Vatican II: The Myth and the Reality
The memory of the Second Vatican Council, 40 years after the opening of the council, continues to arouse both acclamation and vilification. Its champions, in many cases, see it as having liberated Catholics from a long night of oppression, thus restoring to the people of God their rightful liberties. Its detractors blame it for shattering the unity and order of the church and introducing an era of contestation and doubt. While reformers caricature the preconciliar church as tyrannical and obscurantist, traditionalists idealize the preconciliar church as though it were a lost paradise.
In part, the quarrels are due to a conflict of interpretations. The council documents, like most committee products, reflect some compromises. Four factors make the interpretation especially difficult.
1. The council fathers, under the direction of Pope Paul VI, made every effort to achieve unanimity and express the consensus of the whole episcopate, not the ideas of one particular school. For this reason, they sought to harmonize differing views, without excluding any significant minority. In some cases they adopted deliberate ambiguities.
2. Pope John XXIII, in his opening speech on Oct. 11, 1962, declared that although the church had sometimes condemned errors with the greatest severity, it would best meet the needs of our time “by demonstrating the validity of her teaching rather than by condemnations.” Because the council saw fit to follow this instruction, it did not dwell on the negative implications of its doctrine. Framed so as not to offend any large group, except perhaps atheistic Communism, the documents are markedly irenic.
3. The council occurred at a unique moment of history, when the Western world was swept up in a wave of optimism typified by Pope John XXIII himself. The “new humanism” was confident that if free play were given to human powers and technology, the scourges of poverty, disease, famine and war could be virtually eliminated. Christians, on this theory, had no good reason for standing apart from the rest of humanity. They should throw in their lot with all the forces making for humanization and progress. Books like The Secular City (1964), by Harvey Cox, served as bibles for the new gospel of freedom and creativity. Secular enthusiasts interpreted Vatican II as an invitation for Catholics to jump on the bandwagon.
4. In the postconciliar period, the communications media favored the emphasis on novelty. Progressive theologians were lionized for writing books and articles that seemed to be breaking new barriers and demolishing the old edifice of preconciliar Catholicism.
In this atmosphere, early interpreters of the council suggested that the documents contained revolutionary implications not apparent on the surface. Some propounded the hermeneutical principle that where there are ambiguities in the council documents, these should always be resolved in favor of discontinuity. Others used the device of preferring to follow the “spirit of Vatican II” at the expense of the letter.
Whereas this innovationist hermeneutic of Vatican II was clearly predominant in the literature of the first decade after the council, another school of interpretation began to surface toward the middle 1970’s. Such distinguished theologians as Henri de Lubac, S.J., Hans Urs von Balthasar and Joseph Ratzinger banded together to found a new international review, Communio, which was widely viewed as an attempt to offset the progressive Dutch-based journal Concilium. Writers for Communio preferred to interpret Vatican II with what they called “a hermeneutics of continuity,” emphasizing the diachronic solidarity of the council with the whole Catholic tradition.
To overcome polarization and bring about greater consensus, Pope John Paul II convened an extraordinary assembly of the Synod of Bishops in 1985, the 20th anniversary of the close of the council. This synod in its final report came up with six agreed principles for sound interpretation, which may be paraphrased as follows:
1. Each passage and document of the council must be interpreted in the context of all the others, so that the integral teaching of the council may be rightly grasped.
2. The four constitutions of the council (those on liturgy, church, revelation and church in the modern world) are the hermeneutical key to the other documents—namely, the council’s nine decrees and three declarations.
3. The pastoral import of the documents ought not to be separated from, or set in opposition to, their doctrinal content.
4. No opposition may be made between the spirit and the letter of Vatican II.
5. The council must be interpreted in continuity with the great tradition of the church, including earlier councils.
6. Vatican II should be accepted as illuminating the problems of our own day.
These principles seem to me to be sound. Applying them, I should like to propose 12 points on which I believe that the council has been rather generally misunderstood.
1. It is widely believed that the council taught that non-Christian religions contain revelation and are paths to salvation for their members. A careful examination of the documents, however, proves the contrary. The council taught that salvation cannot be found in any other name than that of Jesus (Acts 4:12; cf. Ad Gentes, the “Decree on the Church’s Missionary Activity” , No. 9, and Gaudium et Spes, the “Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World” , No. 10). In solemn language it declared: “This sacred Synod professes its belief that God has made known to mankind the way in which men are to serve him, and thus to be saved in Christ and come to blessedness” (Dignitatis Humanae, the “Declaration on Religious Freedom” , No. 1). Without denying that there are truths and values in other religions, the council asserted that these truths and values are commingled with serious errors, and that even the truths have salvific value only to the extent that they are preparations for, or reflections of, the Christian Gospel (Lumen Gentium, the “Dogmatic Constitution on the Church” , No. 16; AG, No. 9).
