Friday, October 11, 2013

How did Vatican II affect the Catholic church in Australia?

I mentioned to someone that I had to write an assignment on the impact of Vatican II on the Church in Australia and their immediate response was "everyone stopped going!" I must admit I thought they were right but having done a bit of research apparently they're not. It seems that the exodus from the church began in the late 1950s (Vatican II went from 1962-1965) after a big increase in churchgoing after the war, Vatican II created a lot of enthusiasm and probably slowed the decline.

The main effects on the church were:

Ecumenism - it became OK for Catholics to attend Anglican weddings, funerals and other services. Catholics weren't treated with as much suspicion by other Christians.

Lay (non clergy) involvement in parishes - men could be readers, parish councils were started, Bible study group and liturgical committees sprang up.

Changes to the liturgy - Mass was said in English not Latin, Prayers of the Faithful were added, hymn singing was encouraged.

A drop in vocations and lots of nuns and priests leaving - there doesn't seem to be any one reason for this, but it obviously reached some sort of tipping point where it was no longer shocking for people to leave religious life and therefore many did. It was a time of great change both in the church and in the world (the swinging 60s). Some priests and religious (nuns and monks) thought the changes in the church were happening too fast while others were frustrated that they were happening too slowly.

Catholic schools got lay teachers rather than religious -  this was partly down to Vatican II and partly due to other factors. Vatican II encouraged religious orders to return to their original charism which was often not teaching, it also led to large numbers of religious leaving their orders. The large number of children during the baby boom years put pressure on all schools. Public funding for Catholic Schools was reintroduced in the 70s (ninety years after it was withdrawn) which meant schools could afford to employee lay teacher and no longer needed to rely on religious as a cheap labour force.

I was a bit disappointed not to find some simple reason why so many priests and nuns gave up their vocations, though I did find out that many of them ended up back in teaching or working for the Catholic Education Office. I guess it's like asking why so many people get divorced. Each case is unique and in each case there are often multiple reasons. If I had to give one reason it would be dissatisfaction with the church i.e. there was some aspects of their way of life that they wanted to see change that didn't, or wanted to stay the same and it didn't. If you're happily married you don't get divorced and a priest or nun who is happy is unlikely to leave.


  1. I remember this time as being a very happy period of my faith - there was a real optimism and openness and I look back on my families experience of church as really fantastic.

  2. Ecumenism-through intermarriage, families became ecumenical before the priests did. Vatican II enabled the priests to catch up with the laity.
    Lay involvement-women eventually became readers as well as the men and got to serve on the altar, but men didn't get to do the flowers, and I'm not volunteering to start the ball rolling.
    Changes to the liturgy-the priest also faced the people instead of the back wall, and stood behind the altar of sacrifice instead of in front of it. Because he faced the congregation, you could hear him better. The altar looked more like the Last Supper table than a Jewish altar of sacrifice facing the tabernacle. Also you were permitted to have communion under both forms, if you wished.. It was also harder to doze off if the priest was facing you, unless you sat down the back of a large church. Even that is harder today with so many fewer people in the congregation. The sermons became homilies and seemed to get better too, which meant that you were less likely to doze off, which is great
    A drop in vocations: I think many priests and nuns chose their vocations too early in life, particularly for a vocation that was expected to be life long. Hopefully those entering the seminaries and convents later, like Dan (who I knew in a previous life as a mere man), will ensure fewer dropping out. Mid-life crisis does make a person reassess his/her values, which can lead to life changes. This must affect the clergy as well as the laity. Our sexualised society is distracting when one is exposed over time, and constant temptation can lead from contemplation to activation. If your heart is not in your vocation, nor is your body. Life may be short, but perhaps not short enough when you're hating the life you are living.
    Catholic schools: more people than ever seem to want to send their children to Catholic schools for a variety of reasons, even non-Catholics. That means exposing Catholicism to more people, which can be beneficial if it is done well. Is it? You are in a better position to tell.
    Regards Chris

  3. It hadn't occurred to me that when the priest was facing the other way he couldn't see whose kids were misbehaving! Tonia