The Style of Vatican II
Editors’ note, Sept. 12, 2022: John W. O’Malley, S.J., a renowned historian of the 20th-century church and a longtime professor, died yesterday, Sept. 11, after a brief battle with cancer. He was 95 years old. He wrote for America across six decades, first in 1972. The following essay appeared in the Feb. 24, 2003, issue of America.
Forty years have passed since the opening of the Second Vatican Council. To people born after about 1950, the council can seem as remote as the American Revolution. It is something they may have heard their parents or their grandparents talk about but not something that seems particularly relevant today. Even for the older generation, which can remember the excitement the council sparked and the high hopes (or deep fears) it engendered, the memory has become dim. Even dimmer is any thought that it might provide the blueprint we need in our present crisis.
I think the council provided precisely that blueprint. I also think that Vatican II intended to make some fundamental changes in the way the church operates and that those changes, should they be put into practice, would do much to address our current situation and give us confidence for the future. Perhaps the main reason they have not been put into practice is that the radical nature of the council has never been accepted or understood. Vatican II, for all its continuity with previous councils, was unique in many ways but nowhere more than in its call for an across-the-board change in church procedures or, better, in church style.
Three Trends of Interpretation
Like many other scholars, I detect three major trends in the interpretation of the council. The first trend, a small one, sees the council as an aberration. The Holy Spirit was somehow asleep, at least during part of the council. The more moderate within this trend simply try to ignore Vatican II, as if it never happened. The second trend seems to be the largest today and can even be described as semi-official. The council, according to this group, made adjustments in the way we express some teachings and made some other changes, notably in the liturgy, but it did not make any significant break with the past. It certainly did not make any break in the way we “do business.” The council was a moment of great celebration and perhaps exaggerated exuberance, which led to some deplorable aberrations. Those aberrations still need correction. In any case, the council is over. Now, as before the council, it’s business as usual.
I belong to the third trend, which sees Vatican II as making a significant break with the past. If I am correct, this is nothing to be frightened about in itself. Even the most radical discontinuities in history take place within a stronger current of continuity. France, for example, was still France after the French Revolution. A more profound continuity has, almost by definition, marked every great change in the history of the church. This is true even for something as radical as the Roman Emperor Constantine’s recognition of Christianity in the fourth century. Since change is part of the human condition, it cannot be something un-Catholic. Change, moreover, does not necessarily entail loss of identity. In fact it is sometimes necessary to assure identity, especially of a living organism.
On the surface the third trend has a lot going for it. Just look at the sheer number of pages that the documents of Vatican II fill—about 1,000 in a standard English translation. If all those pages say is “business as usual,” they then have to be the most long-winded way of saying it in the history of the English language. The documents of Vatican II are almost twice as long as those of Trent; and if you put Trent and Vatican II together, they are as long as the documents of all the other 19 ecumenical councils combined. I think that we should be reluctant to think that that huge amount of documentation, worked out at great cost in psychic energy over the course of four years, is just a long-winded homily.
Moreover, immediately after the council participants hailed it as “the end of the Counter-Reformation,” “the end of the Constantinian era,” even as a “new Pentecost.” Well, we all get carried away sometimes. Today these expressions may seem overwrought, even though in my opinion the first two capture essential features of the changes the council effected. In any case, all three indicate that at the time, participants in the council were convinced that something of deep significance had happened. This conviction was not restricted to a small handful of bishops but was by far the dominant view.
If something of deep significance happened, what was it? What did the council do? What changes did it make? It is easy to list a few obvious things that marked a real departure from previous Catholic practice. Catholics could now pray with their Protestant neighbors, for example, and attend weddings and funerals in Protestant churches, practices absolutely forbidden before the council. Several years ago Pope John Paul II met with leaders of other faiths at Assisi and prayed with them. This would have been unthinkable before the council—a good example of “the end of the Counter-Reformation.”
Previously, it would have been unthinkable in Catholic theology not to hold up the ideal that Catholicism should be established as the official religion of every nation, even the United States. The “Decree on Religious Liberty” changed all that, and in so doing marked “the end of the Constantinian era.” The battles in the council over the decrees on ecumenism and religious liberty were fought not only with great passion but, especially by those opposed to them, almost as life-and-death issues. That minority, which was small but intelligent and fiercely loyal to the church, was utterly convinced that these decrees were changes so large that they could not be tolerated. In seeing them as changes of great magnitude, they were, in my opinion, absolutely correct, even though the wording of the documents gives little hint that the council had chosen to move the church along a remarkably new path.
These and other specific changes the council made are important. In and of themselves they vindicate the special, unconventional character of the council. But they are particulars. Was there a more general and even more fundamental change, a change that cuts across all the documents of the council and reveals what is sometimes called “the spirit of the council”? There was. And it can be described in a less vague way than “spirit of the council.” We can get at it by asking a new kind of question. Instead of asking “what” questions about the council—for example, what did it teach the church to be?—we should ask “how” questions: how did it teach the church to be? That is, not what is the church but how is the church?
