On Oct. 11 Pope Benedict XVI, will celebrate the golden jubilee of the opening of the Second Vatican Council with a Mass at Saint Peter’s Basilica. In a grand gesture, he has invited Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew and the Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, to attend. America began its observance of the anniversary last February with a series of special articles, and we will continue to celebrate the council’s achievements as anniversaries of its landmark developments unfold over the next three years. With this issue, we want to reflect on Vatican II as a council of reform, considering how it re-imagined a centuries-old institution as the people of God, so that the holiness of the church would become visible through the full participation of all the baptized.
This golden jubilee is an appropriate time for the whole church to assess where the people of God find themselves today in their pilgrimage through history. What, we may ask, are the elements in the church’s life today that are continuous with the work of the council? Which are discontinuous? What practices have not been reformed as the council intended? From which reforms have we deviated? What are new signs of the times that were not even anticipated 50 years ago? What new stirrings of the Spirit do we experience within the church and within the world? We can only begin to address these questions here, but we hope that during the extended anniversary observance, with the Spirit’s guidance, persistent questioning will bear fruit in greater fidelity to the council’s legacy.
“In its pilgrimage on earth,” the council fathers wrote, “Christ summons the church to continual reformation of which it is always in need in so far as it is an institution of human beings here on earth” (“Decree on Ecumenism,” No. 6). That famous statement recaptured for Catholics of that day the ancient image of the church as a pilgrim people, marked by “a genuine yet imperfect holiness,” who in their institutions take on “the appearance of this passing world” (“Dogmatic Constitution on the Church,” No. 48). Because our holiness is imperfect and our institutions time-bound, reform and renewal will always be necessary on the church’s pilgrim journey through history.
For three centuries St. Robert Bellarmine’s notion of the church as a perfect institution blocked out any thought in Catholic minds of possible flaws. The church of the 1950s suffered from a veritable allergy to the idea of reform. Even Archbishop Angelo Roncalli, who later as Pope John XXIII convoked the council, asked, “Reform of the church—is such a thing possible?” Only in Blessed John Paul II’s ministry of repentance and especially in the Service for the Day of Pardon that opened the Great Jubilee Year of 2000 did the church confess a millennium of sins by its members before God and a watching world.
In his much examined talk to the Roman Curia in 2005, Pope Benedict XVI put his seal of approval on the interpretation of Vatican II as a council of reform. “It is precisely in this blending, at different levels, of continuity and discontinuity,” he said, “that the nature of true reform consists.” To the late medieval maxim ecclesia semper reformanda est, “the church is always in need of reform,” Vatican II added its own counsel for the necessity of perennis reformatio, “continual reform.”
The People of God. One of the most significant deeds of the council was its reimagining of the church as the people of God. That image took root in the minds and hearts of the faithful. While it was one of several biblical images the council used to illuminate the mystery of the church, it conveyed in a special way, in the words of Avery Dulles, S.J., the “more biblical, more historical, more vital and dynamic” vision of the church that inspired Vatican II. It encouraged a keen awareness of corporate belonging to the one body of Christ based on the unity of baptism, the priesthood of all believers and the universal call to holiness. Appropriating the image as their own, hierarchy and faithful, clergy and religious experienced an intensified sense of communion in one body.
The most practical way in which the unity of God’s people appeared was in the reform of the liturgy. The use of vernacular languages, turning the altar toward the congregation, removing the altar rail separating priest and people and, most of all, inviting the full participation of the congregation in the liturgy gave a new sense of inclusion. The opening of the offices of acolytes, lectors and eucharistic ministers to lay men and women opened up still greater scope for active participation. Such participation was no historical novelty, but a return to the early practice of the church.
In recent years, however, various developments have diminished the sense of belonging at the table of the Lord, most of all the retranslation of the Mass into clumsy, Latinate prose darkened by feudal images of the divine-human relationship. Furthermore, rubrical changes, like requiring that only a cleric purify the vessels, the separate communication of the celebrant and restrictions on sharing the sign of peace, have re-enforced the cultic status of the clergy at the expense of an inclusive sense of the worshiping community.
