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When the Catholic Church changed                                                                                     Print this essay

Posted at: Jan/20/2013 : Posted by: mel

Related Category: Religion, Society,

Religion has been one of those subjects I have avoided delving into. I have not avoided it because I am anti-religion, rather; because discussions on religion seldom lead to rational conversation or debate. There seems to always be that person in the crowd who emphatically states that if you do not believe as they do “you are doomed to hell.” I am more tolerant than many believing that most modern religions teach and encourage good things when not being taught by zealots.

As a non-Christian in a Christian dominated country, I understand what being in the minority is all about and the value of tolerance. I get Christmas off, but have to use vacation time to take Passover and Yom Kippur off. This actually does not bother me though an attorney from the ACLU might tell me it should. I see crosses on hill tops and biblical references on public buildings….none of this bothers me either. Most of these symbols reference a set of values I agree with even if the tenets specifically referenced are different from my own.

It is amazing the things we remember. As a 6-7 year old boy, different religions really did not mean a lot to me. In my neighborhood my family was the token Jewish family in a suburban neighborhood of Catholics and Protestants. Everyone knew I was Jewish, but this made no difference when picking teams for a sand-lot game or street football. As boys, we measured each other by height, speed, athletic skill and how cool your toys were. All this changed on an October morning in 1964. Shortly after getting on the school bus a group of kids started teasing me and chanting that I “had killed Jesus.” I swore that “I never killed anyone” and “did not even know who Jesus was” to no avail. Kids can be very cruel to each other and I obviously had a miserable bus ride. Out of fear I chose to walk home from school that day. I isolated myself from the other kids for the next few days walking to and from school and staying in after school rather than playing in the neighborhood.

My father got wind of the situation and had one of those “Ward Cleaver” type father son talks with me. Many parents have a way of saying or doing the right thing at the right time to “make it all better.” I learned years later that my fathers talked that evening with the parents of at least two of our neighbors. I do know that the next day after school, two of my Christian friends were over at my house to play and it became ancient history.

I have more stories like this; at college I had repeated visits from the evangelicals trying to “save me” every Wednesday evening, I presume after their weekly bible study ended. I guess I was targeted as a specific challenge for them, some even threatened me if I refused to be “saved.” Isn’t that kind of like the Crusades and their “convert or die” mindset? For those who have never been in a minority, your situation can go from entertaining to threatening very quickly…but I endured anyway.

Two of the best classes I ever took in college were “Philosophy” and “World Religions.” Most of us unfortunately know very little about religions beyond our own. I suspect that this lack of knowledge leads to a great deal of the distrust and misunderstanding that exists in the world today. For me, these classes introduced me to basic insights about other faiths proving that being different does not have to mean being bad. Surprisingly, while the dogmas of most religions are substantially different from each other, the philosophies for applying them to your daily life are very similar. I believe it is important for all of us to have some understanding of each other to help minimize misunderstands that often lead to potential conflicts. Despite being a technical person, since my college years I have continued to read and learn about religions other than my own. Now it is my turn to share some of my accumulated insights into what I believe is one of the most important turning points in Catholicism.

50 years ago (in the fall of 1962) we saw one of the most important shifts in Catholic Church doctrine with the publishing of the first documents by the Vatican II Council. To put this into perspective, it is important to understand the times. World War II had ended less than 20 years earlier and the memories of the Holocaust were imprinted on many people’s minds, especially Europeans. 6 million Jews along with millions of other Europeans had perished in the camps sponsored by Nazi Germany. A lot of questions were being asked about the Catholic Church and its silence during the implementation of Hitler’s “final solution.” This was compounded by a play winning substantial acclaim by German playwright Rolf Hochhuth called The Deputy. In “The Deputy”, Pope Pius XII (Roman Catholic pope from 1939-1958) is depicted as silent and uncaring when made aware of the Holocaust. The play invoked the inevitable reaction that many bishops no longer wished to live with.

When John XXIII became the next Pope he announced the creation of the Second Vatican Council (also known as Vatican II) in January 1959. A Vatican Council is intended to settle doctrinal issues. Creating this council surprised many Vatican watchers of the day and excited many of the church insiders. The watchers were surprised because the first council of 1870 accomplished little beyond publishing a definition of papal infallibility. The papal infallibility definition was widely perceived as a statement that implied that no additional changes would be needed. If the Pope is infallible in his decisions, there would be no need to convene a council for any additional review or adjustments to church doctrine beyond what the Pope would pronounce. For Cardinals and Bishops, especially in western countries, the notion of a doctrinal update was welcomed as they struggled with a church mired in outdated ideas that were not keeping up with the rapid changes being seen in society after the WWII.