A Change in Style
Vatican II was fundamentally about the church. That was its center of gravity. It did indeed ask and answer the basic “what” question: “What is the church?” To that question it gave traditional answers, although it distanced itself from the 19th-century answers, like “perfect society” and “essentially doctrinal society.” It put special emphasis on the church as “the people of God.” That emphasis was “new.” But it really was not new, because until the Reformation the standard definition of the church in catechisms was “the congregation of Christian faithful governed and illumined by God our Lord,” which makes the same point. The church is the Christians who make it up, no matter what their ecclesiastical status. There is a horizontal character to the emphasis these expressions indicate.
That character leads into the deeper question the council asked: “How is the church?” That is where Vatican II becomes radical—and where it becomes especially relevant to today. How is the church?—that is, what kind of procedures does it use; what kind of relationships does it foster among its members; what is its style as an institution?
Style? Is that really important? Indeed it is. The style of our nation is democratic. Without that style, there is no United States. What made Michelangelo a great painter was not what he painted but how he painted, his style. My “how,” my “style” better expresses who I am than my “what.” The “what” of John O’Malley—priest, historian and so forth—is important, but style is the expression of my deepest personality. “The style is the man.” Style makes me who I am. “What kind of person is John O’Malley?” Kind and considerate, or cunning and contrived? That is a question about style. If I am loved, I’m loved for my how; and if I get to heaven, I will get there because of my how.
What, then, is the style of the church? The crucial question on people’s minds today is not “What is the church?” It is about how we want it to be, how it is really supposed to be. How do we want it to be in its procedures as well as in the hopes and fears and loves of all its members? That was the big question Vatican II addressed and answered. It answered it by the specific vocabulary it used, which reflected and made explicit what the style implied.
What is it about the documents of Vatican II that make them unique in the history of the councils? It is their style. Is this not significant? Does it not call for comment? We all know that such a striking shift in language, the adoption of a new language game, shall we say, always indicates a profound shift in awareness and personality and cannot be dismissed as “merely” a change in style. We know, moreover, that content and mode of expression are inextricably intertwined, that there is no thought without expression, that expression is what style is all about. In dealing with style we are at the same time dealing with content.
Style—no other aspect of Vatican II sets it off so impressively from all previous councils and thereby suggests its break with “business as usual.” No other aspect so impressively indicates that a new mode of interpretation is required if we are to understand it and get at its “spirit.” In dramatic fashion, the council abandoned for the most part the terse, technical, juridical and other punitive language of previous councils. Believe this, or else! Behave thus, or else! Unlike previous councils, Vatican II attached no penalties for failure to observe its directives, and it cannot be read as a treatise on crime and punishment, as can many former councils.
The style of the council was invitational. It was new for a council in that it replicated to a remarkable degree the style the Fathers of the Church used in their sermons, treatises and commentaries down to the advent of Scholasticism in the 13th century. The Scholastic style was essentially based on dialectics, the art of debate, the art of proving one’s enemies wrong. But the style the council adopted was based, as was the style of the early Fathers for the most part, on rhetoric, the art of persuasion, the art of finding common ground. That is the art that will enable previously disagreeing parties to join in action for a common cause. The style was invitational in that it looked to motivation and called for conversion. It looked to winning assent to its teachings rather than imposing it.
I have just tried in a few words to characterize the general style of Vatican II. Let us now take a look at some specific vocabulary. The word dialogue recurs often in the documents of the council. After the council it was so shamelessly invoked as the panacea for all problems that it became painful to hear it. Even today it sounds “so 70’s.” That should not obscure for us the profound implications of the term. For the first time in history, official ecclesiastical documents promoted respectful listening as the preferred mode of proceeding, as a new ecclesiastical “way,” a new ecclesiastical style. “Freedom of speech” is a value of the modern world, open to abuses as we know well, but nonetheless based on respect for conscience and for the dignity of each person’s convictions. “Dialogue” tried to open the church to it.
The institutional correlate of dialogue is “collegiality.” Collegiality means colleagueship. The term rests on a venerable theological and canonical heritage, but a heritage that since the 16th century had been consigned almost to oblivion. The term indicates collaboration between bishops and their priests, among bishops with the pope—collaboration, not just consultation. It indicates a break with the longstanding and then-current style of ecclesiastical dealing. Although the documents of Vatican II themselves give little evidence of it, we know from other sources that a change in the style by which the Holy See itself functioned, especially in its dealings with bishops, was a special desideratum for most bishops who attended the council.
What was the style that needed changing, and whence did it spring? The style was “modern” in that it crystallized in the 19th century as the Catholic reaction to certain aspects of the Enlightenment that received their most effective and strident articulation in the battle cry of the French Revolution: “Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity.” The battle cry overthrew the old order in Europe. As monarchies were toppled, so was their spouse, the church. Convents were sacked, churches desecrated, priests and nuns guillotined; blood ran in the streets. Godlessness seemed to triumph.
