What Happened at Vatican II

November 6, 2008

The Second Vatican Council was convened by Pope John XXIII and ended during the papacy of Paul VI. In four annual sessions between 1962 and 1965, it assembled some 2,200 Roman Catholic bishops from around the world, nearly 500 theological advisers (periti), observers from other churches, and a significant media presence.

It produced 16 documents that would shape the future of the Catholic Church, transforming a largely Western-centred and inward-looking institution into a world Church that sought intellectual and social collaboration with all peoples, religions and cultures in a shared endeavour to promote human dignity and progress, and to resist poverty, war and injustice. This was arguably the most significant religious event since the Reformation, although, as John O'Malley rightly cautions, only history will judge its real impact and long-term consequences.

Volumes have been written on the council, but O'Malley offers a fresh perspective by setting it in the historical context of earlier councils and by attending to the language of the documents as well as the personalities and politics of the participants.

He argues that the documents constitute a new literary genre that expresses a transformed identity for the Catholic Church. The authoritarianism and negativity of earlier church pronouncements is gone, replaced by a pastoral style of dialogue, inclusivity and affirmation.

O'Malley identifies at least three "issues under the issues" that implicitly shaped the council proceedings: the conditions and justification for change in the Church, the relationship between the centre (the papacy and the Roman Curia) and the periphery (the local bishops), and the style of church leadership.

Participants sought to balance the challenges of the present with the traditions of the past, giving rise to three perspectives that informed their debates: Pope John XXIII's call for aggiornamento (updating or modernising), a forward-looking vision of development, and a return to the sources of the early Church (ressourcement).

From the beginning, the council was polarised between a reforming majority and a conservative minority. The figurehead for the conservatives was Cardinal Ottaviani, a traditionalist who defended the authority of Rome and resisted any moves towards a more historicist or collegial approach to questions of doctrine and practice. The reformists were grouped under the informal leadership of what O'Malley refers to as the "Transalpine" cardinals such as Bea, Konig and Suenens, and included theologians such as Yves Congar, Henri de Lubac, Karl Rahner and John Courtney Murray. Although this majority prevailed during the council, O'Malley argues that the relationship between the centre and the periphery was never resolved.

As a result, the council's idea of collegiality in which local bishops would work in collaboration with, rather than subservience to, the Curia remains an abstract ideal that, argues O'Malley, has failed to find any practical expression in the postconciliar Church. O'Malley also gives an account of the birth-control controversy that remained unresolved until the publication of the encyclical letter Humanae Vitae in 1968, which continues to be perhaps the most controversial of all the modern Church's teachings.

In covering a range of issues and perspectives, the book's narrative thread is occasionally submerged beneath the density of detail. However, it should appeal to a wide readership, populated as it is by colourful characters and offering an original approach to the study of the council and an authoritative guide through its proceedings and documents.

O'Malley conveys a vivid sense of why Vatican II remains a beacon for some and a burden for others in the ongoing conflict between conservatives and liberals - words that, as O'Malley makes clear, are inadequate to describe the complexity of the positions they describe, and the visions invested in them.

What Happened at Vatican II

By John W. O'Malley. Harvard University Press. 400pp, £19.95. ISBN 9780674031692. Published 30 September 2008

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