What Critics Get Wrong About the Significance of Vatican II
French Cardinal Jean-Louis Tauran opened a four-day conference at Georgetown University Thursday celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Second Vatican II quoting the late French President Charles de Gaulle. Reflecting on the significance of the council, the cardinal recounted, the general told the apostolic nuncio to Paris, the council was “the most important event of the century, because you can’t change the prayer of a million men and women without affecting the balance of the planet.”
“Without pronouncing dogmatic sentences,” the cardinal said, “the Second Vatican Council expressed its teaching on many questions which occupy the conscience and activity of man.”
Currently president of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue, Cardinal Tauran noted that the council fathers “learned to look with benevolence at others that belong to different religious traditions or who are agnostic.”
He added, “For the first time, Catholics were called to develop friendly relationships with non-Catholic Christians, and for the first time the magisterium of the church recognized that there are elements of truth in other religions.”
“Very few themes of the council seem to be quite as important today,” he stressed, as the need to know and understand other religions, especially Islam. “[T]o protect for all men (sic) social justice, moral, values, peace and freedom,” he urged, “we must come to know Muslims and understand their culture.”
To the question, how the Second Vatican Council should be characterized, he answered, “Vatican II is a great theological council with strong focus on the church.” Behind the cardinal’s diplomatic wording was the allegation from the council’s critics that as a pastoral council, Vatican II was not nearly as significant as the dogmatic councils of the past with their definitions and anathemas.
Georgetown University church historian John O’Malley, S.J., took direct aim at the mistaken belief that a pastoral council is less weighty than a dogmatic.
“If, indeed, we look at the number and importance of Vatican II’s teachings,” Father O’Malley said, Vatican II is not Council Lite but the very opposite.” He went on then to identify the council’s teaching. Among those he listed were:
- what God has revealed is not a set of propositions but (Christ’s) very person;
- Sacred Scriptures is inerrant only in what “serves to make the people of God live their lives in holiness and increase their faith”;
- the purpose of church is to promote the holiness of its members;
- “‘the people of God’ is a valid, crucially important and, moreover, traditional expression of the reality of the church”;
- the church has “the responsibility of exerting itself for the well-being of the world”;
- “the dignity and excellence of political freedom”;
- freedom to follow conscience in choice of religion; and
- “the dignity of conscience, ‘that most secret core and the sanctuary of the human person.’”
These teachings are not constitutive doctrines, like the Trinity and Incarnation, “but they are nonetheless,” said O’Malley, a historian of both the Council of Trent and of Vatican II, “truths of the utmost importance for understanding…what it means to be a Christian in the world today.
Contrasting the pastoral teaching of Vatican II to the doctrinal definition found in Trent’s decree on justification, the Jesuit historian said, “a decree on profound mystery can be intellectually satisfying…. But that means it is complex and lacking in rhetorical punch.”
That the failed effort to formulate a Profession of Faith of the Council of Trent ended in a vacuous formula—“I embrace and accept all the articles defined and declared by the Most Holy Synod of Trent”—Father O’Malley pointed out, reveals the deficiency of a purely doctrinal approach to conciliar teaching. Of the failed Profession of Faith, he told the audience, “That’s right: the decree was pastorally untranslatable.”
The conference “Vatican II: Remembering the Future” is co-sponsored by Georgetown University, Ecclesiological Investigations, Marymount University and Washington National Cathedral.
Drew Christiansen, S.J.,the former editor of America, is a distinguished professor at Georgetown University. He also served on the planning committee for the conference “Vatican II: Remembering the Future.”