Getting rid of the proverbial elephant in the room, Vatican II is still a controversial council for some Catholics. One group hyperbolizes its application, and another shuts down its legitimacy and authority. Both are dangerous viewpoints.
A new book from Word on Fire and Ave Maria Press brings forth these controversies and isn’t afraid to discuss the merit and pitfalls of both. Fr. Blake Britton’s Reclaiming Vatican II: What it (Really) Said, What it Means, and How it Calls Us to Renew the Church is another addition to a great lineup of discussions on the Second Vatican Council for modern Catholics. The introduction and early chapters call to mind another great set of insights from the late Ralph McInerny (get What Went Wrong With Vatican II), mythbusting the heck out of ideas of the council that still circulate today. With such an important study, I wanted to take from the book a few key concepts and teaching from the Council that we can all appreciate.
It’s an Italian word that means “bring up to date” and the application to Church doctrine is important. That translation can frighten some: “So the Church meant to modernize the Church?” Well, no.
Throughout the ages we can witness the development of doctrine—not the invention of doctrine—which increases the understanding of particular truths revealed to the Apostles. This aggiornamento was the focus on why John XXIII called for a council in the first place, since several understandings of the Church, especially in the modern world, had come to fruition and their application was in need of discussion. The council didn’t mean to “freshen up” the liturgy or the approach to sensitive topics: the Council Fathers sought to renew the timeless position of the Church in newness of emerging topics that threatened the faithful.
The right kind of activity
What went wrong in the years after Vatican II is that a number influencers took the Council’s emphasis on active participation, and emphasized activism. But this is of course both harmful to the unity of the Church and it isn’t even coherent with the correct understanding of “activity”—a word which means less about doing and more about receiving. The kind of activity the Church at large is called to participate with is a reception: of the sacraments that bring sanctifying grace, of the liturgy as the life of Christ, and so on.
The two priesthood
There are two principles of the priesthood: the universal and the ministerial. The universal priesthood is a sharing of Christ’s priesthood for all believers, while the ministerial priesthood is the participation in Christ’s priesthood primarily through sacrificial offering. The line from Lumen Gentium ” But the faithful, in virtue of their royal priesthood, join in the offering of the Eucharist” pops out to readers. But there is a footnote that brings us to Miserentissimus Redemptor, the encyclical of Pius XI which confirm this offering is of “public sacrifice.” This is the sacrifice the author of Psalm 51:16-17 and Hebrews 10:5-7 have in mind: self-sacrifice. Both extremes of interpreters of Vatican II used the Section 10 of Lumen Gentium to overemphasize the ministerial and universal prieshoods to the detriment of the other. The message is: the two priesthoods, universal and ministerial, operate together in harmony.
The documents of Vatican II offer a truly remarkable value to modern Catholic, and one of the greatest of these is Dei Verbum. The Constitution on Divine Revelation concisely and authoritatively confirms the right relationship between Sacred Scripture and Sacred Tradition.
Hence there exists a close connection and communication between sacred tradition and Sacred Scripture. For both of them, flowing from the same divine wellspring, in a certain way merge into a unity and tend toward the same end. For Sacred Scripture is the word of God inasmuch as it is consigned to writing under the inspiration of the divine Spirit, while sacred tradition takes the word of God entrusted by Christ the Lord and the Holy Spirit to the Apostles, and hands it on to their successors in its full purity, so that led by the light of the Spirit of truth, they may in proclaiming it preserve this word of God faithfully, explain it, and make it more widely known. Consequently it is not from Sacred Scripture alone that the Church draws her certainty about everything which has been revealed. Therefore both sacred tradition and Sacred Scripture are to be accepted and venerated with the same sense of loyalty and reverence.Dei Verbum, 9
These 160 words are among the most profound in the entire Council. They persuasively answer the modern anti-Catholic charge that the Catholic Church puts too emphasis on Tradition and sets it in opposition it to Scripture, when in fact we could not have one without the other. Every religion on earth recognizes this principle, and it’s a key to understanding the way Catholics discuss the Faith.
The Church and the world
Back to that concept of aggionamento. The Council spent months discussing and dissecting the meaning the Church in a world so hostile to her. The Council was both wise and brave to declare that “the Church herself knows how richly she has profited by the history and development of humanity” (Gaudium et Spes, 44). We known the saying “in the world but not of the world”, well this is the message of Chapter of Gaudium et Spes: the Church must dialogue with the modern world from generation to generation. The Church will survive to the end, we know this, but the Church will no thrive with an isolationist policy. The aggionamento of being open to the world does not imply the Church wants to be more like the world.
That’s a lot to think about. And personally, that what I like about Vatican II is that it challenges our generation to consider how the needle must be threaded to continue its most important mission—saving souls—in the modern world. Get Fr. Blake Britton’s new book, Reclaiming Vatican II as soon as you can.