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Vatican II: The Battle for Meaning
Vatican II: The Battle for Meaning
Massimo Faggioli
Paulist Press, 2012
224 pp., $14.95

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Thomas Albert Howard


A Very Young Council

The battle over the meaning of Vatican II

When someone mentions "the Sixties," the first thing that leaps to mind is probably not priests and monks gathered for theological discussion. But from the long purview of history, the Second Vatican Council (1962-65) easily ranks among the most significant events of that turbulent decade. Last year marked the 50th anniversary of the opening of the Council, and debate over its meaning shows scant signs of slackening.

Arguments over Vatican II, in fact, frequently find themselves pulled into the "culture wars" and political alignments of Western democracies. For liberal Catholics, the Council often signifies a salutary rupture in the history of the Church, an about-face from the reactionary legacy of the First Vatican Council (1869-70), enforced by a train of intransigent popes until the miracle of John XXIII, who shocked the world by calling for a new council in 1959. By contrast, conservative Catholics tend to interpret Vatican II as continuous with the past, even if accommodating new developments, and they champion the efforts of John Paul II and Benedict XVI to reign in liberal excesses.

One of the many virtues of Massimo Faggioli's engaging book is demonstrating the limits of viewing the Council strictly through a political prism. A professor of the history of modern Christianity at the University of St. Thomas in Minnesota and formerly a fellow at the prestigious John XXIII Foundation of Religious Studies in Bologna, Faggioli knows his stuff. While he focuses primarily on the postconciliar reception of the Council and its contested interpretations, he is keen to situate the Council itself in the broader history of Catholicism. From the perspective of the Catholic Church, he reminds readers, Vatican II is still a "very young" council. Likening it in importance to the Council of Trent (1543-1562), the fountainhead of what historians once called the "Counter-Reformation," the full implications of what transpired between 1962 and 1965 might not be plumbed for centuries. ...

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