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(Editor’s note: Blessed John XXIII convened the Second Vatican Council in St. Peter’s Basilica at the Vatican on Oct. 11, 1962. Pope Benedict XVI marked the 50th anniversary of the council’s opening and kicked off the Year of Faith with an Oct. 11 Mass in St. Peter’s Square. John F. Fink, editor emeritus of The Criterion, has written a four-part series reflecting on Vatican II. This is the fourth installment.)
The “Decree on the Apostolate of the Laity” emphasized that every member of Christ’s Mystical Body, not just clergy and religious, is called “to spread the kingdom of Christ over all the Earth for the glory of God” (#2).
It said that the lay apostolate is carried out “in the midst of the world and of secular affairs,” and that “men, working in harmony, should renew the temporal order and make it increasingly more perfect: such is God’s design for the world” (#2, #7).
The “Decree on the Mission Activity of the Church” has chapters on the doctrinal principles of the Church’s missionary activity, the nature of missionary work, the importance of the new local Churches, a description of the role of missionaries, the structure of missionary planning, and the deployment of the Church’s resources in cooperative missionary activity.
The “Decree on the Ministry and Life of Priests” told priests to be attached to their bishops with charity and obedience, to cooperate with their brother priests for the building up of the Church, and to promote the role of the laity in the mission of the Church. Priests were urged to make Scripture part of their lives, celebrate the Eucharist daily, and give themselves to prayer and the administration of the sacraments.
The promulgation of this document was delayed until the last day of the council after Pope Paul VI decided that the issue of clerical celibacy was not to be debated by the council. The section on priestly celibacy, therefore, said that celibacy is to be highly esteemed as being helpful to the mission of the priest.
It confirmed the law of celibacy for the Latin Church, but acknowledged that the nature of the priesthood does not demand it.
Then, to the relief of the American bishops, came the “Declaration on Religious Liberty.” From the start of the council, it was seen as the American document. For most of the existence of the United States, the idea of freedom of religion was seen differently in this country than it was in Europe. Americans recognized that the Catholic Church could flourish where there was freedom of religion.
However, the Church taught that civil governments had an obligation to recognize the Catholic Church. Pope Pius IX, in his Syllabus of Errors in 1864, said, “The state must recognize [the Catholic Church] as supreme and submit to its influence.”
In 1949, the American Jesuit Father John Courtney Murray began to argue that the state should not be the tool of the Church, but rather that government’s obligation is to ensure freedom of all its citizens, especially religious freedom.
After Blessed John XXIII was elected in 1958, Father Murray published a book titled We Hold These Truths in which he presented his arguments for freedom of religion.
By 1965, Pope Paul took a personal interest in the proposed “Declaration on Religious Liberty.” He met with Father Murray and then told Cardinal Pericle Felici, the council’s secretary, to go ahead with the printing of the document for discussion and voting by the bishops. It was finally promulgated by a vote of 2,308 to 70.
The declaration says, “This Vatican Council declares that the human person has a right to religious freedom. Freedom of this kind means that all men should be immune from coercion on the part of individuals, social groups and every human power, so that, within due limits, nobody is forced to act against his convictions in religious matters in public or in private, alone or in association with others” (#2).
“Gaudium et Spes,” the “Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World,” was the last document promulgated by the council. It concerned the Church and modern problems, giving the Church’s position on various issues. It gave notice that the Church intended to be more relevant to the modern world.
“Gaudium et Spes” gave top priority to problems encountered by families in the modern world. It began with the Church’s teachings about the holiness of marriage and the family, the nature of married love and the intended fruitfulness of the marital contract.
It also said, “Marriage is not merely for the procreation of children: its nature as an indissoluble compact between two people and the good of children demands that the mutual love of the partners be shown, that it should grow and mature” (#50). Prior to this, the Church always insisted that the primary purpose of marriage was the procreation of children.
The bishops had a problem, though, when it came to saying something about artificial contraception. The commission Pope Paul had appointed was still discussing this matter.
When it was finally passed, “Gaudium et Spes” said, “In questions of birth regulation, the sons of the Church are forbidden to use methods disapproved of by the teaching authority of the Church in its interpretation of the divine law” (#51).
Naturally, “Gaudium et Spes” included a section on the dignity of human life, saying, “Life must be protected with the utmost care from the moment of conception. Abortion and infanticide are abominable crimes” (#51).
But it included more than abortion and infanticide. The crimes against the human person enumerated in the document included murder, genocide, abortion, euthanasia, suicide, mutilation, physical and mental torture, undue psychological pressures, subhuman living conditions, arbitrary imprisonment, deportation, slavery, prostitution, the selling of women and children, and degrading working conditions where men are treated as mere tools for profit rather than as free and responsible persons.
The chapter after “The Dignity of Marriage and the Family” was called “Proper Development of Culture,” and this formed a preface for the document’s later treatment of economics, politics and world peace. The economics section stressed both that “every man has the right to possess a sufficient amount of the earth’s goods,” and that “men are bound to come to the aid of the poor and to do so not merely out of their superfluous goods” (#69).
The section on politics said that the Church is not identified with any political community nor bound by ties to any political system—which undoubtedly came as a surprise to many politicians in Europe, especially in Italy. And the document had a lot to say about world peace.
With the promulgation of “Gaudium et Spes,” the work of Vatican II was over. The next few years proved to be hectic, to say the least. As has happened after almost every other ecumenical council, the Church was severely divided between those who welcomed Vatican II, and those who thought it was the worst thing to happen to the Church.
There is still some of that, but not as much since most Catholics today never experienced the pre-Vatican II Church. Today’s Church is the only Catholic Church they have ever known.
I can’t help wondering what the Church would be like today if there had never been a Vatican II. Would the people of today have remained Catholics if the Church remained what it was before the 1960s?
For me, there is no doubt that Vatican II was, as Pope John XXIII thought, the inspiration of the Holy Spirit.
(John F. Fink is editor emeritus of The Criterion.) †