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Vatican II: 40 years later

Council advanced rediscovery of Christian family


Methodists welcomed Vatican II with the enthusiasm of family members rediscovering their own place in a larger network of kinship and inheritance. Albert Outler, perhaps the leading Methodist thinker at that time, was a Protestant observer at the meetings of the council during the same years that he was providing some of the leadership that resulted in the union of the Methodist Church and the Evangelical United Brethren to form the United Methodist Church. The larger stirrings and deeper questions that Outler observed in Rome helped turn what might have been simply a merger of two Protestant denominations into a genuine pursuit of theological roots and bearings for the future.

When the United Methodist church was formed in 1968 in Dallas, the city where Outler lived and worked, its leaders were committed to the idea that this would be a new church, not just a continuation of its predecessors. United Methodists thus took up the question of church renewal in the years after Vatican II with a seriousness that was partly born of the council’s example, and United Methodists shared the inspiration, enthusiasms and pains of those years with our Roman Catholic neighbors in ways that would not have been possible for either community a few years before.

For myself, I have lived my whole career in ministry and higher education in the world those movements created. I began my theological education in 1968 and finished my Ph.D. a decade later. When I began, the Catholic student in a Protestant or nondenominational institution was still a rarity, though I shared dormitory space that year at Harvard with a Trappist and I learned parish ministry in a field education seminar that we shared with St. John’s, the archdiocesan seminary in Boston.

In the decade that followed, academic theological studies were transformed by the infusion of Catholic scholarship, energy and the spirit of inquiry set loose by Vatican II. In North America, Christian ethics, in particular, was reconstituted as a single field of inquiry, in which scholars work from an ecumenical bibliography, write their books for an ecumenical readership, and conduct their discussions as part of a single community of discourse. The work of Msgr. John A. Ryan, the teachings of the social encyclicals, and the pastoral letters of the American Catholic bishops have joined Walter Rauschenbusch’s Social Gospel and Reinhold Niebuhr’s Christian Realism as fundamental starting points for reflection in social ethics.

On matters of just war and economic justice, I think the issues as framed in the Catholic tradition have become the preferred starting points for ethical reflection. While Protestant and Catholic ethicists have responsibilities for teaching and church life that vary with our respective communions, our thinking about ethics is done together.

The result has been not only a richer and more diverse discussion, but a much larger pool of talent in which to develop future leadership. At the beginning of the era launched by Vatican II, the Society of Christian Ethics was predominantly a group of Protestant men who could meet around a seminar table on one of the campuses where its members taught. Fr. Charles Curran and a few other Catholics joined that conversation early, but they were the exceptions. Today, the Society of Christian Ethics draws several hundred participants from college, university and seminary faculties, and its recent presidents have included Mercy Sr. Margaret Farley, Lisa Cahill, and Jesuit Fr. David Hollenbach, all distinguished Roman Catholics whose writings are standards on the reading lists at most North American theological schools. Many things have contributed to those changes, but it is impossible to imagine the Roman Catholic contribution to Christian ethics in these decades without Vatican II, and it is impossible to imagine the discipline today apart from the way that it has been reshaped by Catholic scholarship and leadership.

I experienced those academic changes from my first years as a student in Boston, and later as a scholar and teacher in Chicago. These were nondenominational theological schools where the development of the academic disciplines is a constant concern and the experience of the churches is perhaps less in evidence -- or so it worked out for me. Thus, I did not become fully aware of a second major impact of Vatican II on United Methodist life and thought until about a dozen years ago, when I moved from teaching and research in ethics into administrative roles in United Methodist theological schools. There, the profound transformation of Methodist worship by the liturgical renewal begun at Vatican II was apparent in the classroom, in the chapel and in the thinking of the faculty.

United Methodists were no doubt prepared to rethink worship by a rediscovery of their Anglican roots and a new awareness of John Wesley’s emphasis on the Eucharist and the liturgy in which it is offered to the people. This renewal could not have attained the scope and theological seriousness that it did, however, without the depth of learning provided by Roman Catholics who were working out the liturgical implications of the council’s new ways of thinking about the church. Catholic institutions provided the doctoral programs where many of the new generation of United Methodist liturgical scholars got their training. Indeed, some United Methodists became members of Catholic faculties that were developing a more ecumenical and interdisciplinary approach to liturgical studies.

The ways we taught our students to lead worship were changing, along with the words we expected them to use. The paschal candle, the procession to the font and anointing at baptism, a liturgical emphasis on the reading of the gospel lesson, and the development of sung eucharistic texts all made their appearance, first in the seminary chapel and then, gradually, in the congregations that seminary graduates served. The alb has begun to replace the quasi-academic preacher’s gown as the favored liturgical vestment, and the seasons of the church year have become better known and more widely observed. These things are not simply borrowings from the Catholic liturgical renewal, and it would not be a good thing for Methodism if that were all there was to it. By now, Catholics and United Methodists alike are participants in a wider ecumenical movement of scholarship and practice that is connecting contemporary forms of worship with an ancient sense of worship’s purpose. But just as the academic discipline of Christian ethics is not conceivable without the energy and initiatives that flowed from Vatican II, the worship of many Protestant congregations today takes the shape it does because of a renewal that could not have happened without the work of the council.

At length, my own academic and administrative journey led me to Dallas and to the dean’s office at Perkins School of Theology at Southern Methodist University, where Albert Outler had done the transformative work that reshaped United Methodism and opened it to dialogue with what he had observed at the Second Vatican Council. By 1994, the changes in theology and worship that had begun in the years after Vatican II were part of daily life at Perkins, and no doubt they seemed to a new generation of students to be authentically, even characteristically, Methodist. But even Outler might have been surprised if he could have come back and shared my discovery that the largest worshiping community in Perkins Chapel week by week was the Catholic campus ministry. The ministry has a small chapel for daily needs in the Neuhoff Catholic Student Center, but for the larger congregations at Sunday Masses, they need the larger space of the seminary chapel, which we have been glad to share with them.

Perkins Chapel was designed and built for the worship needs of Protestantism in the 1950s. By the late 1990s, it could no longer serve the new reality of worship that I have already described, and the Perkins-Prothro family generously provided for a complete renovation. That, of course, could not be done without consulting all of the users, including especially the Catholic campus ministry. To my great delight, not to mention my administrative relief, we found that what the Methodists needed and what the Catholics wanted were the same things -- simplicity, flexibility, a setting that would remind us that liturgy is the work of the whole people of God. We not only had common needs. We had developed a shared language in which to discuss them. The renovated Perkins Chapel reminds me each time I enter it that for all the differences that remain between our communities, Christian worship today witnesses to our unity in ways that would have been inconceivable before Vatican II.

I doubt that Albert Outler, sitting in on the proceedings at the council, ever imagined that Protestants and Catholics at SMU would one day redesign Perkins Chapel to suit their shared needs. He welcomed the ecumenical rediscovery of the Christian family, but he experienced it as a rather formal affair, in which family members occasionally invited the relatives to tea. We today live it more like a large extended family that lives in the same neighborhood, wandering rather freely in and out of one another’s houses, helping ourselves to coffee and occasionally finding items in the closet that our cousins left behind. The visits are less tidy than they once were, but it’s good to be living together after all.

Robin W. Lovin is Cary Maguire University Professor of Ethics at Southern Methodist University in Dallas. He served as dean of the Perkins School of Theology from 1994 until this past August.

National Catholic Reporter, October 4, 2002