The Evolution of Catholicism
Richard P. McBrien
HarperOne, $29.95, 528 pp.
If American Catholics took to heart one idea from Vatican II, it was that they themselves were the church. In 1965, that was an exciting realization. It inspired many Catholics to study their faith, to become more involved in parish life, to join social movements for peace or for the defense of human rights, and to seek jobs in church ministries and agencies. Throughout the church Catholics felt a renewed interest in spirituality, prayer and meditation, the classics of Christian mysticism, and the ministry of spiritual direction. Ministries, the quality of liturgies, and the theology preached and taught improved significantly, and the number of people involved grew. It was a time of new life in the church.
In retrospect, it may seem strange that Catholics had forgotten that they are the church. Yet the important people in the church often did not look or talk like we did. They behaved as though they alone were agents of the church’s mission. When we gathered for worship, it seemed like something we had come to watch, not something we had come to do. It was as though the other people who spoke and acted at Mass were “the church.” In fact, they were speaking in the first-person plural, but in a language few of us could understand.
Then came Vatican II. Whatever the continuities with the preconciliar church—and there were many—Catholics experienced a seismic shift after the council. “The...