(TRENDS in CHRISTIANITY – continued)

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Liberalization in the Roman Catholic Church

On October 9, 1958 Pope Pius XII died – after 19 years as Pontiff. The new father of the Church, John XXIII (Angelo Giuseppe Roncalli), was a kindly looking man who tried to inspire a spiritual renewal. He promoted unity among Christians and wished to end the schism between Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox Christians that had begun in the fifth century. He called for an ecumenical council – a worldwide meeting of Catholic bishops – the first since 1870. Also, he responded to appeals from Jews to do something about the age-old contempt among Christians for Jews.

Pope John considered eliminating warnings against attending secular universities and the Church's Index of Forbidden Books. And with the world population at around 3.1 billion and the advocacy of birth control rising, Pope John established a commission to study contraception.

In 1963, Pope John XXIII died and was succeeded by Paul VI. The ecumenical council that Pope John had called for – the Second Ecumenical Council, also known as Vatican II – was underway. In 1964, a Church study of the issue of the persecution of Jews culminated with the Church declaring that Jews were not to be considered guilty of having killed Jesus Christ. The Church stated that it reprobated "all injuries done against any people" and that it deplored and reprobated "all persecutions and manifestations of anti-Semitism." It declared that "the Church must be cleansed of all elements of scorn for or accusations against Jews." And the Church declared its opposition to discrimination "on the basis of race, color, condition of life [poverty] or religion."

The Second Ecumenical Council concluded in 1965. Out of it came authorization for mass to be spoken in local languages while the priest faced the congregation. The Latin Mass had involved an elaborate choreography with the priest's back was toward the pews.

The Council declared the value of other religions, without mention of "idolatries and fallacies" with which the Church had previously described other faiths. Hinduism and Buddhism were praised for being rich in myth, for their asceticism and their "insights of philosophy." Hindus were praised for their recognition of a supreme being and a personal god and as "seekers of divine truth." Buddhism was praised for addressing "the essential inadequacy of this changing world," for "attempts to reach truth and for posing a way of life by which men can, with confidence and trust, attain a state of perfect liberation." Islam was described as close to Christianity in its monotheism and its awaiting Armageddon. Judaism was described as closely interwoven with Christianity, and Jews were described as an "elected people, dear to God." The Council expressed hope for reconciliation and an eventual unification of Christians and Jews "as one people of God." And the Council concluded with the statement that the Church awaits the day – known only to God – when all people will call on God with one voice and serve him shoulder to shoulder.

In 1966 word went out to some Catholics that they no longer had to abstain from eating meat on Fridays, except during Lent. The commission established by Pope John XXIII to study birth control concluded in 1966 with a majority and a minority report. The Commission concluded that artificial contraception was not intrinsically evil and that a Catholic couple ought to decide for itself its method of family planning. The minority report urged that Pope Paul uphold Papal authority on the issue and maintain the prohibition against artificial contraception. Pope Paul went with the minority report. In 1968, in his encyclical Humanae Vitae, he reaffirmed the pre-Vatican II prohibition against birth control by means other than abstinence, and he reaffirmed the prohibition against abortion and against sterilization.

Meanwhile, the Catholic Church was distressed over its decline in membership and the decline in men entering the priesthood. In France, for example, where 81 percent of the population claimed to be Catholic, attendance was falling dramatically from what it had been in the 1950s – down to only 16 percent attending mass at least once a month. In the United States between the years 1963 and 1973, according to the Catholic priest and sociologist Andrew Greeley, Catholics attending weekly mass dropped from 71 percent to 50 percent.

And there was the problem of ignoring Church authority. By the end of the 1960s in the United States, according to Greeley, 70 percent of Catholic women were using artificial birth control. And, according to Greeley, the belief among Catholics that a family should have as many children as possible was declining: from 41 percent in 1963, down to 18 percent by the mid-70s. According to Greeley, between the years 1963 and 1973 the belief among Catholics in the United States that Jesus Christ had handed the Church to the popes of Rome had dropped from 70 percent to 42 percent.

In the late 1960s in the United States, fifty-one priests stated that in good conscience they would not support Pope Paul's ruling on birth control. In Washington D.C., Cardinal Patrick O'Boyle warned the dissident priests against "false ideas." While Cardinal O'Boyle was reading his pastoral letter some people walked out in protest, and a woman shouting her opinions was forcibly rejected by ushers. Cardinal O'Boyle placed sanctions against the dissenting priests. Some were forbidden to hear confessions, and some others were forbidden to preach or teach. Some of the dissident priest retracted their dissent, and twenty-five of them were to leave the Church.

In 1970, the ordination of women occurred in the Catholic Church. And the Church issued new guidelines for marriage between Catholics and non-Catholics. Catholics were allowed to marry people who planned to remain non-Catholics, but the non-Catholic spouse was to be reminded that their children were to be reared within the Church.

Some within the Church rejected some of the "liberal changes" that had begun with Vatican II. Most prominent among them was Archbishop Lefebvre, in France. In 1970, Lefebvre founded the Society of Saint Pius X. It had no canonical (legal) status within the Church. He spoke of his adhering to the tradition "necessary to preserve the faith" and of "Eternal Rome, Mistress of Wisdom and Truth." And Lefebvre spoke of refusing to follow "the Rome of neo-modernists and neo-Protestant tendencies." He opposed ecumenism – in other words, interdenominational cooperation that treated other faiths as equal. He remained attached to the Eucharistic liturgy – opposed to mass that was not in Latin.

According to the Church's Statistical Yearbook, membership at the end of 2005 was 1.1 billion, and membership for the Society of St Pius X and similar conservative groups was "close to 1 million".

Copyright © 2002-2014 by Frank E. Smitha. All rights reserved.