Vatican II and Modernity

Last time we met, Pius XII had published Divino, and set the Catholics on a glide path for a more productive encounter with modern life. I should emphasize that it’s a Catholic approach to modern life, so you won’t be finding a retreat from Catholic positions on faith and morals. But you will see that they are far more engaged than they had been.

Before we get into Vatican II, there’s one more event I’d like to mention because it gets at the relationship between exegesis and theology. Before Divino, and for quite some time afterward, many Catholic theologians used the Bible as a sourcebook for proof texts to create theologies that were often rather independent of the Bible. In the year preceding Vatican II, Karl Rahner, a theologian, tried to do something about that. His article was called “Exegese and Dogmatik” and it discussed the roles of exegetes and theologians. He used the formal “Ihr” (you) to address the exegetes and the familiar “Du” when speaking to his fellow theologians. To the exegetes he said that they must remember that they are Catholic exegetes, and that they must attend to “the Catholic principles governing the relationship between exegesis and dogmatic theology” and that they needed a more exact knowledge of scholastic theology. To his fellow theologians, however, he wrote:

You know less about exegesis than you should. As as dogmatic theologian you rightly claim to be allowed to engage in the work of exegesis and biblical theology in your own right, and not jsut to accept the results of the exegetical work of the specialist…But then you must perform the work of exegesis in the way that it has to be done today and not in the way you used to do it in the good old days…Your exegesis in dogmatic theology must be convincing also to the specialist in exegesis.

Among Catholics theology tends to be more highly regarded than exegesis. As is often the case, when an exegete must point out that some theological position is based on acontextual or ahistorical readings, or even just plain wrong, folks sometimes think that the exegete is attacking the Church. Rahner’s words came as a bit of a shock, but they were part of what was in the minds of those who worked on issues pertaining to scripture in Vatican II.

So. John XXIII followed Pius XII, who died in 1958. He was quite elderly and, since he had been chosen on the eleventh ballot (B16 was chosen on the third, I think), folks thought that the cardinals were simply selecting an office holder until such a time as they could agree on a “real pope.” Not so. When Cardinal Roncalli took the name “John XXIII,” bells went off everywhere. There had already been a John XXIII, from the period of the Avignon papcy, and this first John XXIII was known as the “Pisan anti-pope.” With the selection of his papal name, he signaled his intent to make some changes.

What kind of changes? I am so glad you asked! First, he made lots of visits to the poorer sections of Rome, leading some overly intellectual types to suggest that he was so simple he might not be able to handle the task with which he had been entrusted. Not so. Not so. He had served with integrity and profound wisdom in [Christian] Bulgaria, [Muslim] Istanbul, and [secular] France. He knew, on a deeply personal level, the extent to which the Catholic Church had shut itself off from productive communication with the larger world. He seems to have to have been pretty clear about the fact that the Church had a duty to remain engaged, and particularly so with the poor and marginalized. John XXIII was loved, which gave him enormous moral authority. (The successes of John Paul II have only deepened awareness that love and wisdom can more than adequately replace the sort of authority lost by the arrogant and insensitive Pius IX.)


Three months after his election John XXIII announced his intention to convene Vatican II. Here is a link to an article on the speech with which he announced his intentions and its reception, which I think you will find both illuminating and interesting. Councils such as Vatican II are called ecumenical councils. An ecumenical council for Catholics “is a gathering of the bishops of the entire Church meeting under the headship of the pope to determine the Church’s doctrinal stance on particular matters, to correct disciplinary problems, and, at Vatican II, to make pastoral pronouncements” (Modern Catholic Encyclopedia, ed. Glazier and Hellwig). In the interest of openness and communication, the Vatican also invites observers from both Catholic and non-Catholic bodies. The precedent for this sort of a decision-making process goes back to Acts 15, to Ignatius of Antioch’s assumption that others in Asia Minor would elect his successor, and to the 190 C.E. call of Victor I to decide the proper date of Easter. Catholics accept twenty-one ecumenical councils, of which the most well-known ancient ones are probably Nicaea, Ephesus, and Chalcedon.

