Vatican II was, according to Karl Rahner, the beginning of the “world church.” Elected bishop of Rome half a century after Vatican II, Francis is the first pope who is not from the Euro-Mediterranean area, and he can therefore be understood as the first pope of Rahner’s “world church”: a truly global, non-Eurocentric church. But theological globalization and institutional globalization are two different things, and they have been surprisingly disconnected from each other in the recent history of the church. The institutional shock of a Latin American Jesuit being elected as pope has been slower to influence theology than one might have expected in 2013.
In his June 21 speech to the Pontifical Theological Faculty of Southern Italy in Naples, Francis expressed his vision for “a theology of welcoming and dialogue,” an “interdisciplinary theology” that takes place in an environment of freedom and in relationship with the whole people of God—with peoples (plural) and cultures all over the world. He did not mention or quote from the documents of Vatican II; he did not need to. It was clear to anyone who heard the speech that this pope’s vision is profoundly conciliar. Much like his September 2015 speech to the international theological congress at the Pontifical Catholic University of Argentina, the speech in Naples clearly laid out Francis’s theological agenda.
A new freedom for Catholic theology is one of the underappreciated contributions of this pontificate. Francis has offered theologians a new opportunity to interpret the ecclesial and theological event through which his own pontificate must be understood and evaluated—that is, the Second Vatican Council.
At a four-day conference held in June at the Berg Moriah Conference Center near Koblenz, Germany, a large group of theologians and church historians inaugurated an international initiative aimed at exploring the connection between Vatican II and this pontificate’s shift toward a global Catholicity. Titled “The Second Vatican Council: hermeneutical questions,” the conference was organized by the steering committee at work on a new multivolume commentary on the documents of the Second Vatican Council. The speakers and responders came from all continents. Christoph Theobald, SJ, lectured on the council from “the beginning of the beginning” to Francis’s “church on the move.” Judith Gruber and Jonathan Tan lectured on postcolonial readings of the council texts. Ormond Rush spoke about controversies over the reception of doctrinal authority, Peter Hünermann about the shifts in ecclesiology and in the theology of institutions that are required by a truly global church.
The initiative for a new Vatican II commentary took its first steps at a 2015 conference in Munich marking the fiftieth anniversary of the end of the council. Hünermann, who had coedited a five-volume German-language commentary on the council between 2004 and 2005, realized a new theological commentary on Vatican II could not be simply an update of that earlier edition. Too much had happened since then. The importance of the transition from the age of John Paul II and Benedict XVI to the pontificate of Francis was already abundantly clear. Hünermann—professor emeritus of the University of Tübingen and founding president of the European Society for Catholic Theology—believed the new pontificate offered an opportunity for a new interpretation of Vatican II from the point of view of the global church. Preparatory meetings for the new commentary were held between 2016 and 2018 (full disclosure: I participated in those early meetings and am a member of the steering committee for the continental group for North America, Australia, and the Pacific). It was immediately clear that a new commentary on Vatican II that focused on the global church would require contributions from scholars all over the world, and it would have to be addressed to an international and multicultural audience with a diversity of theological and cultural points of reference.
The project is for a twelve-volume commentary, to be published in both German and English. The first volume will be devoted to hermeneutical reflections on the interpretation of the council in today’s global church. Then there will be five volumes devoted to the council’s reception in different continents (Europe, Asia, Africa, Latin America, with Australia, the Pacific, and North America in a single volume), five volumes of commentary on the council documents themselves, and a final volume devoted to reflections on the church’s future. These volumes will be the result of a series of annual symposia involving scholars from every continent, as well as a series of seminars organized within each continent.
The first commentaries on Vatican II, published in the months and years immediately after it ended, were mostly written by participants in the conciliar assembly, male priests and bishops with a European theological formation. In recent years, significant work on Vatican II has been done by lay theologians, including many women. But this work has not yet taken the form of a comprehensive re-interpretation of the council for the twenty-first century. Now it will. The project’s second innovation is its global character: the five volumes of actual commentary on the conciliar texts will be produced by a five-member team of theologians from every continent. This will be a theological commentary intended not only for scholars but also for the whole global ecclesial community, and the project has been endorsed by three cardinals from three different continents—Reinhard Marx (Munich, Germany), Luis Antonio Tagle (Manila, Philippines), and Baltazar Porras (Merida, Venezuela).
Hünermann emphasizes that the aim of a new international commentary on Vatican II is not “a uniform systematic text. The aim is a commentary giving room for the different continental interpretations and visions of the council’s texts, the pluriform reception and their fundamental convergence in spite their cultural, social diversities.” A new commentary is needed, Hünermann says, because “the situation of the church and of theology, especially in continents other than Europe and North America, has changed completely since the time of the council and of the early post–Vatican II period when the first commentaries were written and published.”
Hünermann first met Jorge Mario Bergoglio in Latin America in the 1970s, and was in Rome for the conclave of 2013. He was one of the few who publicly expressed his hope that the cardinal from Buenos Aires would be elected: “Pope Francis’s gestures, words, and the program for his pontificate in Evangelii gaudium demonstrate the difference between [John Paul II and Benedict XVI] and this pope, who did not take part in the council. He opened a new age in the Catholic Church’s way of living Vatican II: not conditioned by his own personal experience and his own ‘oral tradition’ about the council.”
The project Hünermann helped launch may involve academics, but it aims at addressing issues involving the relationship between the institutional church, theology, and the public square: the unresolved issues in the theological debate on Vatican II are a crucial part of current intra-ecclesial tensions. The political conflicts that have arisen during this pontificate have a lot to do with different ideas of what a “global church” means. This is especially true here in the United States, which has become the main stage of an anti-conciliar revanche within both the institutional church and in academic theology. The narrative of mission and renewal advanced by some American bishops today judges Vatican II to be a failure and rejects some of its major reforms. It is no coincidence that bishops in the United States are among those who have implemented Benedict XVI’s Summorum pontificum with the greatest enthusiasm; many of them have publicly embraced the revival of the pre-conciliar Mass. It’s in the context of this rejection of Vatican II that one can understand the current vogue in American Catholic intellectual circles for various brands of integralism and “options” for retreat from the modern world. Meanwhile, among some “Vatican II theologians” (a category in which I’d include myself), Vatican II has become a kind of monument, more to be glorified than to be closely studied as a complicated historical event.
On both sides, left and right, the focus is often geographically narrow: a myopic identification of the trajectories of Catholicism with its trajectories in the Western world—or even with its trajectories in just one country. Then too, an over-emphasis on the social-political message of Vatican II has sometimes produced a phenomenon parallel to the politicization of Catholicism on the right: a de-theologizing of the debate on Vatican II.
Vatican II cannot be understood without a direct contact with its documents and their history. Those documents must be understood in the context of the entire theological tradition, and they must be read in light of the church’s expansion beyond the cultural boundaries of the West. That begins with listening to theologians from other parts of the world, whose concerns and insights complement and correct our own.
In one of his fundamental essays on the hermeneutics of Vatican II, Karl Rahner wrote: “Either the church sees and acknowledges the essential differences of the other cultures into which the church ought to become the world church, and infers from this acknowledgment the necessary consequences, with a Pauline audacity―or else it remains a Western church and thereby betrays the intention that Vatican II had.” This is possible only with a new interpretation of the theological tradition that takes into account the various perspectives of the recipients and transmitters of that tradition. An international, “polyphonic” commentary on the conciliar texts is a step in that direction.