Shortly after being elected in 1959, Pope John XXIII told his private secretary about his idea to hold an ecumenical Council of the entire Church. Unforeseen consequences, dangerous, a bad idea, was the predicable response. Pope John rebuked him; did he not know that he went forward in faith? Three years later on 11 October, fifty years ago, Pope John XXIII assembled the world's Roman Catholic bishops for an ecumenical Council in Rome.
It came at an extraordinary moment in 20th century history. A fortnight later, the Cuban missile crisis brought the world to the verge of nuclear catastrophe. Only the personalities of John F. Kennedy, self-confident, almost aristocratic, and Nikita Krushchev, wily strategist with a peasant's calculation of self-interest, averted it. The military on both sides were ready to go for bust. Mutually assured destruction as a deterrent? Only if you have the right people controlling whether the buttons get pressed.
You might have thought that peace and nuclear warfare would have been top of the assembled bishops' agenda. They weren't. Though the Pope issued a major encyclical on peace and human rights.This was a Church struggling to transform itself. Transforming the world came second - as illustrated in the sequence of declarations and constitutions that emerged.But there was an apertura to the Soviet Union and communist powers from Pope John and the Vatican, a new ostpolitik. Likewise global poverty, a persistent international concern - these were the days of "freedom from hunger" campaigns - was a dog that didn't bark.
You might also have thought that after fifty years, the Catholic Church would have reached a fixed mind as to the significance of the Council. Not so either. Its consequences are contested, its nature, continuity or break with the past disputed, and all subject to opposing interpretations. Zhou Enlai's assessment of the French Revolution applies: "too early to tell".
What cannot be denied without mind-boggling mental gymnastics is that the Council facilitated a radical change in Catholics' relationships with other faiths. If aggiornamento there were, it could clearly be seen in the Council's statements on other religions. The position on Religious Liberty contained in Dignitatis Humanae (On Human Dignity) put paid to the old mantra that "error has no rights". The Declaration, In Our Time, short and to the point, was conceived as a document on the Jews in 1961. It emerged from prolonged deliberations, with wide ranging openness, as a welcome to all the other faiths as well as a repudiation of the Church's past anti-semitism. It updated the Church in relation to the reality of religious pluralism. The role of the bishops of the Middle East was not insignificant.
What characterised Nostra Aetate was its sense of a new interconnectedness; it proposed that the Church seek "what men have in common and what draws them to fellowship." Catholics were exhorted to relate to followers of other religions "through dialogue and collaboration", and to "recognise, preserve and promote the good things, spiritual and moral, as well as the socio-cultural values found among" them.
This declaration was a long way from the age-old assertion: extra ecclesiam nulla salus, outside the Church there is no salvation. As the Russian Orthodox theologian Paul Evdokimov said: "we know where the Church is; it is not for us to judge where the Church is not". But for the great Protestant theologians of the 20th century, Karl Barth and Dietrich Bonhoeffer, all religion, human religiousness, stood challenged in the face of divine revelation in Jesus Christ. There never had been any human ground from which a nulla salus could be proclaimed. The Spirit blew where it willed.
In Our Time is still very much of our time. It demands so much more than tolerance of the "religious other". Promoting and preserving are distinctly active and require engagement. Dialogue and collaboration no less. The world's interconnectedness has grown. The urgency of implementing the vision of the Council in this regard has grown too.
The tangible outcome of this vision was the creation by Pope Paul VI of a Pontifical Council for Inter-Religious Dialogue, a high level body, and locally diocesan interfaith officers around the world who dealt with religious pluralism at the level of overlapping communities of believers. The intangible outcome was that Catholics were finally encouraged to see people of other faiths as friends not strangers.
The Second Vatican Council was evidently a singular Catholic event. Yet in documents such as In Our Time, there is present a catholicity in another sense: a mandate for people of all faiths and none. If you took its message to heart you might even think it was time to set up an institution such as a Faith Foundation as a way of carrying out its mandate. And what a different world we would now live in if all people of faith took the appeal to "recognise, preserve and promote" the spirituality of other faiths through "dialogue and collaboration" as their road map for the 21st. century.