Clashing Visions of Vatican II Define Present-Day Theological Fault Lines

ANALYSIS: Sixty years after its opening, the meaning of the Second Vatican Council is still contested, as interpretations sidelined by John Paul II and Benedict XVI experience a revival under Francis.

Dispersion of the Cardinals during Second Vatican Council.
Dispersion of the Cardinals during Second Vatican Council. (photo: Lothar Wolleh / Wikimedia Commons)

On the 60th anniversary of the opening of Vatican II, on Oct. 11, Cardinal Mario Grech, the general secretary of the Synod of Bishops, issued a brief statement connecting the synod and its task with the Council — and perhaps revealed something more.

“The purpose of the Synod was and remains to prolong, in the life and mission of the Church, the spirit of the Second Vatican Council,” Cardinal Grech, who is leading the Church’s ongoing Synod on Synodality, wrote in his message. “This task is far from being completed since the reception of the conciliar magisterium is an ongoing process; in some respects, it is still in its infancy.”

The Maltese cardinal’s remarks garnered attention for their prominent usage of the “spirit of the Second Vatican Council.” Villanova University theologian Massimo Faggioli, for instance, tweeted that Cardinal Grech’s use of the phrase “is very important because it rehabilitates an expression banned by many in the Catholic hierarchy.”

Of course, the “spirit of Vatican II” is not just an expression, but has become an entire approach to interpreting the Second Vatican Council. It’s generally understood to maintain that, unlike other ecumenical councils, the significance of Vatican II is not to be found primarily in the magisterial documents it produced, but in the impulse for change and reform the “event” inspired, even if they appear to contradict established Church teaching. 

This approach has previously been rejected by, for instance, the 1985 Extraordinary Synod of Bishops convened by Pope John Paul II to celebrate, verify and promote Vatican II. The synod’s final report, which was made public by John Paul, affirmed that any sense of the Council’s spirit cannot be separated from its texts and emphasized that “the Council must be understood in continuity with the great tradition of the Church.” 

Similarly, in his famed “hermeneutic of continuity” address to the Roman Curia at Christmas 2005, Pope Benedict XVI also rejected the “spirit of Vatican II” approach, which he said left open a wide margin for how said spirit should be defined, “and room was consequently made for every whim.”

With these previous rejections of the “spirit of Vatican II” in mind, Cardinal Grech’s employment of the phrase can be seen as indicative of a larger trend of questions related to Vatican II that were seemingly settled by Pope St. John Paul II and Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI but are now being reopened in the pontificate of Pope Francis, pitting one interpretation of the Council and its teachings against another.


Ongoing Tensions

In a provocative Oct. 12 commentary titled “How Catholics Became Prisoners of Vatican II,” New York Times columnist Ross Douthat commented on this trend in dire terms.

“Through [Pope Francis’] governance and indeed through his mere existence, this liberal pope has proved that the Second Vatican Council cannot be simply reduced to a single settled interpretation, or have its work somehow deemed finished, the period of experimentation ended and synthesis restored.” 

Instead, Douthat argued that “the council poses a continuing challenge, it creates intractable-seeming divisions, and it leaves contemporary Catholicism facing a set of problems and dilemmas that Providence has not yet seen fit to resolve.”

Church theologians, though, told the Register that while tensions over the true meaning of Vatican II may currently be exacerbated by the opposing sides, it’s nothing out of the ordinary for a Council to be contested over the decades after its closing.

Father Blake Britton, a priest of the Diocese of Orlando, Florida, and author of Reclaiming Vatican II, pointed to St. Basil of Caesarea’s account of the misinformation and competing interpretations that came in the aftermath of the Council of Nicaea in A.D. 325.

“The raucous shouting of those who, through disagreement, rise up against one another, the incomprehensible chatter, the confused din of uninterrupted clamoring, has now filled almost the whole of the Church, falsifying through excess or failure the right doctrine of the faith,” wrote the fourth-century saint in a passage also highlighted by Pope Benedict in his aforementioned Curial address.

Father Britton said that to expect everything to be “hunky-dory” in the wake of Vatican II is unrealistic and inconsistent with Church precedent.

“We’ve learned a lot, and there’s a lot of fruit still to happen, but we’re not beyond the point of friction,” said the priest.

Pope Francis himself has commented on this dynamic in an interview, during which he also said the “non-acceptance of the Council” is the primary problem in the Church today.

“It is also true that it takes a century for a council to take root,” he told the editors of European Jesuit journals this past summer. “We still have 40 years to make it take root, then!”


Papal Shift

Shaun Blanchard, a theologian and senior research fellow at the Newman Institute, suggests that, beginning in 2015, — the year Pope Francis promulgated Amoris Laetitia (The Joy of Love), which created controversy for seeming to create an opening for divorced Catholics in a non-sacramental second marriage to receive Communion — “there has been a sense that more is up for grabs.” 

