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Looking to the letter, not the “spirit”: On the 60th anniversary of Vatican II

There is plenty of unfinished business from Vatican II—things the council said needed to be done, but we haven’t gotten around to doing yet.

Pope John XXIII leads the opening session of the Second Vatican Council in St. Peter's Basilica Oct. 11, 1962. (CNS photo/L'Osservatore Romano)

What was the Second Vatican Council all about? With the 60th anniversary of the council’s opening now close at hand, you can still get an argument about that. Instead of consulting the “spirit” of Vatican II for an answer, my suggestion is that we take a look at the letter instead. And here surely the most reliable source is the man who convoked Vatican II, Pope St. John XXIII.

In his opening address to the bishops gathered in St. Peter’s, delivered on October 11, 1962, Pope John stated the objective like this: “The Church must once more reaffirm that teaching authority of hers.” And lest there be any doubt: “That was our reason for calling this most authoritative assembly.”

Sixty years later, who can doubt that this admirable goal remains that—an admirable goal? And not the least reason is the continuing resistance of partisans of “the spirit of Vatican II” who prefer that the teaching of the Catholic Church be forever in flux.

People who think that way sometimes quote St. John Henry Newman’s famous saying, in the Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine, that “to live is to change, and to be perfect is to have changed often.” They ignore his dictum in the same work that a doctrinal development “to be faithful, must retain both the doctrine and the principle with which it started.”

There is, however, plenty of unfinished business from Vatican II—things the council said needed to be done, but we haven’t gotten around to doing yet. A case in point is what the council said—in Lumen Gentium, the dogmatic constitution on the Church—about creating a means for qualified lay people to express opinions:

By reason of the knowledge, competence or pre-eminence which they have, the laity are empowered—indeed sometimes obliged—to manifest their opinion on those things which pertain to the good of the Church. If the occasion should arise, this should be done through the institutions established by the Church for that purpose. (LG 37)

“Knowledge, competence, or pre-eminence” may set the bar higher than some would like, but it’s reasonable to insist that people expressing opinions know what they’re talking about. The real problem is with those “institutions established by the Church” and it comes down to this: What “institutions”? Perhaps we’ll find out in a synodal Church, but 60-plus years is a long time to wait.

On a deeper level, there is the council’s neglected teaching that the universal call to holiness extends to the laity. In case you’ve forgotten:

The Lord Jesus, divine teacher and model of all perfection, preached holiness of life (of which he is the author and maker) to each and every one of his disciples without exception….It is therefore quite clear that all Christians in any state or walk of life are called to the fullness of Christian life and to the perfection of love, and by this holiness a more human manner of life is fostered also in earthly society. (LG 40)

It’s often said people leave the Church because it asks too much of them. (This usually prefaces a call to relax some doctrine or other.) But I suspect many leave because the Church asks too little. What to do? Remind the wavering and the weak, gently but firmly, that the call to holiness includes them. And, as time passes, make it clear the Synodal Church isn’t just an ecclesiastical talk shop but a Church of sinners, all of whom are called to be saints.


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About Russell Shaw 259 Articles
Russell Shaw was secretary for public affairs of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops/United States Catholic Conference from 1969 to 1987. He is the author of 20 books, including Nothing to Hide, American Church: The Remarkable Rise, Meteoric Fall, and Uncertain Future of Catholicism in America, Eight Popes and the Crisis of Modernity, and, most recently, The Life of Jesus Christ (Our Sunday Visitor, 2021).

6 Comments

  1. “It’s often said people leave the Church because it asks too much of them. (This usually prefaces a call to relax some doctrine or other.) But I suspect many leave because the Church asks too little.”

    With this Chestertonian observation, Mr. Shaw nails it. I can’t imagine how so many parish priests can go for decades unable to figure out that Mr. Rogers Neighborhood homilies just aren’t what they are called to do.

  2. Pope John said: “That the Church must once more reaffirm that teaching authority of hers.” And, “that was our reason for calling this most authoritative assembly.”
    If that was the case, it would have to be called an abject failure. Pre-Vatican II the laity and the parish clergy pretty much accepted the Church’s authority. Now, not only many laity, but also many bishops, especially in Europe, reject that authority.

    Regarding creating a means for the laity to express their opinions – the ones with the knowledge, competence or pre-eminence – would that be the PhD theology professors who actually dissent from the faith? Read the diocesan Synod summaries on line. Complaints, complaints about the Church being unwelcoming.

    What we need is solid teaching from those whose vocation is to teach the truth with authority.

  3. I left and began attending a Byzantine Parish. They still have respect for the Liturgy and behave in a way that shows respect for Christ in Holy Communion. The Spirit of VII was to make the Mass look Protestant. That is probably why they called in protestant ministers to help design the Novis Ordo. It worked.

  4. Shaw writes: “People who think that way sometimes quote St. John Henry Newman’s famous saying, in the Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine, that ‘to live is to change, and to be perfect is to have changed often. They ignore his dictum in the same work that a doctrinal development ‘to be faithful, must retain both the doctrine and the principle with which it started.’”

    It’s not only another dictum “in the same work,” but also the very same dictum which reads: “…old principles reappear under new forms. It changes with them in order to remain the same [!]. In a higher world it is otherwise, but here below to live is to change, and to be perfect is to have changed often.”

    Translation: one must turn to fiction…the novelist Balzac discerned (discernment!) that “bureaucracy is a giant machine operated by pygmies.”

    And these novel pygmies do not reside in the African or Amazonian jungle; instead they reside in Germany and Belgium, and possible Chicago, Washington D.C., Newark, Malta, Luxembourg, and San Diego. But, who am I to judge?

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