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A U.S. Gift to the Council
By R. Scott Appleby
An American Jesuit and our U.S. experience influenced Vatican II profoundly.


Early Achievements
Turning to the World
Renewing the Catholic Social Teaching
The American Contribution
Sign of the Times
A Declaration of Independence
Aligned With Our Democracy
A New Vocabulary


Q. What was the Second Vatican Council?

A. Well, it was a moment when the world’s oldest Church actually learned a thing or two from the world’s oldest democracy.

What a claim! And yet there is more than a grain of truth to it. Consider the facts: The Second Vatican Council—also known simply as Vatican II—was a gathering of about 2,500 Catholic bishops from 79 countries. It opened in St. Peter’s Basilica in Vatican City on October 11, 1962, and adjourned in December of 1965 after four momentous sessions each fall.

The meetings produced 16 official documents that revolutionized Roman Catholicism. Pope John XXIII convened the Council but died in June 1963; Pope Paul VI immediately reconvened it. Vatican II was the 21st general—or ecumenical—council of the Church, but only the second since the Reformation of the 16th century.

In contrast to Vatican I (1869-1870), which set the Church firmly against the modern world, the bishops of Vatican II embraced Pope John XXIII’s call for updating and thoroughly reshaped the Church’s relationship to modern society.

They did so by shifting their gaze from the Middle Ages to the first centuries of Christianity. They focused on models of worship, fellowship, theology and Church forged before 380 A.D. when Emperor Theodius made Christianity the state religion of the Roman Empire.

By adapting these early Church practices to the growing “post-Christian” society in which 20th-century Europeans and Americans lived, the Council fathers triggered a shift in the Church’s self-understanding.

Their guides in self-transformation included a company of Benedictine monks from St. John’s Abbey in Collegeville, Minnesota, and a brilliant Jesuit priest who was born in New York City and taught at a seminary in Maryland.

Early Achievements

During the century prior to Vatican II, the Church was firmly on the defensive against the major social and intellectual movements of the modern age. The First Vatican Council had confirmed the idea of papal infallibility, and that stress on the Church’s authority made arriving at a new relationship between the Church and the world and the idea of religious liberty all the harder. What had happened in the world since 1870?

During the final quarter of the 19th century, scientific study of the Bible, Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution and atheistic Communism challenged Catholic understandings of revelation, divine providence and divinely sanctioned governance.

Protestant biblical scholars and a handful of Catholic exegetes, adopting a scientific-critical approach to Scripture, were probing the Bible’s historical development and multiple theological motivations. In so doing, they cast doubt upon the notion that God had “dictated” the sacred writ to passive biblical writers.

Darwin and his followers challenged the conviction that God had created the world with a clear design and end in mind. Socialism denied the right to private property, which was a cornerstone of Catholic social teaching. Marxism denied the existence of God.

The Church responded by affirming scholasticism, the system of thought presented in the Summas of Thomas Aquinas (1224-1274). Modern scholasticism preserved the character of the Church, declared the compatibility of truth and knowledge attained by reason, and reasserted the priority of the former over the latter.

In the 19th century the ecclesial party known as the ultramontanists—supporters of absolute papal authority—ensured that neo-scholasticism eclipsed other schools of Catholic theology and philosophy.

The ultramontanists constructed a “fortress Catholicism” marked by dualism and triumphalism. Dualism is the separation of the world into realms of absolute good and absolute evil. Triumphalism is the identification of the Church with goodness and truth and the Church’s enemies with evil and falsehood.

For much of the early 20th century in the United States, many Catholics were wary of developments in the natural sciences. They were particularly hostile toward modern psychology, sociology and political philosophy. They thought the Bible was only to be revered, not studied or taught.

Yet by the early 20th century, a reform movement had begun to grow in Catholic universities and among certain European religious. Mere condemnations of the modern world were deemed insufficient; Catholics must fight it on its own terms.

In the United States, Catholic professors founded Catholic theological journals and Catholic sociological and philosophical associations. These were designed to provide a Thomistic alternative to the secular worldview of the Harvard, Princeton and Yale elites who were running the country in the early 1920s and ’30s.

Benedictine monks in Minnesota began to turn their attention to the writings of Justin Martyr (150 A.D.) and other early Church thinkers. Dominicans and Jesuits studied the long and complex history of Church and state relations, plus Catholic thinking about the political order. Individually and collectively, talented Catholic thinkers were inventing a new way to be modern and Catholic.

