The Common Good
January 2012

Critical Mass

by Karen Sue Smith | January 2012

Fifty years after Vatican II, will a new generation of lay Catholics lead prophetic change in the church and in the world?

U.S. Catholics make up just 6 percent of the global Catholic Church’s nearly 1.2 billion baptized members. In Africa, Latin America, and the Philippines, membership from conversions and population growth is increasing rapidly, as are vocations to the priesthood and religious life. This accounts for a worldwide increase in the number of priests.

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Today there are more bishops and cardinals from developing nations than ever before. Because the Roman Catholic Church adapted its liturgy to local languages and customs after Vatican II, Catholics in Africa dance as Communion is brought to the altar, and the liturgical vestments reflect African designs and colors. Local people in the developing world find this reformed church attractive and inviting. The Church also offers them an array of urgently needed social services—food, shelter, medicine, wartime sanctuary, advocacy for the poor—and rare opportunities for education and career advancement.

From the Vatican’s perspective, growth in these regions shows the Church succeeding in its mission. Such success may also cause Church leaders to downplay the concerns and grievances of Catholics in the developed world. Why is the Church not succeeding in the same ways there?

THIS YEAR MARKS the beginning of a three-year commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the Second Vatican Council, also known as Vatican II, which addressed the relationship between the Roman Catholic Church and the modern world. The council convened in 1962 under Pope John XXIII and was completed in 1965 under Pope Paul VI. It changed the ways the Church and smaller groupings of Catholics engaged society. Pope John XXIII said, “I want to throw open the windows of the Church so that we can see out and the people can see in,” and the consequences have been far-reaching.

In the developed world, where Catholics participate in democracies, are highly educated and relatively affluent, and expect a voice in church matters, the Catholic Church appears less adaptive than it does in the developing world. To progressives, the Church can seem unnecessarily hierarchical and self-preoccupied. Add to this the scandals over clergy sexual abuse and the cover-ups by some bishops, and the last decade has been particularly troubling for active, progressive Catholics.

Currently, Catholics hold differing views over whether Vatican II has gone too far or not far enough, a discussion that will no doubt rise to the surface over the next three years. But what was Vatican II and how can we understand it?

The Vatican Council took place across four autumns. In that brief but exciting period, the world’s Catholic bishops set in motion the revitalization of the Church. The council promoted many reforms, but two stand out. First, the council articulated the vocation of laypeople and their call to discipleship. Rather than emphasizing the “holiness” of just the priesthood, bishops encouraged all Catholics to strive for holiness and to bring their faith with them into the workplace, civil society, and the Church itself. Many have done this in profound and unexpected ways.

Second, the council initiated an ongoing dialogue with the world. It sought not merely to condemn those with views considered heretical, as past councils had done. Rather, the Church hoped to engage the modern world, teaching it as well as learning from it in mutual discourse and action. With a striking gesture toward Christian unity that broke all precedent, the pope invited 29 non-Catholic Christians to attend the council as well. That act presaged fruitful ecumenical and interreligious conversations that continue to this day.

The reforms of Vatican II were vast and wide-ranging: visionary and historical, structural and liturgical. Mass was no longer said in Latin. Priests turned to the congregation, instead of standing with their backs to it. The Bible readings were revised to include much more scripture—most of the Bible in a three-year cycle. Many Catholics today take all these changes for granted, even though scholars judge Vatican II to be among the most momentous religious events of the 20th century.

More than 2,500 Catholic bishops assembled in Rome for the Second Vatican Council. (This was well over a thousand more than had attended the First Vatican Council in 1868.) The media seized upon this once-in-a-century spectacle, reporting the event for the first time live on radio and television. Another stunner: At the third and fourth sessions, a small group of women, including Catholic sisters, were invited to attend as observers—an unprecedented symbolic gesture of hospitality toward the female half of the Church, otherwise conspicuously missing.

Vatican II, which likely will be remembered in history as the gathering that opened the Church not just to the world, but to its own laity, ironically had only a few laypeople present. In a church that had made a great distinction between men who were ordained and the many non-ordained laypeople, it was a profound shift for the council to declare: “These faithful are by baptism made one body with Christ and are constituted among the People of God; they are in their own way made sharers in the priestly, prophetical, and kingly functions of Christ; and they carry out for their own part the mission of the whole Christian people in the Church and in the world.”

HOW DO MODERATE and progressive Catholics in the United States regard Vatican II today? For younger Catholics, today’s Church is the only one they’ve ever known—Vatican II is ancient history, and few realize how the Church previously understood itself. For those Catholics who can remember the pre-Vatican II era, the council remains a high point, a defining moment not only in the life of the Church, but in their personal lives of faith.

Catholics have experienced not only the challenge of implementing Vatican II’s reforms, but also the internal strife caused by competing interpretations of the council’s vision and documents. Polarized groups within the Church have waged “liturgy wars” over translations and changes in ritual that reflect conflicting understandings of what the Church is and what it should be.

