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Can Catholic Church find a correct path?

A recent Associated Press Story that appeared in the OBSERVER concerned the possibility that the Catholic Church in the U.S. is becoming more conservative. The story did not indicate how widespread this movement is or where it is occurring.

However, I know that some conservative Catholics have felt that Vatican Council II in attempting to make the church and its teachings more relevant in the modern world severed vital connections to the Church’s past. In their view the council caused many of the problems the Church faces today characterized by declining Mass attendance and negligible vocations to the priesthood and religious life.

I want begin by stating that I am a Catholic. I attended Christ the King Seminary, not as a candidate for the priesthood, but to earn a master’s degree in Pastoral Ministry from that institution. I have worked within the Church in both voluntary and paid positions.

I was Baptized, made my first communion, memorized the Baltimore Catechism, and was Confirmed in the pre-Vatican II church and have lived the last 60 years in the post Council Church. They are different animals.

In the old church I was an Altar Boy at a time when girls need not apply. Catholic women could not be on the Altar at any time except when they cleaned the altar on Saturday. Females also had to wear a hat or a lace mantilla at Mass or if those were not available, they could make do with a piece of Kleenex that hopefully had not been used.

In those days the Mass was said in Latin because it was a universal language that was almost universally not understood. The priest Celebrated Mass at the altar with his back to the congregation.

On Jan. 25, 1959, Pope John XXXIII announced that a Church Council would meet for the purpose of modernizing the church after 20 centuries of life so that Catholic teaching would be better understood and accepted in the world. The Pope also hoped to bring a spiritual rebirth to Catholicism and develop greater unity with other Christian Churches.

Vatican Council II opened on Oct. 11, 1962, and thereafter met in four sessions between 1962 and 1965.

The Council brought about many changes in the life and worship of the church. Most talked about was the use of the vernacular in the liturgy with the celebrant now facing the congregation from behind the altar. The Council restored the permanent diaconate as part of the church’s clergy and allowed married men to be ordained as permanent deacons.

Within the Church the status of the laity rose when the Council declared that the laity share in the high priesthood of Christ through our baptism with this being strengthened by confirmation and the Eucharist. Greater participation by the laity was encouraged resulting in lay readers and ministers of Communion. Laity were now represented on parish councils and diocesan boards.

There was also a greater emphasis on Scripture, both in the liturgy where a new cycle of readings offering a richer selection of Scripture was introduced, and also in individual spirituality where scripture reading, and study of the Bible were now encouraged.

Formal dialogues developed with other Christian Churches and after the council acknowledged the possibility of salvation for non-Christians dialogue also grew with those faiths. For the average Catholic this meant that attending a wedding in a Protestant was no longer considered an “occasion of sin.”

The Council emphasized the Church’s solidarity with humanity instead of its separation from the world which led to a proliferation of social and charitable activities. The Church declared its preference for the poor and suffering and became much more vocal and active in human rights issues like the death penalty and abortion.

I see Vatican II as the defining moment of the modern Catholic Church. It did not change the teachings of the Church but made them more accessible to the modern mind.

So, is Vatican II responsible for the Church’s current problems? I personally do not believe so. In the post-World War II world certain forces were changing our world. Greater mobility, the growth of higher education, the growth of the suburbs, the sexual revolution, and added leisure time changed the lifestyles of millions.

Stephen Bullivant an English sociologist recently pointed put that in reality the changes in commitment to church membership had already begun in the 1940s and 1950s and it is probable that without the changes introduced by the council that the fall off in Catholic numbers would have been worse.

It is well known that religion is most successfully transmitted in a secure environment or what Catholics call “Cultural Catholicism” that was once fostered in the U.S. by Catholic ethnic communities in our cities and towns and by extended families living close together. However, by the mid-20th Century the influence of Cultural Catholicism was breaking down under the influence of the new social forces at work.

For many Catholics whose religious education centered on the Baltimore Catechism that gave no guidance on personal empowerment and individual questioning this was a new world.

The post-Vatican II Church told us that in matters of faith we must follow our conscience but never fully explained that we must develop an “informed” conscience. For some this led to a questioning of their faith they were unprepared for.

Yet the Church survives and flourishes in Africa, Asia, and South America.

Times change, with new social forces and unforeseen events coming into play. It is perhaps more than likely that Catholics of a future time will look back on the current problems of the Church in the west as a mere aberration in the Church’s long history.

Thomas Kirkpatrick Sr. is a Silver Creek resident. Send comments to editorial@observertoday.com

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