Blanchard told the Register that this kind of dynamic may be disorienting for some, but he says it’s not necessarily without precedent.

“You could say it’s a new situation, or you could say it’s a return to an old situation, where the doctrinal boundaries are being renegotiated, which, I think, is, by and large, a constant process throughout Catholic history,” said Blanchard, who has co-authored the forthcoming Oxford University Press book Vatican II: A Very Short Introduction.

Blanchard locates the shift in Pope Francis’ governance related to Vatican II in his different experience of the Council than his predecessors. 

While John Paul II was a young bishop and Council Father at Vatican II, and Benedict XVI served as an influential theological adviser, Francis “is really the first truly post-conciliar pope,” said Blanchard: The present Pope’s entire priestly and episcopal ministry has taken place in the aftermath of the Council, and “there are certain things that he simply takes for granted” as the clear direction of the post-conciliar Church.

While the previous two popes were concerned with mediating an interpretation of the Council that bridged the pre- and post-conciliar periods, Francis is more focused on fulfilling the understanding of the Council he received as a young Jesuit in 1970s Argentina.

Part of this is a shift away from doctrinal considerations and a greater attention to pastoral concerns and the way the Church relates to both the faithful and non-Catholics. As was the case in Amoris Laetitia, Blanchard said that Pope Francis “doesn’t like the word ‘change’” but prefers “to talk about progression and growth and development” — though “there’s now a sense that the boundary between discipline and doctrine is much hazier than certainly John Paul II asserted there was in Veritatis Splendor,” the Pope’s 1993 encyclical The Splendor of Truth

In the case of the liturgy, Blanchard said that the Pope has a more singular understanding of what options are available in the wake of Sacrosanctum Concilium, the Council’s constitution on the sacred liturgy, and the following reform, unlike Pope Benedict XVI, who was concerned that the liturgical reforms had departed too far from the vision of the Council Fathers and the pre-conciliar experience.

Contributing to different papal perspectives on Vatican II is the sheer verbosity of the conciliar documents, which allows for wider interpretive latitude. Many documents also were passed with somewhat ambiguous language in order to reach a compromise, kicking the doctrinal can down the ecclesial road. 

Blanchard said this is clear in the way questions of collegiality and, by extension, synodality are viewed differently by Francis and his predecessors. 

While Lumen Gentium, the Council’s dogmatic constitution on the Church, affirmed episcopal collegiality and a strong sense of equality among bishops, Pope St. Paul VI also included an appendix that acknowledged collegiality as a reality, but reasserted papal supremacy in an effort to allay concerns that the language on its own would undermine the divine constitution of the Church. 

Instead of settling the issue of the diffusion of power within the Church, Blanchard told the Register this rolled the argument down the hill, and it’s now being picked up by Pope Francis.

“I think what we’re seeing with synodality today is a kind of delayed effort to implement ecclesiological ideas that some of the Vatican II Council Fathers supported, but by no means all,” he explained. “Francis sees this as consistent with the spirit of Vatican II ... and is attempting, in my view, to kind of finish business that he thinks was not solved or fully implemented.” 

Overall, Blanchard said a pope like Benedict XVI was more intentional about grounding himself in the conciliar texts, while Francis is more open to taking a trajectory of dialogue and risk-taking that he believes the Council opened.


Fault Lines in Focus

With this shift at the top, approaches to or interpretations of Vatican II that were curbed under the John Paul II-Benedict XVI paradigm are seeing a rebound in some quarters.

Lumen Gentium’s teaching on the Church as the people of God, which then-Cardinal Joseph Ratiznger, while serving as John Paul’s prefect for the Congregation of the Divine Faith, warned had been co-opted “to refer to popular sovereignty at long last being applied to the Church” in a way that tended to leave out “the very concept of God,” now serves as the primary conciliar basis for the Synod on Synodality.

“The magna charta [sic] of Synod 2021-2023,” wrote Cardinal Grech in his 60th anniversary message, “is the Council’s doctrine on the Church, particularly its theology of the People of God, a People whose ‘condition is the dignity and freedom of the children of God, in whose heart the Holy Spirt dwells as in a temple.’”

Gaudium et Spes’ teaching that “the Church has always had the duty of scrutinizing the signs of the times” has been employed as justification for a variety of departures from established doctrine and discipline. 

For instance, the instrumentum laboris of the Pan-Amazon synod described itself as “a sign of the times when the Holy Spirit opens new paths that we discern through mutual dialogue among all the people of God,” before suggesting that ordination to the priesthood be expanded to include married men. 

Likewise, a recent text from the Pontifical Academy for Life widely believed to be advocating for changes in the Church’s prohibition of artificial contraception explicitly cites the need to “recognize ‘the signs of the times’” as part of its theological orientation. As Father Britton pointed out, Pope St. Paul VI’s 1968 encyclical Humanae Vitae (Human Life: On the Regulation of Birth) flowed directly out of sections on marriage and the family in Gaudium et Spes, the same document now being cited to undercut his encyclical reaffirming the moral impermissibility of contraceptive sex. 

