The Church Today

Since Vatican II, the Church has experienced a tidal wave of change. The new liturgy, the questioning of the Church's authority, the changes in the role of priests and other clergy, and the rising sense of importance of the individual conscience have all rocked the ecclesiastical boat.

Controversies around priestly celibacy, birth control, divorce, and the ordination of women have fired up ecclesiastical discussions. One thing is for certain: Dialogue is alive and well in the Church today.

Quite frankly, changes to the Mass shocked many Catholics. They hated the new liturgy, and they thought fondly back to the old days when the priest intoned Latin phrases with his back to the congregation. Some people felt uncomfortable having the priest so close or having to turn and shake hands with the congregants around them. Some people fled the Church altogether, while others went even further. They found a sympathetic group and did their own thing, chose their own readings, and shared some bread and wine.

A Shift in Authority

Vatican II also touched off a major revolution within the Church. In the old days, the word passed down from the top of the hierarchy was law. Now, the Catholic clergymen were questioning that authority. Forces within the Church wanted decisions to be more democratic. However, there has not been enough support for these kinds of changes.

For example, Cardinal Suenens of Belgium felt the pope should make his decisions in union with bishops, not on his own. Suenens suggested that bishops should elect the pope. He believed that the laity should elect bishops.

Along with questioning authority, more Catholics have come to realize the importance of individual conscience and of the moral responsibility people have in making decisions that affect their actions. Many arguments have centered on issues of divorce, remarriage, and birth control. Is it fair that Catholics cannot remarry after a divorce as long as their first spouse is still alive? Is it wrong to practice birth control when a couple has had as many children as they feel they can handle? The Church as a whole now has more sympathy for people in these positions.

A Decline in the Ranks of the Clergy

One of the problems that the Church faces as a result of the changes is the decline in vocations of priests, nuns, and brothers that began in the late 1960s and early 1970s. The reason for the decline is not obvious — it's not the vow of celibacy. In fact, there is evidence that the problem lies in the shifting relationship between the clergy and the laity.

After Vatican II, the Church proclaimed the priesthood of all the laity. While this new attitude was beneficial to lay Catholics, who now felt they were more involved with the Church, the clergy lost some of their special status as mediators between the laity and God. The increased participation of all the faithful in the sacraments began to impinge on the clergy's ministerial roles.

However, the shift in roles has also been beneficial. The Church began to realize that priests are not superhuman. They need vacations, pension plans, friends they can rely on, and personal interests that invigorate them and allow them, like other human beings, to do a better job. The recognition of priests' humanity and need for support, as well as a strong attempt to help men discern whether they are suited for the priestly role, have helped reduce the isolation experienced by many priests. It has also promoted a healthier, more realistic view of clergy among the laity.

Ecumenical Dialogue with Other Religions

Another change brought about through the efforts of the Vatican II council is the movement toward ecumenical dialogue and greater understanding among Catholics and people who practice other religions, Christian and non-Christian alike.

The Vatican II goal to move the Church toward dialogue with other faiths demonstrated their recognition that Catholics live alongside people of other faiths and that there must be understanding among them. The Church continues to assert that it is the one true religion, but it also acknowledges that God may make his grace known to other peoples of the world who have not yet embraced the truths of Catholicism.

“The Catholic Church rejects nothing which is true and holy in these religions. She looks with sincere respect upon those ways of conduct and of life, those rules and teachings which, though differing in many particulars from what she holds and sets forth, nevertheless often reflect a ray of that Truth which enlightens all people” (from the Declaration on the Relationship of the Church to Non-Christian Religions, Vatican II).

The U.S. branch of the Church established a Commission for Ecumenical Affairs, which met for the first time in March 1965. It appointed personnel to begin making contact with Lutheran, Anglican, Presbyterian, and other Protestant denominations. The commission joined the Division of Christian Unity of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States and the Commission on Faith and Order of the National Council. It began dialogue with various branches of the Eastern, or Orthodox, churches. Eventually, this ecumenical dialogue would grow to encompass relations with Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, and other non-Christian communities.

The commission was renamed the Bishops' Committee for Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs in 1966. The committee now has nineteen bishops serving as members and consultants and more than ninety Catholic theologians and other experts participate in the ongoing dialogues and consultations. Worldwide, the Church participates in the World Council of Churches through the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity for the Catholic Church.

With other Christian religions, the Church already shares many of the same values and sacraments. Vatican II decries the divided church and urges prayer for unity. It is keen to work with other Christians on issues of social justice and morality, and on spreading the gospel message. It has held in-depth discussions on scripture, salvation, sanctification, and the Eucharist with several different faiths.

At the 1991 World Council of Churches conference, Protestants and Catholics agreed on twelve elements that were common to all their faiths in the celebration of the Eucharist. These included a confession of faith, an invocation of the Holy Spirit, the Lord's Prayer, and consecration of the faithful to God.

Some of these discussions, such as the dialogue with the Anglican Church, resulted in much common ground. With some other faiths, such as the Southern Baptists, there are larger areas of disagreement, but dialogue has resulted in an understanding of one another's position. A 1991 dialogue from the World Council of Churches resulted in a document outlining areas of agreement on the Eucharist. The goal is to eventually reach an understanding on how to share in a common communion, including experiencing the Eucharist together.

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