What Happened at the Council?


The story is told of a teacher in the United States who asked a class what Vatican II was. Silence ensued. Finally, one of the young students raised a hand, inquiring: “Would that be the pope’s summer residence?” There are many who will say that the Second Vatican Council is now so much in the bloodstream of the Catholic Church that such ignorance among the younger generation about the most important church event in the past century does not matter. But the council remains such a challenge to Catholic comfort zones that there are more than a few who would like to consign it to history. Those, like myself, who became committed Catholics because of Pope John XXIII and his council will therefore welcome the publication by Paulist Press of eight concise, accessible commentaries on the council texts and their implementation during the subsequent four decades, under the general title Rediscovering Vatican II. Five of the books have appeared so far, all concluding with an analysis of emerging directions and questions for the future. Paulist was fortunate in approaching Cardinal Edward Cassidy, author of the volume on ecumenism and interreligious dialogue, at just the right time. He had recently retired as president of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, and was keen to set down the record as he saw it from his unique vantage point. Under his presidency and that of his predecessors, Cardinal Augustin Bea and Cardinal Johannes Willebrands, the unity council laid down good foundations. It is useful to be reminded that they remain in place. Until Vatican II, Rome had eyed with suspicion the advance of the World Council of Churches (WCC), founded in 1948. Could this Protestant and Orthodox group, committed to the search for Christian unity, emerge as a world church challenging Rome’s own claims? Pius XII forbade Catholics to attend WCC meetings without special dispensation. Ecumenical work was left to individuals, who were always subject to censure. All this changed with John XXIII. With the guidance of the Secretariat (today Pontifical Council) for Promoting Christian Unity, the basis for Catholic ecumenism became the real but imperfect communion all Trinitarian Christians enjoy because of their baptism. “Heretics” (Protestants) and “schismatics” (Orthodox) became “separated brothers and sisters.” As a result, the Catholic Church’s view of its ecumenical role shifted dramatically. Before Vatican II, official Catholic pronouncements looked forward to the return of straying children to the mother whom-in the words of Pius XI-they had “unfortunately abandoned.” Now, however, the one true church of Jesus Christ was understood, in the words of the decree on ecumenism, Unitatis redintegratio, to “subsist” in the Catholic Church. The term “subsist,” Cassidy comments, was reached after “heated discussion.” In his parsing, it means that the one true church can be found in the Catholic Church, but the relationship between that church and other churches is open to discussion. The bishops at the council were concerned that the door should be at least ajar. Cassidy is at his most diplomatic in dealing with Dominus Iesus, the Vatican statement issued in 2000. Its denial that the Reformed Communions were churches in the real sense appeared to some to be a guided missile aimed at the heart of thirty-five years of ecumenical work. Cassidy does not allude to the astonishing fact that his own unity council was not consulted about the contents of this text. He could not foresee, of course, that in 2007 Rome would repeat the same denial that had caused such offense previously. Meanwhile, the Eastern Orthodox maintain a view of themselves as the one true tradition to which all the rest must return. Not surprisingly, ecumenical dialogue with them has been difficult. “There is nothing so delicate and potentially painful,” declares Cassidy, “as a family feud, ” precisely because the possibility of full communion is real. At the end of the council, Paul VI in Rome and Ecumenical Patriarch Athen¬a¬goras I in Istanbul revoked their churches’ mutual excommunications, and subsequent dialogue between Catholics and the Orthodox appeared to prosper. But as Cassidy notes, there was a chill when the collapse of the Communist empire brought a resurgence of the Eastern-rite Catholic churches, always regarded by the Orthodox as Trojan horses set up by Rome. Relations worsened in 2002 when the Vatican raised four apostolic administrations within the Russian Federation to the rank of dioceses, establishing a normal metropolitan province of the Catholic Church. Cassidy’s assessment of these developments is nuanced. The Vatican’s right to act “is not in question,” he points out. Nevertheless, where divisive decisions jeopardize the search for unity, one would expect the authorities to delay such decisions in order to allow for trust to build. “Unfortunately, this was not done.” Cassidy highlights the 1995 encyclical Ut unum sint in which John Paul II attempted to recover lost ecumenical ground. It contained a remarkable invitation to “church leaders and theologians” to help in finding “a new way” of exercising papal primacy, so that it would clearly be perceived as “a service of love.” Cassidy records a variety of responses to the pope’s invitation, but fails to mention those from within the Catholic Church itself, in particular the proposals of Archbishop John R. Quinn of San Francisco. Sadly, Quinn’s carefully thought out and argued suggestions (later published as The Reform of the Papacy) led to accusations of disloyalty. For forty years, Rome has committed itself to bilateral ecumenical dialogue. Cassidy considers the entire range. With the Oriental Orthodox churches, Rome has proved itself highly flexible when it comes to terminology. With the Methodists, the goal “is now explicitly full communion.” With the Baptists, there