When John XXIII did this, many in the curia (the Catholic bureaucracy) did not approve. I am sure you noted the exception made in the definition above specifically for Vatican II. In the past, councils had been called for some pressing problem and apparently John XXIII was one of the few that thought Catholicism had some pressing problems. Some also dismissed it out of hand, thinking that the declaration of papal infallibility in Vatican I would enable the pope to lead the Church as an absolute monarch. But John XXIII was cut from a different cloth. He called the bishops “my fellow bishops” and insisted on asking their advice rather than commanding them. Precisely because he thought that the Church, as Church, needed a complete update, he also felt that this would require the willing and committed participation and wisdom of the bishops of the entire church.

Preparatory work for the council took almost three years. When John XXIII opened it on October 11, 1962, the documents prepared by the curia (yeah, the bureaucracy) for the discussion and approval of the bishops were a reaffirmation of Catholic thought over the previous four hundred years. But John XXIII had also been preparing, and he had other plans! A year earlier he had created the Secretariat for the Promotion of Christian Unity, indicating that he meant business about creating favorable conditions for the rapprochement of Christianity, and his intention that Vatican II pursue this theme.

Now you might ask, “Mogs, what does an ecumenical movement have to do with Biblical studies?” My opinion on the matter is this: When folks of differing denominations or confessions realize that they read the Bible in much the same manner, much of the fighty-bitey-scratchy-kickey behavoir gets modified. It’s not that everyone magically agrees, but that they conduct their disagreements within a larger context in which they know that they agree on most of the very important points. For an example of this, you might want to take a look at the Joint Catholic-Luthern Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification. You will see that they don’t agree on details, but that they have found overarching areas of agreement in which they conduct their disagreements. Those agreements are created precisely by critical reading of the relevent NT texts. When the Protestant observers saw that that Catholics were reading their scriptures more of less as the Protestants do, then some thing good began to happen.

John XXIII had also invited 31 non-Catholic observers, whose number grew to ninety-three by the time the Council closed. In addition, only 46% of the prelates who attended ca
me from the First or Second World. A full 42% came from Latin America, Asia, and black Africa. Half of the bishops who attended came from such poor regions that the Vatican had to pick up the tab for their living expenses (Gonzales, Christianity, 352). As you might guess, these gentlemen were very much concerned with something other than reaffirming the last four hundred years!

This is the opening procession for Vatican II.
Note the papal tiara, that is, the triple crown
on the right. Some folks also call it the
“Beehive Crown.”

Pope John XXIII’s opening speech was also a doozy. Since these councils were usually called to deal with “pressing issues,” their opening speeches were pretty uniformly full of gloom and doom. The same approach had been recommended to John XXIII, but he rejected it in favor of:

In the daily exercise of our pastoral office, we sometimes have to listen, much to our regret, to voices of persons who, though burning with zeal, are not endowed with too much sense of discretion or measure. In these modern times they can see nothing but prevarication and ruin. They say that our era, in comparison with past eras, is getting worse, and they behave as though they had learned nothing from history, which is, none the less, the teacher of life. They behave as though at the time of former Councils everything was a full triumph for the Christian idea and life and for proper religious liberty.

We feel we must disagree with those prophets of gloom, who are always forecasting disaster, as though the end of the world were at hand.

In the present order of things, Divine Providence is leading us to a new order of human relations which, by men’s own efforts and even beyond their very expectations, are directed toward the fulfilment of God’s superior and inscrutable designs. And everything, even human differences, leads to the greater good of the Church.

