(CNS photo/L’Osservatore Romano)
Pope John XXIII is carried on a chair at the opening session of the Second Vatican Council in St. Peter’s Basilica Oct. 11, 1962.
Vatican II’s greatest triumph is its understanding of renewal
November 13th, 2012
By Kristin Colberg
Many argue that the Second Vatican Council’s Dogmatic Constitution on the Church (“Lumen Gentium”) stands as the jewel in the council’s crown. Pope John XXIII convened the 21st ecumenical council with the hope that the Catholic Church would engage in “aggiornamento” or updating.
His desire was that the bishops would consider ways that the church might contribute meaningfully to the decisions facing the modern world. Achieving this required the church to look seriously at itself so that it could better understand and articulate the wisdom it had to offer.
In the centuries preceding Vatican II, especially those following the Protestant Reformation, Catholic thinking about the church often adopted a defensive character. External challenges to its authority led the church to describe itself in clear, precise and juridical terms as a way of demonstrating its ability to overcome the threats it perceived.
At the convocation of Vatican II, many bishops expressed hope that Pope John XXIII’s vision would promote a more comprehensive view of the church including a more positive articulation of its relationship with the world.
During the council’s first session, however, many were disappointed to find that the preparatory draft on the church was little more than a reassertion of the existing defensive model. Inspired by the pope’s leadership, the majority of bishops were unwilling to persist with such an imbalanced view and they overwhelmingly rejected the document.
Theologians debate about the single most important development at Vatican II, but many claim that it was the proposal during the council’s second session to begin the document on the church with the chapter “The Mystery of the Church.”
By identifying the church as a mystery, rooted in the mystery of Christ, the council fathers sought to recover the church’s spiritual and communal dimensions. They returned to more biblical and patristic images as a means of expressing fundamental elements of the church and people’s experience of Christ within it.
This first chapter aptly refers to the church as a sacrament, a description that promotes appreciation of the church’s outward structures and the deeper, invisible reality of God’s presence in the ecclesial community.
The constitution’s second chapter on “The People of God” is extremely significant in terms of its content and placement. It affirms the common identity and equal dignity of all the church’s members. It embraces the biblical image of a priesthood of all the faithful, and presents a vibrant idea of catholicity, not as uniformity, but as unity in diversity.
In the original preparatory document, the second chapter was dedicated to examining the church’s hierarchy. By placing consideration of the people of God ahead of such an examination, the council fathers powerfully affirmed that what unites members of the ecclesial community is more significant than what distinguishes them.
The third chapter, on the hierarchy, focuses on the issue of collegiality (shared authority among the bishops and the pope). The success of this chapter is a rediscovery of the theological importance of local ecclesial communities that affirms that they are not just branch outposts of Rome, but that they are fully church.
This section articulates a robust view of episcopal authority, yet it presents this authority not as competitive with papal power but as complementary to it.
The succeeding chapters on the laity, the universal call to holiness, the religious, and the pilgrim church examine the roles played by the people of God who are not ordained. These chapters stress the critical importance of baptism and acknowledge the existence of a variety of ways that the faithful advance the church’s mission. The final chapter on Mary provided some of Vatican II’s most vigorous debates.
Primarily, the dispute was between those who were adamant that a council about the church’s self-understanding should honor Mary with her own separate chapter and those who wondered whether this was theologically and ecumenically appropriate. By an extremely narrow vote (1,114 to 1,074) it was decided that the last chapter of “Lumen Gentium” would be dedicated to Mary, a placement that pays tribute to her role as mother of the church.
The constitution’s shift to understanding the church as a mystery opens the way for many of the council’s subsequent and remarkable achievements.
For example, the affirmation of religious freedom, more robust roles for lay participation and ministry, greater ecumenical openness, and a positive view of non-Christians, all flow from an understanding of the church’s fundamentally sacramental character.
Vatican II’s willingness to embrace the notion of the church as mystery reflects a dynamic sense of God’s presence throughout creation and a confidence that the church is not isolated; rather, the church’s mission calls it to engage the world in order to transform it.
While the council achieved many things, it can be argued that its greatest achievement is not found in any one of its teachings but in the way that it renewed the church’s understanding of itself and its relationship with the world.
This fundamental shift is the aspect of Vatican II that most fully captures Pope John XXIII’s vision and the one that most profoundly shapes our experience of the church today.
Colberg is adjunct assistant professor of theology at St. John’s University and The College of St. Benedict in Minnesota.
Council renewed church’s relationship with world
While the Second Vatican Council achieved many things, it can be argued that its greatest achievement is not found in any one of its teachings but in the way that it renewed the church’s understanding of itself and its relationship with the world. The council’s willingness to embrace the notion of the church as mystery reflects a dynamic sense of God’s presence throughout creation and a confidence that the church is not isolated.
From November 16, 2012 issue of Catholic San Francisco.