50 Years After Vatican II

Council experts reflect on its positive (and negative) effects on the Church.

Click on the “Has It Worked?” The Question We Dare Not Ask; Regarding Vatican II link to read more.
Click on the “Has It Worked?” The Question We Dare Not Ask; Regarding Vatican II link to read more. (photo: CBCEW)

VATICAN CITY — The Second Vatican Council was one of the most important ecumenical councils in the history of the Catholic Church.

Its intention, Blessed Pope John XXIII said at its opening ceremony, Oct. 11, 1962, was "to give to the world the whole of that [Church] doctrine which, notwithstanding every difficulty and contradiction, has become the common heritage of mankind — to transmit it in all its purity, undiluted, undistorted."

Indeed, the Council made the Church more accessible to the world and accelerated the historical change from Counter-Reformation Catholicism to the Catholicism of the New Evangelization.

Moreover, two of the Council’s most active and enthusiastic participants subsequently became popes. Polish Bishop Karol Wojtyla was elected as Pope John Paul II in October 1978. And Joseph Ratzinger, who served as the theological peritus (expert adviser) to German Cardinal Joseph Frings, became Pope Benedict XVI in April 2005.

Like John Paul before him, Benedict has never wavered in his endorsement of the Council.

"We could say that the New Evangelization began precisely with the Council, which Blessed John XXIII saw as a new Pentecost that would see the Church flourish through its inner wealth and maternally extend to all fields of human activity," the Pope commented Sept. 20 at a Vatican conference.

But according to some leading experts on the Council, the Council also lacked adequate mechanisms for putting its decrees into effect, leaving their implementation open to misinterpretation and influence by "progressive" movements that saw the Council as a rupture with Tradition.

It was also hampered by its timing, arriving as the hedonistic, social revolution of the 1960s was just beginning.

These are some of the reflections a group of scholars shared with the Register as the Church prepares to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the opening of the Second Vatican Council.

American theologian Michael Novak, who reported on the Council as a journalist and attended its entire second session with his wife, remembers well the atmosphere of the time.

"It was so hopeful and wonderful, such a joyous feeling everywhere," he recalled. "We were quite thrilled to see, for the first time, what a large, worldwide organization the Catholic Church is."


A Return to the Roots

For Novak, a major strength of the Council was its "prevalence of resourcement" — its return to the sources and strengths of early and medieval Christian thought, to refound the Church’s "doctrinal history, putting it in a much deeper context."

According to Novak, before the Council, the Church was stifled by a reactionary spirit that viewed the modern world negatively. He said the Council helped Catholics rediscover "a much more dynamic, creative God, who is a communion of persons; not an isolated being, but led toward community and toward the human person — which is the very meaning of the Trinity."

Jesuit Father Norman Tanner, professor of Church history at Rome’s Pontifical Gregorian University, said the Council was "hugely important," both in its renewal of Catholic faith and in the breadth of its subject matter.

"It expressed the Christian faith in the language of the 20th century," he said. "Its decrees come to 300 pages, twice as long as any Council … so just in sheer quantity and the number of issues it covers, it was exceptional."

Father Tanner, author of a new book, Vatican II: The Essential Texts, said the Council had something "serious to say on a huge range of issues" that impact ordinary Christians and others. He emphasized that Vatican II documents such as the pastoral constitution Gaudium et Spes (The Church in the Modern World), were, for the first time in a Church council, explicitly directed to all people.

Theologian and papal biographer George Weigel said the Council "accelerated the historical transition from Counter-Reformation Catholicism to the Catholicism of the New Evangelization," or, as he prefers to call it, "Evangelical Catholicism."

Said Weigel, "As the completion of that transition is absolutely essential to meeting the challenge of postmodern culture and its hostility to biblical religion, it’s clear in retrospect that Vatican II was a providential event."


Problematic Timing

But problems soon followed in the misinterpretation of conciliar decrees, particularly concerning the liturgy. Previous councils had centralized procedures, Father Tanner said, "to make sure the decrees were observed, whereas with the Second Vatican Council, there wasn’t the same mechanism for putting them into practice. There were no tight statements you could easily enforce."

For Novak, the Second Vatican Council’s greatest weakness was its timing.

"The 1960s were a very intellectually confused decade, and the fact that the Church threw open its windows just then brought in a lot of poisonous air," he said.

Many other criticisms have been made, including that documents such as Gaudium et Spes were optimistically naive and that some documents reversed previously held Church teachings, particularly on religious freedom and ecumenism.

The Council’s supporters refute such criticisms and agree with Benedict’s view that there was no rupture with Catholic Tradition, but, rather, it was a development that he has characterized as a "hermeneutic of continuity."

Some Catholics have called for a new papal encyclical to help clarify what is binding in conciliar documents and what are merely pastoral guidelines. Weigel believes that’s unnecessary.

"I think Catholics should stop fretting about ‘what is binding and what is not,’" he said. "There is no papal encyclical telling us that the Nicene Creed is binding."

Added Weigel, "No sane Catholic denies that the teaching of the Second Vatican Council was an authoritative act of the magisterium."

Father Joseph Kramer of the Priestly Fraternity of St. Peter is a parish priest at the traditionalist Santissima Trinita dei Pellegrini in Rome. He also thinks there has been sufficient clarification.

"There’s a huge amount of material in them [the documents], so the idea of putting out another clarification is a bit impractical — because you’d have to publish hundreds of pages," he said. "The Pope’s given us the basic line to take."


Moving Forward

After 50 years, many of the Council’s fruits have become clearer. Critics point to a collapse of vocations and emptying churches in the West, continued liturgical abuses and a mentality that at times seems secularist.

Father Tanner said the Church needed time to integrate the Second Vatican Council, as with other important councils. For instance, the fourth-century First Council of Nicaea, convened to address the Arian heresy, was opposed by many Catholics and "took a good half century or more before it was received," he noted.

Novak doesn’t deny the problems. But he prefers to dwell on the Council’s good fruits, of which he says there are many.

The Catholic Church is growing rapidly, Novak said, with its growth especially rapid in the Third World. And he cited the development of the Church’s new movements and greater lay involvement as other positive post-conciliar signs.

The Church today, Novak said, has a "vitality of faith, with a new spirit and ‘outwardness’ everywhere you go."

Edward Pentin

writes from Rome.