Book Review: Vatican II: Canadian Experiences
November 30, 2012

Attridge, Michael, Clifford, Catherine E., and Routhier, Gilles, eds. Vatican II: Expériences Canadiennes/Canadian Experiences. Ottawa: University of Ottawa Press, 2011. (578 pp., trade paperback, index.)

Reviewed by Edward MacDonald
University of Prince Edward Island

When I was a little boy, I was just beginning to learn the Latin responses required for First Communion when my mother informed me that would no longer be necessary. Shortly afterwards, the priest turned to face the congregation and began saying the Mass in English. The elegant high altar with its carved wooden pinnacles disappeared, replaced by a handsome desk-like table that faced the worshippers. For most Canadian Catholics in parishes across the country, those were the first outward signs of the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965), popularly termed Vatican II.

Current event has now passed into memory, and memory into history. As the generation of young Canadian Christians who lived through Vatican II passes into their (anec)dotage, Pope John XXIII’s great call for renewal within the Catholic Church and for dialogue within and between faith groups has grown rather than dwindled in significance. But just what was that significance for Canadians? Was Vatican II aberration or evolution? Disruption or continuity? False start or new beginning? And did it mirror or transcend the vibrant, turbulent decade of the Sixties, which provided the context for its deliberations? Such binary constructions are artificial, yet they help to frame the inquiring spirit of this bilingual collection of essays, offspring of a series of colloquia convened during 2009.

In its 550 pages and 27 essays, Vatican II: Canadian Experiences gathers together a diversity of perspectives about the experience of Vatican II and its impact in Canada: French, English (and Ukrainian); Catholics and Protestants; outside observers and participants; prelates, theologians catechists, and journalists. A number of the authors come from non- Catholic backgrounds, although none are non- Christians. The very fact that such a wealth of disparate viewpoints might be brought together in one volume speaks to the sort of dialogue that Vatican II encouraged. The plural in the sub-title is a subtle reminder that there was, in fact, no one experience of Vatican II in Canada. A m o n g t h e twenty-nine authors are the collection’s three editors, Michael Attridge, Catherine E. Clifford, and Gilles Routhier, professors of theology at, respectively, University of St. Michael’s College, St. Paul’s University, and Laval, and the collection is clearly a collaboration among these three institutions. Theology predominates among the disciplinary approaches in the collection, but history and Catholic historians are well represented. The essays themselves are grouped into three parts: Various Views of the Council, Canadian Participation at the Council and Afterwards, Vatican II Is Received by the Church. Within that rubric reside subsections on, for example, press coverage of the Council, how other Christian faiths perceived and received its deliberations, theological attitudes, the significant role played by various Canadian bishops and other participants, and Vatican II’s effects on catechetics, liturgy, religious, and ecumenism. The organizing principle within individual essays, too tempting to resist, is generally tripartite: the pre-Vatican II context for their subject, the Council itself, then the post-conciliar impacts.

The collection is notable for its breadth, if not always its depth. The essays are short, sometimes disappointingly so, offering case studies, representative biographies, or highly selective details. Some of the essays, especially in Part III, connect only tangentially to Vatican II or use it merely as a point of reference rather than as a major theme. Some contributions are largely descriptive in nature. Others reflect personal odysseys, since some authors were themselves participants in the events that have unfolded. In any case, the sum here is greater than the parts. It is when considered as a whole, as an elaborate mosaic of perspectives, that the volume most impresses.

In general, the essays capture attitudes and opinions among intellectuals, editors, and church leaders. What is missing and cannot easily be recovered is opinion among the rank and file, everyday citizens. Nor is there much insight into how Vatican II related to non-Christians in Canada, particularly Muslims and Jews, or to those Catholics whose post-Vatican II faith journey led them out of the institutional church entirely. Yet this, too, is part of the story. Even as “new” Catholics from the developing world have filled urban pews, they are being vacated by “traditional” Canadian Catholics, the very people that Vatican II once meant to inspire and renew.

But it is both easy and unfair to criticize books for what they do not address. There is a wealth of insights offered in this collection. They mirror issues that the Second Vatican Council struggled to resolve: the proper relationship between laity and clergy in parish worship and life, between bishops and Curia in church governance, between spiritual salvation and social justice, between Church teaching and changing times, between Christian faiths seeking unity – but on their own terms. They also beg other questions. For example, one wonders at the connection between changes and ecumenism (both treated separately). Did Protestants soften their attitudes towards Catholicism because their denominations were changing or because they saw Catholicism moving closer to their liturgical practice? At times the reader longs for an over-arching narrative that bridges the disparate contributions.

On the broader question of whether Vatican II represents disruption or continuity, the collection implicitly comes down on the side of gradualism. Yet most contributors would no doubt concur with the editors that Vatican II was “the most significant religious event of the twentieth century” [p. 13]. And some would certainly endorse Gregory Baum’s judgement that the Council represented a significant “paradigm shift” in the history of Catholicism. In Baum’s telling, “when the inherited form of Catholicism was no longer able to respond to the challenges of modern society, thoughtful Catholics became restless: they searched for new answers, reread Scripture and tradition, engaged in dialogue with modern thought, and had new religious experiences. They were gripped by a new perception of Catholicism, a new sense of its meaning and power in today’s world” [p. 360]. For those empowered by its possibilities, Vatican II was a season of hope. Fifty years on, this collaborative collection manages to convey to modern readers the shape and texture of that hope.