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Commentary on the Documents of the Second Vatican Council

Daniel J. Castellano



In the late 1950s, the general consensus among Catholics was that the age of ecumenical councils had ended. The last council, held at the Vatican in 1870, was interrupted by the intrusion of secular troops into Rome, followed by the loss of the Pope’s temporal power. This marked the end of visible Christendom, which had begun under Constantine the Great. So, it seemed, the councils must end, as they were a sign of a Christian ecumene that no longer existed. The Pope was isolated from the rest of the Catholic world, even after his imprisonment ended with the establishment of the tiny Vatican city-state in 1929. At any rate, a council seemed unnecessary, since the last synod had defined unequivocally that the Pope could define matters of doctrine on his own authority. With modern means of communication, there seemed to be little need for the burdensome endeavor of transporting thousands of bishops to a single location, when instead dogmatic definitions and canons could be issued from the See of Peter. Even if the age of councils had not ended, there was no great dogmatic controversy that needed to be addressed, and so no need for a universal council.

Yet all was not well in the barque of Peter. Although there was no pressing need for a dogmatic definition, pressures of other kinds affected the Church from within and without. Though the Church remained largely the same in her doctrine, her liturgy, and her discipline, the rest of the world changed rapidly, so that Catholics found an increasing tension between their religious and secular lives. Politically, confessional monarchies had been replaced by secular democratic states. This change required Catholics to engage people of other creeds as political equals, creating a new set of social circumstances where mutual tolerance and freedom from state coercion became cardinal virtues. Catholic social teaching in tension with these values made it difficult for laity to engage society at large. The shift to a democratic political culture also had internal implications for the Church, as there was now a tendency to assert the positive rights of the laity, that they should have a more active role in the governance of the Church. This view of the lay faithful as active rather than passive members of the Body of Christ extended even to liturgy, where for decades there were attempts to encourage lay participation. Yet these attempts were generally thwarted by the inaccessibility of the venerable Roman Rite. This is only to name some of the larger issues that affected the Church in the nearly ninety years since the last council. Society changed more rapidly in this time than it was accustomed to do in centuries, so surely the Church must somehow keep abreast of these developments, lest she should become an archaic relic, guarding truths that were accessible to only a select few.

The challenge to be faced was for the Church to update her pastoral approach to the Catholic faithful and to the outside world, while still remaining true to the unchanging deposit of faith. Pope John XXIII, shortly after his election, defined the terms of this challenge. There must be an aggiornamento, or “updating” within the Church, so that her ancient message can be pronounced clearly and intelligibly to the modern world, taking care to address specifically modern concerns. What is more, this was to be done not in a confrontational fashion, but in keeping with the spirit of the times, the world was to be engaged in a respectful dialogue. Pope John would often refer to this as an opening of the Church, or letting in fresh air. The difficulty, of course, was how to do this while remaining true to Apostolic faith and tradition. One approach that became favored by many was to search the teachings and practices of the early Church for insights into the questions posed by the modern world. Throughout its two-thousand year history, the Church had often changed its mode of governance, its liturgy, and its approach to questions of personal liberty. By a judicious examination of her own past, the Church might now bring forth new fruit to inform her engagement of the modern world. A novel French term, ressourcement, was introduced to define this process of revitalizing the Church by appeal to her own past.

In 1959, Pope John decided that an ecumenical council would be the appropriate means of meeting this challenge. It is said that the idea occurred to him on a whim, or by divine inspiration, depending on one’s view of the prudence of the Council. Certainly, it was without precedent for a general council to be convened when there was no theological controversy, but this does not mean the convocation, formally announced in 1961, was an arbitrary decision by a senile pontiff, as some detractors claimed. There were genuine pastoral problems that needed to be addressed, and indeed the First Vatican Council had intended to address some of them before it was dispersed. Now, the world had transformed so that it would be unrecognizable to the men of 1870, yet the Church had still not significantly altered her liturgy or her general approach to the world since the Council of Trent four centuries ago. The gap between religious and secular existence was becoming untenable for many Catholics. If the Church is to continue to engage the world, she must be able to speak its language, just as God deigned to speak to man in simple Hebrew and Greek.

The announcement of a council was warmly received throughout the Catholic world, even though few would have dared to expect one a short while ago. A universal council was the most appropriate means of dealing with the problem at hand. If the Church is to determine how to engage the world, it would be best to have a representation of bishops from throughout the globe, as diverse parts of the world had different kinds of concerns. Further, it is much more in keeping with the spirit of openness and respect for the governed that this discussion should itself be open to as many as possible. The general principles had been suitably laid out; now it was a matter of working out the concrete specifics, a seemingly formidable task.

