November 4, 2016

From the Editor Emeritus / John F. Fink

20th-century Church: The aftermath of Vatican Council II

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

The Second Vatican Council changed the Church forever, but not always in ways that the bishops who participated in it envisioned. It left Catholicism divided in ways it had not been before. For the first time, we had liberal or progressive Catholics opposing conservative or orthodox Catholics as members of the faith took a lesson from the council that they could disagree with one another.

Catholic periodicals reflected those views in ways that they didn’t prior to the council, so we suddenly had liberal and conservative periodicals. That had been true to some extent prior to the council, but differences became more widespread afterward.

Most Catholics liked the new liturgy, with the altars turned around so the priest was facing the people and the prayers were in English and other modern languages instead of in Latin. People were encouraged to participate in the Mass, unlike pre-Vatican II when the priests and altar servers said their prayers in Latin while the congregation often said their own prayers, bells alerting the congregation that the consecration was about to take place. Lay people assumed new roles as lectors and extraordinary ministers of holy Communion.

But not all Catholics liked the changes. Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre, who participated in Vatican II, disagreed so much with many of its pronouncements that he founded the Society of St. Pius X, and eventually led many followers into schism. The priests of the society continued to celebrate the Mass according to the Roman Missal of 1962, which was issued before the council’s reform of the liturgy.

Many more lay Catholics sought to minister within the Church rather than in secular careers. Besides teaching in Catholic schools, many found positions in parishes, and many of us replaced priests as editors and columnists of Catholic periodicals. Others joined the clerical world by becoming permanent deacons, a choice they didn’t have prior to Vatican II.

Immediately after Vatican II, sizable numbers of priests began resigning. In the United States in 1966, 200 diocesan priests resigned; in 1968, almost 600 left the active ministry of the priesthood; and 750 left in 1969. Between 1968 and 1974, 4,100 diocesan priests left. Fewer men entered seminaries. There were 45,000 seminarians in 1967, but fewer than 12,000 by 1982.

Religious orders for both men and women saw similar exits. Whereas Catholic schools had been staffed almost completely by women religious prior to Vatican II, soon there were not enough of them, and lay teachers had to be hired. In 1965, there were 104,000 teaching sisters in Catholic schools; in 1975, about 56,000. Today, there are about 6,000 teaching sisters left and 156,000 lay teachers.

Catholics began to attend Mass and go to confession less frequently. Devotions such as the praying of the rosary and various novenas declined. Catholics no longer made a pledge once a year not to attend movies condemned by the Church, as was often done prior to Vatican II.

Not all this should be blamed on Vatican II. Part of the problem stemmed from a lack of proper communication and education on Vatican II’s teachings. Western society changed dramatically in the 1960s, especially in the United States. Catholics became considerably more affluent, moved to the suburbs, and became part of “mainstream” America—often more American than Catholic. It’s a problem that continues to exist today. †

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