- Fifty Years of Reaction and Reform:American Catholicism and the Second Vatican Council
2015 marks the fiftieth anniversary of the close of the Second Vatican Council, a watershed in the history of the Catholic Church and in the lives of [End Page 33] millions of American Catholics. With regard to almost every aspect of Catholicism as it is lived and practiced, there was a before Vatican II and there is an after. Convened in October 1962 and closed in December 1965, the Second Vatican Council systematically organized, defined, and interpreted the totality of the faith—something that had not been done since the Council of Trent, the major council held in response to the Protestant Reformation in the sixteenth century. This time, however, there was no major crisis (such as the earth-shattering fact of Protestantism) to address. In fact, Pope John XXIII’s announcement that he would convene a full council, something that had only been done twenty times in the history of Christendom, came as a total surprise even to his closest advisors. Pope John XXIII (Angelo Roncalli), who has recently been canonized, was a kindly pastoral and elderly man of seventy-seven when he became pontiff. All assumed that he would be an interim figure after the long pontificate of Pius XII. But instead John XXIII called for aggiornamento, updating, famously wanting to “throw open the windows of the Church,” letting in both light and air. Liturgically, aesthetically, devotionally, socially, even sacramentally, the Catholic Church after Vatican II became a radically and fundamentally different place from which to view both this world and the next. The three books in this review, which come from the varied genres of personal memoir, religious studies, and political science, are each concerned with describing the disorientation and struggle for identity which has come to define Catholicism in America as the faithful wrestle with the changes of Vatican II as part of other societal changes and upheavals which have taken place simultaneously.
The more than 2,500 bishops who comprised the Second Vatican Council met from September through December for four consecutive years, from 1962 to 1965. When John XXIII died just one year into the council, his successor, Paul VI took up the mantle immediately and led the council to its completion. In addition to the thousands of bishops in attendance, several hundred lay observers were invited to sit in on the proceedings: Lutherans, Methodists, and even women. The openness of the Council, and of the pope who convened it, was something that had not been seen before and the world took notice. Life magazine, in its April 1963 story on the opening of the council, proclaimed, “The most amazing new force in world affairs is that simple, friendly, unpretentious man, the Pope of Rome … In 1958, John XXIII set in train a series of events which have since moved that huge old galleon, the Roman Catholic Church, back into the mainstream of world history and have profoundly altered the silhouette it presents to mankind.”1
The purpose of the council, as articulated many times by its key players, was not to reform the Catholic Church but rather to renew it by leading it to both cooperate with and operate as part of the modern world. The sixteen documents that came out of the Council—four constitutions, three declarations, and nine decrees—did, however, change the Church in profound ways. Sacrosanctum Concilium (On the Liturgy), one of the four Constitutional documents, declared the Church to be the People of God and as such articulated the necessity of full [End Page 34] participation of the laity in the sacred liturgy. Implementation of this document led to dramatic liturgical changes including the priest and congregants facing one another, the use of the vernacular...