The popes took note, but cautiously at first. Pope Pius XII issued major encyclicals in the 1940s, giving conditional approval to Catholic biblical studies and using scriptural imagery to describe the Church.

Pope John XXIII went further by proclaiming that it was time to throw open the windows of the Church. The Council’s goal, he announced, was not to condemn errors or rehearse traditional doctrines, but to foster reconciliation among Christians and to promote the peace and unity of all humankind. All this thinking shaped the debates at Vatican II.


Turning to the World

Pursuing this vision, however, required a revolution within Catholicism itself. No longer could Catholics assume that European/North American culture is the framework for evangelization and apostolic work.

To engage the diverse races, languages, classes, social experiences and cultures present among the peoples of the 20th century and beyond, Catholicism would have to disclose and retrieve its own rich theological and cultural resources.

Vatican II’s dual emphasis on the need to “inculturate” Christianity (to plant it anew on non-European and post-Christian European soil) and on the Church’s own historically diverse expression of the one apostolic faith led to profound reforms in Catholic practices and institutional life.

The Benedictine monks who had been studying early Christian styles of worship, for example, advocated a renewal of the liturgy—or public worship— based in part on that example. Vatican II gave its blessing to the liturgical movement and gave us the “new Mass,” which emphasized greater participation from laypersons and was celebrated not in Latin but in the everyday language of the congregation.

The retrieval of apostolic models and practices paralleled a return to Scripture as the primary source of the Catholic religious imagination. As a result, comprehensive biblical terms such as the “Mystical Body of Christ” and the “People of God” displaced traditional descriptions of the Church as an eternal, perfect society with clear-cut institutional boundaries and markers.

This shift from neo-scholasticism to biblical theologies coincided with and reinforced Roman Catholicism’s “turn to the world” and its affirmation of achievements in the non-Catholic and secular realms, including the sciences and political philosophy.

Renewing the Catholic Social Tradition

The most far-reaching consequence of this “turn to the world” was Vatican II’s endorsement of the emerging Catholic social teachings on economic conditions, social justice and human rights.

The modern Catholic social tradition effectively began in 1891 with Pope Leo XIII’s encyclical letter Rerum Novarum (The Condition of Labor). Rerum Novarum set Catholics on a new path. It emphasized God-given human dignity—rather than theological orthodoxy and Catholic Church membership—as the source of civil rights and political self-determination.

Whereas Pope Leo XIII inaugurated the Catholic social tradition, certain documents of Vatican II—especially Gaudium et Spes (Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World)—placed it at the very center of Roman Catholic self-understanding, doctrinal teaching and pastoral practice.

The relocation of fundamental human rights in the person rather than in the Church or the state was reaffirmed in Vatican II’s Dignitatis Humanae (Declaration on Religious Freedom) in December 1965.

The American Contribution

The document’s primary architect was the Rev. John Courtney Murray, S.J., a professor at Woodstock Theological Seminary in Woodstock, Maryland. Murray was a shrewd student of the U.S. Constitution, an American Catholic and a first-rate political philosopher.

At a 1948 gathering of Catholic theologians, Murray’s paper, entitled “Governmental Repression of Heresy,” contended that it was not the duty of a good Catholic state to repress heresy even when it was possible to do so.

The majority of Catholic authorities, following 19th-century papal teachings, opposed Murray. His adversaries included French, German, Italian and Spanish theologians of his own religious order.

In the United States, the leading expert on Catholic political philosophy had been Msgr. John A. Ryan, known as “the Right Reverend New Dealer” for his support of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s economic policies.

Having studied Pope Gregory XVI’s 1832 encyclical Mirari Vos, which describes religious freedom as “madness,” Ryan had concluded in 1941 that protection and promotion of Roman Catholicism is “one of the most obvious and fundamental duties of the State.”

Though he was committed to Catholic doctrine, Murray argued that, because the received Catholic teaching on religious liberty was not complete, it was neither permanent nor beyond reform.

Convinced by “the American experiment in ordered liberty,” Murray set about challenging the dominant Catholic versions of the Church-state theory. He insisted that the 19th-century encyclicals be read in their proper context. The American concept of Church-state separation, Murray contended, was more congenial to Catholic principles.

The “new question” that had confronted the Catholic Church for over a century was the relationship between “true religion” and the modern liberal state. The United States was an important site of this confrontation. The spiritual dimension of human life is the concern of the Church, not the government, Murray insisted. Government, however, must ensure that the Church is free to pursue its mission.

