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Progressive faithfulseek to save church
John Gehring's op-ed column on the aftermath of Vatican II

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Date published: 11/25/2012


--Fifty years ago, the Roman Catholic Church embarked on a period of soul-searching that reverberated far beyond St. Peter's Basilica in Rome. Pope John XXIII called Catholic bishops across the globe to the Second Vatican Council, opening the windows of a monarchical church to the modern world.

The first Catholic president, John F. Kennedy, sat in the White House. Clergy infused the civil rights movement with moral transcendence. These were heady days for religious progressives.

They were also fleeting. Just two decades later, Jerry Falwell made the religious right the public face of Christianity. Today, at a time when debates over the role of faith in politics are as prickly as ever, Catholic nuns in the United States are reawakening the spirit of Vatican II and inspiring a new generation of disillusioned Christians as they face harsh rebuke from an increasingly conservative hierarchy.

Vatican II met for three years beginning in 1962 and stirred groundbreaking changes: building ecumenical bridges, especially in Christian-Jewish relations; permitting Mass to be celebrated in local languages instead of only in Latin; and expansively defining the church as "the people of God." The council was guided by what John XXIII called aggiornamento, or "updating"--a profound change given the church's previous rejection of modernity and liberalism as heresies.

The American Jesuit priest and theologian John Courtney Murray, who a decade earlier had faced Vatican censure for his writings on conscience and religious freedom, became a leading intellectual light of the council. Nuns, encouraged by the council's reformist instincts, emerged from convents to "live the Gospel" in blighted communities. These women continue to serve in prisons, hospitals, and war-torn countries. Many took on leadership positions that belie antiquated stereotypes.


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Catholicism's fate: A Roman version of moral majority?

John Gehring is Catholic program director at Faith in Public Life, an advocacy group in Washington, and a former assistant director for media relations for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.