Vatican II 101: Social Justice is Part of Catholic Identity
Writer James Carroll, in his recent book Practicing Catholic, states that the Second Vatican Council (Vatican II) is "the most important religious event of the twentieth century." Indeed, if we examine the circumstances surrounding Vatican II, we can't help but be amazed. For starters, many in the Catholic hierarchy expected the Pope (John XXIII) convening the conference to be a transitory figure, so his calling for a council in 1962 shocked both the church and the world. Secondly, several Protestant, Orthodox, and Jewish religious leaders were present as observers, signaling the church's new emphasis on ecumenical and interfaith dialogue. But perhaps most shocking was that, given Pius IX's condemnation of modernity in his infamous Syllabus of Errors, a council was convened with the purpose of bringing the church into communion with the world while recognizing that, as with any human institution, it is deeply flawed. By opening its windows, the church was attempting to both embrace the world outside and cleanse itself of its past sins, including, perhaps, its complacency in the Holocaust.
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Carroll discusses how the council influenced his own faith formation and Catholic identity. When the council began in Rome in October 1962, he was a young Paulist seminarian an ocean across. He remembers how his superiors brought a TV set into the seminary so that the young and impressionable seminarians could watch the opening ceremonies. After all, his superiors thought, there is on average only one council every century. Making the biggest impression on the young Carroll, however, were not only the council's pronouncements, but also the brave leadership of two important council figures: Pope John XXIII and Cardinal Richard Cushing.
These two figures struggled against Vatican attempts to "conserve" the church's liturgy and politically anti-modernist approach. Many of us may fail to realize that the church's liturgical struggle was intertwined with its stance toward modernity. Carroll comments on this by stating, "Enormous social and political implications were embedded in the debate over the use of vernacular at Mass." Language can exclude and include. In this case, the sole use of Latin at Mass and in official church documents and pronouncements marginalized those who did not receive seminary training and Latin lessons. Consequently, the vast lay majority and even clerics who did not remember their Latin lessons were left out of church power discourses, including those at Vatican II. During the council's opening ceremonies, Cardinal Cushing expressed his concern that council talks were done only in Latin.
Eventually, as we now know, the council fathers agreed that priests should exercise the liturgy in the vernacular while facing the congregation. The use of "perfidious" was removed when referring to Jews. The council also issued a declaration titled Nostra Aetate that "repudiated the Christ killer charge against Jews and