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THE SECOND VATICAN COUNCIL: Its Impact on Catholic Identity

Chuck Pilon

Vatican II (1962–1965) was an Ecumenical Council quite unlike any other Council in the history of the Roman Catholic Church. International in its scope and its vision, this Church Council specifically and deliberately addressed the whole world, not just Catholics, on numerous and a wide variety of important religious as well as secular issues. Aggiornamento (Italian for updating or modernizing) was a dominant theme.

The language of Vatican II was pastoral in tone and employed the art of persuasion. Specifically, the Council used language that implied equality and horizontal relationships: brothers and sisters, the priesthood of all believers. Words chosen suggested a sense of reciprocity – words like cooperation, partnership, collaboration, dialogue. Change was understood as: progress, development, evolution. Words of empowerment spoke of full and active participation, charisms and the importance of conscience.

The Council deliberations were lengthy and difficult. In the end, Vatican II was clearly a call for updating and change in the Church, evidenced by the voting majorities of the bishops on the 16 conciliar documents. The votes were overwhelmingly positive – 98.6% favorable, 1.4% negative.

The Council documents are marked by compromise, even to the extent that contrasting positions on issues were set on the page side by side or before and after each other. Papal teaching was generally re-asserted, but a vast majority of the bishops seeking change and updating for the Church believed that any underlying disagreements would be resolved by collegial ways and practices of proceeding after the Council. The Holy Spirit and the sense of the faithful would guide the continued development.

Frankly, and personally, Vatican II knocked my socks off. It changed my life, my faith, my relationship with God – the latter, entirely.

For 400 years, since the Council of Trent in the 16th century, the Church had been living defensively. It became a museum keeper, not a gardener nor a tender of new, vigorous life. It did not embrace scientific discoveries. It stood entrenched against the Enlightenment and the modern world and posted a record of terror, darkly inspired by Pius IX’s Syllabus of Errors and Pius X’s vigilante committees and an oath of allegiance to guarantee orthodoxy amongst scholars and clergy.

That was the practice, that was the theology, that was the Church I was born into in 1935 – with its fear of God and endless guilt, mortal sins and eternal hell; ungodly teaching about the Jews; pitiful relations with other Christian Churches; a scandalous history on the matter of religious freedom.

John XXIII (who convened the council in 1962) said we had to dust the furniture and open the windows in this Church. It needed fresh air, he said, as well as faithful dissent and new levels of understanding instead of blinders of absolute certitude. We were trapped in a control and a belief system vs a living process -- a Gospel way of being.

Body and soul I took in all that John XXIII and the Second Vatican Council stood for. Quickly, easily my identity as a Catholic changed. It made such sense! I never thought of it quite that way – a change in identity, but I do so now. A wind, a Holy Spirit, if you will, the fresh breath of the one God overwhelmed me, changed me, changed my spiritual identity. What a deliverance it has been!

I will not leave the Roman Catholic Church nor will I allow another power to declare me no longer a Roman Catholic, not with the Second Vatican Council an important part of the Roman tradition. The Catholic Church mothered me and so I’m staying with mamma, but working at and finding ways to talk back to her in ways that are effective, all the while keeping a smile in my heart if not on my face and a sense of humor about how crazy – perhaps better said “unbalanced” – mamma really is at her age.

We humbly but firmly dare to assert our right and our responsibility, by virtue of our baptism, to shape and update this Church, birthed, ultimately, by the one Jesus of Nazareth. We our take identity from this Jesus. We find it desperately urgent to do so.