Five years ago Roman Catholic priest David Pettingill lamented, “Sometimes I think the Second Vatican Council is the church’s best-kept secret.” This church scholar could hardly have imagined that a year later a new pope would be elected and that his assessment might need to be revisited. Viewing the Roman Catholic Church today through the lens of the Second Vatican Council a half century ago is becoming increasingly germane.

Following the stunning resignation of Pope Benedict XVI on February 28, 2013, the election of Pope Francis has led to doors creaking open to the elation, creative chaos, controversy and hopes that had animated the historic chunk of Catholic Church history popularly known as Vatican II.

Pope Paul VI during the closing ceremony of Vatican II © Keystone Press Agency/Keystone USA via

Between late 1962 and the end of 1965 between 2,000 and 2,500 bishops from around the world gathered four times at the Vatican to fundamentally reorient the world’s largest single Christian denomination.

Focused on what was called aggiornamento—bringing the church into conversation with the modern world—the council produced 16 major documents and reshaped most areas of church practice.

Reforms dealt with education, the media, divine revelation, the role of Mary, priests’ training, Catholic sisters’ communities, among other topics. Languages other than Latin would be allowed in celebration of the Mass. Liturgical rites were rewritten, and in the process the celebrant would no longer face away from the congregation. New avenues of incorporating music and singing were opened. Women would be allowed to be readers, lectors, Eucharistic ministers, and altar servers.

Community and inclusiveness would be emphasized over a church triumphant. Consultation and collegiality would replace centralized, curial-based decision-making. At least that was the reigning vision in the heady years immediately following the council.

In one of the most highlighted council documents, Dignitatis Humanae (Of the Dignity of the Human Person—Declaration on Religious Freedom), strictures on relations with other Christian denominations were lifted, and religious liberty assumed a new importance. Catholics were encouraged to pray with others. Protestant Bibles and worship services were no longer on the taboo list. The document declares that all are to be free from any form of religious coercion, so that they may seek truth in a manner befitting human dignity.

In establishing ground rules for how the church should relate to the state and how a state should relate to the church, Dignitatis Humanae promoted a model amenable to the U.S. and other pluralistic societies. The council fathers overwhelmingly passed the sixteenth and last document by a vote of 2,308 to 70.

The American contingent “lobbied hard for the principle of religious freedom,” according to veteran religion writer Ken Briggs: describing that effort as “their major contribution to the council.”

“From it, a new culture of ‘rights’ was fostered that challenged the hierarchy’s exclusive authority to determine the nature and mission of the church,” Briggs observed. “With succeeding popes, however, their aims were stifled or stunted, as traditionalists staged a comeback” in years following the Council’s end.

Dignitatis Humanae teaches that no person should be coerced by any human agent in matters religious. Religious freedom, in short, constitutes an immunity from coercion in civil society,” Thomas Farr, director of the Religious Freedom Project at Georgetown University, said in a 2015 interview with the National Catholic Register.

“What the church demands is libertas ecclesiae, the freedom to make its claims in civil society unrestrained by the state or any other human agent,” explained Farr. “At the same time, it demands the same freedom for all religious groups to make their claims, within due limits,” he said. “In this sense, Dignitatis Humanae stands for full equality under the law for all religious communities in civil society. This is a key aspect of its teaching.”

Thus, the American bishops’ conference’s current battles in the civic arena over governmental health care—such as mandated coverage of abortion, birth control, physician-assisted life termination—sit on principles embedded within the Second Vatican Council’s teachings on religious freedom.

Dignitatis Humanae and a sister document—Nostra Aetate (In Our Time—Declaration on the Relationship of the Church to Non-Christian Religions)—provided welcome entrée into ecumenical and interreligious conversations. Nostra Aetate radically reformed Catholicism’s orientation to Judaism and Jews, instructing Catholics to embrace Jews as brothers and sisters under the same God.

Similarly, the declaration emphasized that the church looks upon Muslims “with esteem,” commended the Islamic respect of the virgin Mary, and called attention to the role the patriarch Abraham plays for Christians, Jews, and Muslims.

