Revisiting documents of Vatican II

Father John A. Kiley

Although Napoleon Bonaparte is often recalled as a French military celebrity, the Emperor was no Marshall Foch or General deGaulle. If fact, the Corsican usurper was more like Attila the Hun than Joan of Arc. Bonaparte toppled kings, devastated duchies and left behind dead soldiers from the Atlantic coast to the suburbs of Moscow. When Bonaparte finally met his Waterloo (literally) in 1815, the shattered nations of Europe were entrenched at the Congress of Vienna, doing their best to re-establish order — meaning the status quo — to a ravaged Europe. And the various ambassadors did a good job. Europe enjoyed a century not of political tranquility but at least of continental peace. Indeed there were some upsets. The Franco-Prussian War lasted about three weeks; Garibaldi pestered Pope Pius IX to no end; and Czar Nicholas II embarrassed Russia in a conflict with Japan. But World War I, the “Great War,” as the British label it, was stalled for a century, beginning August 4, 1914, and finally concluding 100 years ago this coming Sunday at the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month of 1918.

The Congress of Vienna did a good job of restoring emperors to their palaces, royalty to their thrones and the nobility to their duchies. But much of European life continued in a less happy status quo. The Irish remained under Britain’s heavy thumb and the Finns felt Russia’s heavy hand. The destiny of the Baltics, the Balkans, and Poland were entirely in the hands of larger empires. The Jews knew continued pogroms under the Czars and countless peasants fled Europe for the New World. The restored political order ignored a much needed social justice.

Five hundred years ago the Catholic Church was almost laid waste by usurpers named Hus, Luther, Zwingli, Calvin, Cromwell, Knox and their supporters. In response, the unnerved Catholic Church rallied its own Congress of Vienna, known to the ages as the Council of Trent. And like the 1815 Congress in the Austrian capital, the sixteenth century council in northern Italy performed an admirable task of insuring that the status quo — ecclesiastical business as usual — would continue into the future. Trent’s effort was commendable. The Church in which many readers of R.I. Catholic grew up was the result of the Council of Trent. The clarity of the Creed, the exactness of the Commandments and the precision of the Sacraments that lasted through the midpoint of the last century were in no small measure the fruit of Trent’s deliberations. Consequently, some would view Pope John XXIII’s call for an ecumenical council in 1959 as disastrous as Duke Franz Ferdinand’s assassination in 1914. An ecclesiastical World War had begun.

A few might be convinced that John XXIII’s Council was sadly destructive. But the Second Vatican Council (1962-65) was certainly no “great war.” The more compelling argument should be made that the status quo ensured by Trent — a Church dominated by clergy and religious — while effective in many ways was also deficient in many ways. The Scriptures were soundly affirmed by Trent but the Bible, for most Catholics, remained in the shadow of the Roman Catechism. Vatican II changed that. Priestly education was rightly intensified by Trent but the permanent diaconate and the Catholic lay state were clearly neglected. Vatican II changed that. Bishops and pastors were told to clean up their act by Trent but broader involvement in parish liturgies and services by the laity was overlooked. Vatican II changed that. For obvious reasons ecumenism and inter-faith activities were not on Trent’s agenda. Vatican II changed that.

Pope John XXIII heralded the proposed program for Vatican II as an “aggiornamento,” bringing up to date Church teachings and practices. Some zealots indeed took his suggestion too far. Both excesses and defects ensued. Pope Benedict XVI rightly understood that the Church’s teachings and practices could be best updated by a process called “ressourcement,” that is, a return to sources — to Church roots, Church traditions, Church fundamentals. The upheaval (yes, upheaval) that followed Vatican II came from paying too much attention to contemporary secular trends and social movements — thus allowing the profane world to set the Church’s schedule. Too little attention was given to re-discovering and re-appreciating the Divine direction implanted within the Church from its apostolic start. Half a century after Vatican II the challenge is not to return to Trent but rather to return to the documents of Vatican II themselves to ponder what they truly said and enact what they really taught. The contemporary Catholic world does not need another Congress of Vienna nor another Council of Trent.