It is a little known fact, at least among most ordinary Catholics and Protestants, that Vatican Council II answered the question "What is the church?" in a way that was revolutionary in many ways. De Ecclesia, the initially proposed response to this question, identified Christ with the Roman Catholic Church. Membership was thus based on acknowledging the authority of the Roman pontiff; the maximal extension of the infallible magisterium; and ecumenical minimalism. The drafters were clearly concerned to protect the old thinking, and saw the church as "deeply concerned about the question of authority." Regardless of what some modern Catholic apologetics groups now say, this draft was easily rejected. The reason? The historical context was not big enough. It was not big enough for a largely Western church that was now faced with the entire global situation.

Thus Sacrosanctum concilium (December 4, 1963) says in the very first sentence that it wants "to adapt more closely to the needs of our age those institutions which are subject to change; to foster whatever can promote union among all who believe in Christ" (No. 1). Regarding the liturgy, it is added in No. 2: The liturgy is meant to "show forth the Church, a sign lifted up among the nations, to those who are outside, a sign under which the scattered children of God may be gathered together until there is one fold and one shepherd." The point is that the liturgy was to have, as a major emphasis, a reconciling function. This unity was understood to be a matter for reconciliation but not cultural uniformity.

The result has been a forty-plus year growth into real ecumenism by the Roman Catholic Church. This even began at the Council itself when Pope John XXIII welcomed Protestant observers to the Council (see photo at left).

Serious Catholic leaders and scholars are deeply involved in ecumenism in 2008, and much gain has been made over the past few decades. Among these gains are many that have developed informally with evangelicals, in a growing field of dialog and unity. People on the left have used all of this to support causes and beliefs clearly rejected by Vatican II, while some on the right have insisted that the Council did not mean some of what it actually said. (Listening to popular radio-based Catholic apologetics I sometimes wonder if they understand Vatican II.) For me this great decision opened the door to the kind of practical, unofficial, ecumenism that I have found extremely useful in working with my Catholic brothers and sisters in so many kingdom oriented ways.

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  1. Nick Morgan August 21, 2008 at 11:35 pm

    After having been an Evangelical-Protestant for almost 13 years, learning about the true intentions of Vatican II and the influence on it’s proceedings that both the former and current Popes had; significantly influenced my return to my Roman Catholic roots. You have hit on a very key point here. I realized that the Catholic Church was “burying the hatchet” so to speak and opening up and welcoming dialogue and discussion with Protestant brothers and sisters in Christ. Sadly, at the same time, I only knew of very few Protestants, you included, who seemed to take that invitation and effort serious. When I hear older Catholics bemoan the changes of Vatican II, I’m convinced that it’s ususally because they don’t know their Church history or Scripture well enough to understand the necessity. It is true that Vatican II opened the door to abuses in the Church, but what reform movement hasn’t? It’s my personal conviction that the 16th century Reformation is over, and that many of the abuses in Church practice have been dealt with and corrected. Doctrinal disagreements among Catholics and Protestants can only be addressed and maybe one day resolved by open, frank, honest, and charitable dialogue; and mutual study and prayer among all who are concerned. Since I believe, like you, that our Lord Jesus Christ desires genuine unity in His Church, (which unity does not equal uniformity), I believe anyone who responds to the Holy Spirit’s prompting in this endeavor will be used by the Lord to help bring this about.
    I also become irritated by some of the radio Catholic apologists who seem more interested in “threatening” protestants back to Rome or distorting the significant people and events of the reformation. Their lack of charity and understanding of the history of the reformation only serve to drive this process backward. They could no more have a serious discussion with a Protestant who knows their history than some radical anti-Catholic protestants could with those of us who know our own. Keep up the good work John! You truly are being used by God for a unique ministry badly needed in our time. God bless!

  2. Nick Morgan August 22, 2008 at 12:01 am

    By the way, if any fellow Roman Catholics think I’m being influenced too much by those “left of center” in the Church, I must answer NO WAY!! My primary influences include Dr. Scott Hahn, Dr. Peter Kreeft, Pope Benedict XVI, (His books are fascinating), various introductory works on the Church Fathers, including Jurgen’s 3 volume work. The only left-leaning Catholic author that has influenced me significantly is Franciscan Fr. Richard Rohr. And even though I do not always agree with him, his wisdom and penetrating insights into humanity and spirituality deserve a wide reading among all who profess to love and follow Christ. I am definitely a Vatican II era, conservative and believing Catholic disciple of Jesus Christ, and that’s why I enjoy this “blog” site so much!

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