Thomas Albert Howard, a Gordon College history professor and Protestant, observes on The Anxious Bench blog that this month marks the fiftieth anniversary of Vatican II and the four-hundred ninety-fifth anniversary of the Protestant Reformation.
“The two anniversaries are connected,” he argues, “for one of the most significant historical realities that the Reformation quincentennial [in 2017] will have to reckon with is the stunning event that was Vatican II.”
Howard draws particular attention to Lumen gentium and Unitatis redintegratio, which both “helped address certain Reformation-era critiques and moved the Catholic Church in the direction, if not in the immediate vicinity, of Protestantism or certain strands thereof.” He elaborates:
Lumen gentium or “the Light of the Nations” stepped back from the highly juridical ecclesiology emphasized at the Council of Trent (1545-63) and the First Vatican Council (1860-70). In its place, the bishops asserted that the “Mystery of the Church” should regain a greater understanding of itself (prelates, priests, and laity) as “the people of God,” guided by the Holy Spirit. What is more, Lumen gentium moved away from the Tridentine view of the Roman Catholic Church as “being” (est) the true Church to a view that saw the fullness of the Church universal as “subsisting in” (subsistit in) in the Roman Catholic Church. A small distinction perhaps, but a necessary one for Unitatis redintegratio, which allowed for a more generous appraisal of non-Catholic Christians. This document unprecedentedly proclaims that “both sides were to blame” for the breach of the sixteenth century and that greater cooperation and dialogue with “separated brethren” was essential.
To Howard’s suggestion that Christians should read up on Vatican II, I’d add that Catholics not yet familiar with the Protestant Reformation should read up on it. (I fall into that category and would welcome your book recommendations in the comments.) And I cannot resist sharing his conclusion:
Perhaps the unity of the Church is, finally, only an eschatological reality. But for all Christians who pray “thy Kingdom come,” something as trifling as the practically impossible should never stand in the way of the theologically necessary. Let this season of commemorations begin.