A cliché, a council, and, finally, Pope Francis

From the moment the Second Vatican Council opened, it has consistently been described as a pastoral council, sometimes so insistently and unthinkingly that the expression has become a cliché. The word cliché implies that while the description might well express a truth, it at the same time trivializes the council and produces yawns.

The basis for describing the council as pastoral is unassailable. On the day the council opened, Oct. 11, 1962, Pope John XXIII characterized it as such. In his address that day, “Gaudet Mater Ecclesia,” he told the assembled prelates that the council was to be “predominantly pastoral in character.” The prelates heard the message. From that point forward, speaker after speaker at the council, especially those from the so-called majority, insisted on the council’s pastoral character, implicitly contrasting it with a doctrinal council, which presumably was more serious.

So where is the cliché? What is wrong with designating Vatican II a pastoral council? In response I say that there is nothing wrong with it. In fact, I want to vindicate it. But before it can be vindicated, it must be deconstructed. Once deconstructed, it can be reconstructed and then emerge with greater force and deeper meaning,

The cliché as currently understood tends to trivialize the council, principally by implying, at least for some commentators, that the council’s decrees are less substantial, more contingent, more subject to reform or even dismissal than those from the supposedly great doctrinal councils of the past. Vatican II, like certain beers and soft drinks, is council lite—no heavy calories!

Even more important, the cliché misdirects our attention from what is utterly unique about the council’s pastoral character. Vatican II was pastoral in such a radically new mode when compared with previous councils that before we can correctly use the expression we must purify it of the conventional understanding, reconstitute it in its proper breadth and depth, and only then let it return to its rightful place in the world with its head held high.

But if we judge a council’s dignity and gravitas by the number and importance of its doctrinal decrees, does not Vatican II really qualify as a council lite or council not-so-serious? After all, Vatican II did not define a single doctrine. In Vatican II there are no dogmas in the sense of solemn definitions, like the definition of papal infallibility of Vatican I. Yes, that is true. Vatican II did not define a single doctrine, but that does not mean it was not a teaching or doctrinal council. (Every dogma is a doctrine, but not every doctrine is a dogma.) The council did not define any doctrines because it adopted a mode of discourse different from that operative in councils that produced definitions, most notably Vatican I.

Not defining certainly does not necessarily mean that the council’s more important teachings are less binding or less central to the Christian religion, solemnly approved as they were the largest and most diverse gathering of prelates by far in the entire history of the Catholic Church and then solemnly ratified by the supreme pontiff, Paul VI. We must remember, moreover, that the “Constitution on the Church” and the “Constitution on Divine Revelation” are specifically designated as “dogmatic constitutions.” If, indeed, we look at the number and importance of Vatican II’s teachings, the council is not council lite but the very opposite.

Here are some of those teachings. I list them in no particular order, but certainly toward the top is the council’s teaching that what God has revealed to us in Jesus Christ is not a set of propositions but his very person. In the same document on revelation, the council taught that the Bible is truly inerrant but only in what “serves to make the people of God live their lives in holiness and increase their faith.” The repercussions of that teaching are momentous. Taken seriously, the teaching significantly reshapes how we henceforth must think about doctrine, as I try to show below.

That teaching highlights and bestows great gravity on another of the council’s teachings, repeated again and again after it first appeared in the “Dogmatic Constitution on the Church”: that the purpose of the church is to promote the holiness of its members. No previous council took the trouble to tell us that. Holiness became a leitmotif in the council’s teaching, appearing again and again in subsequent documents. That is not a trivial teaching.

The constitution on the church also taught that the church is constituted by the people in it, so that the term “people of God” is a valid, crucially important and, moreover, traditional expression of the reality of the church. Since the people of God are everywhere on the face of the earth, the council therefore taught that the church is at home in every culture and needs to incarnate itself in each of them. Because the council also taught that the sacred liturgy is an act of the whole community at worship and is therefore essentially a participatory action, the liturgy has to admit into itself symbols and customs of every culture.

Lex orandi, lex credendi—the norm for worship is the norm for belief. The council therefore taught that, while the structure of the church is hierarchical, it is also collegial—that is, participatory, as is the liturgy. In particular it taught the traditional but formerly unexpressed doctrine that bishops when acting as a body with and under the Roman Pontiff have responsibility not only for their own dioceses but also for the church at large. It taught that just as the Roman Pontiff has, therefore, a collegial relationship with other bishops, bishops are to foster a collegial relationship with their priests and priests with their people.

Vatican II taught that while the church has the heavy responsibility of proclaiming the Gospel to the world, it also has the responsibility of exerting itself for the well-being of the world as such, or to exert itself for the well-being of the so-called temporal order—to be concerned about social justice, about the heinousness of modern war, about the blessings of peace and about the advance of every aspect of human culture. It taught that it is incumbent upon Catholics to work with others, even nonbelievers, to promote such goals. It at the same time taught that this is not a one-way street but that just as the church benefits the world, the world benefits the church. The church must therefore listen to the world and learn from it—a remarkable and utterly unprecedented teaching.

