Question: On the fiftieth anniversary of Vatican II, what are the positive and negative results of this Council?
SEPTEMBER 13, 2016 BY FR. BRIAN MULLADY, OP
The Second Vatican Council is the watershed event of the Catholic Church in the 20th Century. Though 50 years have passed since it was concluded, the optimistic fruit of this Council, which John XXIII had in mind when calling it, have yet to be fully realized. John XXIII stated that the text: “This is the will of God, your sanctification” (1 Th 4:3) should be written over the doors of the Council. John Paul II, who wrote a study of the document on the Church, immediately on his return after the Council, instructed his diocese that it was clear that the purpose of the Council was to answer the question: “Ecclesia, quid dicis de teipsa (“Church, what do you have to say for yourself?”) Academic reflection on the nature of this Council has termed it: “The Council of the Church.” The answer was that the Church is a mystery, which is the Greek term for “sacrament” and means “a physical sign joining us to eternity.” This fact is clear in the document on the Church which quotes an ancient Father of the Church, St. Cyprian:
The Church is seen to be “a people brought into unity from the unity of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.” (Lumen Gentium, 4)
The hope was that a vigorous and sober examination of the means used by the Church to proclaim the Gospel would lead to a deeper and more spiritual appreciation of the Church as an institution which transcended time and space. This appreciation would, in turn, initiate a flowering of spiritual life for the laity responding to grace.
John XXIII basically regarded the Council as the prolongation of the First Vatican Council, which was never formally closed because of the political situation in Europe. In fact, the bishops had meant to discuss 50 schema, which included the topics dealt with by Vatican II in 1870, and they only discussed two. John XXIII wanted these other topics examined with very specific goals in mind. They were:
Make Catholicism more accessible to the contemporary world;
Address the distressing disunity of Christians largely in response to the totalitarian and secular threats to religion;
And assiduously study and implement the richness of the Catholic tradition in a setting which would not just be an apologetic reaction to Protestantism and secularism.
The latter goal included a systematic return to the thought of the Fathers of the Church, which had, at times, been lost through an overemphasis on a kind of Neo-Scholasticism, and a desire to address the already burgeoning attempt to renew the Sacred Liturgy, especially in response to an impoverishment of the liturgy in the 19th Century in music and spirituality. One must, for example, place this intention in the context of the recovery of Gregorian chant begun under Pius X, which was finally coming to fruition in the late 1950s and early 1960s. These intentions have always been generally categorized under two terms dear to the Council: aggiornamento (updating) and resourcement (a return to the sources). The return to the sources would include correcting the influence of the Enlightenment on Neo-Scholasticism by actually reading the texts of Thomas Aquinas. Ecumenism also became not only a prominent theme, but also a permanent one, though the optimism and the euphoria of the Church in pursuing this has given way to a deepening divide from certain of the mainstream Protestant sects.
An immense literature, both critical and uncritical, has accompanied the attempt to implement the documents of Vatican II since its closure. Controversy and misinterpretation began even during the celebration of the Council itself. It is difficult, in the face of all that has gone on since, to maintain an objective perspective. Some important points need to be stressed, however, in our evaluation of the life of the post-Vatican II Church. For some, there needs to be a “Vatican III” to further liberalize the Church. For others, Vatican II is seen as an unfortunate event which should be repudiated. A balanced approach eschews both these tendencies.
A more realistic assessment of this Council would be that a study of the actual texts of the documents is essential. Though there is a way to interpret them which is more in keeping with the relativistic philosophy of the sixties, this was not the intention of most of the bishops, or the Pope, who approved them. Thus, the correct way to interpret them is not to seek problems, and subtle denials of the traditional faith, but to take them at face value. Most of the people who wrote and approved these documents were trained in a Scholastic philosophy, which affirmed the fact of absolute truths. Though many of the Council Fathers wanted these to be expressed in more Scriptural and personalist terms, so that they might more accessible to those not trained in Scholasticism, they were certainly not based on a denial of the Scholastic philosophy of real and unchanging essences and natures. The “hermeneutic of continuity” not “discontinuity” is thus the key to their interpretation and understanding as an action of the Holy Spirit.