Aggiornamento in Rome

Aggiornamento is Italian for “up-dating” and is the key word in today’s Roman Catholic circles. In the last five years dramatic changes have been taking place—so dramatic that a decade ago they were not considered possible. How fundamental has this change been? Is it central or peripheral?

Aggiornamento is associated chiefly with John XXIII (pope from 1958–1963) and the Second Vatican Council, which he convened but did not live to see completed. Having already held three sessions (1962–1964), the Council will commence its fourth and final session on September 14th of this year.

An intimation of what possibly could happen appeared several years ago in the writings of an influential, young German theologian, Hans Kung. Banned from some American Roman Catholic campuses and criticized harshly in the conservative American Ecclesiastical Review, Kung suggested many programs which were radical for his time and yet which gained acceptance among many of both the hierarchy and laity.

He proposed such radical steps as the following: changing of the church’s canon law requiring a Roman Catholic married to a Protestant to work for the conversion of his partner; leaving the education of children of mixed marriages to the conscience of the parents; restoring the bishops’ power and thus limiting Roman centralism; greater self-determination for the local church; exemption from celibacy vows for all Roman Catholic deacons and converted Protestant ministers; radical revision of book censorship; abolition of the Index; raising the standard of preaching; upgrading the role of the laity in the church; liturgical vernacularization; a de-emphasis on Marianism; and confession of Rome’s pari in the split with the Reformers. Kung’s blunt honesty was a prophecy of a revolution that was to take place in Rome. Just what has happened to date in the Second Vatican Council? Consider several areas of change.

Ecumenism and the Church

The whole climate of inter-denominational relationships has been cleared with fresh winds. Whereas the last two Councils, Trent (1545–63) and Vatican I (1869–70), took a defensive and antagonistic attitude toward Protestantism, Vatican II has ended this counter-Reformation spirit. The presence of Protestant observers at Vatican II—a phenomenon undreamed of at Trent and Vatican I—is symbolic of the new age. Speeches were liberally sprinkled with the phrases “beloved observers,” “brothers in Christ” and “our common Lord and Master.” The anathema “heretic” was replaced by the softer term “separated brothers.” It used to be plain who were outside of the church of Rome: Jews, heathen, schismatics and heretics. But today the emphasis is on what is held in common by Christians. It is no longer a black-and-white situation.

Trent could never have imagined that 2,000 priests, nuns and laymen would give Dr. Billy Graham a standing ovation for an address, which was chiefly a sermon, in Belmont Abbey College, North Carolina, in 1963. Nor could Trent have imagined that a Cardinal (Cardinal Cushing of Boston) would recommend the Graham evangelistic crusades to his parishioners.

Further evidence of the new ecumenical spirit stirring in Rome is seen in the following: The new interpretation of Luther (no longer considered an insane, adulterous perverter of morals); the softening of the historic attack on Jews; the symbolical kissing of the leader of the Greek Orthodox Church by the pope; the endorsement of intercommunion between Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox; discussion groups between Protestant and Roman theologians; the union meeting of congregations on both sides at unofficial services; the conferring of an honorary degree on Methodist Bishop Corson at St. Joseph’s College, Philadelphia; the opening of Holy Name Society Meetings to Protestant representatives of Citizens for Educational Freedom; and the joining of ministerial associations by priests.


Although a transformation in Rome’s attitude toward Scripture has been going on for a quarter of a century, the intense continuing of it is in the spirit of the present-day aggiornamento. Contrary to popular belief, there is an increasing return to the Bible by both Roman Catholic scholars and laity. The Bible is being translated out of the original languages (not out of the Latin Vulgate of Jerome) and into the common languages of the people. Plenary indulgences may be gained each month by those who make private Bible reading a daily practice. Pope Benedict’s encyclical “Spiritus Paraditus” (1920) is a model (or extolling the virtue of reading the Bible. Typical of Horne’s attitude is a column heading in the Brooklyn Tablet of November 12, 1964: “The Bible: Is it well-thumbed, or is it just a neglected, expensive book, a dust gatherer?”

Pope Pius XII’s encyclical “Divino Afflante Spiritu” (1943) gave the greatest impetus in the history of the church for a change in Roman Biblical studies by encouraging a deeper study of the human side of the Bible.

The Pontifical Biblical Institute in Rome and the Ecole Biblique in Jerusalem lead the church in Biblical studies. These and other schools publish scholarly journals which discuss critical and exegetical questions at the highest level.

