Undimming the Light of Vatican II

EDITORIAL: Distortions of its teachings threaten to obscure the impact of the Second Vatican Council; a recommitment to receiving conciliar teachings in fidelity to the Gospel is the only way forward.

Pope John XXIII arrives in Saint Peter's Basilica at the Vatican, on October 11, 1962 during the opening of the first session of the Second Ecumenical Council of the Vatican, or Vatican II.
Pope John XXIII arrives in Saint Peter's Basilica at the Vatican, on October 11, 1962 during the opening of the first session of the Second Ecumenical Council of the Vatican, or Vatican II. (photo: AFP / Getty)
“We have every confidence that the Church, in the light of this Council, will gain in spiritual riches. New sources of energy will be opened to her, enabling her to face the future without fear.”getty 

Pope St. John XXIII preached these words as part of his homily for the opening Mass of the Second Vatican Council, celebrated 60 years ago Oct. 11, which is also John XXIII’s feast day. Six decades later, it’s fair to question whether that outcome has been realized, and, if not, why.

In many ways, the “light of the Council” has been obscured in recent years. Debates about the proper way to interpret and implement its teachings, which seemed definitively settled during the pontificates of St. John Paul II and Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, have been revived over the last decade.

Whereas John Paul II and Benedict XVI taught that Vatican II affirmed, for instance, the male-only priesthood, the Church’s perennial sexual ethics and the inadequacy of Church governance by permanent council, prominent voices in the Church are now permitted to promote the opposite. 

This shift has been disconcerting, and rightfully so. 

Christ’s flock should be able to count on clarity and constancy from their shepherds, especially on something as significant as the teaching of an ecumenical council. Ironically, fresh confusion about what Vatican II did and didn’t say has increased the very fear of the future that St. John XXIII hoped the Council itself would alleviate. 

Faced with this level of confusion, concern and contention over Vatican II at its 60-year mark, it can be tempting to view the Council itself as the source of our problems. Perhaps we would be better off pretending it never happened, ignoring its teachings and walking away.

Yet this approach is in fact a step into no-man’s-land. It’s an abandonment of the Church where she actually is — here, today, bound by the teachings of the Second Vatican Council — in favor of a fictitious alter-ecclesia. The stability this kind of retreat promises is a false one because it is no longer rooted in utter dependence upon Christ and his Church, but a solution of our own creation.

As tiring as it might sound, our task is the same today at the 60-year mark of the Council as it was at any other point since the Council began: to receive its teachings faithfully.

Many half-truths and outright lies distort the Council and what it taught. So let us remove what obscures the Council’s true teaching — approaches driven by worldly power and appeasement — and view it again with the eyes of faith. The Register’s special symposium on Vatican II at 60 provides several helpful lenses through which to view the Council in all its brilliance, from Father Roger Landry’s Eucharistic vision of Vatican II to Matthew Levering’s insistence that the conciliar reforms can only be read fruitfully in light of the cruciform power of Christ. 

And, of course, make sure to read the Council documents themselves.

There are spiritual riches still to be gained from Vatican II, if we have eyes for seeing. And while the conciliar documents may not contain the immediate answer to every pressing question we face 60 years after the opening of the Council, entrusting ourselves to the wisdom of the Church will place us back under the tutelage of the only ultimate answer: Jesus Christ, Our Lord and our Light.