After Forty Years
Vatican Council II’s Diverse Legacy
Edited by Kenneth D. Whitehead
St. Augustine’s Press, $20, 330 pp.

Vatican II
Did Anything Happen?
Edited by David Schultenover
Continuum, $16.95, 185 pp.


In late 1962, Jesuit regents at Brophy Prep in Phoenix revealed to us sophomores a startling fact: Bishop Emile-Josef De Smedt of Bruges, Belgium, had criticized the church for its “triumphalism, clericalism, and juridicism” in a speech at Vatican II. Some of us started to believe that this aggiornamento thing might mean something. Could our church become less stodgy and more “relevant”? Soon teachers introduced us to Teilhard de Chardin’s The Divine Milieu and The Phenomenon of Man. We heard the Mass would be translated into English. It seemed to be a new day for the church—one we anticipated with joy, hope, and even excitement.

In the decade after the council I received my bachelor’s degree in theology from the University of San Francisco (USF). The first wave of lay theologians—three of them freshly minted from Bernard Cooke’s Marquette MA program—were hired by USF. Those theologians, along with senior scholars such as John Tracy Ellis and Jim McClendon, inspired me to pursue a PhD in theology at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley.

I never witnessed the “excesses” that some have attributed to that euphoric period—except for the occasional liturgical dance. I was energized by new developments in the church and in theology. I wanted to serve God and God’s people as a layperson—a lay theologian—in the church and in the academy. But those of us who discerned that vocation were warned: the forces of restoration, especially in the curia, would attempt to reverse the gains of the council.

In 1976 I began teaching at Georgetown. I asked my first-year students to tell me about their previous religious education. Some had attended CCD, others had four years of rote catechism instruction. One said that her religious instruction included “Collage Making 1, 2, 3, 4.” And she was not the only one. Later that year, my beloved former teacher, Msgr. John Tracy Ellis, related to me his deep concern about the lack of religious formation among younger students. With some notable exceptions, that remains true of many students today.

More than four decades after the council, the church has reached an impasse. “Progressive” theologians at the council had supported ressourcement as a key weapon in the battle for aggiornamento against the “conservatives” of the curia. But since the council, as some progressives gave up on aggiornamento, the progressive alliance has broken.

One group of conciliar progressives—often dubbed restorationists today—now argue that nothing really new happened at the council. Some interpret the conciliar texts as artifacts and “strive for an objective exegesis of the text itself”—almost as the New Critics would—and consider disputed points only in endnotes, as Mark Latovic puts it in his essay in After Forty Years. Pope Benedict XVI wrote Spe salvi, his encyclical on salvation through hope, without mentioning Gaudium et spes or any other Vatican II text. Others blame poor catechesis and “reductionist sources” for a loss of faith; this is the argument Sr. M. Timothy Prokes, FSE, makes in her essay in After Forty Years. Some engage in typological interpretation of the Bible (reading the present situation into the ancient text) and call it submitting “my own life and thoughts to the judgment of Scripture.” William S. Kurz, SJ, does this in his piece in After Forty Years—ignoring the fact that texts, even inspired ones, cannot make judgments. We may construe our journey as an exodus, but judgments about such interpretations belong to God and intelligent creatures.

Another group of conciliarist progressives—again, broadly construed—recognize that the restorationists treat the council as a rearrangement of deck chairs rather than a profound overhaul of the Bark of Peter. They accuse restorationists of seeking to “remove the council (and the church) from its historical contexts and even from the historical process itself,” as David Schultenover writes in Vatican II: Did Anything Happen? The essays in Vatican II by John W. O’Malley, Stephen Schloesser, Joseph A. Komonchak, and Neil J. Ormerod provide vigorous challenges to the so-called amnesiac approach of the restorationists. They appeal to the council’s international context, in which centuries-long theological Eurocentrism was crumbling and the cold war posed a real threat. These writers recognize and analyze the rhetorical and literary forms of the council texts (unacknowledged by the restorationists). They also cover the processes by which the council moved from the inadequate first drafts of documents (schemas initially prepared by the conservative members of the curia) to the final drafts that were ratified by the council. In fact, some of the preparatory documents had to be radically recomposed by new commissions of bishops and theologians.

As a theologian who has published books on Catholic tradition and on the relationships among history, theology, and faith, I believe that the restorationists have sought to evacuate aggiornamento of any meaning. They appear to be deliberately constructing a fictional countertradition that masks the power relationships they seek to restore: a triumphalist attitude, a clericalist mentality, and a juridicist ecclesiology. Those who want to explore their perspective can read After Forty Years. That book also collects some interesting essays on diverse topics, especially the relationship between psychology and morality.

Vatican II was an interruption of history, a divine typhoon that left only the keel and structure of the church unchanged. My memories of exciting times in a changing church, my decades teaching “Modern Catholic Thought” in secular and religious universities, and my scholarly research confirm this view. The Lefbrevists recognized the storm and saw the Bark of Peter as capsized. Progressives found the driving wind a refreshing blessing to help overhaul the ship. The restorationists denied anything significant changed at Vatican II.

It should be noted that Vatican II does not dwell on the mistakes made either by the hierarchy, who sometimes undermined their authority by failing to consider how their acts would be received, or by catechists and experimenters, who minimized the continuities in the tradition and the importance of handing over the tradition intact to the next generation.

The bishops, the periti, the observers, the clerics, and the fascinated laity of the Vatican II era are now leaving the fields of theological battle. A new generation of theologians has neither the baggage nor the ballast of mine. Theirs is the future. Their interpretations will eventually supersede those canvassed here. Let’s hope they remember the council as the most important event in twentieth-century Catholicism. The sixteen documents of Vatican II—far more extensive than the documents of any other ecumenical council—are neither a monument to business-as-usual nor a shipwreck. With other cultural and social forces, these documents mark the re-creation of a tradition of an ecclesia reformata atque semper reformanda.


Related: A Change Some Don't Believe In, by Bernard P. Prusak
Rewriting History, by Joseph A. Komonchak
Between Reform & Rupture, by Richard A. Gaillardetz

Terrence W. Tilley is the Avery Dulles, SJ, Professor of Catholic Theology at Fordham University.

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Published in the 2008-04-11 issue: View Contents
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