Church history: Vatican II and the Future of Church Unity


On October 11, 1962, twenty-four hundred Roman Catholic bishops marched phalanx-style in rows of six through St. Peter’s Square. Behind them strode the College of Cardinals, followed by Pope John XXIII, seated in a massive chair and carried by attendants. The entourage went into the splendid basilica, and the prelates took their seats. Across the aisle sat observers from other Christian faiths, invited by the Pope to attend the proceedings. The Second Vatican Council — the 21st ecumenical council recognized by the Roman Catholic Church — was about to begin.

Vatican II was the largest council gathering in the church’s history. The Council held 178 meetings in four successive years, adjourning Dec. 8, 1965. It produced 16 official documents. Several focused on ecumenism and unity with non-Catholic Christians. Pope John XXIII died in 1963, after the first session. The newly elected Pope Paul VI continued Vatican II with the same goals John had proclaimed.

Inside Vatican II

Vatican II transformed the church’s internal lifeand inaugurated a new era in its relationships with non-Catholics. For the first time, Protestants and Eastern Orthodox were regarded as “separated brethren.”

The Council acknowledged in its Decree on Ecumenism that the Holy Spirit was active in non-Catholic Christian communities. It said all who have been baptized and justified by faith “are members of Christ’s body, and have a right to be called Christian” and “brothers” by the Catholic Church.

The same decree devoted a section to the strong family relationship — as “sister Churches” — that the Catholic Church believes exists between itself and the Eastern Orthodox Churches.

Great and present divide

Catholics and other Christians have always been in general agreement on essential teachings of their common faith — God’s Trinitarian nature, the divinity of Christ, the Incarnation, Resurrection and Second Coming, and reverence for God’s word.

However, it cannot be denied that deep-seated differences — doctrinal, historical, cultural and emotional — continue to divide them. “We have no illusions that the centuries-long wounds of our divisions will be quickly or easily healed,” wrote Charles Colson, a Protestant, and Richard John Neuhaus, a Catholic. Problematic Catholic beliefs, especially to Protestants, include:

  • Papal authority and infallibility.
  • Means of grace and role of the church’s sacraments.
  • Relationship between Scripture and Roman Catholic tradition.
  • Purgatory and devotions to the saints.
  • Devotion to the Virgin Mary, her immaculate conception and bodily assumption.
  • The real presence of Christ in the Eucharist.
  • Identity of the Church as perceived by Catholic dogma.

In 2007, Pope Benedict XVI released a document prepared by the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. The brief document in the form of five questions and answers reaffirmed “the full identity of the Church of Christ with the Catholic Church.” Other churches were said to be “separated churches and Communities.” The document stated that though “the Spirit of Christ has not refrained from using them as instruments of salvation,” they “suffer from defects.” The Orthodox (“oriental”) churches are considered to be “separated from full communion with the Catholic Church.” Nevertheless, they “have true sacraments” and “the apostolic succession,” and are therefore considered “sister Churches.”

Many Protestant leaders immediately roundly criticized the statement, with some claiming that ecumenism had been set back to a time before Vatican II. The document itself stated that the Vatican remained committed to ecumenical dialogue. There was little new in the 2007 document; Benedict had said much the same thing in a 2000 document, “Dominus Iesus.”

Perhaps some Protestants were in denial of what the Catholic Church believes about itself. The Vatican II Council statements, as the recent document notes, “neither changed nor intended to change” the Catholic doctrine of the church. The Catholic Church has always understood itself to be the one church “Christ ‘established here on earth’.”

Vatican II altered Catholic Church life in many fundamental ways and opened up dialogue between Catholics, Protestants and Orthodox churches with a new openness. However, Benedict’s recent reassertion of Roman Catholic primacy has created a sense of realism among Protestants. How much headway in dialogue and ecumenism can be made in the future is anyone’s guess.

1 One example was Vatican II’s institution of common-language forms of the Latin mass. In 2007, Pope Benedict XVI authorized a wider use of the Latin version, which had been marginalized by the council’s decision.

Author: Paul Kroll

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