Fifty years after Vatican II: What are the challenges?
The Second Vatican Council began half a century ago (1962-1965),
and was the Catholic Church’s most important, positive event in centuries.
While interpretations of its meaning and results continue to be debated,
the world has rapidly moved on.
The challenges now facing Catholicism and Christianity
go well beyond the problems the Council tried to address
They require new thinking, new attitudes and a new boldness.
José María Vigil
Few people would be surprised to hear me say that the Second Vatican Council—which began 50 years ago this year—was the most important and positive event in the Catholic Church in the entire 20th century. The last great Catholic Church council was that of Trent (1545-1563). For four centuries the Church didn’t analyze and refocus with an instrument as extraordinary as a council. Vatican II, as it is popularly known, was preceded by the uncompleted First Vatican Council (1869-1870), which coincided with the Italian Risorgimento [the Unification of Italy, 1815 to 1870], and wasn’t a reform of the Church; rather it reinforced its traditional, conservative positions.
A real revolutionVatican II, in contrast, was a real revolution. Theories, concepts, rules, customs, practices, rituals, formulas, etc. that had been in force for four centuries and were considered virtually unchangeable, were profoundly transformed to make way for a new Church mentality, the modern mind. In the 16th century the Church had reacted against modern thought—concretized in Luther’s Protestant Reformation—which it condemned. Later, the Council of Trent focused on the so-called Counter-Reformation, which belligerently opposed modern values, perpetuating antiquated medieval values and reacting defensively to all things modern. The Church continued in this way until the mid-20th century, when the new Council, convened by Pope John XXIII, easily broke with and discarded this attitude.
Vatican II sparked off a general enthusiasm that hadn’t been seen in the Catholic Church for some time. Many groups, communities, priests and the faithful embraced the new thinking and the many reforms it proposed. However, so many changes wouldn’t be easy. Vatican II only took the first step, not imagining that in the decades that followed the Church wouldn’t be able to halt what was perhaps the most dense and intense period of renovation and internal debate in its entire history. New ideas, proposals, perspectives and challenges haven’t stopped emerging. Christianity has progressively undergone several “great theological leaps” during the 50 years separating us from that Council. Less theological paradigms arrived on the scene, presenting major challenges for reflection and action.
A first attempt to reconcile with modernityAfter several centuries of confrontation with the development of science and the new awareness of humanity’s emancipation from religious tutelage, Vatican II can be theologically described as Catholicism’s reconciliation with early modernity. It was a first partial and contradictory attempt, partial in that it wasn’t applied to the Church’s own legal structures and contradictory in that it had to countenance ambiguities to reach consensus, conceding elements to the opposing groups. But, in any case, it ended the deadlock that had existed for centuries and was a good start down a path it would later travel, arousing enormous interest and boundless vitality.
May 1968: The post-modern revolutionThe Second Vatican Council came very late to the dialogue with modernity: several centuries late. Analysts give it pride of place before what is called the cultural revolution of May 1968, a profound turn of modernity’s screw in an already incipiently globalized society that posed hitherto unconsidered changes: a cultural, sexual and feminine revolution; and critiques of power, the State, formal democracy, established values and much more.
Given the Council’s opening, the Catholic Church experienced this “cultural revolution” enthusiastically; it took its place on the front line, without the classic “separation from the world” defense behind which it had previously shielded itself. Like the rest of society, it couldn’t maintain a critical distance in order to learn the consequences of the new cultural project. This added major unforeseen uneasiness in the Church’s conservative sector, which blamed the Council for the disorientation the events unleashed in 1968 were causing in the Church and sparked a strong internal backlash to the Council itself.