The great fear of some conservative Protestant observers is that Rome is taking over higher critical views that are incompatible with its view on the authority and inerrancy of the Bible. To date, however, she has stoutly maintained the inerrancy of the Word of God in spite of her acceptance of some radical conclusions reached by radical methods of Biblical interpretation. She apparently justifies this unholy alliance of belief in the doctrine of inerrancy and higher criticism by appealing to the theory of literary genres. Although few conservative scholars would question the theory of literary genres, many would question its application by some Roman scholars.



Up until now it has been thought by most Roman Catholic and Protestant theologians that Home taught two sources of revelation: the Bible and tradition. Discussion is going on, however, in and out of the Council, as to the possibility of there being only one source of revelation, namely, the Bible. Some Roman Catholics theorize that the Bible is only a later crystallization of tradition and therefore the Bible and tradition are really one (e.g., C. Moran, Scripture and Tradition, 1963). Others say that tradition is to the Bible as an unfolded flower is to its bud. The Bible, they say, may not be as clear as tradition, but it contains aU the truths of tradition although in an elementary, undeveloped form.

To many, it seems unlikely that Borne will change its historic stand, but the very fact that many have proposed a change is an evidence of aggiornamento.

Episcopal Collegiality

This concept concerns the authority of the bishops and their relationship to the pope in the government of the church. Although Vatican II adopted this principle by an overwhelming majority at its third session in 1964, it is difficult to know how this will be worked out in actuality. To put it very simply, collegiality means that the bishops will playa more important role in the government of the church. Vatican I’s declaration of papal infallibility did not mean that the pope had a hot line to heaven and therefore did not need the assistance of councils and bishops. Papal infallibility did not rule out the need of the bishops’ sweat, thought, study and advice. According to Rome, God leads the pope through the bishops. The pope does not replace them, but uses them. He does not compete with them, but completes their episcopal function.

Some observers feel that Pope Paul VI violated this principle at the close of the last session when he declared Mary to be the mother of the church without having the Council vote on the matter. They feel that the principle was set aside again when the pope did not allow the schema on religious liberty to be voted on even after 1,200 bishops created a sensation by protesting in writing to the pope his one-sided decision to postpone the voting. And some were chagrined that Paul VI made 19 last-minute alterations in the statement (called a schema) De Ecumenismo so that when the Council voted they could choose only between accepting the changes and rejecting De Ecumenismo in its entirety.

It must be remembered that the principle of collegiality does not dethrone the pope by denying papal infallibility and putting him on a par with the bishops. Chapter 3 of the adopted Constitution on tile Nature of the Church is very explicit in reserving for the pope great power. “The college or body of bishops has no authority unless it is understood together with the Roman pontiff, the successor of Peter, as its head. The pope’s power of primacy over all, both pastors and faithful, remains whole and intact. The bishops’ power can be exercised only with the consent of the Roman pontiff. A Council is never ecumenical unless it is confirmed or at least accepted as such by the successor of Peter.” In spite of these strong reaffirmations of papal power by Paul VI and three instances of its use that have disturbed some observers, it is a fact that a certain episcopal force has been partially unleashed and that it is greatly affecting the church. It is preCisely because of the great feeling among the bishops that the schema on religious liberty will be the first item on the agenda of the fourth session, to be convened this September. The pope is concerned about their opinions, and his thoughts and actions are being moulded by them as never before. Even if he has not dethroned himself, it would be blindness not to sec the increased power that the bishops are exercising.

Religious Liberty

It is possible to cite both Roman Catholic actions and words that are rather frightening in the matter of religious liberty. Some are of rather recent origin and from authoritative sources. The denial of complete religious freedom to “heretics” has been one of the chief points of hostility between Rome and other religions.

The situation today, however, is fluid, and this is another evidence of aggiomamento. Much of this fluidity is produced by American influence. Rome is not impervious to its environment. In fact, her adaptability to so many different customs and traditions is one source of her strength. Because of the American democratic heritage, Roman Catholic theologians in this country have been in the forefront in advocating a change in Rome’s position on religious tolerance. They would perhaps prefer the term re-interpretation to change. but the terminology makes little difference. Professors Custave Weigel and John Courtney Murray have been the leading American advocates of a liberal Roman interpretation of church-state matters.

This change of attitude is not limited to the American clergy but finds expression all over the world. Bishop De Smedt of Bruges, Belgium, introduced into Vatican II the draft on religious liberty with a speech commendable for its liberality. Traditionally conservative Spain is in the process of granting marked liberties for non-Romanists, such as the liberalization of laws concerning worship, Protestant seminaries and freedom of the press.