2. Regarding the means by which revelation is transmitted, many theologians have argued that the council gave priority to Scripture as the written word of God, and demoted tradition to the status of a secondary norm, to be tested against the higher norm of Scripture.
An impartial reading of Vatican II’s Dei Verbum, the “Dogmatic Constitution on Revelation” (1965) indicates on the contrary that the council gave a certain priority to tradition. It asserts that the Apostles and their successors, the bishops, by their preaching and teaching have faithfully preserved the word of God. Scripture is an inspired and privileged sedimentation of tradition but not an independent or separable norm. Scripture and tradition together constitute a single indivisible channel of revealed truth, in which neither element could stand without the other (DV, No. 9).
3. A third error relating to revelation is the view that, according to the council, God continues to reveal himself in secular experience through the signs of the times, which therefore provide criteria for interpreting the Gospel. Vatican II, in fact, rejected the idea of continuing revelation. It taught that revelation became complete in Jesus Christ and that no further public revelation is to be expected before the end of time, when Christ returns in glory (DV, No. 4). In Gaudium et Spes the council spoke of the church’s duty to interpret the signs of the times, but it specified that these signs are to be interpreted in the light of the Gospel (GS, No. 4).
4. Turning now to the church, we can put the question of its necessity. It has become almost a platitude to say that the council, reversing earlier Catholic teaching, taught that the church is not necessary for salvation. But in reality the council affirmed that faith and baptism are necessary for salvation (Mk 16:16; Jn 3:5), and that, since baptism is the door to the church, the church too is necessary. The council went on to say that anyone who knows that the church is necessary has the obligation to enter it and remain in it as a condition for salvation (LG, No. 14).
Vatican II did, however, face the question whether persons who have no opportunity to hear the Gospel are necessarily lost. It replied that they can be “associated with the paschal mystery” if, with the help of God’s grace, they consistently strive to do God’s will as it is known to them (GS, No. 22). But because people outside the church fall frequently into sin and error, the Gospel and the church could greatly help them on their way to salvation (LG, No. 16).
5. Turning now to the ecumenical problem, we must evaluate the common impression that the council, in stating that the church of Christ “subsists” in the Roman Catholic communion (LG, No. 8), implied that the former is wider and more inclusive than the latter. Cardinal Ratzinger, rejecting this view, argues that because the church of Christ has its subsistence in Roman Catholicism, it cannot subsist anywhere else. This reading coheres well with the full teaching of the council. Certain endowments of the church can, to be sure, exist in other Christian communions, bringing their members into “imperfect communion” with the Catholic Church (Unitatis Redintegratio, the “Decree on Ecumenism” , No. 3). Non-Catholic communities that have a genuine apostolic ministry and a valid Eucharist are properly called churches, but they should not be reckoned as constituent parts of the one and catholic church in which the true religion subsists (DH, No. 1).
6. The doctrine of collegiality is frequently misunderstood as though it restricted the powers of the pope, requiring him to establish a consensus of the world’s bishops before deciding important issues. Vatican II did indeed affirm that the bishops as a college, when acting together with their head, the pope, enjoy supreme authority, but it affirmed that the pope likewise has supreme authority as successor of Peter and head of the college. The full power of the college is present in the pope alone, who is always free to exercise his primatial office according to the grace given to him. The college, on the other hand, cannot act except when summoned to collegial action by the pope. Its decisions have no efficacy without the pope’s approval. Thus the primacy of the pope, as it had been defined by Vatican I, remains intact. His power is in no way limited by that of the episcopal college (LG, No. 22).
7. Passing to another point, we may ask whether the council recognized that theologians and others have a right to dissent from noninfallible teachings of the magisterium. Some Catholic theologians, while admitting that all the faithful are obliged to submit to infallible teaching, contend that faithful Catholics are entitled to reject noninfallible teaching when it conflicts with their private judgment.
Vatican II never mentioned dissent, but by implication rejected it. It stated that even when the pope and the bishops do not speak infallibly, their authoritative teaching is binding, and that the faithful are required to adhere to it with a “religious submission of mind” (LG, No. 25). Vatican II, therefore, cannot be quoted as favoring dissent.
8. Regarding the laity, the council did much to clarify their active role in the worship and mission of the church and their vocation to refashion secular society according to the norms of the Gospel. At several points Vatican II urged pastors to consult the laity and to listen to them when they speak within their competence (LG, No. 37; GS, Nos. 43, 62). But at no point did it suggest that the hierarchy have any obligation to accept the recommendations of the laity with regard to matters pertaining to the pastoral office. While encouraging cooperation with priests, deacons and laypersons, the council placed the powers of authoritative teaching, sacramental worship and pastoral government squarely and exclusively in the hands of the hierarchy (Christus Dominus, the “Decree on the Bishops’ Pastoral Office in the Church” , No. 30).
