At the start of his pontificate, Pope Benedict XVI called for a “rereading of the Second Vatican Council.” Kenneth Whitehead does just that.
The Renewed Church presents readers with the content of the three major conciliar documents on the Church — Lumen Gentium, Gaudium et Spes and Orientalium Ecclesiarum.
Whitehead, former assistant secretary of education under President Ronald Reagan, confronts readers with what the Council said, not what some people think it said or want it to say. Philippe Delhaye, a French moral theologian active during Vatican II, observed that the Council has been replaced by a “meta-Council,” in whose name various deviations were justified. When one considers what has been done in the name of the “spirit of Vatican II,” one would at least demand an Ignatian testing of spirits if not an outright exorcism.
Whitehead wants readers first and foremost to see what the documents of Vatican II actually do (and do not) say.
“This brings us to the question of what the Council really did do — as contrasted to what many people think ‘the spirit of Vatican II’ stood for,” Whitehead writes. “For, as everybody knows, there has been a good deal of confusion following the Council, not to speak of a number of false starts, and so it is especially important to understand and keep in mind what the Council did do that remains permanently valid.”
Admitting that “there is no good contemporary history of the Council in English,” Whitehead carefully situates what the Council says in historical context, both in terms of what was afoot in the Church as well as how the text itself acquired its final shape. He also notes how conciliar teaching was subsequently implemented and developed by the post-conciliar popes, especially John Paul II.
The author’s survey of the Council’s documents on the Church hits all the lightning rods: how Christ’s Church “subsists” in the Catholic Church (and why the formulation does not mean the Church surrenders her claim to be the true Church); the meaning of “People of God” (which does not exclude the hierarchy); the Church’s teaching authority and the duty of the faithful to adhere to it; the significance of the universal call to holiness; contemporary Mariology; episcopal collegiality; what Gaudium et Spes really said about marriage and sexuality (and why it is compatible with Humanae Vitae); atheism, and the doctrinal component of personalism in Gaudium et Spes. Whitehead also shows how continuous and consistent Church teaching really is.
For that is the nub of the problem: As Pope Benedict XVI points out, interpreting Vatican II properly requires a “hermeneutic of continuity,” a method of reading the conciliar magisterium that allows it to be seen within the organic whole of the rest of the Church’s teaching.
Although the book is comprehensive and solid, I would dispute some of Whitehead’s perspectives. His dismissal of Gaudium et Spes on culture (“quite pedestrian”) ignores the fact that Vatican II was the first truly worldwide (as opposed to European) Council, whose teaching on “the right to culture” remains to be assimilated.
The focus of his last chapter is a bit off-balance: He spends too much time convincing traditional Catholics to embrace Vatican II. The problem is not so much a few “conservative” Catholics who wish Vatican II might go away like a “bad dream,” but that most Catholics — including “conservatives” — have yet to learn what Vatican II really taught and put it into action.
That last task is especially pressing now: Ever fewer bishops lived through the Council, and Benedict is likely the last Pope to have been a Council Father. Appropriating the Council’s teaching is especially germane today. This book answers that call.
John M. Grondelski writes from Bern, Switzerland.
THE RENEWED CHURCH: THE SECOND VATICAN COUNCIL’S ENDURING TEACHING ABOUT THE CHURCH
By Kenneth D. Whitehead
Sapientia Press, 2009
260 pages, $24.95
To order: SapientiaPress.org