Vatican II Sixty Years Later


In his Letter to the Duke of Norfolk, Saint John Henry Newman said, “It is rare for a council not to be followed by much confusion.” Well, you can say that again!


I was born after the Second Vatican Council and raised in a church rife with confusion. It has been sixty years since the beginning of the Council and debate about its meaning and authority continue to this day.


The goal of my next couple of posts on Vatican II is to highlight its Christo-centricism, and why many of its disputed teachings should not be read as a break from Catholic tradition but a deepening of it, involving, as Fr. Thomas Guarino puts it, continuity, discontinuity, analogy, reversal, reform, and development. As I see it, it is primarily a council of re-form. However, In the eyes of many, Vatican II changed everything.


The most common interpretation that I grew up with was that the Council freed the Church from the shackles of moribund traditionalism and gave her a new spirit open to the work of the spirit in the world. I gradually came to see it in missionary terms: calling the Church to proclaim Christ afresh to the world, seeing all creation (logoi), especially the human being, in the light of Christ, the Eternal Logos. But this intention was lost to many in the flurry of news reports about the Council. A little autobiography might be helpful for you to understand where I am coming from. I hope it will shed light on my interest in Vatican II and my struggles to better understand its essential teachings.



I studied philosophy at Saint Louis University. Before my graduation, I contacted Bishop Robert Barron (then Fr. Barron) to see if he needed help on any projects. This was in 2009, two years before the release of Catholicism. It turned out that he needed help, and so began my collaboration with Word on Fire.


Bishop Barron introduced me to theologians I had never heard of in college —and I took many theology classes— such as Hans Urs von Balthasar and Henri de Lubac. With Joseph Ratzinger, these theologians founded the theological journal known as Communio almost ten years after Vatican II when they became concerned over its faulty implementation. The convergence of my interest in John Paul II and now the founders of Communio inspired me to study at the Pontifical John Paul II Institute at the Catholic University of America in Washington D.C. Not many people know this, but the John Paul II Institute is the home of the North American edition of Communio. The then editor of Communio, David L. Schindler, convinced me to study at the Institute.


And while many of my colleagues thought I was just getting an education in merely bioethics, my studies at the Institute thoroughly immersed me in the riches of Vatican II. I was lucky to begin studies the year of the 50th Anniversary of the opening of the Council. Since then the Institute has hosted many academic conferences on the Council, specifically devoted to Lumen Gentium, Gaudium et Spes, and Dignitatis Humanae. Acknowledging that the documents are not lacking inner tensions and ambiguity that have resulted in a complex history of different interpretations, my posts on Vatican II will try to be faithful to the norm of the texts, using them as the right context for understanding the grace-filled event of Vatican II.

After graduate school, I continued to deepen my appreciation of the Council. I worked for a year at Mundelein Seminary, befriending some great theologians like Matthew Levering who have done important work on Vatican II. He introduced me to a strand of thought more sympathetic to the Thomism of Dominican Fr. Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange who is often unfairly depicted as the archenemy of the theology Communio came to embody. Instead of pitting Communio and Thomism against each other (as many do), Matthew Levering, calling himself a Ressourcement Thomist, reconciled the two with a strong appreciation for the sources Aquinas drew on, particularly the writings of the Church Fathers from both the East and the West. I also learned so much about the great Liturgical Movement from Liturgical Institute faculty like Denis McNamara and Fr. Douglas Martis.


Growing up in the Archdiocese of Chicago, an archdiocese that was perhaps the most influential diocese in the US during the twentieth century (maybe still is), language like the “Spirit of Vatican II” was everywhere in schools and parishes. I was reminded of this every time I interviewed for a teaching job. So, it was refreshing that Mundelein Seminary under the leadership of Fr. Barron was out to train a cadre of priests who could help the faithful better understand Vatican II. But the “Spirit of Vatican II” is strong.


Allow me to dwell on the past.


I still have dreams (nightmares?) of Boomer Church folk proclaiming Vatican II as the revolutionary event in the life of the Church, something like the dawning of the Age of Aquarius, anticipating the imminent descent of the Heavenly Jerusalem as a Bridal Church that looks something like Pizza Hut, if we're looking at the ecclesiastical architecture of that time which is supposed to architecturally embody the Heavenly Jerusalem.


