Why Vatican II?

One of the many peculiarities of contemporary Catholicism resides in the fact that so many people on the extreme left and extreme right of the Church are in basic agreement about the Second Vatican Council. In fundamental ways, they insist, Vatican II was a sharp break with the Catholic past. People on the left generally applaud that; people on the right deplore it. That it’s so is an item of faith for them all.

This surprising consensus among people otherwise often at one another’s throats deserves a fresh look as the 50th anniversary of Pope John XXIII’s announcement that he was convening Vatican II draws near. On January 25, 1959, Good Pope John shook up a small group of cardinals and others gathered at a Roman basilica by disclosing that he intended to call together the bishops of the world to do . . . what? There was no agreement then, and there’s surprisingly little now.

Start by dismissing the idea that the heart of the council’s achievement was to put the Mass in English, turn altars around so priests face the congregation, and let lay people distribute communion. These things may or may not have their roots in Vatican II (although you won’t find them in the council documents), but they’re small potatoes compared with the larger things at stake.

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As it happens, John XXIII gave a clear account of those larger things when he opened Vatican II on October 11, 1962. To the extent that his talk is remembered at all today, it’s for his criticism of “prophets of gloom” in the Roman Curia. But he said much more than that. Specifically, he explained exactly why he’d called the council.

John XXIII began by insisting that the “great problem” of the modern world was rejection of Christ. Back in 1962, that was a reference to the spread of secularism then well underway in the West and to the rule of atheistic communism in the Soviet Union, China, and other areas of the world. Even then, furthermore, the farsighted pope may have discerned a resurgence of fundamentalist Islam taking shape just over the horizon.

So, in view of all this, why Vatican II? “The greatest concern of this ecumenical council,” he said, “is . . . that the sacred deposit of Christian doctrine should be guarded and taught more efficaciously.” Here, after all, was the heart of the message Christ had entrusted to his followers to be spread. But to bring about that revival of evangelization, the structures and methods of the Church needed updating and renewal that would make them more effective tools. There you had it: aggiornamento for the sake of the Good News.

If you doubt this interpretation, go back and read what Pope John said. You’ll see it’s correct. Still, it isn’t good enough for people on the far left, who usually profess to be great admirers of John XXIII, or those on the far right, who, truth to tell, are leery of him even now.

For the ideologues of the right, Pope John’s council was a betrayal of the tradition on matters like freedom of conscience, ecumenism, and what it means to say Christ’s Church “subsists in” the Catholic Church. So, for that matter, were the changes in the liturgy that came after Vatican II, though these often seemed to have little to do with what the council itself said. One way or another, it added up to a sharp departure from centuries of Catholic faith and practice.

Although the far left wing of today’s Catholicism agrees that the council broke with the past, its position is more audacious and, perversely, more interesting than the view on the right. A crucial figure of the ecclesiastical left is the late Giuseppe Alberigo, a leader in the “Bologna school” of Vatican II interpreters and chief editor of a massive five-volume history of the council (published in the United States by Orbis) designed to shape understanding of the council for decades — even centuries — to come.

Alberigo sums it all up at the conclusion of his 2006 A Brief History of Vatican II (also from Orbis), a less scholarly, more impassioned, and generally more candid account of his intentions than the five-volume work. What’s really important about the council, he says, is not what it said and did, but the process it supposedly began. “In the long term,” he writes, “what characterizes the shift begun by the Council is the abandonment of the Counter-Reformation and the Constantinian age. This is necessarily a complex and gradual transition, and the Council’s contribution was to create a foundation for this and to signal its beginnings.” As for looking for the meaning of the council in the 16 documents that contain its teaching, that is “fatal to the image” of Vatican II.

But, as Alberigo knew perfectly well, that’s exactly where Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, now better known as Pope Benedict XVI, has for years insisted on finding the meaning of the council. In doing so, Benedict XVI contrasts the hermeneutic of “rupture” — advocated by Alberigo and his colleagues — with the approach to Vatican II that he calls a hermeneutic of continuity.

It hardly needs saying that the fathers of the Second Vatican Council would have been horrified by the suggestion that they were cutting the Church loose from its roots in the Tradition. For them, the council’s teaching on even contested points — freedom of conscience is a good example — was a doctrinal development, not a break with the past. Pretty clearly, Benedict XVI has got Vatican II straight.

But 50 years after Pope John XXIII’s startling announcement, there are reasons for disappointment with the results of the council up to now — reasons that have nothing to do with complaints emanating from either the far left or the far right. Follow-through on the decisions of Vatican II has been disturbingly spotty and incomplete. In some matters, we may actually have fallen back. Here the council’s ecclesiology of communion — the vision of the Church as a body whose hierarchical structure coexists with a fundamental equality of all the members in dignity, rights, and mission — is especially relevant.

Consider this from the dogmatic constitution on the Church:

The laity should promptly accept in Christian obedience what is decided by the pastors . . . . The pastors . . . should recognize and promote the dignity and responsibility of the laity in the Church. They should willingly use their prudent advice and confidently assign duties to them . . . . They should give them the courage to undertake works on their own initiative . . . . Many benefits for the Church are to be expected from this familiar relationship between the laity and the pastors (Lumen Gentium, 37).

There may be local churches where that describes what really happens. There certainly are local churches where it doesn’t. Fifty years after Pope John XXIII said he was convening an ecumenical council to renew the Church for the work of evangelization, an enormous amount of work remains undone.


  • Russell Shaw

    Russell Shaw is the author of Catholic Laity in the Mission of the Church (Requiem Press), Nothing to Hide: Secrecy, Communication, and Communion in the Catholic Church (Ignatius Press), and other works.

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