Regarding the liturgy, the absence of any mention of ad orientem worship in Sacrosanctum Concilium has been viewed by many as an indication that the Council Fathers did not envision this element of the liturgy changing in the reformed Roman Rite and certainly not being prohibited. However, in enforcing Pope Francis’ recent restrictions of the pre-conciliar Mass in his apostolic letter Traditionis Custodes (The Guardians of Tradition), some clerics have also sought to prohibit ad orientem in the reformed liturgy. Cardinal Blase Cupich of Chicago, for instance, has described this prohibition as consistent with “the precious heritage of the Second Vatican Council,” despite its absence from any conciliar document.


An ‘Equal and Opposite’ Reaction

Because of this disorienting rehabilitation of interpretations of Vatican II previously thought to be defunct, both Blanchard and Father Britton point to the revival of a different kind of approach that is also inconsistent with the teaching of previous popes: traditionalist interpretations that are critical of the Council.

“We now have high-ranking prelates who are in full communion with the Church who will openly say that quite a lot of [Vatican II’s texts] are ambiguous at best, and maybe we should stop talking about it altogether,” said Blanchard, pointing to Auxiliary Bishop Athanasius Schneider of Astana, Kazakhstan, who has called for a “Syllabus of Errors” on Vatican II, in particular.

Part of the problem, Blanchard suggested, is that some may have had a superficial understanding of Pope Benedict’s explanation of the “hermeneutic of continuity” as applied to Vatican II. This approach reduced Vatican II to “just a pastoral council” and failed to understand that Benedict understood Vatican II as not merely restating established doctrine with new language, but in some instances genuinely changing or developing mutable Church teaching. 

One example is 1965’s declaration on religious freedom, Dignitatis Humanae, which departed from more immediate previous teaching to prohibit all forms of religious coercion, in what Benedict described as a recovery of “the deepest patrimony of the Church.”

Positions that downplayed any genuinely new developments in Vatican II could still operate in the mainstream during the more restrained Benedict pontificate, but under Pope Francis, who has sought to implement aspects of conciliar teaching that he believes have gone unfulfilled, confrontation has been unavoidable.

“It’s kind of an ‘equal and opposite’ reaction if you think of the Church as a family,” said Blanchard. “The dad in the house is talking about how great last year’s Christmas was, and there are some uncles that don’t agree with that. They’re going to speak up much louder now that dad is speaking that way.”

Father Britton criticized traditionalists who “circle the wagons” and reject the Council’s call to take a new, more evangelistic posture toward the contemporary world, which in many ways is post-Christian or “neopagan.”

“We aren’t rebuilding Christendom,” he said. “Christendom is gone. It’s not here anymore. So we’re building the foundations of a new Christendom.”

Father Britton is also critical of what he calls “para-conciliarism,” a term originally used by Cardinal Henri de Lubac to describe the phenomenon of progressive theologians promoting a radical interpretation of Vatican II as a sort of meta council that established a “new Church” — what De Lubac said “often deserved the name ‘anti-Council’” — via the media and academia.

Blanchard used a different schema to understand the different interpretations of the Council and shared four paradigms that are included in his upcoming book: the “Traditionalist Paradigm,” characterized by “suspicion or rejection of the Council, or marginalization of it as exclusively ‘pastoral’”; the “Text-Continuity Paradigm,” which celebrates the Council, with an emphasis on the final texts and doctrinal continuity; the “Spirit-Event Paradigm,” which also accepts Vatican II, but emphasizes the spirit of the Council and insists on doctrinal change and innovation; and the “Failure Paradigm,” “a progressive lament that the Council ultimately failed to reform the Church.”


Unity in Plurality?

Blanchard doesn’t necessarily see the Church coming to a nice, neat synthesis on the right interpretation of Vatican II anytime soon. So he strives for finding “unity in plurality.”

“We’ve got to shift four of our trenches towards the things that we’re all on the same page about, things that are positive and constructive,” he said, mentioning Bible studies, parish potlucks, Marian devotions and celebrating the saints. He also expressed hope that “all of the compressed energy, anger, excitement and passion” reserved for arguments about Vatican II could be redirected toward “evangelization, social justice and beautiful liturgy.”

Father Britton said that no matter what someone’s views are on the Council, he has always found that people passionate about its proper interpretation are genuinely trying to find Christ.

“I can work with that, no matter where you fall” on the interpretive spectrum, he said.

For those struggling with the uncertainty prompted by the reemergence of previously dismissed approaches to Vatican II, Father Britton invites them to make a deeper act of faith in Christ.

“If Christ is alive, everything is going to be fine,” he said. “Keep praying, discerning with an open heart, and let’s moved forward in a spirit of hope.” 

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.

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