So, instead of roundly condemning the entire universe, John XXIII tried something different. He pointed out that duty of the Council was to guard the truth that had been committed to it, but with a difference:

Our duty is not only to guard this precious treasure, as if we were concerned only with antiquity, but to dedicate ourselves with an earnest will and without fear to that work which our era demands of us, pursuing thus the path which the Church has followed for twenty centuries…

For this Council was not necessary. But…the whole world expects a step forward toward a doctrinal penetration and a formation of consciousness in faithful and perfect conformity to the authentic doctrine, which, however, should be studied and expounded through the methods of research and through the literary forms of modern thought. The substance of the ancient doctrine of the deposit of faith is one thing, and the way in which it is presented is another. And it is the latter that must be taken into great consideration with patience if necessary, everything being measured in the forms and proportions of a Magisterium which is predominantly pastoral in character.

See that business about “pastoral in character?” That’s also going to play a role in the end state. But in this context, perhaps the most striking lines come from John XXIII’s explicit rejection of some of the attitudes and behaviors of the past used to correct doctrinal errors:

At the outset of the Second Vatican Council, it is evident, as always, that the truth of the Lord will remain forever. We see, in fact, as one age succeeds another, that the opinions of men follow one another and exclude each other. And often errors vanish as quickly as they arise, like fog before the sun. The Church has always opposed these errors. Frequently she has condemned them with the greatest severity. Nowadays however, the Spouse of Christ prefers to make use of the medicine of mercy rather than that of severity. She consider that she meets the needs of the present day by demonstrating the validity of her teaching rather than by condemnations. Not, certainly, that there is a lack of fallacious teaching, opinions, and dangerous concepts to be guarded against an dissipated. But these are so obviously in contrast with the right norm of honesty, and have produced such lethal fruits that by now it would seem that men of themselves are inclined to condemn them, particularly those ways of life which despise God and His law or place excessive confidence in technical progress and a well-being based exclusively on the comforts of life…

As you might have guessed, this speech did not rebound off unresponsive hearts. There was an incredible amount of enthusiasm for change and revitalization. This extended particularly to the manner in which the Church interacted with modern thought, and from there to modern approaches to scripture. But the first document created by the curia for consideration dealt with the liturgy. This one was far and away the most radical of those prepared beforehand because the need for renewal had been discussed for many years. The bishops deliberated, and conservative elements tried to block the changes, but this one document is the only one approved as it stood. All the others were sent back for changes

This is the opening ceremony of
Vatican II.

John XXIII did not live long enough to see even the first of the Vatican II documents completed. When he died in Jun 1963, he was replaced by Paul VI. What do you think we should read into his choice of name? Hm. Well, the most famous Paul, after Paul of Tarsus, was the Paul associated with the Council of Trent, which dealt with the Catholic Reformation. So from a Paul VI we might expect a conservative counter-reaction and the end of Vatican II…? Nope. Although Paul VI was more conservative than John XXIII, he had seen the minds and hearts of the bishops as they worked under John XXIII and he knew that there was no going back. When he opened the second session, on Sept 29, 1963, he called on those present to “build a bridge between the Church and the modern world.”

And they got right on with it!!! If you have Catholic friends, you may have heard them discuss the celebration of Mass in the vernacular. This was the big change associated with the second session. Not everyone liked this change, and there have been some major “discussions” over it. Benedict XVI has rather recently allowed the clergy to choose whether they will celebrate the Tridentine Mass or use Vatican II’s standards. So before J. Stapley asks me about it, yes, there has been some movement “back” from Vatican II. Just so you know, one of the issues is the language. Another is that in the Tridentine mass, the priest has his back to the congregation.

In succeeding sessions the Council worked on documents pertaining to the Church, the Eastern churches, ecumenism, religious freedom, bishops, priests and their formation, the laity, missionary activity, and a host of others. The two most radical changes dealt with religious freedom and the relationship of the Church with the modern world. In the document on religious freedom, which was bitterly opposed by bishops in countries with Catholic majorities, the Council taught that “the religious freedom of individual as well as of groups must be respected, and that all religious groups have the right to organize according to their own principles ‘as long as the just requirements of public order are not violated.'” In the document on the relationship between the church and the world, called “The Pastoral Constitution on the Chruch in the Modern World, the bishops insisted on Catholic principles of faith and mora
lity, but they showed a sincere open mind toward the positive aspects of modernity. This is particularly evident in issues such as family life, economic and social isses, politics, technology and science, and the significance and variety of human cultures. The spirit of the bishop’s thoughts are conveyed in the opening paragraph:

