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Leonard Swidler

The 1960s were a momentous turning-point decade for the world: 1) American Catholics broke out of their ghetto in the election of President Kennedy; 2) the American civil rights movement began a transformation of the Western psyche; 3) the anti-war, environmentalist, anti-Establishment and related movements in the West brought the transformation to a fever pitch; 4) through Vatican Council II (1962-65) the Catholic Church leapt into modernity, and edged even beyond.

The Copernican turn that occurred in the Catholic Church at Vatican II took place in four major ways:



The image Catholicism projected at the end of the 1950s was of a giant monolith, a community of hundreds of millions who held obedience in both action and thought as the highest virtue. If the pope said, "have babies," Catholics had babies; if he said, "don't associate with Protestants & Jews," Catholics avoided them like the plague; if he said, "believe in papal infallibility, in Marian dogmas," they believed. For a hundred years--but really not much more than that!--Catholics were treated like children in the Church, acted like children, and thought of themselves as children.

With the Second Vatican Council, however, this very unfree image, and reality, was utterly transformed. Suddenly it seemed humanity, including Catholics, became aware of their "coming of age," hence, their freedom and responsibility. This was clearly expressed in many places, but perhaps nowhere clearer than in the "Declaration on Religious Liberty."


For centuries the thinking of official Catholicism was dominated by a static understanding of reality; it resisted not only the democratic and human rights movements of the 19th and 20th centuries, but also the growing historical, dynamic way of understanding the world, including religious thought.

That changed dramatically with Vatican II where the historical, dynamic view of reality and doctrine was officially fully embraced (unfortunately the present leadership largely resists that radical turn).[1]


Since the 16th century, inside the Catholic Church even the word "reform" was forbidden, to say nothing of the reality (there were periods of notable exception,[2] but they were largely obliterated--even from our church history textbooks!). At the beginning of the 20th century Pope Pius X, leapfrogging back to his prior predecessor, Pope Pius IX (pronounced in Italian, "Pio No-no"), launched the heresy-hunting Inquisition of "Anti- Modernism," crushing all creative thought in Catholicism for decades. In the middle of the 20th century, leading theologians were again censured and silenced (e.g., Jean Danielou, Henri de Lubac, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, John Courtney Murray, Karl Rahner).

But Pope Saint John XXIII (so canonized by the traditional method of popular acclamation by the ASSOCIATION FOR THE RIGHTS OF CATHOLICS IN THE CHURCH--ARCC) burst those binding chains and called the Second Vatican Council. He spoke about "throwing open the windows of the Vatican" to let in fresh thought, about "aggiornamento," bringing the Church "up to date."

Indeed, the Vatican II documents even used that neuralgic word "reformation": "Christ summons the Church, as she goes her pilgrim way, to that continual reformation of which she always has need"; "ALL [Catholics] are led to..., wherever necessary, undertake with vigor the task of renewal and reform," and insisted that ALL Catholics' "primary duty is to make an honest and careful appraisal of whatever needs to be renewed and achieved in the Catholic household itself" (Decree on Ecumenism).


Until very recently the term "salvation" was understood exclusively to mean going to heaven after death; its root meaning from "salus" of a "full, healthy life" was largely lost in Christianity after the 3rd century.[3] Marx was not far from the mark when he claimed that Christianity (and religion in general) was mainly concerned about "pie in the sky bye and bye." But that focus shifted radically with Vatican II, especially as reflected in the document "The Church in the Modern World," which in effect, though without the name, launched Liberation Theology.


Far too often religion has held men and women back from their neighbor in their deepest dimension, their religious dimension, because their religion was different. There are still many Catholics and Protestants who hate each other, many Christians who hate Jews, many Christians and Jews who hate Muslims--religiously. When this happens, religion, including Christianity, becomes an enslaving force; religion--Christianity- -becomes the anti-Christ, for the truth of Christ should make women and men free and open to all men and women, to all reality, to all paths to God.

For centuries, especially since the 16th century, the Catholic Church has been largely trapped in a kind of solipsism, talking only to itself, and shaking its finger at the rest of the world. When, e.g., a committee of Protestant churchmen shortly after World War I visited Pope Benedict XV to invite the Catholic Church to join in launching the Ecumenical Movement to work for Church reunion, he told them that he was happy they were finally concerned about Church unity, but that he already had the solution to the problem of Christian division: "Come home to mama!" The forbidding of Catholic participation in dialogue was subsequently constantly repeated (e.g., 1928 "Mortalium animos," 1948 "Monitum," 1949 "Instructio," 1954 barring of Catholics at the Evanston, IL World Council of Churches World Assembly).

