October 11 was the 60th anniversary of the opening of the Second Vatican Council. In his sermon on that occasion and elsewhere, Pope Francis has repeatedly called on the Church to recover “the spirit of the Second Vatican Council.” A month ago, the eleventh assembly of the World Council of Churches (WCC) was held in Karlsruhe, Germany, 11 August to 8 September. Pleas for peace and unity are prominent in both the Pope’s pronouncements and the WCC’s statements.
It is significant that so little of the agendas of either Vatican II or the WCC have been accomplished in the past 6 decades. That can be because these agendas were very optimistic and bold. But I have a darker suspicion that institutional change is essentially an oxymoron. Institutions exist to conserve. Even on the one item, church unity, no substantial progress has been made. In fact, the very first steps toward that were abandoned before they could be taken.
I had a little window onto what happened.
A close friend of mine, the Rev. Dr. Lewis A. Briner, a professor at McCormick Theological Seminary, was chosen to be one of the Protestant observers at Vatican II sessions. He came away very excited about the prospects for reconciliation and reunification. The initial project was to be a common lectionary, a 3-year cycle of scripture readings that all churches could use, and which would be the core for liturgy that both Protestants and Catholics would share.
There were progressive groups on both the Protestant and Catholic sides that were enthusiastic about this achievable project of a common lectionary.
It was a time of fervor for healing denominational divisions and finding inter-religious common ground. On December 4, 1960, Eugene Carson Blake, long-time Stated Clerk of the United Presbyterian Church (USA), preached a historic appeal for reunion at the Episcopal Cathedral in San Francisco. That led to the creation of a Consultation on Church Union (COCU). Meanwhile, mergers and reunions were taking place that led to the United Church of Christ, the United Methodist Church, the united Church of South India, the Uniting Church of Australia, and several others. COCU rode the wave toward a mass-reunion. The WCC actively encouraged this movement, which also embraced better relationships with Jewish and Orthodox groups and reached out to Muslims.
Vatican II seemed to open the door for Roman Catholics to join.
While Vatican II was still ongoing, Pope John XXIII died (in 1963). Pope Paul VI (1963-78) continued Vatican II to its conclusion in 1965. But he fought a backlash from those opposed to changes in the mass, in particular, and had to walk a thin line on many matters. He will be remembered for his passionate initiatives and travels to make connections and have religions work together for peace. But he had to compromise. That was ominous.
Despite the momentum toward unity, there was already, by 1970, just 5 years after the end of Vatican II, the first hesitation, barely noticed.
Dr. Briner returned from Rome full of energy for liturgical reform built on the common lectionary. But by 1969 he was disappointed and bitter. The meetings to forge a common lectionary were hindered by Rome from making any changes to the readings prescribed for Roman Catholic churches. Pope Paul had to juggle his priorities and it seems that he opted to fight for modernizing the Mass. The common lectionary became essentially a matter of accepting the Catholic version. So, work on a common lectionary continued without Catholic participation. To insiders like Dr. Briner, the prospects for a fully-united church were dim if there couldn’t even be agreement about a list of scripture readings.
Pope Paul VI was replaced by Pope John Paul I who hoped to reinvigorate the goals of Vatican II, but he died after only 34 days on the throne of St. Peter. His successors steadfastly worked to restrict the changes inspired by Vatican II.
Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, COCU’s goals were abbreviated as the tide shifted away from merger and unity. By the beginning of the 21st century COCU ceased to function and was replaced in 2002 with Churches Uniting in Christ (CUIC). Its focus was on reconciliation between predominately white and predominately Black denominations in the USA, aimed at recognizing and overcoming racism in American churches. Institutional mergers were no longer on the table.
The WCC has followed this same arc. Work toward unity is now about united efforts toward environmental welfare, justice, and peace. The WCC’s most recent assembly denounced the Russian invasion of Ukraine and apartheid in Israel, for example, without giving consideration as to how to work toward institutional mergers or even how to strengthen associations. Our Christian Council of Asia appears to be losing financial support and cutting back on its activities, year after year.
However, on October 11, this year, after the celebratory Mass commemorating the opening of Vatican II 60 years ago, the general secretary of the Synod of Bishops commented that “the spirit of the Second Vatican Council” continues to guide the church. This has caused theologians to ask, “How does Vatican II guide the Church?” Is it through its written pronouncements (called “magisterial documents”) ALONE as Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict insisted? Indeed, the phrase “the spirit of Vatican II” was deplored by both popes. They insisted there was no basis for the church to pay attention to anything not written and proclaimed formally, and those magisteria were restricted in their language. Now, it appears Francis is interpreting the Council differently, challenging conservatives, saying that the significance of Vatican II is the impulse to change and reform.
Perhaps this is another window open to let in fresh air.
If the spirit of Vatican II is a spirit of change, could the spirit of ecumenism which burned so brightly after World War I and II also blaze again? Colleagues of mine have chided me for pronouncing ecumenism dead, killed by rampant nationalism and tribalism. The ecumenical movement is alive, they tell me, moving forward with more important objectives than institutional mergers. Everywhere that the church is valid and vital, the work of Christ is healing wounds, supporting victims, mitigating hatred, reducing injustice, and promoting peace. When institutionalism gets in the way, it is bypassed. We should rejoice that the current generation of Christians no longer shares our octogenarian fascination with obsolete structures.
Rev. Dr. Kenneth Dobson posts his weekly reflections on this blog.