Fifty years on, Catholics still debate the meaning of Vatican II

When Pope John XXIII called the Second Vatican Council half a century ago, he said he wanted to “open the windows” of his almost 2,000-year Church to the rapid changes in the modern world.

Within a few years, Roman Catholicism dropped its ancient language Latin, ended two millennia of hostility to the Jews, made room for lay men and women in the liturgy and called for more consultation between the Vatican and its worldwide flock.

Now, as the Church prepares to mark the 50th anniversary of the Council’s opening on October 11, 1962, Latin is making a comeback, female altar servers are being discouraged and inner-Church dialogue is often little more than a formality.

Views on the historic Council divide Catholics to this day. Liberals say the return to tradition betrays its spirit. For conservatives, it corrects errors made in applying its ideas.

The key to understanding this fault line lies in the thinking of Pope Benedict himself, who has gone from being a leading reformer to the main advocate of conservative renewal.

“He says the Council was a good thing, but not a big turn in the road,” said Rev John O’Malley, Jesuit author of the book “What Happened At Vatican II.”

“He defines reform as a blending of different levels of continuity and discontinuity,” O’Malley, a Church historian at Georgetown University in Washington, told Reuters.


That’s not the way it felt at the time. The Council, which combined the Renaissance pomp of the Vatican with the surging optimism of the early 1960s, was one of the first major world events covered by the newly popular medium of television.

Pope John XXIII’s founding call for aggiornamento (Italian for updating) at the Council was taken up by liberal Belgian, Dutch, French and German bishops who argued for change against opposition from the Vatican’s conservative Italian bureaucracy.

Although the formal debates were held inside St Peter’s Basilica in Latin, many of the 2,500 bishops at the sessions kept their home media informed about what was happening.

When it ended in December 1965, O’Malley said, “98% of those who participated thought it was a big deal and it was good. The rest thought it was a big deal and it was bad.”

Pope Benedict, who attended the Council as the young German theology professor Joseph Ratzinger, was a leading light in the reform camp and agreed with most of its conclusions.

But when the student revolts of 1968 challenged traditional authority far more than the Council ever did, Ratzinger began stressing the importance of tradition and stability.

“He didn’t like all the tampering with the liturgy,” said O’Malley, referring to the way the elegant 400-year old Latin Mass was replaced by more informal rites in local languages, accompanied by guitar music and upbeat modern hymns.


The first decade or so after the Council was a turbulent time for the Church. The reforms both delighted and upset Catholics, depending on their views, and the clergy became so open to the world that a wave of priests left, many to marry.

Once a must for Catholics, Sunday Mass attendance also fell, especially after Pope Paul VI disappointed many liberals by reiterating a Church ban on artificial birth control in 1968.

That initial period left its mark. For example, there are now fewer priests around the world than back then — 412,236 in 2010 compared to 419,728 in 1970. In the same period, the number of Catholics worlwide doubled from 650 million to 1.2 billion.

When he became the Vatican’s top doctrinal official in 1981, Ratzinger could start pushing against the tide. Among his first targets were liberal theologians, especially those preaching the activist “liberation theology” in Latin American.

After his election as pope in 2005, Benedict accelerated this “reform of the reform” by promoting the use of the old Tridentine Latin Mass the Council had sidelined and bringing back older vestments and other details to the liturgy.

He has also tried very hard to reintegrate the Society of Saint Pius X (SSPX), an ultra-traditionalist fringe group that vehemently rejects the Council’s reforms. The rebels refuse to compromise despite several concessions from Benedict.


Benedict’s conservative line has won support in the Church, notably among young people discovering some traditions for the first time, but most Catholics attend Mass in the newer liturgy.

For the late Italian Cardinal Carlo Maria Martini, the Church needs more progressive reform, not more tradition.

“The church is 200 years out of date,” Martini, a prominent voice in the Church, said in an interview published after his death last month. “The Church’s bureaucratic apparatus is growing, and our rites and our vestments are pompous.

“The Church must admit its mistakes and begin a radical change, starting from the pope and the bishops.”

But while Benedict is slowly turning back the clock in the liturgy, where most Catholics have their closest contact with the Church, he has defended other reforms the Council made, especially the reconciliation with the Jews.

His traditionalist turn has sometimes clouded this, for example when he lifted excommunications on the four SSPX bishops in 2009 only to find out that one of them was a known Holocaust denier and the Vatican had not known that embarrassing fact.

Benedict has also continued the Council’s outreach to other religions, although with less fervour than his predecessor John Paul. Undiplomatic comments about Islam led to violent protests in the Middle East in 2006 but relations have since improved.


O’Malley said the Council was now “slipping from living memory into history” and most Catholics under retirement age did not know how different its tone was from the Church they see today.

Cardinal Walter Kasper, a fellow German with more moderate views who served Benedict as his top official for relations with other Christian churches, drew a mixed picture of where the Council stands in present Vatican policy.

“Many impulses from the Council … have only been realised halfway,” he wrote in late September.

What he called a “horizontal schism” has emerged in some fields between the official doctrine and the way many Catholics actually live in the modern world, leading to calls for women priests, a married clergy or more rights for divorced Catholics.

“The post-conciliar popes have called the Council a sure compass for the Church’s path in the 21st century,” Kasper said. “But the compass needle is still swinging nervously.”