September 30, 2016

From the Editor Emeritus / John F. Fink

20th-century Church: The third session of Vatican II

John F. Fink(Tenth in a series of columns)

The third session of the Second Vatican Council, in 1964, saw the approval of three important documents: the “Dogmatic Constitution on the Church” (known as “Lumen Gentium”), the “Decree on Ecumenism,” and the “Decree on Eastern Catholic Churches.”

“Lumen Gentium” (“Light of the Nations”) provoked another debate between the conservatives and the progressives, especially over the relationship between the pope and bishops. The progressives argued in favor of sharing in the authority of the pope, while the conservatives were determined to maintain the monarchical style. Once again, the progressives won.

Another bone of contention was the old system of ranking members of the Church as laity, clergy and hierarchy. After much debate, the council defined the Church as “the People of God.”

The Decree on Ecumenism emphasized one of the main purposes of the council—Church unity. This was spelled out in the first sentence of the decree: “The restoration of unity among all Christians is one of the principal concerns of the Second Vatican Council. Christ the Lord founded one Church and one Church only” (#1).

For a Church that had been combating Protestantism as vigorously as the Catholic Church had, it was remarkable that this document could call for dialogue, and urge Catholics “to acquire a more adequate understanding of the respective doctrines of our separated brethren, their history, their spiritual and liturgical life, their religious psychology and cultural background” (#9).

Even more remarkable to the Catholics of that day was the statement that “men who believe in Christ and have been properly baptized are put in some, though imperfect, communion with the Catholic Church. … All who have been justified by faith in baptism are incorporated into Christ; they therefore have a right to be called Christians, and with good reason are accepted as brothers by the children of the Catholic Church” (#3).

One document that was not passed at the third session was the “Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World.” This document, which turned out to be the longest issued by the council and which called for the Church to engage in dialogue with the modern world, was discussed, but was put off until the final session.

During debate on this document, some cardinals asked for reconsideration of the official Church prohibition of artificial birth control. However, Blessed Paul VI intervened to remove that item from the agenda, saying that he would appoint a commission to study this issue after the council. He did so, but then rejected the recommendations of the commission and reaffirmed the Church’s position in his 1968 encyclical “Humanae Vitae” (“On Human Life”).

Another document that was delayed was the “Declaration on Religious Freedom.” Largely the work of American Jesuit Father John Courtney Murray, this document said that no one has the right to coerce anyone else on matters of religion, and it admitted that the Church had not always followed this principle. It was delayed through the efforts of conservative bishops led by Cardinal Eugene Tisserant. It was, though, approved overwhelmingly at the beginning of the fourth session, which I’ll write about next week. †

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