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Catholic Identity: Reflections on the SecondVatican Council’s Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy and Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World

Jim Whalen

The question is: Of what significance are the pronouncements of the Second Vatican Council in regard to the description of authentic Catholic Christian identity today?

Specifically: What do the Constitutions addressing the Sacred Liturgy and The Church in the Modern World state about our Catholic Identity today as we seek our most fundamental and core values, beliefs, attitudes and practices? In what way did the pronouncements of the Second Vatican Council influence our deepest selves?

And further, why rely on an analysis of the Constitution on The Sacred Liturgy to determine an authentic Catholic identity?

The answer is: As has been the case in the Roman Catholic Church for centuries, to quote a Latin dictum: Lex Orandi, Lex Credendi: as the Church prays, so the Church believes.

So, what have been the practices of the Catholic Church since the Reformation? In reaction to the claim of the reformers that all the faithful were called through their baptism to participate in the priesthood of Jesus Christ, the Roman Catholic Church elected to emphasize the role of the ordained clerical priesthood in worship. To ensure a unique role for the ordained clergy, all the rubrics, settings, and language of the Tridentine Mass were established to reinforce an atmosphere of solemnity and separation. Historically, prior the late 18th Century and early 19th Century, the faithful were expected to be present at liturgical events solelyas passive spectators to the rituals being conducted by the priest. No active role was prescribed for them. Hence, as the Church prays, so the Church believes.

I invite you to think of the implications that segregation and passive witnessing of liturgy had for Catholic Christian believers! And would this not, ingrained as it was for nearly 500 years, indicate an essential characteristic of Catholic identity?

What then did the Second Vatican Council document on the Sacred Liturgy decree for the Catholic people in the pews in these our days? This document calls on the entire baptized people of God to actively participate in the rites of worship, specifying new active roles to the baptized laity previously reserved to the ordained clergy alone. This active, conscious, informed and wholly new role of the lay people in the rites of the Mass and in the sacraments surely laid the groundwork for a reformed sociological and psychological self-understanding of themselves as the Church. This newly emerging self-understanding (IDENTITY, if you will) of the Church as God’s People is still evolving.

The participants in this Second Vatican Council, proposed one guiding principlebefore all others as they approached the question of restoring and reforming the Sacred Liturgy. The principle is this: In the restoration and promotion of the Sacred Liturgy, the full and active participation by all the people is the aim to be considered before all else. They decreed: Catholic Christians are not to be present at Mass as strangers or as silent spectators, but they are to be an active part in these rites and understand what they are doing.

Therefore, the conclusion that must be drawn from this primary document of the Council, the Constitution on The Sacred Liturgy, is that an essential element of authentic Catholic identity is to be a person who is actively, consciously, and totally engaged in the Sacred Liturgy of the Mass.

In addition to consulting the document on the Sacred Liturgy, we explored the Pastoral Constitution on The Church in the Modern World for evidence of what constitutes authentic Catholic Christian identity. Very significantly, The Church in the Modern World was the last of the documents promulgated by the Second Vatican Council and one that was not even foreseen by the preparatory commissions. Responding to Pope John XXIII’s opening address calling for optimism and refusing to consider the Council as an insular event, the bishops of the Church chose to address the entire modern world from the perspective of the Church. The impetus for this document arose from the floor or the assembled delegates during counciliar deliberations.

The record of the Roman Catholic Church since the reformation times in its dealing with the “outside world” is often characterized by such terms as: reactionary, defensive, hostile, and condemnatory. And such did these attitudes and characteristics remain in relation to the dramatic upheavals of 19th and 20th centuries.

The Council fathers then, having early on defined catholic identity as active participation, turned their focus toward attitudes and actions on the affairs of modern world. The Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World impacts Catholic Identity by modeling the attitude and actions that should be characteristic of a Catholic person. Contrary to the atmosphere fostered by the Church since Council of Trent the period of the Counter-reformation, the Constitution endorses an attitude of realistic optimism about the present and future of all mankind’s endeavors. It speaks glowingly of the dignity of the human person and supports the primacy and integrity of human conscience in matters relating to one’s religious choices. In the past, the emphasis of pronouncements had been based on the principle, that error has no right to exist in matters of faith. This document upholds the principle that the individual person does have rights in his/her choices of religious beliefs. Above all else, this constitution promotes that loving dialogue after the manner of the Lord Jesus, should be the most compelling trait of Catholic Christians.


In conclusion, when considering the topic of Catholic identity as reflected in Vatican II’s Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy and the Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World as relevant, authentic, and influential sources, we discover:

1. From the fundamental changes in the Church’s essential prayer ritual, that we are to be a people of full, active, and conscious participation. No longer are we to be passive spectators to the ritual actions of the presider, but as essential active agents of the worshipping Church. This means that we must consider anything that impinges on our Catholic identity as conscious, active participants as contrary to the will of the Church. This agenda should then be challenged.

2. That we foster an attitude of realistic optimism in all our associations, and that we refrain from reactionism to change and development by being witnesses according to the example of Jesus in loving dialogue.