Critically evaluate the significance of Vatican II for the 21st Century Church

Topic: EconomicsCapitalism
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Last updated: November 22, 2020

The Second Vatican Council was convened by Pope John XXIII in 1962 with the intention of throwing open the windows of the Church so that ‘we can see out and the people can see in’. It closed under Pope Paul VI and has repeatedly been said to be the most significant event for Catholicism in the 20th Century and beyond.

The results of Vatican II were wide-ranging for Catholics but also for the rest of the Christian and non- Christian world. In terms of ‘The Church’, Lumen Gentium clearly defined it as all those who believe in Christ. In Sacrosanctum Concilium, the liturgy was revised including the use of the vernacular languages during Mass. The study of scripture was to become a more central part of the lives of both clergy and laity and Nostra Aetate stated that the Jews were no more responsible for the death of Christ than Christians. These are simply very brief and by no means comprehensive examples of some of the issues considered.To critically evaluate the significance of all the aspects of The Second Vatican Council would be impossible in an essay of this length, therefore I have chosen to consider the repercussions of a further document issued- Gaudium et Spes.

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This constitution, on the church and the modern world, attempted to bring the church into step with the concerns and problems faced by Catholics living in a modern and radical age. Vatican II awakened the need for the church to address injustice and oppression in our modern world- redefining the agenda for the years to come. One of the repercussions from this document was the legitimisation and development of Liberation Theology ( although it did not conceive it). I will argue that further development of this concept should be an integral part of the work of the church ( and by definition the people) into and beyond the 21st century.A brief history of the development of Liberation TheologyLiberation Theology is often defined using the words of Gustavo Gutierrez calling the wealthy and powerful to adopt a ‘preferential option for the poor’.It was born out of a realisation that the suffering of the oppressed people throughout the world ( but initially in South America) was unjust and not God’s will. Boff notes that the historical roots can be found in those missionaries and churchmen who questioned the way the indigenous peoples were treated.

In the 1950’s and 1960’s dependent capitalist structures developed throughout the Latin world and these led to popular movements demanding change that were in turn put down by political repression. As Boff says, ‘there was a great stirring for change among the popular sections of society, a truly pre-revolutionary atmosphere.’During the 1960’s, the church began to take its social role seriously with both praxis and the call for progress and commitment to the poor from the laity, priests on the ground and some forward thinking bishops. Vatican II then legitimised the theoretical justification of Liberation Theologies- Cleary described Gaudium et Spes as the ‘ longest and most influential document of Vatican II’.’..

. the greater part of the world is till suffering from so much poverty that it is as if Christ Himself were drying out in these poor to beg the charity of the disciples. Do not let men, then, be scandalized because some countries with a majority of citizens who are counted as Christians have an abundance of wealth, whereas others are deprived of the necessities of life and are tormented with hunger, disease and every kind of misery. The spirit of poverty and charity are the glory and the witness of the church of Christ.’ (Gaudium et Spes).Vatican II generated a theological atmosphere of creativity and radicalism leading to the Medellin conference of 1968 of which Paul VI said, ‘The Latin American church had arrived at degree of maturity and an extraordinary equilibrium that made it capable of assuming fully its own responsibility.

‘ (from Cleary) Liberation Theology was unleashed upon various areas of the Latin American world and developed, radicalised to become a real threat to those it challenged leading to significant backlashes from the vested interests ( a prime example being the murder to Oscar Romero on 24th March 1980).Responses to Liberation TheologyThe official Vatican response to Liberation Theology can be seen very clearly in “Instruction on certain aspects of the ‘Theology of Liberation.'” and “The instruction on Christian Freedom and Liberation.” These stated that the Marxist principles and terminology often employed would only lead to embracing of Marxism itself and should be avoided. In addition there was a reiteration of the church’s primary goal being one of spiritual liberation from evil whilst still seeking political, economic and social liberation of the downtrodden and also the statement that armed struggle could only be a last resort to put an end to an ‘obvious and prolonged tyranny’ which was gravely damaging to the common good.The actual criticisms of the theology are many and varied, but generally in terms of the lasting significance on the church in the 21st century there are several general areas.