Murray also drew a distinction between society and the state, defining the former as made up of many diverse communities such as families, businesses, labor unions and churches. State absolutism occurred, he believed, when the state attempted to control society rather than serve it.

In the 1950s, even before these arguments were fully developed, Murray fell into disfavor with Cardinal Alfredo Ottaviani, prefect of the Holy Office, as the curial office charged with protecting Catholic doctrine was called then.

In 1954, Murray was effectively silenced when a Jesuit censor in Rome declared that his article “Leo XIII and Pius XII: Government and the Order of Religion” could not be published.

Sign of the Times

But other developments pointed to a change in the theological climate. In 1953, the Holy Office excommunicated the Rev. Leonard Feeney—a Jesuit chaplain at Harvard—for insisting on the narrowest interpretation of the ancient phrase “Extra ecclesiam nulla salus est” (“Outside the Church, there is no salvation”).

The Feeney affair reflected a growing reluctance among Catholic officials to denounce non-Catholics, as well as a more inclusive attitude regarding membership in “the Church.”

European Catholics, having suffered under fascism and Communism, were also rethinking the relationship of Christian truth to human rights. Pope Pius XI, in the 1937 encyclical Mit brennender Sorge, confirmed the “fundamental fact” that every person “possesses rights given by God, which must remain safe against every attempt by the community to deny them, to abolish them, or to prevent their exercise.”

During World War II, Pope Pius XII invoked “the dignity with which God at the beginning endowed the human person.”

Totalitarianism had left Europeans suspicious of the state, the pope observed, and yearning for government that was “more compatible with the dignity and freedom of citizens.”

The United Nations’ adoption of the Declaration of the Rights of Man reflected this attitude, as did the new postwar nations. Their constitutions protected human rights, including the right of religious freedom.

In reading these signs of the times, the popes and bishops also drew upon a theory of Christian personalism, elements of which could be found in Christian tradition. In this they were guided by the French philosopher Jacques Maritain. His writings on the state developed themes similar to those of the Jesuit Murray.

In its care for the material welfare of the community, the state is superior to any individual, Maritain wrote, but in its service to the spiritual welfare the state has limits set by the transcendence of the person. The state may not coerce a person in his or her search for the truth, Maritain held, for it is the nature of a person to seek the truth freely.

Maritain spoke to and for supporters of Christian democracy in France, Italy, Germany, Belgium and the Netherlands. His writings were also cited by Catholics in Latin America who sought to overthrow military dictatorships.

The debate over religious liberty took a dramatic turn when, in 1960, a papal commission led by bishops from Switzerland and Belgium drafted a preliminary document on Church-state relations that stressed tolerance as a virtue and discarded the ideal of a Catholic state as the enforcer of orthodoxy.

A Declaration of Independence

Pope John XXIII’s own social encyclicals, especially Pacem in Terris (1963), proclaimed “the universal, inviolable, inalienable rights and duties” of the human person. They presented a moral framework within which socioeconomic rights were woven together with political and civil rights.

The Vatican lifted its censure of Murray when he was appointed a peritus at the Council. He was instrumental in convincing the bishops that religious liberty did not endorse “indifferentism”—the notion that it makes no difference what one believes.

Nor would the bishops’ endorsement of religious freedom excuse the individual search for the truth about God, which could be found in its fullness, Catholics continued to believe, only in the Roman Catholic Church. Rather, the proposed text affirmed the right of the person to the free exercise of religion according to the person’s conscience.

Murray and his allies carried the day: The Declaration on Religious Freedom, approved on December 7, 1965, ratified the postwar development of Roman Catholic doctrine on the unbreakable rights of the human person and on the constitutional order of society.

Endorsing the approach of Maritain as well as Murray, the Council declared that human beings, directed by God, “transcend by their nature the terrestrial and temporal order of things.” The civil power “exceeded its limits” when it presumed to direct or impede this relationship to God.

Significantly, the Council declared that the right to freedom belonged to groups as well as individuals, because both human nature and religion have a social dimension.

Aligned With Our Democracy

While Pacem in Terris maintained a natural law framework, the Declaration on Religious Freedom engaged the U.S. constitutional tradition of rights and liberties which affirmed the right of religious freedom.

By endorsing constitutional limits on the state and by joining religious freedom with other human rights, the Church embraced the full range of freedoms needed in the political order for the defense of human dignity.

