Of Jesuits and Vatican II

Having demeaned myself with multiple posts on The Da Vinci Code I offer some more serious summer work: namely, two stimulating articles in Theological Studies by Jesuit historians, one in the March, 2006 issue by John O'Malley, S.J. and one in the June, 2006, issue by Steven Schloesser, S.J. (Neither article is online but I link to the abstract for O'Malley's article.) Both are concerned with how historians think about the Second Vatican Council, as the last participants in the council pass from the scene, and, as Schloesser puts it, the council passes from "memory to history." O'Malley defends the recent five volume history of the Vatican II, put together by an international team of scholars that includes Commonweal blogger Joseph Komonchak, and urges us to think of Vatican II as important not only for what it said, but how it was said. (The volumes have recently come under attack by the prominent Italian Cardinal, Camillo Ruini, for understating the continuity between Vatican II and prior church councils, and offering a misguided and partisan interpretation of the council. ) O'Malley says Ruini's is not a fair reading, and based on my reading of the first four volumes he is right. O'Malley's emphasis on the tone of the conciliar documents -- the "style" -- will not appease those attempting to batten down the hatches against those invoking the "spirit of the council" but the erudition on display is immense.

Schloesser touches on this debate -- endorsing O'Malley's position -- but places more emphasis on placing the council in the particular context of the 1960s: notably the cold war (the Cuban missile crisis occurred during the first session, in the fall of 1962) and the aftermath of the Holocaust. (In this sense he contributes to our recent discussion of Benedict XVI's remarks at Auschwitz.) The piece is provocative in the best sense, pushing us to widen the cultural context for the council beyond the narrow veins of church history.

John T. McGreevy is the I.A. O'Shaughnessy Dean of the College of Arts and Letters and Professor of History at the University of Notre Dame.

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