Academic journal article Mennonite Quarterly Review

Renewing the Conversation: Mennonite Responses to the Second Vatican Council

Academic journal article Mennonite Quarterly Review

Renewing the Conversation: Mennonite Responses to the Second Vatican Council

Article excerpt

Abstract: Mennonite responses to the Second Vatican Council as reported in North American Mennonite publications indicated a new spirit of openness among Mennonites toward Catholics. Mennonite leader C. J. Dyck's participation as an observer in the last session of the Council helped facilitate the conversation. This renewal of a conversation between Catholics and Mennonites, broken oft with such antipathy in the sixteenth century led to first steps toward closer ecumenical relations. The conversation promised deeper mutual self understanding as well as growth in ecumenical relations in the whole body of Christ.


Mennonites in North America scarcely noticed the Second Vatican Council when it was proposed by Pope John XXIII in 1959. When the sessions began in 1962, most Mennonite publications only referred to it as a brief news item, preferring to give more extensive coverage to the pressing concerns of the civil rights movement and the Vietnam War where Mennonite church workers could write on the basis of first-hand experience. (1) To be sure, some Mennonite leaders had attended the Third Assembly of the World Council of Churches held in New Delhi, India in 1961 and had reported on their experience in church papers. (2) But on the eve of the Second Vatican Council North American Mennonites, always suspicious of ecumenical involvements, were still trying to figure out where they fit in the larger Protestant world--indeed, to what extent their Anabaptistheritage congregations were even Protestant. In any event, they were quite sure they had more in common with Protestants than with Catholics.


The more culturally conservative Mennonite Church was especially reluctant to relate too closely to Catholics. Their weekly publication did not report directly on the Second Vatican Council until after the last session in 1965, when Gospel Herald changed course and printed a series of articles written by Mennonite observer C. J. Dyck. Until then, editor Paul Erb occasionally included brief news items about Catholics and the Council in a column called "Items and Comments." In the early 1960's these items generally showed Catholics in a negative light. (3)

One such item stated that the Catholic Church "still seeks to retain its absolute spiritual domination--let there be no doubt about that. The slogan one picks up among young priests in Spain, for instance is, 'We must learn to tolerate Protestants but never condone their heresies."' (4) It went on to state:

   In areas like the U.S. where the church looks forward to the day
   when it will attain pre-eminence, the hierarchy is obviously being
   pushed hard by Rome to advance the cause of Catholic education....
   Remember, in Catholic countries, the Catholic schools are supported
   entirely by tax money. This is the church's aim and ideal. (5)

A few issues later the column reported an incident in Colombia where a Catholic priest harassed a Protestant congregation by placing an image of the Virgin Mary in the doorway of the building where they were worshiping. He then called in the police who ordered the service stopped. When the congregation refused to stop, the crowd outside threw stones at them. The next day the police arrested one of the church members for insulting the officers. (6)

In a more positive news item, the Billy Graham evangelistic team reported that a hopeful sign of Christian unity was that informal groups of Catholics and Protestants were studying the Bible together. The column quoted team member Leighton Ford: "Many of my friends and I are praying that God's will may be done through this Council and that the Holy Spirit will lead it in such a way as to bring whatever reforms God will have within the Roman Catholic Church." (7)

Another news item reflected the prevalent tension between Protestants and Catholics due to Protestant mission activities in historically Catholic countries. …

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