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Vatican II

The Second Vatican Council was the unexpected project of one whose election as pope was looked on as an interim appointment because of his age, but whose pontificate was to prove a landmark in the history of the Roman Catholic Church. Pope John XXIII* had been in office for only ninety days when on 25 January 1959 he declared his intention of convening the twenty-first ecumenical council. Although he did not live to see the council completed—he died during the preparations for the second session—the impact of his personality on the council deliberations was marked.

Pope John was himself a blend of the traditional Catholic approach and the new forward-looking attitude which was to be such a marked feature of the council. The impact of a kindly and genial personality, the obvious concern with people, the desire to let a breath of fresh air into the turgid atmosphere of the Vatican—all these should not lead us to the erroneous conclusion that in his doctrine he was a liberal, for in fact he was markedly conservative. Hence, while his liberal attitude opened the door for progressive thinkers, his own theological position was traditional. On the one hand, he gave the progressives a mandate for action with his often-quoted distinction between the unchanging affirmations of the faith and the changing representations (opening speech 11 October 1962). On the other hand, in his encyclical Ad Petri Cathedram he came down firmly on the side of the traditional doctrines of the Mass and of Mary, and made his appeal both to Scripture and tradition.* So too on the one side he changed dramatically the approach to those who were formerly heretics, but were now designated “separated brethren,” yet at the same time he made it quite clear that reunion meant their return to the one true church and to the pope as center of unity.

This pattern is seen throughout the council’s documents. While they are addressed to the twentieth century and while they bear evidence of the new movements of theological thought within Rome, they are at the same time in the mainstream of Catholic orthodoxy and in fact frequently reiterate their endorsement of both Vatican I* and Trent.* Where they seemed to go too far, as in the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy and the Lumen Gentium (on the church), the pope replied—it was now Paul VI*—with counterbalancing statements of strongly traditional doctrine, the Mysterium Fidei on the Eucharist, and the appendix on papal prerogatives affixed to the decree on the church.

The council had four sessions. The first lasted from 11 October until 8 December 1962. The second session lasting from 29 September until 4 December 1963 produced the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy and the Decree on the Instruments of Social Communication. The third session from 14 September until 21 November 1964 saw the promulgation of major documents on the church, on Ecumenism, and on the Eastern Catholic Churches. The fourth session from 14 September until 8 December 1965 produced a final quota of eleven documents. There were the decrees on the Bishops’ Pastoral Office, on Priestly Formation, and on the Appropriate Renewal of the Religious Life; and the declarations on the Relationship of the Church to Non-Christian Religions and on Christian Education. These were promulgated 28 October and were followed on 18 November by the Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation and the Decree on the Apostolate of the Laity. Finally, on 7 December 1965 came the last act of the council in the promulgation of four texts—the Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World, the Decree on the Ministry and Life of Priests, the Decree on the Church’s Missionary Activity, and the Declaration on Religious Freedom.

Before turning to a consideration of some of these documents, some significant factors in the situation at Vatican II need to be kept in mind. This was the first Roman Catholic council at which there were non-Roman observers. Their presence strongly emphasized the ecumenical aims of the council and was clearly a factor in the debates, although of course they did not actually take part. Allied to this was the unprecedented blaze of publicity which made the council a major news item across the world, and which let not only the body of the Catholic faithful but outsiders as well see what was happening. A further significant element was the participation of the periti, the theological experts who were there as advisers to the council fathers. Their presence, particularly of those from N Europe and America, was to bring the ferment and turmoil of the current theological debate to the floor of St. Peter’s. One final factor was the change in the papacy. Paul VI had been looked on as a liberal, but he clearly viewed with alarm the rapidity of the change developing within Rome, and the radical character of some of the proposals—hence his interventions. These were designed either to moderate the advances gained by the progressives, or (as in his personal intervention in the debate on religious toleration) to delay matters and to gain some measure of agreement in a situation where the depth of feeling between conservatives and liberals was leading to a dangerous polarization. The Documents. First in order of importance, if not in order of promulgation, is the Lumen Gentium (“the light of the nations”), the decree on the church, the “De Ecclesia.” It is the result of a drastic revision of the schema originally presented. This represented a traditional and polemical attitude and was replaced by a new document drafted between the first and second sessions, debated during the second and third, and promulgated at the end of this session on 21 November 1964. The basic conviction of the document is the traditional view of the church as the continuing incarnation of Christ. The analogy is quoted of the indissoluble union between the Word and His human nature in the Incarnation—the church is a like incarnation. “The Church exists in Christ as a sacrament or instrumental sign of intimate union with God and of unity for the whole human race.” This church moreover is quite firmly stated to be the Roman Catholic Church, for although other Christian communities have marks of holiness, they cannot be accepted as being on the same level as the Roman Catholic Church.

