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Religion Library: Roman Catholicism

Historical Perspectives

Written by: Christopher Bellitto

In January 1959, Pope John XXIII (1958-1963) stunned the Church and the world when he called for an ecumenical council, ultimately called Vatican II and meeting 1962-1965. His goal was to see if the Church could update herself (using the Italian word aggiornamento), engage fellow Christians, and work toward repairing other difficult relationships, such as the one the Church had with Judaism. He lived only to see the first session, but his successor Paul VI (1963-1978) continued his effort to make the Church more accessible, relevant, appealing, global, open-minded, and refreshing. The council was, in John's words, supposed to be a new Pentecost.

Much of this effort sent theologians, liturgists, scriptural scholars, liturgists, and Church historians back to the Church's past in order to understand her present and chart her future. While a segment of Catholics considered the Church as unchanging and fixed in time--indeed, this was quite appealing and comforting to some eyes--others followed the logic articulated by John Henry Newman in the late 19th century, that the Church had been undergoing development and change throughout her history. The label "Tridentine church," referring to the Council of Trent that had concluded in 1563, was used to label and sometimes slander a Church set in stone and backward in thinking, but in reality it had only been during the last two centuries or so that the Catholic Church had closed herself off from modern developments stemming from the Scientific Revolution and Enlightenment of early modernity.

Much of the credit for a reconsideration of Catholic Church history must go to John XXIII, the only trained Church historian elected pope, and John Paul II (1978-2005), a man with a strong sense of history. It was John XXIII who famously, as he prepared for his first Good Friday service after his election in 1958, with a pen struck out words that disparaged Jews from the liturgical text, saying aloud, "Basta! (Enough!)." It was this attitude that led, albeit after his death, to Vatican II's statement Nostra aetate (the Declaration of the Relation of the church to non-Christian religions) that changed the course of Church history by lamenting violence done against Jews and stating clearly that not all Jews during the time of Jesus, and certainly none since then, can be accused of, and punished for, his death.

John Paul II went further, visiting the Holy Land, including the Holocaust memorial Yad Vashem, and leaving a plea for forgiveness from God in the Western Wall for crimes perpetrated by Christians against Jews over two millennia. Indeed, John Paul II made more than 100 statements acknowledging to various degrees Catholic errors in judgment, violence, and persecution during Church history, often asking God for forgiveness and the aggrieved groups or their descendants for an open hand in reconciliation. This practice of admitting mistakes, a practice not continued under Benedict XVI, was greeted by many as a groundbreaking effort at institutional honesty and self-reflection--particularly as an example of sound historical thinking within the Vatican--but others feared that admitting mistakes of action might be a slippery slope that would cause groups within the Church to question whether doctrinal matters can similarly be reevaluated.

 

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