Various commissions were created to prepare preliminary documents to be reviewed, modified, and voted on by the bishops. These commissions were composed mainly of members of the Roman Curia. During the first session of the Council itself, many members of these commissions were nominated for membership in conciliar commissions. Many bishops objected to these nominations, and proposed instead their own nominees. Further, the schemata or draft documents were thrown out and new ones were proposed by groups of bishops. This dramatic turn of events, which summarily undid two years of preparatory work, merits some explanation.

Although the bishops and the Curia were all appointed by the Pope and loyal to Rome, they were at odds with each other due to differences in education, culture, and pastoral experience. The scholars of the Curia, particularly those on the commissions, were conservative in the sense that they imposed a rigid juridical interpretation on matters of doctrine and discipline, allowing for little flexibility in approach. This would have annoyed many bishops in any circumstance, but in a council that was specifically convoked for the purpose of making reforms to engage the modern world, such an attitude was intolerable to the majority of the Council. What was needed, in the majority’s view, was new concepts and new language to address new problems, rather than a juridical clarification of existing theology and discipline. As the bishops were more directly engaged with the world, they tended to have a much greater appreciation for pastoral needs.

The rejection of the Curial schemata was not an act of rebellion; on the contrary, this was explicitly allowed by the Council’s rules. The reason for this action was that the schemata did not address the need for pastoral renovation. Rather, they attempted only to refine the doctrines and practices already defined. It was not that the majority of bishops thereby denied the orthodoxy of the doctrine in the schemata (except perhaps on the question of whether Tradition is independent of Scripture), but rather they found that the doctrine was presented in a manner that would complicate or impede the Church’s effort to open herself to the world.

Naturally, there was much disagreement about what it meant for the Church to become more open or modern, and to what extent such renovation was compatible with the integrity of her teaching and tradition. It is common to speak of the Council as divided into “progressives” and “conservatives,” but this can be highly misleading terminology. A solid majority of the conciliar bishops were “progressive” in the sense that they advocated a substantial overhaul of the Church’s liturgy and discipline, as well as her approach to engaging the world. Yet the vast majority were also firmly orthodox, in the sense of not presuming to assert that any doctrine of the faith could or should be changed to accommodate the modern world. It is true that in the post-conciliar era, “progressive” has become a euphemism for those who deny Church authority or reject traditional doctrines of the faith, but at the Council, only a minority of bishops could be so characterized. Further, we must note that a given bishop could be “progressive” on one issue and “conservative” on others, as was the case with the generally conservative United States bishops, who nonetheless fell into the “progressive” camp on Dignitatis Humanae.

Identification of some bishops as “conservative” may also be misleading, since to an extent, everyone present wanted to conserve something of the Church’s status quo. The so-called “conservatives” were not necessarily opposed to change on principle, but were so defined because they opposed some or all of the particular changes that were proposed. In other words, the camps of “progressives” and “conservatives” were defined by the content of each proposed document.

There is nothing nefarious or suspicious in the fact that the positive content of the Council was predominantly that of the “progressives.” The explicit purpose of the Council was to enact substantial reform, so it is only natural that the progressives, who were also the majority, should be the ones developing proposals where reform seemed needed, while those who saw no need for reform in a given area proposed nothing. Instead, the conservatives made their presence felt by imposing limits or qualifications on the documents, so that they could not be construed in a heterodox manner, or so that the reforms would not unduly deviate from tradition beyond the bounds of prudence.

Pope John died shortly after the first sessions of the Council, upon which it was generally agreed that the new Pope would not be bound to continue the Council. Nonetheless, his successor Pope Paul VI freely and deliberately chose to continue the Council, so it could no longer be said that this synod was the product of an idle whim. Having served as archbishop of Milan, Pope Paul was familiar with the social conditions of the industrial working class, and saw the need for the Church to present herself less like a feudal institution, and more as a servant of the masses. Although he was reform-minded, Pope Paul was deeply concerned that every reform should be passed by a consensus of nearly all the bishops. He worked strenuously to accommodate the demands of all parties, admitting repeated and meticulous revisions so that every document was passed by near-unanimous majorities, rather than the minimum two-thirds required by the Council’s rules. It is thanks to his scrupulous concern for unity and his repeated intervention that the Council’s documents may claim a high standard of ecumenical authority.

