit missionaries arrived in places such as Asia, South America or elsewhere, they recognized the value and importance of the religious and cultural traditions held by these people. It was unheard of at the time in the Church to actually claim that other religions held even a grain of truth – which the Jesuits were seemingly noticing – and as such, this was taken into consideration. Granted, the Jesuits claimed that although some portions of the non-Christian religions held truth, the Catholic religion was the truer or most true religion, and was therefore superior.

While many well-meaning Jesuits spread their messages, issues and deficiencies in the implementation of Catholicism in other countries led to violence and death among many. Although the Jesuits were intending on spreading the peace of the gospel message, helping the poor and the sick, their companions back in Europe did not agree with this line of thinking. In fact, it was these sort of conditions that led to minority groups or foreign groups coming to be completely victimized and in many cases, massacred. This, however, was not the only issue at the time. The French Revolution was creating problems for the Church, and it caused many bishops, nuns, priests and others to leave France – ending, in many cases, in execution. The efforts of Ignatius and the Jesuits were successful on many levels, but the Catholic Church was far from peace with the world.