Implementing the decrees of Vatican II today

Detail of cover from O'Malley's book.
This article appears in the Take and Read feature series. View the full series.

Editor's note: "Take and Read" is a weekly blog that features a different contributor's reflections on a specific book that changed their lives. Good books, as blog co-editors Congregation of St. Agnes Sr. Dianne Bergant and Michael Daley say, "can inspire, affirm, challenge, change, even disturb."


What Happened at Vatican II?
by John O'Malley
Belknap Press, 2010

Change is recognized as a constant in human life. Yet some people resist understanding and responding positively to change, while others welcome it. Those who find change difficult may be fearful of the new situation, challenged by what it will demand, or wed to the present state of affairs. Those who are more likely to accept change may be more adventurous, or accommodating, or comfortable with what is being proposed. In determining the response, an important factor is often the level of understanding the person brings to the situation. Scripture readings, particularly in the Easter season, document reactions to the tremendous events that brought about great change in the lives of the early disciples. As they begin to understand the Scriptures, they are led to peace. This is dramatically recorded in the story on the road to Emmaus (Luke 24:13-35). Beginning with Moses and the prophets, Jesus interpreted the Scriptures and opened the eyes of the disciples. Through his explanation, the Risen Lord was made known to them.

This passage brings to light how essential it is to be familiar with and comprehend new circumstances in order to respond positively to them. Centuries after the Emmaus journey, the decrees of the Second Vatican Council generated many changes that elicited a wide variety of reactions. To this day the church is grappling with this disparity — a task made more challenging as Catholics who were alive during the council decrease in number. The loss of so many people who experienced its impact firsthand and possessed a depth of knowledge about and a favorable reception of its teachings leaves a lacuna that must be filled. For this reason, What Happened at Vatican II by John O'Malley is not only a timely and influential book. It is an indispensable resource for ensuring continuing implementation of the directives of this great event.

When the Second Vatican Council commenced Oct. 11, 1962, few people could have imagined the impact this exceptional occurrence would have on the church and on the whole world. The unexpected announcement of the council was made Jan. 25, 1959, just three months after Pope John XXIII's election. Until its conclusion Dec. 8, 1965, Catholics everywhere were attuned to the developments that would change their participation in and perspective of the faith they had experienced as virtually unchangeable before the council. Some 50 years later, it is evident that the event affected not only the spiritual lives of Roman Catholics, but also many other aspects of life for them and the rest of the world. The church was dealing with many concerns of the day, among them: secularization of society, separation of church and state in Catholic countries, the spread of communism, and proliferation of nuclear weapons. As a result of the council, people of other faiths, political leaders, and interested observers gained a fresh perspective on the significance of the role of Catholicism. Changes in relationships among people were vital. Leaders also were compelled to accommodate to a new vision of the church in the modern world as it affected governing structures, church-state matters, and the social order.

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The magnitude of these effects is vividly described by John O'Malley in What Happened at Vatican II. Throughout the book, he highlights the intent of the council and communicates details about how decisions were made, who was involved, and what was at stake. The council fathers soon recognized that the process they were engaging would set in motion sweeping changes. O'Malley examines their attitudes toward and readiness for change, which differed as enormously as their expectations and hopes for certain outcomes. He outlines three fundamental principles of the council: aggiornamento, development, and ressourcement. These three he calls the "issues under-the-issues," all of which imply change.

For Pope John XXIII, the word aggiornamento meant "bringing up to date," that is, developing the church to meet the needs of the modern world. The broad scope of updating led to some of the most heated discussions. As O'Malley notes, "development" seemed less contentious as long as it was taken to mean "an unfolding of something already present implicitly or in germ." Problems arose when decisions seemed not to further but to contradict the direction of a particular matter so that it was changed and not simply extended. The word ressourcement, likened to renaissance, "advocated skipping over what was currently in place to retrieve from the past something more appropriate or more authentic." The sources of the Christian tradition were to be re-examined by methods of modern scholarship, often with the hope of returning to the purposes and practices of the early church.