have been “useful conversations.” Catholics and Evangelicals are still far apart, but they now “often find themselves in the public forum sharing a common approach” to moral issues. Such progress was being made with the Anglicans that some thought unity with Rome might be achieved in their lifetimes. Those hopes were dashed. But in 1999, the Lutheran World Federation and the Catholic Church agreed that the doctrine of justification by faith, which had split Christendom, should no longer be considered church-dividing. In view of this advance, Lutherans and others await further steps-which have not come. In the second part of his book, Cassidy discusses the interreligious dialogue that has developed in the wake of Nostra aetate, the council’s path-breaking document. To pursue the implications, a new Secretariat for Non-Christians (later the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue) was established. In recognition of the special role of Judaism as the foundation from which Christianity sprang, postconciliar dialogue with the Jews was entrusted to a separate commission in the Secretariat for Christian Unity. The inspiration for the opening to the Jews came from John XXIII, was carried forward by Paul VI, and gained strong momentum under John Paul II. “You have done more than anyone else to bring about a historic change in the attitude of the church toward the Jewish people,” Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak told John Paul II in Jerusalem in 2000. In 1980, John Paul had stressed that God’s covenant with the Jews had never been revoked. In 1986, he had told worshipers in the Rome synagogue that Jews were “in a certain way, our older brothers.” There are now no organizations within the Catholic Church dedicated to Jewish conversion. These changes open up a huge field of inquiry. Given that the Jewish covenant remains in force, are there two covenants or one? And how should Christians reassess their traditional missionary approach, remembering that Jesus testified he was sent to the House of Israel? Cassidy does not propose answers to these questions, but he did feature prominently in creating the 1998 document on the Holocaust, We Remember. This “act of repentance” expressed “deep regret” for “the errors and failures” of “sons and daughters of the church” whose resistance to the Nazi persecution of the Jews was not what “might have been expected.” Initial reaction on the Jewish side to this eagerly awaited statement tended to be “distinctly negative,” as the cardinal frankly admits. The French and German bishops had previously published apologies that were more outspoken on the responsibility of Christian anti-Judaism in preparing the ground for Nazi anti-Semitism. In the jubilee year 2000, John Paul II went further. During a “Day of Pardon” in St. Peter’s devoted to the “cleansing of memory,” Cassidy read an apology for “sins against the people of Israel.” Two weeks later, in Jerusalem, the pope placed a personally signed copy of that prayer in a crevice in the Western Wall. The cardinal does not note that one reason for Jewish criticism of We Remember was the document’s strong defense of Pius XII. There is every indication that Rome continues to envisage the canonization of this wartime pope. If the dialogue with Judaism, while fruitful, has been hard at times, the dialogue with Islam has been harder. Here a prime difficulty (though Cassidy does not say so) is that Muslim participants tend to insist their Christian counterparts begin by admitting Islam’s superiority. Cassidy has an impressive list of initiatives toward Islam launched by the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue. Under its former president, Archbishop Michael Fitzgerald, the council sought to promote greater theological understanding with Islam. But Pope Benedict has reservations on this score. He believes that there can be more success in the cultural and social spheres. He transferred Archbishop Fitzgerald to Cairo, and did not replace him at first. Just as valuable as Cassidy’s volume is Richard Gaillardetz’s The Church in the Making. Gaillardetz, a professor of Catholic Studies at the University of Toledo in Ohio, discusses three documents, Lumen gentium on the church, Christus dominus on bishops, and Orientalium ecclesiarum on the Eastern Catholic churches. Gaillardetz describes Lumen gentium as “one of the most remarkable shifts of ecclesiology ever found,” and it remains astonishing just how bold the bishops at Vatican II were. They no longer presented the church as a self-sufficient society but as a pilgrim church on a journey with all humanity; they accepted the suggestion of Belgian Cardinal Léon-Joseph Suenens that the chapter on the people of God should be placed before the one on the hierarchy; the straw vote on collegiality-the doctrine that bishops form a governing college with and under the pope-produced overwhelming majorities on every point, which no one had expected; the bishops decided to restore the permanent diaconate, as in the early church (“momentous,” writes Gaillardetz); they approved the equal dignity of the ordained and the priesthood of all believers (a constant theme in Protestantism); again, congruent with Protestant emphases, they called for the purification of the church and for continual reform. Gaillardetz includes useful pointers on how to read the conciliar texts. Paul VI wanted the greatest possible degree of unanimity among the bishops for the conciliar documents. He succeeded in this, but at times the large majorities were achieved simply by juxtaposing old and new formulations, without reconciling them. For example, the council’s embrace of the doctrine of collegiality was placed side by side with a reiteration of papal primacy and infallibility defined at Vatican I. As a consequence, one school of thought can read the text one way, while another can read it