Read Them, For Goodness Sake


The documents of the Second Vatican Council consist of sixteen ecclesiastical documents written by a team of several thousand bishops and theologians after three years of preparation and four years of prayer and discussion. So it’s no surprise that most people leave the reading of these documents to the experts. After all, only the learned could make any sense of them, right?

That is precisely what the popes and fathers of the Council did not want people to think. Before the first line was even written, the decision was made to address the documents to everyone—not just academics and clergy. No, the vocabulary of the documents was to be biblical rather than scholastic; the style was to be pastoral rather than academic, so that the Council’s teaching would be accessible to all Christians, indeed, even to all people of good will. The documents of Vatican II have since been pored over by experts of all kinds, as indeed they should be; their content is rich and profound. Yet first and foremost the documents are like pastoral letters written to encourage, nourish, and enlighten the sheep.

Where to Begin?

Still, the thick volume of Council documents is, at first glance, forbidding. What is the best path into this thick forest of words?

The first thing to point out is that the Church has given everyone an easy, topically organized collection of Council texts that is by far the simplest place to get our feet wet. I’m speaking of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, one of the enduring achievements of the pontificate of Pope John Paul II. Of course, thisCatechism is not simply an anthology of Vatican II texts. It draws from all the Councils of the Church as well as from the entire Catholic tradition, citing Church Fathers, Doctors, and saints. Yet it is thoroughly imbued with the true "spirit of Vatican II" and includes substantial excerpts from the Council’s documents. It communicates the heart of the Council’s teaching, familiarizes us with the Council’s style, and introduces us to some of the most famous passages from the documents themselves.

But we should not be satisfied with just this taste of Vatican II. This appetizer should whet our appetite to feast on the full texts themselves. Each of the Council documents was written to be read from beginning to end. Serious Catholics and students of Catholicism should take up the challenge and dig in.

Which of the sixteen documents should we tackle first? The Council itself gave us guidance by creating three classes of documents: The most important and generally longer are called constitutions, of which there are four. The "middle-distance" documents, so to speak, are called decrees and are nine in number. Finally, the three briefest and most narrowly focused documents are called declarations.

Start with the Word of God

Among the constitutions, two stand out and are given a special description. They are called dogmatic constitutions and cover two topics: divine revelation and the Church. Many rightly note that Vatican II did not define any new dogmas, as did many previous Councils, including Nicaea, Trent, and Vatican I. It is also true that Vatican II was primarily a "pastoral" council. Yet it is most decidedly not true, as many think, that Vatican II offers us no serious doctrinal teaching and that its authority, therefore, is not to be taken too seriously. Calling two of its constitutions "dogmatic" makes it very plain that this Council does indeed teach doctrine most seriously. Although it does not define new dogmas, it does pass on, reaffirm, clarify, and develop revealed doctrine in the most authoritative fashion possible short of an infallible definition. The response of the faithful must be "the religious submission of intellect and will" to this important expression of the Church’s universal episcopal magisterium, which is an expression of the papal magisterium as well, since the successor of Peter signed each one of its documents.

In my opinion, the best dogmatic constitution to start with happens to be the shortest and the easiest to read. The Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation, usually known as Dei Verbum, is like the stem that roots the Council in the rich soil of Scripture and Tradition and draws up the nutrients necessary to make the bud of the Council—the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, Lumen Gentium—blossom.

The twenty-six paragraphs of Dei Verbum are divided into six short chapters. You can tackle the whole thing at once, reading it in less than an hour, or you can read a chapter a day as part of your prayer time. Yes, this document can be approached as spiritual reading, as can Lumen Gentium, since they are moving meditations on God’s Word. Dei Verbum is really a proclamation of the basic gospel, as this quote from the prologue makes clear:

Following then, in the steps of the Councils of Trent and Vatican I, this synod wishes to set forth the true doctrine on divine revelation and its transmission. For it wants the whole world to hear the summons to salvation, so that through hearing it may believe, through belief it may hope, through hope it may come to love. (DV 1)

Dei Verbum was the first Council document I ever read. I was nineteen years old at the time. I remember how shocked I was by how many Scripture quotes it contained. Expecting a dry academic exercise, I was equally surprised by how the document moved my heart and lifted my spirits even as it enlightened my mind. Regardless of our degree of biblical literacy, all Catholics will find themselves on familiar ground here as we read God’s self-revelation through words and deeds passed on to us by both Scripture and Tradition. We read the basic story of salvation history beginning in the days of the Old Covenant and leading up to Jesus Christ, the Word made flesh. The text reads so smoothly that you have to go back and read some passages another time or two to notice the important nuances this document contains relative to the nature of Tradition, the inspiration and inerrancy of Scripture, the role of the magisterium, and the rule for biblical interpretation. The last chapter of the document deals with the actual use of Scripture in the life of the Church and completely lays to rest the myth that the Catholic Church discourages its members from reading the Bible for themselves. In fact, if there is any document you’d want to give to a Protestant Christian to change their image of the Catholic Church, this would be the one.

