Michael Pakaluk, in a recent essay at “The Catholic Thing”, makes the claim that Vatican II, though containing many important teachings, has done all that it can do and will do, and is therefore, “spent.” Pakaluk is an ardent supporter of Vatican II and has no theological axe to grind against it, but he argues that Vatican II, as a self-described “pastoral council”, missed its pastoral moment. Therefore, Pakaluk says that we need a Vatican III in order to double-down on what was good in last council in order, presumably, to kickstart those elements once again.
As evidence for his assertion that Vatican II is “spent” he cites four reasons.
The first has already been mentioned: the Council’s “moment” to effect change has come and gone. In other words, all attempts at pastoral reform have an in-built shelf-life of opportunity and that shelf-life has now expired for Vatican II.
This leads to his second assertion, which is that the key themes of the Council, although excellent in themselves, now need to be carried forward through new initiatives since Vatican II lacks the inner resources to address the needs of today and to implement the very things it had called for.
Third, we had the long teaching pontificate of St. Pope John Paul II—but his papacy did not bring about the conciliar renewal that was needed. And if John Paul II could not move the needle, can we expect anyone else to do so now?
Pakaluk then concludes with his fourth assertion, which is the need for a new council.
Pakaluk makes excellent points, and I take him to be a friendly interlocutor. Nevertheless, I think there are problems with all four of his assertions. In this essay I will reply to the first of his assertions concerning the pastoral nature of Vatican II and leave the rest for future columns.
I think it is problematic to frame Vatican II as a purely pastoral affair or to assert that such pastoral initiatives always have a “practical” goal in view—and if that goal is not met in a timely manner, we must simply admit that it has failed. It is problematic because there is an implied pitting of the pastoral against the doctrinal, which is a common mistake made by many today in discussing the Council.
Too much is made of the Vatican II’s self-description as pastoral; it ignores the fact that the very “pastoral” aim of the Council, as stated by Pope John XXIII, was the renewal of theology and the casting of the Church’s doctrinal teachings in a more “evangelical” and less scholastic register. Pope John, in calling the council, did not task it with updating this or that particular doctrine in the light of modern challenges. He called on the Council in a very generic and unspecified way to re-interrogate the entirety of the deposit of the faith and to re-propose that deposit in a new form, stripped of turgid, neo-scholastic language and in a manner more Christological and evangelical.
To my knowledge, such a project had never before been attempted by the Church and it does not take a great deal of perspicacity to see that the risks and potential rewards in such an endeavor are immense. Succeed and the Church might just yet reinvigorate the West’s lost Christian culture; fail and the entire ecclesial edifice might just collapse into a ragtag flotilla of lost refugees in uncharted waters.
What Pope John was proposing now seems to us, after all of these years, as “old news” and rather “boilerplate” as a piece of historical information. But in reality the Pope’s mandate was the equivalent of a high-stakes gambler going “all in” with a poker hand that was not a slam dunk.
Furthermore, Vatican II did contain dogmatic constitutions (Lumen Gentium and Dei Verbum), and even though no new dogmas were proposed, many of the Church’s doctrinal teachings were indeed developed and modified in significant ways. (If this were not so, why did Archbishop Lefebvre eventually reject the council on specifically theological and doctrinal grounds?) And these doctrinal developments—religious freedom, the sources of Revelation, and the nature of salvation, to name a few—were precisely the central “pastoral” goal of the Council, which hoped that a renewal in theology would lead to a renewal of pastoral praxis. This may have been naïve, and even Pope Benedict XVI later implied that it was, but there can be no denying that the pastoral project of the Council contained doctrinal developments that cannot be viewed today as “spent”.
I am certain that Pakaluk understands all of this since he knows the Council well. But his brief essay leaves open-ended and incomplete the question of just what kind of pastoral council Vatican II was. It was no mere attempt at tweaking the structure of religious orders, a reform of the seminaries, or a recasting of various ecclesial disciplines. If that were true then Pakaluk would be correct in saying the pastoral goals of the Council were “practical” in an immediate sense. But it is not true, and by conflating the “pastoral” with the “practical” he mischaracterizes, however inadvertently, the true nature of the council’s pastoral efforts, which were decidedly doctrinal and theological.
However, Pakaluk is correct, as I also have noted elsewhere, that this pastoral project of the Council has been, so far, a failure. But viewing Vatican II as a pastoral failure is not the same as viewing it as “spent.” With the use of one word—homoousios—the Council of Nicaea, in 325, set off a firestorm that took many more centuries to resolve. Arianism most certainly did not disappear immediately and one can only wonder what St. Athanasius thought of the post-Nicene turmoil. It took several more councils and many more debated heresies, over many centuries, for the issues involved to even be partially resolved. Christological controversies, in other words, did not go away (and are still with us today) and all of this despite Nicaea and the subsequent councils.
Was the Nicene conciliar project therefore “spent” by the time Maximus the Confessor was having his tongue cut out for defending it many centuries later? Likewise, Vatican II is a mere 67 years in our rearview mirror, which is hardly a blink in ecclesiastical time. Therefore, to call it “spent” simply because it has not yet born the fruits it desired, I am convinced, is premature.
Of course, Nicaea did require follow-up councils to help clarify its meaning. And so perhaps Pakaluk is correct that we need a Vatican III. And it is that topic I will turn to in my next essay.
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