Vatican II’s 50-year-old sea changes in global outlook form silent backdrops and context for many recent headline-generating events related to the Catholic Church:

The meeting of President Donald Trump and Pope Francis as part of the president’s Middle East trip.

Myriad statements from the Vatican, bishop groups, dioceses, and even parishes defending and supporting immigrants regardless of their religion;

The pope including Muslim women among those whose feet he washed during Holy Thursday rites.

The public critique by church conservatives of Pope Francis’ reform of canon law streamlining the annulment process for Catholic marriages, and of his appeal to church pastors and parishioners to embrace a more pastoral outreach to the divorced and civilly remarried.

The 2014 and 2015 churchwide synods of bishops in Rome that focused on family and marriage.

The two recent synods offer abundant examples of how Vatican II is a watershed. First, Francis provided a clear message that the church under his pontificate would freshen up the use of consultation and collegiality that had been shelved to a significant degree during the papacies of his two immediate predecessors—Benedict XVI and John Paul II.

In 2013 the pope initiated a two-year churchwide consultation on the family that included an extraordinary Synod of Bishops at the Vatican in October 2014, and an ordinary Synod of Bishops, which met the following October. Rather than providing the attending bishops with advance written narratives by curial officials that would, essentially, be rubber-stamped, Francis encouraged candid and open dialogue among participants. He got it.

To broaden the conversation even further, Francis sent a summary of the 2014 discussions to the world’s bishop conferences, along with 46 questions on a range of family and marriage topics he asked that the bishops, in turn, consult their flocks before reconvening in Rome.

Taking the conversation to the grass-roots level raised eyebrows in church circles. It blew dust off a core teaching of the Second Vatican Council—that the people of God comprise the church, not the curia. Ministry to those people in their existential, lived realities should be the focus of the church’s labors, Francis has said repeatedly, not wracking their spiritual knuckles with doctrinal rulers.

The church should be a “field hospital” to those in pain, on the margins, estranged and abandoned, he underscores. That is a synthesis of perhaps the Second Vatican Council’s most quoted document, Gaudium et Spes (Joy and Hope—Constitution on the Church in the Modern World).

It is not uncommon to hear a Catholic cleric—especially one trained or ordained in the years bookending the Second Vatican Council—to say, “I am a Gaudium et Spes priest.” That is code for “The church must be at least as much about the nitty-gritty of daily life and social justice as it is about piety and devotionals” and “I embrace the spirit and direction of Vatican II.”

Like Pettingill, many Catholics educated and formed in the years proximate to the council wondered aloud over the past two or three decades if Vatican II would register as much more than a bump in the theological road despite the upheaval it had generated in the world’s single largest Christian denomination. They describe a situation akin to saying “You had to be there” to grasp the profundity of what the council achieved and encouraged.

For example, the late bishop Bernard Topel, a conservative churchman and head of the Spokane, Washington, Diocese from 1955 to 1978, returned from the Vatican Council transformed. He preached intensely on the church’s need for “a preferential option for the poor,” a phrase first used by the Jesuit order’s superior general, Father Pedro Arrupe, three years after Vatican II ended.

The bishop sold his episcopal mansion and jewel-encrusted crosier, directing the proceeds be used as seed moneys for programs benefiting those in need. He purchased a crackerbox of a house in a low-income, racially mixed neighborhood, largely lived off his garden, and drove an aged Chevrolet Nova.

Topel’s message was as loud and clear as Pope Francis’ decision to eschew lavish papal apartments and reside in a small, simple one, and to take his meals in a common area.

In a recent autobiography, Monsignor Harry Schlitt admits that when he was ordained in 1964 he fully expected to be allowed to be married in the near future based on the prevailing extrapolations from council actions. He was far from alone.

An openness to dialogue and theological developments that marked Vatican II continue to deeply influence Thomas Reese who entered the Society of Jesus the year the council opened. That penchant, however, led to tension with the head of the powerful Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith during Reese’s seven years as editor of the influential U.S.-based Jesuit magazine, America.

Then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, now Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, challenged America coverage on such hot-button issues as priestly celibacy, the role of women, stem-cell research, gay marriage, and admission to Communion for Catholic politicians who voted for legal abortion.

