October 11th marks the sixtieth anniversary of the formal opening of the Second Vatican Council. In the lead-up to that day in 1962, my fifth-grade teacher, Sister Regina Rose (who just died last year at the age of 106!), told us that this would be a momentous event, and she urged us to keep a scrapbook of news clippings about the Council. I dutifully obeyed and filled several scrapbooks through the Council’s close in 1965; regrettably, that “archival” work was lost in one of our family moves.
An ecumenical council is a worldwide gathering of bishops, usually called together to deal with a specific problem. Vatican II was the twenty-first council in the history of the Church, however, it differed from the others in two important ways.
First, this council was truly ecumenical, in the sense that bishops from every race and continent participated in its proceedings. Such broad representation was possible because of the tremendous missionary activity of the Church in the previous century and also because of modern modes of transportation.
Second, Vatican II did not have to confront any immediate doctrinal crisis (at least on the surface), unlike the Councils of Nicea, Chalcedon and Ephesus, which all had to deal with serious Christological disputes.1
According to Catholic belief, an ecumenical council is the highest collegial teaching authority in the Church. In it, bishops express their unity in faith by responding to the call of the Bishop of Rome to assemble. They then have their deliberations approved and promulgated by the Pope. Thus, an ecumenical council is the most visible manifestation of ecclesial communion as the bishops representing various “local churches” (that is, dioceses) meet cum Petro et sub Petro (with Peter and under Peter).
Catholics also hold, along with the Eastern Orthodox, that an ecumenical council is presided over in a special way by the Holy Spirit. It was exactly this insight that prompted the apostolic community to observe that its early assembly in Jerusalem to resolve a major crisis was the work of the Holy Spirit: “It is the decision of the Holy Spirit, and ours too…” (Acts 15:28). The Church of the Apostles had no doubts about identifying their decisions with those of the promised Spirit who would lead them into all truth (see Jn 16:13).
Pope John XXIII convoked the Council on January 25, 1959, the Feast of the Conversion of St. Paul, at the conclusion of the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity. This timing was no accident. One of the goals of Vatican II, according to Pope John, was to remove obstacles to Christian unity.2 Another was to launch the Church on a program of aggiornamento or “updating.” The ambiguity of that word aggiornamento, however, proved to be more troublesome than John XXIII ever imagined.
On the feast of the Maternity of Mary, October 11, 1962, more than 2,000 bishops processed into St. Peter’s Basilica for the opening ceremonies. The Council had been prepared over a three-year period; its actual working sessions would stretch out for another three years as well. In point of fact, Pope Pius XII had been planning for a council for several years.
Both internally and externally, the Church had every reason to hope that Vatican II would be one of its finest hours. The Council Fathers produced sixteen documents (four constitutions, nine decrees and three declarations – of which, a dogmatic constitution has the highest degree of authority). These statements touched on every aspect of Catholic life: liturgy, communications, ecclesiology, ecumenism, religious life, the priesthood, Catholic education, relations with non-Christians, the laity, missionary efforts, religious liberty, and the role of the Church in the modern world. The Council concluded on the feast of the Immaculate Conception, December 8, 1965 (thus the Council began and ended on a Marian note), under Pope Paul VI, who had inherited it from John XXIII at his death and who had brought it to a conclusion.
