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Vatican II: The Battle for Meaning
Vatican II: The Battle for Meaning
Massimo Faggioli
Paulist Press, 2012
208 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.

This is true for Vatican II, Faggioli believes, even though this Council, unlike past ones, was largely "pastoral," not "dogmatic." That is, bishops met in Rome not to define church teachings or refute errors, as had been the case with practically all past councils (the Catholic Church recognizes 21 ecumenical councils in all, of which Vatican II is the most recent). Rather, drawing from Scripture and church traditions, churchmen gathered to offer "updated" guidelines for how the Church should engage the modern world. The French word ressourcement (loosely: drawing from the past) and the Italian aggiornamento (loosely: bringing up to date) have in fact become the standard watchwords to sum up Vatican II. Put as a question, the Council asked: How can the Church, while faithful to its own traditions, learn to speak in a new idiom, to engage "modernity" in its messy, multifaceted manifestations?

In contrast to past councils, all European or Mediterranean affairs, Vatican II was global in scope, drawing church leaders from around the world and making room for non-Catholic observers. Coinciding with the promise and uncertainty of postcolonial geopolitics, the Council's various decrees awakened a heady response from Christians in the Global South. Faggioli nicely sums up the liturgical changes in Africa, for instance, by quoting one priest: "The pre-Conciliar African Church set its heart on the possession of [Western] harmonium. The Post-Conciliar African Church glories in its use of drums."

Vatican II whisked the Catholic Church into new theological territory on many issues: religious liberty, ecumenism, and interreligious dialogue, to name a few. As such, it has often proven divisive. Interpreting these divisions strictly with a political vocabulary, again, makes little sense in Faggioli's analysis.

Instead, he identifies two main "schools" of interpretation of the Council in reference to two of the Church's most hallowed theologians. The more optimistic "Thomists," named for the medieval theologian Thomas Aquinas, tend to see Vatican II's updated teachings as compatible with various modern ideals and aspirations, and many regard the "spirit" of the Council as a down payment for more progressive changes in the future. This school found its center of gravity in the journal Concilium (founded in 1965) and included among its ranks theological luminaries such as Yves Congar, Marie-Dominque Chenu, and Edward Schillebeeckx.

By contrast, the more pessimistic "Augustinians," named for the erstwhile Bishop of Hippo, tend to see the Church as an island of grace in a sea of sin and disorder, and are given to interpreting the Council in more restrictive terms. These voices first gathered around the journal Communio (founded in 1972) and include figures such as Henri du Lubac, Hans Urs von Balthasar, and the current pope, Josef Ratzinger, who served as a theological advisor at the Council as a younger man. Interestingly, Ratzinger actually played a role in launching both journals, and evinces in Faggioli's analysis both Thomistic and Augustinian proclivities, even if most Vatican watchers today identify his papacy more with the Augustinian side.

Beyond the Thomists and the Augustinians are those we might label the hyper-progressives and the hyper-traditionalists. The former would include figures such as Hans Küng, who received international recognition when he was banned from teaching theology in the 1970s because of his dissent from Rome, and Karl Rahner, a Jesuit theologian ever popular in Catholic universities, who regarded Vatican II as only "the beginning of a beginning." By contrast, the hyper-traditionalists would include the so-called "sedavacantists" (who claim the Holy See has not had a legitimate Pope since Pius XII) and the French archbishop Marcel Lefebvre and members of the secretive Society of Saint Pius X (SSPX), who interpret Vatican II as vitiating many of the Church's past teachings. This reactionary side of Catholicism received international attention shortly after Ratzinger took office, when, after he lifted the excommunication of four bishops whom Lefebvre had consecrated, one bishop was discovered to have denied the Holocaust.

John Paul II figures in the book, but less than one might have expected. Faggioli makes much of the 1985 Extraordinary Synod of Bishops—a gathering in Rome, called for by the Pope, that sought to achieve coherence in the reception of Vatican II by setting limits on overly permissive interpretations. This meeting received a powerful assist from The Ratzinger Report, an interview published in 1985 with the current pope, then Prefect of the Congregation of the Faith. In it, Ratzinger rebuked those who saw the Council as a "rupture" and/or sought to pit the (radical) "spirit" of the Council against its (more traditional) "letter." Curiously, Faggioli hardly mentions the revised Catechism of the Catholic Church (1992), one of the signal accomplishments of John Paul II's papacy.

If Faggioli's work has a shortcoming, it is his decision to focus largely on internecine conflicts about the Council from within the Catholic Church. In one section he profiles reactions from Protestant and Orthodox observers, but this material is covered all too briefly. Other voices are not heard. Discussing, for example, how the Jewish community, evangelical Christians, or newspapers of record (in various countries) received and interpreted the Council might have added rich, if complicating, layers to an already impressive work.

But for anyone in search of a "guide for the perplexed," to get up to speed on the reception and the continuing legacy of Vatican II between now and 2015, Faggioli's book is as good a place as any to begin.

The Council of Trent shaped Catholicism for some four centuries and counting; the Council of Nicaea has been steadfastly at work since the time of Constantine. Who says Vatican II cannot do the same? "The past," William Faulkner famously wrote, "is not dead; it's not even past." And Vatican II is still a very young council.

Thomas Albert Howard holds the Stephen Philips chair in History and directs the Center for Faith and Inquiry at Gordon College. His book God and the Atlantic: America, Europe, and the Religious Divide (Oxford Univ. Press), won the Christianity Today Book of the Year Award for History/Biography.

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