Second Vatican Council

The laity reveal their hopes: Results of U.S. survey on Council

(The following is the complete reprint of a lengthy 1962 article run in The Criterion in the final days leading up to the Second Vatican Council)

Criterion logo from the 1960sBy J. Gartner and E.J. Sullivan

On October 11 the Second Vatican Council will convene in the Basilica of St. Peter in Rome. The doors will be closed and the sessions will be held in secret. Could we first of all place Catholics there in spirit? What would they say, what would they want?

To capture some of the hopes and expectations of American Catholics, Eucharist magazine conducted a sample survey of their opinions on some of the subjects which will be discussed. The most important conclusion of this survey is that Americans are ready to follow the Holy Father and the bishops on the road to renewal. They are looking for a strong voice to lead and guide them, a mother willing to trust their generosity, and to use their talents.

This is a generalization, but we of Eucharist make it confidently, based not only on the plain statistics, but on the many comments which accompanied the answers.

The people feel a great need for more knowledge, better education for their children, a deeper spirituality, a holy clergy, good preachers. They admit their defects, and they pray.

They have also criticized, but without rancor, and first of all, themselves. They are not satisfied, no more than was Pope John who called the council for the purpose of renewing the inner life of the Church.

This is our impression from looking at all the answer which we now present to our readers. Here is the report with introduction and further comment.


As more than 2,000 Catholic bishops converge on Rome for the opening of the Second Vatican Council, two momentous facts are becoming plainer.

  • The Church is demonstrating to the world that it has the will and the means for self-reform. However jealously it guards the unchangeable corpus of faith and morals, the Church also acknowledges that, in its own externals and on its human side, it is subject to the vicissitudes of history. The Church can change with the times and, for the twenty-first time in the twenty Christian centuries, it is assembling all its wisdom to do just that.
  • The Ecumenical Council is not a parliamentary body in the republican sense familiar to most moderns. Unlike a democracy, the Church is committed to a mandate from above, not from below. A council is a search for practical wisdom, not an arena for compromise, however politic. Unlike a senator, a bishop does not “represent” his diocese; he brings to the council the very special graces given to him for his episcopate—graces of love and knowledge very much like those Christ extended to His first Apostles.

These two considerations were firmly in mind when the editors of Eucharist began its search for American lay views on the forthcoming council. There can be no attempt to “influence” the council, in the politico-ideological sense. The Church has never operated on a basis of popularity or majority rule. Indeed, there have been times when it has been truest to Christ by doing the less popular things—as He did at times too classic to mention.

However, the Church consists of all the baptized and the Holy Spirit broods everywhere. As Cardinal Newman and many recent theologians have pointed out, a certain wisdom resides in the people, and the Church takes no important step (canonization of a saint, for instance) without reference to it. If the people are the Church, as it is now commonly said, then their ministers are constantly influenced by their hopes and expectations.

Presaging the age of the laity now before us, the Second Vatican Council has provided for a commission on the laity, and Pope John has urged that “the whole Church should place itself in council.”

With the co-operation of twenty Catholic weeklies, Eucharist put twenty-four questions on the council and the life of the Church to Catholic men and women scattered regionally across the United States. More than 2,000 replies have now been received, many of them adding extended commentary. Experts will allow that it was not the most precise means of opinion-testing, but it does provide the widest sampling of American opinion on the council that we know of.

The particular questions and tabulation of their replies follow, but here is a hard-core consensus:

  • Laymen want a larger part in the life of the Church. They reject the likelihood of anti-clericalism in America, but they also hope—through more active roles in the Liturgy, in education, and in the forming of Church policy—to help generate a more fruitful liaison between clergy and laity
  • Without tampering with faith and morals, the Church can clarify church-state relations, improve marriage legislation, speed up decisions on marriage cases, remove arbitrary barriers to the reunion of neighboring Christians.
  • There is urgent need for change. Interest was voiced for raising some married men to the diaconate, modernizing religious garb, relaxing celibacy laws for converted ministers. However, the council need not define any new dogma, most said, but a hairline majority said the Church could further clarify its stand on nuclear warfare.
  • Laymen are interested in the more traditional, universal forms of spirituality, as against particular “devotions.” For instance, a strong majority spoke up for greater stress on the Bible.

One of the most striking characteristics of the respondents was their high level of education. More than 65 per cent said they were college-trained which is considerably higher than the American norm.

Particularly gratifying was the strong response from college-educated males, a group which is supposed to lack active interest in Church policy. This response shows that they are very much interested, and their replies indicate they are also quite circumspect, intensely reverent and, given the chance, they will give the Church the benefits of their thinking and experience.

As to gender 46 per cent of the replies came from men. Sixty-eight per cent said they were married, and most said they prayer for the success of the council, at least occasionally.

