50th Anniversary of Vatican II

This year marks the fiftieth anniversary of the beginning of Vatican II, the most recent and arguably among the most radical of the so-called “ecumenical” councils of the Roman Catholic Church. Now is an appropriate moment to assess the impact of the Council five decades on, and to reflect on its implications for historically-testy Roman Catholic-evangelical Protestant relations.

Eventually Vatican II generated 16 authoritative documents, each voted on by the Council and circulated by the Pope. By introducing so many radical changes to the Catholic church, and pointing in so many promising new directions, it has given everyone hope for a new beginning in the long-standing quest for greater harmony and fellowship among Christians everywhere. A few years ago Mark Noll, perhaps our top evangelical church historian, and a member of the faculty at the University of Notre Dame, coauthored a book entitled Is the Reformation Over? An Evangelical Assessment of Roman Catholicism (2005). It is a hopeful reminder that we should never regard any church’s convictions or dispositions as etched in stone. We are all on journeys and we are all still moving toward the light.

In her new book The Spirit of Vatican II (2011), Colleen McDannell offers a delightful “inside scoop” on the dynamics of the Vatican II Council. We learn that 2,540 prelates from around the world were seated on temporary bleachers erected inside St. Peter’s. Things kicked off when the pope was carried in on an elevated chair, wearing standard Vatican-issue red Prada slippers. And the entire proceedings were conducted in Latin, which many of the participants could not understand, and quite a number of the speakers could only haltingly enunciate. Despite the pomp and circumstance, there were moments of reassuring earthiness. One cardinal, known for his arrogance, ignored the time limits on his speech and carried right on. After he disdained a final warning bell, his microphone was unceremoniously switched off—to which the entire august body responded with enthusiastic applause.

Two adjoining coffee bars, Bar Jonah and Bar Abbas, were set up for prelates in need of a caffeine jolt. In response to widespread complaints, a small number of women were allowed to attend later sessions of the Council as “auditors.” But they were not permitted to fraternize with the men at either of the bars, so a third one was set up for them—which was cheekily named Bar Nun.

In recent years, Roman Catholics and evangelicals have begun to rediscover one another. After close to five hundred years of sometimes acrimonious divorce, what is bringing us together again as Roman Catholics and evangelical Protestants? What’s behind all the new overtures toward reconciliation?

The first cause, I’d suggest, is a growing awareness of our need for one another, as we face increasing opposition from secular and anti-Christian forces and values in our culture? When crises hit a nation, citizens drop their partisan political positions and stand shoulder to shoulder against our common foe. In times of peril, it can actually become quite exhilarating to be able, for at least a time, to rise above pettiness and become larger for it. Culturally, that seems to be happening.

The second reason is that evangelicals like where Roman Catholicism has been heading since Vatican II. Generally speaking, we admire the strong ethical stands being taken by the pope and other Catholic spokespersons. We also appreciate the Roman Catholic Church’s continued adherence to those orthodox beliefs that were simply assumed by both Protestants and Catholics at the time of the Reformation, but can no longer be taken for granted. We are impressed by the increasing number of Roman Catholic laypersons who display an affectionate acquaintance with the Scriptures. Most important, evangelicals are encouraged as they discover kindred spirits in the Roman Catholic Church—brothers and sisters in Christ who personally know and love Jesus, and whose lives are animated by gratitude for the grace of God in him.

The third reason for rapprochement is, at least here in the United States, that Catholics and evangelicals are looking more like each other all the time.

Recently I slipped into a back pew of Saint Therese, the family-oriented Roman Catholic church in our suburban neighborhood. Saint Therese is no grand cathedral with vaulted ceiling and ethereal light. Built in 1958, it looks like a tasteful modern Protestant church, except with a crucifix up front. The bulletin advertised a traditional and a contemporary service; I chose the latter.

The Bible was read from a gender inclusive translation. Women were visible, vocal . . . and hatless. One read Scripture from the lectern, while others led music, ushered, served as acolytes and helped distribute the communion wafers. It wasn’t exactly the same as a Protestant service—the homily was over in ten minutes flat and there were some actual moments of silence (which seem to terrify Protestants, who consider it dead air time).

Dress was casual. Only about a third of the folks genuflected before taking a seat; most just hurried into their pews like running-late evangelicals. The priest started out with a loud “Good Morning,” cocked his ear expectantly and the congregation responded in kind. He jovially invited visitors to stand up, whereupon they were welcomed with applause and offered free coffee and donuts at the Visitor Welcome Center after the service. Immediately a youth choir equipped with acoustic guitars started into a peppy rendition of a Maranatha Praise chorus. In a collective rite of faux friendliness, the congregants stood on cue and began leaning across pews, shaking hands with everyone within reach.

All this confirmed to me that there is indeed a quiet grass-roots Catholic-Protestant convergence underway in America. Things felt most Protestant when the priest announced that an upcoming midweek event was sure to be a great time of “fun, food and fellowship.” This church basement cliché was uttered by a steward of a great spiritual tradition characterized at its best by profound reverence for God, the mystery of grace and the beauty of holiness. To tell you the truth, something in me wished my separated brothers and sisters hadn’t already shifted quite so far our way.

