I’ve read a couple of things recently that have got me thinking a lot about the state of the Roman Catholic church in light of its most recent ecumenical council: Vatican II. The first comes from Hendrik Hertzberg’s The Talk of the Town piece in the current issue of The New Yorker about the “Occupy Wall Street” events in Manhattan and around the country. In an effort to illustrate the as-of-yet unknown impact and future of these ostensibly grass-roots happenings, Hertzberg recollection of what Zhou Enlai supposedly said in response to then-president Richard Nixon when the president “asked him to assess the impact of the French Revolution: it’s too early to tell.”

The second comes from the renowned systematic theologian and Franciscan friar, Kenan Osborne, who, in his book Priesthood: A History of Ordained Ministry in the Roman Catholic Church (Wipf & Stock), wrote: “The Second Vatican Council presented the Roman Catholic Church with a theological understanding of ministry which [sic] will continue to exert an influence for decades, perhaps even centuries to come.”

Both of these remarks got me thinking about the Church and the way in which people continue to respond to the theological and pragmatic shifts brought about by the Council. We recently observed the 49th anniversary of Bl. Pope John XXIII’s calling of a new ecumenical council, a perfect time to pause and look at where we’ve come and where we are going, especially as major half-century milestones of the event approach.

There have been some trends in the Church of late that rightly give pause to those concerned about seeing the prophetic and practical dimensions of the Council implemented and lived within the life of the Body of Christ. Recently, I was thinking about the understanding of the threefold understanding of the priesthood as it is presented in the Council’s theology of ministry (particularly in the texts Lumen Gentium and Presbyterorum Ordines). The notion that the members of the Body of Christ, which is the Church, share in Christ’s ministry of teacher, sanctifier and leader is not limited to those in holy orders (deacons, priests, bishops), but also includes, in very explicit terms (Lumen Gentium art. 34-38), the fact the laity too share this mission and responsibility.

It should come as no surprise given the recent discussions on DatingGod.org and elsewhere about the policy changes in Phoenix and Madison that the role — liturgically and ecclesiastically — of the laity and the role of the ordained would be a matter of timely concern. There are indeed ways in which the Second Vatican Council seems to be curbed by such behaviors, if not in the letter of the documents (although one might argue that is indeed true), then in the spirit of the texts.

I am increasingly convinced that few people, including those whose responsibilities are to shepherd local churches, have a competent grasp of these Church documents from Vatican II, which are still very new at under fifty-years old each. It doesn’t take long, having read only the primary constitutions and decrees from the Council to realize that the vision of Church and the heuristic model laid out by the Council Fathers continues to be treated only in the most superficial ways, if not ignored in some places entirely.

I used to think — and still do to some extent — that this was largely do to a willed ignorance of the texts and a disregard for the change that necessarily comes with a substantial effort to return to a more authentically Christian way of living as Church. But I also wonder, in light of Hertzberg and Osborne’s remarks, if part of the problem isn’t just the small amount of time that has passed since the closing of the Council. How long does it take for the vision of an ecumenical council to take hold? How long should it?

This is not to suggest that certain liturgical and ecclesiastical shifts haven’t already taken hold and for the better, but read Lumen Gentium, Gaudium et Spes and Sacrosanctum Concilium — if only those three constitutions — and tell me that we’re living that understanding of Church today! I don’t think you could, whether you like it or not. I am concerned that we are not more consciously imbuing ourselves with the texts of the Council, saturating our thinking and vision with this liturgical and ecclesiastical worldview. Instead, we hear of the silly-to-absurd actions of certain local churches (prohibiting girl altar servers, restricting communion under both kinds, limiting the involvement of the faithful in the ecclesiastical and liturgical life of the community in several ways, and so on). I’m not sure what is behind these sorts of things, but I know that nowhere in the Council documents does one find justification for such behavior. Sure, there may be juridical authority to do these things, but that doesn’t make it right.

So, I’m left to continue thinking about Vatican II and whether or not it might indeed be too early to tell if things will change and work out for the best. To return to Hendrik Hertzberg’s article again, I think the closing line of his piece rings true here too: “It’s too early to tell, but not too late to hope.” Amen.

Photo: CNS


  1. Dan,
    There was a time when we read, studied and implemented the letter and spirit of Vatican II. Your recent observations are most accurate from my perspective and experience. The hope you wrote about was once a reality. It is now, in my opinion, fading since the examples you mentioned are more numerous nationally.
    While these things are happening the credibility of the Pope, bishops and priests keeps fading as a result of the sexual abuse crisis and the self serving response to it.

