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  • Ecumenism, Civil Rights, and the Second Vatican Council:The American Experience
  • Joseph P. Chinnici O.F.M.

During the half century beginning in 1910 there has emerged, as a result of patient and laborious work, a veritable transformation in inter-church relations. Climaxing the epoch of preparation, the past three years have marked the most significant turning point in Christian history since the 16th century.1

With these words Paul S. Minear (1906-2007), Protestant biblical scholar and influential leader in the Faith and Order Study Division of the World Council of Churches, described the rapid and revolutionary change that had occurred in relationships amongst the Christian churches in the United States between 1961 and 1964. The momentum for this change had been building since the 1910 World Missionary Conference in Edinburgh, Scotland, but the last three years had witnessed a critical and explosive "constitutive moment" for all the Churches.2 Old patterns of relationships marking Protestant, Catholic, and Jewish communities of faith seemed to disappear overnight; new ideas and patterns suddenly crystallized to create a new horizon for ecclesial institutions. The change took place at popular and elite levels, engaging practitioners and academics in novel ways of acting and thinking.3 In the United States it reflected what Robert Wuthnow would later describe as a "restructuring of American religion" that broke apart the inherited and highly [End Page 21] entrenched symbolic religious boundaries in human interactions, identity discourse, gestures, and moral actions.4

The history of the Second Vatican Council in the United States necessarily belongs within this larger context of an epochal change in Catholic, Protestant, and Jewish relationships. The change relating to the Council has a pre-history, cultural context, and constitutive theological and experiential moment. This essay written in the fiftieth year since its inception will explore all three dimensions related to American participation in and reception of the Council during its sessions from John XXIII's opening address on October 11, 1962 to the promulgation of Unitatis Redintegratio, the Decree on Ecumenism, November 21, 1964.5 No attempt is made here to be exhaustive. Clearly ecumenical and interfaith issues were deeply related to key areas of Catholic relationships with the Orthodox, the Jewish community, non-Christians, and the question of religious liberty. The Council's Secretariat for Promoting Christian Unity addressed all four areas, which intersected with each other.6 Since the American contribution to Dignitatis Humanae Personae, the Declaration on Religious Freedom, is well known and has tended to dominate the conciliar history in the United States, this essay will concentrate on the question of ecumenism between Catholics and Protestants with some reference to the other areas.7 The description, based on the Council's printed Acta, archival sources, and [End Page 22] written materials, will conclude with a comment related to the current debates over "rupture," "reform," and "aggiornamento."8

On the Eve of the Council

In his 1955 survey of Catholic-Protestant tensions, John J. Kane noted that the dynamism of American society, its rapid economic, political, and demographic change, was constantly altering the status and equilibrium between social groups in the United States. The postwar era had witnessed the emergence of traditional minorities into the public mainstream; African Americans, women, Jews, and Catholics were coming into prominence. The perceptive sociologist claimed that Americans would have to reach a decision as to the type of society they wanted. Would they demand that groups fuse into one through the imposition of law and a homogenous set of beliefs? Would social, religious, and ethnic groups be allowed to retain their identities, but at a psychic and economic price? Or, would citizens choose to create a true democracy where groups could keep their identity but become full participants in society?9 Between 1956 and 1959 the American citizenry, including the Catholic community, seemed to be adopting the third alternative, as society itself moved rapidly away from the inherited religious and cultural constraints of previous eras. In the long run, the Cold War struggle itself helped to develop a shared public vocabulary privileging individual freedom, equality, national unity, and a shared faith in God.10 In addition, suburbanization weakened the ethnic Catholic enclaves' boundaries and represented...


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