In announcing an ecumenical Council of the Catholic bishops worldwide, the first in almost a century, Pope John XXIII took the world by surprise. John was 77 and some presumed he wanted an uneventful pontificate.
The Council met in four sessions between 11 October 1962 and 8 December 1965 and went further, perhaps, than John XXIII had in mind.
The most visible effect was a changing of the way the Catholic Church regarded the contemporary world. The Church became less defensive and more positive, more confident and eager to seize the opportunities opened by its 16 major conciliar documents. The content of the documents reached in new directions; the language was different.
There was to be a dialogue with Judaism, with the 'separated brethren' in other Christian churches and with all men of good will. Freedom of conscience was recognised. There were major changes in the liturgy; greater use of vernacular languages was permitted even if Latin remained the Church's official language. Lay people were invited to play a fuller part in the life of the Church.
However, Vatican II may have raised expectations in some quarters which it could never meet: the Church's teachings on its core doctrines in faith and morals were not 'on the table' for change. The unique teaching authority of the Holy Father remained.
Thus in 1968, Pope Paul VI, against the advice of a majority of a theological commission, rejected any relaxation of the Church's ban on artificial contraception, unleashing a storm not fully calmed today, while in 1983, John Paul II denounced a strand in Liberation Theology, as practised mainly in Latin America.
Certain theologians - claiming inspiration from the Council - had become involved in the armed struggle for social justice along with their people. While the Gospel has social implications, Christ's message is essentially spiritual; politics is, basically, the realm of lay people. The armed struggle, even for a desirable objective, is inappropriate for priests and theologians!
In addition, during the heady forty years which followed the Council, vast changes in society have affected the Church quite unrelated to the Council. The most destructive development was an accelerating secularisation in society throughout the Western democratic world. The near universal focus was on the here-and-now; religious issues and religious people were margin- alised; parliaments increasingly adopted a secular agenda.
Moreover, within the Church many who appealed to 'the spirit of the Council' to further any cause, had rarely read, let alone studied, any of the sixteen rather heavy documents the Council released. In a real sense some did not know what they were discussing.
In a secular society, it is easy even for some churchmen to be influenced by secular trends, 'going with the flow', embracing social justice causes and the soft-Left agenda which wins society's applause, meanwhile ignoring or downplaying the hard teachings of the Magisterium which win no favours from the dominant society. Popularity has become an end in itself. Unsurprisingly, belief becomes indefinite; worship is optional; and life style drifts to individual taste.
The full Catholic life involves doctrine, worship, life style and service - not only service, even when the service is for the little, the less, the least, the lost and the losers in affluent Western societies.
In the wake of the Council, but influenced deeply by the secular trend, the focus for some who take their religious life seriously was on the here-and-now with little apparent concentration on the eternal realities. Human life is precious, death an ever-present reality and eternity rather longer.
Also following the Council, the use of some Sacraments, especially the Sacrament of Penance (Reconciliation) declined and preaching tended to avoid tough Gospel teachings such as sinfulness and the need for conversion, reconcilation and penance as well as death, judgement, Purgatory, Heaven and Hell.
Strong Catholic devotions such as Eucharistic Adoration and to Mary, Mother of God, declined in many places and were rarely referred to.
More recently there have been changes. The emphases in many instructions and documents from Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI are to right the balance, not move to the Right; their focus is the teaching of the Church, not an aspiration to popularity with the secular media or the societies which the media serves.
More study of the Vatican II documents in parishes and secondary schools is therefore urgently needed.
Br Barry Coldrey CFC, is a former secondary school teacher in Christian Brothers Colleges and the author of numerous books and articles on religious and educational issues. He has been a regular contributor to AD2000.