'This Sacred Council' – Vatican II at 60
Pope John XXIII blesses the crowd as he goes to open the Second Vatican Council.
PHOTO: ALAMY/GRANGER HISTORICAL PICTURE LIBRARY
Its purpose was to renew the Church, to evangelise, and to engage with the world rather than to excoriate it. There were shortcomings and unintended consequences, but 60 years on, Vatican II’s achievements can be seen ever more clearly.
There is a story that sometime in the 1950s, Archbishop Angelo Roncalli, the future Pope John XXIII, picked up Yves Congar’s True and False Reform in the Church. Roncalli appreciated the boldness and vision of this French scholar-priest, but had to ask himself: “A reform of the Church: is such a thing really possible?”
One way to discover if something is or is not possible is to try it (and getting elected pope greatly expands the horizons of what one can have a go at). By convening the Second Vatican Council, a bold reform of the Church is exactly what Roncalli attempted.
What hopes did John XXIII have for the Council? The go-to source for understanding his vision is usually the speech he gave at the opening of the Council, Gaudet Mater Ecclesia (“Mother Church rejoices”). While holding dogma inviolable, John argued that the Church must re-investigate and re-present her teaching “in the way demanded by our times”. His speech was grounded in his own principle of aggiornamento (“updating”; “letting in fresh air”) and his openness to the ressourcement (literally, “back to the sources”; that is, Scripture, the Church fathers, etc.) the method of “new theologians” such as Congar.
Pope John rebuked the “prophets of doom” in the Church who always “forecast disaster”. Though he recognised that such people “burn with religious fervour”, he distanced the Council’s agenda from those who see “only ruin and calamity in the present conditions of human society”. John was pre-empting the critiques of the nay-sayers of his own day, but his words could be mistaken for Francis’ side-swipes at EWTN and his other traditionalist Catholic carpers. Foreshadowing the growing historical consciousness that later caused conflict on the Council floor, Pope John blamed the “prophets of doom” for clinging to golden-age myths about the Catholic past and acting “as if they have nothing to learn from history, which is the teacher of life”. “Good Pope John”, now a canonised saint, is almost uniformly remembered as a visionary leader with a prophetic sense for Church renewal. His rotund figure and smiling face were outer signs of an inner reality – ebullience and warmth, a posture of welcoming, a generosity of spirit. But it is often forgotten that he was also a serious student of Church history, as his comment about “the teacher of life” implies.
As a young priest in northern Italy, Roncalli found inspiration in Charles Borromeo, a hero of the Council of Trent. Roncalli studied Borromeo closely, and developed a reform vision that was Borromean in inspiration: strong episcopal leadership combined with consultation and deliberative synods, all in the service of institutional renewal and spiritual rejuvenation. Roncalli reasoned that if the best way to reform a diocese was through a synod – as he had done in the Diocese of Rome in 1959 – then the best way to reform the entire Church was through a Church-wide synod; that is, an ecumenical council.
Such background to Pope John’s own understanding of true reform complicates the unhelpful binaries of “continuity” and “discontinuity” and sheds light on why Pope Francis believes that his programme of “synodality” is an implementation of the ecclesiology of Vatican II. One can argue about which of its four “constitutions” is the key to understanding Vatican II. Joseph Ratzinger made a good case that Dei Verbum (the Constitution on Divine Revelation) takes the cake. Others – from Pope John Paul II to the Catholic Workers to Latin American liberation theologians – seem to have taken as their point of departure Gaudium et Spes, the Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World.
Lumen Gentium, the great “ecclesiological” manifesto, is also a candidate, given that Vatican II was the first ecumenical council to deliberate in a systematic way on the nature and structures of the Church itself. At different times, I have told students that Dei Verbum or Lumen Gentium is the central hermeneutical key for understanding Vatican II (I’m biased, I return constantly to both texts for theological and historical reasons).
But recently, especially in the wake of Pope Francis’ bombshell Traditionis Custodes, which restored many restrictions to the use of the pre-conciliar liturgies that Benedict XVI had lifted, I have wondered if the honour should go to Sacrosanctum Concilium. In his book True Reform: Liturgy and Ecclesiology in Sacrosanctum Concilium Massimo Faggioli shows that the internal renewal that the liturgical constitution aimed at not only implied but directly led to the Council’s later reforms, including the decisive shifts on issues including ecumenism, religious freedom and the role of the laity. This is not to say that the decisions the Council fathers made after the promulgation of Sacrosanctum Concilium were all somehow inevitable; even less to argue something similar regarding post-conciliar Catholic theology and magisterial teaching.
