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Vatican II’s Contested Legacy

Review by Paul Avis

Vatican II
Did Anything Happen?
By Joseph A. Komonchak, John O’Malley, Neil J. Ormerod,
and Stephen Schloesser.
Edited by David G. Schultover.
Bloomsbury. Pp. 186. $19.95.

Vatican II
The Battle for Meaning
By Massimo Faggioli.
Paulist. Pp. 199. $14.95

Vatican II
The Essential Texts
Edited by Norman Tanner.
Image. Pp. 373. $16

Keys to the Council
Unlocking the Teaching of Vatican II
Edited by Richard Gaillardetz and Catherine E. Clifford.
Liturgical Press. Pp. xix + 198. $19.95

After Vatican II
Trajectories and Hermeneutics
Edited by James L. Heft and John O’Malley. Eerdmans. Pp. xxii +194. $40

The most momentous religious event of the 20th century was the Second Vatican Council. Its impact continues to reverberate into the 21st century and shows no sign of diminishing. Modern electronic communication has given the Council’s impact an immediacy and universality that no council before it enjoyed. The pastoral style and thematic coherence of the Council’s teaching has aided its dissemination and reception. The Council ran from 1962 to 1965; so now, in 2014, the commemorations are still in full swing. Commemorations? Perhaps “contestations” would be more apt. The real significance of the Council, the correct interpretation of its teaching, and therefore its legacy for the Roman Catholic Church today, has been disputed ever since.

In 1959 Pope John XXIII astonished the world — and his own bishops and cardinals — when he announced that he would call an ecumenical council, the 20th according to the reckoning of Roman Catholic authorities, but the first for nearly a century. When it met, 2,400 bishops participated, together with about 500 theological advisers and (for the first time) about 50 observers from other Christian churches. Against all the odds, the outcome of the Council was to transform the Church. James Carroll writes in a foreword to The Essential Texts: “They were old men (average age sixty), temperamentally conservative, culturally detached. Men of contradiction, they were schooled in anachronism in how they thought, spoke, dressed and lived — yet they presided at a climax of modernity. … Rigidly orthodox, they took instruction from innovators they had silenced” (p. 14).

One school of thought has emphasised the continuity of Vatican II with all that went before, especially Vatican I (1870-71), which solemnly defined universal papal jurisdiction and papal infallibility. For these conservative popes, bishops, and theologians, Vatican II changed little: it simply applied traditional teaching to modern circumstances. It was not a revolution, hardly even a watershed. “Business as usual” was and is their motto. They will not allow the outworking of Vatican II to interfere with the business of running the Roman Catholic Church from the centre, namely, the papal magisterium (in practice, the Roman Curia). The scholarly flagship of the conservative cause has been the journal Communio, founded in 1972 by Joseph Ratzinger, Hans Urs von Balthasar, and Henri de Lubac.

These conservative interpreters have looked to Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI to prevent change. In 1985 John Paul II convened an Extraordinary Assembly of the College of Bishops to take stock of the harvest of Vatican II. The official report of the Synod emphasised the continuity of the Council with all that had gone before. It insisted that the Council was “a legitimate and valid expression and interpretation of the deposit of faith as it is found in Sacred Scripture and in the living tradition of the Church.” It condemned any attempt to play the “letter” against the “spirit” of the Council. The report insisted that “The Church is one and the same throughout all the councils” (The Battle for Meaning, pp. 12-13). In other words, no change.

In 2000 John Paul II warned: ‘To read the Council as if it marked a break with the past, while in fact it placed itself in the line of the faith of all times, is decidedly unacceptable” (Did Anything Happen? p. 54). Nevertheless, John Paul II spoke more warmly of Vatican II than did his successor, Benedict XVI, and notably embraced its affirmation of human rights and its openness to other world faiths. In his Encyclical Ut Unum Sint (“That they may be one”) of 1995, John Paul took up the Council’s cordial approach to other Christian traditions and even pushed it slightly further.

Between 1988 and 2001 a five-volume History of Vatican II was produced under the editorship of Giuseppe Alberigo in Bologna (English translation edited by Joseph Komonchak [Orbis, 1995-2006]). By tracing the chequered career of the teaching documents, it enabled scholars to see the Council in full historical and political perspective as never before. Rather like modern biblical scholarship, the History of Vatican II brought out the contingent, human element in the emergence of the texts, including the elements of compromise and ambiguity in the drafting. For this reason it became an object of suspicion to conservatives and was unjustly attacked for liberal bias.

There have been diehard reactionaries within the church who have completely rejected the Council, seeing it as the epitome of all the heresies of the ages and therefore without legitimacy or authority. To some of them, like the late Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre, that was a reason to take schismatic action that led to his excommunication, although Benedict XVI sought to woo back his followers in the Society of St Pius X.

