Fifty years after it was met with euphoria, debate continues to surround Vatican II


The council’s legacy has indelibly shaped the modern Catholic Church, writes Fr VINCENT TWOMEY

I CAN STILL remember the surprise and excitement caused in January 1961 when the newly elected Pope John XXIII announced his convocation of the 21st Ecumenical Council in the Catholic Church’s history. Its objective would be to open the windows of the church and let in some fresh air. Some might say a whirlwind entered instead.

For the universally loved pontiff, the council had three aims: the renewal of the church, Christian unity, and an opening to the contemporary world. His programme was initially greeted with euphoria.

To understand the impact of the council, the cultural situation of the 1960s needs to be taken into account. Prosperity had replaced the austerities of the second World War.

Long in preparation, the sexual revolution erupted with volcanic force. Science and technology were quite literally reaching for the stars. New nations in Africa and Asia were shaking off the shackles of their colonial masters.

The first Catholic president of the US, John F Kennedy, had ushered in a new era of confidence. The Soviet Union, the other world power, led by Nikita Khrushchev, was in the process of shaking off some of its Stalinist excesses.

But above all, it was the time when TV came of age and with it a new political role for journalism in general. All this left its mark indelibly on the council.

Vatican II was like no other council. It was the largest assembly of bishops ever: some 2,300 from every continent and almost every nation. It was the first to have official observers from the Anglican, Protestant and Eastern Orthodox churches.

Another first was the inclusion of religious and lay experts, male and female, in the course of its four years of deliberations (1962-1965). Included among the latter was Frank Duff, who received a standing ovation.

Moral theologians were trying to develop an alternative to the legalist approach found in the manuals used to train confessors. Before the council, these developments were confined to a small number of critical theologians, some of whom had been silenced by the Holy Office. Vatican II, it could be said, was their council.

But it was also the journalists’ council. They flocked to Rome to relate the deliberations of the council to the world. Their presence also left its effect on the way the council was interpreted and on theology itself.

Used to commenting on political life, they naturally tended to interpret the intense debates in the Aula of St Peter’s in political terms, namely “progressive” versus “conservative”, thus replacing the traditional terms of orthodox and heterodox.

Generally speaking, it was felt that the progressives won most battles at the council, but not without conceding compromises.

This led liberal theologians to promote an interpretation of the council that was more true to what they now call “the spirit of the council” rather than the letter.

Soon they were calling for even more radical developments (in doctrine, liturgy, discipline and morals), more often than not echoing contemporary currents of thought.

They were assured of headlines and public approval. Others felt that the council had betrayed the church’s apostolic tradition. Confusion was rife. Was the council responsible?

Twenty years after the close of the council, the then Cardinal Ratzinger, though critical of aspects of the council, denied this.

The damage, he said, was due to the unleashing of polemical and centrifugal forces within the church and the prevalence, outside it, of a liberal-radical ideology that was individualistic, rationalistic and hedonistic.

Those centrifugal forces, Ratzinger claimed, helped to unleash the student unrest in 1968, which he experienced first hand in Tübingen.

Within the church, they led to the initial attempts to articulate a theology of liberation in Latin America.

As George Weigel pointed out, unlike previous councils, Vatican II failed to give a key to the interpretation of its documents (in terms of a creedal statement or condemnation of some teachings).

Blessed Pope John Paul II aimed to provide such a key in various ways, not least with his many encyclicals and apostolic letters.

But the main interpretive keys he provided were the revised Codes of Canon Law (1983 and 1990) and the Catechism of the Catholic Church (1992).

Pope Benedict XVI played a significant role not only in the council but also in the revision of the codes and in overseeing the worldwide process that produced the catechism. He has now called for a Year of Faith to be devoted especially to recovering the original teaching of Vatican II.

The late American cardinal Avery Dulles summarised the pope’s views: “Traditionalists and progressives, said, fell into the same error: They failed to see that Vatican II stood in fundamental continuity with the past.

“In rejecting some of the early drafts, the council fathers were not repudiating their doctrine, which was solidly traditional, but only their style, which they found too scholastic and insufficiently pastoral. Particularly harmful was the tendency of progressives to contrast the letter of the council’s texts with the spirit. The spirit is to be found in the letter itself.”

That is our task for the Year of Faith.

Fr Vincent Twomey is professor emeritus of moral theology at St Patrick’s College Maynooth