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Swedenborg and Vatican II. Part 1

If you are familiar with Swedenborg's work, it's likely that you've come across at least one offensive thing he wrote about another church or people. The Catholic Church was no exception. Solomon consolidates what exactly Swedenborg condemned in the Catholic faith and practice of the 18th century. He then investigates what changed therein as a result of Vatican II. It's obvious that the church Swedenborg was pointing his finger at has taken on a new form. Look for the resolution of this essay next week when we publish Part 2. -Editor.

Has the Catholic church changed because of the second coming? I think so. Recently I studied some of the major reforms that took place in the Catholic church because of the Vatican II council in the 1960s, which was about 200 years after the second coming. I believe it’s really important for readers of Swedenborg to be aware of the fact that the Catholic church of the 20th and 21st centuries is now very different from the Catholic church that Swedenborg described in the 18th century. From a “New Church salvation history” point of view, the changes made by Vatican II could be seen as symptoms of the presence of the New Church within all churches because of the Lord’s second coming.

But aside from that, I think it is important to know exactly where Swedenborg’s descriptions of Catholicism are still accurate in today’s world, and where Swedenborg’s descriptions of Catholicism no longer apply because of Vatican II. In other words, it’s important to know where Swedenborg’s descriptions of Catholicism would be anachronistic if applied to modern Catholicism. This is not to say that the Writings are not true, but rather that if we are not careful, we could be in a position to abuse those truths in anachronistic misapplication.

To that end, we will first examine the specific things which the Writings of Swedenborg criticize about the Catholic church in the 18th century. Then we will examine whether or not those things have changed since Vatican II. By doing so we will get a general historical sense of the importance of Vatican II, as well as its specific relevance to the way in which we engage with modern Catholicism as readers of Swedenborg.

But before we get into that, let’s begin with some brief historical context and details: Vatican II was called for by Pope John XXIII in 1959. The first session convened in 1962. For some historical context, this was during the time of the Vietnam War, Martin Luther King Jr., the pre-moon-landing NASA space flights, and the Beatles. Pope John died in 1963, but the council was continued by Pope Paul VI. 2,500 bishops attended. They invited representatives from Protestant and Orthodox churches to come and observe, as well as selected laymen and women “auditors” (Noss p. 564). It was actually the 21st ecumenical council that met in the Catholic church (Rahner p. 200). Vatican I was held about 100 years before (1869-1870) and it determined two main things: the immaculate conception of Mary, and the infallibility of the Pope, neither of which were rescinded by Vatican II (Noss pp. 562-653). For Vatican II they decided that the council decisions required a 2/3 majority vote to be passed (Rahner p. 201). The council met in four sessions; one every year during the last few months of the year from 1962 to 1965. “Ten public sessions and 168 general assembly meetings were held” (Rahner p. 201). The two main goals of the council were: “reform within the church and preparation for Christian and world unity.” (Rahner p. 201). After Pope John XXIII died, Pope Paul VI reaffirmed that the goals of the council were to “deal with the nature of the church and function of the bishops, to make efforts toward the unity of Christians, and to set in motion a dialogue with the contemporary world.” (Rahner p. 201). In the end, the council came up with four constitutions, nine decrees and three declarations (Rahner p. 201, also see Vatican website).

There are several things which the Writings describe as falsities and/or evils within the Catholic practices of the 18th century:

  1. Papal power and dominion (AR 719, 723, 729.2, 802; DP 215.5; BE 20; cf. Acts 10:25,26),
  2. The pursuit of wealth among the Catholic leaders (AR 759, 799),
  3. Compulsory religion (AR 770; see also LJ 55),
  4. The condemnation of non-Catholics (AR 0, 787),
  5. The Lord’s human being divided from His Divine (see LJ 55; AR 738.2, 825.2; TCR 111.11)
  6. The church being the sole interpreter of the Word (NJHD 8; AR 737.2, 836, 914.2),
  7. The Word being kept from the laity (see AR 0, 718, 733, 734, 739, 749, 770, 792.2, 796.2; LJ 58; TCR 508.4-5),
  8. Mass not being conducted in vernacular languages (see AR 0, 733, 770; DP 257.5),
  9. The Holy Supper wine not being given to the laity in the Eucharist (see AC 10040.2; AR 0, 795; TCR 634.2),
  10. Worshipping the saints and Mary (AR 770, 797, 800; TCR 82, 94, 824),
  11. Granting indulgences (AR 0, 759, 789; TCR 634.2),
  12. Celibacy being preferable to marriage (AR 0),
  13. A Trinity of Persons in God, the imputation of Christ’s merit, and Purgatory (AR 730, 751, 784.2; TCR 9, 172, 174, 640.2; BE 19, 20, 33, 105).

