Councils have something to teach us about the past—and future—of the church

Bishops at the Second Vatican Council (Lothar Wolleh/Wikimedia)

We often reduce councils of the church to meetings that “said things.” What did the Second Vatican Council say? What did the Council of Trent say? Such questions are natural, given that the documents of councils—what the councils “said”—are the most readily accessible legacy of these meetings.

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When Bishops Meetby John W. O'Malley

Belknap/Harvard University Press 240p $24.95

However, too much focus on what a council said may neglect the equally important question of what that council was. When Bishops Meet, by John W. O’Malley, S.J., takes up the latter question and uses it to draw meaningful comparisons between the Council of Trent, the First Vatican Council and Vatican II. The book fundamentally assumes that councils are worth studying as complex religious, historical and cultural events, and that by undertaking this study, we come to a clearer understanding of why a given council said the things it did.

Each of these three councils has hallmark issues: Trent on justification, Vatican I on infallibility and Vatican II on the liturgy, to name a few. When Bishops Meet pushes beyond these to what O’Malley calls “issues-under-the-issues”: What do councils do? Do all of them do the same thing? Does church teaching change? Who participated in the councils, and who had the ultimate authority?

John W. O'Malley's When Bishops Meet is a book well worth reading for anyone interested in the past—and future—of church governance.

O’Malley’s synchronic analysis of these three councils—analyzing them side by side rather than examining each separately, as he has done in previous books—allows for a heightened understanding of how each council and its issues-under-the-issues are continuous or discontinuous with its predecessors. For example, Chapter Two, “Does Church Teaching Change?” explains that the council fathers of Vatican II had an acute, modern historical consciousness. While important on its own, this fact takes on an entirely new significance when O’Malley contrasts it with the ahistorical mind-set of the Council of Trent.

Today, when regional or topical synods seem to be the modus operandi for matters requiring action from church leaders, a study of church-wide councils may seem irrelevant. Why bog ourselves down in the historical context of an event that happened in 1545? The answer is that each of these councils has shaped and continues to shape the current state of the church in profound ways. Our modern understanding of synodality cannot be separated from the event of Vatican II, just as Vatican II cannot be understood apart from its conciliar predecessors. These councils live on in the church today. As the American author William Faulkner said, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”

When Bishops Meet is a book well worth reading for anyone interested in the past—and future—of church governance.

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