Pope on Vatican II: Nothing to see here…

The pope's memories of Vatican II, published today in L'Osservatore Romano and covered by Catholic News Service, highlight once again the battle over the council's interpretation on its 50th birthday. His money quote: "The council fathers neither could nor wished to create a new or different church. They had neither the authority nor the mandate to do so. That is why a hermeneutic of rupture is so absurd and is contrary to the spirit and the will of the council fathers."  (Maryknoll Father William Grimm, editor of UCA News, offers a brilliant view from the other side.)

Well that clears things up–except that it doesn't. It's true enough that the bishops at Vatican II didn't wish to create a new church, but I'm not sure any proponent of a more "developmental" approach to the teaching of the council would argue that. If anything, I would argue that the council was restoring to the church the richness of its tradition, which was put in the icebox by the Council of Trent after the Reformation and then locked by the bishops at Vatican I who saw the church's power evaporating as modernity–and by that I mean liberal democracy–advanced.

Frankly, Pope Benedict is making a straw man argument, and it's not a very good one. Vatican II made at least two strong reversals of church teaching, first in its affirmation of God's ongoing covenant with the Jewish people (Lumen Gentium and Nostra Aetate), and in its affirmation of religious freedom, which previous popes had explicitly condemned. One could argue that there are scriptural and historical reasons for affirming these two reversals, but they contravened at least 1,500 years of church teaching and practice.

As for the changes to the liturgy, I tend to agree with the pope that liturgical change ought to come organically; the problem was that the Council of Trent put the liturgy on ice so that it couldn't change organically–or at least not easily. If the reform of the liturgy after Vatican II seemed like a rupture, it was only because we had to do 400 years of organic development in two decades.

Nevertheless–and when we remember how poorly the old liturgy was often celebrated–the reform has been a great success, and despite the current attempts to thwart it, reforms such as participation by all the baptized in vernacular prayers, hymns, and responses; the expansion of liturgical ministry; the halting improvement of preaching; and the liturgy as the source of Catholic spirituality are not gong away.

I'd argue, however, that there is a further change that is not going away: The Roman Catholic Church, more and more, is going to be directed by lay people, especially where it matters most, in parishes, schools, and pastoral ministry. Vatican II's "universal call to holiness," prefigured already in lay movements such as Opus Dei (no kidding!), has unleashed lay women and men who take their baptismal call to ministry deadly serious. They are educated, competent, and have long since supplanted clergy as religious educators, theologians, chaplains, and other kinds of pastoral ministers.

Some may be quite conservative, but they are still laypeople. Like it or not, the clerical corner on ministry and holiness has been irreparably ruptured. There's no going back–and there's no telling where it will lead.

About the author

Bryan Cones

Bryan Cones is a writer living in Chicago.