Additionally, Catholics have seen particular council reforms weakened, if not undone or overturned. For example, while most Catholics around the world embraced the liturgy that emerged after Vatican II, with its emphasis on Catholics worshiping in their own language, a few resisted. Not long ago, the old Latin Mass—the abolition of which was one of the hallmarks the Catholic Church coming into the modern world—was restored as an option.

Other examples include post-Vatican II translations of the Mass hymns and prayers, intended to be more inclusive and accessible to modern worshipers. Some of these translations have been rejected by Rome and redrafted. The latest version of the Mass in English—including the new liturgical texts introduced in Advent 2011—use non-inclusive language and some objectionable phrases. One phrase narrows salvation’s scope: The new language says that Christ died for “the many,” not “for all” as the previous version put it.

In a few dioceses, the bishop no longer allows altar girls to serve at Mass—saying that they believe it discourages boys from considering a vocation to the priesthood—or women to have their feet washed on Holy Thursday, saying that Jesus washed only the feet of male apostles.

Ecumenism, too, has suffered. To cite just one example: Pope Benedict has welcomed into the Catholic Church Anglicans disaffected over the ordination of women in their own denomination; among Catholics the very discussion of women’s ordination has been forbidden.

TO MANY MAINSTREAM Catholics, the Vatican II reforms appear to be unraveling, one prayer or literal translation at a time. But there is hope. Although the Latin Mass has been restored as a choice, very few Catholics anywhere have embraced it. And while some reactionary critics have blamed Vatican II for the decline in weekly Mass attendance and the decrease in the number of priests and sisters in the U.S., that explanation has become less plausible. For one thing, most mainline churches—both Catholic and Protestant—have experienced declines.

Critics of Vatican II seldom acknowledge its accomplishments. For example, the number of deacon ordinations has grown with the re-establishment of the “permanent diaconate,” a position that was part of the early Christian church and restored at Vatican II. In the U.S. some 17,000 Catholic men serve in their diocese as trained and ordained deacons.

The best news, though, is that millions of Catholic laypeople have embraced the challenges of Vatican II. In parishes, teams of laypeople take on responsibilities at each Mass; they distribute Communion, proclaim scripture, welcome congregants, and lead the music. Catholics now have Bible study groups, for too long a strictly Protestant emblem. They study scripture in parish workshops, colleges, graduate schools, and seminaries—evincing a desire, set in motion at Vatican II, to know the Bible.

Lay catechists and sponsors oversee the months-long Rite of Christian Initiation process by which adults who want to become Catholics learn about the Church. Laypeople serve on parish advisory councils and finance councils. And 30,000 laypeople, mostly women, work full-time on parish staffs, directing religious education, youth programs, music, counseling, and social services. In 2010, another 18,500 laypeople in the U.S. were enrolled in degree and certification programs in preparation for parish ministry. Thousands of non-ordained Catholics who might once have become priests or sisters are answering a different call today: to lay ministry.

Beyond the local church level, thousands of young adults and college students give one to three years of service to the Jesuit Volunteer Corps, Mercy Corps, and other groups that serve the poor and work for justice. Lay Catholics have leadership positions at Catholic social welfare organizations, such as Catholic Charities USA and Catholic Relief Services, and the hospital systems sponsored by religious communities of Catholic sisters. Laypeople make up the majority of teachers and administrators at Catholic schools, colleges, and universities, once the preserve of Catholic religious orders. Many have earned advanced degrees in theology. Most Catholic theologians in the U.S. today are laypeople, and many are women—an unexpected development since Vatican II.

All of this makes up the other side of the so-called “vocation shortage.” And these examples exclude the majority of lay Catholics who bring faith into their daily lives beyond the parish and Catholic institutions.

THE 50TH ANNIVERSARY of Vatican II affords the Church an opportunity to teach, motivate, and inspire Catholics, including those too young to remember the council and any others who do not know what it taught. Many will welcome the anniversary as a reminder of what the Church is like at its best.

At Vatican II the world’s bishops confidently opened the Church windows, called Catholic laypeople to discipleship and partnership with the clergy, and set out to engage the modern world with the gospel of Jesus Christ. The anniversary celebration cannot solve all the Church’s problems, any more than Vatican II could. But it can help Catholics refocus on engagement with the modern world as the Church’s central purpose. For surely the Church’s task involves more than positioning Christ ever against the world. Christians ought to exemplify Christ within it and on its behalf. As Pope Paul VI says of the followers of Christ, in one of the Vatican II documents, “Nothing that is genuinely human fails to find an echo in their hearts.”

Karen Sue Smith is editorial director of America magazine, published by the Jesuits of the United States. She became a Catholic in 1976, heartened by Vatican II.

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