The council initially called on over 2000 bishops, church scholars, auditors, sisters and noted laymen to provide input. For obvious reason, no group of this size would ever be able to agree on the arrangement of their chairs, let alone the teachings of their faith. Fortunately, the council quickly settled into a small group of scholars and experts. By 1965 this council had released 16 documents which are the foundation of the current Catholic Church.

Ultimately, no new dogma was issued. Nevertheless, the council did transform the church from an exclusive to an inclusive institution. Before Vatican II, church altars were turned so the priests celebrated Mass with their backs facing the congregation. Vatican II decreed that altars should be turned around and that priests should face the newly recognized “people of God”, not just the clergy or church hierarchy.

There was a new liturgy and a larger role for laypeople in the church functions. For many church goers, the most immediate impact was that Vatican II allowed priests to celebrate Mass in the local language, rather than Latin; thus making a key sacrament more accessible to everyone.

As a friend of mine once said; “One week, if you ate meat on Friday, you were going to hell. The following week, you could have all the meat you wanted at your Friday dinner.”

One of the most controversial portions of Vatican II was the section describing the Christian-Jewish relationship. In the text they encouraged Catholics to think of other religions as “sources of truth and grace.” Pointing to the fact that Jesus, his mother and all his apostles were Jews. This section of the documents was called Nostra Aetate and affirmed the churches origin in the Old Testament. Particular to my childhood experience, it denied that Jews should be held collectively responsible for the death of Jesus, decrying all forms of hatred including anti-Semitism. Referencing the letter of St. Paul to the Romans, Nostra Aetate called the Jews “most beloved” by God. While all this seems commonsensical today, it was both revolutionary and radical 50 years ago.

Radical thinking seldom has its origins from conventional sources. Key amongst the authors of Nostra Aetate were Johannes Oesterreicher, Dietrich von Hildebrand, Karl Thieme and Waldermar Gurian. Oesterreicher and Hildebrand were Jewish born priests who had converted to the Catholic faith as young adults. Thieme and Gurian both spent time helping with Jewish relief at the concentration camps when World War II ended.

The idea that people could have a covenant with God and find salvation without having Jesus as their savior was radical at the time and not supported by all bishops. I suspect that the adoption of this idea explains why Catholic missionaries no longer try to convert Jews. Not to fear, there are still plenty of other Christian denominations who feel the need to save me.

Vatican II not only encouraged an open dialog and tolerance of other religions, it also had the side effect of giving many bishops a sense of empowerment. With this new empowerment, many bishops have openly criticized the Vatican’s ban on artificial birth control and other issues. This open criticism has caused a great deal of concern among more conservatives in the church, arguing that it undermines unity and the power of the pope. If there is a conservative backlash within the church, I suspect that any backsliding will be minimal….the genie is out of the bottle and there is no putting it back now.

There are plenty of issues the council did not touch including priestly celibacy and the role of women. Some conservative church scholars also argue that the church is now too focused on adapting to times and modern society, than focusing on its core teaching.

Many of the available polls show that large numbers of Catholics on longer follow the Pope’s strict pronouncements on obedience and sexual morality. I don’t know whether this could be viewed as a fading of relevancy for the church, or just a sign of the times. In our fast paced and challenging world, it is unfortunate, but religion often seems to take a back seat to other obligations of life.

It is hard to predict the behaviors of other people, but I view the changes stemming from Vatican II as good. Whether there will over time be backsliding, or more evolution is impossible to say. Teaching that people should be tolerant of each other is a good thing and should never be discouraged.

There was a very old joke that I heard from my father many decades ago. “A group of recently departed Muslims, Jews, Protestants, Buddhists, etc., were all being shown around Heaven by St. Peter when suddenly they came upon a giant wall with a large closed steel door. One in the touring group asks St. Peter what that is all about. He says, Shuss, those are the Catholics, they still think that they are the only ones up here.”

In the end, I’m just happy that other kids are not likely to have the bus ride I did so many decades ago.

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