The Legacy of Vatican II

This is the first in a two-part series as the Church prepares to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the closing of the Second Vatican Council Dec. 8. OSV Newsweekly will publish the second part in the Nov. 22 issue.

Half a century after the close of the Second Vatican Council, two big questions are still looking for definitive answers: What was the council all about? What did it accomplish?

Disagreements on both things can be heated.

In a way, that’s not surprising. Blessed John Henry Newman, eminent 19th century British convert and theologian, once remarked that it was “rare” for an ecumenical council not to be followed by “great confusion.”

“The century following each council has ever been a time of great trial,” Cardinal Newman said at the time of Vatican Council I (1869-70). He added that Vatican I “seems likely to be no exception.”

Vatican II, which opened Oct. 11, 1962, and ended Dec. 8, 1965, is no exception, either.

Bishops leave St. Peter’s Basilica after a meeting of the Second Vatican Council in 1962. CNS photo

One reason for that is fairly simple. The previous 20 ecumenical councils in the Church’s history dealt with only a few issues. The councils of the early centuries, for example, focused on doctrinal questions about the two natures in Christ, and Vatican I was concerned especially with the infallibility and primacy of the pope.

By contrast, topics treated in the 16 documents emanating from the Second Vatican Council range from liturgy to laity, ecumenism to missionary work and much — very much — more (see sidebar). That provides plenty of room for disagreement over what the council was about.

But there’s also another reason: ideology. Like it or not, during the last half-century, Vatican II has served as an unintended vehicle for radically contrasting agendas for the Church. One sees Vatican II as the basis for a program of renewal in vital continuity with the tradition of the Church. Another points to the council as the source and rationale for a sharp break with the past. And a third agenda is promoted by people who preferred the Church as it was before the council — and in some cases believe it is the only real Church — and would like to return to that.

Needless to say, the first agenda is the right one. Pope Benedict XVI spelled this out in an important address to the Roman Curia in 2005. Benedict, who two years ago resigned the papacy for reasons of age and health and now lives in retirement in the Vatican, spoke of two “hermeneutics” — two different ways of interpreting Vatican II.

One he called “a hermeneutic of discontinuity and rupture,” and blamed for causing “confusion” since the council. The other, which he held to be the correct reading of Vatican II, was a “hermeneutic of reform” committed to “renewal in the continuity of the one subject-Church.”

Praising the idea of “innovation in continuity,” Pope Benedict said: “It is precisely in this combination of continuity and discontinuity ... that the very nature of true reform consists.” Pope Francis has said he shares this view of the council.

What follows here takes for granted this fundamental understanding of Vatican Council II as sketched by Benedict XVI. The framework is supplied by the council’s four principal documents — “constitutions,” they are called — on liturgy, divine revelation, the Church and the Church in the modern world.

Clearly, whatever else the council was about, it was about the renewal of the Catholic Church, something not to be brought about by a blind leap into an unknown future but by a return to the Church’s sources via a process called “ressourcement.”

This was not just for the sake of the Church itself. The aim, rather, was to make the Church a more effective instrument for communicating the message of Christ to a world that in recent centuries more and more closed its ears to the Gospel.

In his famous opening address to Vatican II, delivered on Oct. 11, 1962, St. John XXIII, the beloved “Good Pope John,” who less than four years earlier surprised nearly everyone by announcing his intention to convoke an ecumenical council, underlined the need to transmit doctrine “pure and integral, without any attenuation or distortion.”

But more than that. It was necessary, he said, not only to “guard this precious treasure” but to make sure it was “presented in a way that corresponds to the needs of our time.”

Viewed against this background, three broad Vatican II themes stand out: prayer, worship and the life of the spirit; the nature, structures and processes of the Church; and the Church’s relationship with the secular world. This is the context in which to seek the legacy of the council.

Council's Opening Address
opening session
Pope St. John XXIII leads the opening session of the Second Vatican Council on Oct. 11, 1962. CNS photo
In his opening address to the first session of Vatican Council II on Oct. 11, 1962, St. John XXIII gave a clear explanation of his reason for convoking the council. Declaring the “great problem confronting the world” to be ignorance of and indifference to Christ and his teaching, he said:

1. Prayer, worship and the life of the spirit

The Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy — Sacrosanctum Concilium is its Latin name — is central to any discussion of Vatican II and the life of the spirit.

