“It was a moment of extraordinary expectation. Great things were about to happen.”

So writes Pope Benedict XVI as he recalls the mood during the opening of the Second Vatican Council – a momentous three-year meeting that aimed at opening the Church to the modern world. Fifty years ago, on October 11, Pope John XXIII inaugurated the meeting to much fanfare in St Peter’s basilica.

Writing in the preface of a new collection of his works on the Second Vatican Council, the Pope, who as Father Joseph Ratzinger took part in the Council as a “peritus”, or theological expert, summarizes with characteristic clarity just what was at stake. 

“The previous Councils had almost always been convoked for a precise question to which they were to provide an answer. This time there was no specific problem to resolve,” he writes. “But precisely because of this, a general sense of expectation hovered in the air: Christianity, which had built and formed the Western world, seemed more and more to be losing its power to shape society. It appeared weary and it looked as if the future would be determined by other spiritual forces.”

The sense of Christianity’s “loss of the present”, and what was required to readdress it, was summed up in the word “aggiornamento” (updating), Benedict XVI explains. “Christianity must be in the present if it is to be able to form the future,” he writes. “So that it might once again be a force to shape the future, John XXIII had convoked the Council without indicating to it any specific problems or programmes. This was the greatness and at the same time the difficulty of the task that was set before the ecclesial assembly.”

The word “aggiornamento” was indeed central to the Council, Professor Norman Tanner SJ, a expert on the Council who teaches at the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome, told MercatorNet. Describing the meeting as one of the six most important of the 21 ecumenical councils that the Church has ever held, he summarizes it as having “something serious to say on huge range of issues, some quite theoretical, but also a large number which really touch lives of ordinary Christians and beyond the Christian community.”

By opening up the Church to the modern and increasingly globalized world, the Council aimed to bring the Church to all people in a way that had never been done before. It aimed, in the famous words of John XXIII, to open the windows of the Church to let in some fresh air. This wasn’t strictly a novelty, argues Professor Tanner, (earlier Councils implicitly spoke to non-Christians, for example), but it was still a key feature, particularly in contrast to the Council of Trent that focussed primarily on the Church.

The meeting, which lasted from 1962 to 1965 and involved almost 2,500 participants, gave the Church a “better and fuller expression” of its identity and of the “meaningfulness of the faith for every man,” Father Giulio Maspero, professor of dogmatic theology at the Pontifical University of the Holy Cross in Rome, told MercatorNet. Like others, he sees the Council has deepening the treasure of Tradition in the Church, or as Professor Tanner says, “making explicit what’s implicit, making treasure known that is only partly known.”

Before the Council, the Church was often synonymous with the Pope, bishops and priests. Now it became a Church of the “people of God” in which all were called to sainthood, and the laity had a much greater voice. The ancient concept of collegiality among bishops was also rediscovered and re-emphasised. “A richness emerged among bishops, who could appreciate the variety and the true “power”, so to say, of the Gospel,” says Professor Maspero. “It was affirmed, in a very clear form, that Christ is the meaning of history and creation, that He is at the heart of the deepest desires of every human person.” The Gospel was to become comprehensible to everybody, translated into every language and taken to every place populated by man. The Council’s documents emphasized an optimistic and joyful view of humanity and life.

But problems soon followed. Many of the conciliar decrees were misinterpreted, largely because of a failure to implement them properly. Previous Councils had centralized procedures to make sure the decrees were observed, says Professor Tanner, but the same mechanism was lacking at the Second Vatican Council. John XXIII’s convoking of the Council without “any specific problems or programmes,” as Benedict XVI put it, brought a certain disorder to the proceedings.

“Perhaps we could say the Roman Curia was not prepared to deal with it,” says Professor Maspero, adding that many in the Vatican thought it would be a short meeting. Nor were bishops ready to handle the world’s media who, eager for news, tried to influence the discussions and dwelt only on what was new.

Participants from various countries also had wildly differing positions on, for example, religious freedom – one of the most contentious of the Council decrees. “Sometimes decisions were taken and implemented too quickly and without preparing people,” says Professor Maspero. “In some cases, Christians were puzzled by the sudden change.” The Council also came at possibly the worst time, just as the social revolution of the 1960s was taking hold, bringing a poisonous air into the Church.

Two reactionary factions soon developed in the Church, both of which viewed the Council as a rupture with Tradition. Progessivists, typified by the so-called Bologna School and certain bishops in northern Europe, saw the Council as a new beginning – the first of a series of Councils leading the Church become more modern and attune to the Zeitgeist. Traditionalists, on the other hand, viewed the Council as a regressive step, a lapse into heresy, and a break with Tradition and previous papal teachings. As proof of this, they point to the doctrinal confusion that followed, a catastrophic fall in vocations, and a rapid fall in Church attendance in the West after the 1960s.

Professor Maspero sees the disorientation that followed as favouring those who believed the Council hadn’t gone far enough. Others have also pointed to the conspicuous and peculiar absence of any mention or condemnation of Communism in the decrees.

“The influence of Marxist thought was a real presence and it is very difficult for us nowadays to get an idea of the cultural situation of the time,” says Professor Maspero. But he adds that does not mean that the Council “was hijacked by anybody”. Rather he believes it is normal that such an “important and rich event” would have “complex consequences.” Professor Tanner agrees, citing previous Councils, such as Nicea (325) and Chalcedon (451) , which had “great number of things that have to be digested” and needed time to be accepted by the faithful.

Despite the debate over its legacy and fruits, many see the Council as a gift of the Holy Spirit, and crucial to opening the Church to the world of the 21st century. Like the Pope, they see no rupture with Catholic Tradition, but rather a development that Benedict XVI has characterized as a “hermeneutic of continuity,” or, more recently, as “reform.”

What is important, the Pope says, is that the faithful become acquainted with the Council texts and read them attentively – a task he has strongly recommended during this special Year of Faith. 

Edward Pentin reports from Rome mostly on papal, Vatican and Church news. 

Edward Pentin reports mainly on the Vatican and the Catholic Church for press, television and radio. Over the past ten years, he has produced a wide variety of articles on religion, politics and...