Why Vatican II? Ten Reasons for the Second Vatican Council

Over the past few months the Second Vatican Council has been the subject of several spirited debates at Envoy Encore, the weblog that I edit for Envoy magazine. Generally speaking, there are two strongly differing opinions about the Council.

The Holy Spirit and Us

On one hand, there are those who believe it was a good and blessed event; on the other, there are those who think it was a blunder, a mistake, and perhaps even a Satanic success.

Even many who recognize the legitimate and authoritative character of the Council lament that it was (so they say) the direct cause of so many problems now found in the Catholic Church in the United States and other countries. “Why did Vatican II ever take place?” they ask. “Was it necessary?”

These are understandable questions. After all, for some Catholics, the words “Vatican II” conjure up visions of liturgical madness, rotten catechesis, doctrinal mushiness, and the loss of Catholic culture. There has been plenty of that throughout the West since the close of the Council. But, as Pope John Paul II and Cardinal Ratzinger have stated many times, those sad realities must not be confused with the real intentions and teachings of the Council.

For example, Cardinal Ratzinger in The Ratzinger Report (1985), stated, “I believe . . . that the true time of Vatican II has not yet come, that its authentic reception has not yet begun: its documents were quickly buried under a pile of superficial or frankly inexact publications. The reading of the letter of the documents will enable us to discover their true spirit. If thus rediscovered in their truth, those great texts will make it possible for us to understand just what happened and to react with a new vigor. I repeat: the Catholic who clearly and, consequently, painfully perceives the damage that has been wrought in his Church by the misinterpretations of Vatican II must find the possibility of revival in Vatican II itself. The Council is his, it does not belong to those who want to continue along a road whose results have been catastrophic.”

With this in mind — and without attempting a thorough treatment of the topic — here are at least ten reasons why the Second Vatican Council took place:

1)To Obey the Holy Spirit: Pope John XXIII believed he was called by the Holy Spirit to convene the Council, and this was the understanding of the Fathers of the Council. The final report of the Synod of Bishops in 1985 (specially convened to examine the fruits of Vatican II) stated, “Unanimously we have celebrated the Second Vatican Council as a grace of God and a gift of the Holy Spirit . . .” In Crossing The Threshold of Hope, the Holy Father remarked that the Council was “the seminary of the Holy Spirit.”

2) To Preach the Gospel and Teach the Faith: This should be obvious, but is often ignored or overlooked. In his opening remarks at the Council, Pope John XXIII declared, “The greatest concern of the Ecumenical Council is this: that the sacred deposit of Christian doctrine should be guarded and taught more efficaciously.” Lumen Gentium, possibly the most important document of the Council, opens with these words: “Christ is the Light of nations. Because this is so, this Sacred Synod gathered together in the Holy Spirit eagerly desires, by proclaiming the Gospel to every creature, to bring the light of Christ to all men, a light brightly visible on the countenance of the Church” (LG 1). Giving witness to Jesus Chris and the Gospel was a central goal of the Council, and one that needs to be emphasized far more than it has been.

Carl Olson is editor of Envoy Magazine. You can email him at carl@envoymagazine.com.

The Church and The Modern World

3) To Continue the Work of Vatican I: The first Vatican Council (1869-70) had planned to address the issues of dogma, Church discipline, the Oriental Churches, missions, and the political/social order. However, it was interrupted by the Franco-German War, and the only topic dealt with was that of papal infallibility. Vatican II continued the work started by Vatican I, especially in the areas of ecclesiology and relationships between the bishops and the Papacy.

4) To Address Modernity: Vatican II was the first completed ecumenical council since the Council of Trent in the mid-1500s. The world had changed in dramatic ways in four hundred years, and the Church realized the need to address the many positive and negative realities of modern life. Major issues included technology, political ideologies, economics, non-Western civilization(s), and relations with other Christians and other religions. The Council’s first document, Sacrosanctum Concilium (Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy), stated: “This sacred Council has several aims in view: it desires to impart an ever increasing vigor to the Christian life of the faithful; to adapt more suitably to the needs of our own times those institutions which are subject to change; to foster whatever can promote union among all who believe in Christ; to strengthen whatever can help to call the whole of mankind into the household of the Church” (SC 1). The Council presented the Church as “a sacrament of salvation of the world” and sought to share the Gospel with modern man in a way that he could comprehend, without compromising Catholic doctrine.

5) To Return to the Sources: One way the Council Fathers went about addressing various concerns facing the Church was by returning more fully to the sources (“resourcement”) of the Catholic Faith, especially Scripture and the Church Fathers. The documents of the Council, especially Lumen Gentium, Dei Verbum, and Sacrosanctum Concilium, are rich with Scripture and patristic texts (something that was very striking to me when I read them as a Protestant). This “recovery” resulted, in many ways, in documents filled with a more immediate, pastoral, and personal vocabulary in contrast to the neo-Thomistic, systematic language found in earlier councils. The goal was not anti-Thomist at all; rather, the documents were written with an eye towards non-scholars and even non-Catholics, making Catholic doctrine and teaching accessible to a wide audience.