Some observers feel that the proposed schema is deficient at points. Others see a lack of 100% freedom in Spain for Protestants and Jews. But these imperfections should not blind us to the appreciable movement that is already in process and the significant steps that have already been taken, both in theory and in practice. Aggiornamento does not mean complete reversals. but it does mean movement, and Rome is moving in church-state relations.


For almost 400 years Rome had been static in the area of liturgy. Virtually nothing had been changed since 1570, when Pope Pius V decreed that, with only a few exceptions, the entire Western Church should follow a single liturgy. In 1903 in a motu proprio on sacred music, Pope PillS X gave an impulse to further study in liturgy. Sixty years later, impelled by papal encyclicals such as The Mystical Body (1943) and Sound Liturgy (1947), Vatican 11 adopted the Constitution on Sacred Liturgy by an overwhelming vote of 2,147 to 4.

Its purpose was threefold: 1) to instill new life into worship; 2) to clarify the liturgy and make it intelligible; and 3) to gain a fuller participation of the laity in the liturgy. The means for accomplishing this were manifold, the most striking one being the use of the vernacular. Throughout the world, the Mass has now been greatly restored to the language of the people. The sermon is made an integral part of the Mass and is encouraged at other services. Emphasis is no longer on “hearing the Mass” but on actively participating in it. During the Mass the priest now faces the people rather than the altar. Celebrants sing Psalms in English and even use Protestant hymns, such as Luther’s A Mighty Fortress Is Our God! More Bible readings arc being inserted in the services and some doubtful explanations eliminated. In short, Rome has adopted many liturgical features that belonged to Protestantism for centuries.


Other evidences of aggiornamento we mention telegraphically.

1) Cremation. In the last century many practiced cremation as an expression of their rebellion against the doctrine of the bodily resurrection. As a result, not only did the Reformation churches take a negative stand against cremation, but in 1886 Rome actually forbade its members to practice it. Vatican II released these restrictions, permitting cremation because of the economic burdens of a regular funeral and because of hygienic needs.

2) Censorship. A ground swell is rising against the present methods of censoring writings. Sometimes Roman Catholic authors and the bishops who granted the imprimatur are not even consulted before a condemnation is made. Reasons for condemnation usually are not given. Even though little change has been made so far, this protest, even to the point of advocating no censorship at all, is a sign of up-dating.

3) Nun’s habit. In a Roman Catholic high school in Oklahoma City, Ursuline nuns are wearing modern dresses, nylons, high heels, and a band in their hair.

4) Eucharistic fasting. Home has had stringent laws on fasting before Holy Communion. In 1964 Pope Paul VI reduced to one hour the time of fasting from solid foods before Holy Communion.

5) The Pill. Traditionally Rome has been against artificial means of birth control. This stand has not been officially changed. Yet there has been an enormous amount of discussion on this issue, with many advocating the legitimacy of the new means of birth control, the pill. The church obviously wants to legitimatize the pill without revoking its previous teachings. This could be done by reinterpretation and development of old doctrines. Although it is dangerous to predict, many feel that the church is modern and ingenious enough to find a solution.


Having read all this, some will still return to the question posed at the beginning: Has Rome really changed? Or are these just superficial changes? This writer believes that a yes or no answer is meaningless. Generalizations are not enough. It is necessary to look at the concrete changes made. Too often, Protestant observers fall into the black-and-white trap of either-or. Usually life’s problems are not that simple. For many a Roman Catholic the change has been so vertiginous that they wonder if their church is coming apart at the seams. At the other extreme the organization Protestants and Other Americans United in a scurrilous and irresponsible article sees little good in Rome’s change (Church and State, Jan., 1965). To this observer, the true answer seems somewhere in between.

How thankful all can be that Rome is increasingly turning back to the Bible! There is still much to be desired, yet that church cannot help being blessed as its scholars and laity return to God’s Word. How thankful we can be for Rome’s ecumenical vision! This has opened lines of communication that have previously been closed. Rome dialogues out of a sense of security. but every orthodox Protestant should welcome this unprecedented opportunity to witness. How thankful all can be that Home is “re-interpreting” her previous position on religious liberty! Even if her re-interpretation is not 100% Biblical, her up-dating will still be a welcome relief.

It is now time for orthodox Protestantism to undergo an aggiornamento. It should constantly update itself, delivering itself from a static, sterile traditionalism that is too often confused with orthodox Christianity, without foregoing its sound Biblical principles.

In this article Dr. Edwin H. Palmer, pastor of the Grandville Ave. Christian Reformed Church, Grand Rapids, MI, summarizes for the reader some of the significant changes which seem to be in the making as a result of Vatican II.