What Future For Vatican II?

In the United States the year 2011 marks at least two major public anniversaries, both of them recalling painful examples of the role of violence in the nation's history: the sesquicentennial of the beginning of the Civil War, and the 10th anniversary of the terrorist attacks of September 11th. Such anniversaries are occasions for remembering salient events, for honoring both victims and heroes, and for asking questions about what, if any, lessons may be learned from such highlighting of selected past experiences. Only the naïve would suppose that memory just happens, as it were; rather, memory is formed, shaped, stimulated, educated, manipulated, informed, and censored, by a wide array of persons, institutions, interests, and agendas. Anniversaries offer exceptional occasions to influence what is remembered and what is not, and how what is remembered is remembered. Indeed, the field of memory studies is a growing area of research for professional historians, and it is a field where the study of history also engages a broad public and the media that cater to it.

For Catholics in the U.S. and elsewhere another significant anniversary is on the horizon: that of the 50th anniversary of the opening of the Second Vatican Council in 1962. How it is remembered -- or not remembered -- may be very important for the Catholic Church in the coming decades. Do this in remembrance of me: Catholic worship is centered on ritual remembrance of the death and resurrection of Jesus. Absolutely central to Catholic practice is this remembrance, and Catholics are also a people of tradition: we say that we value what has been handed on over the centuries, from the early church to today. Anniversaries offer a special way in which traditions may be once again received and celebrated.

Public anniversaries are distinguished from family and personal events such as birthdays or anniversaries of marriage or ordination. But even the public anniversaries are also experienced in individual and personal ways. Seen in the light of 2,000 years of Christianity, Vatican II remains quite a recent event, within the lifetimes of older Catholics. Those in their mid-fifties or older will have personal memories of the Council -- at least of how it was reported by the press -- and of its aftermath, and these memories may be revivified by the 50th anniversary.
Even childhood memories of Vatican II and its era may be considerable. I was born in 1955, and I made my first communion in May 1962. Mass was still in Latin, and the Council was still in the future. We were a lot of six and seven year olds making our first communion that year, at St. Mark's Church in Burlington, Vermont. Catholics had played no small part in the post-war baby boom. But in October of that same year, the Council convened, in the same month as the Cuban Missile Crisis, a crisis that threatened nuclear war at any moment. I have very clear memories of fearing that Nikita Khrushchev and his dreaded Communists were about to invade the U.S. and kill us all; I remember watching President Kennedy on television, and everyone wondering if nuclear war was imminent. I also remember when John XXIII died in June of 1963, and there was lots of talk of what would happen to the Council and what he had started. There were also a great many photographs of Pope John in the newspapers and images of him on television. Even to a child, it was obvious that he was extremely important, and that his death affected people all over the world. Not long after I became an altar server, and was put to memorizing the Latin responses of the Mass; when I had more or less managed such memorization, we servers were told to forget it, as the Mass would soon be in English!

In recent years some Catholics, including certain bishops and theologians, have emphasized the continuity of the Council with the pre-conciliar church, thus de-emphasizing any change that may have taken place. The present pope was a theological expert present at the Council, and regardless of what he may have said then he is now associated with those stressing continuity. But other Catholics, some prominent historians and theologians among them, stress the discontinuity of Vatican II with what had gone before, and thus they emphasize the real changes that took place, in faithful response to the Council's directives. This is no small debate, and its consequences may be very large in the coming years. The 50th anniversary of the Council will almost certainly stimulate not less but more discussion of just this kind of question.

After the death of John XXIII, the Council continued, under the leadership of Pope Paul VI, and from 1963 to 1965 it approved a series of remarkable documents whose interpretation and implementation remain a live issue; the 1963 'constitution' on the liturgy was but the first of these decrees. The last, approved by the Council in December 1965, was Gaudium et Spes, the pastoral constitution on the church in the modern world. Though Gaudium et Spes spoke of the church as in the world, not against it, the church was presented as calling for an end to war. This was quite different from an older Catholic tradition of identifying 'just' wars and distinguishing them from 'unjust' wars. As U.S. Catholics mark anniversaries of the Civil War or of September 11, they would do well to also remember Vatican II, including what it had to say about peace and renunciation of war.

Thomas Worcester, S.J., is Professor of History at the College of the Holy Cross, and a specialist in religious and cultural history . He is the editor of 'The Cambridge Companion to the Jesuits' (Cambridge University Press, 2008), and co-editor (with James Corkery) of 'The Papacy Since 1500: From Italian Prince to Universal Pastor' (Cambridge University Press, 2010). tworcester@holycross.edu