October 13, 1962
On October 13, 1962 something happened that would revolutionize Catholicism forever.
To understand this revolution, we need to begin by understanding Catholic life in the Western world as it had stood since the time of the French Revolution. It is not the case that Catholic life had always been like this, but as things developed it became very easy to believe that it had been such since the early Church. That mistaken notion was the background of a revolution.
Catholicism, beginning after the French Revolution, and even more so after the Second World War, had become marked by a set of rules. Adherence to those rules is what made you Catholic. Violating certain rules, such as ones about remarriage, was enough to exclude you from the title Catholic.
The rules did not have to make a great deal of sense so long as they were obeyed. Consider the fact that both abortion and eating meat on Friday were mortal sins. Whatever the theology was behind the venial and mortal sin distinction, all the mattered to the laity (and indeed, to most priests) was that the rules were followed; if they were not, Confession was mandatory. These were the days when Protestants were heretics; Jews were prayed for on Good Friday; attending non-Catholic religious services was forbidden; the Index of Banned Books was the moral norm for literature; and Catholic families were obliged to have as many children as possible.
This isn’t to say that the religion was superficial. Many Catholics practiced a great piety based on their deep devotion to God and to living the spiritual life. Those Catholics who went to First Fridays, said the Rosary daily, joined spiritual confraternities, and so forth were often motivated by a deep desire for a union with God. However, the Catholic understanding of that union was, largely, one in which the union was achieved by a specific set of customs and observances.
Moreover, most Catholics gave little thought to how those customs arose or when the rules came to be. It was assumed that Catholicism had always been this way and always would be. In fact, the Council of Trent seemed to solidify some of this in its apparent proclamation that the liturgy, newly codified and exemplified by the Tridentine Mass, would be the liturgy of the Church forever with no alterations.
Then there was the grand centralization of power that took place at the First Vatican Council (1869-1870). In a move which has been difficult for the ecumenical movement ever since, the Pope became infallible. The expectation at that time was that the Vatican Council would be the last council: No additional councils were needed since any future decisions could be decided and resolved by the single man who occupied the papacy.
This explains some of the shock when Pope John XXIII called the Second Vatican Council. Apparently, additional councils were possible. Nevertheless, when the Bishops of the world showed up in October, 1962, the expectation was that the Roman Curia would hand on some list of delegates from their own ranks to be rubber stamped by the Bishops, who would then return home to tell the faithful that everything was basically the same while the Curia went about some mild and superficial business of discussing arcane subjects pertaining to modern Biblical scholarship and how to promote Marian devotion.
The Catholic world and its history took a sharp turn on October 13, 1962, when the Bishops were expected to vote on who would serve on the various conciliar committees. The Curia had already prepared a list of candidates from their own ranks who would make up the lead roles and shape the major documents. Then something unexpected happened.
Two Cardinals by the names of Frings and Lienart refused to accept the list of potential candidates. They demanded that voting be postponed for a day while the Bishops would all get to know each other, and that the next day they would submit their own proposed names for each committee.
At that point the Council no longer belonged to the Curia. The Old Guard would not be calling all the shots. The Council now belonged to the Bishops, to the pastors of the dioceses throughout the world, to the people who had intimate experience with the needs of Catholics whom they had seen experience hardships from birth to death.
What resulted was a Church where rules were less important than authentic spiritual growth.
A great deal of literature has been written about the effects of the Council, in particular about what happened to the unique sense of Catholic identity so strong before the Council and now lost in a strange ambiguity. No one can deny that today Catholic identity is a term that often reminds us of a teenager trying to adjust to a changing voice, a new school and badly fitting clothes while also asserting his independence. My goal here is not to critique what happened; those who are interested might read Andrew Greeley’s fine book, written from his perspective as a professionally trained sociologist, The Catholic Revolution: New Wine, Old Wineskins, and the Second Vatican Council.
Instead I wish to propose that we begin meditating on the Council. We ought to read its documents, but, with an eye toward proper critical methodology, we also ought to understand the world in which they were written. We can begin by understanding the revolution that began on October 13, 1962, when the two Cardinals asserted the right to make the council truly ecumenical, truly representative of the whole Church.
It is my contention that the Council invites and challenges us, as Catholics, to confront the world in new, dynamic ways. It was not a refutation of custom, but it was a relaxing of rules-based mentality. It was not a burying of the past, but an acknowledgment of the future. It was neither triumphalist nor self-abasing, it was instead humble and open to the Holy Spirit. Unlike other councils, it was neither authoritarian nor condemnatory; it was instead understanding and compassionate.
Because the goal of the Subversive Thomist blog is to find ways to live justly and with loving kindness in a world that so often seems to be on the brink of collapse, it is my intention to spend some time reflecting on the Council, its history and its documents. Therefore, for the next four weeks, my Thursday blog post will focus on the Council. Each week I will consider something from Vatican II that still challenges us today, with my central guideposts being the four Constitutions of the Council.
Pope John seemed to have realized that there were many problems facing the modern world; indeed, it sometimes looked like a world on the brink of collapse. I believe he gave us the Council, inspired and guided by the Holy Spirit, to help Christians find new, innovative and dynamic ways to go forward with hope, to live the spirit of Christ in the modern age. These ways were not to usurp the old, but they would complement them and bring out the best from our past.
I hope some readers will join me for the journey.