quite another. Gaillardetz therefore insists that the whole context of debate must be taken into account, not just the texts themselves. The text cannot be read as self-explanatory or complete, especially as “the bishops were often much clearer about that which they wished to move away from than they were regarding the new vision they wished to explore.” At the time of the council, Joseph Ratzinger, then an expert adviser, thought the same way. The bishops accomplished “a spiritual awakening,” he wrote, which was “the great and irrevocable event of the council” and “more important in many respects than the texts which the council passed.” Now, however, as Benedict XVI, he places emphasis on the written word. A battle emerged during the papacy of Paul VI between contrasting interpretations of the council: some wanted to place the emphasis on continuity and reform, others on innovation and updating. When he became pope in 1978, John Paul II saw it as part of his task to take firm hold of the reins. The essence of his “restoration,” as some have called it, was a renewed centralization of papal authority. This meant reinterpreting the council’s doctrine of collegiality. He did it in his very first encyclical, Redemptor hominis. The emphasis now was on the captain rather than on the team, and to be collegial was to be in line with the pope, helping him with his government. The bishops’ synods in Rome, always only consultative in nature, began to act like rubber stamps. Gaillardetz’s book is written with love for the church and trust in the Spirit at work within it. His judgments are conspicuously fair and balanced, but he does not equivocate. With the precise accuracy of a scholar, he notes the discrepancy between “the ample theological development” of the council’s ecclesial themes and “the far less successful implementation of these developments in church structures and practices.” John Paul II’s exercise of authority, he writes, “often appeared thoroughly uncollegial” and at odds with the pope’s own theology of communion. Benedict XVI wants to recall the church to what really matters: Christian love. But his presupposition is that the disputed questions of the last forty years, including the interpretation of the council itself, have all been settled in a conservative direction. Meanwhile, bishops’ conferences, likened by Vatican II to the regional synods of the early church, have had their scope restricted. The Roman curia, defined by the council as acting in the pope’s name and with his authority for the good of the church and in the service of the bishops, too readily sees itself as superior to the bishops and the local churches. Hence, as Gaillardetz points out, the great importance of the debate between then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger and Cardinal Walter Kasper about whether the universal church or the local church is prior. If the universal church preexists its incarnation in local churches, the green light is given for Roman centralization. If, on the other hand, the universal and the local cannot be separated, then a theology, ecclesiology, and Christology with dimensions “from below” are legitimate. When the German Jesuit Karl Rahner made his celebrated remark that at Vatican II the Catholic Church emerged for the first time as a “world church,” what he had in mind was the recognition of the local churches throughout the world as fully the Catholic Church in those places. Among the local Catholic churches are those of the Eastern rite in communion with Rome. Here, some of Gaillardetz’s judgments are trenchant. In the United States, he says, the treatment of Eastern Catholics by Latin bishops has been “scandalous.” He particularly regrets Rome’s unwillingness to allow married men to be ordained to the priesthood in Eastern Catholic congregations situated outside their traditional homelands. He acknowledges that the Code of Canon Law for the Eastern Churches, issued in 1990, was preceded by extensive consultation, but points out that its promulgation was not accompanied by any validating act from the patriarchal synods as Eastern ecclesiology would have required. Nor is the 1983 Code of Canon Law for the Western Church without “glaring weaknesses,” Gaillardetz writes. Despite “significant” progress, “the church today requires a completely new code,” he asserts, one drawn up on the basis of the work of the Spirit in the church-“one of the most overlooked developments of the council.” The book includes a useful review of the explosion of lay ministry since Vatican II. Gaillardetz notes that of the twenty thousand lay ecclesial ministers engaged in full-time work in the United States, more than 80 percent are women-a statistic that will encourage some observers and alarm others. These two books are the jewels in the crown of this first installment of the Paulist series. They are supported by workmanlike accounts of Gaudium et spes by Norman Tanner, SJ, an expert on church councils, and of Dei verbum by the Sulpician Bible scholar Ronald Witherup. Dolores Leckey, who has done much for the cause of the laity, covers Apostolicam actuositatem in a treatment whose focus is overwhelmingly American and hardly mentions the emergence of new ecclesial movements. These volumes are not bedside reading. They are designed for the library, the study, and the classroom. Let us hope they receive the attention they deserve. There are now some who look beyond Vatican II to a Vatican III, just as the Council of Nicaea (325) needed the Council of Constantinople (381) to complete its work. That is surely premature. It is clear from these volumes that Vatican II has left us more than enough to go on with, and the question is whether the church can digest it.

Published in the 2007-09-14 issue: 

John Wilkins was editor of the Tablet of London from 1982 to 2003.

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