This year marks the fiftieth anniversary of the close of the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965). While all agree that the council was a milestone in the history of the Church, the meaning and application of Vatican II and its sixteen official documents has been a source of contention right down to the present day. Numerous acts of dissent from the Church’s official doctrine and discipline have been undertaken in the name of the “spirit of Vatican II.” Because of this, it is good for Catholics to familiarize themselves with what the council actually said in its official promulgations. While not everyone has the leisure to read through the hundreds of pages of conciliar material, there are certain passages which should be highlighted, in part because they counter attempts by those who try to ground their dissent in the council and its supposed “spirit.” The following are seven such passages that every Catholic should know.
1) “Regulation of the sacred liturgy depends solely on the authority of the Church, that is, on the Apostolic See and, as laws may determine, on the bishop…. Therefore no other person, even if he be a priest, may add, remove, or change anything in the liturgy on his own authority” (Sacrosanctum Concilium, #22).
After the council, “uniformity” became the chief vice and “creativity” became the chief virtue. The large scale liturgical changes proposed by the council fueled the thirst for further experimentation on the part of priests and liturgists, leading to everything from minor changes in the prescribed liturgical texts to liturgical dancing and puppet masses. However, these individuals have missed the main criterion for judging the right kind and proper extent of liturgical change clearly enunciated in the passage above. They are condemned by the very council they invoke to legitimize their acts.
2) “The use of the Latin language is to be preserved in the Latin rites” (Sacrosanctum Concilium, #36).
A friend of mine once had an encounter with an elderly Church-goer who expressed her gratitude that Vatican II had abolished Latin from the liturgy. My friend asked her if she had read the council’s document on the liturgy, and the answer, not surprisingly, was “no.” While Vatican II’s Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy does make provision for a much wider use of the vernacular, it also mandates a retention of Latin, even going so far as to say that “steps should be taken so that the faithful may also be able to say or to sing together in Latin those parts of the Ordinary of the Mass which pertain to them” (#54).
3) “The Church acknowledges Gregorian chant as specially suited to the Roman liturgy: therefore, other things being equal, it should be given pride of place in liturgical services” (Sacrosanctum Concilium, #116).
There are few examples of how directly contrary to the explicit desire of Vatican II many in the post-conciliar Church went than this. The last fifty or so years have seen liturgists act as if Vatican II considered Gregorian chant and sacred polyphony (also endorsed by the council) as the least suitable music for the mass. Their solution has been to replace it with a wave of what Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger called “utility music,” undermining the council’s attempt to make the liturgy a true encounter between man and the radical beauty of God.
4) “But the college or body of bishops has no authority unless it is understood together with the Roman Pontiff, the successor of Peter as its head. The pope’s power of primacy over all, both pastors and faithful, remains whole and intact. In virtue of his office, that is as Vicar of Christ and pastor of the whole Church, the Roman Pontiff has full, supreme and universal power over the Church. And he is always free to exercise this power. The order of bishops, which succeeds to the college of apostles and gives this apostolic body continued existence, is also the subject of supreme and full power over the universal Church, provided we understand this body together with its head the Roman Pontiff and never without this head. This power can be exercised only with the consent of the Roman Pontiff” (Lumen Gentium, #22).
Collegiality was one of the hot topics at Vatican II. Many in the Church wanted to move away from what they considered an excessive focus on, and concentration of power in, the person of the pope. Vatican II did indeed do much to deepen our understanding of the importance and role of both individual bishops as well as the college of bishops considered as a whole. Some, however, took this collegial emphasis to the point of undermining the power and prerogatives of the supreme pontiff as defined by the First Vatican Council in the late nineteenth century. For example, in his book The Changing Church: Reflections on the progress of the Second Vatican Council, dissident theologian Hans Küng states that the Second Vatican Council’s teaching on the importance and power of the college of bishops was “a decisive counterpoint to the First Vatican Council’s one-sided definition of papal supremacy” (‘complementarity’ would have been a better word than ‘counterpoint’). The council, in fact, sets clear boundaries to the power of the episcopal college and emphatically reaffirms the ultimate primacy of the Vicar of Christ over the entire Church.
5) “But the task of authentically interpreting the word of God, whether written or handed on, has been entrusted exclusively to the living teaching office of the Church, whose authority is exercised in the name of Jesus Christ” (Dei Verbum, #10).