The council taught that it is the duty of the church and of every Catholic to respect the religious beliefs of others and to work for reconciliation among the Christian churches. It taught that the church has the further and more difficult mission to seek reconciliation even with other religions, a mission desperately needed in the world today. In that regard it taught that although proclamation is the privileged Christian form of discourse, dialogue is also a legitimate form and in some instances a more appropriate one.

In the temporal order, the council taught the dignity and excellence of political freedom. It taught the right of persons to follow their consciences in the choice of religion, and, more generally, it taught in some of its most moving words the dignity of conscience, “that most secret core and the sanctuary of the human person, where they are alone with God, whose voice echoes in their depths” (“Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World,” No. 16).

The council explicitly taught that grace and the Holy Spirit are operative outside the visible confines of the Catholic Church and that salvation is therefore possible outside those visible confines. Finally, the council taught that “The joys and hopes, the grief and anguish of the people of our time, especially of those who are poor or afflicted, are the joys and hopes, the grief and anguish of the followers of Christ as well” (No. 1).

These and other teachings of the council are not trivial. They are not of a secondary level of importance. They are not platitudes or pious palaver. True, they are not of the same constitutive level of Christian belief as are the doctrines of the Trinity and Incarnation, but they are nonetheless truths of the utmost importance for understanding the practical implications of those doctrines for our lives as Christians. If we understand them in that sense, they become pastoral truths and pastoral teachings.

“Pastoral teachings.” As opposed to what? What is the alternative to pastoral teachings? Is it doctrinal teachings, which is a tautology? Is it academic teachings? Did God reveal academic teachings or academic truths? I find it difficult to name an alternative to the term pastoral teachings, especially if we agree with “Dei Verbum” that what God revealed was “what serves to make the people of God live their lives in holiness and increase their faith.” Does this not mean, then, that by definition all truly Christian truths are pastoral truths? Are we then saying that Vatican II is a pastoral council by means of its teaching, by means of its doctrine? I think we are.

When in the document on divine revelation the council determined that Christian truth, that is Christian doctrine, is what helps people be holy, it dismantled whatever might have been valid in the classic distinction between a doctrinal and a pastoral council. Vatican II was pastoral through its teachings, that is through its doctrine. So the cliché that Vatican II was a pastoral council has returned to us vindicated—vindicated but radically redefined. Deconstructed, it now returns reconstructed.

When during the first year of the council Cardinal Alfredo Ottaviani introduced the now infamous draft document “On the Sources of Revelation,” he spoke for only five minutes, less as presenting a text for consideration than as defending it even before discussion began. He said, in part: “You have heard many people speak about the lack of a pastoral tone in this document. Well, I say that the first and most fundamental pastoral task is to provide correct doctrine.... Teaching correctly is what is fundamental to being pastoral.”

I could not agree more strongly, and that brings us to the present. It is clear by now that Pope Francis’ blueprint for the initiatives of his pontificate has from the very first instant been the teachings of Vatican II. In his initiatives he has been teaching us by word and deed. These initiatives have consistently been described by both his friends and his foes as pastoral, or, especially by the latter, as “only pastoral.” Here the cliché returns, but in its unreconstructed form.

When in mid-April this year Francis brought back with him to the Vatican 12 Muslim refugees from the island of Lesbos, was he only performing a compassionate act, in the hope that others, especially governments, would be inspired to go and do likewise? Or was he not also proclaiming by a deed more powerful than the words of any encyclical a doctrine central to the Christian message, a doctrine on whose observance St. Matthew tells us in Chapter 25 our very salvation depends? “I was a stranger, and you took me in.”

