John XXIII and the Real Second Vatican Council
The pope who convened the council intended that it should guide the Church in engaging the modern world, while safeguarding the Church's unchanging deposit of faith.
These two words Pope John XXIII said to the College of Cardinals on Jan. 25, 1959, went on to shape the Catholic Church and affect the lives of Catholics and non-Catholics ever since they were spoken.
Wonderful results — and some not so wonderful ones — have come from the Second Vatican Council that began with John XXIII’s opening speech on Oct. 11, 1962. Controversy, contention and confusion took the faithful on a detour from the path to renewal John envisioned.
What did the Council intend, and why was it a rough journey?
"The problems could have been avoided if more people read and understood the documents and understood what John XXIII had in mind from the beginning," explained Matthew Bunson, an authority on the papacy and Catholic Church history, who is the author or co-author of more than 45 books, including The Pope Encyclopedia.
"John understood all the problems developing in the world, and the Second Vatican Council was to provide the solutions to the problems," Bunson said.
The Holy Father was well aware of the shattering changes in people’s spiritual lives, with the rise of secularism, materialism, moral relativism and existentialism after World War II.
But contrary to many interpreters of the Second Vatican Council, he was not somehow trying to reject what had gone before, according to Bunson.
"John XXIII had a very positive view of where the Church was," Bunson said. "He intended for the Church to provide many of those pastoral solutions to the world."
Bunson contends the new saint was actually "like so many other popes: so incredibly prophetic in reading the signs of the times and proposing great solutions to the problems facing the modern world."
‘An Astute Observer’
Alan Schreck, Church historian, authority on Vatican II and author of Vatican II: The Crisis and the Promise, which explains the documents in layman’s terms, agrees.
"John XXIII was an astute observer of the world situation and the emerging cultural crisis in the West," said Schreck, a professor in Franciscan University of Steubenville’s theology department. "He perceived it was a time for the Church to restate her beliefs in a way that would reach the understanding of modern people."
Schreck said John made clear in his opening speech to the Council that doctrine and teachings were not to change, only the ways of expressing them. This was a pastoral council.
John XXIII had stated: "The greatest concern of the ecumenical council is this: that the sacred deposit of Christian doctrine should be guarded and taught more efficaciously." The Church should "never depart from the sacred patrimony of truth received from the Fathers."
The Holy Father further said the Council "wishes to transmit the doctrine, pure and integral, without any attenuation or distortion. … The substance of the ancient doctrine of the deposit of faith is one thing, and the way in which it is presented is another."
Pope John also wanted the Church’s doctrine stated in a positive way, Schreck said. "His idea of the Council was to present the true faith, but as light in the darkness, to attract men to the truth in the beauty and clarity of the way the truth was expressed."
Although the Italian term he used is often interpreted as signaling a spirit of change to the detriment of doctrinal soundness, Schreck clarified, "What John XXIII understood aggiornamento [‘bringing up to date’] meant is to express the faith of the Church in the modes of modern thought and ways people could understand."
The Council had nothing to do with the spirit of revolution. But the "R" of renewal became to many interpreters the "R" of revolution. False notions of the "spirit of Vatican II" rushed in — and continue to hold sway over thousands of the faithful.
Father Matthew Lamb, Cardinal Maida Professor of Theology at Ave Maria University, makes clear why that happened.
During the last two sessions of the Council, he was a priest doing graduate studies at the Gregorian University in Rome and would attend the press conferences after the morning sessions.
Throughout 1962-65, there were two places and events in the world where foreign correspondents knew their story would get top billing — the Vietnam War and the Second Vatican Council. Reporters flocked to Rome because it was safer than Vietnam.
"But they didn’t understand theology and what to do," Father Lamb observed. "They started using political categories. By the second session, it was ‘conservative’ vs. ‘liberal’ — it was who was winning."
At those press conferences, Father Lamb observed that Father John Courtney Murray would explain in serious detail for 20 minutes what had been debated that morning, and then a priest, who was considered a leading British theologian, would get up and tell the media representatives it was quite simple: "liberal vs. conservative." And the press would invariably quote those periti, priests from around the world considered expert theologians who were there to help the bishops, but who fell into the liberal template or camp. (Both Murray and the dissident British priest, Charles Davis, who ended up leaving the priesthood, were periti.)
A prolific author and editor of Vatican II: Renewal Within Tradition (Oxford University Press), Father Lamb explains what further happened, as others like Father Francis Xavier Murphy — who wrote articles under the pseudonym Xavier Rynne for a popular American magazine about the Council debates — propagated and framed much of the conciliar discussion as "conservative" vs. "liberal."
Even the monks at the Trappist monastery Father Lamb was connected with at the time were reading Rynne’s letters in The New Yorker.
"With John XXIII and Paul VI, you always had a Mass at the beginning," Father Lamb said. "The [media] never covered that prayer."
Father Lamb described that 95% of Catholics, including religious and priests, didn’t study the documents of the Council, but they were reading the press reports in the mainstream media. And the diocesan papers would pick those reports up, too.
Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI stated this clearly on Feb. 14, 2013, in his farewell address to priests. He said, "[T]here was a Council of the fathers — the true Council — but there was also the Council of the media. It was almost a Council unto itself, and the world perceived the Council through these, through the media. Therefore, the Council that immediately and efficiently arrived to the people was that of the media, not that of the fathers.
"We know how this Council of the media was accessible to all. Therefore, this was the dominant, more efficient one and has created so much calamity, so many problems, really so much misery — seminaries closed; convents closed; liturgy trivialized."
And yet the valuable documents remain, and they’re very relevant today. Schreck noted: "The documents are readable and very scriptural. You don’t need to be a professional theologian to understand the documents. The great thing is: As you read them, the truth and the beauty of our faith do shine forth. So John XXIII’s vision is fulfilled by the Council."
Bunson pointed to John XXIII’s striking pre-conciliar encyclicals exhorting the faithful to pray the Rosary and to do penance — "many things in the wake of the Council many [people] tried to do away with."
This real intent and wrong response to it is what Benedict, who acted at the Council as a priest theological expert, often referred to as the hermeneutics of reform with continuity, as opposed to the hermeneutics of rupture and discontinuity.
"This is a fundamental distinction that Benedict made," noted Schreck.
Now, hope abounds, as the Church has regained the right path, according to the conciliar experts who spoke with the Register.
Schreck said every other council also took time to settle into its true meaning and follow that road faithfully.
And Bunson affirmed John Paul II and Benedict XVI implemented the Council as John XXIII intended it.
"There is this beautiful relationship between Vatican II and the New Evangelization, in that both of them speak to proclaiming the unchanging truth of the Church in the way the modern world can understand."
Benedict confirmed this outlook and concluded in his 2013 speech: "But the real power of the Council was present and, little by little, is realizing itself more and more — and becomes the true power that then is also true reform, true renewal of the Church. It seems to me that, 50 years after the Council, we see how this virtual Council is breaking up, is becoming lost, and the true Council is appearing, with all of its spiritual power.
"And it is our task … to work in order that the true Council, with its power of the Holy Spirit, may be realized and that the Church may really be renewed … in the certainty: The Lord triumphs!"
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- April 20-May 3, 2014