There can be no question that the Council’s final approved documents truly represented the authentic mind of the Church. By rejecting the Curial schemata, the bishops made clear from the beginning that they would shape the Council’s agenda, rather than simply rubber-stamp already prepared documents. Members of diverse ideological camps had hands in the shaping of each document, and the Pope took care that the concerns of all regions and factions were sufficiently addressed. Even the Curia played a positive role, as Cardinal Ottaviani attentively ensured that the reforms were consonant with rigorous orthodoxy. Pope Paul did not want a schism, so he made great efforts to make sure that no reform was forced down the throats of the conservatives. The final form of each document was approved by resounding majorities, usually approaching unanimity. Given the high level of attendance, the freedom of the bishops, and the near-unanimity of the voting, we can hardly avoid the conclusion that the Church truly spoke at this Council. Anyone who impugns the authenticity of this teaching must face the fact that it was approved by thousands of bishops, most of whom were advanced in years and conservative in doctrine. It was ratified by the Pope, and willingly accepted even by Ottaviani and other men of impeccable orthodoxy. If this does not guarantee that the teachings of Vatican II are free from error in faith, then the Church’s teaching authority is no surety, but that is contrary to the promise of Christ.

Although the Council did not make any dogmatic definitions (except perhaps incidentally, as we will see), its ecumenical authority was needed in order to assure Catholics that these reforms were consonant with the authentic Catholic faith. Vatican II was a pastoral council, concerned in large part with discipline, liturgy, and diplomatic approach, so its teachings are for the most part not immutable or irreformable. Nonetheless, given the ecumenical authority and solemnity of the Council, it is not sustainable that these teachings should be in contradiction with the faith.

Some traditionalists have asserted that such a contradiction indeed exists, leading them to reject the teaching authority of the existing Church. Dissidents on the left have also tried to create a dichotomy between the pre- and post-Conciliar Church, as if the beliefs of the former have been somehow abrogated. This perception of rupture led to great disaster in the period from 1965 to 1975, where countless ill-conceived liturgical experiments, desertions from religious life, disobedient acts and denials of faith were justified by the supposed “spirit of Vatican II.” Often these abuses were motivated by frustration that the Council had not gone far enough, though sometimes a genuine misreading of the Council’s teachings was the culprit.

In his later years, Pope Paul VI took care to clarify what was meant by aggiornamento in his day, and worked to stabilize the liturgy, eventually settling on a form far more radical than what the Council had envisioned, but still better than many of the alternatives. In encyclicals like Humanae Vitae, he made clear that the Church’s renovation did not entail making Christianity easy, but rather it was a call to greater holiness. Salutary doctrine and discipline were not to be compromised in the name of modernization.

The real work of digesting the council came from Pope John Paul II. To this blessed pope we are indebted for providing an authentic synthesis of what the Council signified, not merely by explicating its teachings in his documents, but by carrying them out in practice. While holding firm on restricting priestly ordination to men, he showed other ways in which women could attain a more prominent role in the life of the Church. He was a pronounced humanist, yet he preached an authentically Christian humanism where the love of man flowed from the love of God above all things. Through his travels, he made clear that the Pope is a benevolent monarch at the service of the people. The papacy was less a feared and resented institution, as it had become under Paul VI, but was deeply loved and the most visible and cherished sign of Christian unity. I say Christian, not Catholic, for even many Protestants came to have a love or admiration for the Pope, which would have been unthinkable in earlier eras. For all his ecumenism and humble dialogue with non-believers, the Pope still remained true to every doctrine of the faith. It would be a false dialogue if we try to hide what we really believe, but at the same time the proclamation of truth does not require us to be arrogant or confrontational. The Gospel, after all, is good news; it is to be offered as a gift, not wielded as a weapon.

A great theme of Vatican II, motivating many of its reforms, was the desire for peace. For too long, it seemed, the Church of Christ was caught in the midst of great bloody conflicts. Rather than dispute who was right or who was wrong in the conflicts of the past, the Pope sought that these things should be forgiven, in order for us to proceed to a new era unencumbered by old grievances. To prevent them from being repeated, the Church and other groups in the world must engage each other in a dialogue of mutual trust and respect. Such dialogue involves the risk that our good intentions will not be reciprocated, yet the Pope urged us, by his example, not to be afraid, but to give of ourselves freely, just as Christ offered himself up for all. For this reason, he persisted in pursuing the Council’s goals, no matter how many times his approaches to the world were spurned, and no matter how many times his clemency was abused by dissidents. This apparent imprudence was in fact a daring attempt to raise the Church to a higher standard of holiness. This bold and charitable spirit is the true spirit of the Council, which urged Catholics to risk what we have in order to achieve something greater.

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© 2012 Daniel J. Castellano. All rights reserved. http://www.arcaneknowledge.org