The pressure eventually forced Reese’s resignation as editor.

“Even though there were struggles and arguments and fights” during the council, “there was a feeling that history was on the side of the progressives and that we were moving forward; that it was pretty much unstoppable and things were going to get better in the church year after year,” said Reese, currently chair of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom and senior analyst at the National Catholic Reporter newspaper.

Reese added, “This pretty much stopped with the papacy of John Paul II,” who saw “the documents of Vatican II as what was important, not the spirit.”

“The spirit of Vatican II” can be a contentious subject.

Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI has championed a “hermeneutic of continuity” that underscores interpretation of the documents themselves. This formulation portrays the deliberations of the Second Vatican Council as seamlessly consistent with tradition, not a radical break with it.

Catholic pundits such as Russell Shaw argue that the notion of “the spirit of Vatican II” is too often flashed like a get-out-of-doctrinal-orthodoxy-free card. In a 2009 essay, “Vatican II and the Culture of Dissent,” he argues that “far and away the biggest building block of that culture [of dissent] was the ‘spirit of Vatican II.’ ”

“For progressives,” Shaw wrote, “the beauty of the spirit of Vatican II was that it permitted them to dismiss the council’s teaching while at the same time claiming to champion the council.”

“When judging post-conciliar development . . . , it is necessary to consider a fundamental question: Was the Second Vatican Council really the sharp break with the church’s past that the ‘spirit of Vatican II’ rhetoric claimed?” wrote Shaw.

He quotes eminent Dominican theologian Father Yves Congar as deploring “the ‘rather simplistic practice’ of interpreting the council as if it had been ‘an absolute new beginning, the point of departure for a completely new church.’ ”

Well-known conservative Catholic commentator George Weigel would agree. “Vatican II never, ever taught that Catholic faith is a do-it-yourself thing,” he wrote in a 2013 column.

“Yet too many Catholics in America learned from the council (or its alleged ‘spirit’) that Catholicism is something other than an embrace of Christ, who is truth, and the truths authoritatively taught by Christ’s church: truths that are then embodied in a gospel-centered way of life that touches family, culture, society and politics.”

Vatican II scholar Pettingill recoils. “What I see is a concerted effort to pull back from Vatican II with a party line, and that party line is that the council was simply in continuity with the church’s teaching and that it simply evolved,” he said.

“However, when you take that approach, and it can be a valid one,” he added, “you also have to ask another question, if you are going to be historically accurate: What did that council do for the church? Unless you want to say it was a waste of time, there are some things that happened there that had never happened in the 20 other ecumenical councils, and the documents produced are in a different literary form, and they are the consensus of the largest number of bishops throughout the world ever assembled, and they were taking a fresh look at the church because John XXIII said, ‘We are going to have aggiornamento. We are going to bring the church up-to-date.’ ”

When elected, Pope John XXIII was widely viewed as a caretaker pontiff because of his advanced age, 77. Yet he shocked the world—Catholic and not—when he convened the Second Vatican Council.

Perhaps ironically, it is another “caretaker pope” elected at age 76 who seems to be throwing open yet again the iconic “windows” of the church and embracing the boldness of Vatican II.

Francis seems to be at one with a young theologian-consultant to the council who wrote at that time: “For many people today the church has become the main obstacle to belief. They can no longer see in it anything but the human struggle for power, the petty spectacle of those who, with their claim to administer official Christianity, seem to stand most in the way of the true spirit of Christianity.”

That young priest was Joseph Ratzinger, the future Pope Benedict.

Editor’s note: Vatican II cannot be underestimated as a positive point of departure on many levels, not the least of which is its sea change acknowledgment of the value of religious freedom for others. Prior to that the default Catholic view was that “error has no rights.” And in fact, the present pope even flirted with that prior view recently when he opined that it is not enough for society to rely on the individual conscience. And as always, such nuances concern us all, because lack of true church-state separation has been the historic beam in the eye of the Catholic vision for the gospel.

Article Author: Dan Morris-Young

Dan Morris-Young is the west coast correspondent for the National Catholic Reporter and has written extensively on developments surrounding Catholic identity issues in the San fFancisco Bay Area.