However, there is an irresistible logic to Pope Francis’ assertion that acceptance or rejection of the Novus Ordo Mass – whatever one thinks of it – cannot be separated from the rest of Vatican II’s agenda. And it follows, too, that liturgical restorationists would be likely to question or reject the teaching of Vatican II texts such as Dignitatis Humanae on religious liberty and Nostra Aetate on the Jewish people and world religions.
It has become ever clearer during Pope Francis’ pontificate that liturgical agendas often correlate with views on Vatican II’s teaching on ecclesiology, ecumenism, and religious liberty. Chronologically, the Constitution on the Liturgy came first: Sacrosanctum Concilium was promulgated on 4 December 1963. The name chosen for the document (“This Most Sacred Council”) reflects the centrality of liturgical reform to Vatican II’s project of ecclesial renewal. Sacrosanctum Concilium laid out a four-point reform manifesto at the outset. The aims of “this Sacred Council”, it declared, were “to impart an ever increasing vigour to the Christian life of the faithful” [inner renewal]; “to adapt more suitably to the needs of our own times those institutions which are subject to change” [aggiornamento]; “to foster whatever can promote union among all who believe in Christ” [ecumenism]; and “to strengthen whatever can help to call the whole of mankind into the household of the Church” [evangelisation]. It brought together internal renewal with ecumenism and evangelisation, undergirded by the principles of aggiornamento and ressourcement.
Sixty years on, how far has Vatican II achieved these goals? We should be realistic about the shortcomings and unintended consequences of the Council. Paul VI bemoaned that confusion and strife became widespread in the post-conciliar Church. Though I came of age long after the wildest period of liturgical experimentation, I have endured many banal homilies and liturgies disfigured by insipid accoutrements. It is at least plausible to hold Vatican II partly responsible for certain impoverishments of Catholic devotional and communal life after 1965. To riff on the sociological work of my friend the theologian-sociologist Stephen Bullivant, Catholic communities lost crucial “credibility enhancing displays” (CREDs) in the well-intentioned rush to make the parish Mass, the reading of Scripture and Christo-centrism the main show in town.
Some of those discarded CREDs had connected the generations, marked rites of passage, and allowed for both communal solidarity and personal creativity to flourish, as well as spirituality and holiness. Such practices include the Forty Hours devotion, Corpus Christi processions, May crownings of Our Lady and the celebration of various saints’ feast days. The stampede to reform trampled too many customs that were rich, joyful, participatory, and, frankly, fun. One of the cruellest ironies of the years immediately after the Council was that too often practices cherished for centuries as opportunities for “fully conscious and active participation” (Sacrosanctum Concilium 14) were lost.
The successes of the Council, however, have been manifold. Three particularly stand out for me. Vatican II’s first achievement is the transformation in the relationship between the Church and what you might call the “others” – those outside its visible confines. While this ad extra impulse initially centred around the question of Christian ecumenism, the Council’s drive for greater Christian unity became a concern for all of God’s children, the entire human race. By the final session, the Council fathers were even drafting texts that discussed modern atheists with a nuanced mix of criticism and respect (see Gaudium et Spes 19–21, which Ratzinger called “among the most important pronouncements of Vatican II”).
Those who lived through the revolution in attitudes towards Protestants and members of non-Christian religions (especially the Jewish people) need no reminding what a titanic shift in rhetoric and posture Vatican II has led to. To count this change in orientation a dramatic achievement is not to deny the challenges and problems that these new paradigms of thought have raised: the debates that have arisen after the Council regarding mission and evangelisation (e.g. the case of Jacques Dupuis and Dominus Iesus) are not frivolous ones. Like all things, ecumenism and interreligious dialogue, when conducted badly, can lead to trouble.
Nevertheless, the transition from a triumphalistic attitude regarding “heretics and schismatics” towards dialogue and even, at times, repentance, seems to me a profound work of the Holy Spirit. The post-conciliar papacy has vociferously defended this opening toward the “other” as the will of the Lord, while continuing to proclaim that Jesus is the Saviour of the entire human race and that the one Church of Christ subsists in the Catholic Church. And every pope since the Council has robustly defended the change in Church teaching regarding religious freedom.