A new proposal: Liberation TheologyIn the early 1970s, fast on the heels of these events, a new theological proposal emerged in Latin America, initially led by the Latin American Bishops’ Conference. Liberation Theology initially wanted to be the application and adaptation of Vatican II to the Church on the American continent but in the end it reinterpreted the whole of Christianity by introducing three hitherto neglected dimensions: historicity (which dialogued with the “second modernity” [a term coined by German sociologist Ulrich Beck to refer to the realization that we live in a “world risk society”]; the “Kingdom-centered” perspective, which displaces Church-centeredness by putting above all else the utopia of Jesus of Nazareth, which he himself referred to as the Kingdom of God on earth; and the “preferential option for the poor,” which broke the millenarian alliance with political and economic power, a break described as the most important ecclesiastical event since the Protestant Reformation.
All these changes were motivated by a strong experience, an entire spirituality—that of liberation—and in turn produced an explosion of vitality and mysticism whose greatest manifestation was a host of Christian base communities and a plethora of martyrs who literally followed Jesus’ example.
Latin America produced a theological style that would expand to encompass universal Christianity. Liberation Theology extended to Asia, Africa and Europe and is still vigorously surviving today. The magnitude and importance of what this theology posited and the transformation it brought about would have merited and justified a hypo¬thetical Vatican III.
A decisive factor at that time—in principle, removed from the strictly theological—was the election of Karol Wojtyla as pope in 1978. He had been the leader of the Coetus minor, the opposing minority of bishops whose proposals were discarded in the Second Vatican Council.
From the viewpoint of its implications for theology, the appointment of Joseph Ratzinger as head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith it worth noting: his Report on the Faith began a campaign of involuted reinterpretation of the Council, disqualifying Liberation Theology and persecuting the most creative theologians. Thus enters on the scene, from the hand of officialdom, a restorative, conservative and extremely belligerent theology that from this point on imposes its opinion, without dialogue, by way of the “magisterial power.”
The pluralist paradigmVatican II timidly opened the pluralist door when it encouraged the abandonment of “exclusivity” (the belief that there’s no salvation outside of the Catholic Church) by recognizing that other religions also have “some elements of truth and salvation.”
A pluralist paradigm emerged starting in the Anglo-Saxon part of the world—especially in Asia, where Christianity felt very much in the minority amid insuperable religious plurality. This new model of thought reinterprets Christianity not as “the only true religion,” but as one of many of the world’s religions. At the time Latin America was on the fringe of that advance and only after 2000 would it propose a “crossover” between Liberation Theology and the theology of religious pluralism. Today’s globalized world has become aware of religious plurality and the regional character of all religions.
Dialogue and reconciliation with this new pluralist culture involves a pluralist reinterpretation of Christianity, a movement that’s now inexorably in progress, despite very adverse official conditions. In more open times, such a profound reinterpretation would merit a new Council to come to grips with it.
The feminist paradigmAlthough the feminist movement has very old roots, it has flourished tremendously starting in the last few decades of the 20th century. And although it comes from civil society, this paradigm has now been assimilated into theology and has deeply permeated wide sectors of Christian thought and bases, a vast majority of both lay and religious Christians.
The feminist paradigm, aided by increasingly numerous gender studies, has shown to what extent traditional Christianity is influenced by patriarchal ideology, with the consequent marginalization and undervaluing of all aspects of the feminine dimension and its values, from the very image of God to the organization of all Christian life.
This paradigm’s achievements are already irreversible at the theoretical level; it’s at the practical level, the one where its consequences are implemented in religious life, that almost everything still needs to be done. To repeat, in healthier times, a shift as profound as that proposed by the feminist paradigm would very much deserve a whole ecumenical Council expressly convened to receive it with the requisite depth and coherence.
