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Swedenborg and Vatican II. Part 2

Here Solomon continues his discussion of what has changed within the Catholic Church since the 18th century, as it was formalized by Vatican II. He makes it clear that many of the components that Swedenborg found so offensive have been done away with. Others have not. As a reader of Swedenborg it is important to have a sense of the present, as otherwise one may be inclined to fight battles that have already ended peacefully. Solomon helps us find this understanding. If you happened to miss Part 1, you can find it here. -Editor.

Sole Interpreter of the Word

Another thing that Swedenborg criticized about the 18th century Catholic church was that it claimed to be the sole interpreter of the Word, and that what the church said was actually placed above what the Word said (NJHD 8; AR 737.2, 836, 914.2). Has this changed? The Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation of Vatican II states that “This teaching office is not above the word of God but serves it” (Curran p. 11, 147). Because of the overturning of the hierarchy of power in the church, it was recognized that the church as a teacher was not to be considered above learning itself (see Curran pp. 105, 111-112, 147). As a result, both the “clergy and laity are now much better educated and informed” (Curran p. 105). And as one author states:

Whatever the role of Rome in the church of the future will be, the old slogan “Roma locuta, causa finita” (Rome has spoken, and that is the end of the matter) is no longer accepted by the overwhelming majority of Catholics. (Dwyer pp. 394-395)

Keeping the Word from the Laity

In many places Swedenborg criticized the 18th century Catholic church for keeping the Word from the laity (see AR 0, 718, 733, 734, 739, 749, 770, 792.2, 796.2; LJ 58; TCR 508.4-5). In the Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation, chapter VI, number 22, from the Vatican II council it says: “Easy access to Sacred Scripture should be provided for all the Christian faithful.” (Still, as late as 1983, the official word from the Catholic church is that the Bible cannot be published in vernacular languages without the stamp of approval from the Catholic church.) The history behind the relationship between the Bible and the laity in the Catholic Church is long and complicated, but Vatican II serves as a very significant mile-marker in the process of trying to return the Bible to the hands of the laity.

Mass in the the Vernacular

Along similar lines, Swedenborg also criticized the 18th century Catholic church for not conducting their masses in the vernacular languages (see AR 0, 733, 770; DP 257.5). Since Vatican II, the change to worship services being permitted to be conducted in vernacular languages is, as one author says, perhaps “the greatest visible change in Catholic life in modern times.” (Dwyer p. 387; see also Noss. p. 564). And it only happened less than 50 years ago! The people of the church were now beginning to be permitted to ‘enter into the mysteries of faith’ (see Rahner p. 199; see also TCR 508). And this permission for the huge variety of vernacular languages to be used in worship not only brought the laity more closely into the church, but it also opened up the possibility for much greater variety and adaptation of the liturgy itself (Rahner p. 203). This was another way in which the papal office gave more power to the local church.

Before Vatican II, services were conducted in Latin with the priest’s back toward the people. Vatican II changes led to a ‘liturgical revolution’ in the Catholic Church, which allowed for a more informal atmosphere in many parishes, and even a charismatic movement with spontaneous prayer, singing, and speaking by the parishioners. (Webb p. 76)

Laity Not Allowed to Take the Wine

The primary feature of Catholic worship is the celebration of the eucharist, holy communion, or the holy supper. Swedenborg criticized the 18th century Catholic church for dividing the holy supper in two, in which the clergy took the wine, and the laity took only the bread (see AC 10040.2; AR 0, 795; TCR 634.2). In the Vatican II documents, the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, chapter 2, number 55, it states that “communion under both kinds [bread and wine] may be granted when the bishops think fit, not only to clerics and religious, but also to the laity.” As with several permissions granted in Vatican II, not all Catholic priests today choose to follow them. There is much more freedom for Catholic priests to choose their own ways. And so these days more conservative Catholic priests still only offer the bread to the laity, while more progressive Catholic priests offer both.

