Fifty Years Later–Vatican II’s Unfinished Business | Fr. Regis Scanlon, O.F.M. Cap. | Homiletic & Pastoral Review
Today, 50 years after the opening of Vatican II, the misinterpretation of one of its most salient documents, Lumen Gentium, continues to drive a number of Catholics in the United States into one of two camps, the “right” or the “left.”
Fifty years after the opening of the Second Vatican Council, the Church in the United States is in the throes of a struggle. Loyal Catholics are showing renewed vigor and vitality, and are helping the Church to move forward in unity. At the same time, the Church is also being exhausted and drained from within by a vocal movement of other Catholics who continue to dissent from Church teachings, particularly the teachings of the Second Vatican Council.
Dissent is entrenched in the Church in the U.S.
For most American Catholics over 50, it is an accepted fact that dissent from the magisterium of the Church is widespread, tolerated, and, in some quarters, even welcomed. The breaking point, of course, was Paul VI’s 1968 prophetic encyclical, Humanae Vitae, which condemned contraception as “intrinsically disordered.” The encyclical became one of the most controversial documents of the century, if not many centuries. The widespread dissent by Catholics was led with enthusiasm by huge numbers of Catholic theologians, professors and intellectuals. The onslaught of bright, articulate academics turning on the Pope encouraged many Catholics in the pews to do the same.
Why would so many educated Catholics—who should have been ready and able to defend the teaching authority of the Church—turn against the Pope with such force? How could they justify it?
The most popular argument was that permission to dissent had been given by none other than the Second Vatican Council. The dissenters claimed that “the spirit of Vatican II,” along with theological perspectives of the Council, supported their argument that individual Catholics have a right to dissent from “non-infallible” Church teachings—even authoritative encyclicals like Paul VI’s “Humanae Vitae”—if they felt they had a good enough reason.
Unfortunately, this false notion was unwittingly given a boost by none other than the bishops of the United States. On November 15, 1968, a few months after the promulgation of Humanae Vitae, the bishops issued their pastoral letter, “Human Life in Our Day,” to help Catholics interpret the Pope’s encyclical. The bishops said in no. 51 of that document that in some cases, a Catholic could dissent from “non-infallible authentic doctrine” of the magisterium. They explained: “The expression of theological dissent from the magisterium is in order only if the reasons are serious and well-founded, if the manner of the dissent does not question or impugn the teaching authority of the Church, and is such as not to give scandal.”