Vatican II - A Background
by Fr. Francis Jamieson
When Pope Pius XII died in 1958, the Catholic Church seemed in excellent shape. In the first half of the 20th. century the Church had been led by a number of strong Popes, particularly Pope Pius XII himself, who had guided the Church through the second World War and focused its energies against the postwar threat of Communism. The Church was continuing to grow both in numbers and influence. Seminaries, convents, and monasteries were filled to bursting point. Catholic theology was not very creative, but it was orthodox. There was almost no public disagreement. Catholics knew who they were. They were proud of their Church and had a clear sense of their own identity.
Pre-Vatican II Catholicism
But there was a shadow side to this picture. The Church was deeply suspicious of the modern world and was on the defensive. Catholic scholarship had been crippled by the atmosphere of suspicion and mistrust that followed the Modernist crisis at the beginning of the twentieth century. The only really acceptable model for theology was that of the dogmatic manuals of the Roman schools, a textbook theology that relied on formal, abstract teaching.
When Pius XII died, a number of progressive Catholic scholars like Karl Rahner, Yves Congar, Henri de Lubac, Marie-Dominique Chenu, Teilhard de Chardin, and the American Jesuit John Courtney Murray had either been silenced or forbidden to write on certain topics. Catholic universities contributed very little to the intellectual life of most countries.
The Church was not officially interested in ecumenism, the movement which aimed at restoring unity to the divided Christian Churches. Pius XI had issued an encyclical forbidding Catholics to participate in ecumenical meetings of non-Catholics. The Catholic approach to Christian unity was quite clear: "There is only one way in which the unity of Christians may be fostered, and that is promoting the return to the one true Church of Christ of those who are separated from it." In other words, they had humbly to come back to the Catholic Church. In 1949 the Holy Office published a letter allowing Catholic participation in the ecumenical movement, but under certain very strict conditions.
Lay movements, what we would now call "apostolates", were beginning to emerge, but the Church seemed unable officially to recognise that lay men and women had a real share in the mission of the Church. In Church documents the "lay apostolate" was defined as "the collaboration of the laity in the apostolate of the hierarchy". Ministry was the prerogative of the clergy.
Liturgically, although a liturgical movement had been going in the Church since the late nineteenth century, at the time of Pius XII's death Rome was trying to discourage the "Dialogue Mass", which had people praying and responding to a leader in their own language, while the priest at the altar prayed quietly in Latin.
How had the Catholic Church become so stuck?
Well, in a very real sense the Church had never completely recovered from the shock of the Reformation in the sixteenth century. But there were other reasons for the Church's distrust of the modern world:
- The scientific revolution and the rationalism of the Enlightenment (or Age of Reason) in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, with the accompanying attacks on Church doctrine and authority left the Church on the defensive, because both movements emphasised human reason and left no room for revelation.
- Then there were the revolutions of the late eighteenth and nineteenth century, especially the French Revolution which tried to force clergy to obey a civil constitution that stripped the Pope of any authority over the Church in France. In the end, it tried to restrict the practice of the faith itself.
In 1863 Pope Pius IX published his Syllabus of Errors, a list of eighty concepts and movements that he considered typical of modern civilisation. Among the errors condemned was the proposition that "the roman Pontiff can and should reconcile himself and reach agreement with 'progress', Liberalism, and recent departures in civil society." Even the territory the Church considered its own was under attack. In 1870 Garibaldi seized the Papal States, governed by the Pope, so that they could become party of the newly united Italy. The loss of this vast area of central Italy, ruled by the Popes for more than a thousand years, was traumatic.
All of this is the background of the defensive attitude and fortress strength of the Catholic Church before Vatican II. We shall not understand the Council unless we see where it came from.
Next: Currents of Renewal before Vatican II
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Copyright © 2004 Fr. Francis Jamieson. All rights reserved.