October 11, 2012 is the 50th anniversary of the opening of Vatican II, the 21st Ecumenical Council in the 2000 year history of the Catholic Church. The Council opened on October 11, 1962, and closed on December 8, 1965. It consisted of 4 sessions: October – December 1962; September – December 1963; September – November 1964 and September – December 1965.
Father John O’Malley in What Happened at Vatican II records that 2,860 bishops attended all or part of the 4 sessions. Between the opening and closing dates of the Council, 253 Council fathers died and 296 new ones were added.
Most of the previous Ecumenical Councils were convened to deal with a crisis either within the Church or between the Church and some outside force. They usually concluded with condemning some errors, and promulgating some new disciplinary regulations.
Vatican II was different. Pope John XXIII in his opening address to the Council took a more conciliatory and friendly approach. He said, “Nowadays the Spouse of Christ prefers to make use of the medicine of mercy rather than that of severity. She considers that she meets the needs of the present day by demonstrating the validity of her teaching rather than by condemnations.”
Looking back over the past 50 years in the Church and the world, commentators are trying to assess the effects of Vatican II, and are asking, “Has anything been changed?”, and “What difference has it made?”.
My own assessment is that significant changes have taken place in the Catholic Church as a result of Vatican II. The most significant changes I see are changes in attitude, due to some structural changes, but particularly due to the awakening and empowerment of the lay membership of the Church. Here is a sampling of what the Council Fathers said about the laity in different sessions and documents of the Council.
“As sharers in the role of Christ the Priest, the Prophet and the King, the laity have an active part to play in the life and activity of the Church “(The Laity n.10). “Incorporated into Christ’s Mystical Body by Baptism, and strengthened by the power of the Holy Spirit through Confirmation, they are consecrated into a royal priesthood and a holy people” (The Laity n.3).
“Christ the great Prophet fulfills his prophetic office . . .not only through the hierarchy . . .but also through the laity. For that very purpose he made them his witnesses and gave them understanding of the Faith and the grace of speech” (The Church n.35) “It is to be hoped that many laymen will receive an appropriate formation in the sacred sciences, and that some will develop and deepen these studies by their own labors. In order that such persons may fulfill their proper functions, let it be recognized that all the faithful, clerical and lay, possess a lawful freedom of inquiry and of thought and the freedom to express their minds humbly and courageously about those matters in which they enjoy competence” (Church in the World n.61).
“Finally the Fathers of the Council believe it would be most advantageous if these same departments (of the Roman Curia) would give a greater hearing to laymen who are outstanding for their virtue, knowledge and experience. Thus they too will have an appropriate share in Church affairs” (Bishops n.10)
Even though these decisions and recommendations of the Council are being implemented only minimally, already it is having an enormous effect on relations within the Church. The Catholic lay people are competent and they are confident. They are ready to take their rightful place in the governing of their Church.
Recently in dealing with the scandal of the sexual abuse of children in the Church, the competence of the lay membership was in evidence by their insistence on the need to set up safeguards for the protection of children. In contrast to the inadequacy, confusion and sometimes dishonesty of the clerical hierarchy in country after country, the lay Catholics showed their compassion, their concern and their decisive competence.
The Catholic Church can only gain by following the decisions of the Council in empowering the lay membership to full participation in the running of their Church. There was a time long ago when clerics had a monopoly of higher education, and perhaps that gave them the idea that they alone were competent to be Church leaders. The Fathers of Vatican II have made clear that clerics do not have a monopoly of education, and the Sacred Books are no longer the exclusive domain of the cleric.
Despite the decisions of the Council in favor of lay participation in the government of the Church, Canon Law still insists that the power of governance in the Church belongs to qualified clerics (Canon 129#1). Lay members may be allowed to cooperate (but not participate) in this power (Can 129#2).
This legal claim does not even pretend to be based on any teaching of Our Lord or of Divine Revelation. I have no doubt that it will be challenged when people come to realize the absurdity of a tiny minority in the Church claiming that they are a special class who alone are qualified to govern the Church because of their celibacy and their exclusive training.
In the meantime the Catholic laity empowered by Vatican II will continue to make their presence felt as they try to respond to the universal call to holiness (LG n.39) and to play their full and active part in the ongoing life of the Church. Entrenched powers have tried and will continue to try to roll back the tide released by Vatican II. I believe they will fail, because I believe the Spirit of God is for openness, inclusiveness and the sharing of gifts. And our lay Catholics, impelled by the Spirit of God, will continue to work to renew the face of the earth.