Council Advanced Rediscovery of Christian Family. (Vatican II: 40 Years Later)

By Lovin, Robin | National Catholic Reporter, October 4, 2002 | Go to article overview

Council Advanced Rediscovery of Christian Family. (Vatican II: 40 Years Later)


Lovin, Robin, National Catholic Reporter


Methodists welcomed Vatican II with the enthusiasm of family members rediscovering their own place in a larger network of kinship and inheritance. Albert Outler, perhaps the leading Methodist thinker at that time, was a Protestant observer at the meetings of the council during the same years that he was providing some of the leadership that resulted in the union of the Methodist Church and the Evangelical United Brethren to form the United Methodist Church. The larger stirrings and deeper questions that Outler observed in Rome helped turn what might have been simply a merger of two Protestant denominations into a genuine pursuit of theological roots and bearings for the future.

When the United Methodist church was formed in 1968 in Dallas, the city where Outlet lived and worked, its leaders were committed to the idea that this would be a new church, not just a continuation of its predecessors. United Methodists thus took up the question of church renewal in the years after Vatican II with a seriousness that was partly born of the council's example, and United Methodists shared the inspiration, enthusiasms and pains of those years with our Roman Catholic neighbors in ways that would not have been possible for either community a few years before.

For myself, I have lived my whole career in ministry and higher education in the world those movements created. I began my theological education in 1968 and finished my Ph.D. a decade later. When I began, the Catholic student in a Protestant or nondenominational institution was still a rarity, though I shared dormitory space that year at Harvard with a Trappist and I learned parish ministry in a field education seminar that we shared with St. John's, the archdiocesan seminary in Boston.

In the decade that followed, academic theological studies were transformed by the infusion of Catholic scholarship, energy and the spirit of inquiry set loose by Vatican II. In North America, Christian ethics, in particular, was reconstituted as a single field of inquiry, in which scholars work from an ecumenical bibliography, write their books for an ecumenical readership, and conduct their discussions as part of a single community of discourse. The work of Msgr. John A. Ryan, the teachings of the social encyclicals, and the pastoral letters of the American Catholic bishops have joined Walter Rauschenbusch's Social Gospel and Reinhold Niebuhr's Christian Realism as fundamental starting points for reflection in social ethics.

On matters of just war and economic justice, I think the issues as framed in the Catholic tradition have become the preferred starting points for ethical reflection. While Protestant and Catholic ethicists have responsibilities for teaching and church life that vary with our respective communions, our thinking about ethics is done together.

The result has been not only a richer and more diverse discussion, but a much larger pool of talent in which to develop future leadership. At the beginning of the era launched by Vatican II, the Society of Christian Ethics was predominantly a group of Protestant men who could meet around a seminar table on one of the campuses where its members taught. Fr. Charles Curran and a few other Catholics joined that conversation early, but they were the exceptions. Today, the Society of Christian Ethics draws several hundred participants from college, university and seminary faculties, and its recent presidents have included Mercy Sr. Margaret Farley, Lisa Cahill, and Jesuit Fr. David Hollenbach, alt distinguished Roman Catholics whose writings are standards on the reading lists at most North American theological schools. Many things have contributed to those changes, but it is impossible to imagine the Roman Catholic contribution to Christian ethics in these decades without Vatican II, and it is impossible to imagine the discipline today apart from the way that it has been reshaped by Catholic scholarship and leadership. …

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