These shifts are closely connected. As the Italian theologian Pietro Pavan explained when commenting on the debates over Dignitatis Humanae, it would be “difficult, perhaps even impossible” to envision an ecumenical Catholic Church so long as it “demands freedom for itself in those political communities where Catholics are in the minority, while refusing the same freedom to non-Catholics in political communities where Catholics are in the majority”. The traditionalists and integralists who oppose Dignitatis Humanae (or empty it of meaning through tortured revisionist readings) are correct when they recognise that the new orientation of the Catholic Church towards non-Catholics has had profound repercussions far beyond issues of Church-state relations.
A second achievement is the profound biblical renewal that has occurred in many quarters of the Church. Taking off where Sacrosanctum Concilium left off, Dei Verbum put forward a view of worship, devotion and the task of theology that was suffused with the fruits of the biblical movement. Dei Verbum wanted to normalise personal contact with Scripture in the vernacular, both in the liturgy and through direct Bible reading. A great gulf separates Dei Verbum from the cautious and even prohibitive policies that were common from the fifteenth to the nineteenth centuries.
The 1713 bull Unigenitus of Pope Clement XI, for example, condemned ideas on Scripture and liturgy that look identical to those of John Paul II, Benedict XVI and Francis. While Catholics fight with each other about almost everything, the central importance of personal Bible reading is now unanimously valued from popes to priests to lay parish leaders to the campus ministers who, in some places, work hard to sign up as many people in the pews as possible for Bible studies that are often lay-led.
For much of 2021, the most downloaded podcast on iTunes was a Catholic priest reading through the Bible in a year. The most incredible thing, to me, is how normal this new status quo seems to so many devout Catholics. We should praise God that an ecumenical council took seriously St Jerome’s challenging statement, “ignorance of the Scriptures is ignorance of Christ” (cf. Dei Verbum 25). This good fruit, again, circles back to ecclesiology: Vatican II’s desire for scriptural renewal at every level was not, ultimately, devotional. It was about being a Church “under the Word of God”.
A third achievement lies in the intellectual life of the Church. Vatican II helped the Church transition from a classical worldview to a historically conscious worldview (to paraphrase the Canadian Jesuit Bernard Lonergan). This transition was piecemeal, but it has come to transform the way Catholics do theology and think about their own history. A few examples: through the sanctioning of moderate historical-critical study of the Bible, the Church overcame the legacy of anti-Modernist paranoia, and the consequent anxiety to defend indefensible positions such as the Mosaic authorship of the Pentateuch. The great “issue under the issues” of doctrinal development came to the fore in the intense and bitter debates over religious freedom. The reality of doctrinal development was explicitly taught in Dei Verbum, and in a manner that shifted from a syllogistic neo-scholastic approach toward historical consciousness.
Development, the Council taught, is a means by which “the Church constantly moves forward toward the fullness of divine truth”. This dynamic language fits uneasily with a fortress-like view of the Church but dovetails with Vatican II’s image of a pilgrim church, a church on a journey. Doctrinal development could mean a return to a former view or practice (as in Dei Verbum’s teaching on Scripture) or the augmented explanation of an established doctrine (Lumen Gentium on the salvation of non-Christians). More controversially, however, the Council fathers grappled with a doctrinal development that contained a clear reversal of priorly-held teaching concerning religious freedom.
It is for this reason that the debate over Dignitatis Humanae was arguably the most fraught of the Council, and that it is this document – not the constitution on the liturgy – that the ultra-traditionalists are most scandalised by. I said this third achievement concerns the intellectual life of the Church. But historical consciousness – since it involves a grappling with truth – also implies a theological stance. This stance better recognises the distinction between the eschatological Kingdom of God and the Church’s messy and sinful earthly journey. It also refuses to absolutise one culture or one explanation of the faith, a refusal that is vital to the health of a worldwide communion shifting its demographic weight to the global south. Historical consciousness combined with a trust in the Holy Spirit’s role in doctrinal development opens the Church to the possibility of the need to repent, ask for forgiveness, and correct course. Without this ability to recognise and correct mistakes, reform can ultimately short-circuit or even suffer paralysis. It is due to paths opened up by Vatican II that Pope Francis could say early in his papacy: “Today, thanks be to God, the Church knows how to repent.”
Shaun Blanchard is Senior Research Fellow at the National Institute for Newman Studies. He is the author of The Synod of Pistoia and Vatican II (OUP, 2020) and the co-author, with Stephen Bullivant, of Vatican II: A Very Short Introduction, to be published in March 2023 by Oxford University Press.