Did any of these things change with Vatican II? We shall see.

Power and Dominion

The first thing we’ll examine is the idea of the popes and bishops claiming the Lord’s power and acting from a love of dominion, because this is really the source of many of the other things. Now obviously since this is described in the Writings, there are descriptions of people’s spiritual states which we cannot make judgments on for ourselves. In fact, Swedenborg describes some very good and humble popes (see AR 752, CLJ 59, TCR 820). So in looking at this issue in terms of Vatican II we will mostly be looking for a change in policy regarding the nature of power and dominion among the leadership of the Catholic church, rather than questioning modern Catholic leaders’ spiritual states.

It turns out that just before Vatican II, the church was still very much focussed on power and dominion. In some ways it was more centralized, authoritarian and defensive than ever (Curran pp. 8, 14). “At the end of the nineteenth and the beginning of the twentieth century, Rome condemned Americanism, modernism, and critical-biblical scholarship.” (Curran p. 14).

But with Vatican II this changed. One of the major ways this changed was in identifying the church as the “people of God” rather that identifying the church as the pope and priesthood (Rahner p. 202; Curran p. 140) This change in perspective immediately took some power away from the leaders and put it into the hands of the laity. It wasn’t that the priesthood had no power anymore, but there was now a different context for that power (Curran p. 111). With Vatican II there was a

different view of the role of the hierarchy in the church: they were not a privileged caste, endowed with the God-given role of ordering the laity about, but were a group called to serve the people of God while remaining, themselves, a part of that people. (Dwyer p. 389)

Pope John XXIII really set the tone for this, both by example, and by his first initiatives in the council. He encouraged freedom of discussion among the bishops, and welcomed their initiatives (Dwyer p. 385-387). He encouraged policies which removed power from the papal office and gave it to the local churches (Curran p. 143). Vatican II introduced the concept of “collegiality,” or the concept that the bishops now shared power in the church with the pope (Noss p. 564). “John XXIII gave the modern world a totally new definition of the word Pope. His notion of papacy was not authoritarian but pastoral.... He decentralized church administration” (Dwyer pp. 387-388).

Pope John XXIII also set the example of the importance of humility within the leadership of the church, and the church as a whole. He encouraged the church to accept that they should “atone for their past arrogance and bigotry” (Dwyer p. 388), and the members of the Vatican II council came to see that the church itself needed to repent and reform (Curran pp. 72, 139). And though the concept of the ‘infallibility of the pope’ wasn’t rescinded, modern Catholics have a specific way in which they understand that:

[Infallibility] doesn’t mean the pope is sinless, or cannot err.... It means that the Holy Spirit guides the pope, along with the councils of the church, in making decisions about faith and morals. Since God will provide a correct understanding of His plan to the world, the pope cannot err in these specific areas. (Webb, p. 78)

I think for many modern Catholics it’s kind of like having faith in Divine Providence. It’s a belief that the Lord will guide the church through its leaders, no matter what those leaders are like.

Seeking Wealth

By specific changes in governmental structure and church attitude and policy, power and dominion was removed from the papal office. This affected a lot of other things. Swedenborg criticized the concept of Catholic leaders seeking wealth (AR 759, 799), but that attitude seems to have changed, as reflected in Vatican II’s focus on the church leadership serving the people of God, rather than being served by them (see Dwyer p. 389).

Compulsory Religion

Swedenborg also criticized the 18th century Catholic church for forcing religion on people by “threats and terrors,” and things like “ministry warfare,” and Inquisition (AR 770; see also LJ 55). With Vatican II the Catholic church now recognized that religion could not and should not be compulsory (Noss p. 564). “The council spoke about the renunciation of external means of force in matters of religion” (Rahner p. 203). This led to a major change in attitude and policy; namely the concepts of freedom of religion and ecumenism, which, believe it or not, until 1965, the Catholic church had not recognized as valid. The Catholic church in America had actually been taking advantage of the American concept of freedom of religion for almost 200 years before the church itself agreed with the validity of the idea! (Curran p 138).