I still remember my school tour of Holy Name Cathedral and as a kid being struck by the formlessness of the stained glass windows — a symphony of light without form. Any religious building could have such windows. There was nothing unique about Catholicism in them, and what was most glaring was that the form of Christ was missing. And I better not forget to mention that the Resurrected Christ bursting through the Cross didn't have the marks of his Crucifixion. Was this what the Council Fathers wanted at Vatican II? I was confused.


As I became more devout in my teenage years after I went to World Youth Day in Toronto, some older Catholics were concerned about me. My Boomer teachers would tell me that I was becoming “pre-Vatican II”. What was that about? I didn’t see any problem in simply wanting to say the Rosary! And, mind you, I didn’t say it during the Mass! I remember presenting the Sacrament of Reconciliation to my freshman high school religion class. It was for a project on the Sacraments. When I explained to the class what a mortal sin is and that individual acts can be mortal sins I saw my teacher nearly have a heart attack. What was I doing wrong? I thought I was being faithful to the teachings of the Church, but I was disdainfully labeled as pre-Vatican II. Then came college.


Saint Louis University, a Jesuit university, had some great teachers. But I quickly noticed that some of my theology professors were concerned about me for liking John Paul II too much. Not again! They found my desire to engage Catholic doctrine and read the Catechism to be odd, telling me to be more ecumenically minded and interested in the world’s religions. At least I thought I was! They didn't know that I grew up next to Palestinian Muslims who during our many basketball games would ask me to explain the Trinity. These blunt conversations forced me to know the faith and, at the same time, they were occasions of interreligious dialogue! But to say the Catholic faith has a form was seemingly off-limits for many of my teachers.


The same for many of my classmates. The few who knew about Vatican II would often lament that there hasn’t been a Vatican III yet because post-conciliar Popes like John Paul II prevented the Council from being effectively implemented. Updating the Church to the modern world was the goal, right? Even the Council was seen as a political compromise. Too much appeasement for the conservative bishops. The goal now was to move beyond compromise and work for the Church to be more modern, more democratic, and more open to change. Pope John Paul II was too old guard for them. You should have seen the look on a professor’s face when I mentioned that I wanted to write my senior thesis on JPII’s personalism. His mouth nearly hit the floor.


Years later, I eventually got a teaching job at a Catholic high school. They primarily needed someone to teach the Church History course. I loved teaching Church History, but the course textbook I was given was overwhelmingly devoted to Vatican II. So realizing that a significant portion of the course would be dedicated to the Council, I felt like I needed to re-read its documents. This helped me in the long run because whenever someone would accuse me of being pre-Vatican II, I would ask them if they read the texts and specifically where in the texts the changes they're attributing to the Council. Definitely, this ecumenical council was different than others but that did not mean that it changed Catholicism.


I have come to love Vatican II. The many ambiguities within the texts have sparked much debate about the orthodoxy of Vatican II, but I believe that much of that is being cleared up by recent scholarship. As you'll see, much of what I say depends on such scholarship which confirms for me that Vatican II is a treasure trove that will rejuvenate the life of the Church, exactly as St. Pope John XXIII intended it to be.


In the following posts, I will first cover the history prior to the Council, making sense of major theological keys in the texts. I will explore why John XXIII called the Council, and what he hoped it would do for the Church. I will discuss the main parties going into the Council, giving a brief background to the theological debates of the time. Then I will cover Vatican II’s four Constitutions with a post dedicated to each. I hope that they will encourage you to read the Constitutions in their entirety. They are great documents. I cannot cover everything in the Constitutions, but I hope to cover crucial passages that will help you better understand the main teaching of Vatican II. Each of these documents covers the basics of theology: Fundamental Theology (Dei Verbum), Ecclesiology and Mariology (Lumen Gentium), Liturgical Theology (Sacrosanctum Concilium), and Theological Anthropology (Gaudium et Spes). My concluding post will look at the implementation of Vatican II and the conflict between what Pope Benedict XVI called the “true Council” and the “Council of the media”, causing much confusion about the nature of reform. If you take anything from this, I hope it is that Popes John XXIII and Paul VI intended this Council, like Trent, to rejuvenate the faith in the lives of Catholics so they may better bring Christ to the world in the modern era.

