Unfulfilled Legacies of Vatican II: The Renewal of Scripture Study and Marian Theology

COMMENTARY: While most of the conversation about the Council focuses on its connection with the past, there are at least two important areas where we still need to realize its future.

The Pieta at Saint Peter's Basilica.
The Pieta at Saint Peter's Basilica. (photo: stigmatize / Shutterstock)

Editor's Note: This article is part of the Register’s symposium on Vatican II at 60.

We are reading and hearing a lot these days about debates over the reception of Vatican II.

Was the Council, as some see it, essentially a break with the past? This is the so-called “hermeneutic of rupture,” which sees conciliar reforms as disowning much of the ecclesial past. Or was the Council essentially in continuity with the past? This is the “hermeneutic of continuity,” which sees conciliar reforms as developing elements of Tradition that, as time went on, had been deemphasized or even lost from view. 

But beyond the question of connection to the past, there is the issue of what I call the unfulfilled future. Some of the Council’s hoped-for renewal was never realized. This is true in several areas, but I will focus on only two: the study of Scripture and the theology of Mary.

By any reckoning, one of the most stunning achievements of the Council was the dogmatic constitution on Divine Revelation, Dei Verbum, which, among other things, clarified the relationships among Scripture, Tradition and magisterium. It also set the stage for a renewal of scriptural studies. 

By the mid-20th century, the study of Scripture was becoming more and more secular, making predominant use of literary and historical methods that could be applied to any text from the past, often with rationalistic assumptions that denied the possibility of miracles or prophecy. More and more, the Church’s Tradition, which drew from the rich patristic and medieval legacy, was set aside as irrelevant to the “scientific” perspective of secular methods.

The Council proposed that “the study of the sacred page should be the very soul of sacred theology” (DV, 24). But if the study of the “sacred page” turned the sacred page into a “secular page,” studying it as though it were not inspired, not Scripture, but a text like any other, it could hardly serve as the foundation for sacred theology. 

The Council did not want to deny the value of a historical approach. It recognized the human authors of Scripture as “true authors,” who therefore worked within the languages and literary conventions of their cultures. Historical study can shed light on such cultural conventions. 

But the Council also reminded us that, though true authors, the biblical authors worked under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. Therefore, the texts also, and in the first place, “have God as their author” (DV, 11). This means that to understand the scriptural text as Scripture, and not just as an ancient text like all others, it is legitimate and in fact necessary to attend “to the content and unity of the whole of Scripture, taking into account the Tradition of the entire Church and the analogy of faith, if we are to derive the true meaning” (12). 

But until very recently, this was completely ignored, and the text continued to be studied as though the only true authors were the human authors. To a large extent, this is still the case, though, more and more, younger scholars are beginning to take up the challenge in creative ways, very often in dialogue with patristic exegesis.

But the other challenge for renewal, the theology of Mary, has been even more profoundly ignored. The dogmatic constitution on the Church, Lumen Gentium, begins with Chapter 1, on the “Mystery of the Church,” and ends with Chapter 8, on “Our Lady.” But in its first lines, Chapter 8 ties Mary directly to the mystery of the Church. Citing the Creed, that the Son of God “by the power of the Holy Spirit was Incarnate of the Virgin Mary,” it continues, “This divine mystery of salvation is revealed to us and continues in the Church, which the Lord established as His Body.” For this reason, the Church is called to reverence Mary, “Mother of God” (LG, 52). 

Just as it opened, so the document closes with a meditation on the mystery of the Church. But Chapter 8 further specifies that this mystery is essentially Marian. And thus the mystery of the Church cannot be fully renewed or appreciated apart from the mystery of Mary, Mother of the Incarnate Word, and so Mother of the Church, Mother of the members of Christ (53). 

But nothing happened. Instead of a renewed appreciation of the mystery of Mary, Mother of God and Mother of the Church, the theology of Mary dropped out. It all but disappeared as a subject in theological curricula of universities and even seminaries, despite attempts by Sts. Paul VI and John Paul II to revive it. 

We have yet to grasp the enormity of the damage done by this abandonment. But we can glimpse it in all of the ways the mystery of the Church has come to be rationalized. So many have begun to think about the Church as something like a club or a corporation, existing solely on the horizontal level, on the same terms as any other human organization, namely, the will of the members to get together and pursue common ends — in this case, prayer and worship. 

But a Marian framing would preclude rationalizing away the mystery of the Church like this. Marian theology and devotion reminds us that at the heart of the Church is the mystery of God’s bending down to live a human life in human flesh just like our own, a very concrete bending down, to the point of having a Mother. 

The enormous mystery of God’s self-emptying love, to the point of becoming a baby who needed to be fed and burped and needed his first-century diapers changed — this is the mystery contained and continued in the Church as Christ’s body, a body with a Mother, and not just an idea in the minds of theologians or practical organizers. 

A completion of the intended conciliar renewal of the theology of the Church has been substantially blocked by the collapse — instead of the renewal — of Marian theology. But this means that a recovery and renewal of Marian theology will be the source of a treasury of graces towards ecclesial renewal in a time when our wounded and ailing Church needs just such a touch of healing grace. Fiat

John C. Cavadini is a professor of theology at the University of Notre Dame. He also directs the McGrath Institute for Church Life and was previously appointed by Pope Benedict XVI to serve a five-year term on the International Theological Commission.