This article first appeared as part of a series three articles to celebrate the 50th Anniversary of the Second Vatican Council for the newsletter of a Pastoral Council in Portsmouth Diocese.
VATICAN II – COUNCIL OF RENEWAL AND REFORM
The Catholic Church’s attitude and relationship to other Christian traditions and world religions saw a complete transformation following the Council. It is now a common-place to pray, collaborate and work closely with other Christians and their communities. This rarely happened, if at all, fifty years ago. In actual fact it was regarded as sinful to pray with non-Catholics or participate, even to be present, in their formal worship. As for other religions, they were completely opaque in the day-to-day consciousness of the overwhelming number of Catholics especially in Europe and America. To a great extent this was reinforced by a more monolithic culture then prevailing compared to today. Some may have encountered Jews in particular parts of the country or in the course of their work, but there was a particular undercurrent of anti-Judaism, even if it was subconscious, as a result of almost 2000 years of tension, sometimes very bloody, between Christianity and Judaism.
The Council saw the Church of Christ subsisting in the Catholic Church, but many elements of sanctification and truth are found outside the visible boundaries of the Catholic Church institution. All this impelled a move towards unity. All those baptised in Christ, but outside the Catholic Church, are considered to be in real but imperfect communion with the Catholic Church. In varying degrees and extent Catholics have in common with other Christians the Trinity, the scriptures, an episcopal and priestly ministry, a sacramental based communal life, devotion to Mary, a life of prayer and other spiritual practices. After Vatican II had concluded a Council Father said, “Before the Council I knew where the Church was and where it was not. Now, since the Council, I still know where the Church is, but I no longer know where it is not.”
The Council encouraged Catholics to play a full part in the work for Christian unity both in prayer, the soul of ecumenism, and action. Recognising that there were faults on both sides it called for an inner conversion. Catholics are to study, know and value the riches in other Christian traditions. This teaching manifests itself today in the high-level formal dialogues, through the national and local ecumenical Churches Together instruments to a wide variety of informal local groups and activities. Pope John-Paul II reiterated the Council’s teaching on Christian unity and stressed that ecumenical activity was not an optional extra for Catholics but an integral part of their Christian life.
The Council originated a positive outlook towards other religions by explaining that the Catholic Church rejects nothing of what is true and holy in other religions. Indeed, they often reflect a ray of truth which enlightens all. Catholics are encouraged with prudence and charity to enter into dialogue and collaboration with members of other religions. There is a special relationship between Judaism and Christianity and the Council rejected all forms of anti-Semitism and blame on the Jews for Christ’s death. Although salvation is solely through the work of Christ’s passion, death and resurrection the Council taught that those who, through no fault of their own, do not know the gospel or the Church can attain salvation by sincerely seeking God and, moved by grace, strive by their deeds to do God’s will as it is known to them through the dictates of their conscience.
The Council spelt out that all have a right to religious freedom and to be free from coercion. All are free to seek the truth in religious maters appropriate to their human dignity. No one can be forced to act against their conscience. The statement on religious liberty was a necessary complement to the teaching on ecumenism and inter-religious relations to overcome a Catholic triumphalism that existed in the pre-conciliar era and allow dialogue to flourish in a sincere manner.
Church and the World
The Council presented a positive relationship between Church and world, recognising what is good and true in the world. It stressed co-operation between the Church and worldly institutions, to be helped and promoted by the Church, as it addressed itself to all people of goodwill. In a recent article Robert Blair Kaiser, a journalist who reported on Vatican II for Time magazine, summarised the Council document on the Church in the World saying ‘the world was a good place because it was redeemed by Christ, and where it was not good, it was our job as followers of Christ to help make it better’.
The Council transformed the Church from a fortress mentality which was against all that was outside of its institutional framework to a more inclusive People of God in dialogue with the world and to recognise the seeds of the Word wherever they appear. As the universal sacrament of salvation the Church simultaneously manifests and exercises the mystery of God’s love for all and so advance God’s kingdom.
(A free explanatory leaflet on Vatican II can be downloaded at www.vatican2voice.org)