50 years after Vatican II, Catholic church faces new issues
On Oct. 11, 1962, more than 2,500 Roman Catholic bishops from around the world came together in Rome for an ecumenical council that would become known as Vatican II. And what they did there would change the church forever.
Fifty years later, some hear echoes of the council's deliberations amid ongoing debates in the contemporary church over contraception, homosexuality, the celibacy of clergy and the ordination of women.
And one New Hampshire scholar believes it's time for a new ecumenical council to address some of those issues.
You won't find a more passionate fan of Vatican II than Sister Maureen Sullivan, O.P., a theologian and professor at Saint Anselm College, where she teaches a course about the council.
Sullivan, who authored the book “The Road to Vatican II,” has been invited to speak at a conference in Rome next month titled, “Women Theologians Re-Read Vatican II.”
She tells her students, who grew up in a post-Vatican II Catholic church, that the gathering was inspired by the Holy Spirit. Council documents, she said, continue to offer a framework for how the church and the faithful should serve in the world.
It's critical to retell the story of the council at this time, Sullivan said. “The very fact that we just so happen to be at an anniversary moment — isn't God clever? Because here we are now, we're almost forced to take another look.”
Sullivan has come to believe it's time for another ecumenical council, to address such issues as the clergy shortage, celibacy and the role of women. And this time, she'd like to see the voices of lay people, especially women, included in the conversation.
“Think about the last 50 years; think about how our world has changed,” she said.
Bishop Peter Libasci, the spiritual head of the Diocese of Manchester, isn't convinced it's time for a new council. “I think ... the Holy Spirit will do what he did the last time and tell us when, if there is a need for a council,” he said.
Still, Libasci said he welcomes the ongoing conversations that began with Vatican II. “If there are discussions and debates and disagreements, then by the glory of God, we're still being able to proclaim the gospel of truth and the gospel of life,” he said.
Libasci was in sixth grade when the Second Vatican Council commenced. “What I remember most was the excitement,” he recalled.
Pope John XXIII was elected in 1958, when the world was still healing from World War II, Libasci noted. The new pope's call for “aggiornamento,” he said, was a “call for a new day.”
“We have to rediscover who we are, and why God loves us so — that God loves us so. Because we had forgotten that in these terrible, terrible wars.”
It was to be not a doctrinal council but a pastoral one, Libasci said, “to look at who we are in the modern world.”
“They came from different places, the Greeks, the Russians, the Americans, all the Europeans, the Asians, from around the entire world,” he said. “That's momentous. And it's to get the family together and to go back to our roots.”
When the council closed on Dec. 8, 1965, the deliberations and devotions of these men had produced 16 documents that reformed the Roman Catholic church.
How to interpret sacred Scripture, rights and duties of the laity, changes to liturgical and sacramental rites, salvation for non-Catholics, even the moral responsibility of the media — these were among the heady topics addressed.
Before Vatican II, there had been just 20 such councils in the 2,000-year history of the church. Most, Sullivan said, were called to address heresies.
This time was different, she said. “John seemed to understand that the faith that we were living in the 1950s was more of a head knowledge than a heart knowledge.”
“He saw that we were not really on fire,” she said. “We were Sunday morning Catholics.”
“John said we need a new Pentecost. He said we need to rekindle that flame.”
And that's what the council did, Sullivan said.
“After Vatican II, the people of God grew up,” she said. “And what they realized was now they have to have a reason to believe.”
Not everyone looked on the reforms of Vatican II favorably. Libasci said that was in part due to how difficult it was to present such detailed theological documents to the broader society.
“The Second Vatican Council was bringing the church into dialogue and discussion and study and examination of who we are, what we believe,” he said. “And I think what began to happen was the discussion could not be moderated very effectively sometimes, because it was so far out in the public square.
“I think a sea change of culture was happening, and you cannot change a culture overnight or expect it to change overnight. We have to work it through,” he said.
Now that he's a bishop himself, Libasci said he's struck by the scholarship, commitment and sacrifice of those who came together for the council.
He noted some Catholics misunderstand why the church lately has reinstated some ancient forms of worship, such as Latin prayers and Gregorian chants. It's not about going backward, he said.
“I say it's like opening up the china cabinet and taking out those special things that we've kept, the heirlooms,” Libasci said. “You get to appreciate it and you tell the story about where it came from.
“There's nothing to be fearful of in that.”
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Shawne Wickham may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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