  2. V2 seems to be steadily either disappearing or being reinterpreted by the episcopacy. Recent events such as the those in Arizona and Wisconsin indicate that it is becoming a diocesan wide type movement, and will probably continue. The new and more pure RCC does not seem to have a definite place for Vatican Two Catholics. And in another twenty years, it may be just another relic in the Neo-Catholic Roman Church. One can always hope and pray, but the trend is definitely established. And the trend is visible, while the hope is rather nebulous.

    My feeling is that Hertzberger is overly optimistic.


  3. I don’t know if it is too early too tell. At the moment, the situation in some areas of the the Roman Catholic Church (only those of which I am aware, ie North America and Europe) are a source of consternation, if not desolation, and in a way, alienation…
    But I do believe in our God of History, the fact that God walks with us through all those events. I also trust that the Holy Spirit will have us intervene when it is time, like Occupy St Peter’s Square for instance.
    On the other hand, so many folks seem to enjoy thoroughly the absolutism coming from Rome…
    At any rate, re-reading the Vatican II documents is always a source of joy, peace and hope — to me at least.

    1. Dear Claire,
      How true it is for me as well to re-read the Vatican II documents. They are a source of joy, peace and hope. We can only pray that those who are trying to ignore them would be inspired to read them and just perhaps they could become a reality once again.
      Perhaps we could suggest that those who are occupying Wall Street move to St. Peter’s Square after they get finished at Wall Street, DC and the other places.
      The next suggest would be to burn the documents from Trent, or put them on a list of forbidden books. That seems to be where the current seminary training ends their courses in Church History. One exception to that would seem to be Holy Name Province or Dan is doing extra reading!!

  4. One differing is opinion is that the V2 Documents, while inspiring and definitely needed to break the stagnation of the Holy Mother Church, were also taken to the extreme of the “spirit” of a Pastoral Council. If we look at the era, (turbulation of the “hippy” generation, along with the contraception, legalized abortion, etc.), we can see that the external factors did affect the Church, perhaps in the way about which St. Pius X warned.

    As with many documents, even those inspired by God, they are interpreted by fallen man. There are so many times, that because of our own hubris, we pick and chose those items that fit our “personal” philosophies. With the revered documents mentioned, why is not Humae Vitae also noted — perhaps one of the most quintesential documents — but of couse since some my find it “oppressive” ….

    Before anyone feels “offended”, I have received many blessings and benefits from the teachings of Bl. John Paul II, especially from his Theology of the Body writtings, so, I am not anti-V2. I would however submit that some of the “spirit” of V2, and the liturgical abuses that have occured, do need to be reigned-in a bit to at least a moderate level and sacredness. Perhaps one of the reasons for the resurgance in “orthodoxy” is not because anything within the Church, but perhaps it is the failing of the society — the chaos — that is creating a longing for order. It would be great to see pastoral concern and lessons expressed in V2, merged with the reverence and sacredness and solemnity of the pre-V2 mass. But, has Deacon Dan suggests, it is too early to tell!

    1. Hello Matthew, I think you bring up a good point about the distinction between the “spirit” and the “texts” of a church Council. The notion of the “spirit of Vatican II” has been used by all sides to justify or condemn partisan agendas. What I advocate for here, with which you seem to agree, is that the Church (all the members of the Body of Christ) needs to look at all the texts, the whole package in other words. I agree, if that’s what you mean.

      Just a quick note of clarification. The documents of the Second Vatican Council (most especially the Constitutions and even the decrees) are the highest authority of the Magisterium. While Humanae Vitae is an important document, it is an encyclical letter of Pope Paul VI — indeed an important and authoritative text, but it was not decreed from the Council and is not on the same par with the Vatican II texts. (Humanae Vitae carries the same weight as Pope Benedict XVI’s encyclical Deus Caritas Est, for example).

  5. Dan….your article was wise, but at 69 and being a product of the RCC of Dan Berigan, Dorathy Day, John Deer, Oscar Romero…I don’t know if I can continue to hope. Especially in light of the new Roman Missial, and now that I reside in AZ, where Olmstead will stop the receiving under both species and other crazy things he has done…Hope???? But I will remain a RCC because even though the boys with the pointed hats think they are running the show, there are those of us who still believe in the Holy Spirit…and not the institutional leadership. Hope does, my young friend, springs eternal. With young men like yourself, Stephen, and the other young Franciscans there is reason to hope.

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