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Fifty Years of Vatican II

October 11, 2012, marks a full half century since Bl. Pope John XXIII convened the Second Vatican Council. Vatican II was the 21st “general” or “ecumenical” council of the Catholic Church, approximately one for each century in the Church’s 2,000-year history. These ecumenical councils consist of a gathering of the Church’s bishops, under the headship of the bishop of Rome, the pope, to deliberate about and decide important questions pertaining to the life and practice of the Church.

The first such council, the Council of Nicaea held in A.D. 325, for example, produced the substance of the creed that we profess to this day (as supplemented by the second such council held at Constantinople in A.D. 381). Subsequent councils have indelibly marked the faith and practice of the Church in important and sometimes essential ways. The belief of the Church is that the formal acts of an ecumenical council ratified by a pope enjoy the guarantee of the Holy Spirit.

Vatican Council II consisted of four annual sessions that met in St. Peter’s Vatican Basilica in Rome each fall in the years 1962­–65. Somewhat more than 2,500 bishops from all around the world participated. (Today there are nearly twice as many Catholic bishops around the world!) Also included were heads of religious orders, theologians, canonists, biblical scholars, and such who did not vote but who assisted the council fathers (bishops) as periti (experts).

As a young theologian, Fr. Joseph Ratzinger, who later became Pope Benedict XVI, was a notable peritus at the Council, serving as a theological advisor to the then cardinal-archbishop of Cologne, Germany. Similarly, the relatively newly minted Polish archbishop Karol Wojtyla, the future Pope John Paul II, made significant contributions to the Council, especially in its final session and in connection with the Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World, Gaudium et Spes, from which the Polish pope never tired of quoting throughout his long pontificate.

Each of the three popes elected after the Council—John Paul I, John Paul II, and Benedict XVI—quite notably pledged as his first act his firm intention to “implement” the Council. The popes well understood that the Council was no casual affair and that its enactments represented new norms and goals in the life of the Church.

Since an ecumenical council of the Catholic Church was hardly an everyday event, the press and media, including the relatively new medium of television, maintained a steady interest and reported widely on its doings. In some ways, this media interest created expectations concerning what was going to come out of the Council that could never have been realized in the real world.

Convoking the Council

Bl. Pope John XXIII surprised the world when he announced the convocation of the Second Vatican Council. Elected in 1958 to the See of Peter at the age of 77, he was supposedly a “transition” pope whose reign would be short. Instead, he decisively changed the course of the Church’s life and practice when he announced to a startled group of cardinals that there was going to be un concilio, a council. At that time the Church’s most recent council was Vatican Council I, held in 1869­–70, which had defined the nature of faith and reason and the relationship between them—and had issued its famed definition on the primacy and infallibility of the pope.

But Vatican I had been interrupted when the Franco-Prussian war broke out between France and Germany in 1870. So although that Council had properly defined the place in the Church of the pope, the successor of Peter and the Vicar of Christ on earth, it had not comparably defined the place in the Church of all her other members: bishops, priests, religious, and laity. Vatican II would remedy that among its many other accomplishments.

Blessed Pope John XXIII gave three reasons why he had decided to convoke Vatican II. In his memorable opening address to the Council, Gaudet Mater Ecclesia (“Mother Church Rejoices”), delivered on October 11, 1962, the jovial and saintly pontiff declared, as the first of these three reasons, that “the greatest concern of the ecumenical council is this: that the sacred deposit of Christian doctrine should be guarded and taught more efficaciously.” Yes, that’s Christian doctrine, Catholic teaching—the truths the Church teaches for the sake of our sanctification and salvation.

In the aftermath of Vatican II, it came to be widely thought that the Council had somehow actually downgraded doctrine; that the importance of the Church lay mainly in her charitable work in the world. Nothing of the kind! The pope’s primary reason for calling the Council was to preserve and promote Church teaching more effectively—in effect, as we say today, to evangelize.

Bl. Pope John XXIII’s second reason for calling the Council was to launch a renewed effort to seek reunion with other Christians. The pope considered the splits and breakaways in history that had transformed Christianity into thousands of separate churches, communions, and sects to be scandalous, especially since Jesus himself had prayed that “they may all be one” (John 17:20). The creation of a more salutary ecumenical spirit among Christians in fact proved to be one of the more salient positive results of Vatican II.

