A Half Century into the Second Vatican Council


This week marks the 50th anniversary of the Second Vatican Council, or Vatican II. Pope John XXIII shocked the world when he called the first Catholic Church Council in nearly a century, a council which led to the modernisation of the Catholic Church.

Hans Kung, a young theologian at Vatican II said, “It was a time of a new hope, when everybody was proud that we were able to convoke such a council, and having a real renewal of the Catholic Church.”

Kung was speaking of the various reforms the Catholic Church made as a result of the council. Besides opening up to the modern world a bit more, the church updated the liturgy, welcomed the concept of religious freedom and opened a dialogue with other religions. Over the course of a three-year period, the Church was transformed to be an inclusive entity, rather than the exclusive one it had been operating as before.

Small Changes Make a Big Difference

One of the changes this council brought about was how the alters were positioned. Before the council, the alters were turned so that the priests conducted Mass with their backs toward their congregation. Vatican II changed this and alters were turned to face their communities. A seemingly minor change, but a major symbolic gesture of the Church opening up their arms to recognise the entire community of Catholic believers.

Some changes though, were confusing. Rev. Thomas Reese, a seminary student at the time of Vatican II, said that at the time they had no idea that the council was going on, they only felt the results. “One week, if you eat meat on Friday, you’re going to hell. The following week, you can have meat on Friday. The church changed.”

While the council refused to touch on many controversial issues, such as the celibacy of priests, it had far reaching effects which perhaps they did not anticipate.

Soon after the council, many bishops began to speak out about issues that they might not agree with the Vatican over. One such topic was the Vatican’s stance on artificial birth control.

The Vatican were shocked and some felt that the unity of the church and the authority of the Pope was in danger. Pope John’s successors, Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI, both felt that the council had given away too much. They both tried to bring the Church back under some kind of control, but unfortunately for them, the cat had been let out of the bag and the effects of the council could not be suppressed.

The State of the Catholic Church in the 21st Century

Some feel that despite the promising changes the Church underwent fifty years ago, it hasn’t been able to carry that same momentum through to the 21st century. Rev. Reese says that the current Church just is not equipped to communicate with the world surrounding it.

In recent years the Catholic Church has had to deal with a number of clerical sex abuse scandals around the world, a shortage of priests and diminishing numbers amongst believers. Even those faithful to the Catholic Church are deciding to pick and choose which of the pope’s pronouncements to follow, particularly when it comes to sexual morality.

Despite their troubles though, analysts believe that the Catholic Church and the spirit of Vatican II continues on throughout believers all over the world and it will survive as it always has.

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