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Vatican II: 40 years later

Grateful for Vatican II, even when we ‘get it wrong’


When I was doing graduate studies in theology 30-odd years ago, one of my professors, a peritus at Vatican II and a founder of “Concilium,” once regaled a student party with council stories: machinations over secretly printing draft texts, various plots, back-channel negotiations. It was, he said, a “theologians’ paradise.” Naive soul that I was, it sounded like a terrific description (and experience) to me -- because I assumed he was referring to the council as a great contest of ideas, in which theologians who had been long oppressed by Roman bureaucrats were vindicated in their efforts to bring the Catholic church into dialogue with the modern world. A quarter-century of experience and study has taught me that the Second Vatican Council was far more complicated, and far more interesting, than that. The intervening years have also taught me what the 20th century should have taught everyone: Beware of intellectuals seduced by power.

For that’s what my professor was really talking about: power, and its exercise by intellectuals within a great institution. Of course, he believed that what he and his colleagues were advancing was the truth; but the intoxicant was power. And that seduction by power has to be acknowledged, I’ve come to believe, if we’re to understand the council and its impact on the church.

I couldn’t have imagined any of this 40 years ago, of course. When the Second Vatican Council opened, I was a sixth-grader, scuttling under my desk at Baltimore’s Cathedral School during Cuban Missile Crisis air raid drills. (No one explained why crouching under a desk would protect us from a nuclear weapon that undershot nearby Washington; perhaps the School Sisters of Notre Dame imagined us being strafed by Russian MiGs.) The council then meant glossy photo essays in Life magazine and the occasional lecture at my parish by a man who would, many years later, become an intellectual hero -- Jesuit Fr. John Courtney Murray. The council ended during my freshman year in high school; I vividly remember Pope Paul VI coming to the United Nations during the fourth session and the council fathers passing the “Declaration on Religious Freedom,” a particular interest of the archbishop I once served as altar boy, Cardinal Lawrence Shehan. But I did not “meet” the council in its texts until years later.

Truth to tell, I never seriously read the texts of Vatican II until the mid-1970s, despite eight years in high school and college seminary and two years of graduate studies in theology. I don’t think I was alone in this. In those days, one read about the council; one read the council’s most prominent theologians (especially Jesuit Fr. Karl Rahner). But in my undergraduate and graduate education, at least, one didn’t wrestle with the texts of the council itself. I expect this experience was replicated in parishes and on diocesan committees across the United States: The actual texts of the council got short shrift, as battalions of theologians and “consultants” and facilitators and what-not worked overtime to implement a council whose documents were not widely read, and were even less carefully studied.

I was teaching graduate theology at the Seattle seminary and doing adult education in the archdiocese before I actually read, seriously, the council’s masterwork, the “Dogmatic Constitution on the Church” (Lumen Gentium). And there I discovered something: The council hadn’t been all about power. Judging by its central document, it seemed clear that Vatican II had not been called, nor had the council fathers intended, to launch an endless cat-and-dog fight about Who’s In Charge Here. Rather, John XXIII imagined a new Pentecost, a fresh experience of the Holy Spirit to prepare the church to enter its third millennium as a vital evangelical movement, offering the world the truth about itself -- which is the story of salvation history. The universal call to holiness, not the struggle for ecclesiastical power, was the central motif of Vatican II.

Saying and writing such things, in the late 1970s and early 1980s, got me into all sorts of trouble with “progressive” Catholicism, trouble into which I have only dug myself deeper in the ensuing decades. I would still insist, though, that Vatican II -- understood as it understood itself -- was about the holiness of the people of the church and the conversion of the world, not about “power.”

That conviction deepened in the 1990s as I fell in love with Poland and wrote a history of the revolution of 1989 and, later, the biography of Pope John Paul II. Led by Cardinal Karol Wojtyla, Kraków had perhaps the most extensive and effective implementation of Vatican II in the world. It began, not with consultants and experts and a vastly expanded ecclesiastical bureaucracy, but with reading: Thousands of Poles, from all walks of life, met together for two years, to pray over and read the actual texts of the Second Vatican Council before they began to think about the question, “What are we going to do about all this?” By the time questions of action were on the table, those people had made the council’s texts their own. In the jargon, they “owned” the council.

Contrast this to the meltdown in the Netherlands, where various (sometimes wild) implementation schemes were being devised before the council documents were even translated, much less read. Yes, I know, there are lots of other reasons why the council’s implementation in Kraków went down a different path than its implementation in Amsterdam. But surely the fact that the people of Kraków actually read the council’s documents had something to do with the vibrant post-conciliar Catholicism they built -- a Catholicism that would prove its strength in the nonviolent resistance that put the first, crucial cracks in the Iron Curtain. In Kraków, implementing the Second Vatican Council was understood as a matter of holiness, evangelism and service to the world; in the Netherlands, the power-struggle model prevailed and the Dutch church crumbled (and under far more favorable political and economic conditions). Isn’t there a lesson here, a lesson in reading the “signs of the times”?

I’ve been much struck recently by the question of whether, in the mid-third millennium, Vatican II will be remembered as another Lateran V or another Trent. Lateran V was a reforming council that failed; Trent was a reforming council whose success defined Catholic life for almost four centuries. Lateran V’s failure was one cause of the fracture of Western Christianity in the Reformation -- and thus of the wars of religion, the rise of the modern state, and the gradual erosion of Christian culture in Europe. Getting it wrong, in this business of conciliar reform, can carry high costs.

How would we “get Vatican II wrong”? We get it wrong by thinking of it chiefly in terms of church politics. We get it wrong by imagining that the council abrogated the constituting truths that Christ gave the church as its essential “form.” We get it wrong by thinking that theology is religious studies. We get it wrong by forgetting that the council-mandated opening to the modern world included a challenge to modernity to open its windows to transcendent truth and love. We get it wrong by treating the liturgy as an artifact we can remake at will. Above all, we get it wrong by failing to take seriously the first proclamation of Lumen Gentium: that Christ is the “light of the nations,” and that his church exists to proclaim that to the ends of the earth.

I am deeply indebted to Vatican II for the renewed liturgy (despite the literary and musical gaucheries that still plague us); for a new relationship between the church’s people and the church’s pastors; for the impetus it gave to Catholic social doctrine (a far more humane proposal for the human future than utilitarianism or Islamism, the other two global proposals now on offer); for the place the council created for laypeople like me to contribute to the church’s life, thought and public witness. The man history may one day know as John Paul the Great is indisputably a product of the council, and like many millions of others, I am immensely grateful to Vatican II for that.

Above all, I am grateful to those who processed into St. Peter’s 40 years ago for bearing witness to the great adventure of Christian orthodoxy. That, I think, is why John XXIII chastised the “prophets of gloom” in his epic opening address to the council: Their dourness and their obsession with ecclesiastical power was impeding an evangelical renaissance that could make the church a more powerful witness to the Christ who is and always will be the “light of the nations.”

On this 40th anniversary, and to honor the council fathers’ courage, it’s worth asking the hard questions: Who are today’s sons of Zebedee, fretting about their places at the Master’s right and left? Who is obsessed with ecclesiastical power today? Isn’t that obsession, like that of the “prophets of gloom,” impeding the church’s evangelical mission? And isn’t that a betrayal of Vatican II?

George Weigel is the author of Witness to Hope: The Biography of Pope John Paul II and, most recently, of The Courage To Be Catholic: Crisis, Reform, and the Future of the Church. He is senior fellow and John M. Olin Chair in Religion and American Democracy at the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington.

National Catholic Reporter, October 4, 2002