The unfinished agenda of Vatican II

This is the second in a two-part series as the Church prepares to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the closing of the Second Vatican Council. OSV Newsweekly published the first part in the Nov. 15 issue.

When people refer to the “unfinished agenda” of the Second Vatican Council, they usually mean things they believe need doing in order to pick up where Vatican II left off. Those things are of two different kinds.

In one sense, the council’s unfinished agenda is composed of reforms it initiated that haven’t been fully implemented up to now.

A young German theologian, Father Joseph Ratzinger — later to be known to the world as Pope Benedict XVI — said at the time that the “real importance” of the council would be in “its translation into the realities of everyday Church life.”

Pope Francis leaves after the closing Mass of the Synod of Bishops on the Family at the Vatican on Oct. 25. CNS photo by Paul Haring

As far as this particular council is concerned, much of the work of “translation” has been done. But surprisingly much also remains to do. Now, 50 years after the close of Vatican II, it’s worth reflecting on some of it.

The second meaning of “unfinished agenda” is a call for addressing issues that Vatican II didn’t anticipate but that are at least implied in what it did say and do. These things also deserve consideration at the half-century mark.

Areas that require further attention include the role of bishops in relation to the pope, “local churches,” ecumenism, transparency and accountability, the laity, and the Church in the world.

The council itself provided a starting point for reviewing its unfinished agenda in what it taught about the Church. The framework for that teaching is an ecclesiology of communio or communion. And that requires explaining.

What Vatican II says about the Church as a communion is contained mainly in its Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, Lumen Gentium. Here communion has two dimensions — the “vertical” dimension of relationship with God and the “horizontal” dimension of relationship among the Church’s members.

Two scriptural images are central to this second dimension. One is the Church as the Body of Christ. The council quotes St. Paul, who uses this metaphor repeatedly, as in his first letter to the Corinthians: “As all the members of the human body, though they are many, form one body, so also are the faithful in Christ” (Lumen Gentium, No. 9).

The second image is the Church as People of God — in the council’s words, “a most sure seed of unity, hope and salvation for the whole human race” (Lumen Gentium, No. 7).

In considering the unfinished agenda of Vatican Council II, a fundamental question is how well this vision of the Church as a communion of faithful followers of Christ has been realized up to now, and what remains to be done.

Pope St. John Paul II’s Synod
In 1985, Pope St. John Paul II convoked an extraordinary assembly of the world Synod of Bishops to consider the successes and the failures in carrying out the Second Vatican Council on the 20th anniversary of its conclusion.

Church’s collegial nature

Start with collegiality. As many people see it, dusting off this ancient doctrine and making it operative again was the single most important thing the council did. Father Ratzinger, in a series of newspaper reports (later published as a book called “Theological Highlights of Vatican II”), called its approval “the highlight of the council” — not surprising since he had a key part in formulating it.

Paul VI
Pope Paul VI greets the faithful during the closure of the Second Vatican Council on Dec. 8, 1965. CNS photo by Paul Haring

The heart of the teaching, as noted, is found in the Constitution on the Church. Just as St. Peter and the apostles make up a “unique apostolic college,” that document says, so St. Peter’s successor, the pope, and the bishops, “successors of the apostles,” form a united collegial body.

As such, the bishops in communion with the pope share in teaching and governing the universal Church — although the pope is always free to act on his own, apart from the college of bishops, if he wishes chooses (cf. Lumen Gentium, No. 25).

In putting collegiality into operation, the most important Vatican II innovation is generally considered to be the world Synod of Bishops, which Blessed Pope Paul VI established even before the council ended. Vatican II’s decree on bishops, Christus Dominus, describes it as showing “that all the bishops in hierarchical communion partake of the solicitude for the universal Church” (No. 5).

At the time, many expected the Synod of Bishops to be a kind of ongoing ecumenical council in miniature, sharing directly with the pope in decision-making. But although it has become a permanent fixture in Church life, the synod has remained a purely consultative body that makes suggestions to the pope but leaves the decisions to him.

