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Lessons of Vatican II Reverberate in Forum


The meaning of Vatican II may never be fully understood, but at a forum on Sept. 14, Father Joseph Komonchak, Ph.D., made a case for seeing the council as the point at which the Catholic Church realized its place in the world.

Peter Steinfels, Ph.D., Melissa Wilde, Ph.D., and Father Joseph Komonchak, Ph.D. Photo by Leo Sorel

“The council represents a moment when the Catholic Church became aware of how many ways it is responsible for itself and its future,” Father Komonchak said.

“That self-consciousness, of course, always has to be an awareness of our utter dependence on God’s word and grace,” he added. “But that dependence is hardly incompatible with human freedom and responsibility any more than it is in any other circumstance.”

The forum, “Searching for Vatican II: Why a Transformative Moment Remains So Elusive,” was sponsored by the Fordham Center on Religion and Culture and held on Lincoln Center campus.

Father Komonchak, professor emeritus of the School of Theology and Religious Studies at The Catholic University of America and a retired priest in the Archdiocese of New York, was the keynote speaker.

He made the case that it is difficult to gauge the impact of Vatican II partly because three distinct groups within the church—progressives, traditionalists and reformists—view it differently. In addition, there is debate about whether to focus on the gathering itself or the events and changes followed in its wake.

Paul Baumann, editor of Commonweal magazine, moderated the panel discussion that followed Father Komonchak’s presentation. Respondents included:

• Melissa Wilde, Ph.D., associate professor of sociology at the University of Pennsylvania, and author of Vatican II: A Sociological Analysis (Princeton University, 2007); and
• Peter Steinfels, Ph.D., co-director of the Fordham Center on Religion and Culture and author of A People Adrift: The Crisis of the Roman Catholic Church in America (Simon & Schuster, 2003).

Steinfels praised Father Komonchak for helping to think about Vatican II as a text and addressing whether it represented continuity or discontinuity within the Catholic tradition. Steinfels also asked him to delve deeper into the phrase he used, regarding a “transformation of structures.”

“Father Komonchak is using that term in the sense of regular patterns of behavior. But the lay reader might find that puzzling. I know many people have expressed this in frustration as we deal with headlines about the sex abuse crisis. They ask, ‘My goodness, four decades later, what structures have really changed?'”

Father Komonchak noted that the term was more geared toward “habits of thought,” which he said had changed. But he said it was a legitimate criticism that bishops did not spend enough time on structural implementation of their insights.

“In any organization, the law has both a sustaining and a constraining power, and also an enabling power. I don’t think the bishops did enough in those respects,” he said.

“For example, it says that institutions should be established to enable lay people to give their input into church decisions. That’s pretty vague, and I don’t know if any of you know of any such institutions.”

Wilde said she wanted to focus on the council itself, including the change in Mass from Latin to native languages and greater involvement of the laity in church affairs. Most sociological research on the event, she said, has been biased from an American point of view.

“It is commonly believed in American sociology that Vatican II destroyed the health of the church in the United States,” she said. “But other sociological studies have shown that Humanae Vitae [the encyclical issued by Pope Paul VI in 1968 that reaffirmed the church’s teachings on birth control and abortion]was the big problem—not the council.”


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