Universal Call to Holiness

Prepared by our reading of Dei Verbum, we are prepared to attempt the central document of the Council, the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church. Lumen Gentium is a much longer document—sixty-nine paragraphs with several more explanatory notes tacked on. It is not quite as easy to finish in one sitting; reading one of its eight chapters a day would be a great plan. It is as biblical as Dei Verbum. In fact, its first chapter, "The Mystery of the Church," begins with a meditation on the many images of the Church in the New Testament. It reaffirms the teaching of Trent that the Church is organized in this world as a visible society, but it emphasizes that the Church is also an invisible communio, or communion of persons, and that many elements of the Church’s sanctification and truth are found outside its visible confines. This lays the groundwork for the next chapter, the "People of God," which develops the theme of the Church’s universality. All people are called to enter into the unity of the Church, and this chapter describes the different ways people either belong to or are related to it. Chapters follow on the hierarchical structure of the Church, the laity, and the religious and their respective roles. In the middle of it is a chapter on the "universal call to holiness," one of the central themes of the Council, which many believe to rank among the most important chapters of all conciliar texts. The document closes with a meditation on the pilgrim Church on earth, which is always in need of purification and renewal in its living members, and on the Blessed Virgin Mary, in whom the Church exists without spot or blemish.

Spokes from the Hub

Now that we’ve read the central document of the Council, where do we go from here? That depends on your interests. Lumen Gentium is like the hub of a wheel, and the remaining Council documents are spokes from that hub. They each spring directly out of a chapter or paragraph of Lumen Gentium and provide directives for pastoral action based on the constitution’s teaching.

For example, the Decree on the Apostolate of the Laity (Apostolicam Actuositatem) flows directly from Lumen Gentium’s teaching on the universal call to holiness, the laity, and the charisms. It focuses on the role of the laity in carrying out the mission entrusted by the Lord to his Church. Though it covers the assistance that the laity are often called on to provide to the clergy in accomplishing its ministry, this document emphasizes the work that is exclusive to the laity:

The characteristic of the lay state being a life led in the midst of the world and of secular affairs, laymen are called by God to make of their apostolate, through the vigor of their Christian spirit, a leaven in the world. (AA 2)

Without a deep spirituality and proper training, the laity won’t be able to rise to the occasion, so this document deals with those topics. It also identifies the key areas where lay people are to make their most distinctive contribution: evangelization through example and word (including apologetics) and the renewal of the temporal order, which means influencing political and economic structures in our society in a more human and Christian direction based on justice and the dignity of the human person. This document ranks among the most important for all to read—for the laity, to know what is expected of them, and for the clergy, to know how to lead and train their flock. Likewise, the Decree on the Pastoral Office of Bishops (Christus Dominus), the Decree on the Renewal of Religious Life (Perfectae Caritatis), and the Decree on the Training of Priests (Optatam Totius) flow from what Lumen Gentium has to say about hierarchy and religious and should go on the reading priority list based on the reader’s state of life.

To the Ends of the Earth

Lumen Gentium and many of its related documents clearly deal with family issues and topics relating to those dwelling within the visible boundaries of the Church—the Church " ad intra," as Cardinal Suenens, one of the four Council moderators, called it. But the Council, as concerned as it was with Church renewal, was also determined to address issues of how the Catholic Church is related to those outside its visible boundaries—the Church " ad extra." This concern surfaces in virtually all the Council documents, and Lumen Gentium is no exception. In paragraph 15, the Council notes that baptized members of Christian churches and ecclesial communities who have not retained full communion with the successor of Peter—and in many cases have not preserved the fullness of Catholic faith—are nonetheless joined to us in the Holy Spirit. From this paragraph springs the Decree on Ecumenism (Unitatis Redintegratio), which draws out its practical implications. Everyone should read this document, which provides an orientation on how to understand and view non-Catholic Christians from both East (the Orthodox) and West (Protestants), and on how to hasten the day when we can celebrate the Eucharist together as one flock under one shepherd.