Whether to keep the synod pretty much as it is, give it greater authority, or create some new structure to embody collegiality — for example, a permanent council made up of presidents of national bishops’ conferences — is an item of unfinished business 50 years after Vatican II.

Closely linked to collegiality is the role of local churches (dioceses) and national bishops’ conferences. Decentralization was part of the program of the council, with power shifting from Rome toward the national and diocesan levels. But the process has been uneven and sometimes contested. That decentralization can involve problems of its own was illustrated this year when the president of the German bishops’ conference, Cardinal Reinhard Marx, said the Germans didn’t need help from a synod in Rome in deciding what to do about giving communion to the divorced and remarried — something already being done in some German dioceses.

That struck critics as a less than collegial sentiment pointing to the need for further reflection on the extent and limits of decentralization in a Church whose fundamental organizational principle is supposedly communio.

Council's Closing Address
In his address closing Vatican II on Dec. 8, 1965, Blessed Pope Paul VI said the council had accomplished the principal task assigned to it by Pope St. John XXIII: “... that the sacred deposit of Christian doctrine be guarded and taught more effectively.”


Christian unity

Ecumenism also ranks high on any list of unfinished business from Vatican II. The council was often described as a “council of unity” but half a century later, divided Christianity is still divided. And, as the council’s decree on ecumenism puts it, that “openly contradicts the will of Christ, scandalizes the world, and damages that most holy cause, the preaching of the Gospel” (Unitatis Redintegratio, No. 1).

Individual conversions are still appropriate and welcome in the view of Vatican II. But ecumenism as the council understood it was something else, with a corporate nature involving prayer, action and joint worship, so that “little by little ... all Christians will be gathered into the unity of the one and only Church” (Unitatis Redintegratio, No. 24).

Relations between Catholics and other Christians are far more friendly than they were before Vatican II. Official theological dialogues continue. Cooperation in good works of all sorts are common at the international, national and local levels. But the kind of corporate ecumenism leading to reunion in a single ecclesial body has yet to take place.

Why is that? Vatican II’s decree suggested one possible answer: “There can be no ecumenism worthy of the name without a change of heart” (Unitatis Redintegratio, No. 7). A serious look at the unfinished agenda must take that into account.

So must practical implications of communio like transparency and accountability. As a post-council implementing document on communication remarked in 1971: “The normal flow of life and the smooth functioning of government within the Church require a steady two-way flow of information between the ecclesiastical authorities at all levels and the faithful as individuals and as organized groups” (Communio et Progressio, No. 120).

These are fine words. But as matters stand, too much of the deliberation at all levels of the Church still takes place in a semisecretive manner. The Synod of Bishops is an example. A while back, a Catholic journalist remarked to a Church communicator that a synod on communication would be a good idea. His response: “Can you imagine what the media would do to us if we discussed communication behind closed doors?” Here’s another area needing work.

Focus on the laity

The Vatican II was remarkable for the quantity and quality of attention devoted to the laity. Laypeople are a major concern of the Constitution on the Church as well as the decree on the “apostolate of the laity” and several other documents, including those on the liturgy and the Church in the modern world. The status of the laity in the Church is today much improved over what it was in the past. But here, too, there’s still a lot to do.

Clericalism and the clericalist mentality shared by laypeople as well as clerics remain serious problems. The French Dominican theologian Yves Congar, a major figure at Vatican II, said this about the situation: “Pastorally, clericalism results in this, that laypeople, kept in subjection and passivity in the Church, are not formed in their own Christian responsibilities, which it is their business to discharge in the world.”

Many people consider the rise of lay ministries since the early 1970s as an effective response to clericalism. But note what Yves Congar said about laypeople meeting their Christian responsibilities “in the world.”

Lay ministries are service roles performed by laypeople within the Church. Lay apostolate — strongly endorsed by Vatican II — expresses the challenge to laypeople to carry Gospel values into the secular world, in the words of the council, “to make the Church present and operative in those places and circumstances where only through them can it become the salt of the earth” (Lumen Gentium, No. 33). But lay apostolate is virtually ignored today.

