Twentieth Century Theology

The Theology of the Second Vatican Council

At the Second Vatican Council, the following were taken up and did a lot of theology. It was three years of work of numerous experts and bishops to thinking about faith ("fides quaerens intellectum") with the objective proposed by John XXIII: better explain the Church's message to the world at large.derno.

Juan Luis Lorda-October 11, 2022-Reading time: 8 minutes
vatican council ii

Photo: Departure of the Council Fathers from St. Peter's Basilica. Photograph by Lothar Wolleh. ©Wikipedia Commons

Translation of the article into Italian

To speak of "theology of the Council" is perfectly legitimate. The Council had a pastoral orientation, but it gathered the fruits of so much good theology and consolidated many expressions and perspectives. Without being able to mention them all, it is useful to attempt a synthesis. We will focus only on the four Constitutions and the Decree on religious freedom.

Dei Verbum and the form of Christian revelation

The Council began by dealing with revelation, but the first outline (1962) was not liked because it was too scholastic. This led to change all the prepared outlines. Rahner and Ratzinger proposed one for this document, but it did not prosper. After a long elaboration, a short text on Revelation and Scripture was achieved, which includes the renewal of Fundamental Theology (1965) (and Newman's inspirations). In the first chapters, it deals with revelation, God, human response (faith) and transmission or tradition (I and II); and the rest deals with Sacred Scripture.

Faced with the old scholastic custom of centering revelation on the set of revealed truths (dogmas), "Dei verbum" focused on the historical phenomenon of revelation (nn. 1 and 6). God manifests himself by working salvation in history, with certain stages, until its fullness in Christ. "With deeds and words," not just words. There is a profound revelation in events such as the Creation and the Exodus, the Covenant and, even more, the Incarnation, Death and Resurrection of the Lord. These are the great mysteries of salvation history. Moreover, "there is no longer any public revelation to be expected before the glorious manifestation of our Lord Jesus Christ" (n. 4).

He presents faith as a personal response (in the Church) to this revelation (this is how the Catechism begins), and explains the concept of (living) tradition and its relationship with the Magisterium and Scripture (chapter II). Scripture itself is the fruit of the first tradition. "Sacred Tradition, then, and Sacred Scripture constitute a single sacred deposit" (10), thus overcoming the unfortunate scheme of the "two sources".

Describes the peculiar relationship between God's action and human freedom (and culture) in the writing of texts (inspiration). He recognizes the convenience of distinguishing literary genres in order to interpret them (a symbolic narration is not the same as the historical description of a fact). And he proposes a whole treatise of believing exegesis in three lines: "Sacred Scripture must be read and interpreted with the same spirit with which it was written in order to draw out the exact meaning of the sacred texts; we must pay no less diligent attention to the content and unity of the whole of Sacred Scripture, taking into account the living Tradition of the whole Church and the analogy of faith" (12).

After explaining the profound relationship between the Old and New Testaments, he gives a strong pastoral impulse to know and use Scripture more (ch. VI), with good translations and instructing the faithful. He points out that "the study of Sacred Scripture must be like the soul of Sacred Theology" (24). And also of preaching and catechesis (24). Because "ignorance of the Scriptures is ignorance of Christ" (25).

Sacrosanctum Concilium and the heart of the Church's life

When the outline on revelation was withdrawn, the Council began to work on this beautiful document, which gathers the best of the liturgical movement, ranging from the renewal of Solesmes (Dom Geranguer) to Guardini's "The Meaning of the Liturgy", passing through Odo Casel's theology of the mysteries.

He presents the liturgy as a celebration of the mystery of Christ, where our salvation is realized and the Church grows. The first chapter, the longest, deals with the principles of the "reform" (as he calls it). The second refers to the "sacrosanct Mystery of the Eucharist" (II), and then to the other sacraments and sacramentals (III), the Divine Office (IV), the liturgical year (V), sacred music (Vl), and the art and objects of worship (VII). It closes with an appendix on the possibility of adapting the calendar and the date of Easter.