In his important book, Investigating Vatican II, Council historian Fr. Jared Wicks writes, “John wanted Vatican II to have certain characteristics of the post-Tridentine era, about which he was well-informed.” Before being Pope, Angelo Roncalli, John XXIII, was editor of the Records of St. Charles Borromeo, the great saint of post-Tridentine reform in Milan. Borromeo understood reform as consisting of visitations of parishes and better catechesis amongst priests, religious, and laity. Roncalli knew that these reforms were decisive in enlivening Catholic life in the post-Tridentine Church. So when he became Pope he wanted to imitate the great pastor, St. Charles Borromeo.


Roncalli was elected pope on October 28, 1958, and he fittingly scheduled his coronation liturgy on November 4, the Feast of St. Charles Borromeo. It came as a surprise to many faithful when John called for the convocation of an ecumenical council. The Church was seemingly flourishing in many parts of the world. Mass attendance was high. Seminaries were full. But the bigger concern was that ecumenical councils were supposed to be rare in the life of the Church and only called in response to the threat of heresy within the Church. If there was a heresy, it could have been the amorphous Modernism. However, the early twentieth-century Popes already condemned it. The last council, Vatican I, was suspended in 1870 and the council before that, Trent, concluded in 1563– a rare event in the life of the Church. Could John XXIII have been rehabilitating modernism through a council?


Additionally, John's call for a “pastoral” council was confusing. He said that unlike all other councils this one wouldn’t condemn any heresies. Then what was it for? In his announcement, the Pope said Church as communion would prepare and consolidate “the path toward that unity of mankind which is required as a necessary foundation in order that the earthly city may be brought to the resemblance of the heavenly city where truth reigns, charity is the law and whose extent is eternity.”


Let's keep in mind the state of the earthly city in the twentieth century. Previous decades were marked by nukes, war and fratricide, Nazism and racism, and Communism and class warfare. While it had glimmers of light, the world was barbaric. Many had forgotten God. Only by being summoned to the memory of God through the witness of the Church, would mankind find peace, unity, and fraternity. Secular projects of unity were tried: fascism, communism, and nationalism of all kinds, and they all led to disunity and destruction. One wonders if people are seeking human solidarity today or if we have given up hope for unity. This is why the documents may seem outdated. But more basic to the crisis of human solidarity was a crisis of the human being, what we call an “anthropological” crisis. This crisis is still present in the West which makes the council very relevant today.


I will always remember something a professor at the John Paul II Institute said. He said that in the past the Church faced Christological, Trinitarian, Scriptural, and Ecclesial heresies, whereas today the main heresies are anthropological in form. What did he mean? I think he meant that the human as a person (an individual being in the spiritual order) is in crisis. Popular philosophies were eroding the dignity of man by either reducing him to matter or an arbitrary will. According to such philosophies, humans aren't fundamentally ordered to God. At most, he's just a projection of consciousness. Religion is an accidental epiphenomenon, preventing the full liberation of men. The belief in the human as an image of God was eroding, wiping clean the horizon of meaning. And perhaps this wasn’t a recent development. Perhaps the horizon was wiped clean a long time ago as prophesied by German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche. And now do we see that the light of the Church is dead. But was it? Or did we just close our eyes to its beauty?


Reawakening the world to Christ and the splendor of his form would be the mission of the Church today. Proclaiming the dignity of man in the light of Christ with God as his beginning and end will be important in understanding why the Council wanted the Church to proclaim the Good News to all of humanity again. As Balthasar told a young Ratzinger, the faith can never be presupposed but always must be proposed to each new generation. Pope John XXIII had great expectations that the Council would mobilize the Church to propose again.


At the opening of Vatican II on October 11, 1962, Pope John said in his famous keynote address that the main task of the Council is to defend and spread the doctrine in more effective ways. He said, “We must not only guard this precious treasure (deposit of Faith), as if we were concerned only with antiquity but, without fear, we must continue in the work that our age demands.” He wanted the Faith to be subject to a “new examination” so as not to take anything away but that through “doctrinal deepening” we may better understand the perennial Gospel of Christ and, in the Holy Spirit, the Church will meet the challenges of the times and show its perennial youthfulness.


