The Catholic Church resists change – but Vatican II shows it's possible

By Melissa Wilde
October 2, 2018

Pope Francis has asked the heads of every bishops’ conference around the world to gather for a summit in February to discuss the issue of sexual abuse in the church.

Even as the pope takes these steps, debates continue about what he knew and whether there was a better way of dealing with the perpetrators of abuse. There have been many specific recommendations about what Francis could now do to fix the mess the church faces. These include everything from reforming canon lawto elevating nuns to the position of Cardinal.

Many of these discussions acknowledge that bringing any real change in the Roman Catholic Church is hard, even for a pope. However, as a scholar of religious change, I believe what’s missing in these discussions are examples when significant change was achieved in the church.

The pope’s options

So what exactly can a pope do to change things? First of all, of course, the pope can make many administrative changes. For example, he can modify canon law or the rules that govern the behavior of all priests and members of the hierarchy. He can “reorganize” different Vatican offices, such as the conservative Roman Curia and issue encyclicals to set the tone and tenor of the church.

Pope Francis, for example, is well-known for decisions that emphasize simplicity and modesty. For example, after taking office he wore ordinary black shoes to office and chose to ride in an everyday car like a Fiat.

But the issue is that the next pope could reverse some or all of these changes. For a change to be permanent, the pope needs to exercise his right to speak infallibly – meaning that what he is saying can never be wrong, and in essence, cannot change.

Speaking infallibly is an incredible burden, in no small part because a pope must do it alone. It has only been done once since papal infallibility was officially declared by the First Vatican Council in 1898. That was in 1950, when Pius XII declared the doctrine of the Assumption of Mary, that she was bodily assumed into heaven upon her death.

What about a council?

But there is a way for a pope to speak authoritatively and with great legitimacy about doctrine: he can call an ecumenical council. In fact, only a pope can call a council, and he does not have to do so in concert with anyone else.

An ecumenical council, by definition, means a gathering of all of the leaders of the world church.

Despite the fact that technically, any pope can call a council anytime, councils are rare events – occurring less than once a century on average. The church’s last council before Vatican II, Vatican I, ended prematurely in 1869 as a result of the Franco-Prussian War and did little of note besides declaring the doctrine of papal infallibility.

Prior to Vatican I, the church had not held a council since the Council of Trent in 1563.

The most recent, and most important, example of change occurring in the Catholic Church is the Second Vatican Council, or Vatican II. In 1998 I started research on Vatican II and gained access to everything from council leaders’ personal correspondence to votes from the Vatican Secret Archive.

I believe, this is a moment to revisit Vatican II and examine what it can tell us about how the church can, and did, renew itself.

Vatican II

When Pope John XXIII called the council in 1958, the world was surprised as were, by all accounts, the Vatican bureaucracy. The council created a “political opportunity” in the church for those who wanted to bring change.

Vatican II was a monumental task. It took four years of preparations and four sessions of debates over three years, between 1962 to 1965.

Almost 3000 bishops, cardinals, heads of religious orders and theologians from all over the world participated in the council. What is noteworthy is that these participants were not members of the Curia, the administrative offices of the Vatican that oversee the day-to-day workings of the church.

These were people usually focused on administering to their local dioceses. But when the opportunity came to change the church, they took it.

The hurdles

The process was difficult and full of set backs. During council preparations and over the course of council itself, the Curia tried to prevent changes. Indeed, deeming the council complete was in and of itself, an ongoing, uncertain and often fraught process.

The initial drafts of statements about church doctrine that the Curia prepared before the council, did nothing other than enumerating errors and reiterating current church doctrine. These, however, were rejected in a dramatic confrontation during the first days of the council.

As I demonstrate in my book on Vatican II, such progressive victories were a result of the efforts of a group of bishops who believed in the “doctrine of collegiality.” Approved at Vatican II, this doctrine states that the bishops convening together have the same authority to discuss, debate or change doctrine as the pope. These bishops listened to each other and, most importantly, developed compromise positions that the majority of bishops could support.

Thus, for example, bishops who carried historic animosities toward Protestant missionaries learned how important it was to improve those relationships. My analysis of council votes that I obtained from the Vatican Secret Archive demonstrated that ultimately, a majority of Latin American bishops voted for reforms that helped in better relationships with Protestants.

As a result of many other such dialogues, real changes came about.


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