Participating Newspapers

Catholic newspapers co-operating in the sampling were:

EAST: Church World, Portland, Maine.

MIDDLE WEST: The Criterion, Indianapolis, Indiana; Lafayette Edition, O.S.V., Lafayette, Indiana; Peoria Register, Peoria, Illinois; The Catholic News-Register, Joliet, Illinois; Michigan Catholic, Detroit, Michigan; The Catholic Reporter, Kansas City-St. Joseph, Missouri; Catholic Telegraph, Cincinnati, Ohio; Catholic Times, Columbus, Ohio; Green Bay Register, Green Bay, Wisconsin.

SOUTHWEST: Arizona Register, Tucson, Arizona; The Oklahoma Courier, Oklahoma City-Tulsa, Oklahoma; West Texas Register, Amarillo, Texas; Corpus Christi Post, Corpus Christi, Texas; Southwest Catholic Register, El Paso, Texas; Alamo Messenger, San Antonio, Texas.

WEST: Nevada Register, Reno, Nevada; Inland Register, Spokane, Washington; Our Times, Yakima, Washington.

The Results

Now here are the questions and how they were answered. The numbers should be read as percentages.

  1. How urgent do you think is the need for change in the life of the Church?
    47% Very Urgent; 44% Moderately Urgent; 9% Not Urgent.
  2. List three things, in order of importance, which you think most need reform in Catholic life and practice. (In descending order of frequency, here are the most widely contributed suggestions.)
    • The Liturgy—review from top to bottom; use of English; fuller participation; more instruction and explanation.
    • Spirituality—deepening of spiritual life and holiness; more mature spiritual theology; a right proportion in presenting the whole picture.
    • The Layman—even more concern for his instruction; trust in and use of his talents; greater share in church administration; higher education standards; more theology (in modern terms and about today’s problems); consultation.
    • The Clergy—greater holiness; better sermons; better instruction; less authoritarian; relief from non-priestly duties as means to above; clergy-lay relations.
    • Other Churches—more friendly attitudes; instruction about them; great search for unity and understanding.
    • Others—birth control; money; social awareness; marriage instruction; the commandment of charit

Listed below are a number of subjects which may be considered by the council. Indicate your thinking about the need for change in each area.

The Church


Not Needed

1. Clarify the nature of Church-state relations.



2. Better fulfillment of the directives of the Holy See and of the Bishops.



3. Greater stress on the local authority and importance of Bishops.



4. The restoration of the office of deacons who may be married men.



5. Should the Council attempt to define new dogmas, e.g., the universal, but subordinate mediatorship of Mary?



6. Should the Council attempt to declare the Church's stand on nuclear warfare.




The Laity


Not Needed

1. Greater consultative voice for the laity in Church and school administration.



2. Better channels for the laity to make known their opinions to the hierarchy.



3. How well do you think Catholic laymen are really prepared for a more active role in the life of the Church?

9% Well Prepared    |    43% Fairly Well Prepared    |    48% Poorly Prepared



4. Do you feel that anti-clericalism is a serious danger to the Church in America?




Reforms of Morals and Life


Not Needed

1. A clarification of the notion of "obedience" which laymen owe to Pope, Bishops, pastor, ordinary priest.



2. Revision or abolishment of the Index of Forbidden Books.



3. Reform in marriage laws of Church, e.g., more local authority for marriage courts, better regulation of mixed marriages.



4. More emphasis on the universal "spirituality" of the Church and less on particular devotions.




Liturgy and Life


Not Needed

1. Partial introduction of English in the Mass



2. Effective guidance at all levels to make the Liturgy better understood and lived.



3. Greater stress on and instruction in the Bible



4. Elimination of some days of fast and abstinence and substituting works of charity, days of service to the Church.



5. Modernization of religious dress




Other Churches


Not Needed

1. Clarification of the notion of "toleration" or religious freedom.



2. Make it clear to non-Catholics that once the essentials are safeguarded, the Church is ready to make every possible change that would truly improve chances for unity



3. Relaxing of celibacy law in favor of converted ministers who wish to be priests.



4. How often have you prayed for the success of the Council?

58% Often    |    35% Seldom    |    7% Never




Vital Statistics

Number of Catholic magazines and newspapers to which you subscribe:

3 (average)




35% High School    |    37% College    |    28% Graduate Studies



State in life:

46% Laymen    |    49% Laywomen    |    5% Priests, Nuns, and Brothers

68% Married    |    27% Single    |    5% Religious Life



24% 20-30    |    30% 30-40    |    46% Over 40




Underlying just about every response to the questionnaire is a discernible will by lay people to accept a greater share in the work and witness of the Church. Zealously, they want to do more. And they want to be better prepared for it. The tone of the whole seems to suggest that somewhere out there in those millions of pews are untapped reservoirs of self-sacrifice and special competence, waiting for the leader-saints who will draw form them to irrigate the entire apostolic field.