The third reason for convoking the Council was to adapt and update the Church’s methods, practices, and discipline (aggiornamento in Italian, “bringing up to date”) in order that Catholics and the Church herself might more effectively meet the challenges of modern times. Aggiornamento became the watchword of the Council. In the experience of most Catholics, the changes that were made in implementing it became the thing that characterized Vatican II.

These three reasons—to promote Catholic truth, seek Christian unity, and update Catholic practice—remained the goals of the council fathers as they met each autumn in Rome for four years between 1962 and 1965.

A new pope guides the Council

Bl. John XXIII died in the early summer of 1963, having shepherded the Council through only its first year. His successor, elected by the conclave of 1963, was Cardinal Giovanni Batista Montini, the archbishop of Milan, Italy, who took the name of Paul VI. He oversaw the Council’s final three sessions and approved and signed all 16 official documents it produced. (Nothing pertaining to an ecumenical council is valid unless it is approved and ratified by the pope).

Pope Paul VI adopted the aims and goals of the Council as articulated by his predecessor, emphasizing the primary conciliar aim of promoting Catholic truth as increasing and expressing better the Church’s understanding of what she is and what she does. This aim was to be splendidly realized in the Council’s great Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, Lumen Gentium, and its equally significant Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World, Gaudium et Spes, in which the Catholic Church explained what it is all about as well or better than ever before in its entire history. For this reason Vatican II has rightly been called “the Council on the Church.”

And Pope John XXIII’s second aim of seeking Christian unity resulted in Vatican II’s epochal Decree on Ecumenism, Unitatis Redintegratio, which transformed the Church’s former skepticism toward ecumenism into her current view that she is obliged by her very Christ-given nature to take an active leadership role in seeking the reunion of all Christians.

Finally, with regard to aggiornamento, or bringing the Church’s methods and practices up to date, Pope Paul VI saw this as enabling the Church and Catholics to interact and dialogue more effectively with the modern world. In addition to this Italian word aggiornamento, Vatican II brought into use another foreign term, the French word ressourcement, or “going back to the sources.” The council fathers and their periti consistently looked to the Church’s entire tradition, all the way back to the earliest Church Fathers and to sacred Scripture itself, in trying to make clear and intelligible to the modern mind in its documents and enactments what the Church’s teaching and tradition truly consist of. This was essential because what most solidly remains of Vatican Council II today, 50 years after its close, are the 16 documents that the Council produced (see sidebar).

These documents constituted the formal acts of the Second Vatican Council, and they constitute today what remains from the Council that is alive and binding upon us to continue to carry out. Much of the Church’s ongoing activity is based on or has reference to these documents. The popes and the bishops generally understand the documents’ importance and regularly cite and act on them, but it is not clear that the same thing is true of all the members of the Church. These Vatican II documents, therefore, deserve to be more widely read and re-read today by the faithful.

It was on the basis of the documents of Vatican II that the Church’s revised Code of Canon Law was promulgated in 1985 and the Catechism of the Catholic Church in 1992.

Tumultuous times

No account of the Council can ignore the fact that what followed was hardly a period when its enactments were effortlessly put into effect. On the contrary, what followed the Council was a post-conciliar period of no little turmoil and confusion. Not a few missteps were made in implementing what the Council had called for. Nobody knew in advance, after all, how an ecumenical council of a worldwide Church was supposed to be implemented in all of its features.

It is worth recalling that the Council took place in the 1960s, when a popular Bob Dylan song of the day noted that “the times, they are a-changin’” and when social disturbances, Vietnam War protests, student riots, feminist agitation, and the sexual revolution produced widespread common manifestations. Some of this unrest found its way into the Church, and some Church positions too were erroneously thought to be up for grabs.

It was not always easy to discern whether some of the widespread “change” being effected had been legitimately decreed by the Council or represented what some people thought should have been enacted. It took years and even decades to sort some of this out. Only now, a half century after the Council, can it be said that most of the Council’s authentic and positive enactments have largely been accepted and assimilated into the life of the Church.

In a 2005 Christmas address to the Roman Curia, Pope Benedict XVI attributed much of the misunderstanding and confusion that followed Vatican II to what he called a “hermeneutic of discontinuity,” or a false interpretation of the Council divorced from the authentic teaching and tradition of the Church. What was needed, the pope pointed out, was a “hermeneutic of reform,” or true interpretation of the Council.

“Whenever this interpretation guided the implementation,” the pope concluded, “new life developed and new fruit ripened,” representing the many positive results that have in fact sprung from the Second Vatican Council of 50 years ago.

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