A long history of liturgical renewal preceded this document. It included the emergence of a lively liturgical reform movement dating back to the late 19th century, Pope Pius XII’s groundbreaking 1947 encyclical Mediator Dei and the liturgical reforms Pope Pius subsequently introduced and the adoption of innovations like the so-called “dialogue Mass” involving congregational participation.

These pre-Vatican II reforms made passing the liturgy constitution relatively easy. Thus, it became the first document approved by the council.

Pope Benedict XVI leaves an audience in October 2012 with bishops who attended the Second Vatican Council. CNS photo

To a great extent, then, the constitution is important for recognizing and ratifying what was achieved even before Vatican II. Contrary to what many people suppose, it does not abolish Latin in the Mass or mandate such now-familiar features as extraordinary lay ministers of Communion and female altar servers — although the council did open the door to these and other later developments.

The first chapter of the constitution is the crucial theological section.

It stresses the presence and action of Christ in the Mass and sacraments, which are also actions of the Church, declares the liturgy to be the “summit” toward which all the Church’s activity is directed and the “fount” from which all its power comes, and calls on pastors to make sure the faithful take part in the liturgy “fully aware of what they are doing, actively engaged in the rite and enriched by it” (Sacrosanctum Concilium, Nos. 5-13). Here is the key to the ideal of active participation that has dominated liturgical thinking since Vatican II.

Another pillar of Vatican II’s view of the life of the spirit is its emphasis on Scripture as the foundation of Catholic faith. The central document on this subject is the Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation, Dei Verbum.

Setting aside old disputes about modern Bible studies, the constitution takes it for granted that Scripture scholarship, including the analysis of literary forms and historical studies, is a useful tool for understanding the word of God. Father Francis Martin, an American Scripture scholar, says Dei Verbum “remained faithful to the teaching of Tradition on key issues ... while setting the stage for an integration of modern historical work within the tradition.” Now, he adds, it is up to the theologians to tackle that task.

The constitution also provides strong encouragement to the ongoing effort to make the study and prayerful use of the Bible an integral part of the prayer and worship of lay Catholics. Quoting St. Jerome, the famed fourth- and fifth-century translator of the Bible: “Ignorance of the Scriptures is ignorance of Christ” — the Constitution on Divine Revelation says: “Just as the life of the Church is strengthened through more frequent celebration of the Eucharistic mystery, similar we may hope for a new stimulus for the life of the Spirit from a growing reverence for the word of God” (Dei Verbum, No. 26).

This attention to the spiritual lives of the laity, prominent in Vatican II’s discussion of both the liturgy and Scripture, reaches a high point in the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, Lumen Gentium. (The Latin means “the light of nations” or, in one translation, “the light of humanity.” While this is sometimes taken as a reference to the Church, it is clear from the text that the council is speaking here of Christ.)

Not only does Lumen Gentium use “People of God” as its preferred name for the Church, Chapter 4 of the document is devoted entirely to the laity while Chapter 5, titled “The Call to Holiness,” makes it clear that holiness is for everyone. The constitution puts it like this: “all the faithful of Christ of whatever rank or status, are called to the fullness of the Christian life and to the perfection of charity;(4*) by this holiness as such a more human manner of living is promoted in this earthly society. ... The classes and duties of life are many, but holiness is one ...” (Lumen Gentium, Nos. 40-41).

The council goes on to speak specifically of married couples and parents, widows and single people, workers, the poor and the sick.

In a sense, this wasn’t new. The Church had always offered laypeople the means to sanctity — prayer, the sacraments, the generous service of others — and encouraged the laity to use them. Yet for centuries, the working assumption seemed to be that it was unreasonable to ask more than spiritual minimalism of laypeople.

In the years before Vatican II, groups like Opus Dei, Focolare and the secular institutes had emerged and begun to encourage the sanctity of laypeople living and working in the world. Recent popes said the same. Now this message was endorsed by Vatican II itself: “All Christ’s faithful, whatever be the conditions, duties and circumstances of their lives — and indeed through all these, will daily increase in holiness, if they receive all things with faith” (Lumen Gentium, No. 41). Here was a breakthrough of historic proportions.

