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Waiting in Joyful Hope

Reading Vatican II

I am a huge fan of Vatican II. I sometimes get asked if the coming challenges facing the Church ever get me down. In fact, there is only one thing that really gets me down: seeing Vatican II getting replaced by Vatican II Lite, Vatican 2.5, or worst of all, Vatican III. These do not exist, of course, except in the fanciful minds of some activists, the misguided minds of certain clerics, and the deluded minds of some theologians. My advice? Stick to the documents! It is our belief as Catholics that an Ecumenical Council is ultimately guided by the Holy Spirit. We've honestly only begun to implement the Council as it stands.....can we please start with that, before trying to "improve" upon it?

Of course, there is the question of which translation to read (as there are a few). My suggestion would be to go with these.

As for a reading guide to the person seeking a good intro to Vatican II, I'd suggest the following points:

  1. The "Dogmatic Constitution on the Church" is the key document which provides a road map to understanding virtually every other council document. It therefore needs to be read often, thoroughly, reverently, and properly. It has 8 chapters, organized into 4 pairs of chapters:
    1. Chapter I (The Mystery of the Church) and Chapter II (The People of God) are meant to be read as a pair. Chapter I has a mention of 3 images of the Church: People of God, Body of Christ, Temple of the Spirit. The "Body of Christ" image was developed strongly by Pius XII in his encyclical Mystici Corporis, so now the Council chose to develop the "People of God" image. Contrary to what many people believe, this wasn't to try and overthrow the hierarchy of the Church, but to better show how the Catholic Church exists in relation to other Christians, Jews, Muslims, and persons of other faiths.
    2. Chapter III (The Church is Hierarchical) and Chapter IV (The Laity) are another pair, trying to show the theology of both clergy and laity in the Church. Many commentators try and create a false opposition between the "People of God" chapter and the "Church is Hierarchical" chapter, as though the hierarchy weren't part of the people of God. Excuse me, I didn't cease being a child of God when I got ordained, ok? So the real distinctions are between clergy and laity, not clergy and "people". The chapters try and show these distinctions, and how the two elements are to work together.
    3. Chapter V (The Call to Holiness) and Chapter VI (Religious Life) are the next pair. Chapter V tries to correct the notion that only a certain elite within the Church is called to be holy, and that the rest can be content with merely squeaking into heaven or being just "good enough". This is done in particular through a discussion of the evangelical counsels of poverty, chastity, and obedience - with the assertion that these are meant to be part of everyone's life. This becomes the context to then expound on the special vocation of consecrated religious life as a "torch bearer" for this holiness in the world.
    4. Chapter VII (The Pilgrim Church) and Chapter VIII (Mary) are the final pair. While the last chapter did get sort of "tacked on" to the document, there is a genuine synergy between these chapters. Chapter VII shows that the ultimate perfection of the Church will only come at the end of time - which means that while it has genuinely good elements now, and lacks nothing essential to its nature, it is still capable of being perfected in how those elements are lived and presented. This is a powerful and humble statement, and (in my opinion) the basis for continued hope no matter how "down" things may seem at this point in the history of the Church. This is where Chapter VIII comes in. Mary is presented as part of the Church, but as a special part: in Mary we see the pattern of the Church, both as it is now in its essential elements, and as it will be in its final perfection. As the "first disciple" of our Lord she is the "prototypos" of the Church. The Council tries to restore Marian devotion to its place WITHIN the Church, rather than next to it or (worse) opposed to it.
  2. The next major document to read is the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, especially Chapter I, which sets out a theology of what liturgy is and is meant to be (the other chapters are also important, but they tend to be more specific to one element of liturgy or another). The first major change the Council called for was a thorough renewal of the liturgy. Sadly, this went badly awry in later years. Why was this? I wasn't there for the change - I was only born in 1970 - but I think it is because the people who didn't really understand the litury before and treated it very legally, were then asked to renew it without being legal. But since their mental habits were all about "the rules," when the rules ceased being important simply because they were rules the result was anything goes.

    I am personally convinced that we have had a major liturgical change, but without having a true liturgical renewal in all areas. When reform becomes revolution, chaos results - and chaos is what we've had. I think we need to rediscover the best elements of the Liturgical Movement, and really put them into practice. And the doctrinal vision for this can be found, I think, in Vatican II - especially Chapter I of this Constitution.

  3. Many of the remaining documents can be tied to some part of the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, and should be read that way. Going back to those chapters again, the relationships work like this:
    • Chapter II: The People of God - this sets the stage for the Decree on the Eastern Catholic Churches, the Decree on Ecumenism, and the Declaration of the Relationship of the Church to Non-Christian Religions.
    • Chapter III: The Church is Hierarchical - this sets the stage for the Decree on Bishops, the Decree on the Ministry and Life of Priests, and the Decree on the Training of Priests.
    • Chapter IV: The Laity - this sets the stage for the Decree on the Laity.
    • Chapter VI: Religious Life - this sets the stage for the Decree on the Renewal of Religious Life.
    • Chapter VII: The Pilgrim Church - this sets the stage for the Decree on Missionary Activity.
  4. The next major document that needs to be read is the "Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World." It is meant to be the Church speaking to everyone, not just Catholics - the phrase is "to men of good will". It is divided into two major parts:
    1. Part I is a general presentation of a whole Christian anthropology. It starts with a vision of the human person as a being endowed with reason, dignity and rights. It then presents a vision of human society as it flows from those principles, stopping here and there to make a critique of the emerging nihilism of post-modernism.
    2. Part II offer a more specific discussion of certain institutions of human society which the Church believes is in special need of attention. These are:
      • Marriage and family
      • The development of culture
      • Economic and social life
      • Political life
      • Peace and the development of global institutions

    Some of the themes of this Pastoral Constitution are further developed in other documents as well. The Decree on the Means of Social Communications addresses the development of mass media in the evolution of culture, the Decree on Education presents a vision of how an education system could be structured to truly help people become most fully human, and the Declaration on Religious Freedom addresses that most fundamental of human rights, the right to live without coercion with regards to matters of our relationship with God. (As an aside, I think this document will be a critical starting point in the emerging dialogue between the Western culture and Islamic culture.)

  5. The final document to be addressed is the "Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation," which in my opinion contains the most "subversive" passages of all for the on-going reform of the Church. Most of the document is a general presentation of the place of divine revelation, understood as Scripture and Tradition. The final chapter, however, is all about the place of the Scripture in the life of the Church. In my honest opinion, any real reform requires a "returning to sources" - and for the Church, is has to be the Bible. The Council presents a vision of how we might do this....and we've barely scratched the surface.

So Vatican II was about a lot more than just turning the altars around. It is a road map for the Church for, quite honestly, the next 200 years at least. It is still being fleshed out, and even the pontificates of Pope Paul VI and Pope John Paul II have only started to help the Church live the real revitalization the Holy Spirit wants to offer us. So please, to you activists and clerics and theologians who've never really read the documents of Vatican II with any more spiritual depth than the way you read a policy paper (or worse, a newspaper): don't waste my time trying to push magic bullet solutions to the Church's woes that aren't in line with Vatican II. I want the Council, the whole Council, and nothing but the Council, thank you very much - or something in perfect harmony with it. That, I am convinced, is the way of the Holy Spirit.