The liturgy always celebrates the Paschal Mystery of Christ (6), from the Baptism in which the faithful, dying to sin and rising in Christ, are incorporated into his Body through the eternal life given by the Holy Spirit. It is a worship directed to the Father, in Christ, animated by the Holy Spirit, and always ecclesial, because the whole body of the Church acts united to its Head (ecclesial dimension). And it celebrates the one Paschal mystery of Christ, on earth as well as in heaven, and forever (eschatological dimension).

The Council wanted the faithful to participate better in the liturgical mystery by increasing their formation. In addition, it gave a multitude of indications to improve Christian worship in all its aspects.

Unfortunately, the application of these wise indications completely overwhelmed the bodies in charge ("Consilium" and episcopal conferences). Before the bishops received instructions, and long before the liturgical books were reworked, many enthusiasts altered the liturgy with arbitrary trivializations. The complaints of many theologians (De Lubac, Daniélou, Bouyer, Ratzinger...) and Catholic intellectuals (Maritain, Von Hildebrand, Gilson...) were not enough. This disorder provoked in
some disconcerted faithful an anti-conciliar reaction that lasts until today, giving wings also to Lefebvre's schism. It is worth rereading the document to see how much remains to be learned.

Lumen Gentium, the culmination of the Council

This "dogmatic" Constitution (the only one so called) is the theological nucleus of the Council, because, following in the wake of Vatican Council I and "Mystici corporis", it develops extensively the doctrine on the Church and illuminates the others conciliar documents on bishops, clergy, religious, ecumenism, relationship with other religions and evangelization. Its theological richness and articulation owe much to Johan Adam Moeller, Guardini, De Lubac and Congar, and to the wise editorial hand of Gerard Philips, who later made a splendid commentary.

Already the first number puts everything at a very high level: "The Church is in Christ as a sacrament, that is, a sign and instrument of intimate union with God and of the unity of the whole human race. This universal convocation expresses what the Church is, and at the same time, it realizes her among men by uniting them to the Father in Christ through the Spirit. Therefore, it is "like a sacrament".

The relative novelty of the patristic word "mystery" must be emphasized, because the Church is, in itself, a mystery of the presence, revelation and saving action of God, and for this very reason a mystery of faith. Mystery united to the mystery of the Trinity (Church of the Trinity) because the Church is a people created and called together by God the Father, gathered for worship in the Body of Christ, who is its head (and who performs the worship), and built in Christ as a temple of living stones by the action of the Holy Spirit. It is therefore intimately united to the Mystery of the liturgy ("Ecclesia de Eucharistia"). It is also the Church of the Trinity, because its communion of persons (communion of saints, communion in holy things) reflects and expands in the world, as a leaven and foretaste of the Kingdom, the Trinitarian communion of persons, which is the ultimate destiny of humanity (eschatological dimension).

Understanding the Church as a salvific mystery of communion with God and among men allows us to overcome an external, sociological or hierarchical vision of the Church; to properly address the relationship between the Primacy and the College of Bishops. And to emphasize the dignity of the People of God and the universal call to holiness, and to participate fully in the liturgical worship and mission of the Church.

All human beings are called to be united to Christ in his Church. This is accomplished in history by the Holy Spirit in various degrees and forms, from the explicit communion of those who participate fully to the interior communion of those who are faithful to God in their conscience ("Lumen Gentium," nn. 13-16).

That is why this mystery of unity is the key to ecumenism, a new commitment of the Council by the will of the Lord ("that all may be one"), with a change of perspective in a great document ("Unitatis redintegrario"). It is different to contemplate the historical genesis of the divisions with their traumas, than their present state, where Christians of good faith (Orthodox, Protestants and others) really participate in the goods of the Church. From there, full communion is to be sought through prayer, collaboration, dialogue and mutual knowledge, and above all through the action of the Holy Spirit. Full communion in sacris is not the point of departure, but the point of arrival.

