Last Monday’s Sightings observed and celebrated the fiftieth anniversary of official Roman Catholicism’s documentable change, at the Second Vatican Council, in concepts and practices of religious freedom. Robert Cushman of Duke University, a Protestant delegate-observer at the Council, was not alone or wrong when he concluded that the day of this vote changed “a very ancient order of things. …the era of Constantine—sixteen hundred years of it—passed away.”

Over-simple? Over-dramatic? Perhaps, but insightful.

My teacher whom I succeeded at the University of Chicago, Sidney Mead, had Cushman’s kind of concerns in mind with respect to the passage of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution when he quoted Winfred E. Garrison, whom I succeeded as Literary Editor at The Christian Century (this seems to be a succession-reminiscence day for me): “The declaration for religious freedom in the American Constitution of the two most profound revolutions which have occurred in the entire history of the church.” It signaled the end of Christendom’s administrative monopoly “after more than fourteen-hundred years.”

The U.S. Constitution applied directly only to the U.S., but its implications were and are worldwide. The Vatican Declaration on Religious Freedom applied directly only to Roman Catholicism, but its implications, using the definition of “catholic,” are “worldwide.”

You would think that every 1600 years—now, “plus fifty”—participants in “church” and “state” in many parts of the world would find occasion to blow trumpets. Yet commemorations of the day when the “Fathers” at the Vatican Council voted to move the Church to the side of change with respect to religious liberty were muted, easy to overlook in a world of competing cultures, pop-cultures, and sub-cultures.

In my office whence Monday's Sightings issue, I had difficulty finding many present-day testimonies on the subject. Yes, there had been a couple of conferences last spring, a few Catholic editorials recently, but not much more.

That led to some pondering about how news is made and used in respect to church and state matters, so we reflect this week on the meanings of the “what” of this every-1600-year change and the first-fifty-years-after neglect.

First, drastic change often arrives in complex packages, and it is hard to sort out all the phenomena as they appear in various nations with diverse histories. Thomas Berg, in a very long and searching journal article (see “Resources” below), traces changes on the close-to-home American front. As he shows, anti-Catholicism was a prominent feature of life among U.S. non-Catholics.

But the battle-fronts and coalitions changed. The question of Catholic power or “aggression” and American public education made front-page news regularly, but “church and state” understandings have changed often, since.

Christendom didn’t simply end with the American Bill of Rights in 1789 and Catholicdom didn’t simply end with the Vatican Declaration in 1965. During the 1960s, many in the U.S. feared that Catholics would “take over” public life and dominate. That fear has been replaced with battles over today’s favored sexual themes, in which conservative Protestants are in alliance with the Catholics they used to mistrust.

Some try to use and learn from the mirror of Catholic aggression and anti-Catholicism “then” and the fear of assertive and belligerent Muslim minorities as “aliens” now. The record of our years has revealed some progress when it comes to tolerance and inter-faith understandings. But, suddenly, the old specters shadowing inter-group relations darken much in civil life again.

Perhaps from all this we are learning that humans are enduringly tribal. We think again of John Dewey’s observation that people do not shoot at targets because they are there; they set up targets to make the act of shooting meaningful.

A Vatican Council vote in 1965 initiated changes in some 1600 year-old patterns. But the murderous tribalism that afflicts civil and religious societies today is so deep and extensive that people of goodwill need all the help they can get from precedents, of which the Council's Declaration was one example on one front.


Cushman, Robert E. and Godfrey Diekmann. “The James A. Gray Lectures on ‘The Second Vatican Council.’” Duke Divinity School Review 30:1 (Winter 1965).

Berg, Thomas C. “Anti-Catholicism and Modern Church-State Relations.” Loyola University Chicago Law Journal 33:1 (Summer 2002).

Mead, Sidney E. The Lively Experiment: The Shaping of Christianity in America. Reprint Edition. Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock Publishers, 2007.

Murray, John Courtney. “Paul Blanshard and the New Nativism.” Woodstock Theological Library at Georgetown University. Accessed December 13, 2015.

Massa, Mark. “Catholic-Protestant Tensions in Post-War America: Paul Blanshard, John Courtney Murray, and the ‘Religious Imagination.’” The Harvard Theological Review 95:3 (July 2002): 319-339.

Archbishop Chaput’s Reflections on Vatican II: ‘Will History Judge It a Success or a Failure?’”, October 13, 2005.


Author, Martin E. Marty, is the Fairfax M. Cone Distinguished Service Professor Emeritus of the History of Modern Christianity at the University of Chicago Divinity School. His biography, publications, and contact information can be found at


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 Managing Editor, Myriam Renaud