OTHER FAITH TRADITIONS AND RELIGIONS
The teachings of the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church provide the foundation for dialogue between the Catholic Church and other religions that’s developed further in teachings on ecumenism (efforts toward unity or cooperation among Christian Churches), non-Christian religions, and religious freedom.
Vatican II significantly changed the position the Church had held at times in the past concerning non-Catholic Christian communities. The teachings in the Decree on Ecumenism treat such communities with respect and try to understand and present their positions fairly. They recognize the Spirit at work in them and that they’re part of the “mystery of salvation.” The attacks of Trent and its condemnations of heretics give way to reaching out to our “separated brothers and sisters.”
The Declaration on the Relationship of the Church to Non-Christian Religions expresses another remarkable change. The positive contributions and qualities of Hinduism, Islam, Buddhism, and Judaism are highlighted, and other religions are included in a general way. The Council declares that the Church rejects nothing that’s true and holy in any of these religions.
Another dramatic breakthrough occurs in the teachings of the Declaration on Religious Freedom. At times in the past, the Catholic position at best tolerated other religions and claimed preferential treatment for the Catholic Church by governments. Vatican II stresses the ethical foundation of the right to religious freedom and insists that every person—whether Catholic or not—must be free from coercion, especially in religious matters.
This document generated much controversy. The issue was not only religious freedom but also the development of doctrine. The Council was concerned about radically changing the position of the Church, a position firmly stated by Pope Pius IX in 1864. In the final session of the Council, however, the document was approved by an overwhelming majority.
THE CHURCH AND THE WORLD
Discussed in many Council documents, the separation of the Church from the world is the specific focus of the Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World. This inspiring document expresses and symbolizes the spirit of Vatican II, beginning a realistic dialogue with the modern world.
First discussing the dignity of the person and the interdependence of persons and societies, the bishops then apply this Christian understanding of the person in community to some of the most critical problems of the contemporary world. These include marriage and family; the proper development of culture; economic, social, and political life; and war and peace. A key theme of this optimistic text is that of the Church putting itself at the service of the human family.
Again we hear the word service from the Council Fathers. We first heard it as the role of Church authorities; now it points to the Church’s role in relation to the wider world, a world it had come to mistrust and wished to keep separate from itself.
The separation of the Church from the world is overcome in yet another way—in the Church’s own self-understanding. Vatican II marks the beginning of the Church understanding itself from a global perspective.
Comparing the significance of this breakthrough in self-understanding to that of the early Christian community opening itself to the gentiles more than 1,900 years ago, Karl Rahner, SJ, uses the image of “world-Church” in his book Concern for the Church. By this he means that Catholicism is no longer a European and Western religion that’s been “exported” to the rest of the world. The Catholic Church now allows itself to be shaped by a variety of cultures from Latin America, Asia, and Africa. The election of Pope Francis, a native of Argentina, is evidence of this ongoing movement.
CARRYING THE VISION FORWARD
Vatican II stands as a remarkable example of renewal and reform. With its emphasis on the Bible, the Council turned to the foundation of the Christian experience and found renewed ways to express that experience in the modern world. Vatican II responded to the signs of the times and helped the Church revisit its roots and so become a more open and pastoral community in the world.
Just as with individuals, however, diseases and divisions exist and re-emerge in the people of God. So, along with these examples of healing, the inspiration of Vatican II, expressed in the Council’s Opening Message to Humanity, offers direction and challenge for us today: “Under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, we wish to inquire how we ought to renew ourselves, so that we may be found increasingly faithful to the gospel of Christ.”
“Certain themes and concepts consistently gained in importance. . . . a trajectory toward engagement with the world, openness to other Christians, affirmation of baptismal equality, and appreciation for other religions.” –Edward P. Hahnenberg, A Concise Guide to the Documents of Vatican II
“The joys and hopes, the grief and anguish of the people of our time, especially of those who are poor or afflicted, are the joys and hopes, the grief and anguish of the followers of Christ as well.” –Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World 1
“In the restoration and development of the sacred liturgy the full and active participation by all the people is the paramount concern, for it is the primary, indeed the indispensable source from which the faithful are to derive the true Christian spirit.” –Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy 14