October 28 marked the fiftieth anniversary of the election of Angelo Roncalli as Pope John XXIII. Less than three months later he announced his plan to convene a council. After three years of preparatory work, the Second Vatican Council opened on October 11, 1962. As John O’Malley acknowledges, shelves “are filled to overflowing” with books of various genres about the work and accomplishments of the council. One important history comprises five volumes. In this single volume, O’Malley has filled the need for a readable account that meets three goals: providing the essential storyline from Pope John’s announcement on January 25, 1959, to the council’s conclusion on December 8, 1965; setting the issues that emerged into their historical and theological contexts; and thereby providing “some keys for grasping what the council hoped to accomplish.”

In the introduction and first two chapters, O’Malley analyzes Pope John’s motives and goals, and masterfully lays out the contexts and important issues of the council. He explains that, during the second to fourth sessions, after John had unexpectedly died, Pope Paul VI removed the issues of clerical celibacy, birth control, and reform of the Roman curia from the agenda of the council. After a brief review of the history of past councils, O’Malley considers the distinctive characteristics of Vatican II. A new ease of communication enabled its decisions to be rapidly publicized and implemented. “When believers entered their church for Mass on November 29, 1964, the first Sunday of Advent, they encountered something very different from what they had experienced all their lives up to the previous Sunday,” he writes of the use of the vernacular in the liturgy. What is more, Vatican II’s reforms “seemed to aim at loosening what had become too tight.” Influential participants were very aware of the profound changes that had taken place in the long history of the church. Their approach to reform was characterized by three elements: aggiornamento or adaptive updating; ressourcement, returning to the sources of the past in order to make the present more authentic; and development, viewing tradition as dynamic rather than inert.

O’Malley indentifies three “issues under the issues” that ubiquitously recurred in the conciliar discussions. The first was the development of doctrine, or “the problem of change in an institution that draws its lifeblood from a belief in the transcendent validity of the message it received from the past, which it is duty-bound to proclaim unadulterated.” The second was the relationship of the “center” to the rest of the church (papacy and curia to bishops, priests, faithful, local churches). This involved giving those outside the Vatican a role in decision making. In that regard, Pope Paul’s frequent interventions about substance and procedure gave rise to some very controlled resentment among the bishops, and to questions about the role of the pope when a council is in session. The third “issue under the issues” entailed the manner in which authority should be exercised. Many bishops advocated a shift from a juridical style “to a more reciprocal and responsive model.” For the first time in history, the word “charism” entered into conciliar vocabulary. The style of the council was pastoral and its language “indicated and induced a shift in values or priorities.” That was reflected in terminology that embraced a more “horizontal” understanding of ecclesiology: “people of God”; “brothers and sisters”; “priesthood of all believers”; and the hotly debated term “collegiality.” There were also words denoting the importance of reciprocity, such as “participation,” “collaboration,” and “dialogue” among Catholics, between separated Christian communities, and between the church and the secular world.

O’Malley then turns to the opening of the council and moves through the debates, tense theological-political maneuverings, and final outcomes of the four sessions from 1962 to 1965. We learn of the major personalities and alignments that formed the “majority” and “minority” groupings and subgroupings, as reflected in the speeches, the ecclesial intrigue, and, to a lesser degree, the final votes on the sixteen documents (four constitutions, nine decrees, and three declarations) produced by the council. With regard to the resentment toward the curia that surfaced and sometimes exploded during the proceedings, O’Malley observes that “the drama of the politics was part of the council’s substance, intrinsic to its meaning.”

During the first session, heated debate focused on the use of the vernacular in the liturgy and on the competence of local bishops or episcopal conferences to make decisions about liturgical practices. That brought into question the authority of the Vatican’s Congregation of Rites. “Early on, therefore, the crucial issue of center-periphery and of change bounded to the surface,” O’Malley observes. A senior member of the curia and of the “minority” challenged the “innovators” “to learn a thing or two from the caution with which the Holy See operated and not to rush into changes.” In curial language, “innovator” often seemed to mean “heretic.”

Resistance to change has recently intensified in Rome and elsewhere. O’Malley has written elsewhere that “an interpretation of the council has emerged that is based on one fundamental assumption: the council was in all important regards continuous with the Catholic past.” He added, “that assumption seems to be already well along the road to achieving official and prescriptive status.” In the book under review, the question whether anything changed at Vatican II is somewhat muted but not absent. O’Malley notes that, at the end of the third session, Pope Paul spoke of the church as “both monarchical and hierarchical” in a context in which “‘both primatial and collegial’ seemed called for,” since the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, then being promulgated, avoided the word “monarchy.” At the beginning of the final session, Pope Paul unilaterally established the synod of Bishops as a purely advisory group with no authority beyond what the pope gives it, without asking for any input from the council that had intensely discussed episcopal collegiality. Looking back, that was clearly a portent of what was to come from Rome.

At the end of the council, at which he had been a peritus or theological expert, Joseph Ratzinger wrote that the bishops “had taken a giant step beyond being a mere sounding board for propaganda” to become, as an “independent body of bishops,” a force the papal curia or central administrative bureaucracy had to reckon with and engage as a partner in dialogue. He said that “the traditional solidarity between pope and curia was now giving way to an unprecedented new solidarity between pope and council.” Sadly, that is not what has happened in the past forty years. The message from Rome now emphasizes “continuity” and the unchangeable nature of church teaching and practice. Joseph Ratzinger, become Benedict XVI, now declares that the church “is a subject which increases in time and develops, yet always remaining the same, the one subject of the journeying people of God.” In its recent “Responses to Some Questions Regarding Certain Aspects of the Doctrine on the Church,” the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith has reiterated this emphasis. In response to the question, “Did the Second Vatican Council change the Catholic doctrine on the church?” it declared: “The Second Vatican Council neither changed nor intended to change this doctrine, rather it developed, deepened, and more fully explained it.” Can there be development without change? Fear of change seems especially evident in the CDF’s interpretation of Lumen gentium’s use of the expression “subsists in” (article 8), rather than the simple word “is.” The CDF declares that “the use of this expression, which indicates the full identity of the church of Christ with the Catholic Church, does not change the doctrine on the church.” Many scholars would dispute that conclusion.

Rumors now circulate of a Vatican initiative to retranslate the documents of Vatican II, which might subvert that council’s distinctive style and language. Whether that is true remains to be seen. There is evidence of a desire to turn back some of the liturgical reforms. For example, Pope Benedict has repeatedly idealized the practice in which priests, with the congregation at their back, celebrated Mass facing east, “turned toward the Lord.” He has personally celebrated in that way as a cardinal at a liturgical conference in France, and more recently as pope in the Sistine Chapel. Pope Benedict has not acknowledged that, in order to face east at the main altars of the major basilicas and other ancient churches in Rome, the presider has to face the congregation. Only churches of later centuries have altars at which priests faced east with the people at their back. The history of Catholic practice is less homogeneous than many assume.

O’Malley’s book enables one to re-experience the event of Vatican II and to ask whether its initiatives will ever be fully implemented. In his opening address at the first session of the council, Pope John spoke of Divine Providence “leading us to a new order of human relations which, by [humans’] own efforts and even beyond their very expectations, are directed toward the fulfillment of God’s superior and inscrutable designs.” The council would declare that the Spirit “by the power of the gospel makes the church become young again and perpetually renews her.” Fiftieth anniversaries are occasions for renewed hope.


Related: Joseph Komonchak reviews Vatican II: Renewal within Tradition
Ratzinger at Vatican II by John Wilkins

Bernard P. Prusak teaches theology at Villanova University.
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Published in the 2009-02-27 issue: View Contents
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