Concern about where these changes would lead resulted in some of the most contested and difficult decisions of the council. It is easy to imagine how the content of important decrees were applauded by some participants and feared by others. Whatever the issues, the minority held onto their views, while the majority was eager to move forward. To this day, disagreements are being played out between those who favor the decisions of the council and are committed to putting them more fully into effect and those who disagree with the implementation of council decrees, if not the decrees themselves. With the hope of "reforming the reform," as it is often labeled, the stance of the latter group is expressed with growing harshness in a spate of recent literature. Their goal is to roll back the changes, based on the opinion that it is necessary to undo the damage to the church that originated with the council. At the same time, the 50th anniversary of the council has resulted in many other works, with a purpose of conveying what the authors believe was the intent of the council and its many positive outcomes. Thus these writings seek to promote understanding and ongoing implementation of the council's decrees.

What Happened at Vatican II contributes convincingly to the discussion. O'Malley's indispensable historical context is enhanced by deep analysis based on a thorough understanding of the interchanges during the council. This is made even more vivid by his presence in Rome during that time. His chronological account of the four sessions reveals the progression of ideas and the growing recognition of how exceptional this council was to be. As his powerful narrative shows, already present as the council began were efforts to minimize change, to remain with the so-called status quo. This stance was largely rejected by the bishops who had come from all corners of the world, critical of the Eurocentric emphasis of the church. In a fair way, the text presents these divergent positions and uncovers the nature of what actually happened in the discussions and the reasons for the outcomes. This method weakens the present efforts of those who propose the so-called "reform of the reform." O'Malley explains the positive role the council plays in the Church today, and discusses not only its successes, but also the hope of seeing the advancement of additional intended outcomes.

Among the most profound new understandings that resulted from the council — and one that can certainly be considered a "success" — was a grasp of the universality of the church. This new vision came about by the mere presence of bishops gathered from all over the world. Potential changes in the church were already in the forefront, but changes brought about by the situation in the world had an equally profound effect. The end of colonialism and the growth of the new churches in Asia and Africa, for example, introduced unfamiliar questions. The depth of the impact on norms and ideals are described in this compact and powerful paragraph from O'Malley:

For the new churches it recommended adaptation to local cultures, including philosophical and theological adaptation. It also recommended that Catholic missionaries seek ways of cooperating with missionaries of other faiths and of fostering harmonious relations with them. It asserted that art from every race and country be given scope in the liturgy of the church. More generally, it made clear that the church was sympathetic to the way of life of different peoples and races and was ready to appropriate aspects of different cultural traditions. Though obvious-sounding, these provisions were portentous. Where would they lead?

Embedded in this description are a multitude of adjustments that resulted from incorporating the practices of cultures beyond those of Western Europe. Language, music, art, governance, the role of missionaries, ecumenism and interfaith relationships, the exercise of authority, and organization of the new churches were all in play. Obviously, change was inevitable, but the emerging question was how the leaders would handle it. A variety of concerns surfaced: the manner and style of authority, the role of papal authority in relation to bishops in the local church, the meaning and exercise of collegiality, and the relationship between the center and periphery of the Church. Some of these concerns are still in the process of being understood, accepted, and implemented, while others have shifted in importance and focus. The future will depend greatly on the direction provided by the pope and other church leaders. When Pope Francis was chosen to lead the Church, the power of papal influence was evident in his positive approach to the teachings of the Second Vatican Council and his insistence on their enactment.

As a result of Pope Francis' leadership, O'Malley's list of the realization of council decrees successfully put into practice will surely grow deeper and longer: the reform of the liturgy and wide appreciation of the vernacular, development in the understanding and use of Scripture, the increased role of laity in church affairs, updating of religious life, closer ecumenical and interfaith relationships, and freedom of religion. But much remains to be accomplished, a task articulated by Massimo Faggioli in A Council for the Global Church: Receiving Vatican II in History: "To choose to celebrate the council fifty years after its opening implies the possibility of becoming more conscious of the theological praxis of the Catholic Church, and also of the questions that were left unresolved by the council and await response."

In What Happened at Vatican II, readers learn to go beneath the surface to understand the significance and repercussions of this momentous event. With greater appreciation and understanding, the response of faithful Catholics, like that of the disciples on the road to Emmaus, will be similar: "Were not our hearts burning within us while he spoke to us on the way and opened the Scriptures to us?" As the disciples grew in faith when the Scriptures were opened to them to reveal the true meaning of the life, death, and resurrection of Christ, so careful readers of What Happened at Vatican II will acquire insights that show the way forward and change forever their perception of the council.

[Katarina Schuth is Professor and Endowed Chair for Social Scientific Study of Religion at The St. Paul Seminary School of Divinity and University of St. Thomas. She recently wrote Seminary Formation: Recent History-Current Circumstances-New Directions.]

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