If “Liberty, Equality and Fraternity” had overthrown the God-given order of society, the revolution and the philosophies that underlay it were responsible. Against them the church could assume only an uncompromising stance. Liberty-equality-fraternity became identified with “modernity,” and thus modernity itself assumed an ever more ideological definition. As it did so, the church, especially in the person of Pope Pius IX, rejected it with ever greater intransigence. As the evils of democracy spread, the papacy began to function in ever more autocratic fashion, even in dealing with bishops. Under Pius X in the early 20th century, the Holy Office of the Inquisition began to function with a vigor it had not known since it was instituted in the 16th century, issuing excommunications and forbidding discussion of crucial issues. Freedom of the press was another evil of the modern age to be repudiated and resisted.
A new papacy and a new papal style had come into being that emphasized, almost to the point of caricature, the authoritarian strains in the Catholic tradition and that set the church against and above almost every person and idea outside it. True, Benedict XV, Pius XI and Pius XII tempered these ideas and policies, yet basic elements of the style prevailed up to the eve of Vatican II.
This style ignored or badly minimized the horizontal traditions of Catholicism that had made the patristic and medieval church such vibrant and creative realities. Respect for conscience, with its deep, even pre-eminent roots in the Catholic tradition, had been badly sidelined at the very moment when it was being emphasized by secular and Protestant thinkers in the 19th and early 20th centuries.
It was a change in this closed, ghetto-like, secretive, condemnatory, authoritarian style that the council wanted to effect. If the council was “the end of the Counter-Reformation,” it even more immediately wanted to be “the end of the 19th century,” the end of the “long” 19th century that extended well into the 20th. The council did not want to change the church into a democracy, as its almost obsessively repeated affirmations of papal authority demonstrate beyond question. But it did want to redefine how that authority (and all authority in the church) was to function, for instance, with a respect for conscience that transformed the members of the church from “subjects” into participants. This was a retrieval of that old principle of canon law: quod omnes tangit ab omnibus approbetur (what concerns everybody needs to be approved by everybody). Vatican II did not want the church to abdicate its privileged role as teacher of the Gospel, but it insisted that the church, like all good teachers, needed to learn as it taught.
The Invitation of the Council
To what, then, did Vatican II invite the church and each one of us? What is this new style? I think I can indicate its essentials in five points. First, the council called the church from what had been an almost exclusively vertical, top-down style of behavior to one that took more account of the horizontal traditions in Catholicism. This is most palpably manifested in the recurring use of horizontal words like “cooperation,” “partnership” and “collaboration,” which are true novelties in ecclesiastical documents. It receives its most potent expressions in the word “collegiality.” The partnership and collaboration extend to relations between pope and bishops, bishops and priests, priests and parishioner—bishops and laity. In repeatedly describing the church as “the people of God” we see clearly the intrinsic relationship between style and content—between the “what” questions and the “how” questions.
Second, the council called the church to a style and mentality more consonant with serving than with controlling. One of the most amazing features of Vatican II is the redefinition it consistently interjects into the words “ruler” and “king,” equating them with “servant.” The pastoral implications are immense. To serve effectively means to be in touch with the needs of those being served, not supplying them with prefabricated solutions.
Third, nothing is perhaps more striking in the vocabulary of the council, nothing perhaps so much sets it off from previous councils as words like “development,” “progress” and even “evolution.” This is a sign of a break with the static framework of understanding doctrine, discipline and style of being characteristic of all previous councils. Vatican II never uses the word “change,” but that is precisely what it is talking about regarding the church. What this implies, of course, is further change in the future. It suggests that its own provisions are somewhat open-ended. Whatever the interpretation and implementation of the council mean, they cannot mean taking the council’s decisions as if they said, “thus far and not a step further.” The council’s style is thus oriented to the future and open to it.
Fourth, the council substituted for the traditional vocabulary of exclusion a vocabulary of inclusion. Instead of anathemas and excommunications, it is filled with friendship words like “sisters and brothers,” and “men and women of good will.” In this regard the handshake of friendship was extended not just to other Christians but to anybody wanting to work for a better world.
Fifth, the council moved from a vocabulary suggestive of passive acceptance to one that indicates active participation and engagement. The active participation of the whole congregation in the Mass was the fundamental and explicit aim of the reform of the liturgy. If the way we pray is a norm for the way we believe, may it not also be a norm for the way we behave? That is, may it be constitutive of our style as church?
The Agenda of Vatican II
The council was about many things, but most fundamentally it was about style, about the “how” of the church. It was about how we “do business.” It asked the great question that is very much on people’s minds today: “What kind of church do we want?” What kind of church must we have so that we operate effectively in today’s world? What kind of church must we have so that we manifest that we are disciples of Christ? What is the style of the church? In an institution procedures are the concrete expression of style. What are our procedures? Do they operate as much as possible in ways that counter the tendency of all institutions to sink into dysfunction, or do they promote dysfunction?
Vatican II had a big agenda. Vatican II cannot be interpreted in a minimal sense. Vatican II is in need of further implementation especially in its greatest achievement, a redefinition of the way the church operates, does business. At the present moment the need for that implementation is perhaps more urgent and more obvious than it has been since the council concluded almost four decades ago. Vatican II has never been more relevant than it is at this moment in the history of the church.