Second Vatican CouncilResearch Paper

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Vatican II

A Survey of the Second Vatican Council

Vatican Council II stands out as unique in the Catholic Church's near 2000-year history. From 1962 to 1965 the massive council met in Vatican City to update the Church's stance on liturgical and theological matters. By adopting what Popes John XXIII and Paul VI, as well as a majority of the prelates and periti involved, called a "pastoral attitude" toward the fulfillment of the needs of modern man, the Council attracted a media coverage blitz unparalleled by past councils. Press reports extended Vatican II's impact across the globe before its fourth and final session even came to a close. Anticipating such public interest, Pope John, in 1961, had told the Council's preparatory commission "that he did not wish to 'forget the journalists,' whose desire for news…he appreciated."

This openness with the public combined with Vatican II's pastoral intent not only distinguished the Council from its predecessors but also effected a rapid worldwide change within the Church itself. The consequences of this change have ranged in interpretations, from traditionally minded prelates charging Rome with liberally departing from traditional ecclesiology to Rome charging traditionalists with stubbornly resisting the Church's new direction. Church laity, non-Catholic Christians, and non-Christian sects have also observed the Council's impact and given reactions of both opprobrium and approval, making Vatican II a springboard of controversy in the modern Church. This paper will discuss the historical circumstances surrounding the Council's invocation as well as its implementation in the latter half of the 20th century.

The controversy in which the Church finds itself today would not have come into existence had it not been for the turning of many gears, which began long before the idea for the Council was conceived. By 1958 Pope John XXIII had expressed his desire to convoke another Council in Vatican City. Yet, Europe had been seeing a growing movement for liturgical reform "for several decades."

Promoted by the bishops and periti of the countries in Europe bordering the Rhine River -- France, Germany, Austria, Switzerland, the Netherlands, and also nearby Belgium -- the movement for liturgical reform helped clear the air for the convocation of an ecumenical council.

The Church in the early twentieth century Western World had experienced a flood of Catholic conversions inspired by a network of authors such as G.K. Chesterton, Hillaire Belloc, Jacques Maritain, Romano Guardini, and Fulton Sheen.

But a recession of "theological thinking," and likewise of conversions by the mid-twentieth century, persuaded many Churchmen to question the Church's "sclerosis" as it were. Notably, new studies conducted by Church radicals like Teilhard de Chardin, whose work was censored by the Vatican, were helping to establish a liberal school of theology (which would manifest itself triumphantly through the work of priests like Gustavo Gutierrez in Latin America and his Marxist-based Liberation Theology).

These liberal studies (modernism, as defined by St. Pius X) discouraged traditional ecclesiology (primacy of sacred over temporal matter) for social activism like the kind inspired by France's Catholic Action movement. Even to the famously conservative Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre (hailed as "el hombre justo" during his tour of Central America after the effects of Vatican II had all but dissipated the ranks of Church clergy) admitted to "welcoming" the Council (he even sat on the Preparatory Board to draw up the Council's schemas -- a needless activity as it turned out; the schemas were dismissed out of hand at the Council's beginning, which shall be shown later). The stumbling block, according to John Miller, was indicated as essentially twofold: a) "Christianity's basis in historical revelation," and b) the Church's liturgy in the form of the Roman rite.

Many suppositions and conclusions were drawn from this twofold stumbling block, and, as the Council would prove again and again, those conclusions were developed by the liberal element that formed and congealed within the Council.

The man in position to give tremendous sway to the movement was Pope John XXIII. As he pondered with his Secretary of State Cardinal Tardini, in 1958, over "what might be done to give the world an example of peace and concord…and an occasion for new hope," the idea for the Second Vatican Council came to the reigning Pontiff, as if, he would say later, he'd been spoken to by God.

Pope John prayed the Council would produce new ways to express the truths he held to be most essential in the Church's effort to evangelize the world. He presented his idea to the Sacred College of Cardinals in Rome in 1959. The Cardinals' lack of enthusiasm in response to the pope's idea registered a question as to the need for the convocation of a council: Cardinal Manning, in reference to Vatican I, stated that "to invoke a General Council, except when absolutely demanded by necessity is to tempt God."

The Second Vatican Council was the twenty-first ecumenical council in the Church's history, and its twenty predecessors, the first dating back to 325 a.D. In Nicea, had each met "to extinguish the chief heresy, or to correct the chief evil, of the time."

Vatican II obviously differed from its predecessors in this point; as Pope Paul VI stated in 1963 to those in attendance for the beginning of Vatican II's Second Session, the purpose of the Council had been "to open to the Church new horizons, and to tap the fresh spring water of the doctrine and grace of Christ…and let it flow over the earth."

The fact that no heresy or evil was condemned by any of the Council's four sessions was a point from which many conservatives would launch their attacks against Rome's novus ordo, though Rome would argue that the Council's lack of condemnation was proof of the its true ecumenical spirit.

Indeed, the majority of the Council, from 1962 to 1965, applauded the push for internal reform in the manner and style of Catholic teaching and practice; and, certainly, the Church saw a number of sweeping changes made in the hopes of promoting peace among all people of good will, Christian and non-Christian. Pope John XXIII led the charge in October of 1962, delivering his address in St. Peter's hall to the 2,400 Council Fathers who had gathered from Asia, Australia, Africa, Europe and the Americas for Vatican II's First Session.

The sheer immensity of the crowd of Fathers paralleled the enormity of the Council's preparatory commissions. For example, in comparison to the First Vatican Council, Vatican II's Central Preparatory Commission, of which the Pope was president, had eleven times as many members from fourteen times as many countries.

Such a large and diverse commission was more typical than not at Vatican II, and because of this heftiness and diversity, members were eager to rally behind leaders who could step forward and carry the movement of the Council. Those leaders emerged as heading two separate and distinct groups: those who favored a conservative and traditional approach to the schemas debated, and those who favored a modern and more liberal approach. It soon became clear which group had the most power. As Ralph Wiltgen reported, (then) Father Ratzinger,

The personal theologian of Cardinal Frings…mentioned that the liberals had thought they would have a free hand at the council after obtaining the majority in the Council commissions. But in the speeches and voting in the Council hall, he said, they began to notice some resistance to their proposals, and consequently commission had to take this into consideration when revising the schemas.

The conservative group, known as the Coetus Internationalis Patrum, headed by Bishop Geraldo De Proenca Sigaud, Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre, Fr. Berto and Dom Frenaud, "was determined to organize the scattered forces that would be able to provide some opposition to the progressive 'majority' at the Council"

. However, the influence of the Coetus was severely handicapped by the overwhelming willingness on the part of the Pontiff (Paul VI who reigned over the Council after John XXIII's death) and the majority of Council members in any number of ways. For example, when Cardinal Larraona wrote to Pope Paul VI in preparation for the Third Session concerning the schema Constitutionis de Ecclesia (it "brings us…inaccurate, illogical, incoherent and encouraging -- if it were approved -- endless discussions and crises, painful aberrations and deplorable attacks on the unity, discipline and the government of the Church"), the Holy Father replied:

The 'Personal Note' concerning the Conciliar schema De Ecclesia has caused Us, as you may well imagine, surprise and concern, as much by the number and high office of the signatories as by the gravity of the objections raised on the subject of the schema's doctrine and of the fundamentally contradictory statements… (However) the 'Note' reached Us the night immediately prior to the Third Session of the Second General Vatican Council, when it was no longer possible to submit the schema to fresh examination, by reason of the very grave and harmful repercussions, easy to foresee, on the outcome of the Council and hence upon the whole Church…that… [END OF PREVIEW]

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