Vatican II at 60: The Crucial Question

COMMENTARY: Was Vatican II about this-worldly power or deeper fidelity to the cruciform love of Christ? How the Church answers will ultimately determine the Council’s legacy.

Onlookers watch as the Council Fathers proceed into St. Peter's Basilica for the opening of the Second Vatican Council on Oct. 11, 1962.
Onlookers watch as the Council Fathers proceed into St. Peter's Basilica for the opening of the Second Vatican Council on Oct. 11, 1962. (photo: Peter Geymayer / Public Domain)

This article is part of the Register Symposium on Vatican II at 60.

If Vatican II is an ongoing theological event, as I argued in a 2017 book, then it has now been ongoing for 60 years. For most people, 60 years marks the beginning of old age, even though people who reach this threshold may continue to insist that they are feeling and looking young! Can we say the same for Vatican II? Has the Council — once young, hip, celebrated as part of the 1960s baby-boomer revolutions — become creaky and tired, even “over the hill?”

On the one hand, the answer is surely No. The contest over Vatican II’s meaning is today more intense than ever. The ecclesiastical party associated with Karl Rahner, Edward Schillebeeckx and Concilium was generally on the outside looking in for the first 50 years of the reception of Vatican II’s documents. They had to read the papal magisterial documents in those decades with teeth gritted. They published and advocated for change or reversal in consistent, long-standing doctrinal and moral teachings of the Church.

This ecclesiastical party now stands much closer to the magisterial writing desk. The current preparations for the Synod on Synodality have been shaped in large part by their efforts, though it is unclear whether the synod’s outcome will satisfy them. The Second Vatican Council’s meaning has become a very contemporary struggle and debate.

On the other hand, I do think that Vatican II risks becoming old and outdated, beyond the mere fact that the situation in theology and in the world is much different from what it was 60 years ago. Arguably, whether Vatican II retains a youthful vitality and relevance will depend upon decisions made in the next few years. 

To put it simply: The crucial question is whether Vatican II was about worldly power or about Christ’s power.

Vatican II can be, and has been, interpreted along these two different lines. The first way relies upon the normal structures and modes of this-worldly power.

According to this way, Dei Verbum is about the liberation of biblical scholarship from the pre-conciliar Vatican that repressed historical criticism. It finally freed the laity to read the Bible and finally allowed scholars to understand the Bible and express their results openly.

Sacrosanctum Concilium ensured that the Mass was not merely the work of the priest. The laity were finally allowed to come into their own and to have a big role in the Mass.

Lumen Gentium opened up a new era in Catholic ecclesiology by making clear that the hierarchy are not the pinnacle of the Church. The whole people of God is journeying toward the Kingdom, and on this journey, the laity have just as much right to be priest, prophet and king as do the clergy.

And Gaudium et Spes began the process of the Church joining the modern world. The Church finally recognized that the enemy was not modernity, but rather its own domineering refusal to allow for diversity, dialogue and participation in the Church’s faith and life.

The second way that Vatican II can be interpreted is quite different. It relies upon the cruciform power of Christ and the need to be ever more united to him in faith, hope and love — love of God and love of neighbor. The apostle Paul explains, “For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God”; and Paul adds, “I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified” (1 Corinthians 1:18; 2:2). This is what it means, says Paul, to be one of the “stewards of the mysteries of God” (1 Corinthians 4:1).

In this view, Dei Verbum is about ensuring and encouraging personal encounter with Christ. Revelation — as communicated by Scripture and Tradition — is handed on in ways that allow for the full personal presence of Christ, crucified and risen, to be manifested to believers.

Sacrosanctum Concilium is focused on deepening believers’ sharing, body and soul (exteriorly and interiorly), in the sacramental remembrance of Christ’s cross. The goal is the ever-deeper configuration of believers to the fullness of the Paschal Mystery.

Lumen Gentium’s purpose is to awaken Catholics to our graced dignity as members of the Body whose head is Christ and members of the Messianic people whose head is Christ. In Christ, the diversity that includes the hierarchy, the laity, and women and men religious makes sense. The model or type of the Church is the Blessed Virgin Mary, the mother of all believers.

