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Whither Vatican II?
By John Feister
Does the Council continue to shape the Church? Six experts assess its implementation.


'It's the Holy Spirit'
A New Understanding
Brilliance Dimmed
Failure of Leadership
Read the Documents
Women Deacons?
Promise and Crisis
'Into the Deep'


Ask 20 Catholics what they think of Vatican II and you might well get 20 answers. What was the finest accomplishment of the Council? What did the Council miss? Where are we today?

Some say we haven’t taken the work of the Council far enough, and in fact we’ve been backtracking away from the Council for 20 years. Then there are those who think the Council has been horribly misinterpreted, allowing liberals to foist all manner of unhelpful changes upon the unwitting faithful.

The majority of Catholics in America are somewhere between those two. They’ve been searching through these decades after the Council, accepting and embracing much of the Church renewal, and wondering about the rest.

But in the Church’s third millennium, at the Council’s 40th anniversary, there is a fourth and growing segment, the post-conciliar group. For them Vatican II sits in the history books alongside the Council of Trent, Abraham Lincoln, World War II and any number of other interesting events whose relevance is hard to understand, given today’s realities. This article is for anyone in any of these groups who wonders what is going on in the Church today.

Here we offer six perspectives—of men and women, of ordained and lay—to shed light on the Council not as a thing of the past, but rather as a vital force in today’s Church. We asked these experts about the Council and about its impact on the Church today.

Our “bookend” expert for this inquiry, whom we’ll open and close with, is Cardinal Edward Iris Cassidy, a former top Vatican official, now retired. We spoke with him from his home in Australia. He started his Vatican service in 1955, representing the Holy See in six countries, until 1989, when Pope John Paul II called him to serve as deputy secretary of state. He was named president of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity in 1989.

From then until 2001, he was a key player in critical interfaith and ecumenical breakthroughs, including the pope’s visit to the Holy Land and a number of historic discussions and agreements with other Christians.

'It's the Holy Spirit'

Cardinal Cassidy is quick to correct any notion that the Council was a mistake, as its most extreme critics might suggest. “This was not just some ordinary meeting of some group of bishops or something like that. This was a Council, called by Pope John XXIII under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit.”

He recalls the context of Pope John’s convening the Council: “It was a wonderful chance for the Church to come to terms with the tremendous change that had taken place after the Second World War and in so many different fields. There was a good bit of confusion afterwards,” he observes, “but that confusion does not take away from the great importance of the Council itself.”

Much of that confusion came from the way the Council was implemented, he says. “The decisions were taken, very often, to new extremes which were not those which the Council fathers had in mind. That made people think that we were going to have a whole new ball game, as you say in the States, and that everything had to change.”

He remembers his years as a representative of the Holy See in the Netherlands, as an example. The renewal there, he says, “wasn’t strictly according to what the Council had proposed, but their interpretation of what the Council had said. It practically tore the Church in Holland apart into two very confrontational groups. And little by little, they nearly destroyed what had been a very vibrant and missionary-minded Church. It was a kind of suicide!”

The United States was different, says Cardinal Cassidy. “You know, yours is still one of the most religious-minded societies in the world. I don’t think that we have gone to the same kind of extremes at all in the United States that we did in some European countries.”


A New Understanding

During the John Paul II papacy, Cardinal Cassidy played a critical role in enacting many of the Council’s interfaith and ecumenical initiatives. It was an effort to bring the Church more actively into the world. Before the Council, he remembers, “we were still very much in the post-Reformation mentality. We had the doors locked and we were very happy inside there, trying to keep the faith without being too much troubled by the outside world....I don’t know for how much longer we could have really carried on in that fortress mentality.

“One has to wonder,” he says, “what would have been the situation of the Church today if it had not tackled these questions that it had to tackle, had not oriented the bishops, priests and people toward a new understanding, a new look at some situations which had changed dramatically from earlier periods of history.”

That was especially true in interfaith relations and ecumenism, a field in which he toiled. “We were gradually finding ourselves way out on a limb, completely isolated from the other Christian Churches,” he recalls. Yet we are the majority Christian Church, so we needed to be central in the dialogue, he says. “The Council made us realize this was not something we could neglect because it was really part of what it means to be a Catholic Church.”

Much progress has been made in many interfaith and ecumenical relations— the historic 1999 Lutheran-Catholic agreement, the Anglican discussions and Pope John Paul II’s historic thawing of Jewish-Christian relations. But there is much unfinished business. One issue within and outside of the Church is the nature of the papacy itself.

Much has been achieved, says the cardinal, in the relationship between the successor of Peter and the other bishops as members of the Apostolic College. “This would have been a very difficult situation if the Council hadn’t looked at it and given a new understanding that the Church is governed by the Roman pontiff together with the bishops throughout the world.” That’s still “being worked out in practice,” he adds.