The ecological paradigmAfter Vatican II, theology also opened to the subject of ecology. This opening went beyond the urgency of caring for the environment or the climatic crisis, which appears to be putting us on the brink of a planetary disaster. It involved a complete reinterpretation of Christianity outside of the (anti-ecological) suppositions in which it was structured: the anthropocentric supposition of our detachment from the Earth and the evolution of life; the transcendence and cosmic separation of the image of theos (a remote and superior god); the conception of Nature as inferior and/or sinful; or that this life is a test for access to a supernatural future world, which differs from the natural or classic “heaven”…
Ecology barely came to maturity in the seventies with the “deep ecology” movement, involving a revolutionary way of rethinking reality, the cosmos and ourselves. All theology and Christianity must be reworked from this point of view. It’s an urgent task, not only because of the same criteria as the other paradigms but because everything indicates that few years remain in which we still can avoid the irreversable slope of severe climatic change that could eliminate us as a species and extinguish everything human, a tragedy that professor of medieval history Lynn White lays firmly at the feet of Western Christianity, reputing it to be “the most anthropocentric of religions.” If ever there’s ever been an urgency and emergency that deserves to be dealt with above all others by a Council, this is it.
The post-religion paradigmAlthough virtually unknown in many regions and only barely touched on even by some exceptionally vigilant groups, the post-religion paradigm is not new either. It’s an intuition that has already assailed us several times during the present generation’s lifetime but is now back, burrowing deeper armed with auxiliary knowledge of cultural anthropology, thus making it a challenge that can no longer be ignored.
This paradigm posits surmounting the supposition that classically accorded religion a special, God-given body of wisdom and means to spiritual fulfillment, revealed and unquestionable in traditional societies. Today, cultural anthropology believes it knows, in a fairly acceptable manner, the human basis of spirituality. It believes it knows how religions emerged with the advent of the agrarian society, the processes of its development and evolution, as well as the inner workings of its epistemological functioning and the role that myths and beliefs have in it. It argues that the old agrarian age, which allowed for the emergence of the world religions we still know today, is over and that the epistemological mechanisms of these religions will be unviable in the knowledge society that is replacing agrarian society.
Christianity—itself an agrarian religion—is being challenged. It will either change, in a genuine meta-morphosis, ceasing to be a “religion” (whether agrarian or Neolithic) or it will disappear. It will either move on, beyond its agrarian religion format or history will move beyond it. Religion’s current crisis is also a “new time axial,” a new “great transformation,” like the one that gave rise to the new religious awareness we’ve been experiencing for the last two thousand years.
From this perspective, perhaps it would be exigent for all religions to join together in an “inter-religious” Council, to tackle their future head on, rather than closing their eyes to what science and public opinion believes is already on the horizon and beginning to fill the stage.
The epistemological paradigmFor a long time, Christianity has been ensconced in a comfortable “naive realism,” which postulated the adaequatio rei et intellectus, an adjustment or direct correspondence between reality and what we think and say. Furthermore, we have existed for millennia supported by a literal interpretation of the beliefs circulated by religious myths as if they were descriptions of reality just because they have been “revealed.”
The new epistemological paradigm gaining ground in society is making us aware that our knowledge simply represents reality rather than really describing it. We’re also starting to realize that religious knowledge is also a human construct, formulated from approximate metaphors that will always be superseded over time and with incessant evolution, becoming obsolete and even harmful in a given new cultural context.
Like the 18th century German philosopher, Immanuel Kant, the new paradigm is trying to “wake us from our dogmatic slumber.” It was a dream—a very nice, dogmatic dream—to believe that the religious reality dreamt about was literal reality. But it was just a dream, epistemologically speaking, and now we’ve woken up to a new epistemology. From the classical point of view this sounds like relativism. However, the greatest contribution to knowledge in the 20th century has been the discovery of the limits of knowledge.
An epistemological revolution is upon us, urging a reinterpretation of all the supposedly objective, descriptive certainties of our religiosity. It’s true that this paradigm is barely on the horizon for many grassroots sectors, but theology should already have the clarity to be prepared to go and meet it.
Vatican II’s frameworks are already supersededThis basic, almost telegraphic, theological x-ray of the great leaps forward we’ve made in these 50 years shows us the new paradigms interposed in the internal ideological debate of current human consciousness within Christianity and especially within Catholicism.