6) To Teach a Deeper and More Balanced Ecclesiology: The reemphasis on biblical and patristic texts is very evident in the Council’s teachings on the nature and mission of the Church, especially as found in Lumen Gentium, the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church. That document focused on the intimate, familial bond shared by those in the family of God. The Church is described as “a kind of sacrament” (LG 1), a “sign of intimate union with God.” There is a strong emphasis on divinization, or deification: “[God’s] plan was to dignify men with a participation in His own divine life” (LG 1), and the human and divine aspects of the Church (see LG 8). None of this was new, of course, (since there has been no new public revelation since the first century), but the vitality of the language was rather new sounding, even as the doctrine being articulated was ancient and apostolic. The ecclesiology presented by the Council would form the basis for its teachings on ecumenism and inter-religious dialogue.

The First Vatican Council addressed only papal infallibility in its abbreviated gathering, and so the Second Vatican Council fleshed out its teaching about the structure and hierarchical nature of the Church. The papacy is set within the greater context of the Church, and the proper individual authority of bishops is recognized, as is the necessity of communion with the See of Rome (see LG 19-23). In addition, there is a strong emphasis on the rightful work and role of the laity, whose special vocation it is to build the Kingdom in the secular world.

The Holy People of God

7) To Highlight the Work of the Laity: The Council made great strides in explaining the specific nature of the work of Catholic laity: “But the laity, by their very vocation, seek the kingdom of God by engaging in temporal affairs and by ordering them according to the plan of God. They live in the world, that is, in each and in all of the secular professions and occupations. . . . They are called there by God that by exercising their proper function and led by the spirit of the Gospel they may work for the sanctification of the world from within as a leaven. In this way they may make Christ known to others, especially by the testimony of a life resplendent in faith, hope and charity” (LG 31). Large sections of the Council documents flesh out these teachings in exact terms. Sadly, far too many Catholic lay people mistakenly (or knowingly, in some cases) misunderstand the nature of “ministry,” believing it is all about doing things “in the parish.” It is a classic case of many folks following the “spirit of Vatican II” instead of what the documents actually teach. In reality, the laity are to work primarily in the secular world, evangelizing in ways unique to their vocation.

8) To Encourage Holiness: The Church always stresses holiness, but the Council, true to its pastoral nature, challenged all Catholics, regardless of their state in life, to be holy (see LG 39-42): “Thus it is evident to everyone, that all the faithful of Christ of whatever rank or status, are called to the fullness of the Christian life and to the perfection of charity; by this holiness as such a more human manner of living is promoted in this earthly society” (LG 40). Before the Council, some Catholics viewed the priest as the “holy” one, while they lived a more mundane, common existence. The Council refuted this idea and showed that marriage and the single life should be filled with the same sort of charity, purity, and holiness as are vocations to the priesthood and religious life.

9) To Facilitate “Active Participation” in the Liturgy: The Council desired to make the liturgy more accessible for the faithful, helping Catholics to better enter into the Paschal Mystery. Sacrosanctum Concilium stated: “Mother Church earnestly desires that all the faithful should be led to that fully conscious, and active participation in liturgical celebrations which is demanded by the very nature of the liturgy. Such participation by the Christian people as ‘a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a redeemed people’ (1 Pet. 2:9; cf. 2:4-5), is their right and duty by reason of their baptism” (SC 14). No one can deny that many horrific abuses of liturgy have occurred in the wake of Vatican II. Yet the Council upheld the use of Latin, Gregorian chant, and the organ, and certainly did not advocate the banal acts sometimes witnessed in Catholic parishes. The Council Fathers understood, however, that these problems would occur if the nature and purpose of the liturgy was not properly understood by priests and laity alike (as is sometimes the case today): “Yet it would be futile to entertain any hopes of realizing this unless the pastors themselves, in the first place, become thoroughly imbued with the spirit and power of the liturgy, and undertake to give instruction about it” (SC 14).

10) To Reach Non-Catholics: The Council took important steps in examining the Church’s relationship with non-Catholics. The Council documents rejected indifferentism on the one hand, while avoiding Feeneyism on the other. They recognized that other Christians “in some real way . . . are joined with us in the Holy Spirit, for to them too He gives His gifts and graces whereby He is operative among them with His sanctifying power” (LG 15), and that “those who have not yet received the Gospel are related in various ways to the people of God” (LG 16). The vital work of ecumenism and interreligious dialogue has remained a central concern of Pope John Paul II’s pontificate.

This list is hardly exhaustive and the explanations are necessarily brief. It does indicate, however, that there a great need for a deeper reception of the Council, as the 1985 Synod of Bishops made clear. That Synod taught that this deeper reception requires four “successive phases: a deeper and more extensive knowledge of the council, its interior assimilation, its loving reaffirmation, and its implementation. Only interior assimilation and practical implementation can make the conciliar documents alive and life-giving.” There were good reasons for the Council — and there are good reasons for Catholics today to take up the challenges and teachings presented in its documents.

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