Lastly, Gaudium et Spes is about the profound need that the whole world has for Christ, since it is only in Christ that the purpose, plight and destiny of the human person becomes fully apparent. In the face of the advances and crises of our times, believers are called to lead the whole world into union with Christ.

In this second way, the Council is interpreted not as the beginning point of a reinvented Catholicism, but as a period in which the Church affirmed anew the Gospel of Jesus Christ. On this view, the changes proposed by Vatican II sought to allow Christ to shine forth more brightly.

For example, the Church can allow for historical-critical biblical research and acknowledge doctrinal development, since these will enhance our appreciation for how Christ makes himself known through Scripture; the Church can encourage the laity’s active participation in the Eucharistic sacrifice; the Church can uphold the apostolic role of the bishops in conjunction with the pope; the Church can promote the role of the laity in conjunction with the clergy; the Church can engage the modern world with confidence in the attraction of Christ’s message. 

The Church does not need to suppress or oppress persons of other religions, or denigrate and persecute the ongoing Jewish people, or Romanize the Eastern Catholics. Consecrated religious life should be marked by interior freedom and joy, Catholic education should be filled with pedagogical richness, the training and ministry of priests should contain all that pertains to a flourishing vocation, the laity should be encouraged to evangelize and take an active part in the Church’s mission, and the bishops should be encouraged to act as true shepherds.

In the period after the Council, some of these goals were not achieved or were bungled, and some elements of conciliar documents have had to be refined, but Vatican II’s purpose remained clear enough: “Cleanse out the old leaven that you may be new dough, as you really are unleavened. For Christ, our Paschal Lamb, has been sacrificed” (1 Corinthians 5:7).

Is Vatican II, however, ultimately about power as this world understands power? Is it about the laity claiming their rights, the bishops claiming their rights, and everyone competing with everyone else for who has the decision-making power in the Church? Is it about receiving the truth of Christ more fully in accordance with the apostolic faith and morality that we have received, or is it about discarding Gospel truths as outmoded and living the way in which the contemporary world dictates? Is it about believers encouraging each other in the radical love and glory of the Crucified and Risen Christ, who is the head to which we are joined in the one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church, or is it about believers ensuring that the Church now serves the various movements du jour?

How the Church answers these questions will be decisive with respect to the vitality of Vatican II. If the Council was merely an opening to reshuffle the organs of ecclesiastical power and to rid ourselves of what is difficult and countercultural in the Gospel, then it was merely an ephemeral exercise of what the apostle Paul calls the “wisdom of this age or of the rulers of this age, who are doomed to pass away” (1 Corinthians 2:6).

But if Vatican II was a renewal of the Church’s faith in Christ — not a weakening of faith and morality or a revolutionary rupture with Scripture and Tradition, but rather a strengthening and deepening of the Church’s love for the Alpha and Omega of human history — then the Council will retain the vital freshness of the Gospel. At 60 years old, the question for Vatican II remains its foundation in the truth of “Jesus Christ and him crucified”: “For no other foundation can any one lay than that which is laid, which is Jesus Christ” (1 Corinthians 3:11).

Matthew Levering is the James N. Jr. and Mary D. Perry Chair of Theology at Mundelein Seminary. He has authored or co-authored more than 30 books, including An Introduction to Vatican II as an Ongoing Theological Event and Vatican II: Renewal Within Tradition (with Matthew Lamb). Levering was president of the Academy of Catholic Theology from 2021-22 and has also served as a Myser Fellow at the Center for Ethics and Culture at the University of Notre Dame.

Sunlight streams through windows in the dome of St. Peter's Basilica, the site of the Second Vatican Council in 1962-1965.

60 Years of Vatican II (Oct. 15)

On Tuesday, Oct. 11, the Catholic Church marked the 60th anniversary of the opening of the Second Vatican Council by Pope John XXIII. To commemorate the Council and examine the mark it continues to have on the Church these 60 years later, the Register gathered a symposium of voices. Senior Editor Jonathan Liedl helped organize this effort, and theologian Larry Chapp contributed to the special edition. Both join Jeanette De Melo to discuss Vatican II’s continued relevance in this moment as well as its significance for the future of the Church.