9. It is often said that with Vatican II the church, reversing its earlier position, acknowledged marriage as a vocation no less blessed than celibacy. The council wrote eloquently of the sacrament of matrimony as a sacred bond mirroring the union between Christ and the church (GS, No. 48), but it also reaffirmed the teaching of Trent that it is better and more blessed to remain in virginity or celibacy than to be joined in matrimony—a doctrine that Trent traced back to Jesus (Mt 19: 11-12) and to Paul (1 Cor 7:25-26, 38, 40). In Optatam Totius, the “Decree on Priestly Formation” (1965), Vatican II declared that seminarians “should acquire a right understanding of the duties and dignity of Christian marriage, as representing the love between Christ and his church (cf. Eph 5:22-33). They should, however, realize the greater excellence of virginity consecrated to Christ, so that by a maturely considered and magnanimous free choice they may consecrate themselves to the Lord by an entire dedication of body and mind” (OT, No. 10). If this passage had been better understood and more energetically taught, the present crisis of vocations to the priestly and religious life might be less severe.
10. Opponents of Paul VI’s encyclical Humanae Vitae (1968) make much of the fact that Vatican II was silent on the morality of contraception. The council did not explicitly condemn contraception because the pope had reserved this question to a special commission outside the council. But after declaring that the full sense of mutual self-giving and human procreation must be preserved in marital intercourse, the council declared: “Such a goal cannot be achieved unless the virtue of conjugal chastity is sincerely practiced. Relying on these principles, sons and daughters of the church may not undertake methods of regulating procreation which are found blameworthy by the teaching authority of the church in its unfolding of the divine law” (GS, No. 51). At this point the fathers inserted footnotes referring to documents of Pius XI and Pius XII forbidding contraception. If this passage had been written after Humanae Vitae, no revision would have been needed except the addition of a reference to that document in the footnote.
11. The council’s teaching on religious freedom has been poorly understood. It is widely believed that the council recognized that members of non-Catholic and non-Christian religious bodies have a right to believe as they do and to propagate their beliefs freely. But the council declared no such thing. In its “Declaration on Religious Freedom” it rejected coercion by the state in the area of religion, but it did not set all religions on the same level. The “one true religion,” it stated, “subsists in the Catholic and apostolic church to which the Lord Jesus committed the duty of spreading it abroad among all men” (DH, No. 1). Other religious and churches do not have the same mandate. The late John Courtney Murray, S.J., stated in his commentary: “Neither the declaration nor the American Constitution affirms that a man has a right to believe what is false or to do what is wrong. This would make moral nonsense. Neither error nor evil can be the object of a right, only what is true and good. It is, however, true and good that a man should enjoy freedom from coercion in matters religious.”
12. Turning in conclusion to the liturgy, I shall limit myself to one question. Vatican II is frequently praised or blamed for having authorized the translation of the Latin liturgy into the vernacular. But the matter is not so simple. In Sacrosactum Concilium, its “Constitution on the Liturgy” (1963), the council declared: “The use of the Latin language is to be preserved in the Latin rite, except where a particular law might indicate otherwise” (SC, No 36, Paragraph 1). In the following two paragraphs the constitution went on to say that competent local ecclesiastical authorities may determine that certain readings, instructions, prayers and chants be translated into the mother tongue of the people. The council fathers would not have anticipated that in the space of a few years the Latin language would almost totally disappear. It would be well if Catholics could be familiar with the Mass in Latin, the official language of the Roman rite. But since there are sound pastoral reasons for the vernacular, faithful translations of high quality should be provided. We may hope that such translations are in the making.
Because the hermeneutics of discontinuity has prevailed in countries like our own, the efforts of the Holy See to clarify the documents have regularly been attacked as retrenchments. The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith was denounced for its declaration on infallibility, Mysterium Ecclesiae (1973), for the new profession of faith issued in 1989, for its ecclesiology of communion in Communionis Notio (1991) and for its document on Christ and the Church, Dominus Iesus (2000). The Roman document on the collaboration of the laity in the sacred ministry (1997) was angrily dismissed, as was, in some quarters, John Paul II’s apostolic constitution Apostolos Suos, on the status and authority of episcopal conferences (1998). In each of these cases there was a clamor of protest, but the critics did not convincingly show that the official teaching had departed from the teaching of Vatican II, interpreted according to the principles set forth in the Extraordinary Synod of 1985.
I am not seeking in this brief article to defend the teaching of Vatican II on points that someone or other might wish to challenge. My authority could not add anything to that of the council, which spoke with the promised assistance of the Holy Spirit. I can say only that I find the teaching of Vatican II very solid, carefully nuanced and sufficiently flexible to meet the needs of our own time and place. The artful blending of majority and minority perspectives in the council documents should have forestalled the unilateral interpretations. There is no reason today why Vatican II should be a bone of contention among Catholics.
History, of course, does not stop. Just as Vatican II made important changes reflecting new biblical studies, the liturgical movement and the ecumenical movement, we may expect future developments in doctrine and polity. Progress must be made, but progress always depends upon an acceptance of prior achievements so that it is not necessary to begin each time from the beginning.