Vatican II gave a great impetus to Scripture studies, especially among the laity. So as to not give free reign to individualistic hermeneutics, the ecclesiological and especially magisterial context for Scriptural interpretation is again stated.
6) “Though they differ from one another in essence and not only in degree, the common priesthood of the faithful and the ministerial or hierarchical priesthood are nonetheless interrelated: each of them in its own special way is a participation in the one priesthood of Christ” (Lumen Gentium, #10).
The post-conciliar Church has suffered from a major crisis of identity within her different states of life. Laymen and women now stampede into the sanctuary to perform those rituals once prescribed to the priest alone. Clergy have adopted a lay persona by casting off the collar, cassock, and habit in favor of the T-shirt and shorts, and – in the case of some religious—of abandoning secluded monasteries and instead populating city apartments.
This is, in part, a response to Vatican II’s new focus on the common priesthood shared by all the faithful. This focus seems to many to call into question the former radical distinction between priest and layman. In fact, many see Vatican II as helping to break down all of the walls formerly dividing the two (e.g. this blog post from the National Catholic Reporter).
Far less attention is paid to the first sentence of the passage quoted above, which states that the difference between the ministerial priesthood and the priesthood of all the faithful is not merely one of “degree,” but of “essence.” In other words, the two priesthoods are not on different levels of the same priestly spectrum, but, in fact, each is a very different way of sharing in Christ’s one priesthood. Whereas all of the Church’s faithful share in Christ’s priesthood by offering spiritual sacrifices, participating in the sacraments, virtuous living, and by proclaiming the Gospel to the world (LG, 11), the ministerial priesthood entails a mysterious identification with the Person of Christ Himself (acting “in persona Christi”), and so enables the ordained minister to effect the miracle of transubstantiation and the forgiveness of sins via the sacramental grace received at ordination. So, while Vatican II was indeed strongly opposed to excessive clericalism, it at the same time re-emphasized the radical distinction between the ministerial priesthood and the priesthood of the faithful.
7) “Basing itself upon Sacred Scripture and Tradition, [this Council] teaches that the Church, now sojourning on earth as an exile, is necessary for salvation. Christ, present to us in His Body, which is the Church, is the one Mediator and the unique way of salvation. In explicit terms He Himself affirmed the necessity of faith and baptism and thereby affirmed also the necessity of the Church, for through baptism, as through a door, men enter the Church. Whosoever, therefore, knowing that the Catholic Church was made necessary by Christ, would refuse to enter or to remain in it, could not be saved” (Lumen Gentium, #14).
Vatican II admitted to the possibility of salvation for non-Catholics (Lumen Gentium, #14-16). This created a firestorm both within and without the Church, as it seemed to reverse the Church’s perennial teaching of “outside the Church there is no salvation.” The result was that many questioned the necessity of the missionary endeavors of the Church, because if non-Catholics could be saved, why bother trying to convert them? And one hardly need to mention the fact that now practically every funeral is a mini-canonization ceremony.
There are two important things to note about this passage. One is that it clearly states that those who know of the necessity of the Church for salvation cannot remain outside of it and hope to be saved. The other is that, notwithstanding an acknowledgement of the possibility of salvation for non-Catholics, it also clearly states that the Church is necessary for salvation and that Christ is “the unique way of salvation.” This is important to mention because some interpret Vatican II’s acknowledgment of the possibility of salvation for non-Catholics as saying that there are other paths of salvation outside the Church. But this, in fact, is not what either the council or the Church teaches. As a 2000 document from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith makes clear, God’s “salvific grace … is always given by means of Christ in the Spirit and has a mysterious relationship to the Church.” The point is that those who may happen to be saved outside the visible confines of the Church are not saved in spite of the Church or Christ, but arrive at salvation some way through the Church and Christ. The council is, in fact, reaffirming the exclusive claim of Christ and His Church as the one path to salvation.
Many other passages from the council could be quoted, but this selection reveals just how far from the conciliar documents many in the Church have strayed. As we prepare to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of council’s closing, we would do well as a Church to reflect critically on the past fifty years to see just how well Vatican II has been so far implemented, and to consider how we can be truer to the council’s teaching as we move forward into the future.