A large part of the problem lies in the fact that many Catholics, priests and laity alike, don’t grasp the fact that every baptized Christian has a calling — a personal vocation — to play a role in God’s redemptive plan.

Vatican II didn’t say much about personal vocation, but it did say this: “Every person must walk unhesitatingly according to his own personal gifts and duties in the path of living faith, which arouses hope and works through charity” (Lumen Gentium, No. 41). Since the council, Pope St. John Paul II especially developed the idea in depth, in his important 1988 document on the laity, calling the discovery and acceptance of their personal vocations “the fundamental objective of the formation of the lay faithful” (Christifideles Laici, No. 58).

In most parishes and dioceses, nonetheless, it appears that the emphasis when it comes to vocations is still on motivating people to consider becoming priests and religious. It’s a good and necessary thing. But an important item on the unfinished agenda of Vatican II is to expand the idea of vocational formation to include systematic formation of all Catholics — very much including the laity — to discern, accept and live out the personal vocations to which God calls them.

Closely related to the question of vocation is the issue of lay spirituality. Here, too, the laity received an enormous boost from the council. And here, too, the reality 50 years later falls far short of the council’s ideal.

In principle at least, the Catholic Church had always recognized that laypeople can and should be saints, and some of them were formally recognized as such by being canonized. But for a long time, the practice was to offer laypeople a form of spirituality that tended to be legalistic and minimal. Vatican II marked a sharp departure from that, formally teaching that “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” (Lumen Gentium, No. 40).

This was a major positive development. But although there are obviously many exemplary and even visibly holy laypeople in the Church today, legalism and minimalism persist. Worse still, in many places, including the United States, the number of laypeople who are nominal but nonpracticing (or barely practicing) Catholics is large and growing, and the number of those who no longer even call themselves Catholics continues to rise.

In short, the “universal call to holiness” directed to the laity by Vatican II has failed to reach a disturbingly large number of them. Lay groups like Opus Dei, Communion and Liberation and others seek to fill the gap, but an enormous amount of work remains. It would be hard to think of any greater challenge on the unfinished agenda of the council.

Unless perhaps it is the challenge to continue and expand the Church’s project of engagement with the modern world.

Today’s issues

At the time, Vatican II’s Pastoral Constitution on the Church and the Modern World — Gaudium et Spes — was a groundbreaking and widely praised initiative by the council. But issues and problems have multiplied apace in the half-century since then and now need to be addressed. These include the continued spread of secularism and the ongoing crisis of marriage reflected in the rise of things like divorce, cohabitation and same-sex marriage.

No less matters of urgent concern are the relatively new problem of religiously inspired terrorism and jihadism linked to militant Islam and the relatively old problems of nuclear deterrence and nuclear proliferation in an increasingly unstable world. Like many other groups and institutions, the Catholic Church currently is groping for an appropriate, up-to-date response to these issues, but none has emerged yet. It is badly needed.

Also needed is a concerted global response by the Church to the litany of environmental challenges that Pope Francis, building on the work of Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI, laid out earlier this year in his lengthy encyclical, Laudato Si’ (“Praise Be to You”). The pope called for swift government action to address the causes of climate change and individual action in favor of a simpler lifestyle that makes fewer demands on natural resources. But such appeals need repeating and detailed spelling out at every level of the Church in order to be effective.

The Church also must develop a realistic, comprehensive approach to the revolution in communications that has swept the world during the last half-century and continues today with no end in sight. Although Vatican II spoke about media in its Decree on the Means of Social Communication, Inter Mirifica, the document was widely considered inadequate even then, and by now it seems hopelessly behind the times in a world where Facebook, Twitter and other social media are dominant realities in the lives of many millions of people.

At least two different things are badly needed now: some kind of handbook containing guidelines for responsible use of the media by individuals and the institutions of the Church; and a thoughtful, visionary document setting communication in a broader, deeper theological and moral framework than now exists.

This is a big agenda, but the agenda of Vatican Council II also was very large. With the council as inspiration, it’s time to begin.

Russell Shaw is an OSV contributing editor.

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