The younger Joseph Ratzinger took a different view of the Council to the Ratzinger who was prefect of the Congregation for the Faith and then pope. He saw it as a radical event, a watershed. “It was undoubtedly a rupture,” he said in 1966 after the Council, which he had attended as a theological adviser (peritus), “but a rupture within a fundamentally common intention” (The Battle for Meaning, p. 136). And in 1985 Ratzinger anticipated a renewal of the Council’s impact through discovering the true “spirit” of the Council beneath the texts.

However, in an address to the Roman Curia in 2005 Benedict XVI rejected what he called “a hermeneutic [method of interpretation] of discontinuity and rupture” and advocated instead “a hermeneutic of reform and renewal.” The Church grows and develops in time, yet always remains essentially the same. Benedict deplored appeals to “the spirit of the Council” that aimed to set up a trajectory of interpretation that would trump the texts. He called for “a dynamic of fidelity” and invoked what Pope John XXIII had said at the opening of the Council: traditional teaching would be brought into relation with modern thought and its research methods, without being changed in the process.

Benedict interpreted Pope John’s subtle statement on that occasion (“The substance of the ancient doctrine of the deposit of faith is one thing, and the way in which it is presented is another”) to mean that the Church’s “meaning and the message” are always the same (The Essential Texts, p. 6). Benedict went on to accept that the worldview of the 17th- and 18th-century Enlightenment, which was hostile to the idea of divine revelation, had given way to a new openness on the part of modern science. This fresh context also opened the possibility of a new partnership between church and state and a new attitude to other religions, especially Judaism. Benedict concluded: “It is precisely in this combination of continuity and discontinuity at different levels that the very nature of true reform consists.” His boldest gesture of affirmation was to describe the effect of the Council as a “process of innovation in continuity.” Benedict could not deny that the Council had “reviewed or even corrected certain historical decisions,” but he insisted that, in so doing, it had “actually preserved and deepened her inmost nature and true identity.”

As is widely acknowledged, Benedict’s stewardship of the See of Peter was marked in large part by caution and defensiveness. Change was to be feared. He will be remembered, as far as his teaching is concerned, more for his stern condemnation of modern liberal ideology, culture, and morals than for his edifying, indeed inspiring, theological encyclicals. As far as Ratzinger-Benedict was concerned, since the student riots across Europe in 1968 the West had been going to moral and intellectual rack and ruin. But in that address of 1962 to the Council, John XXIII had taken to task those gloomy souls for whom “the modern world is nothing but betrayal and ruin … prophets of doom who are forever forecasting calamity.” Last November, in his apostolic exhortation Evangelii Gaudium, Pope Francis deplored the “disillusioned pessimism” that “stifles boldness and zeal” and adopts a “sour” attitude to life. If Benedict XVI represented a recurrence of suspicion and fear, a return of the repressed, Francis embodies the humanity, joy, and optimism of John XXIII — “good Pope John” redivivus.

For other Roman Catholics, however, the Second Vatican Council changed everything. It brought the church into the modern world. It threw off the insularity, defensiveness — even paranoia — that had characterized that church since the 18th century, the era of the Enlightenment and the French Revolution, the lowest ebb of the church’s fortunes until today. It adopted a pastoral tone — not hectoring but inviting, not condemning but persuading: the first Council in history to do so since the Council of Jerusalem in Acts 15. It pronounced no anathemas. It opened the windows of the Church to fresh hope and renewed energies. The two watchwords — one Italian, one French — of its approach were aggiornamento (coming up to date, modernizing) and ressourcement (drawing on the neglected riches of ancient tradition, the writings of the early Fathers). The theological flagship of the progressive tendency in the interpretation of Vatican II is the journal Concilium (which first appeared in 1965), associated with Hans Küng, Yves Congar, Karl Rahner, and Edward Schillebeeckx.

In particular, Vatican II reversed the traditional rejection of religious liberty, emphasising freedom of conscience. It modified the traditional stance on the relation of church and state (that the state should be subordinate to the church), drawing on the American democratic, pluralistic experience (Rome had condemned “Americanism” in 1889). The Council recognised aspects of divine revelation in other major religions. It committed the Roman Catholic Church to the ecumenical movement, which had previously been off limits. It spoke in a friendly way to other Christians, recognising the elements of truth and grace in their churches. It revitalized liturgical worship, affirming that all the faithful participate in, and indeed celebrate corporately, the liturgy, especially the Eucharist. It set the Scriptures centre stage in worship and teaching and encouraged the faithful to study them.