Considerations such as these—evidently capital in the minds of most of the respondents—compel examination of the rapport between laity and the clerical establishment where most initiative is now deposited. Is this relationship bearing as much fruit as it should? And why not?

Many Catholic though-leaders, notably Monsignor John Tracy Ellis, have recently pointed to the dangers in the disjointed lay-clergy liaison now inhibiting the Church in its American confrontation.

American Catholics continue to have a deep-down respect for their clergy, the survey shows. Asked if they felt anti-clericalism is a serious danger in America, nearly 65 per cent replied, “No,” and the other 35 per cent was replete with reservations.

While anti-clericalism of the European intensity is alien to America, many replied, a workaday estrangement can persist if mutual attitudes are not brought into better repair.

Most fitting place for priest and layman to begin a more conversant liaison, the consensus strongly suggested, is in the very first work of the Church—worship. Lay people here spoke up for wider participation in the Sacred Liturgy.

The Communion rail is supposed to be a common table, not a barrier. Seventy-one per cent of the respondents urged introduction of English in the Mass, and 97 per cent—highest scored by any proposition in the questionnaire—want effective guidance to make the liturgy better understood and lived.

Eighty-four per cent believed the laity should have a greater consultative voice in Church and school administration. Eight-nine per cent want better channels through which to make known their opinions to the hierarchy. During the centuries in which the present procedural habits of the Church hardened, the priest was frequently the best educated man in the parish. Nowadays, this is seldom the case, and priest and layman find themselves addressing each other at different levels of articulation.

It would help reorient clergy attitudes toward the laity, some of the respondents suggested, if seminary training were updated. The training of priests and religious is still largely governed by canons drafted at Trent three centuries ago.

These dicta were predicated on a desire to correct abuses and insufficiencies, and to maintain dialogue with the growing enlightenment in post-medieval Europe. The same legislating principle ought now to be activated again, it was suggested, so that the Church’s apostolic message can be addressed idiomatically to a greatly altered social complex.

Second highest score tabulated in the survey was that 92 per cent urging the council to “make it clear to non-Catholics that once the essentials are safeguarded, the Church is ready to make every possible change that would truly improve chances for unity.”

This strong affirmation suggests the Catholics living in a pluralistic, post-Protestant American believe that some of the Church’s older strictures against dialogue with non-Catholics are now obsolete.

The consistency of the hope for a more cosmic change in the face of the Church can be deduced from the fact that of 22 proposition put to the questioned, all but one was checked off by a majority as “Needed.”

The exception: only 47 per cent feel any need for the council to define new dogmas, such as the universal mediatorship of Mary. American Catholics here seem to sense the confusion of the their neighbors when the Church pronounces on matters like papal infallibility in 1870 and extensions of the glories of the Mother of God, as with the Assumption in 1950.

Adjudication of the Church’s marriage laws can stand some reform without violating essential moral principles, a majority of the responding Catholics held.

For instance, more authority can be given diocesan marriage courts, and there can be better regulation of mixed marriages, they said.

Without any direct suggestion from the questionnaire, a hardy five per cent of the respondents raised the jagged-edged question of birth control—a stumbling blog to many moderns, including many modern Catholics. There was no clamor for a type of change which the Church cannot make; rather they seemed to ask if the Church could not be more positive in the expression of her teaching and encourage an all-out scientific effort to find a moral and safe solution to this problem.

Fifty-seven per cent of the replying Catholics urged that the council attempt to clarify further the Church’s stand on nuclear warfare. How the daily news from the cold war can vary this percentage cannot be said here, but let it be noted that the questionnaire was submitted to the lay people during late July and August, a summer which included Laos, Berlin, and the resumption of atmospheric testing of nuclear testing.


Suggestions and opinions such as these have now been catalogued throughout the Catholic world. (The First Vatican Council recorded 300 folio columns of such suggestions.) It now behooves every Catholic to imitate his bishop in his first conciliar act: to kneel and pray that the pure will of God, unadulterated by any lesser will or by party spirit, will preside over the assembly.

The timing of the second Vatican Council is propitious. Though the Church is confronted today by opposing dangers which challenge all its strength, it is not straitened by revolt without, as at the Vatican Council in 1870, a year of revolution in Italy. Now is the time, says Pope John, “to give back to the face of the Church the splendor of the simpler and purer form of her birth.”

In calling “a council of unity, through the love of all Christians,” Pope John is applying a direct remedy to wounds which have been opened and festering for hundreds of years. In a world imperatively in need of the teachings of Christ, can the Christian body shed its embarrassing disunity?

The Pope has said he believes “the reunion of separated brethren can be achieve through the renewal of the Catholic Church.” But if we are the Church, then he has committed each of us to an apostolate of personal renewal and neighbor-to-neighbor reconciliation.

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