Condemning Non-Catholics

Swedenborg criticized the 18th century Catholic church for condemning people who were not Catholic (AR 0), and believing the Catholic church to be the one and only true church (AR 787). Did this change with Vatican II? Yes. Pope “John’s opening address... implied that a rerun of the old condemnations of the modern world was not the result which he wished from his Council.” (Dwyer p. 385). Vatican II officially declared that they no longer identified the Catholic church with the Kingdom of God (Rahner p. 202; Curran p. 140). Part of this came from their new enlightened perspective on religious freedom, which some argued was simply a reaction to the modern world (Rahner p. 204), but the council argued was actually returning to the roots of Christianity itself (Rahner pp. 204-205). They realized that “religious freedom was Christological.... Jesus aroused faith in persons, he did not coerce them” (Brackney p. 68). This is a wonderful example of the nature of the council’s return to the Word as the source of guiding truth. This attitude led not only to an attitude of toleration, but an attitude of looking for the goodness in other religions. They spoke of the “definitive recognition of the possibility of salvation outside the Catholic Church” (Noss p. 564). They spoke of the idea of ‘plurality which strengthened unity’ (Rahner p. 202), an idea which sounds very similar to Swedenborg’s description of all churches being one in charity (see AC 1799.4).

The church through Vatican II declared that even those who search in shadows and images for the unknown God are not far from the true God who wills that all human beings be saved if only they make an effort to lead a righteous life. (Rahner p. 205)

This sounds an awful lot like the New Church perspective that all people can be saved if they believe in some form of God, and live a good life, and that the Lord wants all people in heaven (HH 318-328; DP 326, 330). As perhaps a symbol of this new attitude, the council officially declared that Jews today, and at the time of Christ, were not to be considered responsible for Christ’s death (Noss pp. 564-565), and that anti-semitism was an evil.

Dividing the Lord’s Human from His Divine

Now, one of the aspects of papal power that does not seem to have changed with Vatican II is what Swedenborg describes as the Catholic church dividing the Lord’s human from His Divine (see LJ 55; AR 738.2, 825.2; TCR 111.11). Part of the Lord’s power was transferred to the pope as Christ’s vicar. This idea seems to have remained a part of Catholic theology even after Vatican II. As we will see, the basic theology of the Catholic church wasn’t really up for revision in Vatican II, and so it has stayed pretty much the same since. The following are quotes from the Vatican II documents under the Dogmatic Constitution of the Church, chapter 3:

18: All this teaching about the institution, the perpetuity, the meaning and reason for the sacred primacy of the Roman Pontiff and of his infallible magisterium, this Sacred Council again proposes to be firmly believed by all the faithful. 22: The pope's power of primacy over all, both pastors and faithful, remains whole and intact. In virtue of his office, that is as Vicar of Christ. 26: A sharing in the kingly priesthood of Christ is granted [to Catholic priests]. 27: The faithful must cling to their bishop, as the Church does to Christ, and Jesus Christ to the Father.

Works Cited

Brackney, William H. Human Rights and the World’s Major Religions, Volume 2: The Christian Tradition. Praeger Perspectives, Westport, Connecticut, London, 2005.

Curran, Charles E. The Living Tradition of Catholic Moral Theology. University of Notre Dame Press, Notre Dame, London, 1992.

“Documents of the II Vatican Council.” 1965. The Vatican Website.

Dwyer, John C. Church History, Twenty Centuries of Catholic Christianity. Paulist Press, New York, Mahwah, 1985.

Noss, David S., and John B. Noss. A History of the World’s Religions. Prentice Hall, Upper Saddle River, New Jersey, 1994.

Rahner, Karl, and Adolf Darlap. “Vatican II.” The Encyclopedia of Religion, Volume 15. Mircea Eliade, Editor in Chief. Macmillan Publishing Company, New York, 1987.

Reeger, Jennifer. “Indulgences Regain Relevance under Benedict.” Tribute-Review. TribLive/News. 25 Feb. 2009.

Scheifler, Michael. “Bible Possession Once Banned by the Catholic Church.” Bible Light. .

Webb, Jeffrey B., Ph.D. The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Christianity. Alpha, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc. 2004.

Solomon Keal

Solomon is the assistant to the pastor in the Bryn Athyn New Church. He runs a blog, called Theologikeal to share his work and reflections about religion. He is married and has five children. Solomon is also a musician and has released five albums.