In the next paragraph of Lumen Gentium (16), the Council considers the situation of people who have not yet received the gospel and therefore do not confess Christ. First of all, the truth present in the religion of Jews, Muslims, and others is recognized and honored as "preparation for the gospel." The Council says that these peoples are "related to" or "oriented toward" (the Latin word is ordinarii) the Church in various ways. It also states that "those who, through no fault of their own, do not know the gospel of Christ or his Church, but who nevertheless seek God with a sincere heart, and, moved by grace, try in their actions to do his will as they know it through the dictates of their conscience—those too may achieve eternal salvation." But it notes that often, "deceived by the Evil One," such people come to serve creatures rather than the Creator or fall into despair. Therefore, the preaching of the gospel is an urgent task; the Church should never neglect to foster the missions.

As if its careful wording were not enough, two documents are offered by the Council as commentaries and continuations of this one paragraph. The Declaration on Non-Christian Religions (Nostra Aetate) is among the shortest of Council documents, but it packs a powerful punch nonetheless. It lays aside once and for all the idea that Jews throughout history carry the guilt of the crucifixion of Christ and unequivocally condemns all forms of anti-Semitism. It also contains important reflections on Islam, which should be read by every Catholic in these days when Muslim terrorist organizations make the news daily.

The Decree on the Church’s Missionary Activity (Ad Gentes Divinitum) makes it impossible for any Catholic to conclude that since it is technically possible for those who never hear the gospel to be saved, we ought to forget about missionary activity. Although the document focuses on the duty of the entire Church to bring the gospel to unevangelized regions of the earth, much of what it has to say has direct bearing on the "new evangelization" or re-evangelization of the Western world, in which all Europeans and North and South Americans are called to be directly involved.

Consensus on Liturgy?

Other than Lumen Gentium, all the documents we’ve recommended so far have been brief. So are four other documents that can generally be seen as springing from Dei VerbumLumen Gentium, or the latter’s related documents: the Decree on the Eastern Catholic Churches (Orientalem Ecclesiarum), the Decree on the Means of Social Communications (Inter Mirifica), the Declaration on Christian Education (Gravissimum Educationis), and the Declaration on Religious Freedom (Dignitatis Humanae)—the distinctively American contribution to the Council documents. These four are not to be missed.

I’ve recommended shorter documents first for a very practical reason—most people are busy living hectic lives, and it is easier to fit shorter works into their lifestyle. But longer books are often the most rewarding ones, and they should not be forgotten.

As the grand finale to your Vatican II reading plan, I suggest the last two constitutions: the Constitution on the Liturgy (Sacrosanctum Concilium) and the Constitution on the Church in the Modern World (Gaudium et Spes). Though the reform of the liturgy mandated by Vatican II remains in some circles quite controversial, we should note that the liturgy constitution was the very first document to be approved by the Council fathers since it was the easiest for them to agree upon. There was consensus among the bishops even before they arrived that the liturgical life of the Church needed serious renewal. What is so valuable about reading this document is that we can see firsthand what motivated the bishops, the theological principles behind the reforms, and what the Council itself mandated or allowed as distinct from what it left to the post-conciliar Church to decide and implement.

There are two dimensions to this conciliar text: theological principles of liturgical worship universal to all Catholic rites—Eastern and Western—and specific directives on liturgical reform that pertain to the Roman rite alone. This constitution, 130 paragraphs long, deals with not just the Mass but all the sacraments, the calendar, the blessings or sacramentals, the liturgy of the hours, and liturgical music and art. Because it covers so much ground and includes practical directives, it does not read as smoothly as the other documents. I recommend that you attack it in chunks.

The true grand finale of the Council is Gaudium et Spes. Its ninety-three paragraphs are the ultimate reflection on the Ecclesia ad extra and covers topics ranging from atheism to economics, abortion, and war. It provides tremendous guidance to those of us who bump up against these issues every day in the press and often meet them in the course of our daily lives as well.

Accept No Substitutes

I often hear people criticizing something because it is "pre-Vatican II" or contrary to "the spirit of Vatican II." On the other side of the spectrum, I find traditional Catholics who blame Vatican II for the shenanigans that go on in their parish or their Sunday liturgy.

It is ironic that many of those who praise or criticize the Council have never read its documents. We can’t compel others to read them, but we can certainly read them ourselves, and allow ourselves to be nourished and formed by them. I feel that, for all Catholics who can do so, reading the documents is a duty. The good news is that those who seek to discharge this duty find, to their surprise, that it is also a delight.


Marcellino D’Ambrosio earned his  Ph.D. in theology from the Catholic University of America under the guidance the renowned Jesuit theologian, Avery Cardinal Dulles.

His series on the Early Church Fathers is broadcast weekly on the Eternal...

This article appeared in Volume 17 Number 9.