Forgotten Teachings of the Council

Bishop Thomas J. Tobin - Without a Doubt

It’s over forty years now since the end of the Second Vatican Council, almost two generations in human terms, but in the long history of the Church, not much more than a blink of an eye.

During this time, members of the Church and our neighbors in the world have spent considerable time and energy studying, understanding, interpreting and implementing the teachings of the Council, and have done so with varying degrees of success.

There’s no doubt that the Second Vatican Council is one of the great moments in history of Christ’s Church on earth. Clearly, it was a work of the Holy Spirit, an event that brought new life to the Church, and through the Church, to the world. Pope John Paul, who participated in the Council as a young bishop, testified: “The Second Vatican Council is often considered as the beginning of a new era in the life of the Church …The Council’s enormously rich body of teaching and the striking new tone in the way it presented this content constitute as it were a proclamation of new times.” (Tertio Millennio Adveniente, #18, 20)

We are well aware of the primary teachings of the Council, including: the call for the renewal of the priesthood and religious life; the reform of the liturgy; the invitation to ecumenical and interfaith dialogue; the unfolding of the mystery of the Church with rich Scriptural images; the need for the Church to be in dialogue with the world; the vocation of the laity in transforming the secular order into the Kingdom of God; and the primacy of human conscience and religious freedom. These teachings, while not new in Christian thought, were certainly expressed with a new clarity and thus inspired the renewal of the Church envisioned by Pope John XXIII when he convened the Council.

Nevertheless, the implementation of the Council has been quite uneven, a trying time for the Church, to say the least. The clarity of the Council’s teachings has sometimes been lost. Some people have misunderstood the teachings of the Council. Others have relentlessly evoked an undocumented “spirit of Vatican II” while ignoring its precise teachings.

One author has offered his view of the wake of the Council in these words:

Comparing the preconciliar Church and the aspirations of Vatican II with events of the past thirty years forces us to ask: What went wrong? Can anyone pretend that things have improved? There are some bright spots, but it is undeniable that the faith of Catholics has been shaken and that our way of living no longer distinguishes us from other Americans. Astonishingly, this decline in the Church has come about under the banner of Vatican II. (Ralph M. McInerny, What Went Wrong with Vatican II, p. 13)

In fairness, I should emphasize that the author doesn’t reject the teachings of the Council. In fact he writes that the Council “is the central event of Church history in our time. Clearly it was a providential occurrence. Its sixteen documents, although with varying force, are the measure of the Faith of Roman Catholics. Properly understood it was a great blessing for the Church – properly understood.” (p. 14)

Mr. McInerny highlights the need to “properly understand” the teachings of the Council, and I agree. In that spirit, I’d like to outline seven important teachings of the Council that have been forgotten, abandoned or undervalued in the implementation and application of the Council. In so doing, I readily admit that each of these points has a broader context. That’s why it’s always important to read the documents in their entirety and not settle for just a few favorite passages.

The Hierarchical Nature of the Church – The Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, Lumen Gentium, employs several Scriptural images to describe the nature of the Church. These include the Church as God’s farm, as God’s building, as the Spouse of Christ, as the Body of Christ and, of course, the People of God. (Cf. Chapters I and II) But the Council also strongly re-emphasized the hierarchical nature of the Church, a truth that’s been overlooked sometimes in the wake of the Council. In fact the entire third chapter of Lumen Gentium addresses this theme. For example:

This teaching on the institution, the permanence, the nature and the force of the sacred primacy of the Roman Pontiff and his infallible teaching office, the sacred synod proposes anew to be firmly believed by all the faithful. Further, continuing with this same undertaking, it intends to profess before all and to declare the teaching on bishops, successors of the apostles, who together with Peter’s successor, the Vicar for Christ, and the visible head of the whole church, govern the house of the living God. (#18)

The Magisterium, the Teaching Authority of the Church – When Pope John XXIII opened the Council on October 11, 1962, he set forth very clearly the purpose of the Council: “In calling this vast assembly of bishops, the latest and humble successor to the Prince of the apostles who is addressing you intends to assert once again the Church’s Magisterium (teaching authority), which is unfailing and perdures until the end of time.”

Lumen Gentium makes the same point: “Among the more important duties of bishops, that of preaching the Gospel has pride of place. For the bishops are heralds of the faith, who draw new disciples to Christ; they are authentic teachers, that is, teachers endowed with the authority of Christ, who preach to the people assigned to them the faith which is to be believed and applied in practice.” (#25) And in the same paragraph: “The faithful, for their part, should concur with their bishop’s judgment, made in the name of Christ, in matters of faith and morals, and adhere to it with a religious docility of spirit.”

The Primacy of the Catholic Church – “The restoration of unity among all Christians is one of the principal concerns of the Second Vatican Council.” (Decree on Ecumenism, “Unitatis Redintegratio”, #1) Indeed, in this document as in other places, the unity of Christians and the dialogue with other religions is strongly encouraged. At the same time, however, the Council also affirms the primacy of the Catholic Church.

For example, in the Decree on Ecumenism the Council wrote: “For it is through Christ’s Catholic Church alone, which is the universal help toward salvation, that the fullness of the means of salvation can be obtained.” (#3) In Lumen Gentium we read: “This church, constituted and organized as a society in the present world, subsists in the Catholic Church, which is governed by the successor of Peter and by the bishops in communion with him.” (#8) And Dignitatis Humanae, the Declaration on Religious Liberty, begins by affirming: “We believe that this one true religion exists in the Catholic and Apostolic church to which the Lord Jesus entrusted the task of spreading it among all peoples.” (#1)

“Forgotten Teachings of the Council” will be continued in the next issue of The Rhode Island Catholic.

(This article was previously published in “The Catholic Exponent”)