Peter Steinfels: New Book Reaffirms Depth of Change Wrought by Vatican II

Roundup: Talking About History

Was the Second Vatican Council, as the cultural historian the Rev. John W. O’Malley proposes, “quite possibly the biggest meeting in the history of the world”?

Obviously the council did not draw the sheer numbers who gather for the Olympics or political conventions. But consider that for two and a half months each fall from 1962 to 1965, 2,400 Roman Catholic bishops from 116 nations, assisted by thousands of aides, theological advisers and other Christian and non-Christian leaders, met in St. Peter’s Basilica to debate, revise and vote on documents that would significantly change the life of a two-millennia-old institution now claiming more than a billion adherents worldwide.

Whether or not Vatican II was the world’s biggest meeting, it certainly had huge consequences. Catholics the world over began to worship actively in their own languages with a new emphasis on Scripture. The church affirmed religious liberty, condemned anti-Semitism, highlighted common ground with other Christians, recognized godly elements in non-Christian religions and generally abandoned a centuries-old embattled stance toward modernity for one emphasizing dialogue and shared struggles for human dignity.

And whether or not the council was the world’s biggest meeting, Father O’Malley has written one of the best and most needed books about it, “What Happened at Vatican II” (Belknap/Harvard University, 2008).
Because nothing in present-day Catholicism can be discussed without reference to Vatican II, a fierce debate rages about its interpretation. It is a debate with implications for Judaism, Islam, science and secular politics as well as other Christians.

The accusation that Vatican II has been misinterpreted — and that this misinterpretation is responsible for most of Catholicism’s current ills — has gained semiofficial status in Rome. The fault lies, it is said, with a “hermeneutic of discontinuity” — a phrase of Pope Benedict XVI. By focusing on conflicts surfacing during deliberations while ignoring the affirmations of continuity in the final documents, this interpretation presents Vatican II as a rupture with the Catholic past and substitutes a vague “spirit of the council” for those texts on which the council voted.

It is true that Vatican II neither repudiated nor added any central Catholic dogmas: The creed proclaimed today at Sunday Mass in every American parish is the same as before the council — except it is said now by the whole congregation in English (or Spanish, or dozens of other languages) rather than by the priest alone in Latin....

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