Pope Francis has said some interesting things about Vatican II in the last several weeks. On January 11, in a letter to the cardinal prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith accompanying his motu proprio allowing women to become lectors and acolytes, the pope described his decision in terms of the “horizon of renewal traced by the Second Vatican Council” and “in line with the Second Vatican Council.” Then came these remarks in his January 29 speech to the national catechetical office of the Italian bishops’ conference:
This is the magisterium: the Council is the magisterium of the Church. Either you are with the Church and therefore you follow the Council, and if you do not follow the Council or you interpret it in your own way, as you wish, you are not with the Church. We must be demanding and strict on this point. The Council should not be negotiated in order to have more of these.... No, the Council is as it is. And this problem that we are experiencing, of selectivity with respect to the Council, has been repeated throughout history with other Councils.
As with all other teachings by Francis, these statements speak in a particularly direct way to U.S. Catholicism. In recent months, some bishops and clerics have tried to advance a theologically defensible conservative interpretation of Vatican II, something to counter the extremist views of Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò and a group of like-minded quasi-schismatics, who in addition to rejecting the “Bergolian” magisterium have taken a position that’s hard to distinguish from pure and simple rejection of the council’s teachings. Bishop Robert Barron, for example, has spoken of attacks on Vatican II as a “disturbing trend,” and Thomas Weinandy, former executive director of the Secretariat for Doctrine and Pastoral Practices of the USCCB, has chastised Viganò for challenging the council’s authenticity.
But there’s more than theological interpretation to consider. The alliance of conservative American Catholicism with Trumpism also says something about the reception of Vatican II; the fascination some have for a quasi-Caesarean political leadership is a symptom of the council’s failure in this country. Yet even if this is most evident among the extreme voices on the conservative side of the spectrum, it’s not a uniquely conservative problem. There are broader systemic phenomena in play, which in the last few years have exposed fault lines on the liberal-progressive side as well.
The first is an “interruption” in the scholarly tradition of examining Vatican II. Studying the council requires fluency in Latin and other languages, and an intellectual ecosystem in which theology is grounded in conversation with Church history and the history of theology, not just social sciences. There is still no consensus on the English translation, the last one of which is now more than twenty-five years old (Austin Flannery, 1996; this was preceded by the one edited by Norman Tanner, SJ, in 1990, and that by Walter Abbott, SJ, in 1966). There are important studies on America and Vatican II (like the one forthcoming by Joseph Chinnici), but the last American history of Vatican II is John O’Malley’s What Happened at Vatican II, published in 2008 during the pontificate of Benedict XVI.
A related factor is a breakdown of the coexistence and collaboration that used to characterize the “working relationship” between professional theologians, Catholic laity, and the institutional and hierarchical Church. This a result of the dangerous intra-Catholic tensions—ecclesial and political—that have developed in this country over the years since the publication of multivolume commentaries on the documents of Vatican II (in 1967, edited by Herbert Vorgrimler; in 1987, edited by René Latourelle and published by Paulist; and in the early 2000s, the “Rediscovering Vatican II” series from Paulist). Other countries have not experienced this to the same degree; in the past two decades, large networks of theologians in Italy, Germany, Spain, and Latin America have produced important volumes of Vatican II commentary. The lack of such work in the United States has consequences for Americans who wish to study the council. There seems to be more space now in the Catholic theological academy for pre– and anti–Vatican II theology on one side, and a post–Vatican II theology with fewer discernible ecclesial commitments on the other side. Vatican II itself is caught in something of an intellectual and ecclesial no-man’s land.