Protestant Reactions to Vatican II: Introduction

Vatican II
Vatican II

Over the next two weeks, Pursuing Veritas will be offering an overview of Protestant Reactions to the Second Vatican Council of the Roman Catholic Church.  This series is presented with at least one major caveat: Not every Protestant reaction to Vatican II has been examined — indeed, many of the most “interesting” were omitted due to their lack of critical credulity. Accordingly, this series does not pretend to speak for all Protestants (or even “Protestantism”, whatever that might mean). Instead, this series intends to provide some perspective on how “the other half” of Western Christianity has responded over the years to the watershed moment what is the Second Vatican Council.

Throughout the long and varied history of Christianity there have been events which indelibly impacted and shaped subsequent generations and iterations of Christian faith around the world. The Edict of Milan, the development of Augustinian theology, and the Protestant Reformation are such clear watershed moments. For some, the election of Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio as Pope Francis may eventually become a similar watershed moment in the history of Christianity, as a pope bringing the Catholic Church into the 21st century. Francis’ tendency to give straight-forward (and occasionally inflammatory) interview answers,[1] his clear willingness to care for the needy and disfigured,[2] his growing crack down on Church excess,[3] and his servitude toward all people, even those outside the fold of the Catholic Church,[4] have led to numerous dissections of the influences behind this new pope. Traditionalists have decried him, many Catholics have embraced him, and even Protestants have weighed in on Francis’ practices and teachings as Bishop of Rome.[5] However, as popular Pope Francis may be right now, and as long-lasting the impact of his papacy may be long term, thinking about Francis must occur within the wider the theological context of the Roman Catholic Church, namely, that of the Second Vatican Council.

Pope Francis
Pope Francis

Vatican II represents the single most influential event in recent Roman Catholic history. The council directly impacted the election and papacy of Francis’ four predecessors, and continues to effect Francis’ own papacy, though Bergoglio himself was not part of the council. Indeed, much of modern Roman Catholic life in the Vatican entails interpreting and applying the decrees and constitutions of the Second Vatican Council. As central as this event continues to be for modern Roman Catholicism, there have been few detailed Protestant responses to the council and its canons, despite the nearly fifty years between the closing of the council and today. Given the fragmented nature of Protestant Christianity, this lack of response undoubtedly stems from the lack of a unified Protestant body to address the Catholic unity of Vatican II.[6] However, given the increase in Protestant-Catholic dialogue following Vatican II and ongoing collaborative projects such as the Manhattan Declaration, First Things, and the Common Ground Initiative, it remains surprising that few Protestant scholars and theologians have offered responses to the canons of the Second Vatican Council. Despite the paucity of detailed Protestant responses to the council, several reputable Protestant scholars have offered partial assessments of Vatican II. In examining these responses, this study argues that despite general Protestant warming to Roman Catholic conceptions of non-Catholic Christians, the Priesthood, the revisions of the liturgy, and statements concerning religious freedom, there genuine concerns among Protestants pertaining to the Roman Catholic conception of Divine Revelation and the Church.


[1] Spadaro, Antonio. “A Big Heart Open to God.” America: The National Catholic Review. Interview. 30 September 2013. Online; Winters, Michael Sean. “Pope Francis’ latest bombshell interview.” National Catholic Reporter. Interview. 1 October 2013. Online. [2] Burke, Daniel and Liva Borghese. “Disfigured man embraced by Pope: ‘I felt only love’”. CNN Religion. 18 November 2013. Online. [3] Bentson, Clark. “Pope Suspends Bishop of Bling.” ABC News. 23 October 2013. Online. [4] Smith-Spark, Laura. “Pope Francis washes youths’ feet at detention center.” CNN. 28 March 2013. Online. [5] Gibson, David. “Pope Francis is unsettling—and dividing—the Catholic right.” Religion News Service. 6 August 2013. Online; Odone, Cristina. “Pope Francis, the poster boy for today’s Catholics.” The Telegraph: Religion. 17 November 2013. Online. [6] Duncan, Graham A. “A Protestant Perspective on Vatican II & 50 Years: An Engagement with Dissent.” HTS Theological Studies. 69(1), 2013. 11 pages. Electronic, 1. [7] This paper was originally written from Dr. Bill Leonard at Wake Forest University. All opinions expressed are those of Jacob Prahlow and all errors are solely this author’s fault.


Published by Jacob J. Prahlow

Husband of Hayley. Dad of Bree and Judah. Lead pastor at Arise Church. MATS from Saint Louis University, MA from Wake Forest University, BA from Valparaiso University. Theologian and writer here and at Conciliar Post. Find me on social at @pastorjakestl

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