Vatican II galvanized the church and made other Christians look Romeward with fresh eyes. Some were bowled over and converted. For progressives Vatican II changed a great deal. It was about reform and renewal — themes on which the Council had spoken in uncanny echoes of 16th-century Reformers. As Benedict had said, true reform involves both continuity and discontinuity. But where to put the emphasis remains hotly debated. As O’Malley puts it, to insist exclusively on continuity “is to blind oneself to the discontinuities, which is to blind oneself to change of any kind. And if there is no change, nothing happened” (Did Anything Happen? p. 56). To deny change is to negate history and if we do that we let tradition go (p. 58). In the 1840s John Henry Newman spelt out the fact of development — the development of doctrine, no less: an idea that, while vehemently resisted by the church at the time, allowed Newman to convert in 1845. It would be perverse to deny that development in the Church takes place; the crucial challenge is to find the criteria, or “tests” (as Newman called them), of authentic development, the kind that enable the Church to respond to the demands of mission while remaining faithful to the gospel.

Vatican II remains unfinished business in the sense that, in some key areas, it has not been followed through; its implementation has been aborted. Hermann Pottmeyer describes Vatican II as “a building site.” Four great supporting columns for a renewed Church and a renewed theology of the Church have been erected: the idea of the Church as “the people of God”; the idea of the Church as the sacrament of the Kingdom of God in the world; the doctrine of the collegiality of the episcopate; and the openness to dialogue with separated Christian traditions. But, argues Pottmeyer, the great dome that should rest on the four pillars has never been built. The pillars still await the dome that would draw them into a unity (The Battle for Meaning, p. 124). The Christian world waits in prayerful expectation to see how far Pope Francis will be able to complete the unfinished business of Vatican II.

The Council has also had an enormous impact on Anglicanism, especially on the Anglican understanding of the Church, its liturgy, ministry, mission, and approach to Christian unity. By opening Rome to ecumenical dialogue it made the work of the Anglican-Roman Catholic International Commission (ARCIC) possible. With a few bumps along the road, ARCIC has achieved significant convergence in several areas that previously separated our two traditions: eucharistic theology, ministry and ordination, justification, ecclesiology, and authority. In the spirit of ARCIC, Anglicans and Roman Catholics have come together locally in many practical ways, and their bishops have held conversations in various parts of the world under the aegis of a parallel but more recent body, the International Anglican-Roman Catholic Commission for Unity and Mission. A debate about the legacy and significance of Vatican II that may appear at first sight to be a purely internal issue for Roman Catholics is actually vitally important to Anglicans.

So what resources will enable us to understand what Vatican II had to say and what we can learn from it? The texts that the Council produced are available in English, Latin, and many other languages at is.gd/VaticanII. There are several English translations of the documents published in book form, including those by Walter Abbott, SJ (1966) and the generally superior edition by Austin Flannery, OP (1975, with subsequent revisions). The standard, authoritative translation is now that edited by Norman Tanner, SJ, Decrees of the Ecumenical Councils (Georgetown University Press, 1990), in two volumes with Latin and English facing each other on each page. But most of us are grateful for some guidance in choosing and understanding what to read. Tanner’s Vatican II: The Essential Texts has interesting introductory essays by Benedict XVI and James Carroll, as well as brief prefaces to each document. It is a handy size for carrying around and dipping into, but it contains only six of the sixteen documents produced by the Council.

Much more helpful to someone wanting to get to grips with the riches of Vatican II is the well-named Keys to the Council: Unlocking the Teaching of Vatican II by Richard R. Gaillardetz and Catherine E. Clifford. These gifted authors provide beautifully clear, exceptionally edifying expositions of the central texts, especially in sacramental theology, though not the full texts themselves. It is the best introduction to the doctrinal legacy of Vatican II that I have come across and would be an excellent resource for group study.

Two titles take us to the heart of the contested legacy of Vatican II. Faggioli’s Vatican II: The Battle for Meaning discusses the “reception” of the Council. While the author’s personal commitment to the progressive or liberal interpretation is apparent, he deals fairly with other views. Considering that English is not the author’s first language, it is very readable. John O’Malley’s Vatican II: Did Anything Happen? is on the whole a more polemical, combative contribution to the contest for the patrimony of the Council. It is suitable for readers who are already versed in the key texts and familiar with ecclesiastical politics. Alongside these, a more academic collection, Heft and O’Malley’s After Vatican II, discusses a range of issues in the wake of the Council, including moral theology, “New Catholic Movements,” and the attitude to other faiths, especially Judaism.

The Rev. Paul Avis is honorary professor of theology at the University of Exeter, editor-in-chief of the journal Ecclesiology, and a chaplain to HM Queen Elizabeth II.


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