So how do we build on such a foundation of acknowledged fraternal, spiritual unity? The principle of the Incarnation is that whatever is spiritually true ought to become “embodied” in physical and visible expressions. It shouldn’t remain hidden, but become tangible as it moves along the natural trajectory from essence to manifestations.

Here’s where it gets a bit tricky. Evangelicalism’s predominantly populist roots have inclined it toward the “low church” or congregational end of the polity scale, and rendered it somewhat suspicious of hierarchical structures of any kind. In other words, its predominantly individualistic and congregational orientation has made it less than enthusiastic about the very ideal toward which many ecumenists aspire. Evangelicals too have a vision of ecumenical unity, but it is not primarily a vision of union within a single ecclesiastical structure, nor even of a great congregation united in a single liturgical event. It is, rather, a vision of a great host of believers, voluntarily joined together in common cause, marching forward, shoulder to shoulder, in powerful evangelistic and ministry enterprise. The evangelicals’ ecumenical vision, then, is neither structural nor liturgical, but functional. Their concept of the church is, first and foremost, a salvation army (or, as our Catholic friends would say, apostolic). And consequently visible unity is sought only insofar as it is thought that it will enhance the effectiveness of the church in its main tasks of proclaiming the gospel and extending the kingdom.

For evangelicals, this is the bottom-line issue: Are Roman Catholics really my brothers and sisters in Christ? Are we really heirs together of the hope of glory? Or should we still be evangelizing them?

I confess that there are moments when I have contemplated converting to Roman Catholicism myself. These thoughts have hit right out of the blue during an evening tour of the exquisite architecture of the University of San Diego campus, or when I read the latest shenanigans of the Westborough Baptist Church, or an outrageous statement by Joel Osteen or Jack Van Impe, or discover that Liberty Baptist University has awarded an honorary doctorate to Donald Trump. These impulses to run from evangelicalism can hit after standing for forty minutes of banal choruses, or during an interminable, Scripture-butchering sermon.

But I have never seriously contemplated converting, because I still think that evangelicals have a handle on the heart of the Gospel, and when you get that right there’s such a lot of ebullient joy, blessed assurance, and gratitude for amazing grace. Besides, I have issues with the structural pretensions of the Roman Catholic church, and I find the conduct of many priests to be reprehensible. And a lot of Roman Catholic doctrine and practice still strikes me as wrong. Personally I think the Catholic doctrines of justification and assurance remain muddled, that Mary is excessively regarded, that the sacraments are not intrinsically saving, and so forth.

But here’s the thing. The Spirit of God refuses to be restricted by boundaries of doctrinal precision. Don’t get me wrong: doctrine is hugely important, and what we believe colors even our experiences, and eventually will determine whether our faith will survive healthy inter-generational transfer. The Spirit glides most smoothly along the rails of clear truth.

But the Spirit works where minds are still muddled, and thank God for that, because we all see as through a glass darkly. I thought of describing this as the Spirit’s promiscuity, but that sounded wrong. How about dialing that back to the generosity of the Spirit? That’s probably better. In any event, what matters more than uniformity of conviction is a shared, regenerating and transforming touch from the living Christ in our hearts and lives. Is there genuine new life from Christ by the Spirit in the heart, regardless of whether there is yet perfect light in the head? If so, then we are family.

The Spirit will not be contained. Some years ago I spent part of my sabbatical in Rome. We stayed in an amazingly cheap B & B right across the street from the Vatican. It was operated by the Sisters of the Sorrowful Mother, a small group of nuns, and from our window we could look across St. Peter’s Square to the window where the Pope occasionally emerges to address audiences of the faithful.

I was expecting nuns of approximately the age and disposition of the Church Lady on Saturday Night Live, but they turned out to include young women the age of my own daughters. And they invited us, myself and my daughter who was accompanying me, to their daily chapel services conducted in an Italian I could not understand. But we entered into the spirit of these joyful little gatherings of guitar, songs and prayer, and then marveled at the enthusiasm these same nuns displayed in their ministries to the homeless who gathered for food and clothing twice each week right outside their front door.

Later on they connected us up with other members of their order in Assisi, and we stayed with them for a week, soaking up Franciscan history. I will never forget the drive down the steep hill to the train station on the plain below. One of the young nuns drove the sisters’ little Fiat vigorously, downshifting and gripping the turns like a Formula 1 driver while we held on for dear life. I sensed in these sisters the joy of the Lord. Their faces and their actions exuded regenerate life. I was sure they were my sisters too.

Many years ago John Wesley, one of the pioneers of the evangelical movement, reflected in a sermon on this very issue. Acknowledging that it is impossible ever to establish complete agreement in opinions, it is nevertheless possible to work together in a spirit of brotherhood. Paraphrasing a biblical text [2 Kings 10:15], he wrote: Is your heart right with mine? If so, I give you my hand.

Coming out of our respective bunkers and acknowledging our spiritual unity is good for our souls. After all, the Scriptures remind us that it is “together with all the Lord’s holy people” that we are best able to grasp the full dimensions of the love of God (Eph. 3:18, NIV). Beyond many surface idiosyncrasies are the strong, subterranean continuities of a shared life with God. This is where we must start and where I will end.

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