Let’s examine three terms that are key to a proper reading of the Council: i.e. development, aggiornamento, and ressourcement. In his book The Disputed Teachings of Vatican II: Continuity and Reversal in Catholic Doctrine, Fr. Thomas G. Guarino says that understanding these words and many others (discontinuity, analogy, reversal, reform) will aid in the examination of the controversial changes that took place at Vatican II. Fr. Guarino cites St. Vincent of Lerins of the Fifth Century to see a change in the Church of Christ as profectus (advances) and not permutatio (alteration) in faith. Bishop Barron’s Institute course on John Henry Newman (“the father of Vatican II”) makes a similar point as St. Vincent regarding the difference between organic development and distortive corruption. Newman was deeply indebted to Vincent throughout his life, but his support of Vincent is qualified in that he did not think that orthodoxy is necessarily the prevailing view of the times.


In the opening address at the Council, Pope John cited a passage by St. Vincent: “...in accordance with the same meaning and the same judgment” to clarify authentic doctrinal development. Development at the Council meant the organic unfolding which is a sign of a healthy Church. Now, it is important to keep in mind that not all changes are developments. Some may be corruption, and many of the disputes at the Council were about discerning the difference. Authentic developments must “retain earlier meanings while proportionately expanding them; the word cannot be used to describe a reversal of prior teaching.” Some reversals did occur but this does not mean doctrinal change.


Ressourcement is another principle. It comes from the Renaissance's desire to go “back to the sources” so as to draw nourishment. For the Church, the sources are all based in the divine Word of God, primarily Scripture, and tradition as found in the writings of the Church Fathers, the councils, and the liturgy under the magisterium. Ressourcement does not mean skipping 13th Century scholastic theologians but recognizing them, especially Aquinas, as part of a greater whole. Unfortunately, many theologians in the Church took the papal teaching since the mid-19th century as “the preeminent guide for all theological investigation” (Guarino, pg. 60). The Ressourcement theologians of the twentieth century were not antiquarian. They thought that by exploring the Catholic tradition across the centuries they would creatively address new challenges to the faith. Additionally, they thought the bad theology of the later middle ages gave birth to the philosophical problems of the modern era.


Many of these theologians were under the cloud of suspicion since Pope Pius XII's 1950 encyclical Humanis Generis. Their historical approach reeked of relativistic modernism (that is, the error of construing dogma as the symbolic expression of interior religious need that changes throughout each age). Many of these theologians believed that the Thomism taught in the schools was a distortion of Thomas himself. Instead of downplaying the significance of Aquinas, these theologians thought his theology and philosophy should be fleshed out by drawing on the same traditional sources he drew on. Evangelization, so needed in the Church’s mission, would be enhanced by bringing people to the wellsprings of the faith, meaning Scripture, tradition, liturgy, etc. I can attest to this as the Gospel of John and the writings of the Church fathers, especially Gregory of Nyssa and Augustine, helped renew my faith.


Lastly, let’s consider aggiornamento. This word was thrown around at the Council so much that Pope Paul VI, the papal successor of John XXII who died in 1963, felt he needed to correct its misconstrual in his speech at the penultimate general session of the Council on November 18, 1965. He said that John XXIII did not intend this term to “relativize” the Christian faith but that it means keeping the traditional faith while expressing it in ways that modern men and women can understand. The Council was meant to engage the world, not succumb to it. How much and what can the Church take captive to Christ without disintegrating in the spirit of the world? This is a perennial question, especially in today’s hostile environment. The Church must be in the world but not of the world. Bishop Barron’s image of an organism taking in what it can and rejecting what it must is helpful here. As you can imagine, such discernment is hard, requiring the wisdom only the Spirit can give. During and after the Council some theologians threw caution to the wind, distorting the faith with hostile ideologies. But the principle is still right: the Church must always keep before herself the condition of man and speak to him in a mode he can understand. The message is received according to the mode of the recipient is a good Thomistic adage to follow. That is why aggiornamento is always needed.


When asked about Vatican II people typically give you an aggiornamento response. That is good, but it can easily be misunderstood. Aggiornamento must facilitate rejuvenation in the Christian faith and not its death.


In the next couple of posts, I will unpack how development, ressourcement, and aggiornamento shaped the important texts of the Council. I hope they will help you appreciate the true Council so its intention of renewing the Church will continue sixty years later!