The ongoing synodal process is not only the most important moment in the life of the Catholic Church since Vatican II. It’s also the most important moment about Vatican II, because it’s happening just as hard-to-ignore rifts over the council are emerging in global Catholicism. As Cardinal Mario Grech, Secretary General of the Synod of Bishops, recently told Vatican newspaper L’Osservatore Romano: “If today, at the invitation of the Holy Father, we are reflecting—and I hope that we will also make decisions—to make the Church more synodal, it is because the Holy Father wants to translate the teaching of the Second Vatican Council into daily life, especially the teaching on the Church, the ecclesiology of Vatican II.”
But global Catholicism is all over the place in terms of the reception of Vatican II. What’s happening in North America is different from what’s going on in Europe, which is different from the situation in Latin America. When it comes to a sense of “ownership” of the conciliar teaching by respective bishops’ conferences, there’s no consistency. Among many U.S. bishops, specifically, Vatican II is like the son who broke away from the family of unchanging Catholic tradition, to be mentioned only in mournful whispers, and for them, the synodal process seems to have opened a new stage of theological grief. That’s in stark contrast to the enthusiasm of Catholics who still believe in Vatican II’s largely unrealized promise of ecclesial rebirth and who think its work can resume.
Yet even within geographical regions, the reception of Vatican II is contested. February’s continental assembly of the synod in Prague offered ample evidence of the rifts in Europe, as visible efforts were made to push back against the German Catholic Church, whose just-concluded “synodal path” is the leading edge on reform of the ordained ministry, participation of women in Church leadership, and inclusivity for same-sex couples. At the same time, representatives from Eastern Europe thought there was too much talk about abuse, while pushback against more inclusion for LGBTQ Catholics was expressed as a truly synodal and ecumenical initiative opposed to a Westernizing, secularizing watering-down of the Catholic tradition.
It’s interesting that these divisions over the reception and acceptance of Vatican II within European and Western Catholicism have been revealed even as Francis’s ten-year pontificate has moved Catholicism away from its identification with those countries and cultures.
The splits have less to do with the finer points of dogma and doctrine (as was typically the case for the councils of the first millennium regarding Christology and the Trinity) and more to do with the translation of Vatican II’s teaching in the social and political sphere and on Church governance. In some ways the Eastern and Western churches are at different places “in time.” (The divide on gay rights is one big example.) Russian novelist and anti-Communist dissident Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn famously said that Russia missed the twentieth century. You could say that in some ways Eastern European Catholicism similarly missed the age of Vatican II and the early post–Vatican II era, or lived the latter half of the century in a very different way. Thus there is no one common narrative about twentieth-century Catholic history regarding Vatican II. Sometimes these differences in the narrative are stark; consider, for example, the differing historical assessments of the successes—or, according to influential Eastern European and U.S. Catholic intellectuals, the failures—of the Vatican’s Ostpolitik in engaging Soviet Russia and the Communist countries in the 1960s and ’70s.
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