The Challenge of Change

Vatican IIby John W. O’Malley, Joseph A. Komonchak, Stephen Schloesser, Neil J. Ormerod Edited by David G. Schultenover, S.J.

Continuum. 185p $16.95 (paperback)

After the Second Vatican Council, Yves Congar was concerned that we might become complacent in our theological endeavors, thinking that the texts of the council would be viewed as fixing once and for all the aims of the aggiornamento called for by Pope John XXIII. In this regard, Congar would have welcomed the four essays contained in this book.

The church historian John W. O’Malley tells us in the introduction to Vatican II: Did Anything Happen? that its essays deal with basic interpretative questions: “Did anything of significance happen at the council? If so, what? So what? And, what methods will help answer these questions?” He then points to a second and more specific issue addressed by each of the essays: “How continuous or discontinuous was Vatican II with previous councils, with previous teachings and practices?” This proves to be a critical question for each author, because there exists today a strong current in the church that insists on the council’s absolute continuity with the Catholic past. Each of the book’s four contributors takes on this interpretation and challenges it. In addition to preparing the readers for the essays that follow, O’Malley also provides excellent theological/historical background on Vatican II that opens the door for a wider readership.


In “Vatican II as an ‘Event,’” Joseph A. Komonchak, who teaches at The Catholic University of America, focuses on three terms that help to explain what we mean by Vatican II: event, experience and final documents. The term “event,” which is treated in depth, is understood as a “noteworthy occurrence, one that has consequences.” Komonchak provides examples of such consequences as well as ample evidence why Vatican II has come to be perceived as an event in this sense. Yet, as he points out, opinions are not unanimous in this regard. Three kinds of interpretation of the council can be found in contemporary evaluations of Vatican II, with only two of them agreeing that it was an event, a departure of some sort from the past. Both the progressives and the traditionalists agree—for different reasons—that the council was indeed an event, a turning point in Catholic history. The third interpretation, the reformist view, resists accepting the eventful character of the council as a break with the tradition. In his discussion of the council as event, Komonchak views Vatican II as an episode in a larger story—one that does not end with its closing in 1965 but is still being played out in our own time.

The starting point for John O’Malley’s article, “Vatican II: Did Anything Happen?” was the challenge recently issued by Cardinal Camillo Ruini regarding the use of the term “event” as a way of describing Vatican II. O’Malley’s response looks at the literary genre of the documents. He claims that attention to this demonstrates the special character and the significant turn promoted at Vatican II, a turn that resulted in a new model of the church and of its style for carrying out its mission to the world.

O’Malley maintains that something significant did happen at Vatican II and offers the reader some of the extraordinary ways the council was “discontinuous” with the 20 councils that preceded it. He notes that change happens even in the church. To maintain otherwise is to claim that the history of the church makes no sense and has no relevance. The whole issue of development of doctrine was central to the Second Vatican Council. And, as O’Malley points out, “development is a soft word for change. It presumes continuity. It also presumes discontinuity.”

This article makes a significant contribution to the ongoing interpretation of the texts of Vatican II. O’Malley compares the traditional literary genres of church documents with the texts of Vatican II and finds a new style of discourse in the council’s documents. He refers to this as the “epideictic” genre, which contains the “art of persuasion and thus reconciliation.” This is a significant departure from previous practice. O’Malley believes this is the style that Pope John XXIII appeared to embrace in his opening speech at Vatican II, when he claimed that the church should act by “making use of the medicine of mercy rather than severity.” This new style of discourse carries serious implications and ramifications for understanding Vatican II in our time. (In this regard, readers can look forward to O’Malley’s new book, What Happened at Vatican II, due out this summer.)

In “Against Forgetting: Memory, History, Vatican II,” Stephen Schloesser—an associate professor of history at Boston College—agrees with O’Malley’s claim that the council did intend to be an important turn in the road for Catholicism and, given other historical concerns at the time—the Holocaust, Communism and the cold war—he claims Vatican II was a moral necessity, because we were living in a time “when the world faced its deepest anxieties and had no idea whether or not they would soon be realized.”

Schloesser provides the reader with a unique lens through which to continue the process of interpreting Vatican II. In O’Malley’s article, a new focus appeared—from “what” to “how.” Schloesser brings up another—a shift from “how” to “why.” Given the fragmented world of the middle of the 20th century, the inhumanity that was witnessed on so many fronts, Schloesser maintains that “the council’s rupture with the past appears not only as a historical possibility. It seems to have been an ethical necessity.” Schloesser succeeds in demonstrating that the kinds of questions facing humanity at the time “required a genre that was proportionate to their scope: the epideictic oration.”

The final article, “The Times They Are A-Changin’,” by Neil Ormerod, offers a response to both O’Malley and Schloesser. Ormerod, a professor of theology at Australian Catholic University, Strathfield, N.S.W., acknowledges the church’s longstanding “anxiety about change” and begins with an investigation into the question of change in the church. To understand the kind of change brought about by Vatican II, he maintains it is necessary to understand the historical and sociological context prior to the council. This context involves a shift from a classical world view to a historically conscious world view.

He underlines one serious implication of the previous mindset—that it prevents the church from realizing its true mission to the world. He then demonstrates how the historically conscious language of the “Dogmatic Constitution on the Church” served as a corrective. Ormerod argues that the church must change to fulfill its mission in a changing world, and he believes that in the last four decades, this process of change has not been handled well. Opening the door for change in the church raised many questions regarding the limits and possibilities of change.

In the encyclical Tertio Millennio Adveniente, Pope John Paul II held that the central task of the church in the new millennium would be to work toward an authentic assimilation of the teaching of the Second Vatican Council. What we have in this brilliant and much-needed book are four superb thinkers who are doing just that.

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leonard Nugent
10 years 10 months ago
Indeed, the church does change. This change, however is organic and not arbitrary. Probably the biggest change that the council brought about is the universal call to holiness. This was not something new. It existed in the primitive church and over time clericalism crept in and the emphasis on the universal call faded into the past. The way I see the council is that it cleared away a lot of the junk that had crept into the Catholic church over the centuries. It was a radical council not because it introduced anything new, but more so because it reintroduced much that was ancient. In the end we will have the Holy Spirits interpretation of the council which goes without saying. Unfortunately I probably won't live to see it, but I suppose it isn't about me after all.


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