Why the Second Vatican Council?

29/05/2014

Catholic Outlook May 2014 Vatican II Story
Second Vatican Council by Lothar Wolleh.

Originally published in Catholic Outlook May 2014

By Bishop Emeritus of Parramatta Most Rev Kevin Manning DD

As we reach 50 years after the beginning of the Second Vatican Council and reflect on the changes which have occurred in that time we might well wonder if the Council Fathers had any idea of the time-bomb they were setting off.

As a student in Rome from 1957-62 I was well placed to observe closely the decisions, movements and inspiration which set off one of the greatest of the Church Councils from 1962-65.

It represented the most significant example of institutional religious change since the Protestant Reformation. We are still struggling to understand the forces that brought about the changes which took place.

The Council covered four sessions, three years (1962-65), the leadership of two popes, John XXIII and Pius VI, the presence of some 3000 bishops, cardinal, leaders of religious orders and theologians.

The First Vatican Council opened in 1869 and prior to it the Church had not held a Council since the Council of Trent in 1562.

As students, in the lead-up to the Council we did not expect great changes, for the Roman Curia (the key men in Church administration in Rome at the time) was not noted for being radical or ordering change.

The Curia was noted for its conservative views on theology and doctrine and its censorship of radical theologies. Its duty was to protect the Church from heresy.

I well remember the Dogma Prefect at the university where I was studying denouncing the theologians Lefebvre and Conger as heretics. They later became two leading lights of the Council. A number of our professors were members of Council committees.

When he announced the Council, Pope John XXIII was 77 years old and expected to secure the conservatives. He wasn’t expected to upset the Curia, which had almost complete control over the Council’s preparations, proceedings and agenda.

There is no doubt that Pope John XXIII was the key to the initiation of the Council and this offered the opportunity for the Church to be reformed.

However, he died just before the second session of the Council was due to start and his successor, Pope Paul VI, was conservative. It would appear that the direction and extent of change was most obviously decided by the bishops in Council who were willing to undertake that change and in some cases, reject the Curia’s opinions.

It is worth noting how bishops from the different countries exercised influence in key areas e.g. European Catholic monopolies like Italy and Spain wanted no change; non-Catholic countries or Catholic countries with a formal separation of Church and state pushed for ecumenism; Latin American countries pushed for economic justice and care for the poor and unchurched; Africa and Asia opted for ecumenical outreach and social justice concerns.

Comparison between these four groups gives us some idea of the issues which directed the bishops’ priorities at the Council.

By the end of the Council a wide variety of reforms had taken place due in no small part to small groups of progressive bishops who had turned Vatican II into the most significant religious event of the 20th Century.

As a student then, and a bishop now, the outstanding feature for me of the whole process was the uncanny direction of the Holy Spirit over the three years of the Council and in the years that have followed. I have no problem in detecting always the Lord’s influence in the whole phenomenon of the Second Vatican Council.


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