Firstly, the links ( some would say reliance) with Marxism has been shown to be a weakness with the advent of the fall of the Marxist states in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe. In addition dependency theory has also come under attack especially in conjunction with the failings of socialist states to develop successfully. Secondly, the amount of bloodshed that has appeared to have come of the development of Liberation Theology has encouraged many to think again about counter violence and the idea of cataclysmic political transformations through armed struggle. Finally, the initial emphasis on social theory as opposed to spirituality led some to a view challenging ( or at best underestimating) the idea of Christ’s divinity.A way forward in the 21st Century- a personal view.

Without doubt there is still a need for the liberation of the poor. The church must address the needs of the third world as well as the oppressed elsewhere. There is a need for Liberation Theology to evolve as Rev. Arturo Piedra Solano ( a church historian in San Jose, Costa Rica) said, “.

.in the past we used to say, Organise a guerrilla movement. Organise the unions. Organise a popular movement [but] we have had guerrilla movements, we’ve organised unions, we’ve had popular movements and we still couldn’t defeat capitalism.”We live in a post modern world with an emphasis on enfranchisement, consumerism and individualism.

Some would say that the church has become irrelevant to many in the western societies. Vatican II stressed the equality of the laity to the clergy and therefore gives the laity an active role. Along with the equality and importance, the laity has inherited responsibility. This responsibility should be led by the clergy against the pressures of commercialisation ( and maybe the capitalist system as it works today). This would require each of us to adopt an active philosophy using wealth, power and votes to change inequality and provide a preferential option for the poor.The future of Liberation Theology ( and also the church) must find a place among the people living in the First world. There needs to be a genuine revision to produce a movement for the whole church to incorporate the ideas of liberation theology but shifted from the original macro level socio/economic revolution to address micro level elements within western society as well as global poverty issues (e.g.

the homeless, marginalised, black and feminist issues). The laity must be included as active and willing participants in any plan.The church has a political, moral and social duty – a role clearly voiced in Vatican II. Universal suffrage in the west has meant that a body of people can influence the way a nation is governed.

The church needs to bridge the gap between what the Vatican proclaims and how this is translated into the lives of the faithful. In terms of Britain, it should always have been alien to a Catholic to extol the virtues of a political party encapsulated by Margaret Thatcher’s phrase ‘ there is no such thing as society, just me and my family.’ We should be encouraged to consider moral and societal issues when voting rather than an introspective selfish viewpoint.There is an undercurrent of disillusionment felt at the lack of impact votes have ( when people act as individuals).

A vigorously promoted church-led campaign of Liberation Theology could produce real results even on a single issue- for example the dropping of 3rd World debt- instant impact without the fear of revolution and violence. Whilst the Pope has advocated it, have Catholics actually been encouraged to look into which candidates and parties agree with this view. The church must mobilise its people in a political way.An Anglo -American dimensionThe rise of single issue, pressure group politics is challenging the accepted party structure.

We see campaigns mobilising massive numbers of people to use their voting power ‘en bloc’ to effect a change. Think how the issues of abortion and stem cell research are being used as the vote-determining factors for many Americans in the current presidential elections. Consider how Labour MP’s feared a Muslim backlash in seats such as Bradford over the war in Iraq. These examples show that society is now more than ever ready to use voting to alter policy in order to help the economically, socially or politically oppressed. We should not expect nor demand whole scale revolution but we should use our enfranchisement to make a difference- a new style of praxis that can be entered into without fear of Marxism, entryism violence or the threat to our established way life.ConclusionThe church must be the driving force to revitalise people in their work for social justice. It must use its position and authority to coax the clergy and laity into positive action ranging from voting to hands on work with the oppressed and needy.

It must not expect the oppressed to change their lot in isolation but should encourage us to use our privileged position to put pressure on other countries and ideologies to address their needs. In an perverse way, the very capitalist power the first world wields, could be used to enforce a preferential treatment and whilst this smacks off social imperialism, the church should not shy away from acting as a moral guide for its followers. In this way Vatican II could revitalise the church to work for both social justice and spiritual salvation.

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