This fall Paulist Press will publish his book, Ecumenism and Interreligious Dialogue, as the first of a series from various authors on the importance of Vatican II.

Listen to an interview with Cardinal Cassidy

Brilliance Dimmed

Anne Husted Burleigh is a freelance author and former contributing editor of Crisis, a journal of conservative Catholic opinion. Besides her many duties of semi-retirement, she is helping write a Respect Life document as part of the work of a diocesan synod under way in Covington, Kentucky.

Raised Methodist, she became an Episcopalian in young adulthood. In 1964 she married William Burleigh, a journalist whose career led to his current position as chairman of the board of directors of Scripps Howard. “It was the very next day after my wedding that English was first used in the Mass!” she recalls. In her early days of marriage, mostly as a result of her studies of Church history (“I read my way into the faith” she says), she decided to become Catholic.

“I loved going to Mass in English, but I have to say that my first reaction was already, at the time, how much I missed the beautiful hymns, the wonderful music, of the Protestant tradition.” She wondered then why the Catholic Church wasn’t drawing on its rich musical traditions, an opinion shared by many cradle Catholics of the time.

She calls Vatican II a renewal in the best sense, not a revolution: “Lumen Gentium and Gaudium et Spes are huge, pivotal, wonderful documents.” She sees development in Pope John Paul II’s teaching that was inherent in the thinking of the Council. “His theology of the body was there, in the Council, and ready to spring to life,” for example.

“I think the Council showed that the beauty of the truth in the Church is open to everybody,” she says, “not just the elite.” And she appreciates the new emphasis on Scripture study and broadened use of the Liturgy of the Hours, a monastic prayer form.

But she sees shortcomings in the way the Church accepted the Council. “I think that in some ways it was diverted, it was taken off track. There was this possibility, and I think it’s coming to the fore now, to bring the laity to maturity, such things as lay movements,” such signs of hope, she says, as “the rebirth of third orders [she’s a Third-Order Dominican], Focalare, the neocatechumenate, Communio, Regnum Christi, Opus Dei.”

The brilliance of the Council was dimmed, she says, “by the rejection of Humanae Vitae [Pope Paul VI’s 1968 human-life encyclical that upheld the ban on artificial contraception] by key members of the clergy and the laity.” That rejection, she says, “started to derail the Council, sort of right at the beginning. We developed this kind of crisis of authority, and that resulted in the collapse of many religious orders.”

Then there was “implementing babyish songs, things that don’t bring forth that transcendent longing that we all have, to be with Christ.” And the same, she says, could be said of “that whole period of Church architecture, when the churches were stripped, sort of like they were in the Reformation,” to look “bare and minimalist.”

Another huge problem was “some weak and even nonexistent leadership by some bishops. There were very good bishops, but there were also some who just did not take enough responsibility. The result of that has been the catastrophic abuse crisis.”

There are signs of hope today, she insists, seeds that began to sprout in the early ’90s. Besides the lay movements, she sees hope in “some of these new bishops” whom she sees as serious leaders of their flock. Then there is the “curiosity and interest in religion among young people.” She observes that their parents were not well formed in the faith, “and sometimes even hostile.” She sees the climate on some college campuses warming toward religion.

On the whole, she says, Vatican II has held up, but she sees four key challenges. First is a “wider acceptance of a theology of the body”—which is an antidote to many personal and marital ills of today, she says.

“Better formation of clergy and laity” is an essential second area, she adds.

Third, “Church has the mission and the possibility of being at the cutting edge on the bioethical issues.”

Finally, she says the Church needs “to have a keen understanding of itself and has to have a zeal to evangelize, so that we can address radical Islam.” That will be a challenge for many years, she adds.

Listen to an interview with Anne Husted Burleigh

Failure of Leadership

A different perspective comes from Richard McBrien, a Hartford Archdiocese priest who is Crowley-O’Brien Professor of Theology at the University of Notre Dame. He has syndicated a column for Catholic newspapers since 1966, is widely used by the media as a commentator and has written a number of books, including the monumental work Catholicism.

Father McBrien told St. Anthony Messenger that the Catholic Church has failed to live up to some of the high promises of Vatican II, but for “one reason only: the failure of pastoral leadership.” Most of Pope John Paul’s bishops, he says, “had no direct experience of the Council, and were, in fact, of a mind-set more at home with the defeated minority at Vatican II than with its overwhelming majority.” McBrien was a priest already at the time of the Council; his views are shared by many—though by no means all—who remember the preconciliar Church.