Paul VI
Blessed Pope Paul VI presides over a meeting of the Second Vatican Council in St. Peter’s Basilica at the Vatican in 1963. The council concluded Dec. 8, 1965 -- 50 years ago next month. CNS photo

2. Nature, structures, and processes of the Church

Another shift with profound implications for the future was the council’s teaching on the Church. The late Cardinal Avery Dulles, an ecclesiologist of note, rejected the idea that doctrinal developments promoted by Vatican II were revolutionary and stressed the continuity with earlier councils and popes. But they are no less significant on that account.

A young German theologian who played a major part in formulating Vatican II’s thinking on the Church noted at the time that the Constitution on the Liturgy made an important contribution in this area.

First, said Father Joseph Ratzinger, later known to the world as Pope Benedict XVI, it emphasized “the dialogical nature of the whole liturgical celebration and its essence as the common service of the People of God.” Second, by assigning responsibility for liturgical decisions — “within limits” — to national conferences of bishops, it contributed mightily to “the long desired strengthening of episcopal power.”

A key element here is the doctrine of collegiality in whose development Father Ratzinger is credited with having a key role. The idea of collegiality is set out in Chapter 3 of Lumen Gentium entitled “The Church is Hierarchical.”

Starting from the insight that the world’s bishops make up a body or “college” of successors to the Apostles themselves, the doctrine of collegiality underlines the point that bishops, acting in union with the pope, participate in teaching and governing the Church. Collegiality moved from theory to reality during Vatican II when Pope Paul VI at the start of the council’s fourth and final session announced the creation of a new institution — the world Synod of Bishops — as a permanent embodiment of collegiality. Father Ratzinger, writing at the time, spoke of the synod as being something like a “permanent council in miniature.”

If the synod in practice has proved to be considerably less than that up to now, it nevertheless has become an important instrument in the decision-making process at the top levels of the Church — never more so than in the recent synods on the family, last year and this year, to which Pope Francis has turned for advice on thorny problems.

50th anniversary
The faithful attend a candlelight vigil in St. Peter’s Square at the Vatican on Oct. 11, 2012, to mark the 50th anniversary of the opening of the Second Vatican Council. CNS photo

3. The Church and the world

Collegiality is essentially an inward-looking principle that has to do with questions of teaching and governance. Vatican II also broke new ground by turning its attention to the world outside the Church in its Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World, Gaudium et Spes (“Joy and Hope”). In this way, the council was heeding its own teaching that separating faith and life is “among the more serious errors of our age” and badly needs correcting (Gaudium et Spes, No. 43).

The results were mixed.

On the one hand, the pastoral constitution was a bold and innovative step on the bishops’ part to enter into dialogue with the new secular realities of the day. Its famous opening sentence communicates this spirit in dramatic terms:

“The joys and hopes, the griefs and the anxieties of the men of this age, especially those who are poor or in any way afflicted, these are the joys and hopes, the griefs and anxieties of the followers of Christ” (Gaudium et Spes, No. 1).

On the other hand, critics like Father Ratzinger held then and continue to hold that, sometimes at least, the pastoral constitution takes a simplistic, overly optimistic view of the human condition in the late 20th century.

To its credit, nonetheless, the council did not offer easy solutions for the many problems it addressed. That was notably true of modern warfare and the threat of nuclear war. While condemning the indiscriminate “destruction of entire cities of vast areas” such as would occur in all-out nuclear war, the pastoral constitution stopped short of saying no to any use of nuclear weapons and to nuclear deterrence. This approach, said Father Ratzinger, represented an “emergency morality” in the face of the “radical unrighteousness” present in the modern world.

Possibly the most important contribution of Gaudium et Spes was its emphasis on the dignity of the human person, viewed from a perspective very different from that of secular liberal democracy. American theologian J. Brian Benestad says Vatican II’s vision is summed up in its affirmation that Christ “fully reveals man to himself and makes his supreme calling clear” (Gaudium et Spes, No. 22). Says Benestad: “It is the actual communion with God that perfects the dignity of human beings.”

If this and other elements of the legacy of Vatican II have not had the impact on the Church and the world that 50 years ago the council hoped for, it is hardly the council’s fault.

Several years after its close, the French theologian Father Yves Congar, himself a major influence on Vatican II’s thinking, wrote that the council had “many very substantial fruits.” (Some of these have been noted here.) But it also had another, unexpected result: in opening up doors and windows in the Church, he said, “the crisis also entered.”

Russell Shaw is an OSV contributing editor.

The documents of Vatican II