What a difference two decades make. On Jan. 25, 1985, Pope John Paul II announced that an extraordinary synod of bishops would convene later that year. They would celebrate the 20th anniversary of the completion of the Second Vatican Council and assess how the council had been received in the Church throughout the world.

To many observers, it was painfully clear that Vatican II — the 40th anniversary of whose opening we'll remember Oct. 11 — had not fulfilled all of its promise. In fact, the intense acrimony it gave rise to among Catholics provoked Pope Paul VI to wonder if the Church had gone from “self-criticism to self-destruction.” “Satan's smoke,” he stated, “had made its way into the temple of God through some crack.”

Two problems were particularly prominent. On the one hand, the message of the council had been intensely politicized. On the other, many people had not bothered to read its documents, being content to live by its so-called “spirit.” It was not difficult to understand, therefore, why people looked forward to the 1985 synod with radically different expectations.

The “progressivists” within the Church, those who believed that Vatican II was no longer relevant, hoped the synod might be a virtual “Vatican III” — a revolutionary happening that would usher in all sorts of sweeping changes. At the opposite end of the political spectrum were the more radical “traditionalists,” those who blamed Vatican II for the Church's crisis of faith, which had become increasingly acute since 1965. Neither political group seemed to have much concern for the historical continuity of the Church, which, in fact, was an essential feature of Vatican II both in letter and in spirit.

Those who disregarded the documents and held to an amorphous “spirit” often gave themselves sufficient latitude to contradict the message of Vatican II. A prominent governor and graduate of a Catholic university, for example, stated his erroneous belief that Vatican II had done away with the notion of hell. A certain nun was interviewed by the local newspaper because of her penchant for wearing miniskirts. She rationalized her provocative attire by claiming that it made her mere approachable to the modern student — “in the spirit of Vatican II.” The popular misconception prevailed that, “in the spirit of Vatican II,” there was no longer any need to go to confession as frequently as in the past, if at all. In truth, Vatican II encouraged the frequent reception of the sacraments, including the sacrament of reconciliation.

Pope John XXIII made it quite clear in his 1962 inaugural address that the purpose of the council he had summoned was not to change doctrine, which he emphasized is unchangeable, but to enunciate the eternal truth of the Catholic faith to the modern world. “This certain and unchangeable doctrine, to which faithful obedience is due, has to be explored and presented in a way that is demanded by our times,” he said. “The deposit of faith, which consists of the truths contained in sacred doctrine, is one thing; the manner of presentation, always however with the same meaning and signification, is something else.”

In keeping with both the letter and the spirit of Vatican II, the 1985 synod neither introduced “bold” changes nor overturned the work of the council. Rather, it placed great emphasis on the Church as a “Mystery” and “Communion.” This means that the Church is not an external political institution, but the Mystical Body of Christ whose members are united by the same faith, the same baptism and the possession of the same Holy Spirit. Correspondingly, the synod played down the vague image of the Church as the “people of God” and a “popular church.”

Lend the Church an Era

Three years after Vatican II concluded, the Catholic faith's foremost philosopher, Jacques Maritain, paid tribute to the council in his book The Peasant of the Garonne: “The Pope,” he wrote, referring to John XXIII, “putting things clearly in focus, reminded us that the aggiornamento [bringing things up-to-date] is in no way an adaptation of the Church to the modern world, as if the latter were supposed to establish norms for the former; it is a disclosure of the Church's own essential position.” Maritain's criticisms were reserved for those critics of Vatican II who were calling for a “complete temporalization of Christianity” that was tantamount to “a kind of kneeling before the world.”

Ironically, there was a remarkable paucity of discussion among the critics and misinterpreters of Vatican II as to why, exactly, the Church has any obligation to adapt itself to the mores of the moment. Why should the Zeitgeist be a force that has pre-emptive authority? The great theologians of history rarely spoke of such a need. Their genius was to show how eternal values manifest themselves in each moment of history, how an eternal God speaks to temporal man.

The mood of the mid-'80s was clearly different from that of the early '60s. If Vatican II had adapted itself to its own time, it would have been irrelevant by the time of the synod. Then, too, each moment of time represents a confluence of conflicting mores. Which of these passing currents should the Church favor — the left or the right, the liberal or the conservative, the progressive or the traditionalist?

John Paul II regarded the extraordinary synod as a great gift of the Holy Spirit to the Church, one that demanded both celebration and deepened reflection.

The latter activity required the Church to divest itself of liberal/conservative distinctions and similar dichotomies, and to think more deeply about the Church as a religious event that transcends political modes of compartmentalization. After all, the basis of any real unity is apolitical.

A careful analysis of the extraordinary synod's Final Report indicates that its authors agreed that there had been misinterpretations of Vatican II. It was urgent, they said, that the council documents be reread or, as the occasion dictated, read for the first time. The synod had continued the work of the council that, in turn, had continued the work of Christ, the Church's founder. The synod unambiguously stated that Vatican II was “a legitimate and valid expression and interpretation of the deposit of faith as it is found in sacred Scripture and in the living tradition of the Church.” Moreover, it did not refrain from laying the blame for some of its gross misinterpretations at the feet of the “mystery of iniquity” that affects every era.

A Call to Holiness

The Catholic Church did not begin or end with Vatican II. The “deeper reflection” that the synod urged involved a closer reading of the council's actual texts “in continuity with the great tradition of the Church.”

The Final Report reaffirmed that the primary task of the Catholic Church is “to preach and to witness to the good and joyful news of the election, the mercy, and the charity of God that manifest themselves in salvation history.” It stressed that everyone in the Church is called to holiness. More than anything else — certainly more than dissenters, critics and revolutionaries — the Church needs saints.

As an important means for establishing unity within the Church, the Final Report warranted that a catechism or “compendium of all Catholic doctrine regarding both faith and morals be prepared.” The Catechism of the Catholic Church was published seven years later, in 1992, and quickly became an international best seller. It contained no less than 785 citations from the documents of Vatican II.

To be sure, the synod did not bring divisions within the Church to an end. Nonetheless, it marked the end of a period in Catholic history. It made irrevocably clear that particular interpretations of the letter and “spirit” of Vatican II were out of bounds. It identified the temptation to self-secularize and warned against divisive labels such as “liberal” and “conservative.”

For many Catholics, their views of Vatican II were received largely through the distorting lens of the secular media. The clamor for “embracing change,” “renewed dialogue,” “relaxing moral norms,” “getting in touch with the modern world,” “becoming up-to-date” and so on were recognized precisely as clamor and therefore without substance.

John Paul II has been, since the council convened 40 years ago, the most important clarifier, champion and promulgator of the true meaning of Vatican II. The message of the council suffuses virtually all of his writings. He repeatedly invites us to read and reread the documents and reflect on them deeply and prayerfully. In so doing, he is being neither political nor authoritarian. He is asking us to go to the source and understand the rich message that Vatican II contains. He may be asking us to do what is more difficult, but, in the end, this more arduous path is incomparably fruitful.

Donald DeMarco is an adjunct professor at Holy Apostles College and Seminary in Cromwell, Connecticut.