The current issue of America magazine includes an article by the eminent church historian John O’Malley, SJ, a professor at Georgetown University and author of many important books. O’Malley’s piece, simply titled “Misdirections,” is a commentary on ten ways he understands people to commonly misinterpret the Second Vatican Council, its mission, its documents, and its historical impact. It’s an important list given all the talk these days from various vantage points about the enduring legacy of the Council, which has recently marked the fiftieth anniversary of its beginning. O’Malley’s point is that far too often simplifications and post facto rationalizations have led to the misconstruing of the Council and its texts. He explains:
It is not easy to interpret any great event, so it is not surprising that today there is disagreement about how to interpret the Second Vatican Council. Here, I want to turn the issue around to indicate how not to interpret it. (Of course, astute readers will see that this is just a sneaky way of making positive points.) Some of these principles are, in fact, of direct concern only to historians or theologians. The issues that underlie them, however, should be of concern to all Catholics who cherish the heritage of the council. These 10 negative principles are simply a backhanded way of reminding ourselves of what is at stake in the controversies over the council’s interpretation.
The list of “ways not to interpret” Vatican II are as follows:
- Insist Vatican II was only a pastoral council.
- Insist it was an occurrence in the life of the church, not an event.
- Banish the expression “spirit of the council.”
- Study the documents individually, without considering them part of an integral corpus.
- Study the final 16 documents in the order of hierarchical authority, not in the chronological order in which they were approved in the council.
- Pay no attention to the documents’ literary form.
- Stick to the final 16 documents and pay no attention to the historical context, the history of the texts or the controversies concerning them during the council.
- Outlaw the use of any “unofficial” sources, such as the diaries or correspondence of participants.
- Interpret the documents as expressions of continuity with the Catholic tradition.
- Make your assessment of the council into a self-fulfilling prophecy.
To read his explanation of each of these points, check out the full article: “Misdirections” over at America‘s website.