Again, Saint John XXIII and Vatican II changed all that navel-staring radically. Ecumenism was now not only not forbidden, but "pertains to the whole Church, faithful and clergy alike. It extends to everyone" (Decree on Ecumenism). Pope Paul VI issued his first encyclical (Ecclesiam suam, 1964), specifically on dialogue:


Dialogue is demanded nowadays.... It is demanded by the dynamic course of action which is changing the face of modern society. It is demanded by the pluralism of society and by the maturity man has reached in this day and age. Be he religious or not, his secular education has enabled him to think and speak and conduct a dialogue with dignity.

At Vatican II Catholics were taught--especially in the "Constitution on the Church," the "Declaration on Religious Liberty," the "Decree on Ecumenism" and the "Declaration on the Relationship with Non-Christian Religions"--that to be authentically Christian, Christians must cease being enslaved by their tribal forms of Christianity; they must stop their fratricidal hate; they need to recall their Jewish roots and the fact that the Jewish people today are still God's chosen people, for God's promises are never revoked; they need to turn from their imperialistic convert-making among Muslims, Hindus, and other religious peoples and turn toward bearing witness to Jesus Christ by their lives and words, toward helping the Muslims be better Muslims and the Hindus better Hindus. This will make Christians love their own liberating traditions not less, but more, for these traditions will then be even more fully Christian.

Nowhere was this proclaimed more forcefully than in the Vatican Document Humanae personae dignitatem:


Doctrinal discussion requires recognizing the truth everywhere, even if truth demolishes one so that one is forced to reconsider one's own position, in theory and in practice, at least in part....in discussion the truth will prevail by no other means than by the truth itself. Therefore the liberty of the participants must be ensured by law and reverenced in practice.[4]

This turn toward dialogue naturally was directed toward the first obvious dialogue partners for Catholics: Fellow Christians, Protestants and Orthodox. But this turn from an inward gazing outward had its own inner dynamic: why stop at talking with Protestants and Orthodox; why not continue on to dialogue with Jews, and then Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, etc., and even non- believers? And so it is now happening in an explosion of interreligious/interideological dialogue of exponentially increasing magnitude. One need only look at the flood of books now appearing in the field.

Moreover, this dimension of the Copernican turn will be at least as radical in its creative transformation of Catholic, Christian, self-understanding as the other three, and hence will profoundly affect all aspects of Christian life. For example, since in this new Age of Dialogue we Christians understand that our Jewish or Muslim neighbors can be "saved" without becoming Christian, our relationship to them ceases being one of "convert- making," and becomes dialogue and cooperation.

Until now the various movements for renewal and reform in the Catholic Church, and many individual Catholics, have rather thoroughly assimilated the first and second elements of the Copernican turn, that is, the turn toward freedom and the turn toward the historical, the dynamic, understanding of reality and doctrine. They have also done rather well in assimilating the fourth element, the turn toward this world, and to some extent the second element, the turn toward inner Church reform. However, they now need to move to assimilate the fifth element, the turn toward dialogue.

Hence, it is absolutely vital that the turn toward dialogue, be made an explicit part of forthcoming activities, conferences, and such, sponsored by Catholic renewal groups and individuals.


  1. See, e.g., Leonard Swidler and Hans Küng, eds., The Church in Anguish: Has the Vatican Betrayed Vatican II? (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1987); Bernard Häring, My Witness For the Church, Translation and Introduction by Leonard Swidler (Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 1992).
  2. See, e.g., Leonard Swidler, Freedom in the Church, (Dayton: Pflaum Press, 1969); Leonard Swidler, Aufklärung Catholicism 1780-1850 (Missoula, MT: Scholars Press, 1978); Leonard and Arlene Swidler, Bishops and People (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1970).
  3. For a discussion of "salvation" and other key terms about the ultimate goal of life see, Leonard Swidler, The Meaning of Life? Some Answers at the Edge of the Third Millennium (Mahwah, NJ: Paulist, 1992).
  4. Humanae personae dignitatem, "On Dialogue with Unbelievers," in Austin Flannery, ed., VATICAN COUNCIL II (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 1975), pp. 1002-1014, p. 1010

Copyright© 1996 Leonard Swidler

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