McBrien says that, unlike under Pope Paul VI, U.S. bishops have been chosen since for “their loyalty to the Holy See and their squeaky-clean record on all of the so-called hot-button issues: contraception, ordination of women, clerical celibacy.” The result, he says, is a career-minded episcopate who are more interested in pleasing the Vatican than in honestly responding to the needs of their people. It was these men, he says, who could provide no credible leadership during “the worst crisis to confront the Catholic Church since the Reformation, namely, the sexual-abuse scandal in the priesthood.”

The spirit of the Council, thus, has been dampened, “because these bishops did not go through the spiritually and theologically transforming experience of the Council, they do not have a personal appreciation for what the Council achieved and the promise of ongoing renewal that it stimulated.”

You can see that, he says, in the “general wariness” toward lay involvement in the Church, for example, in the liturgy, with the recent restriction on lay roles during the distribution of the Eucharist. “That is why so many older Catholics—Call to Action types, for example—are frustrated by the current atmosphere in the Church.”

The Council’s greatest achievement was that it showed the breadth of Catholicism, he says. We learned from the Council “that the Catholic Church is more pluralistic in its theology, doctrinal interpretations, liturgical life and pastoral practices than was thought at the time—and since.”

That pluralism, or legitimate diversity, is an ancient tradition in the Church, he observes, “an integral part of all human experience.” The Church always needs to discern what is legitimate versus what developments might “put the Catholic core at risk,” but “when in doubt, freedom must prevail.” That which is not of God, he says, quoting an old principle, will die of its own weight.

Read the Documents

A younger professor, Dr. Edward Hahnenberg, finds that today’s students are more likely to yawn than to care about Vatican II. Hahnenberg, a Notre Dame Ph.D. who teaches theology at Xavier University, Cincinnati, is author of a forthcoming St. Anthony Messenger Press book about the Vatican II documents.

The spirit of Vatican II is captured in the documents, he says, and his mission as a professor is to expose younger Catholics to that spirit. He was born in 1973; his students in the mid-’80s. “I’m part of that generation that had no experience of the Church before the Council,” he explains. The story of the Council has been for so long the “before and after” story, he says, a story that doesn’t connect with younger Catholics.

His issues are different from those of his professors of recent memory. One example is ecclesiology, or the theology of the Church’s mission and nature. “We never experienced the Catholic ghetto. We take for granted that the Church ought to be in dialogue with the world. And we take for granted that the Church ought to be ecumenical, ought to be inclusive with other religions.”

Young Catholics today are searching for a kind of identity that was automatic for older Catholics, he observes. He sees a negative side to that search, a “latching onto externals, or superficial things like baroque Catholicism, with all of the devotions that actually are only a hundred years old.”

The challenge for him, he says, is not to embrace a preconciliar idea, but to find ways to articulate a positive Catholic identity in line with Vatican II.

Hahnenberg worries that we might lose the spirit of dialogue that the Council so clearly embraced: “I worry sometimes that the Church today doesn’t talk about things. For anyone who’s paid attention, here is something remarkable. The Church was talking about things, and its leaders were actually involved in dialogue and debate on substantive issues. That is a great model.”

Most of the students he sees—even at a Catholic university—don’t have a lot of experience with the Church, he says, but they’re interested. “I feel that we have to find ways to articulate the great themes of the Church tradition—sacramentality, community, incarnation—all of these things in a way that offers identity.”

Listen to an interview with Dr. Edward Hahnenberg

Women Deacons?

Dr. Phyllis Zagano is visiting associate professor of Roman Catholic studies at the Yale Divinity School and also senior researcher at Hofstra University in Hempstead, New York. She spent years as a researcher for Cardinal John O’Connor in New York and has for years defended the idea of ordaining women to the diaconate. Her recent book, Holy Saturday: An Argument for the Restoration of the Female Diaconate in the Catholic Church, is published by Crossroad. She says that the full restoration of the diaconate is some of the unfinished business of Vatican II.

Shortly after Pope Paul VI wrote the 1972 document restoring the diaconate, Sacrum Diaconatus, he raised the question of women deacons. “He asked the International Theological Commission (ITC) to look at it, but the document produced by the ITC at that time was never published,” she says. Thirty years later it prepared a second document which argued against ordaining women deacons.

But there was a problem, insists Zagano: “The ITC really can’t override fourth- and fifth-century conciliar documents.” The ordination of women to the diaconate, she says, is certainly nothing different and nothing new. “It’s the restoration of an ancient tradition. So if Vatican II was, in part, trying to restore ancient traditions and maintain the trajectory of the Church in the modern world, then it just didn’t go far enough on the matter of women deacons.”

The problem, says Zagano, roots in the confusion of ordination to the diaconate with ordination to the priesthood. “The ordinary means of entering the clerical state is through ordination to the diaconate.” (Seminarians are ordained as transitional deacons before priestly ordination.) The diaconate originally was a separate vocation in its own right. That’s what the Council restored, but the transitional diaconate remained.