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.
Connie Zatsick
1 year 2 months ago
I never considered the Second Vatican Council "lite". In fact, I wonder where that idea comes from. For me, the Second Vatican Council was truly welcome like"fresh air" coming into the church when I was a young adult. The Council truly was affirming for me and helped me to feel like I was flourishing in the church. But the backward turns the Catholic Church took in the years following the council are still bewildering and very disappointing to me. Why many Catholics/clerg/y did not embrace the Council with joy is still somewhat a mystery.
Reyanna Rice
1 year 2 months ago
I read the meme that Vatican II was "lite" or that one does not need to take it seriously in a lot of comment strings from those who then do not like to be reminded that they too are Cafeteria Catholics.
James Sullivan
1 year 2 months ago
Great piece--no more to say. Thank you John O'Malley SJ
Tim O'Leary
1 year 2 months ago
My understanding of the difference between pastoral and doctrinal is a little different. Pastoral for me is the application of the doctrinal truths in the most human way. Pastoral is subservient to doctrinal in the order of Truth, and pastoral application can never contradict doctrinal truth. But, doctrinal is subservient to pastoral in order of evangelical effectiveness. Cardinal Ottaviani was right in that "teaching correctly is what is fundamental to being pastoral" but in the sense that pastoral communication not built on a sound doctrine is actually the opposite of pastoral (or as Pope Francis said (interview with America, 2013): "The confessor, for example, is always in danger of being either too much of a rigorist or too lax. Neither is merciful, because neither of them really takes responsibility for the person."). So, good pastoral application can show better ways of expressing doctrinal truth. I am not sure about one statement from Fr. O'Malley above regarding the truth of Holy Scripture. Fr. O'Malley qualifies with an "only" regarding the Dei Verbum statement as follows: "the council taught that the Bible is truly inerrant but ONLY (my emphasis) in what 'serves to make the people of God live their lives in holiness and increase their faith.'” It is possibly his own translation but the veracity of the scriptures cannot be dependent solely on its usefulness. That would be putting the pastoral-doctrinal relationship backwards. There is no "only" In the Vatican website version that limits this veracity. The word is "includes." Here is what Dei Verbum says (Capitals below are mine - for emphasis): 8. And so the apostolic preaching, which is expressed in a special way in the inspired books, was to be preserved by an unending succession of preachers until the end of time. Therefore the Apostles, handing on what they themselves had received, warn the faithful to hold fast to the traditions which they have learned either by word of mouth or by letter (see 2 Thess. 2:15), and to fight in defense of the faith handed on once and for all (see Jude 1:3) (4) Now what was handed on by the Apostles INCLUDES EVERYTHING which contributes toward the holiness of life and increase in faith of the peoples of God; and so the Church, in her teaching, life and worship, perpetuates and hands on to all generations all that she herself is, all that she believes. As to the veracity of all of Sacred Scriptures, once properly understood: 11. Those divinely revealed realities which are contained and presented in Sacred Scripture have been committed to writing under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. For holy mother Church, relying on the belief of the Apostles (see John 20:31; 2 Tim. 3:16; 2 Peter 1:19-20, 3:15-16), holds that the books of both the Old and New Testaments IN THEIR ENTIRETY, WITH ALL THEIR PARTS, ARE SACRED AND CANONICAL because written under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, they have God as their author and have been handed on as such to the Church herself.(1) In composing the sacred books, God chose men and while employed by Him (2) they made use of their powers and abilities, so that with Him acting in them and through them, (3) they, as true authors, consigned to writing everything and only those things which He wanted. (4) Therefore, since everything asserted by the inspired authors or sacred writers must be held to be asserted by the Holy Spirit, it follows that the books of Scripture must be acknowledged as teaching solidly, faithfully and without error that truth which God wanted put into sacred writings (5) for the sake of salvation. Therefore "ALL SCRIPTURE IS DIVINELY INSPIRED AND HAS ITS USE FOR TEACHING THE TRUTH AND REFUTING ERROR, for reformation of manners and discipline in right living, so that the man who belongs to God may be efficient and equipped for good work of every kind" (2 Tim. 3:16-17, Greek text). 12. However, since God speaks in Sacred Scripture through men in human fashion, (6) the interpreter of Sacred Scripture, in order to see clearly what God wanted to communicate to us, should carefully investigate what meaning the sacred writers really intended, and what God wanted to manifest by means of their words.
Leo Cleary
1 year 1 month ago
For too long I have been subject to thinking that pastoral means "white bread" and doctrine means "red meat". This article has much in its favor especially the way the author explains the meaning of the words. It seems this is the time to stretch my thinking. There is real learning here. It seems that both terms have great weight and one confirms the other. When I read the gospels, I am stuck on how Jesus heals, talks and consoles letting those actions convey his deep message: you are loved for who you are, a child of a Merciful God. When Jesus preaches, it carries a consulting and challenging message. The teaching and the consoling actions lead to each other. When I read the gospels, I sense that one is not in conflict with the other. This article helps me to understand way this is so.

Don't miss the best from America

Sign up for our Newsletter to get the Jesuit perspective on news, faith and culture.

The latest from america

When a pope issues a document “motu proprio,” it means he does so by his own motivation, and it can mean a significant change to church law.
Michael J. O’LoughlinSeptember 21, 2017
Everybody feels like they’re no good at least some of the time. Everybody feels, at some point, like no one is listening. But in Christ, everything good, true and beautiful is worth expressing, even if no one seems to hear.
Simcha FisherSeptember 21, 2017

“Show me a hero and I’ll write you a tragedy.” –F. Scott Fitzgerald

Reading a great biography is like watching a tragedy unfold. The promises of youth gradually give way to the limitations imposed by reality, and demise and denouement inevitably ensue.

Angela Alaimo O'DonnellSeptember 21, 2017
The bullfight enacts the human drama each of us participates in.
Angela Alaimo O'DonnellSeptember 21, 2017