Fifty years on, Catholics still debate the meaning of Vatican II

When Pope John XXIII called the Second Vatican Council half a century ago, he said he wanted to “open the windows” of his almost 2,000-year Church to the rapid changes in the modern world.

Within a few years, Roman Catholicism dropped its ancient language Latin, ended two millennia of hostility to the Jews, made room for lay men and women in the liturgy and called for more consultation between the Vatican and its worldwide flock.

Now, as the Church prepares to mark the 50th anniversary of the Council’s opening on October 11, 1962, Latin is making a comeback, female altar servers are being discouraged and inner-Church dialogue is often little more than a formality.

Views on the historic Council divide Catholics to this day. Liberals say the return to tradition betrays its spirit. For conservatives, it corrects errors made in applying its ideas.
The key to understanding this fault line lies in the thinking of Pope Benedict himself, who has gone from being a leading reformer to the main advocate of conservative renewal.

“He says the Council was a good thing, but not a big turn in the road,” said Rev John O’Malley, Jesuit author of the book “What Happened At Vatican II.”

“He defines reform as a blending of different levels of continuity and discontinuity,” O’Malley, a Church historian at Georgetown University in Washington, told Reuters.

That’s not the way it felt at the time. The Council, which combined the Renaissance pomp of the Vatican with the surging optimism of the early 1960s, was one of the first major world events covered by the newly popular medium of television.

Pope John XXIII’s founding call for aggiornamento (Italian for updating) at the Council was taken up by liberal Belgian, Dutch, French and German bishops who argued for change against opposition from the Vatican’s conservative Italian bureaucracy.
Although the formal debates were held inside St Peter’s Basilica in Latin, many of the 2,500 bishops at the sessions kept their home media informed about what was happening.

When it ended in December 1965, O’Malley said, “98% of those who participated thought it was a big deal and it was good. The rest thought it was a big deal and it was bad.”

Pope Benedict, who attended the Council as the young German  theology professor Joseph Ratzinger, was a leading light in the reform camp and agreed with most of its conclusions.

But when the student revolts of 1968 challenged traditional authority far more than the Council ever did, Ratzinger began stressing the importance of tradition and stability.

“He didn’t like all the tampering with the liturgy,” said O’Malley, referring to the way the elegant 400-year old Latin Mass was replaced by more informal rites in local languages, accompanied by guitar music and upbeat modern hymns.

Read on at Reuters.

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