Given these leaps, it would now be completely inadequate to analyze religion only in the terms developed by Vatican II. Updated discernment should supersede its already narrow frameworks. Five decades after the Second Vatican Council, its predicaments are totally obsolete. We could implement all of Vatican II today—which we are far from doing—and still wouldn’t be close to the minimum proposals needed to start facing the predicaments currently pressing us.
It’s an epistemological impossibility for those who were there at the time of the Council, feeling the harmony of the Universal Church with an open heart, to simply deny what they experienced or reject it when faced with interpretations imposed by later authoritarian decrees. Millions of Christians who left the Catholic Church years ago bear witness to the gravity of the situation.
The situation has changed so much and so fast over the years that the conflict of interpretations about the Council becomes insignificant given the magnitude of the new challenges that have appeared, accumulating to the point of seeming insuperability. Vatican II’s predicaments have been overtaken today by one far more profound: the generalized crisis of millions of the faithful leaving the Church, not only Catholics but also those from the traditional Protestant denominations. The current predicament goes far beyond the Council. It’s an eminently human problem, common to Catholics and Protestants and, in reality, to all religions, although some are just beginning to experience the crisis and its consequences.
Facing the current cultural tsunami Whether we like it or not, Vatican II didn’t manage to be “a blessed memory” nor was it peacefully received, beyond the immediate and enthusiastic welcome that greeted it and the overflowing vitality that its first stage elicited from the grass roots. Fear and open opposition soon arose.
Concrete mediations couldn’t be implemented to apply its guidelines to the Church itself; its democratic and participative reform; issues such as celibacy, sexuality, collegiality, the Papacy; or the reinterpretation of central points of particular epistemological implication such as historicity, de-dogmatization, overcoming the Hellenizing of Christianity, the relativizing of metaphysics... Instead, what took place was what German Jesuit theologian Karl Rahner called the “ecclesiastical winter,” Brazilian professor of theology João Batista Libanio lamented as the “return to the great discipline,” the Italian Vatican scholar Giancarlo Zízola referred to as the “ecclesiastical restoration” and Catalonian Jesuit theologian José Ignacio Golzález Faus dubbed the ecclesiastical “dark night.”
The situation has gotten more complicated since then because new cultural challenges haven’t stopped appearing in these 50 years, and the Church has tried to address them from involutedly anti-Vatican II attitudes that are increasingly further removed from the new proposals. The effect is known: self-exile by many Christians, a dialogue of the deaf between theology and official doctrine, an abysmal distance between the Church’s hierarchy and society’s cultural vanguard, a contradiction between the official discourse and the moral practice of the faithful, abandonment of the Church by millions of European and US faithful, return of apostasies, or renunciations of the Church and a massive loss of the faithful in Latin America as well.
The problem is also deeper on another level. More and more analysts agree that we’re no longer just in an “era of profound and rapid change,” as the Second Vatican Council insisted several times in its documents or in a “change of era rather than an era of change,” as the famous spoonerism went in the early nineties. We’re in a cultural change of epic proportions, a radical metamorphosis, a real cultural tsunami. Or as many are now saying, we’re in a new “axial time.” To discuss now whether Vatican II meant “a rupture or continuity” is like the debate in Don Quixote about whether the dogs are greyhounds or hounds.
Just as May 1968 overtook and overwhelmed the predicaments the Council posed, so the current cultural tsunami is leapfrogging all our controversies, finding us in a state of extreme weakness, through involution and conflicting interpretations of the now superseded Vatican II.
An immense question The obvious conclusion is an immense question: Is it possible to imagine confronting—not to mention over-coming—the impending challenges in the short term? What has to happen for us to do this and for the Church’s hierarchy to change its attitude? And, what should and must Christian men and women do who believe they’re interpreting what’s happening and don’t want to relinquish their primary fundamental right, the right to be people of their time and live according to their consciences?
José María Vigil is a Nicaraguan theologian.