“To ordain a woman to the diaconate would mean to establish the woman in the clerical state,” says Zagano. Some of the issue, then, comes down to clerical authority, she explains. If a woman were to be ordained a deacon, she would become a cleric, “and then eligible to have authority over other clerics— which means she would have authority over men.

“In today’s Church there’s no legal means where a woman has any legal authority over a man.” Even women chancellors don’t actually supervise priests in the eyes of canon law, she says, only in matters of civil law.

The clear prohibition on ordaining women as priests ought to open the diaconate up, she says. “If the Church believes its own argument, then there is no danger of women becoming priests if they’re ordained deacons.” And she adds that the Canon Law Society, in 1994, showed that a simple change in canon law would open things up.

She offers a challenge. “Substitute words: Would the Church become better if we ordained Koreans to the diaconate? Left-handed people? Red-headed people? I think when you put it in those terms the question of ordaining women or not to the diaconate becomes a little silly, because there’s nothing against it.”

Promise and Crisis

Finally we turn to Dr. Alan Schreck, chairman of the theology department at Franciscan University in Steubenville, Ohio. His new book is Vatican II: The Crisis and the Promise (Servant Books). He personally remembers seeing the Council on “black-and-white TV, and knowing that something significant was going on,” but he was only 11 when the Council closed. Some of his devout students were profiled in a September 2005 Newsweek article discussing current trends in spirituality.

Schreck strikes a middle path in assessing Vatican II. “I think that Blessed John XXIII realized that there were monumental changes occurring in the world, both scientifically and technologically but also culturally, that demanded that the Church be able to express the gospel of Christ to that particular time in history. I think that’s why he called the Council and why it was so significant.”

On his list of the most successful achievements of the Council, he says, is our renewed study of Scripture and the Catholic Church’s renewed presence among biblical scholars. His list of the Council’s accomplishments is long. In renewal of the liturgy, “we’ve accomplished the full and active participation of all of the faithful in the worship of the Church.” The Church’s work in the modern world is taken seriously by people, especially laypeople, who “know their identity as Catholics.” Ecumenism and interfaith dialogue are “a tremendous breakthrough,” he adds. Finally, he sees a genuine faith renewal.

Alongside that there is an element of crisis, says Schreck. “Many Catholics are just not aware of the importance of the Council because they’re not really familiar with its actual teaching,” he asserts.

Then there are those who misinterpret the Council. “Some think its teaching was either a break from past teaching or it was the cause of the dislocations in the Church such as the vocations crisis, the rejection of Humanae Vitae, the rejection of Church authority,” and they’re wrong, he says. On the other extreme are those who think that “the Council has been surpassed, that it really is just a mandate to change constantly what the Church stood for.” Both extremes are dangerous, he says.

Pope Paul VI and Pope John Paul II made implementation of the Council faithfully and fully central to their pontificates, says Schreck, and that is a good thing. He also sees hope in the presence of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, which “could rightly be called the Catechism of Vatican II,” he says, because it depends upon Vatican II for most of its citations. The Catechism, he says, echoing Pope Benedict XVI, will rightly correct a large absence in catechesis for the generation following the Council.

The decline in Mass attendance he faults more to cultural conditions than to Vatican II.

Like Hahnenberg, he sees studying the documents themselves as a key to understanding the Council. “My hope is that people will get over the initial fear of the documents and just begin to read one document. I think they’ll find that the documents are very clear and powerful and helpful.” He recommends starting with Lumen Gentium (the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church), especially its sections on the “Universal Call to Holiness” and on the particular vocations within the Church.

Listen to part 1 and part 2 of an interview with Dr. Alan Schreck

'Into the Deep!'

Looking at the Council from various perspectives can feel a bit daunting. Perhaps the variety of experiences points to the energy that Vatican II—and the Holy Spirit responsible for it—unleashed in the Church and in the world.

Cardinal Cassidy sums up the progress of the Church these past 40 years: “I think it’s an ongoing voyage. As we go, we run into new difficulties, but as we do, we see the new horizons to which the Holy Spirit is guiding us,” he says.

Along the way, we’ve put out “into the deep,” as the Lord said to his apostles (see Luke 5:1-11, and John Paul’s commentary on it). This, he says, is the importance of the Council. “It set before us, yes, new horizons, but also said to us, ‘Don’t be afraid; this is what the Church is all about.’”

The Council, Cardinal Cassidy says, reminded us that we “are here for the world, and not just in the sense of preaching and converting people to Christ. We are trying to create a civilization of love.”

John Feister is an assistant editor of this publication who holds a B.A. in American studies from the University of Dayton and master’s degrees in humanities and theology from Xavier University, Cincinnati.


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