Worship of Mary and the Saints

Swedenborg criticized the 18th century Catholic church for its apparent worship of Mary and the saints (AR 770, 797, 800; TCR 82, 94, 824). Just prior to Vatican II, in 1950, Pope Pius XII made doctrinal statements which “completed a cycle of declarations in Mariology which brought the body of the Virgin into parallel status with that of the Christ: immaculate conception, perpetual virginity, and bodily ascension.” (Noss, p. 563). And this perspective on Mary and the saints didn’t really change with Vatican II. They place Mary and the saints on a level above all other humans, just below God. Although the language is careful to not use the word “worship” in regard to their reverence and adoration of Mary and the saints, I can’t help but picture Mary and the saints responding with the words from the book of Revelation of the angel to John when John fell down and worshipped him: “See that you do not do that. For I am your fellow servant, and of your brethren the prophets, and of those who keep the words of this book. Worship God” (Revelation 22:9; see also Acts 10:25,26).

Granting or Selling Indulgences

Swedenborg criticized the 18th century Catholic church for its practice of granting and/or selling indulgences (AR 0, 759, 789; TCR 634.2). Now, from my limited research, I’m unclear on whether the Catholic church ever officially sanctioned the sale of indulgences. But the granting of indulgences has always been, and still is in some places, a Catholic practice. The sale of indulgences was an abuse of power, practiced by some, and regulated in the Council of Trent. Indulgences weren’t banished by Vatican II, but they were deemphasized because they are not an essential doctrine, and there isn’t scriptural basis for them. But popes after Vatican II have been trying to bring them back into favor (see article by Jennifer Reeger:

Celibacy, Virginity and Marriage

Swedenborg also criticized the 18th century Catholic church for its claim that the states of celibacy and virginity are preferable to the state of marriage (AR 0; see also Curran p. 27). Of course this is contrary to the New Church doctrine of conjugial love. Until Vatican II, the primary reason given for the state of marriage is the raising of children. The secondary reason is to keep people from lusting (Curran pp. 32-33).

The canonical understanding of marriage does not even mention love. Love apparently is not part of the canonical essence of marriage.... The Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World of the Second Vatican Council proposed a more adequate understanding of marriage. (Curran p. 38)

Actually it wasn’t really until 1981 that the Catholic church officially recognized the state of marriage as equal to the states of celibacy and virginity (Pope John Paul II, 1981, “Apostolic Exhortation Familiaris Consortio of Pope John Paul II to the episcopate to the clergy and to the faithful of the whole Catholic church on the role of the Christian family in the modern world, part 2.”), But Vatican II got it heading that direction when it talked frequently about the importance of “conjugal love” in marriage (see Vatican II: Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World, Part II, Chapter 1, numbers 48-52). Perhaps one of the signs of this movement towards the greater recognition of marriage is in Vatican II’s granting permission to married men to apply to become deacons, which is a lower level rank of priest (Noss p. 564; Dwyer p. 389).

Trinity of Persons, Imputation, Purgatory

Other things like the doctrines of the ‘Trinity of Persons in God,’ the ‘Imputation of Christ’s Merit,’ and ‘Purgatory,’ Swedenborg also criticized (AR 730, 751, 784.2; TCR 9, 172, 174, 640.2; BE 19, 20, 33, 105). These specific doctrines have not changed. However any derivative practice of “faith alone” based on these doctrines is something that Vatican II has tried to change. “The Second Vatican Council also deplored the split in the attitudes of so many Catholics between faith and daily life.” (Curran p 161; see also p. 139; and BE 106).


So in review, there are some things about Swedenborg’s criticisms of 18th century Catholicism which don’t apply anymore to post-Vatican II Catholicism. These are that: Papal power has been reduced, freedom of religion is embraced, the Catholic church no longer condemns other Christians and non-Christians, the Word is no longer kept from the laity, mass is no longer conduced only in Latin, and for some parishes, the laity now take both the bread and the wine.

Some of the things which have remained the same: The Lord’s human is essentially still divided with the Pope acting with Christ’s power on earth, the church is still the final stamp of approval on any interpretation of the Word, they still believe in the Trinity of Persons, the imputation of Christ’s merit, and purgatory. They still revere the saints and Mary above other humans. And some church leaders still see the value in granting (not selling) indulgences.

The changes made by Vatican II were really the official stamp of approval on changes that had been growing within the priesthood and laity of the Catholic church for a long time (see Rahner pp. 199-200; Curran p. 155). The changes of Vatican II showed a different more positive side of the Catholic church, a side of humility, a side of tolerance, a side of charity, a side of peace on earth and goodwill toward men (Rahner p. 202; Curran p. 88). And from a New Church perspective, I think we can see in Vatican II, many symptoms of the effects of the Lord’s second coming on the Catholic church.

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.