By Corinne Winter
A question that receives considerable theological consideration is how the work of Vatican II has been and continues to be received and put into practice in the Church. It is a complex question and the reflection must include diverse perspectives. Indeed, one theologian subtitled his reflections “The Battle for Meaning.”
As I mentioned a year ago, the pope opened the council by praying for a “new Pentecost,” a renewal of the Church by the Spirit’s power. And some theologians and Church leaders speak of the council with a sense of awe at the power of the Holy Spirit breaking through obstacles to set the Church on a path toward badly needed renewal. In the centuries since Trent (16th century), huge intellectual, social and cultural changes had taken place. Individual popes had made some responses in the form of encyclicals, and the two dogmatic definitions of the 19th and 20th centuries were intended to address some of the needs of the changing world, but no major review of the faith as a resource for modern life had been undertaken until Vatican I. Then the work of Vatican I itself was interrupted and not taken up again until Pope John XXIII called for Vatican II.
The bishops at Vatican II struggled mightily with the questions of continuity and change, collegiality and hierarchy, dialogue and certainty. Numerous histories of the council, journals of participants, and commentaries on the documents reveal the complexity of the discussions. One of the reasons for differences of perspective was the presence of bishops from throughout the world. Many of the earlier councils, while they are recognized as councils of the universal Church, actually included primarily European bishops among the attendees. Another factor was the pastoral nature of the council. Unlike most earlier councils, Vatican II was not called to address a specific teaching or movement that was perceived as an imminent threat to the Church or its teaching. Rather, the concern was to examine in general the Church’s role in a changing world.
Events that followed the council continued to demonstrate differences in interpretation of the council’s work. The publication of the new code of Canon Law in 1983, the Extraordinary Synod of Bishops in 1985, the catechism, and numerous encyclicals and pastoral letters have contributed to the on-going discussion. Responses range from one extreme to another — from utter rejection of the council and its work to frustration that reforms seemed to stall within a few years after the close of the council. Even theologians who had worked together at the council seemed to disagree later on its interpretation.
In April of this year, Pope Francis spoke of the need to celebrate the anniversary not by building a monument but by allowing ourselves to be pushed and even disturbed by the continuing action of the Holy Spirit. The Spirit, he insists, is still calling us to follow the path set out at the council. He attributed our reluctance to do so to slowness of heart comparable to that of the disciples whom Jesus met on the road to Emmaus. He also suggested that many of us would like to “domesticate” the Holy Spirit for the sake of our own comfort rather than allowing ourselves to be challenged. He called on Catholics to pray for “docility to the Holy Spirit.”
What may be some of the on-going work to which faith in the guidance of the Spirit calls us? It would seem to include continuing exploration of the mystery of the Church and its mission as sacrament of God’s reign described in Lumen Gentium, the relationship between the Church and the world discussed in Gaudium et Spes, the centrality of the liturgical life of the Church as we find in Sacrosanctum Concilium, and careful study of Scripture and Tradition as one source of Revelation (Dei Verbum).
The pope’s words were spoken during a homily that did not include specifics about what we have done and what we are resisting. It would seem that every one of us should take the challenge to heart. In his first encyclical, “The Light of Faith,” he said that Vatican II “enabled the light of faith to illumine our human journey from within (n. 6).” He goes on to insist that this faith calls us to build a world of justice and peace for all — surely a work in which we still have much to accomplish.
(Corinne Winter is a professor of theology at St. Ambrose University in Davenport.)