Participation and Accountability. Other institutional innovations intended to promote participation, like diocesan pastoral councils and parish councils, were haphazardly implemented and underutilized. The right of the faithful to make their views known never led to regular channels of communication between the people and the hierarchy. The Synod of Bishops, meant to be an expression of the collegial exercise of the episcopal office, was stillborn and became in effect a consultative body to the pope under the control of the Roman Curia. Likewise, the scope of bishops’ conferences has been narrowed and routinely subordinated to curial approval. All in all, the hopes of the council that the people of God experience the full participation of all its members have waned before the pressures of centralization.
In 2012 aggiornamento demands reviving the sense of inclusion and participation encouraged by the council, beginning with those institutions first proposed by Vatican II: diocesan and pastoral councils and bishops’ conferences. Without neglecting papal primacy, another attempt ought to be made to express episcopal collegiality more adequately in the Synod of Bishops. Furthermore, in a day when transparency and accountability, whether for financial affairs or sexual improprieties, are so much a part of institutional life, the church must also cease to claim exemptions for itself and its leaders from the norms of a just society. The sacredness of the church in no way justifies standing outside the scrutiny of its members.
Education and Lay Leadership. One major development in the character of the Catholic people since the Second Vatican Council has been the great expansion in the number of educated Catholics. Sizeable numbers of laypeople are now educated in theology and religious studies to a degree unimaginable in the 1950s. Teaching theology is no longer the sole province of the clergy. Priest-theologians today are a minority amid a field of lay professionals, both women and men. Women in significant numbers have entered even the ranks of canon lawyers.
Today more Catholics generally enjoy the benefits of advanced education. American society, and society worldwide, requires a higher level of literacy and technical competence than at the time of the council. Men and women are used to employing their minds in demanding ways in their jobs and professions and as consumers of information in a digital world. Preaching and teaching ought to be adapted to these new realities, as should the training of clergy. In every aspect of church life, and at every level, the religious dialogue and conversation that marked the council, and its times, ought to be cherished and widely cultivated.
While religious illiteracy and indifferentism are rampant in the general population, the graduates of Catholic colleges and universities, the veterans of postgraduate volunteer programs and especially the alumni of graduate programs in theology, ministry and religious studies often form the cadres of active Catholic parishioners when they return home. They are prepared to assist in adult education programs, the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults and the new evangelization. But while there are fewer priests to meet the needs of the Catholic community, there are, ironically, fewer parish job openings for laypeople than there were only a few years ago. The gifts of educated lay men and women are ignored or even spurned by pastors who are uncomfortable with broad theological learning.
The continuing reform of the church in accord with the direction set by Vatican II demands fuller incorporation of the laity’s gifts in building up the church at all levels. Bishops and pastors should understand that their pastoring will to a great extent consist in fostering and guiding the gifts of their parishioners. While wide-scale ignorance of the Catholic tradition needs to be addressed, for educated Catholics re-evangelization and catechesis will be effective only if they rely primarily on richer, more sophisticated readings of the Catholic tradition. Even those without advanced theological training but whose work and general culture involve more complex modes of thinking require better, more informed homilies. More dialogic forms of adult communication are especially needed to assist in the growth of mature faith among Catholics.
Reinvigorating the people of God demands fuller participation of the educated laity in ways commensurate with their baptismal calling and their intellectual training. Appreciating an educated laity as a gift of God intended for proclamation of the Gospel and the upbuilding of the church are prerequisites of any sound pastoral strategy in our times. “Each member of the faithful,” Pope Benedict reminded bishops last month, “must feel the responsibility to announce and bear witness to the Gospel.”
The legacy of Vatican II remains in dispute. The reforms of the council, not to mention the call to continual reform, cannot be taken for granted. Many forces opposed to the council’s vision are busy rolling back its work. In all humility, however, we must admit space for the demands of our own age, for corrections of deviations made in what was alleged to be the spirit of the council and for new promptings of the Spirit. The successful appropriation of the Second Vatican Council requires that the people of God continue their pilgrim journey, aware that we move in contested terrain.