The joys and hopes, the griefs and anxieties of people of our time, particularly those who are poor or in any way afflicted,are the joys and hopes, the griefs and anxieties of Christ’s followers. Theirs is a community of people, people who, in union with Christ and with the guidance of the holy Spirit, move forward toward the Kingdom of the Father and carry the message of salvation intended for all. For this reason this community knows that its is deeply united with humankind and with its history…

And that is quite a change from Pius X and his reaction to the Modernists!!!

This picture is from 2001. Note the papal seal where the Dell
icon normally is. For those of you who have read
Christopher Stasheff’s Warlock Series, this might look a bit
more familiar…

Next Up: Dei Verbum

9 Replies to “Vatican II and Modernity”

  1. yeah, I am having fun with ScribeFire. If you can’t see the pictures, let me know. I see the formatting issues and am working on them.


  2. So, would you say that because the laity was, as you said, Eucharist centered before Vatican II that all the inertia vis a vis theology was institutional?

  3. Yes, but as you read this keep in mind that I’m painting with a very broad brush.

    There’s the concept of the Catholic Ghetto. Like Mormons, American Catholics haven’t always felt accepted. So before WWII they all went to Catholic schools, lived in the Catholic part of town, etc., etc. Most significantly, many never went to college because their families were immigrant families and too poor.

    With the end of WWII and the benefits of the GI Bill, much of that began to change. Now Catholics are quite integrated into the middle class but until the 50s and 60s, there just weren’t many laity who were equipped to participate in the disputes.

    So until quite recently the doctrinal debates and the disputes over study of the Bible were almost wholly a clerical prerogative. The laity played little role. In fact, the Vatican did issue some instructions to authors who write for the popular audience in religious matters. Sound judgment and sober language were on the top of the recommended list of virtues, as I recall.


  4. Excellent, thanks. In many ways then, I think that the transition of Vatican II was deeply facilitated by the laity’s lack of interaction with theology (and exegesis). I’m trying to imagine a similar shift in Mormonism and it is obviously complicated by the existence of grass-roots “scriptorians.”

  5. That’s an interesting thought, and at least partially true. At the time that these things were taking place in the Catholic world, there was very little sense that the laity should be involved in the decisions and process. That’s why God gave the sheep their shepherds!

    As far as the Saints go, I think we can do some things to help prepare the way, though. Critical approaches got started because smart people read closely. We are getting greater numbers of well-educated folks these days, who know how to read well and need only encouragement to turn their critical reading skills on to the Bible. They’ll figure out that the traditional hermeneutic is flawed all on their own and be looking for something else.

    We also model the benefits of critical reading approaches. Without being nasty to the scriptorians in my own ward, I also demonstrate that my approaches are far more powerful when it comes to tough passages and the need to produce a coherent story or argument.

    Finally, I always point folks in the direction of modern translations and good books written for a popular audience by real theologians and exegetes. (Read: not Deseret Books)

    And in the end, we simply wait patiently for the actions of the leadership. I am encouraged by the talks of some of them these days.

  6. Mogget, I’m really enjoying reading this series, as Catholic biblical scholars really seem to have exploded onto the scene after V2, as if pent-up, and I wonder whether some similar thing might be possible for Mormons (someday).

    Are you going to discuss the nihil obstat / imprimatur process? I would be particularly interested in how you see it comparing to either “correlation” or even just trying to publish via Deseret Book or Bookcraft.

    The recent McKay bio suggests that we now have some sort of vetting process after the ‘Mormon Doctrine’ controversy, but only for books by General Authorities. And Arrington’s book suggested that church leaders still have a back and forth relationship with church-sponsored histories. Are there lessons for us? Can’t wait to see the next installment…

  7. Mogs, as a natal Catholic, I am enjoying this series on its own merits, apart from any relationship to Mormonism at all. This is just wonderful.

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