It is true that the conception of the church as “the people of God” is brought into prominence, and the biblical testimony to the continuing people of God in the Old and New Testaments is expounded. But this biblical emphasis is vitiated in two ways. For one thing, the people of God in its fullness really means the Roman Catholic Church, and for another there is still the traditional distinction between people and priest. In the Bible laos embraces the whole people of God, but traditional Catholicism maintains a firm gap between the priesthood and the laity. Admittedly there is an attempt to accord priestly functions to the people of God as a whole. But in fact the old position of the priest remains the same—this is seen not only in the “De Ecclesia,” but also in the Decree on the Priestly Ministry and Life. “There is an essential difference between the faithful’s priesthood in common and the priesthood of the ministry or hierarchy, and not just a difference of degree” (“De Ecclesia”). Priests, defined in a levitical sense, are “given the power of sacred Order to offer sacrifice, forgive sin and in the name of Christ publicly to exercise the office of priesthood.” By “a special sacrament . . . they are signed with a specific character and portray Christ the priest.” “They reconcile sinners to God and the Church through the sacrament of penance. . . . They sacramentally offer the Sacrifice of Christ in a special way when they celebrate Mass” (Decree on Priestly Ministry.) They “share, at their own level of the ministry, the office of Christ, the sole mediator” (“De Ecclesia”).

The church as defined above “is incapable of being at fault in belief.” This involves a supernatural gift imparted to the people of God as a whole to recognize and to accept the authoritative teaching of the magisterium or teaching authority. This infallibility focused in the pope is diffused throughout the college of bishops. This area of teaching has, however, received a mixed reaction from theologians. One comment from a major commentary on the decree aptly sums up their reaction: “A dispersed episcopate which is infallible, but never quite knows when is a puzzling paradox.”

The papal prerogatives are firmly stated in the decree with its stress on “the institution, the perpetuity, the power and the nature of the sacred primacy of the Roman Pontiff, and of his infallible magisterium.” Papal definitions “stand in no need of approval of others and they admit of no appeal to another court.” This very strong reaffirmation of papal infallibility was accompanied by a stress on the college of bishops for whom the claim is made that they “have a life-giving contact with the original apostles by a current of succession which goes back to the beginning.” Their authority and infallibility are, however, hedged around by the proviso that they can never function without the head, viz., the pope. This aspect of the supreme, overriding, and unique authority of the pope was defined even more precisely in the “Nota” (the notes of explanation) appended to the “De Ecclesia.”

Other traditional elements retained in the “De Ecclesia” are the belief in purgatory, prayers for the dead, and the invocation of the saints. Of particular significance is the section devoted to the position of Mary. That a special decree was not allocated to this subject was seen as some measure of victory for the progressive wing; but in fact the traditional dogmas are vigorously restated, and indeed a further dogmatic stage is reached. Mary is again declared to be immaculate in conception, perpetually virgin and sinless, sharing in the work of atonement, raised incorruptible to heaven where she reigns as queen; now she is also presented as the mother of the church. Far from minimizing or rejecting the excesses of the Marian cult, the council called for “a generous encouragement to the cult of the Blessed Virgin, especially to the liturgical cult.”

The Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation stands in clear lineal descent from the Council of Trent with its appeal to the two sources of revelation—Scripture and tradition. In spite of the new emphasis in Roman Catholic thinking and writing on the Bible, the Council still maintained the position that “both Scripture and Tradition should be accepted with equal sentiments of devotion and reverence.” Both of them “form a single sacred deposit of the word of God.” This conviction is linked with an acceptance of the infallible teaching authority of the church to produce the conclusion: “sacred Tradition, holy Scripture and the Church’s magisterium are by God’s most wise decree so closely connected and associated together that one does not subsist without the other two.” The final authority in interpreting Scripture is thus the magisterium of the church.

The Decree on Ecumenism considers the possibilities of reunion from the standpoint of a firm insistence on the traditional claim of Rome to be the one true church. “Only through the Catholic Church of Christ, the universal aid to salvation, can the means of salvation be reached in all their fulness.” The Eastern Churches have a special status because of their close approximation to Rome in doctrine, church order, and liturgy. The Anglican Communion also has particular mention because of her retention of Catholic traditions. The other churches while being defective from Rome’s standpoint are still acknowledged to retain some elements of Catholic truth. What then is the basis for unity? It is the idea of “brothers by baptism.” Baptism sets up a bond of unity which it is hoped will develop into a fully integrated unity and an ultimate return to the unity which Rome alone possesses.

Vatican II may be viewed either as a rearguard action by the conservatives, or as a transition to more radical developments in the future. The assessment may well be more an indication of the standpoint of the observer than of the essential position. Time will doubtless demonstrate which assessment is vindicated by subsequent events.

Bibliography: Y. Congar, H. Küng, and D. O’Hanlon (eds.), Council Speeches of Vatican II (1964); G.C. Berkouwer, The Second Vatican Council and the New Catholicism (1965); W.M. Abbott (ed.), The Documents of Vatican II (1966); J. Moorman, Vatican Observed (1967); K. McNamara (ed.), Vatican II: The Constitution on the Church (1968); A.M.J. Kloosterman, Contemporary Catholicism (1972).