Many commentators have maintained that the three principal achievements of Vatican II were liturgical reform, the scriptural revival, and the development of deeper insights into the nature of the Church. Interestingly, these advances did not occur in a vacuum but had been anticipated by the work of theologians for decades and had received official encouragement during the pontificate of Pius XII who, in many ways, can be seen as the man who made Vatican II possible. Where would liturgical renewal have been without Pius XII’s Mediator Dei (1947)? Or the scriptural revival without Divino Afflante Spiritu (1943)? Or ecclesiology without Mystici Corporis Christi (1943)? In fact, the documents of Vatican II are in perfect continuity with every previous council and pope. This is especially true of the way Vatican II built on Vatican I (1869-70), linking the papal and episcopal ministries.3
While there was great euphoria during and in the immediate aftermath of the Council, things soured rather quickly.4 Truth be told, the aftermath of every council has been marked by instability as well as by certain achievements.5 The negative byproducts of this Council are four: disunity, the confusion of many laity, liturgical chaos, and a loss of identity by some clergy and Religious. All of these negatives, in turn, can be traced to a post-conciliar habit of appealing to the “spirit” of the Council to justify the watering down of doctrines and conciliar mandates. In St. John Henry Cardinal Newman’s magisterial work on The Arians of the Fourth Century, he quotes with approval an observation of St. Gregory Nazianzen in one of his letters: “If I must speak the truth, I feel disposed to shun every conference of bishops; because I never saw a synod brought to a happy issue, nor remedying, but rather increasing, existing evils.”6
Sixty years is not a long time for a Church whose life spans nearly 2,000 years. After all, people expressing impatience with the Holy See are often reminded: “Here in Rome we think in centuries!” And it is also true that after every other council, implementation took decades.7 However, given the modern means of communication at our disposal, many Catholics expected much more, much sooner.
How can Vatican II be brought to full fruition? It will only happen when committed Catholics – hierarchy from the top down, included – begin to read, prayerfully (or re-read, as for the first time), the sixteen conciliar documents, rather than read about them. Some of the best-kept secrets of contemporary Catholicism are locked away in those pages. Many people advocate programs in the name of Vatican II but have never actually read Vatican II itself. Correct interpretation of any council consists of taking the final documents as the point of departure – not what the discussions of a council may have been about any particular topic.
Furthermore, conciliar documents, like Sacred Scripture itself, are not always self-explanatory; they require careful interpretations. And so, logic would lead us to assume that the Popes closest to the Council would be its most qualified and reliable interpreters: Popes Paul VI and John Paul II were Council Fathers, while Benedict XVI was a Council peritus (an expert theological consultant). All three were of one mind on how the Council should be understood and received. Pope Benedict coined two expressions to characterize methods of conciliar interpretation: a hermeneutic of continuity vs. a hermeneutic of rupture.
All three prelates were unanimous in holding for a reception of Vatican II which sees it within the context of the preceding twenty councils. I believe it fair to say that by the time Francis acceded to the Chair of Peter, there was relative peace in the Church (not total, but reasonably peaceful). Only in the present pontificate have we heard papal support for the notion that Vatican II created a brave new Church – especially emanating from those deemed close and respected spokesmen for this Pope. It is not unreasonable to conclude that policies and procedures of the current Pope – enlivening his encouragement to the participants in World Youth Day in Rio to “hagan lío – have had a rather predictable effect as seen in the decline of every objective measure of Catholic life throughout the Universal Church – none of which correspond to the “real” Vatican II.
Three further points: First, Vatican II is one of twenty-one councils; it is not a “super-council,” any more than any other council is. Hence, it is to take its place in light of its twenty predecessors. Second, many councils were only marginally successful or even unsuccessful.8
It is fascinating to consider that the far-left and the far-right in the Church opt for regarding the Council through the prism of rupture. Third, not infrequently, Catholics of a certain age continue to speak of Vatican II as a present reality, seemingly oblivious to the fact that younger generations consider Vatican II as ancient to them as Nicea II!
Would-be “conservatives” or “traditionalists” do no favor to the Church by imputing illegitimacy to Vatican II as others can operate in like manner regarding any other council in history (or for any to come). Again, Newman comes to the rescue by reminding us of a comment of St. Athanasius aimed at those who questioned the validity of Nicea I: “The devil alone persuades you to slander the ecumenical council.”
If I might play the role of Monday-morning quarterback here by suggesting what might have been very useful: I think that it would have been most helpful if John Paul II and/or Benedict XVI had produced a document offering a definitive interpretation of the Second Vatican Council. To be sure, both Pontiffs expressed their clear understanding of the Council in numerous ways. However, something more formal and binding may have forestalled the problematic approaches to the Council of the current pontificate although – given the behavior pattern of the past eight years – one cannot assume categorically that such a document would have been accepted as “formal and binding.” Perhaps we need to await a new occupant in the Chair of Peter.
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