Gaudium et Spes and what the Church can offer to the world

To understand the theological scope of Gaudium et Spes, it is necessary to recall its history.

When the first outlines were withdrawn, as we have seen above, it was decided to orient the Council with two questions: what the Church says about herself, which gave rise to "Lumen gentium", and what the Church can contribute to "the building of the world", which would give rise to "Gaudium et spes". Already at that time, thought was being given to the great questions: the family, education, social and economic life, and peace, which form the chapters of the second part.

Although it seems easy to speak Christianly about these topics, it is not so easy to establish a universal theological doctrine, because there are too many temporal, specialized and... opinionated questions. For this reason, it was given the title of "pastoral" Constitution, and it was noted that the second part, full of interesting suggestions, was more opinionated than the first part, which was more doctrinal.

This first part had arisen spontaneously out of the need to give a doctrinal foundation to what the Church could contribute to the world. And it turned out to be a happy compendium of Christian anthropology, with three intense chapters on the human person and his dignity, the social dimension of the human being, and the meaning of his action in the world. And a fourth summary chapter (which Karol Wojtyła himself apparently drafted in large part with Daniélou). Paul VI on his trip to the UN would recall that the Church is "an expert in humanity."

John Paul II constantly stressed that Christ knows the human being and is the true image of man (n. 22) and that "there is a certain resemblance between the union of the divine persons and the union of the children of God in truth and charity" (24), as happens in families, in Christian communities and must be sought in the whole of society. This sentence concludes with this luminous expression of the human vocation: "This similarity shows that man, the only creature on earth whom God has loved for his own sake, cannot find his own fullness except in the sincere gift of himself to others" (24).

Moreover, the last chapter of the first part of the Pastoral Constitution recalled that: "The laity are properly, though not exclusively, responsible for secular tasks and dynamism [...] they should strive to acquire true competence in all areas" and "it is up to the well-formed conscience of the laity to ensure that the divine law is engraved in the earthly city" (43). Here, too, much remains to be done...

Dignitatis humanae and a change of approach to liberalism

Although a minor document, this decree is of strategic importance in the Church's relationship with the modern world.

Many bishops had asked the Council to proclaim the right to religious freedom because they were subject to communist dictatorships, as in the case of Karol Wojtyła. Liberal democratic regimes recognized that right as an essential part of their pedigree. Citizens are free to seek the truth also religious and express it freely in worship, even public, respecting public order. The historical experience was that the liberal proclamation of freedom of worship had been very beneficial for the Catholic Church where it was persecuted or where there was an official religion, as in England and in officially Protestant countries (Sweden, Denmark...), and it would be a great liberation in communist and also Muslim countries.

But this was not the tradition of the old Christian nations (neither Catholic nor Protestant) because, it was argued, "truth does not have the same rights as error". That is why, in the 19th century, the ecclesiastical authorities at all levels, just as they had opposed the dissemination of publications against faith and morals, firmly opposed liberal attempts to establish "freedom of worship" in Catholic countries. It was a conflict between perspectives: that of a nation understood as a religious community and that of the conscience of each individual.

It is true that, in a supervised regime, such as that of a family with its children, parents can and even must prevent, within certain limits, the dissemination of erroneous opinions in their home. But this is out of place when the children are emancipated, because then the fundamental right of each person to seek the truth for himself prevails. And this is what happens in modern societies, with emancipated people in full possession of their rights. We move from the protection of the common good of a homogeneously religious society to the recognition of the fundamental right of each person to seek the truth.

However, this change was considered heretical by Monsignor Lefebvre and led to his schism. He argued that the Council on this point contradicted the traditional doctrine of the Church and was therefore invalid.

La Brújula Newsletter Leave us your email and receive every week the latest news curated with a catholic point of view.