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What did the Second Vatican Council do for us?

by Fr. Ian Ker

Forty years on, we are only just beginning to understand the significance of the Council, says Fr Ian Ker. And we are still a long way from implementing it

It is 40 years since the opening of the Second Vatican Council. The Council was convoked by Pope John XXIII for two purposes: the renewal or aggiornamento of the Catholic Church and Christian reunion - two goals which are surely integrally related. The Pope expressed the hope that it would be the beginning of a new Pentecost for the Church.

There have, indeed, been substantial achievements. A nineteenth century Catholic would be amazed at the transformation of the papacy. Pius IX, who denounced democracy and progress and who had to be defended against his own subjects in the papal states by foreign mercenaries, would have been surprised at the thought of one of his successors travelling round the world and upholding human rights and justice. In Catholic countries, where formerly the Church was ready to turn a blind eye to political abuses in return for a guarantee of its privileges and rights, the Church is, or is expected to be, at the forefront of protest against the infringement of people's freedoms and rights. Similarly, what was once a fortress Church is now seriously engaged in dialogue with non-Christian religions as well as other Christian bodies. Internally, too, there have been significant reforms in a number of areas. There is a new code of canon law. New instruments of collegiality and subsidiarity have been put into place. No one would now say, as a famous English monsignore of the nineteenth century asserted, that the province of the laity was to hunt, shoot, and to fish. The vernacular has been introduced into the Mass and the other sacraments and few would wish to return to a wholly Latin rite.

However, inevitably there have been problems and distortions. The pursuit of justice and peace has sometimes seemed to supersede the preaching of the Gospel. The Council's teaching on the role of the laity has, paradoxically, led to a certain clericalisation of the laity, and bishops have often given the impression that the way to implement the decree on the laity is to build up as large a bureaucracy as possible and set up innumerable committees and commissions. Indeed, at times it seems that human organisation has made the Spirit redundant. This has also affected the search for Christian unity, which is not always best served by proliferating ecumenical structures. There too there have been serious aberrations which, to use the old pre-Vatican II word, can only be termed as encouraging indifferentism. In spite of the Council's call for a renewal of the rite of reconciliation, the practice of confession has catastrophically declined; some claim that the answer is general absolution, but sacraments are personal not collective. Finally, and most serious from the point of view of the ordinary Catholic, the English vernacular translations have proved less than satisfactory in their banality and infidelity to the Latin original.

It will take time to get the right balance; there were bound to be exaggerations and misinterpretations. In reaction to the Protestant reformation, Trent had emphasised those doctrines that were under attack, which led to the inevitable neglect of those other Catholic doctrines, like the priesthood of all believers, that the Reformers were stressing. That has also happened in the wake of Vatican II. As Cardinal John Henry Newman remarked, one council does one thing and another another. Moreover, what councils don't say is also significant. Thus evangelisation was not a theme of the Council, with the inevitable unfortunate consequences - that is, until Paul VI's Evangelii Nuntiandi (1974) moved the Church in a new direction.

Few would say it has been a very Pentecostal time. For many, it has seemed more like a Golgotha, with falling Mass attendances and declining vocations, at least in most of the developed world. For others, it has been like a blighted spring, in which high hopes have been dashed by the failure to pursue the progressive agenda.

As a student of Newman, who is often referred to as the "father of the Second Vatican Council", I take comfort from his reflections at the time of the First Vatican Council. There are several points he makes which are I think very relevant to our own post-conciliar situation. First, he warned that patience is called for as time finds remedies for what seem insuperable problems. Second, he pointed out that time is also needed for the implementation of conciliar teachings. There are two reasons for this. In the first place, implementation requires interpretation: texts do not speak for themselves, they have to be read and digested and elucidated.

There was an idea immediately after the Council that bishops could simply return to their dioceses and implement the Council. That was a very simplistic idea. Some obvious changes or reforms can be implemented in this way, others take time and involve a number of different parties. Certainly, authority is involved through the pope and bishops: John Paul II has more than played his part in this, as have other charismatic bishops like Cardinal Lustiger of Paris with his radical reform of the seminary system. But it is not only the magisterium that is involved. Other parts of the Church also have a responsibility for the realisation of Vatican II. Theologians have their role to play as exegetes of the conciliar texts, which have to be understood in relation to the tradition of the Church and to previous councils and magisterial teachings. The grassroots faithful baptised, whether priests or religious or laity, also take part in the process of the reception of a council. And last, but by no means least, those endowed with special charisms - and these charisms are given for the needs of the Church, not least at the time of a council. Thus the Ignatian charism was providential for the implementation of the Council of Trent, since without the Society of Jesus it is hard to see how the Tridentine reforms could ever been carried out.

There is a further clue to be found in Newman's writings about how the post-conciliar Church is likely to develop. At the beginning of his most famous theological work, An Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine, he says that it is not true of a religious idea or belief that "the stream is clearest near the spring". On the contrary, it "is more equable, and purer, and stronger, when its bed has become deep, and broad, and full. It necessarily rises out of an existing state of things, and for a time savours of the soil. Its vital element needs disengaging from what is foreign and temporary..."

If we can apply this to the teachings of Vatican II, then we have to conclude that the meaning of the Council will become clearer in the course of time and that even those who participated in it are less likely to understand its full significance than later generations. If we are too close to something, we may not see it as it really is. And Newman's expression "savours of the soil" reminds us that the soil out of which the Council came was the sixties and that "its vital element needs disengaging from what is foreign and temporary". I believe that what is called "the spirit of Vatican II" is precisely that interpretation of the Council which savours of the Sixties, and until its "vital element" is disengaged from what is essentially "foreign and temporary" the Council will not bear the fruit it was intended to.

I remember a newspaper article by Bishop BC Butler in the Seventies to the effect that Vatican II could not be implemented until the older generation that was too set in its ways to really accept the Council had passed away. I am sure that was true, but it is also true of the generations that came to maturity in the Sixties and Seventies and who experienced the Council as though it were a revolution rather than simply another development in the Church's history and tradition. Until all those who saw or see Vatican II as a complete break with the Church's past have disappeared from the scene the Council will continue to be misunderstood.

Finally, as Pope John Paul II has said, one of the most important achievements of the Council was the rediscovery of the charismatic dimension of the Church. The Pope also sees the new ecclesial movements and communities as being an answer to Pope John's dream of a new Pentecost. This unexpected phenomenon was not planned or predicted by Vatican II, but nevertheless it represents a concrete realisation of the Council's Constitution on the Church, at the heart of which is the idea of communion between all the baptised whatever their state in the Church, whether clerical or religious or lay. That is why the new communities and movements are ecclesial and not lay as they are often called. It is interesting how those who claim to have "the spirit of Vatican II" are the very people in the Church who most dislike this great charismatic outburst, and who even ludicrously try to argue that it is "against Vatican II".

This article first appeared in the 11th October 2002 issue of The Catholic Herald.

Copyright © 2002 Fr. Ian Ker

E-mail: ian.ker@theology.ox.ac.uk

Tel/Fax: 44 (0) 1993 823 219

Address: 171 The Hill, Burford, OX18 4RE, England

Version: 18th October 2002

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