Monday, December 2

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.

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