It did not forsake natural law, but situated it within an argument that embraced constitutional ideas previously tolerated but not accepted by the Church. This development opened the way for subsequent transformations in Catholic political philosophy and social practice. The Council disavowed the notion that “error has no rights” in favor of the idea that human beings always have rights.

By identifying innate human dignity as the authentic source of civil rights and political self-determination, the Declaration on Religious Freedom made alliances with authoritarian regimes (even pro-Catholic ones!) impossible to defend. By proclaiming that the tradition’s understanding of the freedom of the Church and the limits of the state was compatible with democratic institutions, it aligned the modern Church with democratic policies and against all forms of totalitarianism.

The Council’s pastoral constitution, Gaudium et Spes, internalized the argument by seeing the Church’s commitment to social justice and the promotion of human rights as integral to its religious ministry. In this way, Vatican II legitimated Catholic involvement in the struggle for human rights.

In sum, Vatican II reversed Catholic teaching on Church-state relations by accepting the fact of religious plurality and aligning the modern Church with democratic policies and against all forms of totalitarianism.

In this declaration, the Church officially relinquished any ambition to grant full civil rights in a Catholic-majority state only to those who proclaim “correct belief,” or Catholic orthodoxy.

The American system had subtly been recognized as the embodiment of truths which all Catholics, not only Americans, held dear. It was, and remains, a moment to cherish in the evolution of the Catholic—and American—Church.

A New Vocabulary

by Michael J. Daley

Aggiornamento: Italian for “bringing up to date”; speaks to Church renewal and adaptation. As phrased by Pope John XXIII, “opening up windows to let in fresh air.”

Collegiality: Teaching which asserts that, rather than simply helping the pope govern the Church, the college of bishops, always with the pope, has a shared responsibility to exercise authority and teaching on behalf of the Church.

Ecumenical: Greek for “universal.” Vatican II was an ecumenical council, meaning that it was a worldwide assembly of Catholic patriarchs and bishops.

Episcopal conferences: Vatican II strongly encouraged the formation of these bodies, which could be composed of several nations or a single nation (United States). In them, bishops are to meet at fixed times and talk about pastoral issues, set policy guidelines and work to promote the good of the Church.

Homily: Initially an unfamiliar word for those used to sermons, it comes from the Greek meaning “conversation.” In the renewal of liturgy, the Council said that the priest’s words to the assembly after reading the Gospel are to explain the Scriptures and apply them to our life today.

Inculturation: The Gospel of Jesus Christ should not be a foreign intrusion—a Western or European import—into a culture. This term refers to the goal of enfleshing the message of Christ in ways that are respectful and open to a people’s culture.

Ministry: Though the clergy exercise the ordained priesthood, the laity share in the priesthood of all those who have been baptized into Christ, who was “priest, prophet and king.” After the Council, there was an explosion of lay ministries within the Church.

People of God: Going against the long-emphasized understanding of the Church as institutional and hierarchical, the Council pictured the Church as primarily a community. This biblical image also served to call attention to the vital role that the laity (Greek for “people”) play in the Church.

Peritus, periti: Latin for “expert” or “advisor”; refers to theological advisors. Bishops were able to appoint their own theological advisors and to bring them to Vatican II. A notable American peritus was Father John Courtney Murray, S.J.

RCIA (Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults): Returning to the practice of the ancient Church, the Council called for the restoration of the catechumenate (a process of preparing for entrance into the Catholic Church). It was reinstituted in 1972.

Reception: Refers to the way teachings of the Church are accepted and integrated into the life of the Church. As exemplified in the area of liturgy, the implementation and acceptance of Church teachings, especially conciliar ones, does not take place immediately but is better thought of as a process.

Signs of the times: Rather than remain aloof and isolated, the Church must be attuned to the events and movements, both positive and negative, taking place in the world. In this way, the Church will be able to enter into dialogue with the modern world in a more credible fashion.

Vernacular: Pertaining to the liturgy, the Council allowed for replacing Latin with the congregation’s local language (English, French, German, Swahili, Tagalog, etc.).

R. Scott Appleby is a professor of history and director of the Joan B. Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies at the University of Notre Dame. He specializes in American religious history and comparative religious movements. Appleby wrote The Ambivalence of the Sacred: Religion, Violence and Reconciliation (Rowan & Littlefield, 2000) and coauthored (with Martin E. Marty) the five-volume Fundamentalism Project (University of Chicago Press).


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