The Second Vatican Council (1962–1965), a gathering of Catholic bishops
from around the world under the headship of Pope St. John XXIII and
then Pope St. Paul VI, was one of the most significant cultural and
ecclesiastical events of the twentieth century. Though practically everyone
acknowledges its importance, Catholics have been debating its precise
meaning and application for the past sixty years.
As I write these words
in the waning days of the year 2020, a fresh controversy has broken out,
this time prompted by “traditionalists” who claim that Vatican II has
betrayed authentic Catholicism and produced disastrous consequences in
the life of the Church.
In the years that I was coming of age, the 1970s and
1980s, the argument was, largely, between advocates of a “hermeneutic
of continuity” reading versus a “hermeneutic of rupture” interpretation
of the council—which is to say, between those who appreciated Vatican
II as a legitimate development of the teaching that preceded it, and those
who saw the council as a real break with that tradition and a signal that
something altogether new was emerging in the life of the Church.
To understand this rather complex set of positions and counterpositions,
it is advisable to look, however briefly, at the council and its
The great and saintly pope who summoned this
gathering of bishops saw the purpose of the council as fundamentally missionary. The Church of the early 1960s did not face major doctrinal
questions, but many priests, bishops, scholars, and pastoral practitioners
did indeed think that the Church’s regnant neo-scholastic theology, a
rather dry, superficial version of the thought of St. Thomas Aquinas, was
inadequate to the missionary task in the modern world. Thus, what the
overwhelming majority of the theological experts and bishops at Vatican
II opted for was an updating of the Church, but paradoxically, precisely
through a recovery of the more lyrical language of the early Church Fathers
and of the Scriptures. This change, they felt, would facilitate the process
of bringing the light of Christ to the men and women of our time.
noteworthy that unlike almost all of the conciliar texts that came before,
the documents of Vatican II are not pithy statements of belief or anathemas
of heresies, but rather lengthy, meditative theological essays designed to
persuade rather than to define or condemn. That this approach won the
day at Vatican II is evident in the vote counts for the conciliar documents,
almost all of which were passed with only a handful of negative votes out
of over two thousand cast.
To be sure, there was a small group of vocal dissenters to the
documents, bishops and theologians who preferred to stay within the
confines of the standard neo-scholastic approach, but it is fair to say
that they were clearly defeated at the council.
Now, the victorious party,
within five years of the close of Vatican II, split into two camps, one more
liberal and the other more conservative. The former, represented by such
figures as Karl Rahner, Edward Schillebeeckx, Hans Küng, and Gregory
Baum, saw the documents of Vatican II as a first step in the direction of
a more radical reform of the Church. They argued that the council was
much more than the written texts that it produced; that it had, in fact,
unleashed a spirit that should be allowed to blow through the Church,
affecting its doctrines, practices, and institutional structures.
group, represented by, among others, Joseph Ratzinger, Henri de Lubac,
Hans Urs von Balthasar, and Karol Wojtyła, reacted against this liberal
reading. In a famous essay from the early seventies, Ratzinger decried the
desire to perpetuate an amorphous “spirit of the council.” In point of fact,
he argued, the Church always turns with a kind of relief from a council,
since such gatherings always represent a certain throwing of the Church
into suspense. While the theologians and bishops gather to deliberate and
discuss, as indeed they must from time to time, the Church is not focused
on its basic work of worshiping God, evangelizing, and caring for the poor.
Once the council has completed its task and resolved whatever difficulties
needed resolving, the Church returns with renewed enthusiasm and clarity
to its mission. Therefore, the perpetuation of the spirit of Vatican II would
be tantamount, Ratzinger concluded, to condemning the Church to a
permanent state of indecision.
These two camps, corresponding more or less to the hermeneutic of
rupture and hermeneutic of continuity approaches referenced above, have
battled for the past roughly fifty years, but the latter school came to the fore
due to the fact that two of its most distinguished representatives, Wojtyła
and Ratzinger, both were elected to the office of Peter. Their papacies,
expressed in numerous homilies, talks, encyclicals, and formal statements,
stabilized the interpretation of Vatican II.
The radical traditionalists of the
present moment represent an energetic comeback of the neo-scholastics
who lost the day at Vatican II. They reject both the hermeneutic of
continuity and the hermeneutic of rupture, preferring to see the entire
Vatican II project as misbegotten from the beginning.
With this book, I am nailing my colors to the mast.
I and Word on Fire stand firmly with Vatican II and hence against the
radical traditionalists. And we stand firmly with the Wojtyła-Ratzinger
interpretation of the council, and hence against the progressives. We are
convinced that, even as many voices have argued about the council since
the documents appeared in the mid-1960s, vanishingly few Catholics have
actually read the texts themselves. This book is designed to address that
problem. It includes the four “constitutions” of the council—which is
to say, the essays that most fully articulate its purpose and ethos. But it
also features a range of commentaries and explications of these marvelous
documents, most drawn from the popes and bishops who provide a
Many years ago, I heard a speaker remark that far too many people in
the Church seem to want either Vatican I or Vatican III! That traditionalists
and progressives still dominate much of the conversation today proves that
his observation still has validity. I believe that the documents of Vatican
II are still widely unread, and if they are read, often misunderstood. The
needful thing, I am convinced, is a robust and enthusiastic reappropriation
of the texts of Vatican II. I hope that this book represents a contribution
to that project.